Full dawn would not come. I lay there, looking at my little Fusner-dug moat. The mist had stayed all night, which I now knew to be the precursor to the monsoon season. It could get worse. It would get worse. Just how in hell God would figure out a way to make it worse, I didn’t know. Only that it would definitely get worse. If I hadn’t lost my sense of humor I would have laughed. How about keeping every little bit of “Dante’s Inferno” the way it was written while adding pouring rain for twenty-four hours a day? I’d read in college that the highest suicide rate ever experienced fully by any organized body of humans occurred in India after the British took over the tea plantations up north there. It had rained for two hundred and twelve days and nights straight. Fifteen percent of the entire occupying British force committed suicide before the rain let up. Many of the dead were the wives of the English officers.
I rubbed my face with both hands, the repellent oil now a part of my skin structure so it felt like rubbing a soft lubricated pumpkin. I knew why morbid thoughts dominated my mind. I’d just killed three men up close. I hadn’t seen their faces, but guessed they were black Marines sent on a mission to kill me. They’d crawled across the mud flat, probably scared to death, and they’d died the way they feared they might. Killed by an insanely frightened lieutenant who didn’t know, or couldn’t figure out, what else to do. The fact that I didn’t care enough also concerned me. I couldn’t reach any center of my soul where guilt, sorrow or contrition should be. It reminded me of being a kid again after confession at the Catholic Church. As soon as I’d confessed my sins, then repeated the appropriate ‘Our Fathers’ and ‘Hail Marys’, that was it. Done. Sins forgotten. I knew I should feel bad. Now there was no confession. No forgiving Catholic priest smiling wisely down upon me, assigning punishment prayers. Just me, the bugs, the mud and my .45.
“Fuck,” I whispered to myself.
Tomorrow, if it would only come, would probably be the last time I saw the light of day. I doubted even the Gunny could save me from the two opposing factions, both now committed to making sure my existence on the planet was over. I tossed and turned about killing the men and whatever feelings I should have had, but didn’t. When I stopped thrashing about, my thoughts congealed back into my own personal world of terror. Thoughts of what discoveries the morning would certainly bring faded to backstage as a plan began to hatch itself in my mind. I grabbed my flashlight with it’s little hole cover in place, took my one-to-twenty-five-thousand photo map from my pocket and crawled out of my hooch.
The Gunny slept. I laid down next to him in the mist, guarding my paper-holed flashlight and map. I marveled at the man’s ability to seemingly sleep so comfortably. I waited, staring, my unending patience fueled by terror. My hands did not shake, however, and for that I was thankful. Maybe I’d been there long enough to get used to it — a thought as awful as the terror itself.
The Gunny’s eyes opened. Through the darkness I could only make out the whites of his eyes, blinking rapidly His head turned fully to look at me, only inches away. He said something but I couldn’t understand him.
“Shit,” I intoned, “The gum.” I stuck my flashlight and map under the Gunny’s poncho while I worked my fingers in and out of both ears. I still had the chewing gum embedded from last night.
“What in hell do you people want?” he whispered, sticking his head out into the mist.
People? I wondered, before hearing little sounds I hadn’t been able to pick up with the gum stuck in my ears. I turned to take in Fusner at my right shoulder, Zippo and Stevens just beyond my left and Nguyen barely visible behind them. I turned back to the Gunny, not having any better idea of what the others were doing there than he did.
“I’ve got a plan,” I said, my voice soft, as I unfolded and spread out my map on a part of his dry poncho liner. “They have to know we’re pulling out of here. They have to figure that we’ll either head back into the Go Noi or we’ll climb up into the mountains overlooking the A Shau. Because of the river, there’s only two ways out. By now they’ll have mined and booby-trapped both of our options.”
I used my black grease pencil to roughly outline the depression we’d be forced to follow up into the A Shau after sunrise.
“Fifteen clicks,” I pointed out. “Fifteen thousand meters, divided by five hundred meter increments. I adjust one round onto the path every five hundred meters, which will take about a hundred rounds from the battery to perform, given adjusting fire.”
I stopped and looked the Gunny in the eyes.
“Yeah, so?” he answered.
