It was full dark by the time the Gunny departed for the old air field with two full platoons and parts of the other two. I’d made a deal with the devil to get back a dead body which went against all logic but for no good reason I could think of made a strange sense to me. The man had put in, and the man’s body was going to get out. Either we got him across the river in the dark or that was it, because there would be no evacuation come dawn. The daylight would make it too potentially expensive to put a chopper down on the other side of the river without full time fire support on and from both banks of the river. And that was not going to happen unless the other companies in the battalion really were racing to reinforce my own company’s situation, which I now knew was not in the cards.
I crouched down with a can of ham and mothers. The food was there, and my hands moved to guide the metal fork I carried in my little belt case, but I could only go through the motions of eating. I chewed and tried to swallow, but it wasn’t working. I brought the can down and stared at it in the vague twilight darkness. I looked over toward the river and noticed that it had a very faint and unmoving iridescence to it. The water was moving fast because I could hear it, but the faint glow just hung there like there were strange dim lightbulbs deep under the water.
Eating was a function necessary for strength and endurance. I had to eat. But I knew what the problem was. I had to know if Tex was alive. I was risking a lot of Marines to find out if Tex was alive. I so wanted him to be alive. The corpsman could have been wrong. The Gunny might have abandoned him because it was too dangerous to stay on the other bank without direct fire support or reinforcement. My mind roiled with possibilities because every time I tried to consign Tex to being dead I couldn’t do it. The Marines around me were supporting the badly designed plan because they believed it was how Marines should act, which was kind of astounding all of itself. In reality, however, I was taking them on a dangerous expedition because of my own personal inability to let Tex go.
It was time. I called for Zippo to set up the Starlight Scope. The conditions were perfect for the device, although, since it wasn’t truly usable when moving, it could only serve to lay out the exact course of the move across the river and possibly assure that nobody else was about in the night.
After only a few minutes of viewing it was evident that there was nothing moving in the darkness except the water. The mist had retreated and the cloud cover that dropped it pulled back and piled above the distant mountains, like a used and rumpled tablecloth. I stared at the spot where I knew Tex’s body had to be, but it wasn’t there. I pulled back from the scope to rub my eye before going at it again. Finally, I found him. His feet were no longer dangling in the water, and he was laying on his back rather than his stomach. There was no more detail available because of the low light and how the scope began to fragment scenery if it was too far away. Tex did not move, but, except for the lapping water at his feet, he hadn’t been moving the first time either. The Gunny was much more than likely right about his being dead, and I knew it from a calculated risk standpoint, but there was another point. I’d somehow survived with the company for two weeks, and I’d pushed the very edge of luck’s envelope to do it. How much farther was I going to be able to go unless at some very near point in time the company came to accept me and do more than let me live at its discretion? I knew now, however, that all commanders survived with some sort of discretion from their men in real combat. The rest of believed discipline and behavior was all media hype, Hollywood mythology or training nonsense.
The clouds were unfolding and moving back over the scene when I finally handed the scope back to Zippo. There would be no working into the light of dawn because the enemy was sitting up there on the western high ground, just waiting for new targets to appear on that open field of fire where Tex lay. The plan had to be executed in complete darkness, and that was going to be a challenge all by itself in spite of the enemy. I knew if I lost Marines in a plan to bring back a dead Army officer that I was toast with the Gunny and the company. If I brought him back and there were no losses, then different decisions would have to be made about me and what I was trying to do. I didn’t know what those differences would be but I knew I needed to have them in my life to continue to have a life.
“I need Jurgens, Sugar Daddy and the rest of the team, here and now,” I ordered Stevens. Mist was again falling from the sky. I reflexively looked upward but could see nothing in the sky. It was stygian black and therefore a friend to my plan, unless one of us fell into the torrent of water and was lost down the river folds heading south into enemy territory and almost certain death.
