AT TWENTY-FIVE YARDS THE FRONT SIGHT OF THE MACHINE GUN NEARLY covered the back of the reclining soldier’s head. It was the only part of his body visible above the green lichen-encrusted trunk of a large, partially submerged snag.
Sam Walden watched through the rear peep sight as the black hair of the North Vietnamese soldier was ruffled by a gust of wind swirling down the stream bed that was between them. A moment later it swept up into the jungle tree-line where he and the seven other men lay. The ferns and thorn vines of the undergrowth rustled against each other as the small two-tone leaves higher in the trees fluttered green and silver.
Walden let the dull black barrel ease upstream, away from the target, past a clump of dwarf elephant grass to a small opening in the jungle wall in front of him. He again counted the seven other NVA squatting, at the edge of the stream. They had filled their canteens and were now leisurely unlacing their rubber and canvas bata boots as they talked among themselves. Walden pushed himself self up from the mattress of decaying leaves until he could see the brown wooden stocks of the AK-47s left carelessly on the bank behind them. The high melodic voices merged easily with the sound of rushing water and the trill of birds flitting in the upper reaches of the trees.
A thick black beetle scurried over Walden’s arm, dropped to the ground, and began picking a path around the green spears poking up between dead leaves. Lucky bastard. Walden watched the bug disappear beneath a brown chunk of bark. Laughter floated up from the tranquil setting below. Looking back down, Walden watched them wade into the cold mountain water. They look like children. They might have been boys on a camping trip. He found it unreal that he was going to kill them. Each of their movements took on a trancelike significance. In minutes they would all be dead. An odd sensation rose within him as the NVA moved through their last minutes on earth. Walden glanced at his watch. Three o’clock. He wished it were earlier.
Having watched for nearly twenty minutes, he was convinced the group was alone. The tension increased in Walden until it became a tangible thing. After five days and nights on the ground in Laos, his nerves were frayed raw. Walden felt the blood start to pound around his temples and his stomach grow thick with apprehension. The time had come. Turning his head slowly to the right and lowering it to the ear of Jerry Forrest, he whispered, „We got to blow them away before we get extracted.“ Forrest looked at him, nervously licked sweat from his upper lip, and nodded. Walden made eye contact with each of the six mercenaries scattered to Forrest’s right. Each held a CAR-15 machine gun pointing toward the stream, except for Lap of course, who had an M-79 grenade launcher. With slow, deliberate motions of his gloved hand Walden signaled he would take the lone man. He paused for a second, looking into the ice sheen of Cuong’s eyes. Cuong sneered briefly, telling Walden that he was going to enjoy it.
Fuck it. Walden sighed as he moved his head up and down to alert the others that the time had come. The man reclining against the snag had just lit a cigarette and a thin gray plume of smoke wreathed upward around his head. Walden’s right thumb pushed down the steel nodule of the safety, sliding it silently into semiautomatic.
The skin around the corner of his eye began to twitch slightly as Walden squinted through the rear peephole and brought the post of the front sight squarely between the neck and head of the soldier. A small green spider ran down the outside of the barrel. Walden’s finger tightened slowly on the trigger. The soldier turned his head to the side, lifting it up as though to call to his comrades now standing on the rocks, shaking the water from their bare feet. His hand moved into view from behind the log to take the cigarette from his mouth. Walden would remember the gray shadow along the side of the head where the hair was cropped shorter than on top.
The loud crack from his weapon sent a jolt of adrenaline through Walden’s body. Red erupted from the side of the soldier’s head before it disappeared behind the log. Almost instantaneously, the others were firing into the group of men by the stream. The metallic sound of Lap’s M-79 was nearly lost in the cacophony of machine-gun fire. Walden swung his weapon upstream toward the group just as the 40-millimeter shell exploded against the chest of one man. The body lifted from the ground; pieces of flesh and blood carried away by the force of the blast turned the gray smoke from the explosion into a dark-pink mist. Geysers of water rose around the flailing arms and legs of the stunned soldiers. One soldier, knocked down by an exploding 40-millimeter shell, rose to his feet. Holding one leg where a thick red was spreading down his pants, he looked up frantically and began to hobble toward the cover of the jungle behind him.
„I got him,“ Walden said as the others stopped firing. The NVA, after stumbling a few feet, turned back toward them and yelled „Khuông, khuông,“ his arms reaching up pleadingly. For a moment Walden felt pity. Then he remembered the Ia Drang Valley four years ago and pulled the trigger. The man spun in a full circle and fell spread-eagle onto the stones. The others on the rocks were motionless. The ambush had lasted no longer than five seconds. The roar of the shooting echoed down the valley. Bluish white smoke hung in the undergrowth like a fog.
Cuong took the point as they slid down the clay bank above the stream, grabbing branches and vines. Sharp thorns raked hands and faces, but they paid no attention as they broke into the open.
„Jerry, take Cuong with you and search the ones by the water. Pau, come with me. The rest of you cover us after you get across.“ Walden was panting. The eight of them pumped through the knee-deep water, then the four that had been assigned to cover disappeared into the jungle. Forrest and Cuong went toward the sprawled corpses by the stream as Pau and Walden approached the snag. Walden’s heart thundered against his chest as he peeked over the snag, his finger tense on the trigger. He had seen too many dead people come to life to trust even a bullet through the head. The cigarette lay smoldering between two small rocks not far from the still, crumpled form.
