"PROLOGUE: THE WOUNDS
Dawn, July 15, 1967 --- Republic of South Vietnam
Sergeant Clayton Minor Price sat on the edge of the sandbag bunker and folded his map, then gazed out over the emerald green landscape below the hilltop.
The bright Vietnamese sun inched over the horizon. It was already hot. Soon, he knew, it would be a hundred degrees, with humidity to match. Corporal Billy Horse sat next to him cleaning his rifle, softly whistling the Marine Corps Hymn as he always did while preparing for a patrol.
Clay watched as Billy carefully worked on the inside of the M-14 receiver with an old toothbrush. Billy was full-blooded Apache from the reservation in southeastern Arizona, near the ranch on which Clay had grown up. The two had met as children and had become fast friends. At age twelve Billy had performed a ceremony in which he and Clay – along with two other Apache friends, Elmer Pipestem and Oscar Gosheyun – had become Blood Brothers. Five years later, Clay and Billy had joined the Marine Corps on the ``buddy system.'' Their time in Vietnam had brought them even closer.
As he finished reassembling his rifle, Billy suddenly stopped whistling and looked up at the cloudless sky, head cocked as if listening.
``Something buggin' you?'' asked Clay.
Billy pulled out a pack of cigarettes and offered Clay one. ``Just a feeling.''
``What kind of feeling?''
Billy thought for a moment. ``You remember the Secret Place, on the reservation?''
Billy took a drag on his cigarette. ``Those last few months of school, before we left for Boot Camp, I spent a lot of time out there. Alone with Wolf. Sometimes the spirits would speak to me. Not always in words. Sometimes it would just be a feeling that would start me thinking.''
``Something is bothering you.''
Billy didn't answer for a long time. Finally, he sighed. ``Something about this patrol, Clay. I don't think you should go.''
Clay smiled. ``You've been here too long, Billy. It's just another daylight patrol. Probably be like ninety percent of 'em – a blank.''
Billy's face took on a look of concern. ``Don't go, man. Let Standifer take the squad.''
Clay field-stripped his cigarette butt and stood. ``Too late now. We're mountin' up. C'mon, let's go. We'll talk about all this when we get back.''
7:58 A.M., July 15, 1967
``Where the hell are they? I can't see anything!''
The staccato sound of AK-47 automatic rifles rattled from the jungle to their right front. Someone tossed a grenade. It exploded harmlessly in the dense vegetation. The branches over Clay's head fell to the ground as the enemy fired a burst blindly at them from somewhere in the jungle.
``Corpsman! Corpsman up!'' It sounded like McCreery in the third fireteam.
Clay looked to his left, at Menenghello, his second team leader. ``Hold your team here. I'll take the first and third teams and we'll try to flank <em to their left. Keep the corpsman with you. Get on the radio and advise the skipper that we may need some help. Take care of Mac's injured.''
Menenghello nodded and turned to his radio operator.
Clay moved in McCreery's direction at the double in a half crouch, his M-14 at the ready. ``Mac, where the hell are you?''
``Over here, Clay. Brown's hit in the leg bad. Where the hell's the corpsman?''
Clay knelt next to McCreery, who worked feverishly at applying a web belt tourniquet to Brown's left thigh. ``He'll be here in a second.'' He threw himself to the ground as the small arms fire intensified in their direction.
With his cheek on the ground, and his face turned in McCreery's direction, Clay said, ``I'm gonna take Brown's M-60 and the rest of your team. We'll join up with Billy's team and try to flank the gooks on their left. You stay with Brown.''
McCreery looked to his right. ``Shooter, you and Worm go with Clay.''
Clay got his feet under him and moved further to the right in a crouching run, Brown's machine-gun held at low port-arms, an eighty-round belt loaded, the loose end of it draped over his left arm to keep it from dragging the ground. Worm and Shooter appeared from the thick brush to follow at his heels.
Billy had his ear to his small PRC-6 radio as Clay approached. ``The rest of first platoon will be here in about twenty minutes,'' said Billy, moving the radio from his ear.
``Let's try to flank 'em on their left,'' said Clay. ``I'll take the lead with the machine-gun, Worm and Shooter behind me, then your team. Got it?''
Billy nodded. ``Lead out. Let's get it done.''
