God, I can't go another step. I gasped as I leaned against the tree when the Sarge signaled to take five. I hope we can find a harbor site to rest and, maybe, God should be so nice, even sleep. Soon my ears were hearing only the labored rhythms of my lungs ...
I guess it all started yesterday morning. They said one of the LRRP teams was missing off report for four days. "Saddle up, lets go find the lost children!" was the first I heard of it, from the Sarge, of course. They dropped us two clicks form the Laotian border and by noon we were another two clicks over the border. We searched for hours, finding signs of them but no people. They had run into something pretty big and they had left in an awful hurry. We weren't quite sure who or what they had been confronted with, and that worried us a lot.
The uncertainty was resolved as we came up on sunset. We ran smack dab into flank elements of an NVA Mobile Strike Force, a two hundred man hunter/killer unit whose purpose in life is to make American long range recon teams an endangered species.
In an unexpected confrontation, whichever side gets off the first fusillade means the other guys have to duck first. We did, they did, and we ran like hell. That's all we have been doing since. Down the Yellow Brick Road, onto the Ho Chi Minh trail then off into the mountains. It's just not high on the intelligence scale to piss off two hundred guys with automatic weapons.
The jungle was thicker, the trail narrower. We have been on the run 24 hours and we are about out of steam. On the other hand we are all still alive and the worst injuries we have are from the bloody (literally) thorns... We need a rest, we need to get farther in front so we can find a spot to hunker down for the night.
Sarge is sending Joe down with some claymores, that will do it. I guess he will wait until they close up to about fifty meters or so before he detonates them. Nothing like a ball bearing brunch to induce a little indigestion, not to mention caution in your pursuers. Joe's the right choice, as he can also run like the wind, which he will need to do when the job's done.
The jungle is more dense than I have ever seen. The map calls this Hill 421, and these thickets are just the ticket. "Booommmmmm!" I hope Joe's all right; I think I am gonna owe him some beers if I get out of this. Hey, gotta concentrate. The trick in this maneuver is to crawl in under, as low to the ground as possible, and not get up until you are in the middle of the thorns with a fifty to a hundred meters of crap all around you. That way Charlie has to wake the whole neighborhood to get at you. Ahhh, this is just what the doctor ordered. The going's not too bad, like something's been through here in the past. Cut a little branch here, a little bit there: all the comforts of home ...
Second watch... two hours on, then another four hours' sleep until my next watch... That two hours' sleep sucked. I got to sleep, but waking up so soon was a bitch. Better if I hadn't, but I couldn't stay awake. The jungle is quiet but the night sounds are starting to rise.
"Hey, Ski" I whispered, "your watch!" I settled down for much awaited rest. I dreamed. God, now I know how Richard Kimball felt, only my pursuers had two arms and AK-47's. They got me, they are choking me, "Noooo ....!" I woke up struggling, but it was Ski holding his hand over my mouth, trying to keep me from making noise.
"Shhhhh", he whispered sharply, "there's something out there!" The sounds were mixed, coming from various directions: brush snapping and rumbles, sounded like whoever was a heavy breather. All of sudden there were many more sounds, from all over we heard quite distinctly the crackle and hiss of a radio and hushed oriental voices. From all over our harbor site I heard the muffled sounds of rifles being grabbed and surreptitiously checked. I heard at least two safeties being clicked off.
I guess it had to happen. They had to catch up. Question is will they find us? Sounds like they are just blanketing this area and the thicket is keeping them away from us. But what is going on with that other sound? Do they know we are here and all this other movement is to divert us from a squad moving in on us? Or maybe they're just covering all bets and sent one or two guys in to check each thicket. Yeah, that's it... I hope.
There's that rumble again, closer this time. This guy is pretty nervy, he just keeps coming in at us. No metal sounds, but his movements are a little too forceful, almost like he doesn't care if we hear him, like he owns the jungle.
I looked over towards Ski, in time to see a shadow raise up near him. I started to shout, thought better and whispered harshly. Too late, he turned swinging his rifle, but was flung back like a rag doll. I tried to move my rifle about, but there was no room. I unsheathed my Ka-Bar, hoping to take him quietly. I advanced; so did he.
I never had a chance. He went over me like the Green Bay Packers' line. I lost the knife. It was like a truck hit me in the shoulder, bowling me over. God, what's that stench? My head hit a tree and I went out. As I sank into oblivion I wondered, insanely, if this guy had ever heard of Listerine!
My vision and consciousness returned. Ski was bent over me in the half- light before dawn, stitching up a nasty hole in my leg. Ski had a bandage on his head, as did I. I hope his headache wasn't as bad as mine. Everyone on the team was sporting bandages, bruises, and bumps.
The whole team was wound up. Tension lined every face. We gotta get out of here, but where did that guy go? Was he waiting for us out there? Sarge is sweating bullets right now. Hours go by; finally Sarge tells us to move out carefully. I led off crawling hand over hand, as quiet as I could.
Before I had gone fifteen meters I heard that rumble again. Oh, Jeez, he is out there. Committed to this course, I kept going. The sound, that low rumble getting louder. I put my hand down carefully and felt something warm and velvety.
There curled up like a house tabby was a three hundred pound male tiger, with shreds of camouflage cloth still hanging from his claws. His belly full, distended from a recent meal, he was snoring the morning away, oblivious to us all. The desperate nighttime battle for Hill 421 had turned out to be nothing more than the lord of the manor, returning from a night out, kicking sleeping vagrants from his front walk!
Author's Note: This is a work of fiction. It was written by the author in July of 1994 while attending a creative writing course at the University of Vermont with two of his high school age students. It is actually a blend of two actual events and the author's general experiences in the Republic of Viet Nam with the First Reconnaissance Battalion of the First Marine Division in 1968-69.