Walden pushed against the soldier’s right shoulder with his boot until the body flopped over onto its back. The salty, dry smell of arterial blood rose off the corpse. The jagged hole where the bullet, had exited was still draining blood onto the ground.
„Shit-can his weapon,“ Walden told Pau quietly. He grabbed the man’s rucksack and dumped the contents out on the rocks. Pau picked up the AK-47 and threw it spinning across the stream into the brush on the other side. Walden began rummaging through the pile of items. A light-brown pair of pants and a shirt, a square rice-cake wrapped inside a green leaf, a tin cooking pot scorched black from use, and a towel. Walden shook out the towel. A toothbrush, a bar of lye soap, five small silver tubes of medical salve, and a book wrapped in thin oilskin. Walden jammed the book into his side pocket and began patting down the body. As he pushed up the ammo vest the NVA was wearing to get at the shirt pockets, Walden noticed that the skin was still warm. He avoided looking directly at the dead man’s face. It was better that way. Less material for nightmares later. He knew about nightmares.
After satisfying himself that the soldier didn’t have anything more, he and Pau jogged over to where Forrest and Cuong were finishing their search.
The area around the dead was littered with the rucksacks‘ contents. Pieces of writing paper blew out over the water and settled like small white barges on the flowing stream. As the wind picked up, a pulp magazine lying on the rocks fluttered open, its pages flicking back and forth as though being thumbed. Walden looked over the blood-slick stones covered with the wreckage of the bodies. Years before, he and friends had been hunting and had come across twenty or so squirrels in one tree. The scene before him now was like that. Twisted bodies seemingly all over the ground, some lying on top of others.
The soldier hit by the 40-millimeter shell lay shattered on the rocks. The upper torso had been nearly severed at the waist. The chest yawned open, the stark white bones of the rib cage looking like the hull of an old beached ship. A sour stench of pepsin reached Walden’s nostrils and he felt his stomach churn. His throat swelled as he gagged.
„Come on, Jer, let’s get out of here.“ Walden coughed as he began to salivate, and for a second he thought he might vomit. They hurried across the rocks to where the rest of the team had entered the jungle. Walden’s left boot slipped on something spongy, and his leg went out from under him. He fell to the rocks, cursing as he looked back to see what he had stepped on.
„Oh, Christ,“ he groaned when he saw the red piece of scalp with the black bristly hairs. He lurched to his feet, the image remaining in his mind as he scrambled up the clay bank into the jungle.
Walden was breathing heavily as he reached the place where the others had gathered. He knelt for a second to catch his breath and gestured to Cuong to start moving up the ridge. They moved out through the underbrush, scrambling and clawing their way up the steep incline. Walden tried to shake the guilt. He had never felt the exhilaration that some others professed to feel during an ambush. It always seemed like murder to him. It was never like the movies. The bodies were mangled, perforated, wet with blood. He pushed the thoughts from his mind. He couldn’t think about that now. He had to think about getting the team out before other NVA, alerted by the gunfire, tried to kill them.
After thirty or forty meters Walden signaled a halt where the ground flattened out for a short way before rising again. They dropped to the soft, mulch-covered ground. The wetness that had come to Walden’s mouth down by the bodies had been drawn back into his skin and now his tongue felt parched and fat. He licked his cracked lips, feeling the flakes of dried skin and the sting of salt entering the split flesh. A high-pitched ringing ran back and forth between his ears as he fought to catch his breath, but the air didn’t seem to reach his lungs. Waves of nausea rippled through his stomach and his head seemed to float above his shoulders. The bamboo and vine entanglement around them frustrated even the slightest breeze. The stiffing heat not only pressed down on them, but radiated from the ground.
Forrest rummaged around in Walden’s rucksack for the rod sections of the long antenna. Walden pulled out a canteen of water. Forrest unscrewed the short antenna from the PRC-25 radio, fitted the sections of the long antenna together, and screwed it into the radio. Seconds after drinking the hot water, Walden felt his head clear and the strength come back to his body.
„Okay, Sam,“ Forrest said when the radio was ready. Reaching into his fatigue shirt, Walden took out the black handset and began whispering into the mouthpiece.
„Covey, Covey, this is Star Machine, Star Machine, over.“ He let up on the keying plunger and listened as a brief buzz of static came over the air and then silence. Fuck me to tears. He repeated the call. Silence. He glanced up at the others circled around him. Each team member was watching nervously, waiting for a hint that he had got through to someone.
„Goddamn it, you guys,“ Walden hissed at them. „Watch the jungle, for Christ’s sake.“ The little people turned their heads back to the jungle. Forrest hunched closer.
„We’re in trouble if we don’t get somebody,“ Forrest said. „Every gook in Laos heard that ambush.“
„Don’t worry, Covey knows it’s our last day of the mission,“ Walden said. He winked reassurance, then repeated the call signs into the radio. Come on, come on.