Flashback: Chapter 5: In Country

December 1973: Vietnam

“Blowin’ in the Wind”

Moving invisibly through the jungle was an art the Viet Cong had perfected long ago. After all his years in Southeast Asia, he had learned to recognize the signs. Martin thought this over carefully as he stopped on the overgrown path to listen to the whispers in the trees.

The familiar scent of decaying vegetation was strong and the air that washed over his face was hot
and heavy with moisture. All was quiet except for the incessant buzz of insects around his head. Even the chatter of the birds had stopped while small animals peered down at him anxiously from the trees, trying hard to blend in with forest canopy.

He was sure the VC were out there somewhere, watching and waiting for just the right moment. He
frowned, apprehension growing with every step.

He and Jack Gretsky were together on this mission. Dressed in camouflage fatigues their arms and faces were painted to match the jungle, the whites of their eyes startling in contrast. Jack was up ahead, his head twisting side to side, keeping his wits about him in case he stumbled into a nest of hidden Viet Cong. They were carrying some very sensitive information with them and if they were caught, it would mean death for them and very serious consequences for the troops scattered throughout the countryside.

Jack looked over his shoulder when he heard the first crack of rifle fire. Instinctively, they both ducked and rolled their bodies into the brush. Peering out from their hiding place, they aimed their own weapons through the branches and waited impatiently for the enemy.

More gunfire shattered the silence, sounding even more insistent this time. Then they heard the furious eruption of an automatic weapon.

“It’s not aimed at us,” Jack whispered when no one failed to appear.

Suddenly, a loud explosion shook the earth beneath their feet…and more gunfire, followed by the frantic shouts of wounded men, crying out in pain.

“Someone else out there is in trouble,” Jack said.

“Then we have to go back,” Martin answered, standing tall and slinging his rifle over his shoulder. He didn’t wait for Jack to agree.

“Right,” Jack muttered uncertainly, following out onto the path.

They both crouched low as they ran, skillfully avoiding the hanging branches. They got closer and
realized it had gotten quiet once again. The firing had stopped almost as suddenly as it had begun.

Then, they could hear low moans coming from the direction of a small clearing they had passed a
short while ago. Getting down on their stomachs they began crawling crab-like toward the sound.

Adrenaline was surging through Martin’s body but his heart was heavy with dread. As they got
closer, they kept their heads below the level of the thick underbrush, always aware that an enemy soldier could catch sight of them approaching.

The scene they saw beyond the trees was about as bad as it could get. Martin’s face darkened with
anger. Five American soldiers lay sprawled on their backs. Four of them were perfectly still; one was writhing back and forth as if in terrible pain.

Two Viet Cong soldiers had come into the clearing, shouting excitedly in Vietnamese. He knew the dialect and realized the men were congratulating one another’s shooting skills. Then, green ferns parted and a Vietnamese soldier of obvious rank stepped into view.

The two Viet Cong soldiers snapped to attention.

Slowly and methodically, the officer began to nudge the fallen bodies with the toe of his boot and when he came to the groaning American, he began to spit words of anger into the air. Glancing nervously at his superior, one of the young Vietnamese soldiers stepped forward and without hesitation put a bullet in the head of the dying American.

Martin felt the bile rise up in the back of his throat and he cursed softly.

“Let’s go,” Jack muttered. “It’s over. There’s nothing we can do for them now.”

“No. Not yet.”

Jack watched Martin pull his Bowie knife from its sheath.

“They’re going to strip the bodies, Jack,” Martin whispered. “I can’t allow that to happen.”

Again, they crawled together along the ground, moving to the left and away from the clearing. They had only gone a short way before they almost ran into another group of enemy soldiers, hunkered down a few yards from the perimeter of the clearing. Fearful they might have noticed them, Martin held his breath, ready to defend himself if he had to, but the VC soldiers appeared relaxed, smoking
their cigarettes and blowing smoke lazily into the sky. He nodded to Jack and they moved on toward the left.

Both Americans moved with agility and speed, putting into practice all the skills they had been taught, working as a deadly team behind the backs of their unprepared enemy. The first man Martin attacked never had the chance to call out to his comrades. Clamping his hand over the slender man’s mouth, he thrust the blade in deeply and the body went limp.

The rest were not so easy. One of the men turned and saw Jack creeping up behind him but before he could give the alarm, Martin attacked from the side, grabbing him in a choke hold and quickly breaking the man’s neck.

