As my band of happy miscreants worked their way through the tunnels, point suddenly gave the hand signal to halt before indicating there were enemy ahead. When we stopped to think about what we were hearing we could tell there were muffled voices somewhere ahead. How he could have heard them surprised me until I heard a loud but brief grunt of pain rising above the low background noise. I tried to make out what the voices were saying but it was mostly just indistinguishable from the background. We continued to move in but more cautiously and as quietly as possible.
We knew we were getting closer as some words could now clearly be heard and appeared to be accented English with some sort of low pitched replies coming back between the louder words. Even more slowly we moved closer until we felt we were right on top of whomever was speaking that accented English. The muffled responses were still a little too low to be understood but it was obvious that they were pretty much the same thing over and over with a little variation, then we realised the questions were as well. Several grunts of pain could be heard once in a while, apparently as the result of some impact made on whomever it was who grunted then occasionally answered. This was beginning to appear suspiciously like it might be our missing package or possibly another American captive who had been brought North before being interrogated.
We continued to work our way as close as we dared, slowly approaching the edge of an entrance to yet another underground but better lighted room. Again I checked my watch seeing once more that we were living on borrowed time. Peeking carefully around the edge of the tunnel from down at floor level, I spotted three Americans and roughly ten enemy; one of which was a Chinese officer or, at least, he was wearing a Chinese officer’s uniform. There were several NVA officers in there too although I couldn’t see their ranks from my floor level viewpoint. This might not be such a wasted trip after all.
I motioned for my guys to backtrack and they worked their way back away from the room to a location where we could hopefully whisper without being likely to be heard over what was going on in the room. I hated tunnels, sound traveled in such funny ways in them.
“Okay. There are three of them in there. I think the one might be our missing package. The other two I recognize from around SOG every now and then. I guess they’re all that’s left of the ‘Lurps’ (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol) we were told had been up this way. All our guys are seated. The package on a chair and the other two on the floor near the far wall. There are about ten gooks in there, but I want the Chinese officer alive. He’s wearing a Chinese uniform so you can’t miss him. Him, I want to take with us. I think we’re deep enough that shots won’t be heard topside but anyone down in the tunnels can’t help but hear them so be ready to fight our way out. As soon as we take them down and pick up our guys and that Chinese, I want two charges set...”
I pointed at Pork Chop then back as though at the far side of the room we were about to assault as I said this, “one bottle on the ceiling of each of the two tunnels on the other side of the room. Five minutes to pop plus cross tunnel trip wires. Someone moves through one and both pop. We’ll go out the way we came in. Any questions?”
With no replies, I nodded my head, “Good... Come on. Let’s do this.”
The six of us made our way back to the entrance of the room before I snuck another floor level peek. I raised my fingers to show there were six and pointed in the direction where they were standing. The other four, unfortunately, were bunched in the middle of the room near the prisoner they were working on. Their height didn’t make them much taller than our guy on the chair. I marked the direction of the Chinese, who was also in the middle of the room, and indicated he had a sidearm. Eye contact with each of my guys showed me they were ready to rock and roll.
On my signal, which was me rushing into the room as fast as the confines of any tunnel would permit, my guys followed, pouring into the room. Our M-14s took down the enemy while a couple of careful pops were made to pick off those who were near any of the prisoners. The Chinese managed to draw his pistol but Ralph took out his arm causing the pistol to drop, unused, to the floor. It was times like this that I wished the supply groups in the States would get off their butts and get the M-16s we had heard about out into the field. It would have been a little easier on us to haul them around in here, not to mention we could have carried a lot more ammo.
Trank popped the two tangos located on either side of the package. It was all over in about three seconds which in a situation like this felt like it was either a split second or half of forever. Knives came out to free the prisoners. That’s when we learned there were cuffs on the two LRRPs. That was a new wrinkle.
Freeing them would need to wait for a bit since we found no keys on any of the enemy bodies. Pork chop had immediately begun laying our charges on the tunnels I had told them about, using the bottles he stashed in his leg pocket. One bottle back in each tunnel above at the ceiling. They probably wouldn’t do a lot other than delay pursuit and cause some additional digging but they would serve to slow pursuit from that direction. He finally attracted my attention and indicated four and a half minutes remaining. I nodded back to him then got our guys to begin moving back out the way we had come in. We half dragged, half prodded that Chinese officer along with us.
