Slick McCool is Back in Country
Back before he was Slick, he was Sylvester – a seventeen-year-old loser with an alcoholic father, a shrill mother, enough siblings to drive anyone crazy and zero prospects. So he lied about his age and joined the Marines. They sent him to get some training, slapped him in a uniform and then put him on a boat to Vietnam. Pretty soon, Sylvester McCool realized he had made a mistake.
Maybe it was in the hollow stares of the veterans, the maniacs who had re-upped for a second tour, and looked like the fire and death and savagery had hypnotized them and somehow and lured them back. Maybe it was the way the heat clung to his skin like a coat he couldn't take off. Or maybe it was just the cold feel of his M-16 in his hand. Whatever it was, it left him in a state of terror during their brief time in Saigon, and it didn't leave him when they went in country.
His unit took a squad of Hueys down over the Mekong and into the bush. They were supposed to reinforce some outpost somewhere, or maybe swing down and force Nathan Victor out of some village, McCool wasn't sure.
In the end, it didn't matter what their objective was, because they passed over hidden a VC camp and anti-air fire and rockets brought all the Hueys screaming to earth in showers of flame and twisted metal. It would always remain in Slick McCool's mind – the screams of soldiers around him, the world corkscrewing like a merry-go-round gone mad, and the ground rushing up to meet him. Then the Huey struck dirt, Slick fell from his perch and landed on the ground, and just sat there in the mud. He heard the VCs shouting to each other, and then bursts of AK fire. They were finishing off the wounded.
Slick was pretty banged up, but God or the Devil had been looking out for him, and he wasn't badly hurt. He could even have gotten up and ran, if he thought it would do any good. Instead, he just sat there, pissing his pants and waiting for Charlie to find him, and either waste his ass right there or drag him back to some Hanoi Hilton where he would spend the rest of his life.
And then he heard something else. The cracks of M14 rifles, simple bursts of fire that brought down the Vietcong with ease. He turned his head and saw US soldiers approaching his position. Their uniforms were ragged and torn, and they carried M14 rifles instead of the faulty M16s that Slick's unit had been given. They brought down the Vietcong with ease, swiftly ducking for cover behind tall trees or clumps of dirt, and always firing.
Charlie shouted shrieking in panic and ran away, leaving their wounded behind. Slick pulled himself out of the wreckage and lay on the ground as one of the Americans walked over to him. Slick saw dirty trousers, a stained undershirt and flak jacket, and a dark Stetson over steel gray hair. The soldier had a wrinkled face and a gaze that burned. He stared down at Slick and his eyes narrowed.
"On your feet, Marine!" he shouted. His cry was like a Drill Sergeant's, shot through with cannon fire and pure will. Sylvester stood up as fast as he could and even managed a salute. "My name is Colonel Wooster Scrags. These here are my boys. They're the toughest mothers in this godforsaken scrap of jungle." Colonel Scrags walked around Sylvester McCool and nodded. "Jesus H. Christ. Not a scratch on this green bastard. That's damn slick. What's your name, son?"
"Private Sylvester McCool, sir!" he cried.
"Wrong, marine! Your new name is Slick." Scrags reached out and grabbed McCool's hand. He pumped it heavily. "Welcome to my unit. You will fight the enemy to the upmost of your ability. You will become a warrior in the finest sense of the word. And if you ain't got the grit for it, then I pity you, son, I truly do. Now grab a spare pistol and help me execute the wounded."
From that day on Slick McCool was part of Scrags's unit. He followed them out on their mission – some long range recon assignment that Colonel Scrags ignored, in return for finding every VC camp, tunnel and base they could find and killing the hell out of it. Scrags's boys were a motley collection of soldiers collected from all over Vietnam. There were Army grunts, Marines, a couple Special Forces operatives, ARVN soldiers who had fond memories of the French, and even an Australian or two. They cared for each other, and for Slick. They taught him how to hold his breath so he could place his shot better, how to camouflage himself so Charlie wouldn't see him, how to fight with a rifle, a pistol, a knife or bare hands, and how to take lives like men took breaths.
When they got back to Saigon after five months in country, they had a present for him: a pair of pearl-handled revolvers, the same that every member of Scrags's boy carried. Colonel Scrags smiled as he handed the revolvers and gun belt to Slick. "You earned them, son," he had said. "Wear them with pride."
For a few more weeks they stayed together in Saigon, drinking, whoring and generally raising Hell. They would smash into some Vietnamese bar, demand drinks and shoot anyone who got in their way. Whenever the MPs cornered them, they would just say 'we're with Scrags!' and be turned loose. The brass knew what kind of monster they had created in Scrags and his unit, but the results in casualty counts were so good that they didn't care.