Before five minutes had passed, five Vietnamese soldiers had fallen to the ground, dead or dying.

Taking in great gulps of air, they stopped, waiting and listening. Martin got closer, peering into the gloom, his eyes sweeping over the clearing once again.

None of the others seemed to have realized what had happened to their comrades. Seven or eight VC soldiers were already removing weapons, watches… anything of value from the dead GI’s.

“God damn it,” Jack muttered, moving closer to the clearing.

Martin put out his arm to stop him. “Not like this,” he whispered. “We must wait for the right moment.”

Jack’s shoulders sagged and he sat back down on the ground. Helplessly, they watched as the enemy soldiers did their work. Some stripped the bodies methodically, without emotion as if it meant nothing at all to them while others yanked off personal belongings angrily, pausing every so often to spit on the American uniform or kick at the dead soldier savagely.

They wanted to try and stop it, but this time, they were badly outnumbered and the element of surprise would not be on their side. Retreat almost seemed inevitable when suddenly; they heard the familiar whoop, whoop of helicopter blades beating the air. The VC soldiers stopped to look up and then swiftly began to melt into the protection of the jungle.

A huge green Huey with the familiar US markings came into view. Gunfire erupted once again and for one terrible moment, Martin realized that the VC had the capability to bring the aircraft down.

“This time we can do more than just sit here and watch,” he muttered. Jack nodded and made ready
to move forward.

They knew the number of enemy troops they were dealing with and they saw the direction they had taken. Intuitively, each man knew what he had to do. They split up without so much as a glance at one another and went in opposite directions, circling once more behind their enemy. They picked their victims carefully and one by one, they silenced them with a vicious thrust of a blade, until finally, only four of the enemy remained.

One of the soldiers turned his head slightly and saw Jack approaching.

“Ahheee!” he shouted, reaching for his sidearm.

Martin silenced him with the butt of his pistol.

Jack drew his own pistol from his holster and pointed it toward the three remaining North Vietnamese they found huddled behind clumps of tightly packed bamboo. White-faced, Jack clutched his weapon tightly and began to spit out orders in Vietnamese.

“Get up! Get up, you bastards. Get up and turn around so that I can see your faces before I kill you!”

“No, Jack. No! It’s over. They’ve surrendered, Jack. We’ve won.”

“You call this winning? No we didn’t win! Don’t you see Marty? Those poor bastards over there… the ones with their heads blown apart! There’s hardly enough of them left to bring home in body bags! That’s winning? I call that losing, and I call it losing big time!”

Jack’s jaw set determinedly as he pressed the muzzle of his pistol against the temple of one of the captured VC, but Martin pulled it away just as Jack squeezed the trigger. A burst of ammo let loose harmlessly into the sky.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Jack sputtered angrily as Marty twisted the pistol firmly from his grip.

“Do something useful and help me tie them up,” Martin growled.

Soldiers from the copter began to emerge from the trees, stopping in their tracks, when they saw the dead Americans lying in the clearing. Then, they saw Marty and Jack, with four bound VC soldiers sitting at their feet.

“Take your prisoners into custody,” Martin told them quietly.

“Baptism of Fire”

They held their emotions in check as they walked side by side with a young Lieutenant Jordan Michaels, sent in by his commanding officer to oversee the cleanup detail. The dead were about to be loaded on to the military copters and Michaels asked if Martin and Jack wanted to ride along.

“We were on our way up country. We have a job to do, so we’ll go it alone.” Martin said. He leaned
against the trunk of a tree, retrieving a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, extracting one and placing it between his lips. Distracted, he lit the end inhaling deeply, his black eyes staring back at the bodies of the dead men.

“What were their orders? Who was their commanding officer?” he asked Michaels.

“They were called in for a VC sweep. A captain by the name of Henry Ferguson was in command. We were told he had put together a group of hand picked officers to go out ahead of the column. Their assignment was to flush out saboteurs in the villages and wipe out the camouflaged nests of VC sharpshooters. Most of all, they hoped to locate and blow up a few of those long tunnels the VC were using for supplies from the North. Looks like they ran right into a hot spot. There’s a tunnel entrance right over there.”

Jack kicked away the vines and branches that covered a narrow hole in the ground and shuddered.
“I gotta hand it to those VC tunnel rats. You’d never get me to go down into one of those things.”

Martin seemed lost in thought.

“Pretty small group for such a large operation,” he said carefully.

