Pulse quick, Face drew in a sharp breath, but the raspy rhythm of his filling lungs fell mute against the abrupt burst of mortar fire outside. His ears rang with the hum of the explosion before the slow, steady wheeze of each fearful breath broke through the settling chaos.
As another mortar fell—closer this time, he flinched at the brief torrent of sound and fury that shook the floorboards beneath his feet. Without rhythm, without warning, the explosions kept coming, giving mount to his tension. It was the not knowing, not having any control that fueled his panic. At least in the jungle, rifle in hand, he could fight back, but here…
He had just managed to gather his courage again as another mortar landed—close enough that he could hear the displayed dirt settle as if fell back to earth. Face dropped to a crouch, ducking down beside the cot on which BA lay. The big sergeant had passed out again the moment they'd reached the shelter. Phuoc Huu, joviality waning when the attack began, had left them hastily after a few commands from a stern faced ARVN officer.
What the hell were they even doing there? How had this mission gone to such shit? Wide-eyed, Face stood and straightened before glancing around the room. No damage…yet, but he doubted the thin walls of the building could survive a direct hit—or that they could.
His gaze was drawn to Dom as Callaghan and a medic from U.S. Special Forces Detachment A-342—currently stationed in the camp—worked furiously to stop the man's bleeding. Gauze, heavy and damp with crimson, littered the dusty floor around the three. Face swallowed down the knot swelling in his throat; even if they stopped the bleeding, infection from this unsterile operating area would still be an issue.
Sheepishly, he glanced down at his own foot; it burned and ached, swelling within his boot, but there was no help for that now. Hell, if the next mortar found them it wouldn't matter anyway.
It was then that he noticed the lull in explosive destruction sounding outside. He tightened his grip on his M-16, anxiously eyeing the door before turning his gaze to Hannibal, Ray and a couple of bigwigs from the SF camp.
The colonel's clenched jaw and steely, hollow stare hinted at what Face already suspected. The Viet Cong would swarm the camp soon—though, for once, Face actually relished the thought of a firefight; it meant an end to the mortars…hopefully.
Ray shifted nervously, staying so close to Hannibal that he could have been the man's shadow. He was one of the bravest god-damn men Face had ever met, but even brave men got jumpy when they neared the end of their tour. Something about home looming so readily, so near, that they really started to care about making it back. Face pondered what that would be like—having something worth going home for.
The mortars started afresh, causing all the men within the room to flinch.
Clearing his throat, Face vainly tried to steady his voice, but it still managed to waiver and crack. "Uh…maybe we should…you know…find someplace a little safer?"
Hannibal was quick to wave him off, before continuing his conversation with Captain Morrick and the two ARVN officers. Only a slight, empathetic nod from the officers greeted Face, and the giant red-headed SF captain, for his part, didn't so much as give him a glance—though his quick, tight-lipped frown hinted at his disdain for the comment.
"So," the colonel said, leaning over the map laid out on the table and tracing a section with his index finger. "You've got this area here and here covered, but what about here?"
"Minefields extend from this point here…" Morrick pointed. "…to here, so we should be ok. And there are a dozen ARVN men posted here and here."
Hannibal nodded. "Should work…for now."
Scowling, Morrick shrugged. "It's gonna have to…until reinforcements show up." He leaned back, staring hard at Hannibal. "As soon as the mortars let up we're going to be up to our assholes in Viet Cong. It looks like '65 all over again."
"Well…" A tense, toothy grin spread across the colonel's face. "…that's something to look forward to then. I can't wait."
A quiet murmur of Vietnamese was exchanged between the ARVN officers before the taller of the two, Captain Trong Chien, noted the two American officers watching him expectantly.
"We are…" Trong paused, seemingly trying to choose the right English words. "…not looking forward to…being up to our assholes in Viet Cong?"
Morrick gave a gruff laugh. "Like it or not…it's gonna happen."
"Yeah…" Hannibal gave a halfhearted chuckle, about to say more but going silent as his gaze shifted up toward the door.
