They clattered over the last checkpoint, a waterfall dimly perceived in the fast failing light. One minute to go. Then the ship flared and drove straight down into the hole. Neil jerked the quick release on the rope ladder and swung over the side. He was three rungs down when every automatic weapon in the NVA inventory opened up.

He kicked loose and dropped through the cool evening air, slamming into the slanted earth on the side of the hill, hard, falling sideways as the rounds snapped over his head. He heard soft plops as the others hit all around him. Then they were up and running crouched over for the shelter of the woods.

Pain ran up Neil’s right ankle as they moved. Then he was in the trees. Snapping, scratching branches swept his hat away, and it fell, dangling on his back from the parachute suspension line around his neck. A branch put a deep gouge in his cheek, but he barely noticed it.

Twenty meters into the brush they fell to earth, silently gasping labored breaths. Neil grinned like an idiot. He felt so happy he thought he would die of it. He had forgotten himself again.

Behind them there was a huge WHOOM! and orange light exploded thousands of shadows into the trees. Neil turned to see the chopper flame, falling sideways into the jungle, showering sparks and secondary explosions. Then it settled into a single stationary fire, and Neil lay with his face in the dirt, the damp earth pressing into his nostrils. Adrenaline had so flared them that it seemed he could smell each individual tree and bush. The firing died and the noise of the rapidly burning chopper died also, except for the occasional pop of the door gunner’s machinegun ammo cooking off. By then, in the jungle, it was dark. Then from a half dozen directions at once came the lilting sing-song of Vietnamese conversation. Tiny lights from small perfume bottles stuffed with string and gasoline were lit in the woods around them. Two flashlights fanned the area and then flicked out again. The nearest small light was four yards off to the left. It cast enough of an aura for them to see a three-man machinegun emplacement, dug in. They had been waiting for them.

The guy holding the perfume bottle set it in the dirt. Shoogie’s silenced „K“ tapped politely, six rounds. One of the NVA coughed twice, but there was no alarm. Neil heard some slight stirring ahead and he reached out and grabbed a patrol harness. He felt someone grab his, and they started their slow painful walk through the gap in the NVA perimeter left by the unmanned machinegun. The NVA troopers in the hole sat slumped over in their firing positions. The team moved with excruciating slowness. Feet going into the earth toes down, they felt for soft spots, moving branches slowly with their free hands. They moved for perhaps fifty meters. It took an hour and a half. Neil knew when the chopper didn’t get back McLeod would be on the radio. He also knew that Shoogie wasn’t about to try for radio contact this close to the enemy.

He pictured the anxiety in the headquarters, and the choppers flying over this area tomorrow. He pictured the relief when they made their first scheduled contact in the morning. If they could. Christ, there were NVA all around.