Michaels glanced back at him. “Twenty-five hand picked men. We found Ferguson’s body along with fifteen other Americans and twenty VC. We searched the woods, but didn’t find any more.”

“You mean there could be some of them still out there?” Jack stared at Michaels incredulously. “What the hell are we waiting for?”

“I’ve been told these hot-shots liked to fan out in small groups, sneak up on the enemy before they saw them coming.” Michaels shook his head with regret. “But don’t kid yourself. None of them are
left alive. This time, the VC were ready and waiting.”

“You don’t know that.” Martin took another drag of his cigarette and tossed it to the ground, crushing the butt beneath the heel of his boot. “Jack and I will take a look around and see if one or two managed to hold their ground.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t wait for that,” Michaels answered regretfully. “My commander has ordered me into the air immediately. He tells me I have to evacuate another group of men stranded a few miles from here and I have to get going before I have another massacre on my hands. The chopper will be taking off in a few minutes.”

He stood at attention and saluted.

“Good luck with your mission, sir!” he said, his eyes full of respect. Then he boarded the copter and turned to look back at them as the aircraft rose quickly into the air until it became nothing more than a black dot disappearing into the clouds.

Jack Gretsky followed silently behind Castillo. They had said nothing to each other since the episode with the captured Vietnamese soldier. Castillo still had Jack’s pistol in his waistband and wondered if the time was right to offer it back

They had found the path again and walked along quickly, well aware that darkness was about to fall
and that soon they would be forced to set up camp rather than stumble along blindly.

“What was that?” Jack asked, stopping in his tracks suddenly.

Martin listened, but all he could hear was a breeze sighing in the trees.

“No, wait… I heard a voice… I’m sure I heard someone calling for help.”

Martin glanced over at Jack sympathetically. “I don’t think so.”

But then, they both heard it… a faint moan, over to their left.

“It’s coming from the direction of the river,” Castillo said. “Careful. It could be a trap.”

Jack paid no attention to the warning, but took off into the jungle, ducking low to avoid the overhanging branches and vines blocking his way. He didn’t have to go far. Castillo caught up to his partner in time to see him down on one knee beside the body of a fallen young soldier.

“How’s he doing?” Castillo asked breathlessly as he caught up.

“He’s dead, Martin.”

The guy’s mouth was open, his eyes staring sightlessly up at the sky. Both of his legs had been blown away below the knees. It looked as if he had slowly bled to death.

Jack turned his head away, his face a mask of fury. “A booby-trap!”

“He’s been dead for a while,” Martin said. “We heard someone moaning just now. That means
there’s another soldier nearby.”

They beat through the brush with their hands and after a minute or two, came across another young
soldier on his knees, trying desperately to crawl and failing at it miserably. Groaning again, loudly this time, he fell onto his side and lay very still.

Jack reached him first.

“Hey, buddy. Can you hear me? Take it easy! You’re gonna be okay. We got you now,” he shouted. He placed his fingers over the artery in the young man’s neck. “He’s got a pulse, but it’s weak.”

Kneeling down beside his partner, Martin noticed the swelling around the young man’s eyes. Singed blonde hair spiked around the crown of his head and the skin on his face looked red and tight as if he’d been out in the sun too long.

“He took some of the blast to the face. Hopefully what we’re seeing here is just temporary.” Marty winced when he noticed a jagged cut on the soldier’s leg. Nothing fatal, but he knew how quickly a jungle infection could set in.

“Soldier, can you hear me?” Martin asked. He reached down into the soldier’s shirt and pulled out the dog tags from around his neck, glancing long enough to catch the man’s first name.

“Well, James, looks like we have a problem. How the hell are we going to get you some medical help with the chopper gone and no radio contact?”

Chances of getting themselves out of the VC-infested jungle with a wounded man slung over their shoulders were not good. There was no time to put together any kind of makeshift stretcher since some of the VC could surprise them at any moment and sniper shots might suddenly explode from the trees. The choice was clear. They would have to make a run for it… and they would have to take
turns carrying him.

The kid wasn’t heavy, but Martin had a hard time keeping his balance on the soggy ground with a limp body slung over his shoulder. His feet kept slipping in the slimy muck and once he heard the soldier moan when he almost tripped over a fallen tree stump.

“We have to take a breather,” he gasped.

They lowered him gently to the ground, retrieving ointments and bandages from their packs. They
did what they could to treat the damage to his body, all the while glancing over their shoulders to make sure there was no one coming down the trail

“Let me up!” the young soldier insisted suddenly, struggling weakly to pull away.

