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Outside the Lines
Summary: A Vietnam-era story. Hannibal can't resist a little side-trip after a mission and the consequences challenge his grace-under-pressure skills. H/C and some soldiery-type language. Originally published in Sockii Press's Deadly Manuevers 1, 1997.
Damn it, Charlie, I told you we'd blow this thing again if you insisted on puttin' it back! Hannibal swore under his breath as he covered Face's and B.A.'s hasty retreat.
Well, you won't be using that bridge for awhile, he consoled himself as the charges blew, sending the pursuing NVA soldiers to the ground. Face and B.A. came flying past the colonel, into the jungle beyond. Hannibal opened up a spray from his M-16 rifle before he turned tail and ran after his team.
The three men separated and moved quickly, putting as much distance between themselves and the enemy soldiers as possible. The sun was still two hours from rising and it took all their skill to make it back to their rendezvous in the dark. Within twenty minutes of the demolition, the three soldiers regrouped, picked up their hidden packs, and began a deliberate course through the lush tropical forest.
Hannibal always got a rush from blowing things up. He wished he could have stayed and surveyed the destruction his team had caused but the North Vietnamese had been more attentive, and much more numerous, this time. The colonel wasn't really concerned. All the charges had been set exactly where they were supposed to go and B.A. had blown them with his usual precision. Nothing would be crossing the ravine for at least three months. His team had destroyed that particular bridge three times already. Yet the stubborn NVA kept trying to put it back. Hannibal, Face, and B.A would wait until the bridge was almost functional then return to blast it to kingdom come. It had become a joke among them. They hadn't even set out to blow the bridge ten days ago. Their original mission sent them into Dong Hoi to destroy a munitions dump in the North Vietnamese town. That accomplished, Hannibal had decided to see how the NVA was progressing on his favorite overpass. Face groaned miserably when the colonel let the others in on his planned detour.
"Aw, Hannibal. Don't you think blowing that bridge four times is pushing it? I mean, Jesus, they were waiting for us last time. You can bet they're expecting us. Why can't we go blow up some other bridge, huh?" The lieutenant had brightened at his own suggestion.
B.A. had agreed, nodding his scowling face. "Yeah, goin' back four times is stupid, man! Ain't nobody dumb enough to do that. 'Sides, we got nothing to blow it with anyway."
"But they have everything we need," Hannibal explained. "And, come on guys, they're never goin' to expect us to hit it again! We can't miss. It'll be a piece of cake, somethin' to break up the monotony on our way back to the landing zone."
"Oh, yeah, avoiding ambushes and punji pits isn't enough excitement," Face had scoffed.
In the end, Hannibal won, as he always did. So, the team took an alternate route to their pickup point with Murdock. As Hannibal had predicted, the bridge was almost back in place. The colonel decided that the usual approach would suffice. After all, blowing up this bridge was becoming something of a hobby and the team, having already done the job three times, was very familiar with the lay of the land. Face pilfered the necessary explosives and equipment from the enemy themselves. B.A. rigged the charges and the two men had set them to undermine the trestle while
Hannibal served as lookout and decoy, keeping the NVA soldiers' attention away from his men. Mission accomplished, pursuit ducked, the team continued on to their LZ which lay thirty-five kilometers southwest on the border with Laos.
Hannibal took up rear guard with Face in front. They moved silently a hundred yards off a rarely used trail, almost slithering through the vegetation. The two young men in front never ceased to amaze their colonel. They were as different as night and day yet they acted and moved as one. On a mission they were inseparable. It was only when standing down between assignments that their natures surfaced: B.A. solemn and temperamental, Face gregarious and ebullient. Somewhere between was Hannibal, often contemplative but always ready to indulge in a good time. And their pilot, Murdock? The colonel chuckled to himself. Murdock was off on his own tangent! Sometimes, his main purpose in life seemed to be annoying B.A. though Hannibal knew the twenty-four year old captain adored the big sergeant. Other times, Hannibal had been called to pull both Murdock and Face out of the MPs' cuffs when they'd gotten too rambunctious. God, Hannibal thought, the trouble those two could get into! Murdock happily agreed to any and all of the lieutenant's scams. In return, Face gamely played along with the captain's numerous idiosyncrasies, perfectly willing to accept Murdock for the unique and off-beat individual he was.