There were many more missions after that. They went deep in country, so far into the jungle that things like borders became meaningless. The kill counts rose, and Slick was never happier. He had the one thing his life in the States had never given him – a family, and it filled him with light. There were bad times, of course. Scrags's men didn't last too long, and they would be wounded or KIA and then replaced with some other hard case they found in the jungle.
Then came the mission straight into Cambodia. General Morton Talbot personally gave the orders to Scrags, and it was clear he didn't like them. They argued, and Slick and the rest of Scrags's boys heard it. Any other officer who raised his voice like that to a member of the brass would have been shipped home, but not Scrags. He called Talbot a coward and an idiot to his face, and then took his men into Cambodia.
And it was there they met their end. A deadly ambush got them, NVA and VC soldiers gunning them down from all angles as they waded through a swamp. Scrags and his men tried to fire back, but they were surrounded and sitting ducks. Slick took a full clip to the chest and floated, face up, through the swamp water. When he awoke he was in an ancient stone monastery, where time didn't seem to exist. The Monks healed his wounds, both physical and mental, cared for him, and trained him in their ways. He returned to America, and had been trying to atone for what he did in Vietnam in ever since.
But now he stood in an open plain outside the Laotian jungle, with a pair of CIA scumballs flanking him, and a manila folder in his hands. Slick was much more than the terrified private who had once wandered into the jungle. Now he had long hair down to his shoulders, wore a fringed jacket and a wide-collared shirt, a cowboy hat and blue-tinted shades. He still carried the pearl-handled revolvers, but they were joined by a katana in a wooden scabbard.
"So, the colonel's still kicking," he said, looking through the folder. He saw black and white pictures of Colonel Scrags, more scarred and grizzled then ever. "Figures, man. I didn't think he could ever be killed. Not by a million VC."
The two CIA scumbags wore light cotton suits and mirrored sunglasses. "He's becoming a national embarrassment, Mr. McCool. He's not following orders, he's not following any rules of engagement but his own, and he has repeatedly responded to our communications with nothing but particularly virulent strings of profanity."
"Sounds like the colonel," Slick agreed. "And you want me to talk some sense to him?"
"Precisely." The second CIA operative took over for the first. "The war is winding down, Mr. McCool. We cannot have any U.S. personnel still operating on foreign soil, not after everyone goes home." He pushed his glasses down on his thin nose, staring down Slick McCool. "You will bring him back or you will terminate him."
Slick nodded. "Figured that was the score. You company boys never did do anything by half." He closed the manila folder and handed it back. "All right. Now what's in it for me?"
The CIA man handed him another folder. Slick opened it up and saw his own face, nervously staring out from under a round helmet. The other pictures showed General Morton Talbot in full dress uniform, then the general's body sprawled out on the Saigon street, a bullet blasted straight through the back of his skull. Slick nodded. "What all this, man?"
"As you well know, General Talbot was killed soon after you reportedly returned to Saigon from your mission in Cambodia. His assassination was initially blamed on Vietcong guerillas, but then the caliber of the bullet that killed him matched the kind that came from the revolvers given out by Colonel Scrags. The kinds of revolvers you carry, Mr. McCool. And after all, he was gunned down after you returned from Cambodia, and before you went AWOL. You can understand our conclusions."
"So what are you gonna do about them?" Slick asked, handing back the folder.
The second CIA man tucked the folder under his arm. "If you succeed in stopping Colonel Scrags, these documents will be fed into our shredder. General Talbot was, by no stretch of the term, a competent military officer. He won't be missed."
"Uh-huh," Slick said. "That's what I thought." He shielded his eyes and stared across the plain, looking at the impenetrable curtain of tall trees and tangled vines. "So he's in there, along with an army of Hmong hillmen and every VC in Laos?"
"That's right, Mr. McCool." The CIA operative stepped in front of him. "We believe Scrags has made a firebase in the ruins of an old temple, which is now completely surrounded by NVA and VC battalions."
"Do I get any support? Maybe some evac by air? Fast movers to call in?"
"No, sir. This operation does not exist, and only need-to-know personnel can be committed."
Slick nodded again. "That's what I thought." He shrugged and turned back to the company scumballs. "Well, wish me luck, man." He grabbed his pack, swung it over his shoulder and started walking towards the jungle. He ducked into the tall grass and disappeared from view, like a man sinking under water. In no time at all, he was gone from view.
As he entered the jungle, his old training came back to him in a rush. Once more he was humping the boonies, waist deep in swamp water or sliding between tangled vines, M14 cold in his hands and the thrill of the hunt burning in his mind. And Charlie was out in the woods, just like in the old days. Slick moved slowly, keeping his head low and looking from tree to tree. He saw a dark bulky shape through the trees in the distance, and figured that for the temple.
Slowly, Slick drew nearer. He became aware that these woods were traveled, and saw spent shell casings and a patchwork of footprints and tire treads on the dirt floor. Then he heard movement. This time, it was the training of the temple monks that slowed his breathing, and made him slip into a thicket of tall bushes. He peered out slowly, and saw several VC fighters moving through the forest.
