"JT," I hiss, bumping the kid's shoulder and gesturing meaningfully at the path ahead. "Quit with the sightseeing already."
He glances at me, swallows audibly, blows out a breath and nods. I give him a glare for good measure. Ten miles outbound from basecamp is not the place for your mind to start wandering around, looking for some roses to frickin' sniff.
"Sorry," he whispers.
"Stop worrying about your brother." Not to sound like a heartless bastard, but there's nothing he can do about it if his older brother really has been shot down during a fly-by over the Son River. We've got a mission to finish and the odds of us making it back alive are bad enough without him turning into Momma Hen Clucking After Her Lost Chick.
You see, JT and I are what's affectionately referred to as "tunnel rats." It goes like this: Bobson and Rowles scout ahead, looking for hidden Vietcong bunkers snuggled beneath fake anthills and the like; Marks and Woodard check for booby traps and other lovely surprises once we've found ourselves an entrance to the underground labyrinth that the VC bastards use to evade our raids, shoot us up like Swiss cheese, and generally make our ass cheeks twitch with annoyance; and JT and I are the suicidal morons who go into the tunnels and kill anything that moves. Oh, yeah. Fun.
This is my eighth excursion, which is pretty much unheard of. Most guys bite it their first couple times down the rabbit hole. I can only assume I've been insanely freaking lucky. Where is a roulette table when you need one, right? Hell, the good ol' U.S. of A. has built frickin' ice cream factories in this shit hole of a country; you'd think they could manage a casino.
So that's me, snide cynicism and all, but JT's new. New to tunnel warfare, new to Vietnam and, thus, new to warfare in general. I didn't want to take him out with us this time. I don't, strictly speaking, think he's ready for this, but we're short on guys with intact trigger fingers and this shit's gotta get done. I gotta hope he's gonna be OK, though. When the shit hits the fan, as long as he starts shootin' instead of freezing up in deer-caught-in-headlights panic, he's got a 50-50 chance of making it back out alive. Don't quote me on those odds, though. I've got no proof they're right, but they sound whole helluva lot better than the odds that the commanders give us.
This time, when I glance away from the green, steamy hell that surrounds, trips, and mocks us to check on JT again, I have to clutch the gun in my hand to keep from pummeling him.
I kick him in the ankle instead. He startles guiltily. If we were still back at basecamp, working on the obstacle course, I would have ripped him a new one, but we're not and I can't and if we don't move as quietly as possible—
Yeah, bad shit happens. Like finding an enemy-occupied, camouflaged bunker. I shove JT off the trail as I duck and dive for cover. Ahead of me, the other guys are doing the same. I cover the rear as I scuttle through the brush toward the boys up ahead. It's gonna take a helluva lucky shot to take out the guys in the bunker and, as I'm feelin' a little luckier than average today, I beat a path to the front lines.
But, as it turns out, I don't actually make it that far. Just as I spy Woodard firing toward a bullet-spitting anthill in the clearing beyond, just as I move to take cover behind an only-slightly-smaller-than-me, vine-covered tree, just as I lift my gun and thumb off the safety—
Something smacks me in the helmet hard enough to set my ears and skull ringing like cymbals, spins me around and sends me face-first into the tree. I crash to the ground, but I don't feel a damn thing. A drum line beats out a rhythm of pop-pop-pop over my head and darkness takes me.
When it spits me back out again, I blink up at an object I can't identify. It looks like a long, goldish-tan rope swinging back and forth. I stare at it, mesmerized. Sounds slowly crawl into my numb ears. The drum line is still going at it, I note stupidly. My gaze travels up that length of weird rope until it thickens, drapes over a shirt collar and disappears beneath a United States Army helmet.
"What the—?" I mutter, shaking my head and feeling my eyes roll in their sockets in response.
"You gonna make yourself useful or what, buddy?" someone attached to the rope says.
"Useful," I grunt, reflexively curling my fingers tighter around the gun still in my grasp. I roll away to the other side of the tree and scan the jungle. The drumbeats finally reveal themselves for what they really are: sniper fire.
"In the bunker," my tree partner informs me.
I don't see a bunker. Hell, I don't even see the anthill I vaguely recall from before I'd kissed the frickin' tree. Everything is a green and brown blur. "You got eyes on it?" I grit out, hoping his answer is something along the lines of "hell yes, dip shit" because I've got a whole lotta nothin'.
