Suppose Chez and Owen met before their first encounter in Without Wings. When and where might that have been? “Five Bullets” explores one possibility…
“JT,” I hiss, bumping the kid’s shoulder and gesturing meaningfully at the path ahead. “Quit with the sightseeing already.”
He glances at me, swallows audibly, blows out a breath and nods. I give him a glare for good measure. Ten miles outbound from basecamp is not the place for your mind to start wandering around, looking for some roses to frickin’ sniff.
“Sorry,” he whispers.
“Stop worrying about your brother.” Not to sound like a heartless bastard, but there’s nothing he can do about it if his older brother really has been shot down during a fly-by over the Son River. We’ve got a mission to finish and the odds of us making it back alive are bad enough without him turning into Momma Hen Clucking After Her Lost Chick.
You see, JT and I are what’s affectionately referred to as “tunnel rats.” It goes like this: Bobson and Rowles scout ahead, looking for hidden Vietcong bunkers snuggled beneath fake anthills and the like; Marks and Woodard check for booby traps and other lovely surprises once we’ve found ourselves an entrance to the underground labyrinth that the VC bastards use to evade our raids, shoot us up like Swiss cheese, and generally make our ass cheeks twitch with annoyance; and JT and I are the suicidal morons who go into the tunnels and kill anything that moves. Oh, yeah. Fun.
This is my eighth excursion, which is pretty much unheard of. Most guys bite it their first couple times down the rabbit hole. I can only assume I’ve been insanely freaking lucky. Where is a roulette table when you need one, right? Hell, the good ol’ U.S. of A. has built frickin’ ice cream factories in this shit hole of a country; you’d think they could manage a casino.
So that’s me, snide cynicism and all, but JT’s new. New to tunnel warfare, new to Vietnam and, thus, new to warfare in general. I didn’t want to take him out with us this time. I don’t, strictly speaking, think he’s ready for this, but we’re short on guys with intact trigger fingers and this shit’s gotta get done. I gotta hope he’s gonna be OK, though. When the shit hits the fan, as long as he starts shootin’ instead of freezing up in deer-caught-in-headlights panic, he’s got a 50-50 chance of making it back out alive. Don’t quote me on those odds, though. I’ve got no proof they’re right, but they sound whole helluva lot better than the odds that the commanders give us.
This time, when I glance away from the green, steamy hell that surrounds, trips, and mocks us to check on JT again, I have to clutch the gun in my hand to keep from pummeling him.
I kick him in the ankle instead. He startles guiltily. If we were still back at basecamp, working on the obstacle course, I would have ripped him a new one, but we’re not and I can’t and if we don’t move as quietly as possible—
Yeah, bad shit happens. Like finding an enemy-occupied, camouflaged bunker. I shove JT off the trail as I duck and dive for cover. Ahead of me, the other guys are doing the same. I cover the rear as I scuttle through the brush toward the boys up ahead. It’s gonna take a helluva lucky shot to take out the guys in the bunker and, as I’m feelin’ a little luckier than average today, I beat a path to the front lines.
But, as it turns out, I don’t actually make it that far. Just as I spy Woodard firing toward a bullet-spitting anthill in the clearing beyond, just as I move to take cover behind an only-slightly-smaller-than-me, vine-covered tree, just as I lift my gun and thumb off the safety—
Something smacks me in the helmet hard enough to set my ears and skull ringing like cymbals, spins me around and sends me face-first into the tree. I crash to the ground, but I don’t feel a damn thing. A drum line beats out a rhythm of pop-pop-pop over my head and darkness takes me.
When it spits me back out again, I blink up at an object I can’t identify. It looks like a long, goldish-tan rope swinging back and forth. I stare at it, mesmerized. Sounds slowly crawl into my numb ears. The drum line is still going at it, I note stupidly. My gaze travels up that length of weird rope until it thickens, drapes over a shirt collar and disappears beneath a United States Army helmet.
“What the—?” I mutter, shaking my head and feeling my eyes roll in their sockets in response.
“You gonna make yourself useful or what, buddy?” someone attached to the rope says.
“Useful,” I grunt, reflexively curling my fingers tighter around the gun still in my grasp. I roll away to the other side of the tree and scan the jungle. The drumbeats finally reveal themselves for what they really are: sniper fire.
“In the bunker,” my tree partner informs me.
I don’t see a bunker. Hell, I don’t even see the anthill I vaguely recall from before I’d kissed the frickin’ tree. Everything is a green and brown blur. “You got eyes on it?” I grit out, hoping his answer is something along the lines of “hell yes, dip shit” because I’ve got a whole lotta nothin’.
“Cover me,” he orders.
“Gimme ten seconds,” I tell him and start crawling forward, hoping my eyes will stop trying to do the backstroke by the time I find myself some dense underbrush to hide in and shoot from.
The countdown seems to go about as fast as molasses in Michigan midwinter in my head, probably because my head’s not good for much of anything at the moment. My brain wobbles with every jab of my elbow into the soggy, brown jungle floor. But then, just as I think I’ve remembered what number comes after eight, I spy a black slit in the earthen ledge up ahead. Bingo. I start firing a second earlier than promised. I figure Mister I Have A Plan won’t mind.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see the gleam of a blond braid in the sunlight. In that instant, I figure out what he’s up to. I remember the bullet that had hit my helmet and smacked me stupid. It had come from a second direction, from a second guy who had probably left his buddy in the bunker with orders to distract us while he’d circled around behind – through the tunnel – and then come out of a concealed entrance and opened fire.
I don’t know where guy number two is now, but it’s too late to warn my new friend. He’d disappeared in the direction of the supposed tunnel entrance and if I can just keep the guy in the bunker firing at me, then Hero Long Hair just might have a chance—
I switch my gun to my left hand and reach out with my right. I grab a wet, crumbly stick and beat it back and forth in the bushes about three feet away. The guy in the bunker aims and fires first at the clump of swaying vine-covered brush and then sprays bullets further to right. Yeah, he assumes I’ve still got my gun in my right hand and I’m grabbing the bushes with my left. I cease fire as if he’d gotten me but I can’t risk a grunt of pain. I wait one second, one eternal second. The moment I open fire again, he’s gonna figure out I duped him and fire into my cover which sure as hell isn’t gonna stop those bullets.
Hoping, praying, and cursing silently, I pull the trigger, drawing the enemy’s attention back to me. I don’t have time to wiggle away. I flatten myself to the ground and then—
One gunshot, muffled, sounds from inside the earth. I hear the soft clatter of a tumbling rifle and then the heavy slide of a body slumping down to the floor.
I rest my head against the wet windfall and just breathe for a moment. I’m alive. Holy shit. I’m alive. I don’t even feel happy about the fact that some rice farmer or cow herder, father of ten or fourth son of a fisherman had just been killed. I hate the VC, yeah. That’s a given. And it freaking burns me up that a bunch of untrained farmhands can regularly and thoroughly kick our asses, but they’re just villagers in there. In the moment of silence that follows in the wake of a well-shot bullet, there’s no pretending I’d just killed (or helped to kill, in this case) an enemy soldier, a guy with nothing to lose but a paycheck.
Yeah, I don’t have to like it. I just have to live with it.
Speaking of living, I wonder at the sudden silence in the jungle. I don’t dare call out to my team. I crawl toward where I’d seen Woodard earlier, and I find him with a bullet hole in his chest.
