The Gunny left me with my watery coffee, squatting in the soft-glistening dark. Our company commander was going to the rear to get a silver star, which was no small decoration, or at least it had been discussed that way while I was in training. He was going to get it for something I’d mostly planned and then, with the Gunny’s help, executed. I wasn’t going to the rear for a decoration. No wonder there would never be a medal for saving the kid in the river. I wondered if the captain would be back, or whether there’d be another supply of officers sent in to replace him, and the others who’d not been so fortunate as Casey. And then there was the matter of the grenade. Pilson indicated that I’d thrown it, which was true, but was Pilson’s witnessing of that event, in almost the dead of night, not in fact a near tacit admission that he’d thrown it first? And what would the Gunny do if it was Pilson, his own radio operator before Casey showed up? If it wasn’t Pilson then that left Jurgens, Sugar Daddy or one of their minions. I didn’t trust either, as far as I could throw them.
I tossed the remainder of my cooling liquid, barely recognizable as coffee, into the water flowing by on either side of my boots. How was it that the rain could continue in the heavy volume it was falling? How did that much water stay up in the air long enough and in such overwhelming supply to do that?
I moved across the slanted terrain to my pack. The Gunny would be back whenever he came back. The coming potential nightmare of our move was something I wanted to put out of my mind for a few minutes. The company would have to ease down the hillside, slipping and sliding its way to the bottom. Once there, likely in squads in line, it would begin heading north close in against the angle of the hill, with jungle and the raging river on its left flank. In almost dead dark conditions. How was the point going to be able to see anything at all? Only the incline of the hill on our right would allow for any guidance. And what of the hopefully small enemy force that had forded the river when it was not so forcefully running, and attempted to take our northern flank earlier? Would they be sensitive enough, or even able to detect us moving in the misery of the flowing water, mud and hard steady rain? Finally, the enemy somehow understood where we were going. I just knew it. Did that mean that they were ready for us when we got there, or even along the way? The fact that the fifty-caliber had been right there, very quickly mounted on the ridge across the river, minimized that likelihood, as the gun, tripod and ammo weighed hundreds of pounds to transport.
I worked my way under the dead Marine’s poncho, wishing the Gunny hadn’t told me about its origin. I tried to fidget around in the sort of semi-clamshell gouge Fusner and the scout team had dug for me into the hillside. There was nothing truly dry anywhere under the poncho, so I gave up. I ate a can of ham and mothers, some crackers and then a can of peaches, or something that vaguely tasted like peaches. The sweet liquid went down smoothly, however. I felt under my chin, but pulled my hand back immediately. My neck was a mess, although I knew the leeches that had eaten there only left surface entries. Fusner had told me that the leeches were mutants who’d learned to let their hosts live so there’d be more blood for their children. I cringed at the thought of toddler leeches running around just beyond the edges of my poncho, although I knew Fusner’s information was mostly based on his childish imagination. In spite of the Gunny’s assessment of my mental state, I knew I was a long way from falling in love with leeches, or the awful penetrating and pounding monsoon rain.
I wrote home to my wife about some flowers I’d notice the day before, the sound of the river rushing by down in the valley below me, and about our commander getting a Silver Star for leading the company. I tried to find a reason he might have been decorated for that had nothing to do with death, shooting and the violence of what I was living in, but couldn’t think of anything. I wrote that Casey was getting the medal because it was his turn to get one in the battalion.