There was a squad of them, a mix of NVA regulars and Vietcong. The guerilla fighters wore their black pajamas and coolie hats, while the NVA had the khaki uniforms and pith helmets that Slick remembered.
"Not a goddamn thing's changed," Slick told himself. He saw more squads moving through the brush, heading to the high walls of the ruined temple. Slick leaned forward, narrowing his eyes as he tried to see who was on the walls. He spotted a few Hmong hillmen in tattered olive uniforms, US Army castoffs most likely, and armed with M14s, rusted M16s or simple bolt-action rifles. They had fortified the temple as best they could, lain down a few lines of barbed wire and reinforced the ancient stone with sandbags. But they didn't see the sappers moving in.
Slick only hesitated for a second. He drew out one of his revolver and pointed it in the air. "This one's for you, colonel," he said, and pulled the trigger. The gunshot echoed, loud and clear through the jungle, sending a flock of fluttering birds into the sky. Now everyone knew where everyone else was.
The next few seconds passed quickly. The Hmong started firing down into the jungle, cracking away with their rifles and even opening up with an old mounted .50 caliber. The Vietcong through themselves to the ground and poured down suppressing fire, covering their NVA comrades. And Slick charged forward as fast as he could, a revolver in each hand. He ran towards the rear of the nearest VC squad and started shooting, slamming a bullet through the coolie hat of one VC and pitching the body forward. He forced his way through the squad, screaming at the top of his lungs.
"I'm an American! Don't shoot, you dig? Friendly! Friendly!" He weaved through the trees, hearing the characteristic blare of AK-47 fire from behind. He dove forward, the enemy's shots kicking up dirt all around him. Slick turned around and raised both revolvers. He fired back, bringing down another VC, before pulling himself behind another tree and catching his breath.
It was an old, familiar dance, played out in rice paddies and jungles, villes and firebases, from ruined Hue to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Cover and suppressing fire, flanking and falling back, all while the under the white hot calm, the adrenaline burn brought on by pure combat. Slick waited until he heard Charlie reloading before popping out and making another run. He fired back with one revolver, a wild spray of shots to force them back as he closed the distance to the walls.
Slick leapt over a low hanging strand of barbed wire and reached the wall. He scanned the cracked gray stone for a way in, and then saw several Hmongs looking down at him from the battlements. He raised his hands. "I'm an American!" he cried. "Don't shoot!" He repeated the sentence in flawless Vietnamese.
The Hmongs tossed down a rope. Slick grabbed it with both hands and started hauling himself up, feeling VC bullets speeding past him and crashing into the battlements as he climbed. Chunks of stone the color of dead skin tumbled past him, and Slick struggled to hold on. More of the Hmongs rushed to the battlements above him and started firing down into the bush. Their M14s clattered away and a captured AK-47 blared down as well. Slick reached up, gritting his teeth and straining his muscles, and then he was over the wall and onto the battlements.
"Jesus," he whispered, leaning against the wall and catching his breath as gunshots thundered out through the jungle below.
He looked inside the temple, and was surprised by how similar it was to the monastery. Great multi-tiered towers reared above the tree line, while stone vaults encrusted with vines squatted in the dark mud. Carved demons and skulls leered out from the walls, snarling at passerby like they envied the living. Slick saw a tall pile of dirt in the center of the temple, and the marks of excavations in the middle temple.
A dozen or so tents stood in the shadow of the towers and temples, along with a few grass huts, ammo dumps and cook fires. Slick saw a few Hmong women and children hunkered down around the smoldering fires, covering their ears so they didn't hear the blaring gunfight all around them.
Then Slick heard boots clicking on the stone parapet. He looked up and saw a familiar form walking towards him. Colonel Wooster Scrags looked like he hadn't aged a day since Slick last saw him in that Cambodian swamp. From his steel gray hair cut short and his perpetual snarl, to the icy glare of his eyes and the worn flack jacket and Stetson, Scrags was every inch the grizzled CO Slick remembered. Now he carried an M60, his lean muscles holding the weapon in both hands. A thin Hmong in a torn gray uniform stood next to him, wearing a drooping campaign hat.
Scrags stood tall, ignoring the Vietcong rounds flying past him, like the sheer will that radiated from him could stop bullets. He sneered down at McCool, and he did not look surprised. "Marine," he said, nodding to Slick. "Figured I'd find you here."
"Yes, sir," Slick said, bowing his head like a kid found with his hand in the cookie jar. "You know me, colonel. Can't leave well enough alone."