Two of my men were now on point while Pork Chop was watching our backs as we tried to flow through the tunnels not quite successfully imitating shadows. A couple of shots occurred ahead of us then it went quiet. When we got there and peeked around the tunnel corner we spotted a couple of NVA on the floor. Just then two more came in from a side tunnel both ready for bear but they dropped in a hurry with at least four shots apiece landing in them. Our point team guys were still somewhere up ahead and if we didn’t start catching up they could get into trouble pretty easy. Another bottle quickly went on that tunnel. Five minutes later we were passing through the munitions room where we had laid those charges. My point was waiting there for us, they had opened a crate and grabbed four grenades apiece. Not great things to use in tunnels but in an emergency – what the heck?
“Ralph, drop a half dozen of those in my pack we may need them once we get out.”
That was a mistake on my part. Ralph is one of those if three are good then twenty are better type of person. He must have dropped ten or fifteen into my pack on top of the rats. Now I knew for a fact that I was the mule as I had somewhere around another twenty five to thirty five pounds of weight on my shoulders. Ralph and Trank each carried four more on their persons plus they were sharing the weight of a box of M-14 ammo which they were carrying between them. No wonder the enemy paid a bounty for any of our rifles villagers turned in to them. They were using our own weaponry against us in addition to their own. Maybe switching to M-16s would be a good thing. The ammo wasn’t interchangeable. The two LRRPs were able to walk okay, although their hands were still bound by the cuffs. Further along there was some soft dirt so they asked for my guys to shoot the links between the cuffs so they could help. I was of two minds about that. It would be good to have their hands mostly free but the sound would let the enemy nearly pinpoint our location. Then again they were probably already searching for the source of our shots anyway.
“That could be dangerous.”
“Just do it before we come to our senses.”
With the cuffs now separated, the two LRRPs helped the package along, which freed my group to provide cover. We again heard shots from up the tunnel, this time they went on for a bit before it settled down. Approaching the area of the shots we found Murph treating Benny’s leg for a wound but close to a dozen NVA regs were lying around the left side of the room near another branch tunnel. Ralph and Trank broke open the box of ammo so everyone could take on as much extra as they could carry. We didn’t have the time to reload spare magazines while we were down here. I gave Murph and Benny each a couple of my spare mags so they could replace what they had spent. I figured I’d reload the empties they traded to me later since I still had four loaded ones in my pack, now under who knows how many grenades.
We still needed to get further away from our two surprises on those far tunnels before they popped which wasn’t all that far from happening. I didn’t want the pressure wave to wreak havoc with us as well as the tunnels when they both came down. The rescued guys each grabbed an AK and as many magazines from the NVA as they could carry. None of the mags were full – typical. Some of them had less than five rounds. Guess they had supply problems too unless they all threw a lot more lead than either Murph or Benny. Murph helped Benny along while I sent two others on as point for a bit. The ten of us started moving again, pushing that Chinese officer along. He wasn’t making it easy. One of the LRRPs had taken a knife off one of the dead NVA. He pricked the Chinese in the... just a little which got him to moving a bit faster. They were both moving bullets from short partially filled mags to make up full ones as they went.
“Hold up. Were nearly to the tunnel entrance and it’s a tight squeeze. There could be enemy all over outside so we need to sneak a peek carefully. If it’s still clear then we need to boogie out before they get back, which should be almost any second. Hopefully they’ll all be in the tunnels when our big surprise wakes up.”
“Sarge...” one of the LRRPs said, “Larry and I’ll go out first, then you can bring your guys. If we start pouring lead you’ll know it isn’t safe out there. This way they won’t know you guys are down here. That could give you an edge if you need it.”
They both exchanged the magazines in their rifles for full ones they had just finished topping off when there were two muffled explosions close together from somewhere far behind us. A little dirt dropped from the ceiling over our heads and a few seconds later we were hit by a little of the pressure wave which had probably leached off into other tunnels as well as this one. A second or two later there was another explosion and that pressure wave came along a little more powerfully than the one before. Pork Chop looked at his watch and nodded his head, “off by ten seconds.” was all he said. On the other hand, our claustrophobic looked like he would rather be on a plane about to make a para-drop into the middle of a battalion of snakes or maybe popping up in the middle of a squad of Cong; almost anywhere but here in the tunnels. I nodded in acceptance that the bangs were our own and that it likely meant no one had followed us from that quarter at least. Timed explosions that go off at radically the wrong time tended to indicate some kind of enemy intervention.