“Easy, fella,” Jack said soothingly. “We got ya. Easy.”

“You… you gotta find my buddy! He’s hurt!” the soldier croaked in a raspy voice. He reached up with his hand and touched the bandages on his eyes gingerly.

“My face,” he moaned.”And my eyes… I… I can’t see!”

Martin heard the panic in his voice and saw the soldier swallow hard.

“You were in an explosion. We’re getting you some medical help, soldier.”

“Hank, where’s Hank?”

Jack looked over at Martin, the truth frozen on his lips.

“He’s dead,” Martin said simply. There was no sense in hiding it from him. The guy would have to be told sooner or later.

A sob escaped from deep inside the young soldier’s chest.

“No!” he cried softly, his head falling hard against Marty’s shoulder.

“We’d better keep moving.” Jack whispered. “Come on. It’s my turn to carry him.”

They had marched late into the night without encountering one Viet Cong. Exhausted, they decided
it would be wise to camp for the night and catch some sleep. The spot they chose was by a small river, hidden from the main trail by overgrown foliage and hanging vines

“Here, drink. You need the fluids,” Marty said to the soldier.

“And take this.” He put a capsule into the soldier’s mouth. “Antibiotics,” he explained. “I have morphine too if you want. Are you in pain?”

“Not enough to need that crap!”

“Then get some rest and we’ll leave in a few hours.”

The soldier sipped more water and pushed the canteen away. Then his head fell back and he let his
hand stray to the burned skin around his eyes. He winced.

“My friend,” he asked them in a raspy voice. “Did you bury him?”

Jack looked away and let Marty answer. “We couldn’t wait for that. The jungle was crawling
with VC.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Martin lit one of his cigarettes and placed it between the lips of the young soldier.

“Thanks.”

“Sure.”

He took a deep drag of the tobacco and exhaled the smoke slowly.

“Hank was a good guy. His wife just had a kid… ” his voice trailed away.

“Hey look,” Jack said as he put his hand on his shoulder. “Your buddy never felt a thing. It was over pretty quick.”

“Yeah.” The young man took another drag of the cigarette.

“Ferguson your commanding officer?” Jack asked.

“Yeah, Captain Ferguson. Used to be with Special Forces. Hank and I were assigned to his unit a month ago. Our outfit was nicknamed ‘The Chimney Sweeps’.”

Marty leaned his head against a tree trunk and closed his eyes while he listened.

“Twenty-five of us,” the guy continued. “Some had some experience with explosives. One or two had engineering degrees. Hank had been a miner back in the states. He liked to flush the VC out of the tunnels. We used to watch him disappear into one of those holes in the ground with just a hunting knife and a flashlight. All of a sudden, one of those VC bastards would come hoppin’ outta there just like a scared jack rabbit!”

The soldier laughed softly. “Me? Well, Ferguson found out I had a reputation as a crack shot. Even
heard about a few trophies I had won in state competition. Before I knew it, I was assigned to the unit that specialized in taking out the snipers in the trees.” He hesitated. “Ferguson always said I had a… a good eye.”

He paused again and licked his lips before continuing.

“We had gone on ahead to scout a little, you know; make sure there were no VC on the road waiting. I was in the lead; Hank had taken the rear. There was a noise, I suppose it must’ve been the detonator, so I glanced behind me and watched him step from the shade into the bright sunlight. Then, a blinding white fire came all around him and a swoosh of wind lifted him up into
the air.”

The cigarette was finished and he flicked it away bitterly

“Next thing I knew, I felt the heat from the blast and then, everything went black.” No one said anything for a moment.

“You need more water,” Marty said quietly.

The young man took some, and lay back again.

“Hey. Thanks. I… I owe you guys plenty. You risked your lives. I know I’m holding you back.”

“That’s our problem. You don’t owe us a thing.”

“I… I need to ask you for another favor… a small one, but it’s important to me.”

“Okay.”

“I’ve got a girl… waiting for me back home. We… we were going to get married. She’ll be worried when she doesn’t hear from me. If… if I don’t get back, would you tell her that you were here… here with me at the end?”

“Hey, show a little faith in us. We’re going to get you back.”

He tried to smile. “I know, I know. It’s just in case, that’s all.”

“Yeah, just in case.”

“What town are you from?” Jack asked

“Miami,” the soldier answered wistfully. “Best town in the whole US of A. Hope I get to see it again some day.”