"Damn straight, Slick," Scrags replied. "You sit there a spell while I deal with these slopes." He swung the M60 to face the jungle and opened fire. He blasted the VC down in short, quick bursts, not wasting a bullet more than he had to. He fired through brush and trees, cutting down the VC that Slick hadn't even spotted. The big, meat-grinding bullets tore through their bodies, leaving them screaming and dying on the ground. By the time the M60's belt was empty, there wasn't a single living thing on the jungle floor.
Colonel Scrags handed the smoking M60 to the Hmong soldiers. "There," he said. "That'll learn them."
"How long do we have, Colonel?" the Hmong fellow in the campaign asked. He spoke decent English with a thick accent.
"I reckon they'll come back at sundown, General," Scrags said. "Gooks always like the darkness. Have your boys go on down and lay down some more wire, toss down a few claymores. Don't hide nothing back now. We've nearly finished digging, and one way or the other, it ends tonight." Scrags looked down at Slick. "You forgot how to salute a superior officer, Slick?" he asked.
"No, colonel, I just—"
Scrags pointed to the Hmong. "That there is General Sang. Best damn commanding officer I have ever had the pleasure to serve with. If we had ten like him, we could be in Hanoi next Tuesday, instead of running back to Saigon to hide under our mother's skirts." He knelt down next to Slick, pulling a pair of cigarettes from his belt. "Same goes for his army. They fight like tigers, son, like goddamn tigers. You want to hazard a guess why?"
"Why, sir?" Slick asked. He knew just how talks with the colonel went – Scrags gave out his opinions, and you sat there and listened. Otherwise, it would be a world of hurt for you and Scrags would just prove himself right anyway.
"Because they're fighting for their lives. Take your average American serviceman, what the hell is he fighting for? To survive, one day to the next, until he can get short and then head off home. But for these boys, this is their home, and they don't want Charlie sitting in it." He pulled out a zippo and snapped it open, lighting both cigarettes. He handed one to Slick. "My God, Slick. It's the Alamo every day for these bastards. They've got the NVA hitting them from one side, and the Pathet Lao, that's the Loation version of Charlie, hitting from the other. All they can do is dig in and hope for a rescue ain't never coming." He took a long drag and stared at Slick. "All right, marine. Small talk's over. What the hell are you doing here?"
"Well, sir, I survived the ambush in the swamp."
"Figures that it would be you," Scrags said. "You were about as reliable as an M16 with mud down the barrel. Gunner Joe, Wild Man, Fatso, Mississippi – they were the ones I hoped had made it through. But they're just stuck in that cold, muddy river, floating their way down to hell with a hundred other buddies of mine."
"I wasn't that bad," Slick said. "I killed my fair share of the enemy."
"Yeah, but when time came for doing your duty, for punishing the gooks, what did you do? Hung back and cried like a schoolmarm. You pussied out." Scrags tossed his cigarette over the side of the ramparts. "All right, back to your story. What the hell are you doing back in country?"
"I was sent back. Couple of CIA bastards made me a deal – I'd get you out or kill you, and they'd clear me of suspicion in General Talbot's assassination."
Suddenly, a light glowed in Scrags's eye. "That was you who shot that moron?" he asked.
"First thing I did when I came back to Saigon," Slick explained.
"Maybe I was wrong about you." Scrags stood up. "Walk with me, marine. Got something I want to show you." He led Slick to a bamboo ladder that led down from the ramparts to the temple floor. Slick followed him and they walked amongst the Hmongs, looking at the temple ruins. A couple statues of multi-armed demons, crumbling and featureless stood in front of the entrance to the main complex. Slick finished his cigarette and tossed it to one of the statue's clawed feet.
Colonel Scrags pointed to the excavation "Now, legend it has it that way back this was the sight of great battle between the Rakshasas, the demons, and a couple heroes, led by some big time tough guy named Rama and his army of Vanaras, or monkeys." He shook his head. "Don't stare at me like that, marine. I didn't make this crap up."
But Slick nodded in understanding. Before he had spent time in the monastery, he would have doubted the veracity of the legends. Now, though, it made as much sense as anything else. "And they locked the Rakshasas up here." Then his eyes widened. "You're going to free them."
They walked past a number of workers, Hmongs shoveling the dirt away from the temple. General Sang was amongst them, and he walked over to join Scrags and Slick. Sang saluted Colonel Scrags. "It should not be long now," he said.
"Outstanding, general," Scrags said. He turned back to Slick. "That's right, marine. We're gonna free those demons and turn them loose on Charlie. It'll have those slant-eyed bastards running home to Uncle Ho, crying all the way."
"That ain't a good plan, sir!" Slick said. He turned to General Sang. "General, your people must have had all kinds of stories about this place, legends telling you not to go digging under the dirt, and certainly not to free a bunch of demons!"
General Sang shrugged. "Missionaries visited us in the past, Mr. McCool. They taught us many things, and we are now Christians." He pointed to the walls. "In fact, most of my men think that Jesus Christ and his angels will come down here on jeeps, loaded with mounted machine guns and all the air support they need, and blow the VC and the Pathet-Lao away. I believe it to, sometimes."