I waited while the men gathered around me. Jurgens and Sugar Daddy came with their Marines. I couldn’t see most of them, but I knew they were all there. I hadn’t expected all of them. I was heartened by what I felt was some kind of group support but I also was still afraid of most of them, and I was going to be going straight out into the dead darkness in front of them. Tex was dead. I knew it in my heart of hearts because it was impossible to believe that neither the Gunny nor the corpsman would have left him over there, alone and alive. But I had to know down in my core, and I could only find that out for certain one way.
“We set up two bases of fire,” I said, it being too dark to draw a diagram, and there was no chance I was going to turn on my flashlight, no matter how weak the batteries. “One just north of the bridge and the other just south. Both will direct any fire to the high ground on the west here, and nobody will fire unless we’re fired upon.”
“They’re going to know,” Jurgens said, nodding sagely, before blowing out some cigarette smoke.
“The darkness should give us all the cover we need,” I replied, mildly irritated but also realizing I had no plan if the two platoon commanders would not commit their men.
“The phosphorescence thing,” Jurgens went on, in a bored tone, like anybody could see that there was indeed some light coming from the river itself.
“Not enough light from up on that hill to shoot accurately,” I responded, keeping my tone under control.
“They know we’ll be back for the body,” Sugar Daddy chimed in. “It’s kinda what we do, I mean when we can and they know it.”
I knew from their tone that the two sergeants were having as much trouble working together as they were in participating at all, although they seemed to be able to put their differences aside to go against me, which wasn’t all bad. It just might prove bad for the mission of getting Tex back before the light made it much less likely or impossible. The Skyraiders would be back. I just knew it. Cowboy, Jacko, and Hobo were like giant riders of old angry birds and they’d somehow adopted me and my outcast company. I had no idea about how air missions were assigned but somehow I knew they’d figure out a way to come no matter what. But even the Skyraiders could only provide fleeting cover as they came in. There was no way they could saturate anything like the huge area the western bank along the river represented, however. We either got Tex out in the night or he wasn’t coming out.
I realized there was going to be nothing further accomplished by arguing with either Jurgens or Sugar Daddy. In spite of my rank, and whatever standing I had with the company, it was useless to order them to provide bases of defensive and supporting fires. I couldn’t even assure that they would remain in the area, and everyone knew that, including me.
“Fusner, you stand by near the base of the bridge in case we need commo. Stevens, you take a position with Zippo near the end of the bridge. I’m going over with Nguyen and get Tex. Hopefully, the two of you can pull the three of us back across against the current. We’re only going to get one shot at this.”
Nobody said anything. I felt warm rage building inside me. My right hand eased down to the butt of Tex’s Colt .45 and wrapped itself around the cold metal of the protruding butt. I felt the fine serrations a gunsmith had carefully carved into it, unlike the smoothly worn butt of my old Colt. It was a great gun. I was going to get Tex, and if it took expending every round in the Colt’s magazine then that’s what I was ready to do. I just wished that I’d had a chance to see how many rounds were actually in the gun. “William Headsmith” was carefully etched into the metal of the gun’s slide assembly, not far from its front edge. “Brattleboro, N.H.” was carved neatly under that in smaller letters. I didn’t need to review the writing on the gun. I knew I would never forget it. Tex wasn’t even from Texas, which seemed to go along with his phony southern accent. The knowledge only made me feel worse about his loss.
I felt more than actually seeing Nguyen. Somehow, the slight glitter of his eyes reached out through the misty gloom. He’d positioned himself just behind where Jurgens and Sugar Daddy were crouched down. I wondered if anybody else knew he was there. There was no reason for the warm feeling of confidence that came over me in seeing him, but it was there.
“Move out,” I said, ignoring Jurgens and Sugar Daddy since although I’d laid out what I thought their squads should do I hadn’t gotten far in either detailing where they would set up or even if they would set up.
If the men did nothing in response to my order, then I knew I would shoot Jurgens first. It just made sense. Then I’d shoot Sugar Daddy, and the night would turn into a close-up and extremely violent charnel house. I was going for Tex. The decision was made.