Our two rescued comrades-in-arms made their way up into the small building. Since it remained quiet I started my guys up into what remained of the place then we helped the package up. He didn’t seem to be too badly hurt but there could still be some internal injuries. He was beaten pretty badly and didn’t look all that good. Neither did the two LRRPs but they were in far better shape than he was.
I wasn’t happy about our chances since 2-1-Lima/Bravo was better than a day away at a damn good pace. We’d be pushing the envelope if the package couldn’t support his own weight pretty soon. The area was still quiet and the two rescued LRRPs were outside somewhere in the jungle. I was still musing over the fact they were alive at all, since neither the Cong nor the Chinese cared all that much for LRRPs. My team and I helped the two wounded along as we made our way out of the building and into the jungle. The LRRPs joined us a minute or two later.
“Which way now, Sarge?”
“See the daylight through the trees over there? We go roughly that way for about a klick to pick up our other packs, which we hid out there. Then we turn Southwest for about twenty klicks. If we make it that far we have a chance to make the new rendezvous.”
I tapped the side of my nose, “Wherever this leads me. Murph, you and this bright young man take point. We’re after our packs and rats. Watch out for patrols they’re a lot larger than ours.”
I neglected to mention to the two LRRPs that there were rations in my pack. Those two looked just a little too clean to have been held prisoner for several days and the package looked like he was given all the attention. Of course my suspicions could have been completely unfounded. Despite the lack of insignia, the one I took to be our package had the look of a ranking officer about him so that would have been enough reason for them to give him their attention first.
We set out at a rapid pace but after a half a klick needed to slow as neither the package nor Benny were doing well as we rushed along. I spent part of the journey watching the one LRRP who was traveling with us. I managed to learn his nick-name, “It’s Blade, because I like to do my work quietly.”
“That explains why you like that knife. I’m Lyon, with a y not an I.”
“Lyon. I’ve heard of you. Your guy’s are billeted on the East side of Mess Four, aren’t you?”
“Close to that.”
“Nice to know you. Thanks for coming to the party and pulling our fat out of the fire. Larry and I were next up for the treatment.”
“Why did they concentrate on him?” Lyon pointed to the package.
“Probably because he’s Air Farce and looks like an officer. They don’t waste much time on guys like us, we’re usually drawn and quartered in quick time. I’m really surprised they kept us alive. Maybe they thought we could become nice object lessons later.”
‘Quiet! Down!’ Ralph waved his hand to get our attention then relayed the message signaled back to us by our point men. Everyone dropped out of sight to listen. Soon quiet footsteps could be heard working their way along the “trail” which was really nothing more than a path used by the ‘wildlife’. The feet continue moving past for a couple of minutes while shadows of men could be detected in passing. After a couple of minutes the path was clear again but we continued to wait. Three minutes later another four or five went past and thirty seconds after that four or five more moved past. I and my men waited quietly for another four minutes before we proceeded toward our destination again.
“What do you think that was?” Blade asked.
“Probably one of the patrols that went out to find out from where we launched the mortar attack.”
“Mortars? Shit, you have Mortars? We need to level that complex.”
“That’s all taken care of, Blade. I just hope they make it back in time for the festivities. I’d hate for them to miss the party.”
Blade smiled, “You got an Air strike coming in?”
“Something like that. That’s why we had to get you three out in a hurry.”
Larry returned from point munching a ration bar. He tossed another one to Blade.
Quietly he told us, “Murph says the area is clear now. He’s waiting at the packs.”
I nodded and motioned for my guys to continue the short distance remaining. I wasn’t too happy to learn the searchers had gone out this far in their pursuit of whomever had launched that ‘mortar attack’. We soon found Murph sitting on a small mound of dirt, chewing on a ration bar while he was carefully reloading two of his previously emptied magazines with some of the bullet packs we had liberated.
“Hey, Lyon. What time is it? Are we getting close to fireworks?”
I checked my watch, “Still a over an hour ‘til Doomsday. We all need to scarf some ration bars and water then make tracks for a bit before we stop to rest. Everyone top your magazines, we may not have time later. We’re still about four hours from the spot where we slept before. That seemed pretty safe. It will put us a bit further away before the hornets become upset and leave their nest. With any luck they might still be cleaning up the mess when the whole thing blows.”