Hearing the voice, Face wheeled around and gaped at the lanky figure before him. Shoulders hunched, dark eyes haunted and pleading, fatigues slick with blood and chunks of meaty, visceral flesh, Murdock stood nervously waiting.
Face remained frozen in place, staring dumbly. Finally, he found his voice, but even then his nerve seemed to fail him. "W-what happened?"
"I landed the chopper," Murdock answered with a weak smile. "But it was hard getting through the camp…with…the…t-the mortars…"
Face couldn't help but notice the tremble in the pilot's hands as his clenched fists hung at his sides. Murdock must have noticed the looks, as, with a downcast gaze, he quickly shoved his hands into his pockets, hiding them from sight.
"Captain…" Hannibal's voice was calm but firm. "…maybe you should have a seat."
Murdock blinked, his brow knitting slightly as he looked from Hannibal to Face. An understanding of the situation slowly, clearly settling into his expression.
"It's not my blood." He said quietly, but as he limped to a cot and almost collapsed into it, Face felt little relief from the statement.
Morrick, who had silently been watching the incident, suddenly stirred. "Colonel Smith, Captain Trong Chien and myself will be heading out now to get into position. The airstrike has already been called in, but we're up shit creek until they get here. And I wasn't kidding earlier, colonel. You and your men will be on the first chopper out of here when relief arrives. That order came in straight from HQ. I don't know what the hell you guys were up to out in the bush, but they want you back in as few as pieces as possible."
For a second, the look of confusion on Hannibal's face was more than evident. Their mission had been a complete failure. There had been no plans to intercept; the chopper hadn't been worth the rescue effort. Everything about this op was fishy.
Not waiting for a response, Morrick turned and headed outside with the two ARVN officers hot on his heels. Hannibal watched them go, the matted, bloodied side of his scalp turned toward Face as he did so.
"You want Callaghan to look at that?" Face asked, though he already knew the answer.
Hannibal kept his gaze on the door. "No, he's busy."
Face knew that look—drawn by some unseen desire, Hannibal stood rigid, attention fully focused on a singular decision. A military man through and through, the colonel ate, sleep and drank war and to have him stand-down, retreat on the precipice of a battle was not something he could understand.
"Your head, you want me to look at it?" Not that Face wanted to. He actually hated tending wounds, but sometimes it was necessary, and at least that would keep the colonel from straying outside.
Hannibal chuckled. "No, it's fine." He relaxed, turning his gaze back to Face; his decision made. He would remain.
"Hey, Face!" Murdock hissed from his cot. "Can you tell me why the colonel doesn't have his cigar?"
Oz, who had remained so silently stashed in a corner of the room, had come up beside the pilot, and was nervously eyeing the man. Ray too, took a step forward and peered anxiously down at the seemingly confused captain.
Outside, another mortar fell, but it landed farther off this time.
"And what exactly do you mean by that?" Hannibal growled. "Weren't you the one who took it?"
Murdock blinked, his brow a mess of wrinkles as he stared up at Face. "You didn't give it to him?"
Shit. He had told Murdock that it was a bad idea from the get go, and he certainly hadn't thought the pilot was actually crazy enough to try.
Face shrugged. "It didn't seem like a good idea to point out to the colonel that the cigar theft was preplanned." He paused, glaring down at the pilot. "I can't believe you did it!"
Murdock slumped back, squeezing his eyes shut. "Aw, Face, now he just thinks I'm an asshole that goes around stealing cigars. How does that make things any better?"
A mortar struck close by, rocking the building, but leaving it standing.
Flushed with rage, Hannibal scowled at the two men. "I don't know what's going on, but…"
Face cut him off by producing a single cigar. He held it up, offering it to the colonel, and Hannibal, having gone silent, stared at the thing for a moment before taking it. He studied it, carefully, obviously recognizing its quality as he turned it between his fingers.
Still giving hesitant glances back at Face and Murdock, Hannibal took out his lighter and lit the cigar. After the first puff, the colonel's scowl had been replaced by a toothy grin.
"I still don't know why the hell you tried to pull that shit off, but from now on, kid," he said, peering over at Face, "you'd better have one of these for me all the time." And with that he turned and headed across the room to Callaghan and Dom.