All the Marines around me got to their feet at once, leaving me the only one crouching in the mud. I slowly stood up, surprise overcoming me as I tried to figure out what was going on.
“Okay, then,” Jurgens said, in a loud whisper. “We’ll set up north of the bridge and you take the south, as far down as you think is safe. If they open up, then we’ll open up back. If they move their fire toward us, then you open up on them from the other position. We’ll go back and forth like that, as required.”
They were going to go along with the plan. A long-held breath came easing out of my lungs. The plan might work. They might still shoot me, or I might shoot them, but whatever was happening was a start. A start of what I really didn’t know.
“There’s no way two guys can pull three against that current,” Sugar Daddy said, apparently agreeing to being told where he would set up his base of fire position by the man he hated most in the company.
“Yeah, so, what’s your plan?” Jurgens asked, both men making believe I wasn’t there.
“We both go out on the bridge,” Sugar Daddy responded. “Both together. Our squads don’t need us to shoot back at anybody. The four of us can pull them in and besides, it’s gonna take more than two guys to haul Tex’s body across that bridge once he’s out of the water. He’s a big guy. Anybody goes in that water is dead.”
“What’s this plan called, Fusner?” Jurgens asked.
“Tossing the dice,” Fusner said.
“No shit,” Jurgens replied. “Wouldn’t ‘lucky seven’ or something been better?”
“We’ll see, I guess,” Sugar Daddy added, “after the dice are thrown.”
“They’re gonna see us, and they’re going to shoot at us, Junior,” Jurgens said, turning while he spoke the words, and lowering his voice so nobody else would hear.
“Then why are you going?” I asked, in the same low tone, my question blurted out without really thinking about it. Jurgens and Sugar Daddy were doing what I needed, I realized, just after I asked the question. All I could do was screw that up by saying or asking anything more.
“I don’t see nobody else,” Jurgens replied, “we all know you’re going over there so what the hell.”
“Zippo?” I inquired, as softly as I thought I could and still be heard.
“Yes, sir?” Zippo replied, from just behind me.
“Haul the starlight scope along. You can lay on the bridge, since we’ll have plenty of manpower, and see what’s going on so the rest can be ready. We won’t be able to hear anything over the sound of the water but if you can see us then you can pretty much figure out what needs to be done.”
“Got it, sir,” Zippo said.
It was good to hear the word, sir, even though I’d become accustomed to not being called by that title.
I’d have Zippo and Stevens on the bridge to give me some kind of feeling of security because Jurgens and Sugar Daddy would be right there too. The night, the mist and river might cover a whole lot of evil, but unless Jurgens or Sugar Daddy or both were willing to kill everyone around them they would probably not take me out while I was trying to get back to the bridge.
It took only moments to reach the base of the bridge, sunken deep into the mud and sand just out from the bank. It wasn’t difficult to get up on the thing but it was no easy task either. The structure had moved further out into the current which would bring its other end closer to the far shore, but It would also make any quick exit back onto the near bank much more dangerous and slower.
I was re-invigorated by the rushing water. The phosphorescence was apparent but not bright, and I didn’t really think from a distance it made us more visible. I was only halfway across, sliding along on my belly before those thoughts were dispelled. A lone automatic weapon opened up, and green tracers shot over my head. I hugged the cool steel surface of the serrated track. I heard our supporting M-60’s open up, but I couldn’t tell which base of fire the rounds were heading out from.
Sugar Daddy and Jurgens were just in front of me. Zippo, Fusner, and Stevens had gone out first, but not before Nguyen, of course. None of us out on the bridge had any choice but to ignore the incoming fire. Those in front crawled and I crawled right behind them. I thought I was bringing up the rear until I felt something hit my boot. I stopped and craned my head back. There was someone there.
“It’s me, Lance Corporal Jones, sir,” a voice said.
“you’re black as coal back there corporal,” I said, squinting my eyes to try to see him better.
“Yes, sir, I’m all of that,” Jones replied.