“Dammit,” I hiss, collecting his dog tags. I wiggle my way over to Marks, then Bobson and Rowles and I find three more bullet holes and more unused ammo. “Shit. Shit shit shit,” I inform the muddy tread of Rowles’ boot. I’m pretty sure I do not want to check on JT. This jungle is too silent for me to find anything good waiting for me.
“God damn you, kid,” I grit out.
JT doesn’t answer. Bullet hole number five answers for him with infinite stillness an silence. The dog tags clink against each other in my pocket as I sit up and lean back against the tree I’d tried to shove JT behind. Obviously, I’d been too damn slow. I hadn’t shoved hard enough or early enough to get him out of the line of fire. Too little, too late. I stare up at the leaves of the jungle canopy.
My eyes sting with the force of my glare. Damn you, God. There I was, knocked out cold not three yards away while my teammates were all fighting for their lives… and losing.
Three gasping swallows later, a boot tread squelches in the mud on my right.
“You still alive?”
“Yeah,” I somehow manage to answer.
My self-appointed ally crouches down and I finally get a good look at his face. No way is this guy enlisted. No way is he an officer. No way is he supposed to be anywhere near here. He’s too thin for Uncle Sam to take him and his hair is way too long. I don’t know what the hell his story is, but I don’t care. His .45 had been pointed away from me and toward the enemy. That’s all I really need to know.
“You’re a tunnel rat,” he announces.
I roll my eyes. “How’d you guess?”
“You’ve got a .38, a flashlight, and a knife on you,” he informs me, listing the tools of the tunnel rat’s trade.
“I’m gonna kick your ass for going through my pockets,” I threaten without heat.
He snorts with amusement. “Sure, go for it. When you’re done with that, I could use a little help.”
“Oh? Why am I not surprised?” Everything comes with a price. It doesn’t surprise me that this guy had saved my life because he figured I’d be useful. “And why should I care?”
“You should care, Charles Zimmerman,” he replies, nodding at my dog tags which had somehow fallen out of my shirt and onto my vest, “because without me, your mission is a total wash.”
I snort out a laugh. “My mission? What the hell do you know about it?”
“More than you think,” he answers, his eyes narrowed and focused on mine. “You’re after the command center in there.” He nods toward the concealed tunnel entrance. “And, it just so happens, so am I.”
“I don’t work with civilians,” I spit out, getting to my feet. The dog tags clink and rattle. Irritated, I dig in my vest pocket for my sweat towel and wrap them up. I pause as I tuck JT’s into the bundle. Dammit. I should have left him at basecamp, no matter what our C.O. had said. I should have broken the kid’s arm or something. He hadn’t been ready. I’d known this. He’s dead because of me, because I hadn’t fought hard enough for him, because I hadn’t raised hell on his behalf.
This is my fault.
“I’m not a civilian,” the guy says, gun-in-hand pointed toward the ground.
Yeah, a grass-lovin’ hippie he may look like, but he knows which end of that pistol goes bang! I can’t say that’s true of most peace-love-and-happiness-in-a-pipe types.
“What do you want, exactly?” I say warily.
His expression turns hungry. “A man called Minh Po. He’s calling the shots here from inside the tunnels and he has information I need.”
I nod thoughtfully. If this Minh Po guy is calling the shots, that would mean he’s most likely at the very command center which I’d been sent to locate and blow the ever-loving shit out of. But there’s just one small problem here.
“How do I know your intel’s any good?” I challenge.
He gives me a wry smirk. “You don’t.”
I glare at him.
He shrugs. “Take it or leave it, man. I’m going into those tunnels to find me a VC commander. You wanna tuck tail and scamper back to basecamp or you wanna finish what you started?”
In other words, do I want to finish what Bobson, Rowles, Marks, Woodard, and JT all died for?
I shake my head slowly, marveling at the sheer gumption of the manipulative shit standing in front of me. “Go to hell,” I tell him, my tone defeated.
He gestures back the way he’d come, back toward the tunnel entrance. “Would you like to go first or shall I?”
Jaw clenched, I reach for and check the cylinder in my revolver. I count my bullets. Five in the chamber and another twenty in my vest pocket, ten are mine and the other ten are – were – JT’s.
“If we do this,” I finally reply, my mind beginning to work through the haze of rage and woeful waste of life, “we do it on two conditions.”
“Let’s have ‘em.”
“First, after you get what you came for, we take out the command center.”
“Done,” he promises pompously. I don’t call him on it. I want him to be that sure of himself. I want that promise, so I let him make it.
“And secondly,” I continue, “call me—”
“Chez?” he interrupts.
I narrow my eyes at him. “How did you—?”
“Lucky guess,” he replies and as we’ll need whatever luck we can get, I don’t get pissy with him over it.
“Whatever. What do I call you?”
“Fredrick,” he says, his lip curling with distaste.
“Uh huh. And what do I call you if I don’t wanna get shot?”
He laughs. “O will suffice.”
I give him a look. “Oh? As in ‘oh fuck, we’re gonna die’?”
This time he snorts with humor. “As in I.O.U.”
“O,” I repeat, then I sigh. With a what-the-hell shrug, I check on the contents of my pack and collect as many grenades as I can carry from Marks’. I’m gonna need these little bundles of joy if we actually get where we’re going. I feel a twinge in the center of my chest as I pick up JT’s unused .38 and tuck it away. Damn, this guilt will get me dead if I don’t leave it behind.
I take a deep breath. In silence, I sigh out my apology and my promise. I figure I’m deluding myself with those 50-50 odds. Chances are I’ll be seeing JT and the rest of my team again real soon. If not… Well, I’m sure the guilt will catch up with me later.
Straightening, I gesture in the direction of the tunnel entrance. If we don’t get a move on, we’ll find ourselves in the middle of Round Two. I tell O, “Ladies first.”
Entering the Cu Chi Tunnels of the Vietcong is like getting swallowed by a giant earthworm. You bypass the throat and stomach of the beast entirely and end up getting squeezed through the guts, hoping like hell that the next light you see up ahead is the exit and not, y’know, The Exit.
The passages down here never get any brighter than pitch black gloom, any less dangerous, or any less ominous. The battle of do-I-or-don’t-I when it comes to using the flashlight is just as terrifying now as it has always been. Maybe even more so. Having survived so many close calls – having stared death in the face and blown raspberries at the little goatfucker – makes you even more attached to living.
I should know.
O makes no move for his own light, assuming he has one, and I hesitate over whether or not to turn on mine. “Go on,” he breathes at me over his shoulder. In tunnels this narrow and cramped, there’s no point in raising your voice. With as close as we are to each other, we’re practically kissing. “You’ll need it for spotting scorpions.”
“Yeah, that’s what I figured,” I growl back unhappily.
We press deeper into the darkness, our vests and sleeves scraping on the dugout walls. It’s hard to imagine that a freaking dirt tunnel can withstand bombing and armored tanks rolling above, but it can, it does, and it has. Our existence narrows and shrinks to each step, each moment, each doubt-filled thought. Am I walking into a trap? Is someone watching us – and our light – approach, waiting until we’re within range before opening fire?
After what feels like hours of crawling and squirming through muck (and past the occasional scorpion), my stomach growls. O pulls up short.
“Dammit,” I breathe, reaching for the food ration stuffed in my sock, under my pant leg. I don’t want to eat the frickin’ thing and I sure as hell don’t want to stink up the whole damn tunnel, but my stomach will give us away if don’t put something in it.
“Here,” O says, handing over something wrapped in a scarf.