"Cover me," he orders.
"Gimme ten seconds," I tell him and start crawling forward, hoping my eyes will stop trying to do the backstroke by the time I find myself some dense underbrush to hide in and shoot from.
The countdown seems to go about as fast as molasses in Michigan midwinter in my head, probably because my head's not good for much of anything at the moment. My brain wobbles with every jab of my elbow into the soggy, brown jungle floor. But then, just as I think I've remembered what number comes after eight, I spy a black slit in the earthen ledge up ahead. Bingo. I start firing a second earlier than promised. I figure Mister I Have A Plan won't mind.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see the gleam of a blond braid in the sunlight. In that instant, I figure out what he's up to. I remember the bullet that had hit my helmet and smacked me stupid. It had come from a second direction, from a second guy who had probably left his buddy in the bunker with orders to distract us while he'd circled around behind – through the tunnel – and then come out of a concealed entrance and opened fire.
I don't know where guy number two is now, but it's too late to warn my new friend. He'd disappeared in the direction of the supposed tunnel entrance and if I can just keep the guy in the bunker firing at me, then Hero Long Hair just might have a chance—
I switch my gun to my left hand and reach out with my right. I grab a wet, crumbly stick and beat it back and forth in the bushes about three feet away. The guy in the bunker aims and fires first at the clump of swaying vine-covered brush and then sprays bullets further to right. Yeah, he assumes I've still got my gun in my right hand and I'm grabbing the bushes with my left. I cease fire as if he'd gotten me but I can't risk a grunt of pain. I wait one second, one eternal second. The moment I open fire again, he's gonna figure out I duped him and fire into my cover which sure as hell isn't gonna stop those bullets.
Hoping, praying, and cursing silently, I pull the trigger, drawing the enemy's attention back to me. I don't have time to wiggle away. I flatten myself to the ground and then—
One gunshot, muffled, sounds from inside the earth. I hear the soft clatter of a tumbling rifle and then the heavy slide of a body slumping down to the floor.
I rest my head against the wet windfall and just breathe for a moment. I'm alive. Holy shit. I'm alive. I don't even feel happy about the fact that some rice farmer or cow herder, father of ten or fourth son of a fisherman had just been killed. I hate the VC, yeah. That's a given. And it freaking burns me up that a bunch of untrained farmhands can regularly and thoroughly kick our asses, but they're just villagers in there. In the moment of silence that follows in the wake of a well-shot bullet, there's no pretending I'd just killed (or helped to kill, in this case) an enemy soldier, a guy with nothing to lose but a paycheck.
Yeah, I don't have to like it. I just have to live with it.
Speaking of living, I wonder at the sudden silence in the jungle. I don't dare call out to my team. I crawl toward where I'd seen Woodard earlier, and I find him with a bullet hole in his chest.
"Dammit," I hiss, collecting his dog tags. I wiggle my way over to Marks, then Bobson and Rowles and I find three more bullet holes and more unused ammo. "Shit. Shit shit shit," I inform the muddy tread of Rowles' boot. I'm pretty sure I do not want to check on JT. This jungle is too silent for me to find anything good waiting for me.
"God damn you, kid," I grit out.
JT doesn't answer. Bullet hole number five answers for him with infinite stillness an silence. The dog tags clink against each other in my pocket as I sit up and lean back against the tree I'd tried to shove JT behind. Obviously, I'd been too damn slow. I hadn't shoved hard enough or early enough to get him out of the line of fire. Too little, too late. I stare up at the leaves of the jungle canopy.
My eyes sting with the force of my glare. Damn you, God. There I was, knocked out cold not three yards away while my teammates were all fighting for their lives… and losing.
Three gasping swallows later, a boot tread squelches in the mud on my right.
"You still alive?"
"Yeah," I somehow manage to answer.
My self-appointed ally crouches down and I finally get a good look at his face. No way is this guy enlisted. No way is he an officer. No way is he supposed to be anywhere near here. He's too thin for Uncle Sam to take him and his hair is way too long. I don't know what the hell his story is, but I don't care. His .45 had been pointed away from me and toward the enemy. That's all I really need to know.
"You're a tunnel rat," he announces.
I roll my eyes. "How'd you guess?"
