My eyes snapped open, and I took in a quick deep breath. The sound that had awakened me was that of a fifty-caliber machine gun firing at close range. The crack of it, with following cracks and echoes, assured that I was downrange from the muzzle blasts and the shockwave reflecting off of the projectiles exiting that muzzle at supersonic speeds. I was downrange. It could only be enemy fire. I came alive, jerking my sleepy slow body upward, the adrenalin beginning to kick in, as I pushed aside the water streaming mess of my poncho cover to face up into the pouring night.

“They’ve got their fifty-caliber set up,” Fusner said, needlessly, his face only inches from my own, like he’d been there waiting for me to come out all along.

“The Ontos,” I replied, my mind coming fully online. I held out my right hand in the dark. “I’ve got to talk to Hutzler.”

The Ontos was our only protection against something like the fifty. I grabbed the handset and transmitted. Hutzler came back over the radio immediately, as I turned, crawled to the other side of my hole and stared into the night. The fifty opened up again but there were, unaccountably, no tracers visible. The Gunny plopped down on the squishy matted jungle to my left.

“They’re not using any tracers,” I said to Hutzler. “What can you see with the scope?”

“They’re using pre-registered fields of fire,” the Gunny said, “so they won’t give away the weapon’s position.”

“They’re firing from inside the mountain itself, sir,” Hutzler replied, “but I can see the muzzle flashes faintly anyway, from the angle I’m at.”

“Can we hit them?” I asked, controlling my voice and breathing.

One well-placed fifty caliber machine gun could make the coming attack either an overwhelming success or at least cause heavy casualties on my two rifle companies.

“I’ll never hit the opening with a single H.E. round, but with our own .50 spotter I might be able to get a flechette round, fused just right, to go off just at the entrance to the opening.”

I imagined what it might be like to be inside the cave behind that opening if a fifteen pound 106 mm flechette round went off only a few feet inside that opening. Thousands of tiny darts would be showered at twenty-two thousand feet per second throughout the interior cave complex.

“Okay, fire one of the spotters and see if you can get a tracer round into the opening,” I ordered, as the enemy 50 Cal fired again.

I held the microphone to my ear, Hultzer was leaving his own handset with the transmit button depressed. I heard the short-barreled fifty caliber spotting gun go off and then watched the streaking ‘burning beer can’ of a tracer round arc over to Hill 975. Three more rounds followed until I heard the command “fire the one oh six,” and then a giant explosion went off and I knew the 106 main round was on the way. There was no tracer attached to it, however, the fiery boom of its detonation was readily apparent, lighting up the entire southern side of the hill, when it went off. I was surprised to hear screaming coming all the way across the open area, right through the dense rain, as the night returned to full dark. Hutzler fired another 106 round into almost exactly the same spot, and then another. After the third round, there was no more screaming, or noise at all, radiating out of the mountainside.

“We might have affected them, sir,” Hutzler said, into the radio before the line went dead.

“Yes,” I breathed to myself, “we affected them, all right.”

Fusner and I stayed huddled under my poncho, the rain blessedly coming down hard but channeled away by the small creases around the hole Nguyen had made with his E-Tool. That he was outside, without the benefit of a poncho liner, was discomforting to think about, but I understood it was his way. He was native to the valley, not going native. The A Shau was his home territory, and the weather in it was the home weather he’d endured for a lifetime.

I tried to reach the radios through the operators I’d pried loose from the lieutenants, but there was so much chatter on the combat frequency that there was no getting through. The enemy fifty-caliber had been silenced by the Ontos, but I knew the attack we were expecting had to come. It would be along some path or trail very close to the western canyon wall where I’d sent the extra radio operators to, in order to act as constant communications nodes back to my command.

If the enemy didn’t make its attempt near the wall, then the fire mission I had on hold with the 175 battery would wipe them out, as well as maybe some of our own Marines. With only a two hundred meter range safety margin I knew we’d have to be really lucky to avoid friendly casualties.

The Gunny stuck his head under the poncho cover. I knew it was him from the cigarette smoke on his breath. Fusner’s Prick 25 gave off a small bit of light but not enough to make out facial features.

“Stop,” the Gunny hissed across the short distance.

“Stop what?” I asked, truly surprised by the comment.

“Stop trying to lead from the god blessed rear,” the Gunny said, louder this time. “You led them this far. Now let them be what they are. You can’t see a damned thing anyway, but you’ve gotten into the command habit, and field command isn’t your talent. So, stay off the net and let them go at it. The Ontos can’t see that far in this rain hell of a night, even with that magic scope, and it can’t use flechettes against attacking infantry because they’ll hit us too. This is going to be hand to hand stuff and you’re no good at that either. I’ve pulled you out of some holes, but now I’m telling you to stay in this one and stay off the combat net. Here, get your energy back. We’ll need you later.”

The Gunny was gone before I could collect myself enough to answer anything he’d said. He’d tossed something that hit me in the chest and then fell to the bottom of the hole. I pulled it up. It was a box of C-Rations. I knew it would be Ham and Mothers.

“Command isn’t my talent?” I whispered aloud, trying to understand what the Gunny was talking about. “How does he know I’m no good at hand to hand, and what the hell is hand to hand combat in the jungle, anyway.”

“I don’t think he wants you to get killed, and I don’t think hand to hand means what it sounds like,” Fusner replied, although I hadn’t spoken aloud to elicit a response.

The poncho cover edge was lifted once more, but there was nothing said. I knew it had to be Nguyen. Fusner had given me new batteries from the last supply run for

Montagnard Kon Tum Fighting knife

Montagnard Kon Tum Fighting knife

Jurgens’ flashlight. I pulled the little device out and turned it on, muffling the light with my free hand. Nguyen’s expressionless face appeared. A sparkle of light darted off something he held in his left hand, dangling over the lip of the hole until he quickly withdrew it. I knew the item had to be his special Montagnard Kon Tum Fighting Knife. The knife looked like a large American butcher knife but was handmade and the steel polished with sand and dirt instead of any special solution.