Clay moved to his right, Worm and Shooter not far behind. They had gone about seventy-five yards when they ran into the ambush. The VC had allowed Clay and Worm to pass the ambush point. In his haste, Clay had been careless.
When the VC opened up, Clay felt the bullet strike him in the side before he heard the report of the rifle. The impact of the slug drove the breath from his body. He fell to the damp soil, gasping for air. He clutched the M-60 as he rolled for the relative safety of a large tree trunk. The ground around him churned from the impact of VC bullets, creating miniature tremors in the earth that Clay felt in his chest.
He held his side and drew air into his lungs as he tried to determine the seriousness of his wound. He was bleeding, and he felt pain, but he didn't think the wound was life-threatening. He was more concerned about the squad and the number of VC.
He saw Worm on the ground and bleeding as the VC continued to shoot at his prone figure, most of the bullets missing their mark.
He raked the jungle across the clearing with a long burst from the M-60.
``Hang on, Worm!'' he yelled.
He fired another burst and was getting to his feet when Billy burst into view.
``Clay! Clay! You all right?'' Billy shouted.
Clay watched, horrified, as bullets from an AK-47 on full automatic ripped into Billy's stomach. Billy squeezed off one round from his M-14 as he fell.
``No!'' Clay charged into the small clearing where Billy had fallen. ``No!'' He fired his M-60 in the general direction of the VC. He felt bullets strike his arm and side. They felt like hard punches. Then there was excruciating pain. He held onto the machine-gun and remained standing.
I'm dead. So this is how it feels to die. I'm not going out alone. Jesus, just let me get some more.
He squeezed the trigger and staggered towards the hidden VC. Another bullet struck him in the side, knocking him to the ground. He lost the machine-gun. He pulled a grenade from his pocket flap and removed the pin. He threw it feebly at the sound of approaching voices. In his weakened condition, the grenade traveled only fifteen yards. He heard shouts of fear – then the explosion. The deadly fragments whizzed over his body as he buried his face in the damp soil.
He crawled to his machine-gun, clutched it tightly and struggled to his feet, determined to kill more VC before he died. He staggered and fell to one knee. His vision blurred. He shook his head and focused on a tree in front of him. Unsteadily, he regained his feet. A movement in the brush drew a twenty round burst from his gun. A body fell to earth.
Clay felt the strength leaving his body. All firing had ceased. Where the hell is everybody?
He turned and staggered back to Billy, who lay bleeding on the jungle trail, most of his small intestine outside of his body.
``Oh shit. Oh God. No!'' Clay knelt next to him and stared for a moment at the portion of Billy's small intestine lying on the ground like some evil and purple serpent. He placed his M-60 next to the dying man and gingerly picked up the intestine and put it on Billy's stomach. Tears filled his vision. He covered the exposed intestine with his helmet.
``God, it hurts, Clay''
``Billy. . .Goddamnit, don't you die on me, you sorry sonofabitch.''
Billy coughed and winced with pain. ``You don't look so hot yourself.''
``I feel like shit.''
Billy's body jerked with pain. ``I'm dyin', brother.''
The tears on Clay's cheeks cut swaths of tan on an otherwise bloody face. ``What the hell were you doin', steppin' up here like that? Goddamnit, Billy – why?''
``I saw you go down the first time...''
Clay searched the sky. ``Please, God. Don't let him die. I swear, I'll do anything; I'll even believe in you. . . just let him live.'' He turned his gaze back to Billy's face. ``I love you, brother. Don't leave me. Please hang on. I'll go for help.''
He stood to search for help and fell unconscious over Billy's body.
One Year Later: Pre-dawn, July 15, 1968 --- Republic of South Vietnam
``What yo' medicine-man instincts be tellin' you about this here party we be attendin' today, Doc?''
Frank Redhawk ignored the question as he completed his fourth check of the contents of his medical corpsman kit spread on a poncho on the ground in front of him. Only when he was finished did he look up at Snake, who sat with his back against the bunker, loading his rifle.
``I don't like it,'' said Frank. He turned back to his preparations, re-packing the contents of his medical kit methodically. He knew lives might depend on his ability to find what he needed instantly.