Dropping my pack I opened it enough to extract some of the ration bars which I distributed around along with two grenades apiece for anyone who needed them. Lifting my pack, hefting it up and down a little, I smiled,
“That’s more like it.”
We fed a couple of ration bars to the package and gave him a little water,
“How long has it been since they fed you guys?” I asked noting that the two LRRPs each had put down several in short order.
“A couple of days. We ate just before they picked us up. It was like they knew we were coming. They wanted this officer pretty badly. That Chinese speaks fluent English so don’t say anything you don’t want him to understand. I’d be just as happy to put a bullet in his head and leave him here.”
“Don’t. I want this one alive. I don’t care if you take off his arms or legs, but I want him alive when we get back.”
“I could do a little blade work; he might like to talk a bit better after that.”
“Not while I’m in charge.”
“That could be arranged.”
Immediately after that comment, Blade had five M-14s aimed at him.
Ralph tapped him on the head with the muzzle of his M-14, “touch our Sergeant and die, scumbag.”
Blade looked at the guys and then smiled and spread his hands wide, “No sweat fellows, can’t you take a joke?”
“Not that kind.”
Blade settled down, so did my guys and things started to get back to ‘normal’. The package was beginning to become a little more perky since Murph had given him a little pain killer. That meant we had a chance of making our rendezvous on time. We wrapped his ribs with whatever we had available, which wasn’t much, then started making tracks again with him walking a little better but still needing some assistance.
“Sir, I’m sorry, but we’ve got to keep moving. If the pain gets to be too bad we still have a lot of pain killer so don’t hesitate to ask. I would also like our medic to get a couple of antibiotics into you. Don’t wait until you can’t move because it takes an hour or so for the stuff to start working and we don’t have that kind of time.”
“Fine Sergeant, then maybe you better give me some of each right now so I won’t slow you down too badly. How much time do we have?”
I checked my watch and did some mental gymnastics, “About 35 hours, Sir. If we make only one stop for five or six hours sleep then we will make it okay.”
I hedged my bet by dropping five hours from my calculated leeway before I answered. That made it seem worse than it really was but that way if someone or something slowed us down then there would be five extra hours on the clock to get there. The five minute break to get some antibiotics and pain killer into the package along with more water came to an end allowing my little group of killers to be on their way again. The Chinese was trying every little thing he could to delay the trip.
I was finally fed up with it all, “Blade?”
“Yes, Sergeant?” he answers somewhat facetiously since he was the same rank but as this was my party he couldn’t say much.
“I’m getting tired of that foreign officer causing all this delay. The next time he does it, carve up his left arm just a bit. If he does it again, carve up his right one. We’ll continue on to the other extremities until he can’t walk or cooperates whichever comes first. If he can’t walk then we’ll just slit his throat and leave him behind for the wildlife.”
I was gambling that the Chinese didn’t know I wouldn’t do that. And also gambled on the chance that his English was good enough to be able to understand me completely.
“You got it, Sergeant,” Blade answered somewhat more energetically heading in the direction of the Chinese officer.
The Chinese was looking at us like he was trying to decide if I meant it. Blade pricked him in the stomach just a touch and if the Chinese could have become a part of the ground or maybe suddenly be an American I think he would have done so. He must have decided we meant it since he cooperated the rest of the way to the LZ. After all, a dead officer can’t be returned to his country. Well, I suppose he can, he just wouldn’t know about it.
Sometime around three hours after we had departed the lodging our hosts so kindly provided for our miscreant pals we heard a distant series of explosions. I checked my watch, “Damn. We need to turn in a complaint... Those timers were off by five minutes.”
The guys laughed and Blade looked amused, “You know something, Sarge. You’re all right. You look like a girl, but you’re all right.” He held out his hand, I took it and he gave it a shake, “Nice working with you, Sarge. Maybe you’ll invite me to a few more of your little tea parties?”
“I’ll take it under advisement.”
Ralph gave Blade a slap on his back, “Hey Blade, ever carve up a Thanksgiving Turkey?”
“Yeah, but they’re no fun. They don’t cry or scream, just taste good.”
Everyone laughed – except the Chinese.
Eventually my tired team reached our LZ. We arrived with only an hour to spare since the package tried to tough it out and we had to stop for a couple of hours to give him some rest as well as get more pain killer into him. Now at the LZ, I bullied him into taking even more pain killer and antibiotics.