He takes the light from me and I open the bundle to find what looks like a couple handfuls of cooked rice.
“What—?” I start to ask.
“Took it off one of the two guys back at the entrance,” he tells me. “Don’t eat all of it. We’ve got a ways yet before we hit the command center.”
“A ways?” I echo as I lever a chunk of rice into my mouth. It tastes like VC sweat and jungle mold but what the hell, right? It fills my stomach and manages not to announce to the whole damn tunnel system that there’s an American cranking open a can of meatloaf in here.
O nods. “At the next intersection, we’ll take a left, descend down a level, and then hang a right. Come at them from the side.”
“Uh huh. Listen, if you know all of this, what the hell do you need me for?”
He shrugs. “To make sure I don’t get carried away.”
“Carried away—! Man, if you think this is gonna turn into some kind of party…”
“Depends on your definition of a party,” O replies, his eyes and toothy smile gleaming in the glow of the flashlight.
Great. Just freaking great. I’ve entered the deadliest tunnels on the whole damn planet with a guy who thinks he has an ax bigger than mine to grind. He’s hungry for something down here all right: vengeance or just plain ol’ blood, I don’t know which.
This joker’s gonna get me killed. I ought to turn around right now and head back the way we’d come, or sneak off down the next intersection we find. But then I think of JT and the five bullets that had cost me my team. The bastard who’d set those snipers on us is gonna pay. Oh, hell yeah. He’s gonna pay.
“Right,” I sigh. “What’re you gonna do to this Minh Po guy when you find him?”
I take one last mouthful of stale rice and rewrap the rest. O holds up a thin hand when I would have given it back to him and then he shoves the flashlight at me, takes the scarf, rewraps the remaining rice, and leans forward without so much as a “Excuse the hell outta me” and wraps it around my neck, knotting it like a frickin’ bowtie. I grimace, suddenly realizing why the rice had tasted like Vietcong sweat. Fan-freaking-tastic.
O nods approvingly at my new fashion statement and says playfully, “I’ll give him a kiss.”
The grin he gives me is… well, it’s feral. “You coulda kept that little golden nugget of joy to yourself, pal,” I tell him.
He laughs softly. “But what would be the fun in that?”
“The hell if I know.”
Still breathing out his laughter, O starts moving again. In the confines of the passageway, I can only follow, flashlight in one hand and revolver in the other.
The intersection O had mentioned comes up and he turns down the tunnel. We pass another bunker. This one is not unmanned but the two guys crouched in the narrow little cave aren’t expecting us. It’s over in a about a minute, from start to finish. I tell myself I only imagine the feel of blood on my hands.
This isn’t the first bunker we neutralize today nor is it the last. After more squirming and aching leg muscles and close-calls with jet black scorpions, we happen upon a third bunker. This one doesn’t take us by surprise as the occupants are currently firing on allied forces. O and I get down to business. As we don’t even have to worry about stealth, we get the job done in a matter of seconds.
In the aftermath, I simply breathe in the slightly-fresher air which filters in through the bunker’s single window. The glow of daylight reluctantly illuminates the dugout cave and I try not to stare into the sightless eyes of the man I’d just killed.
“Who’s in there?” someone calls from the other side of the earthen wall and out of sight.
“A tunnel rat,” I say only by way of identifying myself, speaking through the letterbox-sized, glorified crack. I hesitate to give my name and rank. Hell, I hesitate to even think it. I’m a tunnel rat with a job to do. If I start thinking of myself as an actual person with a name and a home, I’ll end up like JT.
A greasy, charcoal-painted face comes into view. “You need ammo?” he asks in that corporal tone that only team leaders ever get to use and get away with. I notice he doesn’t try to talk me out of the tunnel. My lips twist into a wry grin. Yeah, some sacrifices have gotta be made and as I’ve already more or less volunteered…
“I’m good, but you could pass these on,” I say, relinquishing my team members’ dog tags to someone who has a hope in hell of getting back to civilization.
Accepting and tucking them in a pocket, he says, “Watch your back, son.” And then he turns away, orders his men to move out, and melts into the jungle.
O says nothing as I turn back to the tunnel and our mission.
Our trek continues into the darkness and then down. Descending even further below the surface makes my skin crawl. The sweat soaking and plastering my shirt to my skin begins to cool. When voices echo up to us from the deep, I shiver and cover the light.
Waiting in the dark for the boogieman to come and find you is not a hobby I would have ever expected to choose for myself. Even now, I wonder at my own sanity. Is this the End? dances through my mind until I squish it with a plan: Use the light. Keep a strong grip on the knife. 50-50.
And it works.
Heart pounding in the wake of the struggle in the dark, I climb over the pair of bodies, following O’s lead. This is war, I remind myself, and not everyone gets to go home at the end of the day. This is not heroic like I’d imagined it would be when I signed up, but it’s got to get done. Killing is part of the job. I try not to think about it. I don’t always succeed.
When the passageways crisscross again, O halts and holds up a hand for me to wait. I keep the flashlight pointed down into the mud sucking at my boot tread as he creeps forward, sniffing the air. Then he pauses, tenses, and pulls out his well-used knife. I smother the flashlight, pressing the lamp against my vest.
We wait. After a moment, I hear it: the sound of approaching footsteps.
Aw, shit. Not again.
Even after God only knows how many hours of slogging through the muck down here, O is fast. Very fast. By now, with so many corpses left in our wake, we are a well-oiled machine. As O spins the first guy around and slices open his throat in one smooth motion, I lift the flashlight to the face of the second, blinding him. Before he can do more than hiss with surprise, O deals with him. We maneuver the bodies several steps away from the intersection, hoping that’ll buy us some time.
“Getting close,” O updates me and gestures for me to follow.
I have to agree with his assessment. The tunnels are getting slightly taller (although never much wider at the very bottom than the nearly-four-foot span) and easier to maneuver in. I’ve never been in this deep before. I spare a thought for the pack I’m carrying and feel a trickle of sweat slide down my temple; it doesn’t matter how tall these damn passageways are. When it comes time to blow this load, I’m pretty sure there won’t be all that many places within sprinting distance to hide in.
And then, just like that, we’re there. A light that isn’t bright enough to be daylight glows up ahead. As we draw closer, I turn off my own flashlight and listen to the sounds of voices and the grumbling growl of a generator. The chatter is Vietnamese and I can’t understand much of it. Actually, it sounds like someone’s talking about a fish, an old shoe, and flying, which can’t be right.
O inches forward. I ease off the safety on my revolver. JT’s is still in my pocket, loaded and waiting for some attention. We wait long enough to count the voices. O holds up four fingers and I nod. Then he starts counting down.
This is it. We go in, I shoot like a berserker on LSD while O takes down the commander.
OK, I can do this.
My grip tightens around the gun. I force it to relax again.
It all happens so fast, I experience only impressions. O’s braid whips and snakes out behind him as he pivots around the corner, crouches low and moves in. I’m half a breath behind him, arms lifting with gun steadied in both hands. I see a guy with dark hair; I pull the trigger.
Another guy. Bang!
Heart pounding, eyes still wildly seeking out targets, I scuttle back against the wall of the cramped room that had been carved out of the earth. My hip bumps against a table containing a telegraph and some documents. I don’t think I have time to pack those up, not if I want to reload.
As I reach into my pocket for bullets, I glance around for O. I find him… and promptly wish I hadn’t.
He’d been serious about giving the commander a kiss. Holy fuck. Only, that’s not really what it looks like. He’s got the man pinned against the wall and he’s frickin’ sucking the air out of the bastard’s body.