Face plopped down on the cot Murdock lay on, almost sitting on top of the pilot. With a groan, he leaned forward, sinking his head into his hands and rubbing his temples. Too bad Cheryl hadn't worked out earlier…that extra bit of stress relief would have really helped him right now. Hmmm, maybe when they got back he could…
It was Murdock's quiet laughter that interrupted Face's thoughts. He shot a glare back at the man, but as his gaze settled on the lean face split with a goofy grin and eye glistening with mirth, Face couldn't help but smile.
"You see the l-look on the colonel's face when I pused him outta the chopper?" Murdock gasped through his laughter.
Face nodded. "How could I not? Hell, I thought he was gonna try and shoot your bird down himself right then."
Oz eyed the pair warily before slowly slinking off—which only made Murdock laugh all the harder.
BA stirred, eyes fluttering open briefly as he glared at the two men on the cot next to him. "Shut up fools, I'm tryin' to sleep…"
Murdock continued to giggle, staring up at the ceiling, and even though, as the mortars continued to rain down on the camp, it was completely nuts to be laughing, Face did.
The night had been a long one. Digging in deep, the Viet Cong hadn't been driven away with the first airstrike, or by the second. Twice the camp had almost been overtaken and both Hannibal and Ray had gone out to aid in its defense.
As the first light of morning crested over the horizon, Hannibal watched a group of ARVN soldiers collect their dead. The plump, jolly-faced soldier who had helped BA into the camp was among those who had fallen. Hannibal watched the body being drug away, the dead man's expression contorted in a frozen mask of pain and fear.
However, there was no more room for pity or sorrow in Hannibal's heart though, not for soldiers that weren't his own. He could feel the emotions welling inside him, but he kept them at bay. There was too much to grieve, too much to regret in war—letting that take control would ruin a man.
He turned away, heading back to the triage center. If his men asked, he would tell them of the ARVN soldier's demise, but, unless they specifically asked, he would say nothing. It was better for them not to know.
Halting outside the building, he listened to the approaching choppers. That was probably their ride. It had taken almost all night for the Viet Cong's strongholds in the surrounding landscape to be driven back. Until that point though, the camp had been too hot for any choppers to land at. All ground support was dropped off at a somewhat secure LZ not far off, but picking up Hannibal and his men had been an impossible task. Morrick had suggested Hannibal's unit hump it to the LZ, but Hannibal had shot that down immediately. His men were too tired, too injured for such an undertaking. They would wait.
And Hannibal was glad of his decision as the first Slick loomed into sight and set down gently not far off. Even Dom had made it through the night and Callaghan had high hopes for his friend's recovery.
The colonel remained still as his men started to shuffle out of the building. BA leaned heavily on Ray, hesitating only slightly as he glared at the chopper, but the big man swallowed down his fear and kept moving. With a weary smirk, Hannibal watched his sergeant. BA was worth his weight in gold; Hannibal had never met anyone with a better work ethic and mechanical skills. So what if he punched an officer or two every now and then?
Next came Face and Callaghan carrying Dom on a stretcher. Face was limping but making no complaint of it, and Callaghan, who'd gotten no rest at all during the night, looked ready to collapse. Why hadn't someone else carried the stretcher? Hannibal was sure that offers had been made, but, if he knew his men at all, he knew they had refused. Dom was one of their own, and they cared for their own.
Murdock emerged last, with the young pilot, Oz, at his side. The two were chatting quietly. Whatever ordeal and trauma the youngest had been through seemed to slowly be healing with Murdock's help.
Hannibal studied the captain as he slowly made his way to the chopper. He noted how the man's eyes lit up as he inspected the bird, the way he greeted the Huey's crew with a friendly wave; they, in turn, gave a few rambunctious, happy shouts as Murdock boarded.
It was undeniable that the pilot was well-known and well-liked, but Hannibal still hadn't made his mind up about the man…not entirely. He couldn't tell if the pilot was good or lucky. Was the man crazy or just zany in attempt to stay sane? Hannibal pondered this over as he made his way to the Slick. He didn't have his answers yet, but he would get them.