Together, the four men formed the core of an extraordinarily successful, if eccentric, commando unit. Hannibal felt his primary objective on each assignment was to bring his men back alive. He never let the importance of a mission rise above the welfare of those under his command. In appreciation, his three young charges would follow, or fly, him anywhere and would do anything he asked of them because they trusted him implicitly.
The dawn had barely broken to lift the heavy jungle mist when a sudden halt signal from Face pulled the colonel up short in his reflections. The lieutenant had obviously seen, or felt, something not quite right about the jungle. Hannibal and B.A. waited patiently, trying to get a fix on whatever had alerted Face, to no avail. They'd both learned to trust his instincts; Face was rarely mistaken when on point. Hannibal could barely see him twenty yards ahead, and even B.A. was hard to spot less than thirty feet away, their camouflage so exceptional. B.A.'s dark skin saved him from having to indulge in the heavy makeup both Hannibal and Face applied to their arms and faces, any exposed skin. The two officers, both sandy blondes, though Hannibal was beginning to turn silver, even darkened their hair.
Face signaled to them and they dropped, crawling silently up to the lieutenant's position. Using hand signals, Face indicated an approaching NVA patrol of not more than a dozen soldiers. Hannibal nodded, as they shrugged out of their rucksacks, never making a sound, and quickly dispatched his two comrades to their standard ambush arrangement. B.A. slipped down finding a good spot fifteen yards from the path the enemy soldiers were using. Hannibal crept back up the trail, to take a place just ten yards off the track and thirty yards from B.A.'s position. Face moved ahead of the sergeant before sneaking towards the path. He found a suitable hopea tree and, after double-checking the location of the incoming enemy and slinging his rifle over his back, rapidly scaled the thick trunk. He settled in the second main branching, twenty-five feet above the jungle floor, hidden in the tree's dense foliage. Everyone in place, they waited patiently for their victims.
Hannibal growled to himself when he saw their prey. There were ten NVA soldiers dogging it on the trail, making far too much noise. The colonel suspected they were on their way to assist the unit at the now collapsed bridge and had been on the move most of the night; they were tired and impatient. Hannibal
shook his head at their ignorance. The second man in line, carrying a lighter pack than the rest, barked orders. He looked like anything but a warrior. You fool, bringing your men along a trail like this. His team waited for their commander to give the break. When the first man came even with him, Hannibal noticed that the soldier was carrying an American M-16 rifle and rucksack. What poor kid died to give you those?
Hannibal held his fire until the second man was even with him before he took out the lead soldier. Instantly, the rapid discharges of M-16s filled the jungle. Hannibal had downed the first man, fired through the second and back towards the third. The third man had time to react, dropping to the path and rolling into the undergrowth. But the colonel could see the flash of a weapon as the enemy soldier returned fire. Hannibal promptly mowed that section of vegetation with his rifle.
For no more than twenty seconds, the forest resounded with the sharp crackle of automatic weapons, then fell eerily silent. Hannibal remained hidden, watching the trail cautiously. At his end, there was no activity. He waited for a two minute count and heard nothing - no sounds of movement or moans of wounded. Carefully, he eased down to the kill zone, aware that B.A. and Face would have their weapons trained on the area.
Moving with total silence, the colonel slipped down onto the trail. He counted ten motionless bodies. Dispassionately, he fired a single shot into the back of each NVA soldier's head. He'd seen too many good men killed because a "dead" man had gotten off one last round. There was no excuse for taking
When he had dispatched the tenth shot, B.A. moved into the zone and he and Hannibal started rifling through the dead men's packs looking for documents. Face would remain in his position until it was time to move out, on alert for more patrols. Within five minutes, the two team members on the ground were ready to leave. They slipped back into the jungle towards Face's tree and watched as he slid down to earth. Even before he hit the ground, Hannibal knew something was wrong. The lieutenant was coming down awkwardly.