Castillo looked over at Jack and their eyes came together.

“I come from Miami,” Martin said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been there, but when my family left Cuba, it became my American home town.”

“No kiddin’. What part?”

“Little Havana.”

“So if you’ve lived in Miami, you know what I’m talkin’ about.”

“Yeah, I guess I do.” Castillo said. “Tell me about your girl.”

“Her picture’s in my jacket pocket. Name and address on the back. She’s the second one listed as
my ‘next of kin’, after my brother.”

Castillo took the small photo out and stared down at a pretty blonde, posing on a football field in a cheerleader outfit.

A girl with a million dollar smile!

“Nice looking,” he said simply.

“When you find her… just… just tell her… tell her that I love her. And tell her that I’m sorry, okay?”

“Yeah, okay.”

The boy’s head listed to the side. “I coulda gone home a month ago,” he whispered sleepily. “But Ferguson needed me. I hadda stay.” He chuckled. “She wasn’t too happy about it, but she never made me choose. Told me she knew I wouldn’t be satisfied until I’d won the war single handedly.”

Martin understood that felling only too well.

“It’s late. Stop your jabbering, soldier and get some sleep!”

“Sure,” he answered softly. “But don’t forget. I don’t want her to hear what happened from some clueless bastard. She’s going to have lots of questions and she deserves to get the answers from someone who was with me… someone who understands and can explain it to her… ”

His voice trailed away and within minutes the young soldier was out, breathing in deeply.

“Come here!” Jack said to Martin, motioning him a short distance away. “We’re already a day late. Anderson’s gonna be frantic.”

“We’ll move at sunup. No sense stumbling around in the dark.”

“Listen, the kid’s right; he is dragging us down. Face facts, Marty, we gotta keep moving.”

“I don’t care about facts, Jack. We leave at sunup.”

“Okay, I’m not happy about the way this is shaping up either, but it’s crazy to think we’re gonna find help for him in time. Besides, the longer we wander around out here, the easier it’ll be for the VC to pick us off. Then, the three of us will be dead along with Anderson and his company.”

“We’ll get him back.”

“Martin, you know that I’d follow you to the ends of the earth, but this time? This time, my friend… well, I really hope you know what you’re doing.”

“Bandana”

Martin heard the cries and sat up suddenly, confused for a moment where they were coming from.

“He’s burning up!” Jack was bending over their charge. “Here, give me the water.”

They watched as the kid thrashed helplessly with fever.

“Wait! Over here, guys!” he was shouting, his arms flailing in the air. “Hank, Lou… get down, now… Charlie coming… watch out, damn it! Get down!”

Jack clamped a hand over the kid’s mouth. “If he keeps that up, we’ll have the whole North Vietnamese army around our necks!”

“You’re right, he’s pretty hot,” Martin said, running the back of his hand along the soldier’s face.

“It’s the leg,” Jack said, shaking his head. “It was bound to happen! In this kind of heat and
with the bugs…”

“Yeah.”

They kept vigil until the first rays of sunlight burst through the trees and finally the boy slipped back into a deep, silent sleep.

“He isn’t gonna make it, man,” Jack whispered.

“Like hell he won’t!”

“Listen, we did our best. If we don’t get this information to Anderson before tomorrow night, a lot more men than this one soldier will be suffering the consequences.”

“We gave him our word.”

“And what about our word to two thousand American troops waiting on Heartbreak Hill?”

Castillo stared over at Jack. “We’ll get to Anderson in time, and we’re going to get this soldier to a chopper. That’s all I want to say about it, Jack. Now, are you in with me on this, or not?”

Jack stood.

“I can’t believe you’re sticking with this!” And moving toward the river’s edge he bent over to pick up a few small rocks and proceeded to angrily skim them across the surface of the muddy water.

Martin soaked his bandana with water from his canteen and pressed it against the soldier’s forehead and then his neck. “Thanks,” the boy’s voice croaked.

“You’re awake.”

“Yeah. I heard your buddy. Sounds like he’s pretty mad.”

Martin glanced over at Jack glaring back at him. “He’ll get over it.”

“Maybe. But he’s probably right. You don’t have time to be worrying about one lone guy. You have to get your information to your commander.”

“You heard?”

“Yeah. Sometimes I was out, but I heard most of it. I’ve put you both in danger. And many other lives are depending on your mission.”

Castillo said nothing. It was difficult to argue with the truth.