The officers' club was quiet when Hannibal strolled in. It had been two days since they'd gotten back from Dong Xoai. Dom and BA had been shipped off to Japan to heal. BA would probably come back; Dom was borderline. Face, Ray and Callaghan had already left for a weeklong R&R in Hawaii. Ray was the most anxious of all to be off, seeing as Trish was already there waiting for him.
Hannibal had opted to spend his downtime catching up on paperwork and getting as much information on their next assignment as possible. Being prepared meant staying alive—meant keeping his men alive.
He glanced around the dim room until he spotted the man he was looking for. The lone figure at the table, slowly nursing a rum, seemed less thrilled to see the colonel.
In four strides, Hannibal was at the table. "Mind if I join you?"
Captain Williams shrugged. "Do I have a choice?"
Hannibal frowned and sat down. He hadn't expected a warm welcome, but he had at least thought the man would be somewhat cordial.
"I'm not flying you again," Williams muttered, taking another slow sip of his drink. "I'm on light duty now…gonna go home soon."
"I know," Hannibal answered softly. The pilot was drunk, dead drunk, but that worked out better for the colonel. It was easier to get answers out of an inebriated man. "I need to know about Captain H.M. Murdock."
Williams frowned at his glass before peering up at Hannibal. His glossy eyes narrowed. "Why?"
Hannibal shifted, suddenly very uncomfortable under the pilot's gaze. He wasn't sure why, but he felt that he was in the wrong somehow, that he stepped over some threshold he shouldn't have.
"I need a new pilot. You're going home."
A sick, sly grin slid across Williams' face. "You need a new pilot?" He laughed and held his empty glass up, motioning it toward the man at the bar, who nodded. Having confirmed another drink was on its way, William turned his attention back to Hannibal. "And what makes you so damn special that you get a pilot of your own, do you even know?"
The bartender appeared, refilled Williams' glass, gave Hannibal a questioning glance and then scurried off.
"Well…I'll tell you why…" Williams continued, pausing to taste his new rum. Smacking his lips, he leaned across the table, his unfocused eyes fixed squarely on Hannibal. His voice was low as he spoke. "You kill pilots…" He leaned back, a knowing smirk on his face. "You do."
Hannibal held his tongue, glaring across the table at the man. They had never so much as had a harsh word between them before, so he hadn't suspected the captain would be harboring such hard feelings.
"You don't do it with your own hands, and you don't mean for it to happen, but all the same." Williams shrugged and took another drink. "Before they assigned me to your unit, you were going through a pilot almost every two missions. Some were killed, some wounded and a few just lost it. So, they called me in—the best of the best. HQ said I had a choice in the matter, but did I really?" He paused to give a gruff, hard laugh. "Take the job and keep countless other pilots alive or let you keep running through them? What kind of choice was that?"
Shit. Hannibal stared at the man, wishing he'd ordered a drink of his own. Had he really gone through that many pilots before Williams?
"Well," the pilot said with a sigh, "I'm going home soon. It's someone else's problem now—not mine."
Hannibal took the hint. The man wasn't willing to talk. He pushed back his chair, the wooden legs scuffing loudly as he did so. Williams quickly glanced up, clearly surprised.
"You're leaving?" The captain asked, his voice slightly slurred.
Hannibal nodded. "I probably should."
He was about to turn away when Williams spoke up again.
"Murdock is your man. Without a doubt, he should be your pilot. He's good. He'll keep himself, his crew and your unit alive." Williams toyed with his glass as it sat on the table. "Hell, he's even better than me, but…"
Hannibal waited, watching Williams bite his lip and frown down at his rum.
"I wanted you to know," he said, staring up at the colonel. "I wanted you to know about your pilots. If you take him on, you have to promise me you'll treat him like part of your unit. I was your pilot, but I was never one of your men. He needs to be both."
"I'm still not sure if Murdock will work." It was a lousy way to change the topic, but Hannibal wasn't sure what he wanted to commit to this man yet, because, if he made a promise, he was damn well going to stick to it. "I've had some problems with Lieutenant Peck and it seems as if he and Murdock are friends. I think Peck orchestrated this whole thing to get Murdock onto the unit and I'm not sure if I can trust the two together."