Before I can choke out more than a gurgle of disgust, O leans back, removes his knife from the guy’s shoulder and slices him from ear to ear across the neck.
I don’t have time to ask what the fuck that had been about. They command armies from this room. Someone must have heard the gunshots. I drop my pack under one of the chairs and, tucking the gun away, I pull out a single hand grenade. The rest I leave in the pack.
Stowing his knife, O sprints for the tunnel we’d used. I can hear the sound of running footsteps coming from two other entrances to the command center. Time to boogie.
I lurch for the exit. At the entrance to the tunnel, I pull the pin out of the grenade and toss it in the direction of pack I’d left behind.
The gift that keeps on giving. Merry fuckin’ Christmas, VC.
O and I seem to be of the same mind on how to survive without our asses getting blown to pieces; we dive for the bodies we’d left in the tunnel what seems like hours (but had really only been moments) ago, pick each guy up by the shoulders, duck down behind them as much as possible and then—!
I feel the hot wind of the first explosion blast me in the face. Knowing that what’s coming next is going to be about twenty times more powerful, I hunker down as much as I possibly can behind my human shield and pray.
I’m still alive.
I’m not quite sure what to make of that.
I blink at O, who is apparently beating out small, smoldering fires from my vest and pant legs as I lie sprawled in the mud, blood, and muck on the tunnel floor.
“That,” O tells me as I move to sit up, “was neat.”
I cough once on my shock. “Neat?” I parrot back.
He winks. “Next stop, steamy jungle and unending rain. You coming?”
He doesn’t have to ask me twice. I’m running out of bullets and I’m all out of toys that go boom! Ears still ringing and skin feeling slightly crispy, I fumble after him. For once I’m glad that these passageways are so freaking claustrophobic. I can more or less bounce myself from wall to wall as long as my feet are still moving. I cease and desist with that pretty quickly when my brain wobbles between my ears and a headache roars to life inside my skull.
We struggle – well, OK, I struggle and O, the bastard, charges – up the incline in the tunnel . We hang a left at the next intersection and from there—
I see the third bunker we’d taken on our way down. I try not to notice the bodies in favor of glaring desperately at the hatch O’s working at opening. I glance at his twiggy arms and snort. If I wait for him to bust our way outta here, we’ll be late for our own funerals.
I gape at O – skinny, pencil-thin O with his dumbass long hippie hair – as sunlight pours over him through the now open, um, opening and is that a choir of angels singing as dirt sprinkles down like pixie dust?
Oh, man. I think I’ve finally lost it completely.
I continue gawping, no doubt catching all sorts of Vietnamese flies in my maw, as O levers himself up, pokes his boney head out of the hole and takes a look around.
“Right,” he says, dropping down. “C’mon, man. I’ll give you a boost.”
I snort. Like, seriously? Seriously? This poster boy for the Egyptian mummy look is going to give me a leg up?
O’s expression turns wry. “Or do you need a breather?” he mocks me.
Normally, I’d appreciate that. Mockery and Sarcasm are friends I know well. However, at the moment, I’m busy realizing that O hasn’t needed a break since we’d met. He hasn’t eaten, hasn’t gotten winded, hasn’t complained of a muscle cramp… Combining all that with the mouth-to-mouth he’d given his target, his exceptional hearing and unexplainable strength, I’m starting to wonder about this guy. Like really wonder.
That probably means I should stop thinking and just go with the flow.
“Whatever,” I say, stepping forward and placing my right boot in his laced hands. With a bit of squirming (hopefully the last bit for a good long while), I level myself out onto the somewhat mushy jungle floor. I reach a hand back to help O and I marvel at how a guy as light as he is could manage to boost me up.
Shit. I’m thinking again. I put an immediate stop to that. “So, where the hell are we?” I grumble, glancing around and trying to get my bearings. I consult my wristwatch and note the fact that it’s dinnertime.
“You got a map?” O asks.
I produce one.
“And a pen or something?”
“Christ, shall I get down on my hands and knees next so you can use my back for a writing desk?”
“Yeah, that’d be great.”
“Keep dreaming, pal.”
With a snort, he gets down on one knee, spreads the map over his lifted thigh, and starts scribbling with speed born from knowledge. Shit, how does he know where all these places are? He even manages to draw out the rest of the Cu Chi tunnel system.
“Here,” he says, reviewing his work with a nod of satisfaction before handing the map back to me. “That should be self-explanatory.”
I stare at the hastily scratched out “x” that is me and the sketchy blob that’s meant to represent basecamp. It’s a long trek. More than a day. I highly doubt I’ll be able to make it on my own without a really big infusion of luck and ammo.
“Where are you headed?” I ask to postpone the inevitable parting of ways.
“North. To Phong Nha.”
“Phong Nha,” I muse, frowning in thought. “That’s the NVA military base on the Son River.” The river where JT’s older brother had supposedly been shot down. If the NVA is bothering to hold onto prisoners of war, the military base inside the caverns of Phong Nha is where he’d probably be.
Well, that sort of clinches it, doesn’t it?
“Need a hand?” I offer as casually as I can manage as I continue staring at the map. It doesn’t really matter if I head south to basecamp or north to the DMZ. I’m pretty sure I’m dead either way.
“Nope,” O replies.
Jaw clenched and guts churning at the thought of trekking something like fifteen miles back through the jungle without backup, my grubby, muddy, blood-smeared fingers tighten on the map, an instant away from crumpling it up and stuffing it into the nearest pocket.
O’s hand on my wrist stops me. “I don’t need a hand, but… the question is could I use one?”
I look up in time to see him shrug.
He gives me a half-assed smile. “Sure.”
And just like that, hope blossoms in my chest. It’s too late for me to save JT, but maybe – maybe – I can do the next best thing.
“Lead on, O-man,” I say, gesturing grandly.
He smirks. “Change that last bit to a W-E-N and you’ve got yourself a deal.”
Huh. So his name is— “Owen,” I drawl with a wry grin. “Couldn’t you have just told me that from the start?”
“Maybe,” he says. “But if I had, I would’ve had to kill you.”
He’s smiling, but I’m pretty damn sure he’s serious. Yet another thing to add to the pile of shit I’m not supposed to be thinking about.
The Demilitarized Zone. Otherwise known (and spoken of in terrified sorry-guys-but-I-think-I-just-shit-myself whispers) as the DMZ. Why in the hell had I thought my chances of survival would be better if I followed Owen into this circle of hell? Something tells me I hadn’t. Something tells me I’d chosen to follow him for a whole different set of reasons. Like, not wanting to die alone.
Well, aren’t I little Miss Mary Fucking Sunshine?
You’d be, too, if you’d spent the previous week’s worth of nights dodging NVA patrols instead of dreaming about your soft, warm, non-moldy bed back home.
Although, all things considered, I’m still breathing so I can’t complain. Once again, Owen had sniffed and snuck our way into enemy territory. Don’t ask me how he’d managed it, because I sure as hell can’t explain it. Somehow, he’d heard the enemy before they’d heard us not just once but every freaking time. Somehow, he’d steered us around land mines, had pulled me into shadows I hadn’t even known were there and delivered both of us here in the equally steamy and unending jungle of North Vietnam with no bullet holes tagging along for the ride.
I almost don’t believe my own eyes. I do, however, believe the bruised flesh of my upper arm where Owen’s skinny fingers had just about dug trenches into my flesh. Damn, but that kid is freakily strong and he has zero reason to be; he still hasn’t slept, eaten, or taken a piss from what I can tell.