“Listen, sir…”

“The name’s Martin.”

“Martin. Listen, you’ve done all you could for me, and I thank you for that. But with my eyes, I can’t help you. Damn, I can’t even march like this. If you stick with me, no one is a winner. You can leave me. It’s okay.”

“Shut up!” The explosion of anger surprised them both.

“You have no other choice.”

“Just keep concentrating on getting back to that girlfriend of yours. I promise I’ll be there to toast you both at the wedding.”

They followed the river.

Martin strained under the weight of the young man’s limp body. Every so often, he heard a groan, and slowed down a little. The delays were infuriating Jack.

“Now what?” he growled over his shoulder when he sensed Castillo had stopped for the fourth time.

“Water break.”

Suddenly, the sound of rifle fire shattered the silence sending a sniper’s bullet whistling by his ear. Another one followed quickly and Jack shouted out in pain. Dropping to the ground, he cradled his injured arm.

“Damn!” he whispered through gritted teeth. “Now, are you satisfied, Marty?”

Another shot rang out.

“In the trees, there. I see him.”

Martin lined up his rifle and his shot easily found its mark. They saw the tree branches rustle briefly and heard the thud of a body landing hard on the soft earth.

It had been a close call.

“It’s only a scratch,” Jack insisted. He avoided looking at Martin. “They know we’re here. There’ll be others.”

“Go ahead, then, Jack. You were right. I’ll stay with him. At least one of us will be able to make it.”

“No way! Not now! We’re not splitting up!”

They both looked down at the wounded man.

“I want you both to go,” they heard him say.

The young soldier had managed to push up the bandage and was squinting up at them. Martin saw the swelling around his eyes had gone down and it was apparent he had regained some vision from the way he was aiming his loaded pistol in their direction.

“Guess my sight has come back a bit. Remember, I told you I’m a good shot. So both of you better get going before I show you just how good I really am.”

“No!” Castillo spat out angrily.

The gun bucked in the soldier’s hand and the bullet smacked into a tree branch close to Castillo’s ear.

“Next time, sir, I won’t miss.”

They knew he was bluffing, but the young man had made his point. His little show of bravado had given them permission to leave him behind in the jungle.

In war, men are often forced to make terrible, God-like decisions and Martin knew this was going to be one of those times. Tears of bitterness burned deeply into his tired eyes and with a heavy heart, he did the only thing he could think of to do. Standing up straight, to his full height, he faced the young soldier and saluted.

Jack did the same.

“We’ll be back,” he said.

The soldier grinned. “Got any candy, Sir?”

“Something better,” Jack answered. He handed him a metal flask. “This should help keep the bad dreams away.”

“Thanks.”

Together, they dragged the soldier into the heavy foliage, pulling dead tree branches over him to make sure he was hidden from the road. Jack handed him another pistol and a rifle. Martin filled the extra canteen with water and set it where he would be able to reach it easily. Finally, he gave him the vial of antibiotics and two pre-filled syringes of morphine.

“Think you can see well enough to use this?”

“Yeah.”

“We’ll deliver the information and come back for you,” Martin told him.

It was a hollow promise, but saying it soothed away his guilt, helping him accept the fact that he was deserting a fellow soldier.

“I won’t hold you to it,” the soldier said. “Just don’t forget about my girl.”

Martin said nothing.

“We gotta mark the spot somehow or we’ll never find him,” Jack was saying.

Nodding numbly, Martin took the red bandana from around his neck. Shimmying up a tree, he tied it to one of the branches that hung over the path.

The soldier had settled back against a tree trunk and was taking a generous mouthful of bourbon
from the silver flask.

“Ahh! Now that’s better!” he sighed contentedly. With a brave smile, he toasted them both with the flask.

“You and Anderson better give ’em hell.”

“We intend to.”

“And… and be careful.” The voice was softer now, more tremulous.

“You too, soldier.”

Jack had begun to tug him toward the path but Martin pulled his arm away angrily. Jack met his furious stare with a defiant one of his own.

“You’re not gonna pin this disaster on me, Martin! Believe it or not, I’m not that wild about leaving him behind either.”

“After we’ve finished with Anderson, I’m heading back into the jungle to find him!”

“I kind of thought you’d say that. And I’ll be right there beside you, buddy. That’s a promise I need to make.”

An hour had passed since they left and the noonday sun beat down on them viciously as they marched single file toward the north. Sweat trickled down the sides of Martin’s face, but when he reached for his bandana, he paused, remembering with a stab of pain where he had left it.