“Sympathetic detonation,” I said, sounding enthusiastic, I hoped. “One forty-six-pound round will go off on the path and the blast wave, using a concrete-piercing fuse, will set off any booby trap or mine within fifty meters. All the way up the path.”
“Like a mine-clearing operation using explosives,” the Gunny mused, leaning further forward to study the map. “Like they use with those long lines of explosives on the tanks. Okay, sounds good. Why are you telling me now?”
“There were some casualties during the night and tempers are probably going to run high,” I said, folding up my map and turning the flashlight off.
“That was your Colt firing last night?” the Gunny asked, although I knew it wasn’t a question.
Although it had only been six days, I’d become pretty adept at identifying every weapon fired by its distinct sound. The .45 made a very distinctive barking sound when it went off, not like the crack of a 16 or the longer thunder of a .50. The Gunny could not have missed the different sound in the night from such a close position.
“There’s likely to be trouble,” I replied, avoiding answering his question directly.
“And this is your plan to take care of that?” he went on. “Without you to call in this shit tomorrow, the company suffers from booby-trap casualties. So everyone needs you.”
“Something like that,” I agreed, surprised he’d caught on so fast.
“Might work,” he said, after almost a full minute to think. “But what are you going to do when we get to the A Shau tomorrow night?”
“Tomorrow night,” I repeated flatly, without adding anything more.
Another full minute went by. I felt my scout team behind me, totally silent but totally all there, waiting. I wondered if the Gunny had modified what he was saying to me because of their presence, although I’d never know the answer.
“Bird in the hand kind of a thing, or tit for tat or something,” the Gunny said.
I didn’t respond, except for getting my stuff together to crawl back to my own hooch. When I got back out into the mist, the Gunny called out once more from behind me.
“How many?” he asked.
“How many what?” I threw back over my shoulder, moving away.
“God damn it,” he said, but he let it go.
Back under my own poncho I asked Stevens, “Who’s on the scope?”
The three of them knelt a few inches out from my moat, dawn not far off. I shivered at the thought.
“Well?” I asked.
“Nobody coming now,” Stevens finally replied. “Too late in the morning, so we quit watching to save the batteries. They will only sneak around in the night.”
“We all sneak around in the night, if you haven’t noticed, sergeant,” I answered. “Go do what you guys do before we move out. You make up your mind,” I finished, pointing at Stevens.
“About what?” he asked, in a tone of complete surprise.
“You know damn well what,” I replied, wondering what I might do with a scout sergeant who wouldn’t back me. But I couldn’t think about it further. I had to get my mind ready for Sugar Daddy, Jurgens, the Gunny, the complex artillery fire I’d have to put together under the most difficult of terrain, and the rest of what was likely to come. I hadn’t mentioned to the Gunny that we were running out from under our supporting firebase. The 155 battery could reach all the way into the A Shau but not very far into it. By the time we got to the top of the ridge overlooking the valley, we’d be just beyond safe 105 range, even at maximum charge for those howitzers. And the rapid response multiple-round-firing 105s meant just about everything to my staying alive. The Marines around me only whispered when they spoke of the A Shau, like it was some sort of special hell compared to the regular hell we were already in.
I laid on my back in my hooch and my mind went blank for what I thought was a few seconds, but when I opened my eyes there was light. Morning had opened at the first light, as the song lyrics went. I reached my hand inside my front pocket to squeeze my letter home. It was there, but I wouldn’t breath easier until I turned it over.
Sugar Daddy and several of the men from Fourth Platoon already squatted by the side of the muddy path that ran between the Gunny’s and my hooch. I hadn’t heard them come up, or noticed The Gunny leave. Only Fusner sat nearby, waiting for me to arise.
My right hand moved slightly to glide over the comforting outside edges of the .45’s butt.
“Truce,” Sugar Daddy said, extending one hand out toward me, the other gripping a canteen holder, as if the three of them had simply been passing through and stopped to heat up some coffee.
I had five rounds. I knew a single round in the center of mass, from close range, would take down the largest of humans, even if only for a few seconds or moments. The other two would take side torso shots but that would leave me with only two rounds left, and that wasn’t enough for the three finishing head shots I would need.