The light was still dim as it filtered through the double canopy. Hannibal couldn't quite make out the expression on his junior officer's face. Nor could he see any injury.
"What's wrong?" the colonel hissed in the heavy dawn air.
He saw Face shake his head and point towards his right leg.
"Grazed, I think," he whispered back.
Hannibal scowled. "Can you go on?"
Face nodded though he limped painfully. Hannibal caught his arm and shook his head, indicating that he would take point and for B.A. to bring up the rear. Face shrugged. The pointman had to be one hundred percent. Anything less could be fatal for the entire team. The colonel moved out, Face hobbling behind, B.A. cautiously bringing up the rear.
The three men traveled for the next several hours, stopping when the noon sun beat down. Hannibal mopped his face with the towel he carried around his neck, watching the aching lieutenant do the same while B.A. moved out on guard. The humidity made the forest close and oppressive. After their busy night and early morning ambush, Hannibal knew they needed a midday break. They could eat, catch a short sleep, and be revived when they moved out at sundown. That would give them twelve hours to reach the LZ, still better than twenty kilometers away. His team depended on stealth to move through the jungle, not speed. Speed kills, Hannibal thought grimly, remembering their ambush this morning. Caution was everything out here.
The three men removed their packs before B.A and Hannibal efficiently set up a perimeter. The sergeant put himself on first watch. He knew Hannibal would want to peruse the documents they'd removed from the dead NVA soldiers, and he'd probably look at Face's injury. B.A. frowned thinking about that. He had watched his friend limp ahead of him all morning, grateful that they moved with caution rather than speed. Face would never had been able to keep up had they moved with any quickness.
As soon as B.A. was settled on watch, Hannibal drew alongside Face, who was leaning awkwardly against his pack. The lieutenant sat with his eyes closed, trying to slow his panting. Hannibal crouched next to the young man and surveyed the wounded leg.
"Grazed, huh, kid?" he murmured, eyebrows raised. Face grinned sheepishly.
"Well, maybe it's a little deeper than that," he admitted. Hannibal spotted a small blood-soaked tear in the right thigh of Face's fatigues. He cut through the cloth with his knife to expose the wound. Face watched anxiously.
Hannibal grimaced. The lieutenant had taken a hit in the leg. To his surprise there was not much bleeding from the puncture. The blood was dark, indicating it was from a vein, not an artery. Oddly, it seemed to be coming from the entrance of the wound, not deep inside it.
"Did it go through?" the colonel asked, his voice very low, as he felt around the back of Face's thigh.
Face shook his head. "Not that I noticed."
Hannibal cocked a wry smile. "Oh, believe me, you would have noticed. Nope, I don't feel anything. It's not bleeding very much. You're lucky. The slug must've ricocheted off something before it got you."
"Yeah, I feel real lucky," Face murmured, rolling his eyes.
The colonel ignored his sarcasm. "How is it walking?"
"Only hurts when I move." Hannibal gave Face a twisted smile.
"No shit, Sherlock. I mean, can you go on?"
"Well, I'm not about to stick around here," the lieutenant snorted. "And I'm sure as hell not lettin' you guys carry me all the way to the LZ. Christ, you'd probably drop me on a mine."
"Keep it up and we just might," Hannibal smirked as he reached over and dragged his pack closer. After rummaging around in it, he withdrew a bandage from the stash of medical supplies. Each team member carried field dressings, smelling salts, and packets of disinfectant. In addition, the colonel, as team leader, had a medical kit that included a small suture pack, a couple of carefully stored bottles of serum albumin (blood plasma expander), morphine, needles and IV catheters. Hannibal cleaned the wound as best he could. He was glad they were in camouflage; he knew Face had gone dead white under the makeup as he scrubbed the wound site with the iodine swabs. It was several minutes before the lieutenant stopped hissing breath through clenched teeth.
"Sorry, but I had to," Hannibal apologized as he packed the hole with sterile gauze and began bandaging the thigh. Face made no comment, only flattening himself onto the ground. He closed his eyes tightly and didn't open them until Hannibal had finished. The colonel slapped him hard on his other leg, passing him a canteen.