"Missionary messages get a little jumbled up," Scrags explained. "Anyway, I've seen things you wouldn't believe, Slick. Back in Germany during the drive to Berlin, when we was knocking over German castles and seeing of their Nazi black magic. I'll bet you nickels to dimes there's Rakshasas down there. And that's how we're gonna beat Charlie."
The two men stared in silence at the mouth of the tunnel, dug out by the Hmong hillmen. Slick slowly shook his head. "Man, you're really desperate, aren't you, colonel?"
"Damn straight," Scrags replied. "Like I said, marine, this here is our Alamo."
"You ain't gonna win," Slick said softly. "Why don't you forget all this mumbo-jumbo and come on back to the states with me, Colonel? The CIA boys, the company, they got people all over who can help you slip back into the states. Even get you medals, maybe a promotion. It'll be just like the old days, sir."
"You always did have weakness in you, eh Slick?" Scrags asked. "You think I want to go home? I been fighting war all my life, ever since my squad landed in Sicily on my sixteenth birthday. Since then I've fought my way through Italy, landed at Normandy, survived the Bulge and drove all the way to Berlin. I've hit the beach at Inchon and helped cut Korea in half. And I landed here in 'Nam in the spring of '62 and I ain't never left it. Ain't about too either. War is my life, marine. That's all there is to it."
"Hell of a life," Slick said. "Sir, I know you don't know much else besides recoil, grenades and the care and management of the squad sixty, but don't tell me for a second that you like it. I don't think I've ever seen you crack a smile, not even when we had fulfilled our mission objectives. And the things we did, man, don't tell me they weren't inhuman in the worst way."
"Right on both counts, marine," the colonel replied. "And that's the thing, isn't it? There's the meat of it. I'm about as bad a sinner as there ever was. I killed people trying to surrender. I've gunned down women and children like they were nothing. I turned loose a pack of animals under my command gave them free rein to loot, murder, rape and burn their way through ville after ville." He sagged like a balloon with a slow leak. "And I know damn well it was wrong."
"Then why'd you do it, colonel?" Slick asked. "Why are you still here?"
"Because it needed to be done, so we could have our victory!" Scrags shouted. "I damned myself so we could have victory! I let go of everything so the Stars and Stripes could fly here and the US of A would have brought freedom to these poor, stinking slopes. And that's why I'm still here – because I want to know that I didn't damn myself for nothing!" He was shouting at Slick, attracting the attention of the Hmong soldiers and civilians. When he finished, he lowered his head and looked at his boots. "Hell," he whispered. "Slick, Charlie's gonna come in around sundown. I'd like to have you there watching my back."
Slick nodded slowly. "You got it, colonel. Give me an M14 and place me on the wall. We'll give them a fight yet."
Scrags muttered something under his breath and walked away. Slick McCool turned to look at the excavations. "Maybe it'll work," he told himself. "The Rakshasas ain't all bad. Could be they'd be grateful to us for helping them out, and tear apart the Vietcong happily." But then he sighed. "And then what'll they do, huh? Hang around and help rebuild this poor, battered country. Yeah right, and I bet Agent Orange will help the crops grow."
He drew out his revolvers and started to reload them, as the sun started to sink under the horizon. General Sang approached him, greeting him with a salute. Slick stood up and nodded to him. "General," he said. "I guess you heard I'm sticking around. At least until Jesus in a jeep shows up to bail you out."
"I do appreciate it, Mr. McCool," General Sang said. "We can always use the help. I wish the rest of your countrymen felt the same way as you and the colonel."
"What do you mean?" Slick asked. "The CIA is arming you and letting you loose on the commies, right?"
"They did -- at first," General Sang explained. "The Americans did give us some weapons, and told us to stop supplies entering Vietnam from Laos, and we did that. Then someone in Washington decided the war was over. The arms shipments stopped coming. But no one told the NVA and the Vietcong and the Pathet Lao that the war was over. Now we fight on, however we can. Some of my comrades are even growing drugs, and selling those to pay for weapons on the black market. Americans care more for their drugs than for their allies, it seems."
Slick nodded. "It figures. Just one more thing that we've screwed up." He looked up at the moonlight shining down on the walls, and the jagged shadows cast by the old statues. "Looks like the sun's gone," he said. "You think they'll be coming now?"
An explosion rippled outwards through the jungle, a low rumble almost like far off thunder. Slick knew the sound well – a claymore being tripped. "It does appear so," General Sang said. He shouldered his gun and ran for the wall, and Slick followed him. A Hmong handed him an M14 and he raced up to the battlements.