I hadn’t been referring to the man’s race, but I knew under other circumstance the misunderstood comment would be considered funny, but there was no laughing in the predicament we were in.
“I had to come, sir,” Jones said.
“I understand,” I replied, turning back to pay attention to making forward progress.
I didn’t understand but there was nothing to be done about it.
The sporadic gunfire continued but didn’t increase in volume. Every time there was fire from the hill the company bases of fire would respond, and there’d be a short period of quiet.
I slid by Jurgens on my way to the front edge of the bridge. “You were right,” I said, as I went by.
“Yeah, I know,” he laughed. “But I didn’t say they could hit anything. It’s dark, so they can shoot but they can’t see. Close only works in hand grenades.”
I didn’t laugh back. What he said made sense, but didn’t give much comfort every time another string of flaming green lanterns flew over my head.
I got to where the rope was tied off.
“Nguyen’s already over there,” Stevens said, rolling back to let me through. I checked myself before grabbing hold and slipping over the edge. I was only worried about the .45, with its slim leather retaining strap and obviously weak snap. But I could not leave the gun behind. I thought about Tex’s full holster but it was on the other side and the safety advantages of the flap were outweighed by the speed of getting to the weapon if the need for it was great.
I eased into the cool water, the speed of it going by taking me by surprise again. The current was fast and heavy. I was pulled downstream and had to head toward the shore slipping my hands along, one at a time, instead of going hand over hand as I’d planned. It took five minutes to cross the less than twenty-foot distance. When I got across I immediately checked the .45. It was there. I rolled over and crawled face down toward where Tex’s body had to lay. Nguyen being Nguyen had not waited at the end of the rope. He was gone and I was seemingly alone in the night. The enemy fire remained concentrated in the area surrounding the bridge, although not seeming to actually hit the huge imposing structure of the thing. Not that I could hear. I’d already learned that there were no ricochets in real combat situations but there was always plenty of loud sounds without them.
I was cool and I was clean, and I was headed for Tex, as long as I stayed close to the rushing water. It was a longer crawl than I thought it would be, mostly because the runnels running down into the river from the not too distant cliff face were soft flowing but fairly deep. I came out of one of them big enough to be considered a stream back at home and ran right into Nguyen. He’d stationed his body broadside to my progress, with his head facing the river.
“Nguyen,” I whispered, afraid of speaking loud enough to draw fire to our side of the river.
Nguyen turned his head until I could see his big shining eyes. He shook his head twice. It was another confirmation of what I was afraid of. I’d rather that the Gunny and the corpsman had left Tex alive to flee for their own safety, but I’d known from the beginning that neither man was built that way. I eased around Nguyen and approached Tex on my stomach. I saw immediately that his eyes were wide open, and shining even brighter than Nguyen’s own. His tongue was hanging out to the side and his chest was not moving. It was dark and anything can be anything in the dark, particularly with little sleep. I moved closer until I was inches away. I put my hand out and then I knew for certain. He was cold. His body was as cold as the passing water rushing by behind me.
Nguyen jerked to his knees and I came to full alert, my Colt unsnapped and in my hand in only seconds. My right thumb rested gently on the safety but I didn’t push down. ‘Blacker than the night’ Jones had appeared, his visage visible only because of the phosphorescence of the water.
“What the hell?” I whispered.
“Jurgens said I could come, sir,” Jones said. “He said you’d need help because of the mud and that I was a throwaway, anyway.”
“What did Sugar Daddy say?” I inquired. “He’s your platoon commander. He’s right there on the bridge too.”
“Not anymore,” Jones replied. “They had an argument. He’s going back to join the company at the airstrip, and we have to meet up with him there.”
“What?” was all I could get out, my eyes going back to Tex’s.
“What was the argument about?” I asked, my tone going so low I was surprised that Jones answered.
“It was about you, sir. Sergeant Jurgens said he was following you and not the Gunny anymore. Sugar Daddy’s going with the Gunny. I want to be like Zippo and get out of the platoon, so maybe I can be a scout too.”