"Hungry, kid?" Hannibal said brightly as he stowed the medical kit into his pack.
Face grimaced around a mouthful of water. "Not unless you find a nice rare New York strip hiding in there."
"Oh, I'd forgotten how witty you are when you get hurt," Hannibal replied dryly, drawing out a couple of packets and reading their labels. "Sorry to disappoint you but it's just the usual LRPs. How 'bout dehydrated shrimp with rice and mushrooms? Mmm, mmm."
"I'm in enough pain, I think I'll pass," Face remarked, handing the canteen back.
Hannibal shrugged and added water to both dehydrated meals. "Now, now, that's not the right attitude. The Army spent good money on these things." Hannibal gazed reflectively into the packets. "At least, I like to think they did. Besides, you should take advantage while you can. How often do I do the cooking?"
Face chuckled as he accepted the food. "Well, that's certainly true." He took a look inside the packet. "Yecch. These make C-Rations look almost appetizing."
"You should know better than that by now, Lieutenant. Don't ever look at the food." Hannibal scolded, his blue eyes laughing.
After eating, Hannibal watched the twenty-one year old settle himself for a nap. The colonel remained pensive until the young man fell asleep, thinking twenty kilometers suddenly seemed a very long way.
Hannibal took the watch from B.A. three hours later, the two of them agreeing silently to release the lieutenant from that duty. Face slept on while B.A. fixed his own meal and indulged in a short nap. As sunset approached, Hannibal returned and woke both men. He was relieved to see that Face's wound hadn't bled through the dressing. B.A. helped Face to his feet and the injured man took several painful strides. His leg had stiffened considerably during the six hours he had rested. Hannibal shook his head.
"Can you work it out a little? It seems pretty stiff."
"Jeez, I'm sorry, Colonel," Face hissed, exasperated as he tried to get the leg to loosen up. "I didn't know you were gonna take me dancing."
Hannibal smiled brightly. "How'd you find out? Did B.A. let it slip?"
The sergeant shook his head, disgusted with them. "You two is nuts. You're gettin' bad as Murdock."
The pilot's name brought Hannibal back to reality.
"Speaking of Murdock, we'd best get going. B.A., bring up the rear. I'll take point again. Face -"
The lieutenant looked up at the sound of his name. Hannibal chuckled.
"Well, just keep limping along, I guess."
"Very funny. I'd have been tempted to jog if you hadn't said anything," he muttered.
As the night wore on, Hannibal relaxed a bit. Face managed to hobble along at a respectable pace, and the colonel felt sure they would make the LZ on time. Around midnight, while he was contemplating which field hospital he should have Murdock head for, the one with the best surgeons or the one with the best nurses, Hannibal realized he'd drawn too far ahead of Face. He eased back and peered into the darkness behind him.
The lieutenant was struggling to keep moving. Something wasn't right. Hannibal hiked back quickly, reaching him just as B.A. came forward.
"What is it?" Hannibal whispered, his voice tinged with urgency.
Face shook his head, breathing raggedly.
"I don't know," he gasped. "All of a sudden - I don't feel so good."
B.A. caught him as he slid to the ground. Hannibal could barely see by the weak light of the gibbous moon, but when he touched the bandage he'd placed on the lieutenant's leg earlier, he felt wetness. For some reason, the wound was now bleeding heavily. B.A. removed Face's pack while the colonel shrugged off his own and drew out a small flashlight. Using the towel from around his neck to shield the light, he illuminated Face's leg.
Hannibal stifled a gasp. My God! Where'd all that blood come from? The young man's entire leg below the wound was soaked. Even in the uncertain light, the colonel could see bright red blood. He glanced sharply up at B.A., standing guard, before looking back at Face. The lieutenant was breathing hard as he stared up into the black forest canopy.
"B.A., I'm gonna need your help,"
Hannibal murmured, hoping Face didn't catch the anxiety in his voice as he wedged the young man's pack under the wounded leg. But the lieutenant heard all too well.