I got to my knees, leaving my hand on the butt of the .45, and then crawled forward to the edge of my poncho cover. I estimated the Marines to be ten feet away. If I got closer, I could take them all with head shots and have two more extra rounds left over. I liked that thought. I rose up and walked to where they squatted before squatting down a little distance off. They all had their hands occupied with canteen holders held over burning composition B explosive chunks.
Advantage in, I thought, my hand on the butt of my Colt. The automatic was off of safe with a full magazine, but no round in the chamber. I regretted that I had not been paranoid enough to properly reload when I’d gotten back to my hooch. I’d never make that mistake again, I knew.
It would take me a full two seconds to pull the .45, operate the slide with my other hand, and then squeeze off the first round. Two seconds — a long time in a gun fight — even if the other men facing me had their automatic weapons decked, butt down on the surface of the mud. It might take them a full second to figure out exactly what was happening, and then maybe a second or more to get into action. Risky? Most certainly, but a risk I felt well worth it to take.
I knelt on my right knee instead of squatting. Drawing it would be faster and the gun, less likely to catch on anything as it came out and I put it into action. I glanced behind me briefly to make sure Fusner wasn’t in the line of fire, or any of the rest of my team. It was clear. I was clear.
The Gunny came walking out of the jungle growth just behind Sugar Daddy and his two accompanying Marines. He moved up behind Sugar Daddy. I could not shoot without fear of hitting him, either by mistake or because a .45 slug at close range doesn’t tend to stop when it hits a human body, not even one of Sugar Daddy’s size and not even it it’s a head shot.
“Truce, you said?” he asked of Sugar Daddy, finally moving to one side and settling down to squat between the platoon leader and the Marine to his left.
I made no move to do anything, frozen in position, waiting for just the right moment.
“Did I hear you say truce?” the Gunny asked again, since Sugar Daddy simply concentrated on reheating his coffee over the burning explosive.
“Some of my people bought it last night,” Sugar Daddy said, his eyes unreadable behind his purple sun glasses, impenetrable to normal light.
I looked at the three men from Fourth Platoon with disgust, but showed nothing in my facial features. The Marines embodied everything that could go wrong with the Corps. They didn’t obey orders or follow traditions. They dressed the way they felt like in what appeared to be Halloween costumes. Personalized smashed flat hats of some sort, gold chains they’d found somewhere, with strange pendants hanging from them. None of them wore Marine utility attire except for their trousers.
“So I heard,” the Gunny replied. “Rittenhouse and I’ll be doing the paperwork to send them home. That .50 took out a few more in the other platoons, as well.”
My guys were shot with a big caliber side arm,” Sugar Daddy said, taking his right finger from his canteen holder and pointing at my side. “Like the one Junior there wears. You can’t mistake them big holes. Each one got a round in the head at close range and then again in the body.”
I would have shot the man then and there if I’d thought to load a round into the chamber before they’d appeared. I waited instead, for a better moment, hoping the Gunny would move away.
“They were good Marines,” the Gunny said. “And it’s not likely that Junior here has enough experience or guts to shoot anyone. Not yet, anyway, so maybe the .50 on the hill is a more likely cause.”
“That fucking green shitting thing tears a man to pieces and you know it, and not like any sidearm does,” Sugar Daddy replied.
“You said something about a truce as I walked up,” the Gunny lied.
I knew the Gunny had to have been waiting in the bush and heard the first exchange, or more likely was behind the whole meeting. I wondered why he hadn’t been in his hooch when they showed up. I also wondered if, when I killed all three of them, the Gunny and my scout team might think it was because Sugar Daddy called me Junior. Not that I would change my mind, I concluded, as I’d already learned that respect didn’t matter at all if you simply killed what didn’t respect you.
“Truce,” the Gunny repeated, watching me instead of them.
The man was prescient in some way I realized, or he could read minds. I did not want him interfering or getting in the line of fire for what was going to go down, so I slightly shook my head without looking into his eyes, refusing to take my focus away from the three targets.