Damn!

Just some simple compass coordinates and a single piece of red cloth was all they would have left to guide him back.

God help us… God help him!

Martin imagined the young man sitting there, waiting in fear. It would be a terrible way to die: alone and helpless. If the VC didn’t find him, the animals and insects surely would. Then the end would be slow and painful. Martin almost hoped the enemy would find the kid soon and end his misery with a bullet.

“He has the booze, Martin,” Jack said suddenly, as if reading his friend’s worried thoughts. “And the pistol.”

“Yeah. The pistol.”

It was true. Putting the gun to his head and pulling the trigger himself was always an option.

Martin quickened his steps.

“Promises to Keep”

They reached Anderson’s camp by seven that evening.

“I’d about given up on you,” Anderson said to them with a smile of relief. The packet they had brought to him lay open on the table, areas of type underlined and hand drawn maps highlighted in red.

“This is good, very good. Now both of you; get some food and some rest. We pack up and leave for the north at daylight.”

“Sir?”

“Yes, Castillo.”

“Sir, I’m requesting permission to go back into the jungle.”

Anderson paused, his eyebrows arching upward in surprise. “Whatever for?”

“One of Ferguson’s men survived. He’s back there, wounded. And he’s waiting for us to get him.”

Anderson picked up the packet and slapped the papers against the palm of his hand.

“Permission denied. You know I can’t allow you to do that! The jungle is crawling with the enemy. I’m sorry, Martin. I can see how much this means to you. But I can’t afford to lose you and Jack. You have to understand that.”

He didn’t understand.

Permission denied?

The anger he was feeling at that moment nearly took his breath away. At no other time in his military career had Martin ever considered disobeying an order.

“Martin, it’s been ten hours,” Jack was saying as he looked down at his watch. “Do you really think there’s a chance he’s still alive?”

“It’s the not knowing that’s tearing me apart.” He pulled out the picture of the soldier’s girlfriend from his pocket.

The million-dollar smile!

“I made him a promise, Jack!” he growled. “I don’t care what Anderson wants.”

“Just don’t go off half cocked. It’s dark out there. We should plan, get some supplies.”

“Sir?”

They turned. Lieutenant Jordan Michaels, the leader of the helicopter crew who had airlifted the dead GI’s, stood at attention, his large eyes full of sympathy.

“At ease, Lieutenant,” Martin said to him. “It’s good to see you again. How are things going?”

“Fine, sir. I… I understand you found a wounded soldier in the woods after we lifted off.”

Martin stared back at him. “Yes.”

“And you weren’t able to bring him back?”

Martin winced. “The soldier was weak and couldn’t go on. We had no choice but to leave him behind.”

“It has also come to my attention, sir, that you think there is a chance we could find this soldier alive.”

“We left him hidden in the brush. There’s a slim chance. Yes.”

“Sir, if I may. We have one of the smaller copters… a Jet Ranger… I’ve used them in the jungle before, mainly for reconnaissance, but it’ll be okay for a one-man rescue. In fact, I could have it fueled and ready for action just before daybreak. Give me the coordinates and we’ll go back and find him together.”

“You’d risk a court martial?”

“What court martial? I was the one who had been ordered to clean up after the Ferguson massacre, and bring back survivors. Obviously I didn’t complete that operation. As far as I’m concerned, I’d deserve a court martial if I DIDN’T go back.”

Relief flooded over them. Jack put his arm around the young pilot’s shoulders.

“Guess we’d better hurry and get this act on the road then, before Anderson gets wind of our new assignment. Just get us a map and we’ll tell you how to lay out the flight plan, Lieutenant!”

The big glass bird whistled in the wind, silver blades slicing cleanly through thick gray clouds, heavy with moisture. Suddenly, it started to rain.

“There,” Jack said pointing his finger down.

Michaels glanced down at the jungle cover and shook his head. “No. That’s not a place to land this baby.” He scanned the terrain until he saw a small clearing to the south. “Okay. That should do. Keep in mind this is a mighty hot area, sir. You’ll have to move fast.”

“I know. We were there, remember?”

“How much time we got?” Jack asked.

“That depends on whether we get any visitors or not.” He handed them a flashlight. “Once you find the guy, bring him to the edge of the clearing. Flick the flashlight on and off twice. I’ll be hovering.” He pointed skyward. “Up there.”