"What's wrong?" he hissed in the dark, having recovered some of his equilibrium after lying flat.
"Nothin', kid. It's just begun to bleed a bit. You doin' any better?"
"Yeah, feels good to lie down," Face replied slowly, closing his eyes. "I could go to sleep." Hannibal leaned over Peck's head, tapping his cheek.
"Keep talkin' to me, Lieutenant. How far away you figure the LZ is?" The colonel had no way to gauge the young man's color under the heavy camouflage makeup. But he suspected Face was on the brink of unconsciousness, as he struggled to answer the query.
"I dunno," he mumbled. " 'bout nine, ten klicks?"
"Get me another dressing, B.A.," Hannibal whispered as he took the lieutenant's pulse, shining the light back down Peck's leg. There's so much blood! The colonel released the lieutenant's wrist. Ninety, a little quick but not bad, considering.
"Pretty good, Face. That's what I thought, too. What's the first thing you goin' to do when we get back to Da Nang?" Out of the corner of his eye, as he turned to the sergeant, he saw Face smile.
"Find Morrison's secretary," Face said dreamily.
Hannibal grinned taking the bandages from B.A. That sounded like his lieutenant. Apparently, the pretty, red-haired second lieutenant was the latest conquest. "Hand me a serum bottle, too, B.A. and come over here."
The big man moved into Hannibal's spot as the colonel directed.
"Remember where the femoral pressure point is, Sergeant?" Hannibal watched as B.A. gripped the top of Face's right thigh and pressed his thumbs into the joining of leg and torso. Face grimaced, but the sergeant held firm.
"Hey, watch where you're pushing, B.A." the lieutenant complained.
"Good job. Keep up a lot of pressure," Hannibal muttered, standing and stepping over the wounded man. He fashioned a makeshift pole from the thick, low hanging branch of a nearby tree and jammed it into the ground along Face's left side. Satisfied with its stability, he hung the blood serum bottle on it and unwound the catheter.
"How you doin', Lieutenant?" he muttered sharply, shining the flashlight along Face's arm.
"I'll be all right," Face replied, sounding stronger. "You really think that's necessary?" the lieutenant asked, eyeing the serum.
"Yeah, kid, I do. Better to err on the side of caution. You get this stuff running through your veins and you'll feel like a million bucks. I guarantee it."
The colonel tied a thick rubber strip around Face's arm just above the elbow, before pulling the limb out straight, hunting for a vein. It's been awhile since I've done this, he mused. He swabbed disinfectant on the inside of his lieutenant's elbow, cleaning a bright white spot amid the makeup laden skin. Hope you have big veins, he prayed as he gripped the needle, picked his site and stabbed Face's arm. Hannibal was immediately rewarded with a flow of dark blood out the back end of the needle. Working rapidly, he connected the catheter from the serum albumin.
"How's it going, B.A?" the colonel asked, releasing the tourniquet.
The black man nodded almost imperceptibly in the faint light. "Doin' all right, I guess. Man, I can't see nothin' though."
Hannibal moved back alongside B.A., shining the light onto the bloodied bandage he'd placed several hours ago.
"Moment of truth," he muttered, cutting through the saturated dressing. After removing it, Hannibal inspected the bullet hole. Bright red blood seeped steadily from the injury.
"Why'd it start bleedin' so bad?" B.A.'s voice a tense whisper.
"I don't know. Could be that the bullet weakened an artery wall and it finally gave out. Or maybe it was pressing against a vessel and just cut into it. I have no idea but we should probably be grateful he made it this far before it let loose," Hannibal replied while he inspected the wound site. "Great, B.A., the bleeding has about quit. Keep the pressure on."
The colonel reached for the dressing B.A. had set out earlier.
"Hey, Face, you still there?" Hannibal asked.
"Yeah, but could you let B.A. ease up? I think my leg's gone to sleep."
The colonel grinned. "Probably has and, sorry, B.A.'s just tryin' to keep the blood in your leg, where it belongs. A few pins and needles will be worth it."