Colonel Scrags was there too, still holding the M60. They and all the Hmong defenders looked down at the jungle. They saw that the VC and NVA weren't playing it quiet any more. They had decided to risk it all on a full assault, an endless charge of screaming soldiers. They fired AK-47s wildly, dragging bamboo ladders and explosives to deal with the walls, and backed up by a few rattling tanks and armored cars.
"Human wave attack," Scrags said. "Just like the commie bastards did in Korea." He turned to General Sang as his men ducked down for cover. "How much longer we need to be digging?" he asked.
Sang shrugged. "An hour, maybe an hour and a half until we reach the lower chambers."
"Then it's one hour until the cavalry arrives. One hour until the choppers dust-off and we go home, one hour until victory." Colonel Scrags raised his M60. "I can deal with that." He raised his voice, shouting in English to the Hmongs. "Pour it on, you sons of whores! Pour it on and waste those slope bastards. No need to save your ammo, not now, not ever! We kill them now and we kill them good!"
Slick looked down at the charging Vietcong and started firing. He blasted one target, moved to the next, killed his man and kept on shooting. More claymores went off, the charges tossing burned bodies into the air. The VC started getting their shots in, forcing some of the Hmongs back. But General Sang rallied his troops, firing down with a stolen AK-47 in wide sprays. Bodies started to pile up in the jungle, falling under the shade of the palm trees or collapsing at the bottom of the wall. Some of the ladders started to go up, and the VC and NVA tried clambering upwards.
The Hmong fired down, blasting them off their ladders. General Sang kicked off the ladder and let it fall to the ground. Slick's M14 clicked empty. "I'm out!" he shouted, slinging the rifle over his back and drawing out a revolver. "Need some ammo here!"
"We ain't got no ammo, marine!" Scrags shouted. Slick turned to look at him and stood back in awe. Colonel Scrags was like a demon, like a wild animal, like some damned maniac firing down non-stop with the M60. Bullet casings flew around him, clanking almost musically on the battlement wall while the full auto blare thundered down into the charging enemy, ripping off limbs, splitting guts and tearing bodies apart. Colonel Scrags didn't let up, not once and the rattling M60 fire continued unabated. "Use that pig-sticker of yours! Use your side arms! Use your hands!"
They kept on firing downwards as the NVA reached the wall, now backed up by their ramshackle armored vehicles. The old tanks and armored cars couldn't have survived a long drive on a bumpy road, but without a few rockets, the Hmongs were good and screwed. Slick knew that, but he didn't break and run, just continued popping the NVA as they came up the ladders, careful to place his bullets in the skulls and chests of the soldiers. The khaki clad soldiers tumbled downwards, as other NVA troopers tried to set off charges at the end of the wall, or sweep the walls with their tank guns.
Scrags stood unbowed, the M60 firing endlessly on vehicle and soldier alike. "Colonel!" Slick shouted. "Colonel, we can't hold them!"
"If that ain't a load of bull, Slick, I don't know what is!" Scrags yelled. "Nades, boys! Hit them with the Nades and blow them straight to Hell!"
The Hmongs pulled out grenades, pineapple grenades from the US, or stolen stick grenades from the NVA, and hurled them down. They followed them with Molotov cocktails, crude gunpowder bombs, spare rocks and everything else they had. Explosions tore through the clustered Vietnamese soldiers, and Colonel Scrags stood on top of the parapet and mowed down the wounded with his M60 as the flames leaped higher and higher. The NVA vehicles crumbled under the salvo of explosives, their crews leaping out as they went up in flames. Scrags machine gunned them as they ran.
But then the third wave of NVA hit, and they didn't go down as easy as the others. They ducked low and crawled under the razor wire, and there were no more claymores or grenades to scatter them. They took cover and fired back, little bursts with their AKs to pick off the defenders. Some of them clambered into the trees and readied sniper rifles. A few of the hardened veterans tried to scale the walls, and they moved up slowly, always under the cover of fire.
Scrags nodded as he stepped back. "These boys know how the game is played," he said, setting down the steaming M60. He drew out both of his revolvers. "But I've been playing it since they was in short pants. You want to live forever, Slick?"
"Sir, no, sir!" Slick shouted, grabbing his katana.
"Then let's kick their sorry slope asses back to Hanoi!" Colonel Scrags stood up and fired down with his revolvers and Slick joined him. They blasted the NVA soldiers down, Scrags bringing down the soldiers taking cover and Slick focusing on the men on the ladders. Slick's katana slashed outwards, hacking off heads as they peeked over the walls, his pistol cracking out when his arm wasn't fast enough.
But then Scrags caught a round in the shoulder and went down. "Ah, Hell!" Scrags shouted, ignoring the wound as he stood back up. "Stings like a bastard!" He raised his revolvers and continued to fire. But more and more of the NVA had reached the wall now. Most of the Hmong had either fallen back to the main temple or had been killed. General Sang was going down the ladder, covering Scrags and Slick with his rifle.