Williams had been in the middle of sipping his rum as Hannibal spoke, and, upon hearing the colonel's concern, he nearly spurt rum out his nose as he started laughing.
Wiping his face with a sleeve, Williams cast an astounded glance at Hannibal. "You think Face got Murdock on the unit? That's rich! You've got it ass backwards. Murdock got Face on your unit."
Hannibal frowned. Maybe Williams was too drunk for this conversation. The man wasn't making any sense.
"Remember back in Da Nang? Back when you went to pick up BA?" Williams seemed relaxed now, strolling happily down memory lane. "And we visited the officers' club? Well, I was already there and you came in later. I hid out in the back corner from you, so you might not have realized I was there, but I was."
"So?" What did any of this have to do with Murdock?
Whatever brief camaraderie Williams had found with the colonel seemed to have vanished; his unsteady gaze scrutinizing the man standing across from him. For a moment, Hannibal thought he'd blown it; he was sure the man would clam up, but the caption continued.
"I was sitting with a few other pilots and Colonel Suthers."
Hannibal perked up as he heard the name. He'd gone to West Point with Suthers, they'd even studied together. In fact, he'd first heard about Peck and his amazing ability to procure anything that a unit needed from the colonel. Suthers was a good man, and Hannibal had trusted his friend's instincts and had searched down the wayward Lieutenant Peck, saving him from a certain court martial.
Williams was grinning from ear to ear. "Ya see, Murdock was at the club with us, and he'd just so happened to have saved Suthers' bacon after the colonel's chopper went down. I guess Murdock was the only pilot crazy enough to swoop down and pick Suthers' ass up out of a complete shitstorm of Viet Cong. Well, we all got to talking and Murdock told Suthers all about Peck and then you came in and Suthers said he had an idea. Now, just between you and me, Murdock is one smart son of bitch. He knew you were in the area and that if he vented to Suthers that the man would search you down and convince you to take on another hard luck case. Hell, me and Murdock sat back and actually watched Suthers telling you about Peck. You lapped that shit up."
"Damn…the kid is good…isn't he?" Hannibal muttered, casting down a weak smile at the captain.
"Yeah…still, the best part of that night was when you clocked that asshole Decker. What was that about anyways?"
"Nothing," Hannibal lied. In reality, he'd punched the colonel to save BA the trouble of doing it later, but he didn't really feel like dragging all that up. "You've given me a lot to think about." He turned and started for the door, before Williams stopped him again.
"He already said he'd fly for you," the captain shouted. "I told him he was crazy and he just grinned. He said he might as well do it because no one else wants to." He paused, his voice growing somber as he continued. "Promise me, Hannibal. I flew my damn best for you. I took a bullet in the leg, crashed two birds, lost three co-pilots and over a dozen gunners. You owe me this. Promise me you'll treat him like part of your team…that he'll be one of your men. I don't…" He seemed to choke on his words a bit, staring sadly down at his empty glass. "I-I don't want the kid to end up like me…"
Hannibal felt the new weight added to his load already. Another life was in his hands. He stared down for a moment at the broken pilot before him. The next two words were all he needed to utter before stepping away and leaving Williams to his misery.
There was a quiet sigh of relief that escaped from Williams; Hannibal barely heard it as he rushed outside. He had his new pilot, but he felt no relief.
In the morning, Hannibal would radio over to Soc Trang, where Murdock had been sent back to his company, the 121st AVN. The pilot would be grounded for a while with his knee, but Hannibal wanted to go through the proper channels before Murdock was back in the rotation. With how popular the man was, the colonel had a feeling he'd get some resistance from the Tiger platoon.
Hannibal slowed outside his hooch, taking a cigar from his pocket. With Face gone, he was back to smoking his shitty cigars, but, on the plus side, after he got everyone back, he was pretty confident that this was going to be a damn fine team.
Thank you to everyone who read this! This is, hopefully, just the first of four Viet Nam stories.