Hannibal opened the dressing and placed sterile pads against the bullet wound. Holding them firmly, he began to wrap the elastic roll around Face's thigh, pulling the strip tight each time around. He used the entire roll, finally satisfied that his pressure bandage was exactly that. He sat back on his heels and glanced at his watch before moving up to check Face's progress with the blood serum.
"About done?" he flashed the light briefly at the bottle. "Yep, I'd say so." Hannibal removed the needle, guiding Face to put pressure on the small puncture while he buried the empty container.
They had been stopped for just over thirty minutes. Hannibal checked Face's pulse again, pleased to find it down to sixty-four.
"Stay quiet, kid, and don't move. With any luck, whatever was bleeding will seal itself." Hannibal turned to B.A. "Okay, start easing off real slow."
Little by little, the sergeant lightened the pressure he'd been applying to his friend's leg. Hannibal watched the bandage carefully.
"That's it. Take about five minutes until you back off completely."
B.A. continued slowly releasing his hands. The colonel turned towards Face and warned, "This isn't gonna feel too great as the blood starts circulating again. Hang tough."
Fifteen minutes later, Hannibal breathed a sigh of relief, grinning victoriously at B.A. Face had the feeling back in his leg which had not started to bleed again. Or at least not that they could see. Hannibal's pressure bandage remained a luminescent white in the jungle night.
"B.A., see if you can cover that," the colonel whispered, indicating the bandage. "And stay on guard. I'm gonna scout around a bit, see where we are. Face, don't move. Catch a few winks if you can. If things seem okay here, we'll wait another hour before we move out. Back in a flash."
Hannibal left the two soldiers and disappeared into the night. The sergeant busied himself, staining the bandage with Hannibal's camouflage makeup.
"How're ya' doin', man?"
B.A. caught the flash of teeth when Face smiled.
"Actually, I feel pretty good now." The lieutenant looked at the big black sergeant fondly. "Thanks."
"Don't worry 'bout it. You'd do the same."
Face nodded in the blackness knowing B.A. was right. By the time the colonel returned fifteen minutes later, Face had dozed off. Hannibal called the sergeant into a quick conference.
"We look okay here. Cover is good and I can't find any trace that anyone has come through here recently, though I can't be sure in the dark. The trail is silent." Hannibal pulled out his light and map showing the sergeant where they were. B.A. whistled low.
"Aw, Hannibal, we're more than ten kilometers from the LZ. How're we gonna get there by 0600? It's past one now. Faceman can't make that."
The colonel nodded absently and glanced over his shoulder at the sleeping man. "It'll be close but I think we can do it. If we wait 'til 0200, that'll give us four hours to make ten klicks. We did better than three an hour after the ambush."
Hannibal could see B.A. wasn't convinced. The sergeant remained silent for several minutes before speaking again.
"What about the pain, Hannibal? He's gotta be hurtin' bad. Or he will be when we start movin' again."
"Yeah, I've thought about that. But since he hasn't said anything, I'm not going to mention it. If we dope him up on morphine he'll really slow down."
B.A. shook his head. "I don't like it, man. We shouldn't be movin' him at all."
"We don't have a choice," Hannibal replied sharply. "We're still too close to that bridge. The NVA will be watching this place like hawks, figuring we'll be gettin' picked up someplace nearby. We've got to get farther away before we hit an LZ. We've got to."
B.A. and Hannibal saved the most important items from Face's rucksack, first aid supplies and extra ammunition, then buried it. There was no way the injured man could continue carrying the pack and the other two already had enough to haul. Hannibal slung the lieutenant's rifle over his back and woke Face. Just before 0200 they set out again. Hannibal moved in front while B.A. and Face, the latter's right arm across massive shoulders for support, followed. They made their way stealthily through the heavy vegetation. As the night wore on, B.A. began to bear more of the lieutenant's weight.
"Come on, Faceman, keep going. I'm right here. You can do it," he encouraged and, for a brief while, he felt his friend respond. But all too soon, Face began to drag on him. Finally, just after 0400, the lieutenant collapsed, going down so fast, he slipped out of B.A.'s grasp. Hannibal, never far away, heard the commotion and was alongside the two in a minute. A quick flash of the light showed the wound hemorrhaging badly.