``Me neither. Don' like fightin' with no Marvin the ARVN on my flank. We get in shit, an' ol' Marvin gon' mess up bad an' we gon' hafta go save his ass, or he gon' bug out an' we gon' be in the middle of the griddle, Jack – with no slack – and that's a fact.'' Snake picked up his rifle, inserted the loaded magazine, and let the bolt slam home, chambering a round. He snapped the safety on.
Frank looked up at him. ``We're still in the compound, man.''
``Shit, Doc, I carry locked an' loaded on the streets in Detroit. An' tha's home. Compound or no compound, we in a war zone. I damn sure carry locked an' loaded here.''
Frank shrugged and went back to his work. Snake was the closest thing to a friend he had in the platoon. Despite their outwardly different demeanors – Frank withdrawn, efficient, uncommunicative; Snake brash, talking a steady stream of high-energy jive, constantly breaking the rules and getting away with it because he was the best night point man in the platoon – despite these surface dissimilarities, Frank sensed in Snake a secret suffering, isolation and anger not unlike those he carried within himself. Frank was comfortable with Snake in a way he couldn't be with the other men.
``Saddle up!'' It was Gunny Parker, the platoon sergeant.
Frank closed the last flap on his kit and looked up at Snake.
The black man shrugged. ``I guess if the man say dance, we best be dancin'.''
11:08 A.M., July 15, 1968
``Corpsman up! Corpsman up!''
In a crouch, Frank fought his way through the thick tangle of underbrush towards the voice, his medical kit held to his chest to keep it from snagging. He'd long since dumped his pack. Mortar shells exploded all around him, throwing geysers of dirt and shredded vegetation high into the air. With each explosion he had to fight the impulse to dive to the earth.
``Corpsman! God, Corpsman!'' Another voice, filled with pain and fear, screamed off to his left. It was further away. Frank continued in the direction of the first voice. His breath came in short, sharp gasps.
``Over here, Doc!'' It was Gunny Parker. Snake lay on the ground next to him, a bloody mass of torn flesh where the right side of his face had been.
Frank fought through the last of the underbrush and dropped to his knees beside his friend. Everything else disappeared from his awareness. Snake's right eye hung from its shattered socket on strings of muscle, and lay on the mass of crushed bone and shredded flesh which had been his cheek. It moved with involuntary contractions of the muscle strings as his friend looked up at him with his good eye.
``Ah, Doc,'' he whispered.
``Hang in there, Snake.'' Frank felt for Snake's pulse with one hand, opening his kit with the other. The pulse was weak and irregular. ``You hit anywhere else?'' Frank pulled a battle dressing and morphine from his kit.
``Back of my head hurts.'' Snake took a sudden deep breath and let it out slowly. ``Motha's put a hurtin' on me, Doc.'' His voice was weak. ``But I was right about ol' Marvin. Done bugged out again.''
A mortar round went off nearby. Shrapnel ripped through the brush and whined overhead. Both Frank and Snake were lifted off the ground and slammed back down by the concussion. Snake screamed as his eyeball rolled to the hollow next to his nose. ``What's wrong with my eyes, Doc?'' Snake's voice was faint and filled with terror. ``I can see but everything's crazy.''
``Just take it easy while I check out your head. Don't move.''
He slipped the fingers of his right hand under Snake's neck and worked them gently up under the back of his friend's head. Something warm and soft gave way around his fingers and Snake's body went rigid for an instant before it collapsed again. Snake exhaled one long, final time, and died.
Frank felt it like a kick in the solar plexus. He choked back the instant grief which surged up in his throat, choked it back and shoved it down to be consumed by the fires of his rage. He withdrew his hand slowly and wiped Snake's brains from his fingers onto the earth. With his scissors, he cut one of Snake's dog tags from the laces of his boot and put it into his dead friend's mouth, closing his jaw onto it. He looked at Snake's face for a long moment, seeing all the details, using the vision to seal off the churning maelstrom of rage, grief, and guilt inside. He should have gotten there sooner. He should have moved faster. He should have known more.
He should have been able to do something. He should never have let himself care as much as he did. He should have cared more.
Frank looked up slowly. It was Gunny Parker.
``We're pulling back to the mouth of the canyon. The CO wants you to stay with me until we get there. All the wounded are being brought to the same place.''