My batteries for the pin hole flashlight I’d assembled were going. I rushed to finish the letter. I only had three plastic bags. One had to be for my maps. The second was for my stationary, stamps, and envelopes. The third one was for the morphine I carried in my right thigh pocket. I pulled out the morphine. I’d only had to use it once. I liked having it in case I needed it myself, which was selfish I knew, but I shoved that kind of thinking away as best I could. Casey had taken over as commanding officer, but nothing had been said about the terminal morphine package I carried. No matter how I twisted and turned my thoughts, however, I couldn’t see the captain administering morphine to anyone under dire circumstance. Was my responsibility there ended, or what? I checked the syrettes, in their little cardboard boxes. The syrettes themselves were waterproof. I realized that only the morphine syrettes mattered. I returned the morphine to my pocket without the bag. I needed the bag for the letter I’d finished so I’d have it instantly available when the resupply chopper came in. If it came in. There was no getting comfortable so I just lay there, my back pressed into the wet ground. I closed my eyes, thinking that I should check the Omega, but didn’t.
I felt a push against the side of my poncho. I thought it was Fusner getting me out of whatever state of suspended animation I’d gone into.
“Sir,” a voice whispered, under the edge of the material, almost too soft against the beat of the rain to hear.
I pushed up on one side of the poncho and Pilson slipped in next to me. A bolt of fear went through my body, but there was nothing I could think of to do. My position wouldn’t allow me to spring out of the clamshell hole, and my .45 was awkwardly trapped by Pilson’s left hip pressing in against it.
“It wasn’t me,” he said, continuing to whisper.
“Wasn’t you, what?” I asked, although I immediately knew what he had to be talking about.
“I didn’t throw the grenade, but I did see you toss it, after you picked it up.”
I thought for a few seconds about his admission that he’d seen me pick up the unexploded M26.
“Why didn’t you tell the Gunny that right off the bat, about me picking it up?” I asked.
“I didn’t want to be next,” Pilson said, this time his voice rising to almost a normal tone.
I didn’t say anything, my mind racing. If it wasn’t Pilson then who could it be?
“The Gunny knows,” Pilson said. “Everyone’s talking about it.”
“Who the hell is everyone?” I couldn’t help but ask. “Out here, in this awful fucking mess, who is everyone?”
“Talk to Fusner. We’ve all got Prick 25s and we all talk off frequency on them most of the time.”
“So what’s the talk about me?” I asked, knowing I shouldn’t ask. Real officer material would never ask an opinion of himself to be given by an enlisted Marine.
Pilson stopped talking for almost a minute while we both listened to the rain beat on the outside of the poncho. I found out during that brief moment where the mosquitos had gone. They were assembling on and around me in my hole, no doubt reacting to the warm moisture under the poncho. I started slapping the mosquitos while I waited for Pilson’s analysis. I didn’t want to make any move Pilson thought suspicious, like going for my repellant might do. I still wasn’t certain he was telling me the truth and he was close in beside me and might misgauge what my movement might portend. I thought about the off net communications of the RTOs and realized it explained a lot I’d not known. No wonder the company could get up as one and move out together. The radiomen filled everyone in, but not the supposed leaders.
“They think you’re crazy,” Pilson finally replied. “Crazy, undependable, and disloyal, but gifted. They think you’re a bad officer, but the best bad officer we’ve had in some time.”
I took a deep breath and held it. Disloyal was the only word in the company’s conclusion that shocked me. I breathed out again, determined to give Pilson nothing emotionally. There’s no way to come back or build a defense when you get a bad peer evaluation. The Basic School had proven that to me. Nobody had proven themselves more equipped to deal with what the training had said was in store for us, and I’d won the top award to prove that, but they hadn’t liked me. I was in almost the exact same situation I’d been in back at TBS, except there they didn’t tell you how you did at anything until the very last days.
I felt Pilson was telling me the truth. The phrase “truth hurts” came to my mind.
“Okay, so I don’t think you threw the grenade,” I said, to avoid further discussion about my conduct in the company, and also to allay his fears and maybe promote my own safety at the moment.
“Thank you, sir. I appreciate that. I was pretty afraid.”
“Afraid of what?” I asked, kind of understanding the man’s seemingly real relief, but not really.
“That disloyal thing, sir,” Pilson replied, again his young voice transmitting nothing but believable tones and words. “I was afraid you’d kill me before I got a chance to talk to you. The Gunny said you wouldn’t because he’d talked to you, but I was worried.”