Just when I decide it might be smart to start freaking out over the impossible package that is Owen, he stops in the middle of the path he’d found in the jungle, turns to me, and says, “Let’s hang out here for the afternoon.”
“Praise-be-hallelujah,” I mutter, collapsing into the nearest thicket of cover, clawing at my boots and socks so that my stinky jungle-rot feet are bare, and doing my damnedest to impersonate a corpse for the next six hours. “Don’t start the party without me,” I think I say before I am out. Oh, yeah. Chez has left the building.
The rain wakes me up, reminding me that I am not, actually, in a building after all. Damn, but I think I’d kill for a roof over my head. When an errant breeze puffs by and I gag, I add a clean pair of socks to my Would Kill For list.
I sit up and receive a nod of greeting from my trail partner. In silence, I swallow down the bundle of rice and mystery meat Owen offers me. Yet again, he’d forgone rest to find me something to eat. When I open my mouth to thank him, he cuts me off, just like every other time this week.
“We need to move out soon,” he tells me.
Mouth full, I nod. We – and by “we” I mean the Allied Forces – have known for ages that the North Vietnamese Army moves men and supplies under the cover of darkness. It’s dusk now and I’m pretty sure we haven’t strayed all that far from the mythical Ho Chi Minh Trail. Hanging out so close to the route traveled by armed military caravans when they’re likely to be moving men and supplies would be suicidal. Well, OK, more suicidal than our self-appointed mission already is.
Owen waits patiently, eyes watchful as I get myself trail-ready. It’s not until I reach for my boots and socks that he shows any emotion at all. This expression, I believe, is commonly known as pre-puke disgust.
“It’s too wet here for foot powder to do a damn bit of good,” I tell him quietly, the contents of my stomach churning at the thought of putting those rank things back on my feet. Ah well. If I hold my breath and lace up tightly, I can avoid the worst of it.
Shoes on, bullets counted, guns loaded, and can of meatloaf still worrying away at the skin beneath my aromatic sock, we resume the trek north. During the daytime, it’s the bombs from Allied planes you have to worry about (and getting your ass shot off by a sniper), but at night, it’s the contingents of NVA soldiers heading south to the DMZ as they guard the supply route. So, really, if you don’t end up blown up or shot up, it’ll be either the scorpions or foot rot that’ll do you in. Too bad they hadn’t mentioned this shit on the recruitment posters.
Once again, Owen’s creepily accurate senses save us from getting dead over the course of the night. More than a few times, his sudden halt prompts me to make like a tree and be still as NVA troops whisper through the jungle a stone’s throw away. On two occasions, Owen simply manhandles me – adding to my collection of bruises – around trip wires and other booby traps.
I begin to wonder exactly how I’m supposed to be giving him a hand, here. So far, it seems like he’s spending a helluva lot of time and energy keeping me alive. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why. I mean, even if he were planning to hand me over to the NVA, what good would I be to them? I’m just a tunnel rat. Owen knows more about those subterranean passageways than I do. On the other hand, I’m the one with the detailed map, aren’t I?
The next afternoon, when Owen deigns to let me rest (rather than watch me trip over my own itching toes yet again), I ask him: “Are you planning to hand me over to the NVA or something?”
“Why would I do that?” he asks, his brows lifting with incredulity.
Because I’m pretty good at faking incredulity myself, I continue, eyes narrowed with suspicion-tinged thoughts, “So that you can sneak by while they’re beating the ever loving shit outta me.” I tug the neatly folded map out of my vest pocket. “They’d want to ask me why I have this on me and who else has a copy.”
Owen stares at me for a moment too long to be comforting.
“Shit,” I say.
He gives me a lopsided smile and a shrug. “If you wanna enter the caverns, I’m pretty sure you’d have to go in as a prisoner of war.”
“What about you?”
“I’ll meet you in there.”
“And just how are you going to get inside?”
“I’m a pretty good swimmer.”
Owen chuckles. “Look, man, just don’t get yourself shot and I’ll get you out of there when I’m done with my To Do List.”
I want to argue with him – shit, the thought of letting myself get captured by the NVA is enough to make me shit my britches – but he’s probably right. The caverns of Phong Nha are said to be impassable. Besides, as a prisoner, I might have the opportunity to find out if JT’s brother, Robbie, is among the captured POWs. Still…
“Let’s make that Plan B,” I cajole in a very unmanly way.
“Sure,” Owen agrees. “If you can hold your breath for as long as I can or figure out how to hitch a ride on the outside of the hull of a boat.”
When I narrow my eyes this time, it’s in more optimistic thought. I eye his long hair, as always worn in a braid, and mutter, “You know what? Get me a dozen yards of rope and that might be possibility.”
“I figure this might be a good time for me to start believing in God,” I mutter to the guy hiding in the bush next to mine.
“Your confidence is everything an ego could ask for,” Owen drawls softly in reply.
“Oh yeah, charm is the most dangerous weapon in my arsenal.” Sadly enough, that might end up being true if we go ahead with our plan tomorrow night. With a sigh, I snuggle down in the hollow beneath my clump of brush on top of the mountainside ledge and close my eyes. It’s dawn and I need to catch some Z’s. The past night had been informative and necessary – there’s no way Owen and I would have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting into Phong Nha without scoping out the nightly barge operations – but, shit, I’m tired.
“We could still do things my way,” Owen proposes in a tone that might have been playful if I’d given half a shit.
“Your way is painful and more likely than mine to get me dead.” Sure, even if I fake an injury (or Owen very kindly knocks me out) and I end up getting “discovered” by the NVA, they’ll probably shoot first and ask questions later. While it’s a policy I whole-heartedly endorse, I’d rather not be the recipient of it, thanks.
Owen snorts. “Pain. You humans are such wimps.”
My eyelids, itchy and drooping, pop open so fast, I’m pretty sure I may never blink again. Yup, I’m awake now.
The forest echoes with weighted silence around us.
“Hey, Captain America,” I retort, “are you callin’ me a candyass?”
“It was more of a general observation,” Owen replies in a tone that had damn well better not be choking on laughter.
“You chop my species again and I’ll have a general observation for you, pal.”
“Oh, this I’ve got to hear.”
I glare in his direction and flip him the bird. “Climb it, Tarzan.”
I can’t see Owen, but he must be able to see me. He chortles. “I’d beat my chest and give a great jungle yell, but I’m pretty sure you’d wig out over it.”
He grunts. “I’ll save it for later.”
“You do that.” I shake my head which is very quickly becoming crowded with rueful and unwanted thoughts. “Humans are wimps. What the hell—?”
What I’d nearly asked but had managed to shut my mouth on just in time is: What the hell are you?
Shit. Just… shit. I don’t want to ask. I don’t want to know. But… I’m starting to think I need to know.
If Owen hears the whole question, he doesn’t reply to it. I sit in my little dirt hole and brood over the puzzle that is my only ally. It’s safe to say that, despite the army gear and wry grin, Owen isn’t normal. He’s not just some dip stick who signed up for glory and the chance to rid the free world of communism. In short, he’s not like me. He’s something else.
I wish this little nugget of joy was the furthest thing from my mind, but it isn’t and I can tell it’s not going away anytime in the near future. I think ahead to tonight and all the possible ways I could screw up because I’m busy wondering just how long Owen can hold his breath under water and why he can frickin’ hear enemy footsteps a damn near quarter mile off in the distance and how the hell he can be so tough but never eat, never sleep…
“Owen,” I say, hating the fact that I’m going to say what I’m about to say but knowing it’s gotta be said. “Gimme at least one reason for me not to wonder about… y’know, you.”