"Colonel! McCool!" he shouted. "You better move!"
Hell no!" Scrags shouted, kicking away another NVA ladder. "I'm killing them here or I'm dying. It's that goddamn simple, Sang!"
Then a rushing wind came from behind and knocked Slick forward, pitching him onto the battlement. Slick's vision reeled as he struggled to hold onto the katana. He stood up and turned around, just in time to see smoke pouring from the temple complex like blood from a bullet wound. The smoke rose in the sky, reaching out like a grasping hand to the battlements. "What the hell?" Slick asked. Even the NVA soldiers stood back in fear and shock, stunned by the strange development.
The smoke billowed over the walls and came down into the NVA ranks. Slick saw strange shapes moving through the mist, long-bladed spears and broadswords, their outlines looking like bolts of lightning in a thundercloud. The Rakshasas had red skin streaked with white and blue, and dozens of arms and legs all holding swords, spears, bows and worse weapons. They had wide smiles with twisted teeth like mutated elephant tusks, and their skin clanked with golden jewelry and large headdresses.
Snarling like wolves, the Rakshasas fell on the NVA and VC. They clambered up trees and gutted the snipers, and charged the entrenched NVA infantry. Slick watched them go about their bloody work, and Colonel Scrags and General Sang joined him. The NVA broke after a few seconds and tried to run into the jungle. A few them fired rounds into the incoming Rakshasas, and even slowed the demons, but none of them could get away.
"Jesus…" Slick whispered. "Colonel, this is screwed up. Those poor men are soldiers. They don't deserve to have pure Hell unleashed on them."
"Then what do you think war is, marine?" Scrags asked. He pulled out another cigarette and handed it to Slick. "Last one I got, soldier. I'm quitting now. Nothing for it." He looked down at the carnage as the Rakshasas finished gutting the slaying NVA. "And just in time too."
General Sang looked away. "This was not a good idea, colonel," he said. "These demons should never have been released."
"I thought you folks were Christians?" Scrags asked.
"What can I say? Old habits die hard." General Sang pointed out into the distance. Bits of black smoke wafted upwards, like the remnants of a forest fire. "And what will they do when they have eliminated the last of the enemy?" He turned and stared at the colonel. "Sir, I am beginning to think that your appearance here has done as much good as your people's entire commitment in Vietnam."
"Now, hold on just a second!" Colonel Scrags shouted. "I don't remember you slant-eyed idiots doing very good before I showed up." He pointed back to Rakshasas. "And don't forget, these Rakshasa things pulled your fat out of the goddamn fire."
While the two argued, Slick looked into the jungle and saw the red and white skins of the Rakshasas moving between branches and vines. "Yeah," he whispered. "But they're still bloodthirsty. Wouldn't you be a little pissed off after a couple centuries of confinement?" He slid his katana back into its sheathe and drew out his second revolver. "And Colonel? I hate to break it you, but they might not be so grateful that we let them out."
Scrags snorted. "So my luck ain't changing, is that what you're saying?"
"Doesn't seem likely," Slick explained. He pointed down to the jungle floor. Sure enough, the Rakshasas were coming back, weaving between the trees and moving like a red and white tide towards the walls. Slick McCool raised both of his revolvers. "So, you think normal weapons are gonna work on them?"
Colonel Scrags slowly shook his head. "The gooks unloaded on them. Didn't even slow them down."
Slick McCool holstered the revolvers and raised his katana. He let the blade catch the moonlight, as the training from Scrags fell away from his mind. Now he heard the mantras and gentle instructions of the Monks, telling him to calm his heart rate, to lower his breathing, to relax his limbs and to prepare for the coming action.
"And a holy blade, General Sang?" he asked. "Do you think that would work?"
"I suppose only it would," Sang whispered.
Slick stood on top of the parapet and looked down. The Rakshasas were now charging for the temple, running crazily out of the tree line and sprinting for the temple walls. They leapt into the air, waving their swords and spears and flashing their fanged, drooling grins. Slick let his katana hang loosely in one hand. "Groovy," he said.
The Rakshasas leapt up to meet him, and Slick met them head on, taking off one demon's head and gutting another in the span of two seconds. More Rakshasas followed, clawing their way straight up the wall, and Slick's katana met them. He swung it down with both hands, lopping off heads and limbs and spinning the blade around to slash open stomachs. The Rakshasas bled in gold and silver liquid, and they hissed as they died.
A clawed hand grabbed Slick's leg and forced him back. He stabbed his katana into the open mouth of the Rakshasa and parried another demon's spear, before swinging the sword around and slashing open three Rakshasas at once. Slick turned around and saw General Sang, Colonel Scrags and the rest of the Hmongs watching in stunned silence as more and more Rakshasas went down in front of Slick.