"Shit!" Hannibal swore under his breath, pulling out the field dressings he'd taken from Face's pack earlier and the serum. B.A. immediately put pressure on the femoral artery again, hoping to slow the bleeding. The colonel applied another bandage over the old one, tightening it as much as he dared, then administered the second, and last, bottle of serum albumin. When he finished, he took the radio and called for Murdock. B.A. was right; they weren't going to make their LZ by 0600. It was still more than seven kilometers away.
"Repo-one this is able-triple-niner, do you copy?" Hannibal hissed into the radio, holding it tightly against his ear waiting for the reply. "Repo-one, do you copy?" the colonel called again. Come on, Captain. I know you're there. "Murdock!" Hannibal called as loud as he dared, examining the map.
"Hannibal? That you, Colonel?"
"Yeah. Murdock, listen. We've run into a little snag. We're still seven klicks from the LZ and there's no way we're gonna make it by 0600. We need a new site. You got your map?"
"Sure thing, Colonel. Never go anywhere without it. Where you thinkin' of?" There was a brief pause. "Gosh darn it, can't get the damned thing to fold right."
"Look straight north of where we we're heading. See that old camp clearing?"
There was a long pause.
"You mean where the skull and crossbones are?"
"Very funny, Captain. Just east of that is a blue line, got it?"
"That's a creek or river or somethin'."
"I know that, Murdock! It's normally a creek but at this time of year, 'bout half a klick north of the clearing, it's a swamp. We were around there last year, remember?"
"Oh, yeah. Isn't that where B.A. tried a half-gainer out of the chopper?"
Hannibal grinned. "That's the place. We're less than three klicks from it right now. Listen, Cap'n, timing is everything on this one. We'll be there 'bout 0700. You get there at exactly 0710. But don't hang around. And bring a fast ship, huh?"
"You mean leave my own bird behind? But, Colonel, wait 'till you see her. You won't recognize the old gal! I gave her a new coat of camouflage. She's absolutely invisible now!"
Hannibal sighed, wondering what the eccentric pilot had done to his chopper. "Unless you've tacked a couple of cannons onto it, I'd suggest something with a little more firepower - and a couple of gunners."
"Gunners? Aw, Hannibal, it's a hot zone, isn't it?"
"Of course it's hot, Murdock. It's twelve miles into North Vietnam!" The colonel paused. "Oh, and bring a medic, too."
There was only a brief hesitation before Hannibal heard Murdock's concern over the radio.
"My God, Hannibal, what happened? Who's hurt?"
"Don't get excited. Face is just runnin' a couple quarts low at the moment. Keep your cool. We'll see you in a few, okay? Fly safely, Captain."
"A couple of quarts? For cryin' out loud, Hannibal! How bad -"
Hannibal cut off the transmitter. He had no trouble imagining the turmoil this would throw Murdock into. The captain would pace frantically up and down, wave his arms, and fret that he wasn't already there to get the team. Then he'd calm down and, being Murdock, drink half a gallon of bad coffee to settle his nerves, promptly relieve some unsuspecting pilot of his prized gunship, kidnap a gunner, a medic, and be on his way. Hannibal could always count on Murdock to do the right thing - maybe not the right way, but after all, when did this team do anything the right way? They'd made themselves famous by coloring outside the lines.
Face revived shortly after Hannibal's call to Murdock. Fifteen minutes later, the colonel had B.A. ease off and the three were back on the move less than one hour after they'd stopped. To give B.A. a break, Hannibal played crutch to Face this time while the big sergeant led the way.
By the time dawn broke, Face was struggling to stay conscious and the colonel began to worry that even an 0700 arrival was too optimistic. Hannibal called a halt, easing the lieutenant to the ground while he debated what to do. They only had forty-five minutes to make the last kilometer but if they didn't let Face rest, he'd be unconscious. And there was no way they'd make the landing zone before 0700 carrying him.