“Shit,” I said, no longer whispering. If Sugar Daddy was headed back, then we’d just lost one base of fire in our defense, and the enemy would know that in short order.
We had to get back and get back quickly. The thought occurred to me at the same time as the NVA directed automatic weapons fire toward our position. There was little chance from the beginning that they wouldn’t know where we were because they’d seen Tex’s body in the daylight. They’d waited until we’d come across the bridge to open up. The bullets came like a sweeping whip weaving along from north to south, and then back and forth a few more times. Jurgens was right I thought, as I buried myself in the mud as deeply as I could, my face so far in that I could barely breathe. I pulled out as the shots faded.
“Jurgens was right,” I said, forcing a thin smile to my dirty lips. “They can’t see, they can only guess.”
Nguyen pulled on the sleeve of my utility blouse before grasping my wrist. He pulled sharply then, and I followed along, to Jones body. The boy’s eyes were open, just like Tex’s. Except he had a dark third eye. He’d taken an AK round between the eyes. The NVA had guessed right.
There was to be no retrieval of Tex’s body, or the boy’s either. I wanted to throw up but could not. I wanted to cry but nothing would come. I could only stare, first at the boy and then at Tex, and then back again. The throwaway boy and the wonderfully fake Texan were gone, just like that.
“We go,” Nguyen said, still holding my wrist, but now pulling me back in the direction we’d come.
“I can’t leave them,” I said, not caring how loud I spoke.
“We go,” Nguyen said, this time putting his face only inches from mine, and hissing the words like some fierce forest predator.
I let him pull me along, but I would no longer crawl. I got to my feet and staggered in tow. Finally, Nguyen got to his own feet and pulled me at a faster clip. I had not checked the boy’s vitals. Some people survived being shot in the head I knew. I tried to look back, but Nguyen jerked me along. I hadn’t even checked Tex’s vitals for myself. I knew both men were dead. I told myself that, whispering the phrase “dead as doornails” mindlessly, over and over. I realized I could go on but only because I was coming back the next day. I didn’t give a tinker’s damn about the fact that it would be daylight. With resupply, 106 rounds for the Ontos, the Skyraiders, and Army chopper pilots I’d get Tex and the boy back or I would die along the side of the Bong Song River deep down in the bottom of the A Shau Valley.
We reached the area across from where the bridge had to be. Nguyen released me and I got down to search for the rope. I couldn’t find it in the water by running my hands up and down the bank. I crawled to the old root it had been secured to and found the knotted end. I tracked the rope out to the water but dread almost overcame me as I began to feel the rope’s lack of tension. The rope was loose. I pulled on it hand over hand until I had the other end in my hands. I knew I was already in shock from what had happened to Jones and Tex. I went deeper into shock, as I realized the rope had been cut. I wanted to cry, but could not. I tried to see the end of the bridge but the darkness and mist were too heavy. I could yell across the rushing water but that would do no good. Jurgens had cut us free and then left the scene, the way I saw it. First, he’d gotten rid of Sugar Daddy. I wondered if he’d killed the rest of my scout team to cover his work. I sat, my legs splayed out with the end of the useless rope in my hands until Nguyen pulled it from me.
Nguyen pushed my forehead with one hand. I rocked back and looked at him. He held the rope up before my eyes but I couldn’t make the end out very well in the poor light.
“No cut,” he said, shaking the end in one hand. “no cut,” he repeated.
I could see the frayed end of the rope because dawn was faintly breaking. Somehow, like magic, the night was gone and the fretful dim glow of early morning jungle life was beginning to spread its rays of fetid wet life all over again. I squinted my eyes and peered across the water through the morning murk. It took almost half a minute for me take in the end of the bridge. I couldn’t see well at all, but I didn’t need any more light to see that bridge was empty. Nguyen and I had been abandoned in the coming open field of fire, two of the living with two of the dead, about to become four.