“Junior here’s obviously a racist, like those clowns in First Platoon,” Sugar Daddy said, his two Marine buddies nodding, as if their leader’s speech was prearranged. “But it don’t matter out here ‘cause, except for that artillery stuff, he don’t mean shit.” The two men with him grunted while continuing to nod. “Leave us be and we’ll leave him be. Just like before they sent him in.”
“Deal,” the Gunny said, extending his right hand out toward Sugar Daddy.
I could not believe my ears. I stared at the Gunny’s outstretched hand like it was some sort of alien artifact. That the black platoon wanted to go on like before was befuddling enough, what with a nightly KIA rate between the warring platoons greater than anything the NVA was inflicting, but that the Gunny, a long-time veteran of three wars, readily agreed and then shook hands with a lower enlisted man, as if they’d just negotiated some minor business deal, was astounding. My mind reeled in shock.
After the Gunny and Sugar Daddy shook hands, everyone stood up as if by an unheard unseen command — everyone except for me. I knelt there with one knee sunk in the mud like an idiot. Frozen in place, I gripped the butt of my Colt while life seemed to go on around me. The three black Marines walked back into the bush. The gunny pulled out his canteen, poured some water into the holder and started preparations to make some coffee, ignoring me entirely.
“Deal?” I hissed across the space between us.
“Good morning, lieutenant,” he replied, not looking at me, making believe the fixing of his coffee took all of his attention.
A minute went by. I finally stood up shakily and then hunkered down across from him. I took out my own canteen, hoping he had enough coffee for both of us because I was out and it would be an hour before resupply arrived.
“You sold me on the artillery magic,” the Gunny finally said, getting his explosives lit. You’re going to pull that off later this morning and I’ve seen what you can do. Booby traps are the worst we face out here. I don’t care if I get killed nearly so much as going home without my arms or legs, or even my balls.”
He tossed a brown foil container of coffee to me, as if to punctuate his last sentence.
“And so you made a deal with that black devil in my name?” I said, my anger evident, but accepting the foil coffee.
“In your name?” the Gunny said back, his anger meeting my own in the space over the fire between us. “Your name is Junior, if you didn’t notice. And you weren’t going to get all three of them. They’re better than that. They’ve been out here for awhile. They were locked and loaded and casually ready. And they know about you.”
He stopped talking to take a sip of his coffee, looking over the lip of his canteen holder. Our eyes met for the first time in the early dawn’s dim light.
“If I live,” the Gunny said, “which seems a pretty big if just now, I’ll be damned if I’ll go home to a dishonorable discharge, or worse.”
I sat staring into the man’s coal black eyes, some sense of reason returning. Getting ready to kill Sugar Daddy and his men had consumed my mind like the focused blaze of an acetylene torch. The flame was gone but the heat remained, like a hazy red fog. A small tremor ran through my hand, the canteen holder I gripped shaking a tiny bit. The Gunny’s gaze flicked toward my hand, and then quickly back into my eyes. I knew that he knew I was not quite right.
“So what are we supposed to do with his ‘deal’ you’ve made for all of us?” I asked, partly to understand what was going on and partly to cover my shaking.
“Tomorrow night,” the Gunny said, and then sipped again, his eyes never leaving my own.
“Tomorrow night?” I replied, not understanding.
“You said that last night, about what we’d do when we got to the A Shau.”
“It’s today with this ‘deal’ and we won’t get to the valley until late,” I said, starting to understand.
“So that would make it tonight, instead of tomorrow,” the Gunny replied.
I slowly removed my right hand from its death grip on the butt of my Colt. I moved my canteen holder with my coffee in it to that hand while slowly reaching into my left pocket with the other. I clutched the letter, but not so hard as to crush it completely. It represented the only sanity left in my life. I’d get it on that coming chopper and then start another letter. The Gunny was telling me what I’d told him, and he’d already known. We were living from one day into the night following that day, and the days and nights were divided into segments without titles or names. We could only live from one segment to another, and we would do anything and say anything to make it through and on into the next segment.
“Binoculars,” I said, thinking out loud. “I need them…and tracers. We need more tracers. They’re working I think.”
“Tracers,” the Gunny repeated. “Do they make those for .45 automatics too?”