But he knew he couldn't hold for long. "Start running!" he shouted, turning around to face Scrags and the Hmong. "Go on and get out of here!" He now stood at the edge of the wall, near one of the ladders. A Rakshasa leapt forward to meet him, swinging down with twin broadswords. Slick parried them with his katana then reached out and grabbed the Rakshasa's eye. He yanked it out and tossed it away, then decapitated the Rakshasa with a spin of his sword.
Another spear point slammed past his leg, leaving a long line of blood. Slick winced but kept on fighting. Then a sword crossed his chest and he fell backwards. He reached out and grabbed onto the edge of the ladder, but managed to slide down and land without tumbling over. He stood up and faced the Rakshasas.
One leapt down to meet him, spear poised to plunge straight into Slick's face. He tried to force his aching arms to bring up the katana, but he knew it couldn't happen in time. But as the Rakshasa swept down, a gunshot rang out and the demon fell at Slick's feet, blood oozing from a hole in its head. Slick turned around. "What the hell was that?" he asked. "None of you fellows had bullets could kill a demon, right?"
"Didn't think so," Scrags said. The rest of the Hmongs shrugged their shoulders.
More gunshots came from outside, and Slick and Scrags ran for the wall. The surviving Hmong fighters followed them, and soon everyone had scrambled up the bamboo ladders and stood on the ramparts. They looked down at the jungle, strewn with corpses and with vegetation blackened from fire and death. Another battle was going on, and the Rakshasas were losing badly.
A dozen jeeps armed with machine guns and missile launchers were firing into the massed Rakshasas. The soldiers manning the guns wore the olive green uniforms, round helmets and flack jackets of US servicemen, and they kept up the fire without pause. The Rakshasas didn't stand a chance, and were torn limb from limb by the endless torrents of heavy gunfire.
But the oddest thing was the soldiers themselves. All of them had large, glowing wings, flowing golden hair, and skin pale as ivory. Then Slick looked down and saw their leader. He recognized the long hair, short beard, and white robes from countless Sunday school classes and church services. But he had never expected to Jesus Christ gunning down the Raksahasas with an M16.
"Jesus H. Christ," Scrags whispered. "It's Jesus."
When the smoke had cleared and the bullets had stopped firing, Jesus looked up at the Hmong. He raised his hand in salute and spoke a comforting word to his people. They returned the shout.
Slick McCool shook his head and leaned on his katana. He turned to General Sang. "I thought you said this business with Jesus was a myth?"
"I thought it was," Sang said, as he removed his hat and rested it on his chest. "I guess it can't last."
"Yeah," Slick said. He took off his own hat and waved it. "Hey, Jesus!" he shouted. "Feel like illuminating any great secrets of the universe? Maybe bringing about world peace, settling some religious disputes or anything?"
Jesus looked up at Slick and shrugged. "I've been following you, Mr. McCool," he said. "And with some interest. Keep on trucking, Slick, that's all I got to say. You got yourself a fan in heaven." He gave Slick a thumbs-up. "And nice hair, by the way."
Colonel Scrags raised his hand. "And me? What about me, Jesus?"
"I got nothing to say to you," Jesus said. He turned back to his angels and raised his fist. "Hostiles all waxed. Our work is done." His driver started up the jeep and they sped off through the jungle, the other angels following close behind. Slick noticed their tires didn't leave any tracks in the dirt. In a few minutes, they had vanished into the underbrush, and then were gone.
Slick sighed as he leaned against the temple wall. "Now that's something you don't see every day." He looked at Colonel Scrags, who was watching the Hmong fighters leaving the temple. They were packing up their weapons and equipment, preparing to leave the temple fortress. There was nothing for them there, and they had to move along. Slick sat next to his old commander. "Where they gonna go?" he asked.
"Who knows? Thailand maybe, and then overseas to America or whatever will have them. They probably won't want me along, that's for damn certain." Colonel Scrags turned to Slick. "You want to bring me back so those CIA scumbags can execute me or send me to the brig? Or maybe you want to kill me here?"
"I don't want to do either of those things, colonel," Slick said. "You're a bad man, but I don't want to be the one to kill you."
"So what'll you do?" Scrags wondered. "They're gonna nail you for murdering Talbot if you don't drag my body back."
"Got me an idea," Slick said. He took Scrags' hat and fired his revolver into the brim. "I'll say I did you in and bring this back as proof. You can go your own way."
"And do what?" Scrags asked.
"I don't give a damn. Fight your war, colonel. Fight on until some lucky VC finally finishes you off."
Colonel Scrags came to his feet. "Well, thanks, Slick. I'm obliged to you. And let me tell you something – that fancy sword of yours did come in handy after all, and I'm sure glad you knew how to use it." He stood up and held out his hand. "I'll see you around, marine."
"You two, colonel," Slick said.
For the first time, the two men shook hands, almost like they were equals.