"You've got a .38, a flashlight, and a knife on you," he informs me, listing the tools of the tunnel rat's trade.
"I'm gonna kick your ass for going through my pockets," I threaten without heat.
He snorts with amusement. "Sure, go for it. When you're done with that, I could use a little help."
"Oh? Why am I not surprised?" Everything comes with a price. It doesn't surprise me that this guy had saved my life because he figured I'd be useful. "And why should I care?"
"You should care, Charles Zimmerman," he replies, nodding at my dog tags which had somehow fallen out of my shirt and onto my vest, "because without me, your mission is a total wash."
I snort out a laugh. "My mission? What the hell do you know about it?"
"More than you think," he answers, his eyes narrowed and focused on mine. "You're after the command center in there." He nods toward the concealed tunnel entrance. "And, it just so happens, so am I."
"I don't work with civilians," I spit out, getting to my feet. The dog tags clink and rattle. Irritated, I dig in my vest pocket for my sweat towel and wrap them up. I pause as I tuck JT's into the bundle. Dammit. I should have left him at basecamp, no matter what our C.O. had said. I should have broken the kid's arm or something. He hadn't been ready. I'd known this. He's dead because of me, because I hadn't fought hard enough for him, because I hadn't raised hell on his behalf.
This is my fault.
"I'm not a civilian," the guy says, gun-in-hand pointed toward the ground.
Yeah, a grass-lovin' hippie he may look like, but he knows which end of that pistol goes bang! I can't say that's true of most peace-love-and-happiness-in-a-pipe types.
"What do you want, exactly?" I say warily.
His expression turns hungry. "A man called Minh Po. He's calling the shots here from inside the tunnels and he has information I need."
I nod thoughtfully. If this Minh Po guy is calling the shots, that would mean he's most likely at the very command center which I'd been sent to locate and blow the ever-loving shit out of. But there's just one small problem here.
"How do I know your intel's any good?" I challenge.
He gives me a wry smirk. "You don't."
I glare at him.
He shrugs. "Take it or leave it, man. I'm going into those tunnels to find me a VC commander. You wanna tuck tail and scamper back to basecamp or you wanna finish what you started?"
In other words, do I want to finish what Bobson, Rowles, Marks, Woodard, and JT all died for?
I shake my head slowly, marveling at the sheer gumption of the manipulative shit standing in front of me. "Go to hell," I tell him, my tone defeated.
He gestures back the way he'd come, back toward the tunnel entrance. "Would you like to go first or shall I?"
Jaw clenched, I reach for and check the cylinder in my revolver. I count my bullets. Five in the chamber and another twenty in my vest pocket, ten are mine and the other ten are – were – JT's.
"If we do this," I finally reply, my mind beginning to work through the haze of rage and woeful waste of life, "we do it on two conditions."
"Let's have 'em."
"First, after you get what you came for, we take out the command center."
"Done," he promises pompously. I don't call him on it. I want him to be that sure of himself. I want that promise, so I let him make it.
"And secondly," I continue, "call me—"
"Chez?" he interrupts.
I narrow my eyes at him. "How did you—?"
"Lucky guess," he replies and as we'll need whatever luck we can get, I don't get pissy with him over it.
"Whatever. What do I call you?"
"Fredrick," he says, his lip curling with distaste.
"Uh huh. And what do I call you if I don't wanna get shot?"
He laughs. "O will suffice."
I give him a look. "Oh? As in 'oh fuck, we're gonna die'?"
This time he snorts with humor. "As in I.O.U."
"O," I repeat, then I sigh. With a what-the-hell shrug, I check on the contents of my pack and collect as many grenades as I can carry from Marks'. I'm gonna need these little bundles of joy if we actually get where we're going. I feel a twinge in the center of my chest as I pick up JT's unused .38 and tuck it away. Damn, this guilt will get me dead if I don't leave it behind.
I take a deep breath. In silence, I sigh out my apology and my promise. I figure I'm deluding myself with those 50-50 odds. Chances are I'll be seeing JT and the rest of my team again real soon. If not… Well, I'm sure the guilt will catch up with me later.
Straightening, I gesture in the direction of the tunnel entrance. If we don't get a move on, we'll find ourselves in the middle of Round Two. I tell O, "Ladies first."
NEXT: Part 2: The Tunnels