He doesn’t answer. The silence stretches until I have to grit my teeth and push the words up from my too-tight gut.
“The super hearing, super strength… Are you really gonna hold your breath under water for as long as it takes for those barges to enter the cave and dock because, that’s just not possible.” As I utter the last syllable, I experience a slice of memory. The face of the VC commander flashes in my mind and I recall that happy occasion: Owen’s lips pressed to the guy’s mouth; Owen sucking the air out of his lungs; Owen leaning back with a satisfied smirk before cutting open his throat. Shit. I cannot be thinking about this come nightfall.
Finally, Owen says, softly, “You don’t have to wonder about me. I’m Captain America.”
I bury my face in the crook of my arm to smother the panicked laughter. “You’ve been on the pipe too long,” I reply when I catch my breath, “if you actually believe that, pal.”
“It’s not my fault they got it wrong.”
They got it all wrong. I snort. “OK, sure. What the hell.” My buddy Owen is Captain America in his skinny army-reject form. I can dig it.
And I do.
We move out just before dusk. My eyelids are still scratchy and each feels like it weighs about fifty pounds thanks to the constant bombardment upriver by the fantastically Allied Forces. (Yeah, you try sleeping with two-ton bombs shaking the whole freaking globe like the footsteps of God himself.)
I don’t like this part of the plan much as it calls for a whole lotta risks in dwindling but still clear daylight. We creep and crawl through the jungle down to the barges that the local fishermen had hauled into an artificial and just-large-enough clearing and then camouflaged with debris the morning before. We’d watched the fishermen head back to their village and, supposedly, get on with their day, leaving the barges attended by a few kids. I don’t want to think about what might have to happen if those kids get in our way.
At the edge of the clearing, Owen takes the lead. I let him. And it turns out to be the right call. Damn, but nobody on this planet is quieter than Owen. How he manages to tiptoe soundlessly over to the nearest barge (which isn’t really all that near), grab the rope (well, it’s more like twine, but beggars can’t be choosers) I’d requested, and make it back without alerting any of the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed boys and girls who wanna make mommy and daddy proud by supporting a bunch of murdering, commie bastards I have no clue.
Feeling useless (and realizing that it’s a feeling that I’ve gotten good and used to, God dammit), I tail Owen down to the edge of the Son River where we take off our boots (mine I tie to my belt loops) and then, under the cover of overhanging (and blessedly un-snake-infested) brush, we both ease into the water.
As the light fades completely, Owen takes the end of the twine and uses some fancy knots to put together a harness around my chest.
“Where’s your knife?” he asks, giving the last knot a strong tug.
I pat my vest pocket meaningfully. If this goes badly – if my own idea literally gets me in over my head – I know what I’ll have to do but I hope it won’t come to that. Something tells me that I won’t be given an encore. It’ll be Plan B if I can’t wing this. I wince.
“Too tight?” Owen breathes.
I shake my head. After a moment, he claps me on the shoulder. Then, slinging the coil of rope over his arm, he wades downstream toward the barge launch point with me in tow. With every step or stroke, my heart becomes even more firmly lodged in my throat. My pulse pounds in my ears until I’m sure my head will explode. And then I hear the footsteps of the fisherman approaching the barges, giving commands to the kids to help them uncover and move each craft into the water, a process that clearly takes an eternity longer than it should. And yet the moment the boats are bobbing in the water, tethered to the shore is not one I should be looking forward to. When it comes, Owen gives the rope on my makeshift harness a tug before silently shifting away. I retaliate when I feel the end of his braid brush over my hand. Owen doesn’t even grunt. He pauses briefly in acknowledgement and then moves out of range. Somewhere in the darkness, the other end of my twine is getting tied to the last barge in the row, tethering me to my doom. Standing chest deep in lethargic river currents, I put my hand on my knife and wait.
I won’t bore you with a list of all the different kinds of waiting I experience: the kind that leaves your heart pounding in your throat, the kind that makes your mind start listing every poisonous river snake and sharp-toothed freshwater fish known to frolic in Southeast Asia, the kind that leaves your mouth dry but your palms sweaty, the kind that gives you the unexplainable urge to start singing children’s rhymes.
Right. Moving along.
And finally, we are. The boats are loaded, the kids sent home, and the barges are pushed out into the river. In the pitch blackness, I bob along behind the last in the line, my tether keeping me from being shoved downstream as the boat inches along (against the current) toward the famously impenetrable caverns ahead. I kick my feet, trying to keep some slack in the twine. I have no idea where Owen had tied the damn thing and, for all I know, it’s inches away from the hand on the barge’s rudder.
Shit. I trust that guy way too much.
Too late to cry about it now. Now I’m up to my ears in Operation: Breach Phong Nha.
I scowl and try to find a rhythm of movement that I can manage without too much effort. With each stroke, I reaffirm my determination to find JT’s brother and get his ass outta here. And if he ruins my plan by being dead, I will kick his rotting corpse ass from here to Abu Dhabi. I don’t care if he frickin’ outranks me.
As the boat pushes through the waves ahead, I concentrate on keeping my head above the surface, my strokes silent, and my lungs clear of water. One reflexive cough is all it’ll take to do me in.
Rather than speculate on how many bullets they’d waste on me if they found me, I think about the plan. Or rather, the plans. Plural. When I’d asked Owen about his objective, he’d been typically cryptic and Mister Tuff about it.
I’d teased, “Well, at least you don’t kiss and tell.”
Owen had laughed and then, thankfully, he had not asked me if I have anyone waiting for me back home. He hadn’t asked what I’d like to do with my life once I get Stateside again. He hadn’t asked, so I hadn’t had to resist the urge to shoot him. Win-win.
Which reminds me… I glance around but, of course, I can’t see anything. Hell, I can’t even see the boat I’m tied to so I’ve got zero chance of spotting Owen, wherever Mister Captain America is. I swallow a sigh of resignation and keep swimming as quietly as I can and it’s a good thing I do, too, because suddenly, my ears ring with the subtle echoes of several barges moving through the water, as if each tiny sound is being bounced off of looming stone walls again and again and again. Which means…
I’m in the Phong Nha caverns. If only I had a battalion to back me up. All I’ve got is Captain America and maybe he’s not chopped liver but he’s not all that inspiring, if you catch my meaning.
Despite being in the caverns, it’s still pitch black. The sounds swim and churn off the walls and, with each passing moment, they mix and blend with the sounds of voices which slowly transform from mucis-like noise into military orders barked out in Vietnamese. Shuffling becomes footsteps on rock and sand. Thumps become boxes being unloaded from previously arrived barges. I swim with one arm now. The other I keep on the handle of the knife in my vest pocket.
When the barge that I’m tethered to starts to be illuminated by a warm, distant glow, I draw my weapon. The voices and footsteps are so loud now that I wince in lieu of coving my ears. Heart pounding, I wait for my chance. If I cut the line now, without a place to “land” nearby, I’ll end up drifting back out into the jungle and, eventually, all the way to the frickin’ ocean.
The barge turns a corner. A rocky ledge brushes my shoulder. I cut the rope.