“You are in no shape to handle the ride back unless we get more pain killer into you, Sir. And I’m not going to chance you coming down with some sort of jungle rot from being out here with all those cuts and your depleted condition. You will take these medications, Sir; even if I have to sit on you and force them into you.”
The package laughed at that thought, beginning to say something about me reminding him of his fiancee just before I tossed an antibiotic into his open mouth. He choked it down then gave some thought to just giving in and taking his medicine. I managed to get him to take another ration bar and a third of a canteen of water, too. That was after he recovered from yet another laughing fit caused by Trank who spoke up just after I tossed the antibiotic tablet.
Trank had looked him straight in the eye as he said, “Don’t argue with Momma Lyon, Sir. She’ll have you on latrine duty for a week, officer and injuries or not.”
I turned and gave Trank a stare that said I was thinking about the same thing for him if he didn’t keep his mouth shut.
When we had roughly ten minutes remaining before our scheduled pickup I told Benny to turn on the radio so we could hear a call from our taxi service. We swept the area on arrival for any signs of enemy activity. So far it seemed to be clear. We made two more sweeps while we were waiting and it still checked out but I didn’t want to stick around any longer than was absolutely necessary. We were so far into Indian territory that I wasn’t certain the cavalry would make it and I didn’t want to stumble over some damn Indian who was lost.
After waiting a few minutes I gave the radio another quick try but still came up with the same results... No response. The radio was awfully silent and I was beginning to worry something had happened to our ride on it’s way in. I wasn’t the only one. We were all getting edgy even though we were still pushing the time and probably the range of the radios by a bit.
“You’re Mad Hatter, huh?” the package said to me, “Glad to meet you, I’m Houdini.”
“Nice to meet you, Houdini. Didn’t you cut it a little fine this time?”
“Dropped the key to my handcuffs. That slowed me down.”
A couple of the guys gave the package a smile. He had to be doing a little better since we stuffed him with more pain killer which apparently was finally allowing him some rest from his injuries. The entire team hoped there were no serious internals. Be hell if he wasn’t able to handle the ride back.
~ ~ ~
In the air the choppers were coming on fast. This far North could play a rough game for everyone involved if they were discovered. The trip from Thailand across Laos and into Northern Vietnam was no cake walk either. It was about time to provide a team a ride and so far the air was still clear of enemy action and the ground hadn’t offered any surprises. Whatever hell these guys had been brewing this far North couldn’t have been any fun. Not for the enemy... nor for them, either.
~ ~ ~
Back at the LZ, I had Benny hand me the radio again. I tried another call for our ride. There was still five minutes to go. I hoped those pilots were good, the map didn’t show how small this site happened to be. On the upside, with the LZ clear there would be enough time for them to come in one at a time. The team began listening and watching carefully, almost willing our taxi ride to be here and themselves to be up in the air with the helicopters well on our way out. We hoped that everything had gone well for our Air Force pals.
The next try on the radio was made a minute after the proposed arrival time but it resulted in one of the happiest moments of my life. We actually got an answer from the choppers and in less than ten minutes we were on our way out of the frying pan and away from the fire which we learned hadn’t been all that far away from us by the time the Zoomies arrived. I’ll never say anything bad about the Air Force guys again. The bad-guys had sent a reinforced company after us.
I had made what I figured would be my last attempt before we began to walk when, “Mad Hatter, this is Ghostrider. Do you copy?” crackled over the radio.
“Roger, Ghostrider, we copy you 5 by.”
My answer to our ride home was greeted by the guys with smiles all around. That was a great change from the stress which had been apparent on them only moments before.
Thank God. Soon I could rest and let someone else carry the load for a bit.
L. J. STEVENS, Vol. One
T D Aldoennetti
with contributing authors
Kate Hart & Denise Trask
All characters in this work have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relationship whatsoever to anyone or anything bearing the same name or names. The characters contained herein are not even distantly inspired by any specific individuals known or unknown to the author. All incidents described or alluded to within this work are pure invention. No affiliations, involvements or gender assignations due to the use of any images contained within this work are to be implied, intended or inferred.
Cover image copyright Maps.com and shown for clarification of area in which the story begins it’s evolution.
DUTY CALLS, L.J. Stevens Vol. One Copyright © 2012 USA, Earth by R. A. Dumas.
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