The two of them jumped from the open doorway of the aircraft, thudding into the grass and breaking into a hard run before their boots had the chance to sink into the soft mud. As soon as the jungle swallowed them, they stopped for a moment to listen.

It was deathly quiet. The rain tapped on the leaves, dripping down to soak into their uniforms. They waited for just a moment. Then, Jack pulled on Marty’s sleeve. They got up and set off up a hill. Neither said a word, but the same thought hung out there like a chain, weighing them down with worry. Visibility may improve with the light of the oncoming dawn, but the chances of finding the tree with the red bandana, and finding it quickly, were going to be poor if not down right impossible

“I see the river,” Jack whispered.

Again, they stopped to listen; hoping to hear a moan, a whimper… but there was nothing.

“We’re close.”

For ten minutes, they beat branches away with the hands, afraid to speak. An automatic weapon
chattered in the distance and they froze

“Which direction?” Jack sputtered. “How close?”

“Close enough. We’re running out of time.”

Someone coughed.

“Hey, soldier!” Martin called softly. “James!”

Another cough and then a groan.

“Over here!” Jack was on all fours, sniffing the wind like a tracking hound.

Martin looked up at the tree branches above his head and a small smile played at the corner of his mouth. It was the bandana, wet and dripping, but still tied tightly to the low hanging branch.

The soldier was sprawled on his back, the bandage gone from his head. His eyes were wide open, glazed. There was no response when they spoke to him. Martin put his fingertips on the side of his throat.

“He has a pulse. And he’s breathing.”

Jack looked around him and took in a gulp of air. “Looks like he had some company.”

Martin saw the dead Viet Cong soldier before Jack finished his sentence.

“This one’s had it. He’s dead.” The bullet-hole in the center of the man’s forehead left little room for doubt.

“The kid wasn’t foolin’! He’s some shot! That’s a direct bull’s eye if I ever saw one!”

“Bought yourself some time, eh soldier?” Martin said softly.

He lifted him up and slung him over his shoulder just as a burst of machine gun fire exploded a short distance behind them.

Without a word, they ran.

“I Owe Ya One!”

The acrid smell of antiseptic was strong enough to make Martin gag.

“He was airlifted here on Friday!” he was insisting hotly. “He had blonde hair… about five eleven. His face had some burns… and he had a leg wound. His name was James… I don’t know the last name. Don’t tell me he’s not here! There’s no way he was discharged already!”

It had been three days since they had rescued the young soldier and brought him back to Anderson’s camp; a day and a half since he had been airlifted to the Army Hospital on base. Then, it had taken two more days of marching through the jungle and hitching an all-night ride in a jeep with an army medic before they finally got to the hospital to check on the boy’s condition. The nurse’s distracted attitude infuriated him, but she was too overworked and preoccupied by the chaos in the ward to be intimidated by any shouting.

“You’d better calm down, sir. That’s exactly what I’m telling you! The kid was a hell-raiser. Badgered Doctor Benson unmercifully until he finally let him out! We weren’t exactly sorry to see him go.”

“But his eyes! And the leg…”

“His eyes healed up nicely,” a gravelly voice spoke up behind him. Dr. Gerald Benson approached
them. Martin recognized him as one of the army doctors famous for his tirades and no nonsense attitude with the troops.

The older man was studying them curiously.

“You’re the two intelligence officers I heard about who went back and plucked that boy out of jungle, aren’t you?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, his leg wasn’t infected either, you’ll be happy to know and that’s amazing considering the time he was out there with that wound. If you boys hadn’t bandaged him up and given him the antibiotic when you did, he probably would have been facing amputation somewhere down the line.”

He paused.

“You know, he never stopped talking about you two. Said that he was gonna find you after the war. Find you and shake your hands. Oh, and he said something about a wedding you promised to attend?”

“He owes us each a glass of champagne.”

Benson laughed.

“Is he being shipped back to the States?”

“Hell, no! That boy was fit and willing to return to active duty. Said he had one more year until his time was up. Wouldn’t hear of being sent back home. And I agreed. His wounds were superficial and he healed fast. Besides, we need men like him in the war. Especially now.” Benson chuckled. “Son of a bitch, the guy gets blown up, loses all his buddies, almost dies in the jungle and he wants to go back and fight the VC. Tough as nails, that boy was.”

He struck a match and lit up his pipe, his hand cupped around the bowl.

“Yep, tough as nails,” he repeated as he puffed on the pipe stem thoughtfully.