The instant I’m free, the river does her damnedest to push me back outside, to kick me out of her caves. Yeah, not gonna happen. I bite down on the blade of the knife, keeping it clenched between my teeth as I climb rocks in the noisy darkness. I find a small depression that is shadowed and encouragingly empty of bats. There, I pull myself out of the water as quietly as I can and take a breather. I still have no idea where Owen is, but I have to trust that he’d made it in, too. If he hadn’t, I’m gonna have to turn into a one-man-band to rival Bob Dylan.
In the darkness, I check my guns. They’re wet, of course, as are the bullets, but that doesn’t matter. They’ll still fire. But if it comes down to that in here, I’m pretty sure I won’t get the chance to use them for long. It sounds like there are about five thousand Vietnamese in here and only one of me.
Those 50-50 odds I’d mentioned a long while back salute and blow me a kiss on their way out the door.
I don’t bother to wave goodbye. I put my boots on and get ready for what has to happen next.
My breather is too short, my boots too wet, my arms too rubbery and the job ahead of me too huge but since when has any of that made me pay attention to my better sense? I get moving. Knife still held in my mouth, I start climbing over the rocky wall of the caverns. I’m pretty sure I know where I am; Owen had given me the general layout of the place. Although, when I’d asked how he’d known about it at all, he’d given me a look that had commanded me to shut up; I’d glared back until he’d shrugged and said, “Our friend Minh Po told me.”
Minh Po. The VC commander that Owen had sucked the breath out of before killing very efficiently. Now, call me crazy, but I hadn’t heard any words being exchanged in that tunnel command center. In fact, there’d been only the one exchange and how the hell Owen could have gotten intel from it, I have no freaking idea. And, actually, maybe I don’t wanna know.
Yeah. I don’t wanna know. And anyway, it’s time for me to step into my office and get to work.
I shouldn’t be surprised to see the first harbor and the crates of cargo that Owen had said would be here, but I kind of am. If he’s right about this, then he might be right about the POWs being held at the next harbor, further in. Looks like I’ll be doing some more swimming. Yippee.
And then, in the harbor, some expressive gesturing catches my eye. I can’t catch any of the actual words in the cacophony, but a guy who looks like a solder-in-charge-of-something is ordering a fisherman further up the river and deeper into the caves. The barge itself is nearly empty of cargo and I still have the length of twine tied around my chest. Hm… if I can find a convenient loophole on that leaky little boat, I might not have to swim after all.
I sink back into the water and use the rocky wall of the cavern to pull myself toward the natural harbor. I then use the stern of each boat to launch myself down the row to the barge that is getting ready to depart. Each time I jump ship, so to speak, I risk being seen by someone on the shore but no one looks my way. Probably because no one expects an enemy to be this deep in their territory.
I’ll brag about it later.
I reach the barge and I daringly loop the end of the twine around the rudder. This time, I stay in the shadow of the ship as much as possible as the fisherman shoves off and makes his way further upstream. My booted feet are useless now for swimming, but the going is so slow that it turns out that all I have to do is act like the dead weight I am. The darkness of the cavern swallows us up and I drift, being towed by the boat in near-blackness. Again, I wait until I see light up ahead and then I cut myself lose and find a cubby hole to hide in.
This time, my hiding place overlooks a massive cavern. I see stacks of cargo (although not as big or as much as was in the previous cavern) and, behind those, some tables where lots of NVA guys are chattering at each other, cleaning their outdated guns, or eating. There’s what looks like a makeshift infirmary and then, directly opposite, a prison cell. I let out a sigh of relief when I count the prisoners – five – and the number of doors with locks – one. I can only hope that all of them are mobile and one of them happens to be the guy I’m looking for.
There are far, far too many NVA soldiers hanging around for me to make my move now. I hunker down and watch as barge after barge arrives from the logistics cave downstream and troops start piling onto the boats. It burns me up that I’ve gotta let these guys go and head out into the jungle where they’ll be trying to blow up or blow holes in guys like JT. My hate for my own inability sours on my tongue until I nearly choke on it, but there’s nothing I can do. Not today. If I actually make it out of here alive and back to an Allied base camp, well, maybe…
Waiting isn’t the hardest part of war, but it still stinks. No doubt about it. Barge after barge arrives empty and departs with troops. When the last boat pulls in to collect the last group of fighters, I finally leave my cubby hole. I move through the natural tunnels of the cave, thankful that I don’t have to charge up the harbor, guns blazing like a frickin’ re-make of D-Day. I creep and tiptoe my way toward the prison cell and, once I’m in sight of it, I duck behind the nearest cover – a small stack of crates – and count the enemy.
In the far back, a second cave seems to be filled with some high-ranking officers. From the looks of things, they’re busy plotting world domination, so I won’t have to worry about them if I stay quiet and mostly out of sight. There are a couple of guys in the infirmary either sleeping or healing on straw pallets. Two armed soldiers are hanging out at the harbor, waiting for the next barge to come in.
This is the best chance I’m gonna get tonight. The next barge that arrives is probably going to have troops and not cargo to unload. It’s now or never.
I choose “now.”
Crouched low, I scuttle over to the prison and, reaching the bars, toss a stone at the nearest captive. He opens his eyes and looks at me but only briefly. The corner of his mouth lifts, though, so I know he’s happy to see me.
“Key?” I hiss.
“Harbor-side,” he mutters back, making a show of stretching.
I pass him JT’s former revolver and then slink off to do my worst. Or maybe best. I guess it depends on who writes the history books years from now.
The officers are still debating whose dick is biggest and the infirms are still down for the count, soaking up the power of healing, and the cargo boxes are right where I’d want them if I were God and could make inanimate objects obey my every whim, so it’s pretty easy to ghost up to the beach. I wait, knife in hand and heart in my throat, wondering if Owen really has my back. I guess we’ll find out…
When a lull enters their conversation, I make my move.
Lunge-grasp-stab! slice! catch! and I lower the dying man quietly to the ground. I look up and grin. Owen is right next me and is dragging a kill of his own behind the nearest tower of supplies. I have no idea where he’d come from and I don’t care. We’re further along than I’d thought possible.
I collect the guns and the keys then quietly make my way back to the prison. Owen vanishes once again in perfect silence. Good thing I know where he’s headed or I’d be wigging out.
Everyone in the cell knows that the cavalry has arrived and is doing their best to act natural. “Got other business. Good luck,” I practically mouth in silence as I hand over their get-out-of-jail gear.
I get a nod, a smirk, and a thumb’s up and then I go after Owen. He’s got his sights set on the meeting of Who’s High and Mighty, of course. I almost roll my eyes. This is gonna be like the tunnel command center all over again. Oh well. At least I’ve still got one gun.
Still, I’m not all that crazy about opening fire. The minute I do, everyone in this bloody tunnel system is going to hear it and come running. I’d much rather be in the water, tethered to boats in nerve-wracking but life-saving silence.
I join Owen beneath an outcrop a short sprint from the meeting room entrance. “I only need one of them,” he whispers to me.
“You’re outnumbered,” I point out, reaffirming my grip around the revolver.
“No such thing for Captain America,” he shoots back with a cocky grin. “I’ve got this. You need to get your guys into the water and radio for a pick up.”
I huff unhappily. He’s right, dammit. And he’s about to give us the diversion we’ll need to send a coded message. He’s also going to get himself killed.
“I’ll give you three minutes,” Owen says, his eyes glaring daggers at me.
“There’s another way—” I have the balls to argue.
Owen growls at me. I shut up. “I want it this way.”