“Corporal Pilson,” I said, my voice going low, “I don’t exactly have a track record of killing Marines in this unit.”
“Well, I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t mean that. I meant that nobody seems to last very long who goes against you.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. It was an improvement over what he’d said just before, but not much of one.
“We’re moving out just as soon as the Gunny returns, given that our C.O. approves,” I said, wanting the uncomfortable conversation to be over.
“Yes, sir,” Pilson replied, struggling to get out from the shallow ‘grave’ my scout team had dug. “I’ve got to get back.”
I noted that some strength had returned to the corporal’s voice in his last words. I sat up and rubbed on repellant, although my personal collection of mosquitos didn’t seem to notice. I wondered if the conversation I’d had with Pilson would make its way around the company on the radio operator’s subterranean net. And would it make any difference if it did?
The Gunny was back only moments after I’d abandoned my hole and left it to the mosquitos. The rain itself was less offensive, especially after I took off my helmet and washed that out too. No more mosquitos and, hopefully, I wouldn’t be crawling on my belly in the mud in order to bring aboard some more of the ‘lovable’ leeches.
“Casey agreed,” the Gunny said. “We can’t stay here on the side of the hill, he concluded, and there’s no place else to go except back the way we came and that would be a worse climb than this hill in the rain. But he wants to see you before we kick off.”
“See me?” I asked, in surprise. “What for?”
“He didn’t say,” the Gunny answered, going to work getting his pack ready and his poncho on. “Maybe something about the detail.”
“What detail?” I said, wondering about what Casey might have to say. I’d already adjusted my night defensive fires in my mind but I needed a few minutes with my map to get the grid coordinates down. We’d be moving damn close to the rushing river and it was going to be ticklish not letting Cunningham know exactly where we were, so I could bring artillery in closer than the rules of engagement allowed.
I informed Fusner, and then the rest of the scout team about the impending move, and to have my stuff ready to go. Nobody was going to be wearing heavy packs climbing down the hill, not unless the entire company was to risk crashing into the jungle below in one stuck-together muddy ball, as my team had been earlier. I made my way the short distance to Casey’s rebuilt exploded-mess of a command post. I crouched down at the opening to his snapped together poncho covers and pulled up an edge. I didn’t have to say anything, as his face was right in front of mine.
“I wondered when you’d show up,” he said. “We’re going to cross the line of departure in twenty minutes so synch your watch. I’m going down with First Platoon. Even in the dark this ‘Run to Daylight’ thing should work since nobody can see or hear a damn thing, including them.”
Synch my watch, I wondered, but then ignored the movie script comment before answering him.
“I have to take a few minutes and set the night fires for Cunningham,” I said, before immediately regretting the comment.
Was Casey still sensitized about accepting fire from an Army battery? It had been one of his hot points only days earlier. But there was no comment from the man about that.
“You got your map?” he asked, flicking his flashlight on under his combined poncho covers. I pulled out the plastic bag containing my map, and knelt on one of his poncho liners to work with my grease pencil. I quickly covered the ten kilometer course of our intended march using as many grid coordinates. I wrote the codes on the paper and then committed them quickly to memory. When I was done I erased the grease marks with my hand and looked up.
Casey had been watching over my shoulder with some intensity, I noted.
“Sir?” I asked, folding the map into quarters and putting it back in my bag.
“How do you do that, Junior?” he asked, his voice low and intense.
“Do what?” I asked, surprised, and scooting back a bit toward the opening. Suddenly, out in the rain seemed a more comfortable place to be than inside Casey’s hooch.
“Memorize that stuff,” he said. “I saw you do that. Memorize all those places we might need artillery.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, not knowing what else to say. The captain stared at me so strangely I felt I had to say something more. “Fort Sill. They teach us as forward observers to do that at the artillery school.”
“I don’t think so,” he said, “but that’s not what’s on my mind.”