The words came to Frank from far away. He nodded to show he understood. He was afraid to try to speak. He didn't know what would come out if he opened his mouth. He looked back into the face of his dead friend. Dry, withered tears burned behind his eyes. He put the strap of his medical kit over his shoulder and across his chest, the kit resting on his hip. He leaned down and picked up the body of his friend, getting him across his shoulder, then followed the Gunny as they began to retrace their steps.
They had managed twenty-five yards when the mortar round went off about fifteen feet to Frank's right and behind him. He screamed in anger and pain as he felt the shrapnel rip through his right thigh, breaking both bones, before the concussion slammed him forward onto his face.
``You okay, Doc?'' Gunny Parker crawled back towards him.
``Broken leg,'' Frank managed through the pain. ``May have nicked an artery. There's a lot of blood.'' He rolled on his back, his kit already open. He cut the leg of his uniform away from the wound. Jagged ends of bone protruded through the lacerated flesh, obscenely white against the pulsing blood. A jagged tip of bright silver metal flashed in the sun. A wave of dizziness came over Frank and he shook his head to clear it. The movement sent a jolt of pain through the wound and his whole body broke into an intense sweat.
``Let me give you a hand.'' Gunny Parker took the tourniquet from him and put it on his thigh, above the wound.
``Thanks,'' Frank said. ``I'll be okay. You go on.''
``Sorry, Doc, but I got my orders. You're supposed to stay with me. I'll carry you.''
``You can't carry both of us.''
``Snake's dead, Doc. We'll send somebody back for him.''
``No, damnit! He hasn't got anybody else. I'll stay with him.''
``I don't have time to screw around, Doc. . .''
``Then get out of here, goddamnit!''
``Not without you, you sorry shit.'' Gunny Parker grabbed Frank by the arm and started to pull him up.
Frank couldn't suppress a grunt of pain. ``Wait a minute,'' he said, his breath coming in quick, short pants. ``I'm gonna have to splint it.'' He suddenly knew what he would do. ``Bring Snake over here.'' Frank pulled his belt off. ``I'll splint my leg to his and if you're so goddamn set on following orders, you can drag us both.''
Gunny Parker looked at Frank for a long moment, and then shook his head and grinned. ``You're a crazy son-of-a-bitch, Doc. You want to give yourself some morphine before we start?''
Frank shook his head. ``I've only got three amps left. Somebody's going to need them worse than me before this thing's over.''
It took nearly twenty minutes to drag Frank and Snake back to a dense stand of trees near the mouth of the canyon where temporary headquarters had been established. The Gunny left him with the other wounded and dead.
Frank let his eyes close and listened to the sounds of the battle. Pain pulsed through him. Nearby, a wounded man moaned, and then cried out. Frank opened his eyes. He fumbled with the belts tying him to Snake. He wanted to crawl to the moaning man and help. He couldn't make his fingers work on the buckles. He tried to sit up. An instant roar of pain engulfed him. His vision went dim. He fell back.
He opened his eyes. It was a corpsman from one of the other platoons.
``You got anything left in your kit?''
Frank struggled to think. ``Some,'' he managed. ``Take it.''
``You're losing a lot of blood, man. You want me to start some plasma?''
Frank shook his head. ``See about the others.'' His voice was cracked, his throat and mouth dry. His vision dimmed again. He closed his eyes and felt his medical kit being removed. He drifted, caught himself, and forced his eyes open again. The other corpsman squatted beside him, going through his kit.
The mortars started again. Six quick explosions walked through the grove towards them. Frank watched the corpsman's head come off his shoulders, a look of surprise still on its face as it hit the ground and rolled. Bright gouts of blood erupted from the neck as the body collapsed in slow motion. Frank clamped down hard on the scream of horror which reverberated through him. But he could not hold back the bile that roared up from his gut. He turned his head and vomited, the spasms slamming shock wave after shock wave of pain through his body. He lost consciousness.
After a timeless period he became aware of someone pulling on his arm.
``What the hell we got here, Siamese twins?''
The voice came from far away. Frank tried to open his eyes. They would not respond. He felt himself being lifted, heard grunts and heavy breathing. ``I'll take 'em both. Get somebody else. Let's move! Those choppers can't sit there all day.''
Frank felt himself being carried. Each impact of the lurching, heavily laden walk sent a new wave of pain tearing through him. He clamped his jaws tight against it. He would not cry out. He lost consciousness again."