I don’t like it, but I think I get it. He’s out for revenge, for blood and glory and suck-on-this-pal vengeance. In other words, he’s a time bomb waiting to go off and this is not the time or place to try to disarm him. “Have a nice life, man.” Whatever’s left of it, anyway. Not much if he goes ahead with this spaz plan but there’s not much I can do to stop him. “Thanks for saving my ass.” I tug the end of his braid once for luck and then scuttle over to the crates where my newly liberated buddies are waiting.
“The infirmary?” I hiss at the most commander-looking guy.
“Taken care of,” he rumbles.
I nod. “Radio,” I grunt, motioning toward the twisting labyrinth of caverns.
“I’ll go,” another guy volunteers. “I know code and a pick up location.”
I gesture for the others to head into a different tunnel. “Hang right and get to the harbor overlook then get ready to go in the water.” I pick up a bundle of rope and hand it over along with my knife. Giving the trailing end of twine still connected to my makeshift harness a twirl, I say, “We’ve got a boat to catch.”
I’m down to a single gun with five bullets and my charming smile for weapons as I lead the radio operator back into the caves. Owen had said the radio room would be near the big meeting spot and I’m very glad when I find out he’s right. I’m less glad to see two operators sitting at the table. I hand my gun over to my new friend and mime clubbing one of the guys. I pick up the slack on my twine. Our steps are silent. Their deaths are not so, but at least nothing echoes. I stand guard with my gun once more in my happy possession as the nameless soldier gets on the horn.
The Allied frequency is selected, code mumbled, reply received, rendezvous location announced, and then everything gets reset. We boogie.
That’s when the first gunshot rings out.
My eyes sting. Dammit, Owen. He’d made his move without backup and now…
Shit, he’s either dead or nearly. There’s nothing I can do for him now, not with a guy of my own to get to the launch point.
I’ll deal later.
I head for the tunnels. I nearly turn back no less than six times between the radio room and the overlook. I tell myself that I’m an idiot to think Owen could have gotten his man and then gotten out alive. If the knots I tie in the harness around the operator’s chest are too tight, I blame urgency, not anger.
As predicted, the gunshots call forth boatloads of soldiers. Luckily, several fishermen are sent out to bring in more troops before they notice the six guys treading water, clinging to the cavern wall. Hitching that ride out that I’d promised is about as easy as cherry pie and, as I let the current and the barge pull me downstream, I’m thankful for the abundance of water around me and the darkness. Tears blend so well into both.
Once we cut ourselves loose and gain the riverbank, it’s no longer my show. I bring up the rear as we haul ass to the rendezvous point. It’s a lot of ground to cover by dawn. I’m shocked as hell when we make it. Standing at the edge of the clearing and listening to the throbbing blades of a Huey coming closer, I nearly break down into tears of joy.
“Any of you have a brother named JT Wellman?” I ask before my throat clogs with useless emotion.
“I do,” the radio operator says. Before he can ask me how I know his little brother and before I have to tell him that I’d known him from my tunnel rat unit, the Huey is overhead and moving in to land.
Wary of enemy attack and guns at the ready, the five guys Owen and I had gotten out of Phong Nha fan out and move toward the chopper. I glance back once more, hardly daring to believe that I might be wrong, that Owen might have made it out after all, might have tailed us for the hell of it…
And there! It can’t be my imagination that I see a long rope of goldish-colored hair or the man attached to it. The hair is right, yes, but the man…
I gape at the broad shoulders, the muscular chest, the strong jaw.
I hear myself gasp, “Can’t be…”
“It is,” Owen’s voice replies. “Don’t miss your ride, man.”
I open my mouth to tell him to hurry up, to get his ass on the helicopter.
Maybe he sees it in my eyes or the set of my jaw or the way I clutch the gun in my hand. I’m sure he sees it, but he turns me down. With a half-assed salute that’s more playful than official, he pivots on his heel and blends into the jungle.
I guess that’s a Mission Complete.
I don’t waste time saluting him back. I launch myself at the hovering chopper and let myself be dragged aboard.
“Shit, man. What’s the deal? Don’t you want your medal of honor?” one of the former NVA prisoners jokes.
“A medal? What the hell for?”
“Uh, for busting all five of us out of fuckin’ Phong Nha single handedly?” he snarks and the others laugh.
“I didn’t—” The protest is automatic. It’s on the tip of my tongue to tell them about Owen, whom they must not have noticed, but I don’t. Maybe I’ll explain later when I can handle the fallout. I clear my throat and talk over the roar of the helicopter, “I didn’t do it single-handedly, dip shit. I’ve got two hands!”
I get a clap on the back for that and a couple of laughs. The other guy gets a bit of ribbing about not being able to count.
Blessedly, I get no more questions. I get silence. In that moment of relative quiet, I mourn for my team, all dead because of those five VC bullets. I thank Lady Luck for the five guys who are still alive and now free. And I think of my buddy, Owen.
As we fly over the dense green canopy, I stare helplessly down at it. He’s out there, somewhere. It’s a frickin’ miracle, but he is. And, whatever he is, he’s a miracle, too. He must be. There’s no other way for me to explain how he could do the things he had or why he’s even still alive.
I take a deep breath and grin through my tears.
He’s alive and I’m alive.
I’m alive and I’m gonna be fighting at least one more day.
Owen and Chez continue their camaraderie in Without Wings, a novel by K. Writerly (me).
Without Wings, ebook
Without Wings, hardcover & paperback
The setting of this fic was chosen because I had this superb visual in my head of Owen and Chez, standing back to back in a shallow, gurgling river, surrounded by jungle, returning enemy fire. The jungle was a must, so I thought to myself: “Hey, Vietnam!” Too bad the other stuff didn’t pan out. Maybe in a future novel…
The main adventure in this story would not have been possible without the incredibly informative episode of Cities of the Underworld about Vietnam. (If you click on the link below the Notes, you’ll be able to watch the whole thing.) I’ve changed some things around in order to keep this story from dragging out. The biggest thing I changed is distances. The DMZ is quite far from the Cu Chi Tunnels, but I make it sound like you could walk the distance in couple of days. Not so. That was my handy Artistic License at work. Also, to my knowledge, no one from the Allied Forces ever infiltrated the caverns of Phong Nha on the Son River, but it was just too awesome an idea for me to pass up.
And before you ask, yes, military pistols and revolvers were pretty waterproof as were the bullets. You could totally submerge your gun and ammo (as you swim up a river, say) and then fire it when you got to shore. (Many, many thanks to Bryan for explaining this to me in detail that I can’t possibly express properly here.)
So, at the end of the fic, depending on your interpretation, Chez either dies in Vietnam eventually or not. This incarnation of him would have to die sometime before 1968 because that’s when Arturo Sanchez (the “Chez” we all know and love from Without Wings) was born.
Fanart (including banners and icons from “Five Bullets”) by the amazing Yappichick: http://yappichick.livejournal.com/308077.html
Vietnam War Tunnel Rats: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tunnel_rat
Vietnam War Food Rations: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meal,_Combat,_Individual_ration
Cities of the Underground: Vietnam: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TC0Tufhv2kU&feature=related
60s Slang: catch some Z’s, candyass, chop, “Climb it, Tarzan!”, wig out, flip one’s wig, go ape :: http://cougartown.com/slang.html & http://the60sofficialsite.com/Do_You_Remember_The_60s_Slang_.html
Vietnam War/Military Slang (I actually didn’t use any of this in the story directly, but I’m including it for anyone who is interested): http://www.vietvet.org/glossary.htm