I wondered what was on his mind but didn’t get a chance to ask before he continued.
“They’re calling me Captain Crunch, like the cereal, and it’s demeaning,” he said, his facial expression deadly serious.
I stared at his head. He was wearing his helmet that was partially crushed in on one side. I thought he was making a joke but he didn’t smile. I didn’t know how to answer. He was calling me Junior and his helmet was half crushed in and the Marines were referring to him as Captain Crunch. I knew that it had to all be terribly funny but I couldn’t laugh.
“I believe the cereal is called Cap’n Crunch,” I replied, not knowing what else to answer.
“Not funny,” he said, although there was no anger in his voice.
“No, sir,” I replied. “Will that be all?”
“You move with the Gunny and Fourth Platoon taking up the rear. I’ll be with Jurgens up at the point in case we run into trouble. If I call you up, then come quickly.”
“Aye aye, sir,” I answered, realizing that Casey wanted to get to the old landing zone as quickly as possible and saw that being with First Platoon would probably accomplish that. There was little doubt that the company would be spread out almost a full kilometer or more on the move.
“I’ll be flying out of here into An Hoa in the morning. Rittenhouse is going back with me.” He turned off his flashlight before opening the edges of the poncho cover. I got out and stood up. I walked a few paces back toward my scout team and my stuff before stopping in my tracks.
“Rittenhouse,” I breathed. “Rittenhouse,” I whispered again. “Of course, how could I have missed it? The daily reports. The threat to his power.”
I started half-walking and half-crawling along the side of the dripping mud hill, my fingers digging into the soggy slimy dirt with vigor. I made it back to where the Gunny stood, like a big dripping statue of black onyx. A wind kicked up and drove the rain down at an angle into us.
“The wind’s up,” he said. “That means the rain will pass, at least for a time,” he finished.
“Rittenhouse,” I hissed across the short distance between us.
“You’ll never see him again, once the choppers pull out in the morning, just like I said.”
“Rittenhouse,” I repeated, moving toward my pack and my team.
“Let him be,” the Gunny said, from behind me. “He’s more trouble than he’s worth. We’ll have a new clerk in a few days.”
I didn’t say anything in reply. There was nothing to be said. Rittenhouse, who’d tried to blow me apart and almost accomplished it, was going to the rear to spend his time safe and sound back there until he went home. I, and the rest of the company, would be where we were, inside the nightmare of a killing cauldron of bloody enemy fire and rain soaked misery.
The company moved. In some sort of seemingly organized ballet the deadly Marine rifle company moved down the hill, slowly sliding and slogging along, Fourth Platoon holding the bottom perimeter as the rest of the men threaded their way through to then turn and head north, one after another.
When I reached the bottom I stood waiting for Sugar Daddy to come forward and encounter me. My fears of the small enemy force on our side of the river attacking proved unfounded. The deep thundering roar of the river could be heard through the rain, but nothing more. It was impossible to see almost anything but vague forms moving only a few feet away. Any force more than twenty yards away might as well be a mile away or more.
All of a sudden the big fifty-caliber opened up again, this time from much further away, its huge green tracers zipping over our heads, to impact into the mud of the hill we’d already left. My suspicions were confirmed. The enemy did not know we were on the move, although I knew it would not take them long to find out. With luck, the company could make it the whole ten clicks in only a few hours and be set up to recon and take the landing zone by dawn.
I looked around me until I found Nguyen’s big reflecting eyes looking back.
I moved toward him slowly, without giving away any intent, I hoped. I stood next to him, waiting to join the tail end squad of Fourth Platoon. Sugar Daddy came out of the dark and stood a few feet away. There was nothing to be said. Except to Nguyen.
“Rittenhouse,” I whispered, almost under my breath.
Nguyen’s head turned slightly, and I saw him look at my face, even though his was mostly invisible. Both of us stared for a brief few seconds, until he blinked. And then he was gone.