"How ya' doin', kid?" Hannibal asked, kneeling alongside Face. There didn't appear to be any bleeding through the last dressing; maybe the second wrap had finally stanched the blood flow.
The lieutenant had his eyes squeezed shut but he managed a slight grin at the colonel's question. "Oh, dandy," he muttered through clenched teeth. "How much farther?"
"Believe it or not, just about a klick."
Hannibal watched Face's blue eyes open wide in surprise.
"Where are we goin'?"
The colonel hedged. "The LZ, remember? That's usually where we pick up our ride."
The lieutenant shut his eyes against a sudden sharp headache. "Come on, Hannibal, don't do this to me. You're makin' my head hurt. Which landing zone?"
The colonel glanced at B.A. who was watching Face with anxious eyes.
"What kind of fool question is that?" B.A. answered, the gentle tone in his voice at odds with the fierce scowl he gave Face. "The closest one, 'course."
Despite the pain it caused, Face laughed out loud, shaking his head. "Guess I should've known that, huh?" he replied sarcastically.
Hannibal glanced at the two young men. He was getting ready to take them through the eye of the needle. The NVA would be all over the clearing they were heading for, which is why he'd told Murdock to make for the swamp instead. But he held no illusions. Though the enemy would concentrate on the likely landing spot of the clearing, they'd follow the chopper wherever it went. There was no way for Murdock to sneak in. Hannibal hoped that having the pilot head for the least likely landing area would surprise the North Vietnamese and buy them a little time. With any luck, the team would be in the chopper before the enemy could react with their full force.
Hannibal glanced at his watch. 0635. Face was still breathing raggedly, grinding his jaws against the pain. The colonel reached into his rucksack and withdrew what was left of his medical supply. His hand brushed the bottle of morphine and he hesitated, looking at the lieutenant. The young man's breathing was starting to ease. Either the pain was letting up or Face was adjusting to it - or he was passing out. Hannibal thought back to what he'd told B.A. earlier. If Face didn't mention the pain, he wouldn't offer the drugs. So be it. Instead, the colonel drew out smelling salts, breaking one of the packages under Face's nose. The man bolted upright.
"We've gotta get moving, guys," Hannibal told his men, stashing the rest of the salts in his breast pocket. B.A. nodded, sensing his colonel's uneasiness about the last leg of their journey. Face blinked several times, his head clearing, and swallowed hard.
"Give me a hand, will ya', big guy?" he asked B.A.
The sergeant hauled Face to his feet. Hannibal watched anxiously as the wounded man leaned heavily on B.A. but once he'd acclimated to a vertical position, he seemed steady enough. The sergeant pulled Face's arm over his shoulder.
"Let's do it, brothers," the black man muttered. Hannibal nodded, grinned at the two young men and moved past them into the dense jungle cover.
They hadn't gone far when Hannibal signaled them to take cover. B.A. dragged Face down into thick foliage at the base of a tree, the lieutenant gasping in pain as his injured leg was brutally twisted. Hannibal ducked into the rut left by a huge rotting log where he could monitor the nearby trail. The three waited, silent and immobile.
An NVA patrol of eight soldiers passed along the trail, hardly making sound. The colonel waited several minutes before easing out of his hiding place and searching the nearby area. He returned for his two men, and they moved out. Hannibal kept his fears to himself but he was desperately aware that they were running out of time. B.A. was nearly carrying Face, and even though the lieutenant was lean, he was still a good 170 pounds of added weight for the burly sergeant. They were going too slow. If we keep running across enemy patrols… Hannibal urged them on. As they negotiated a steep drop towards the flood plain of the narrow river, he checked his watch. 0702! Damn!
The colonel began to consider his options. What if they didn't make the LZ by the time Murdock arrived? He'd told the pilot not to hang around. There was no way they could keep traveling at the rate they had been. How much longer could he push Face before the lieutenant gave out for good? Except for the morphine and a couple of dressings, they were out of medical supplies. And how much farther before they were trapped? Should they fight to the end or surrender to the brutality of a POW camp? He and B.A. might eventually come out alive but the North Vietnamese wouldn't bother to take a prisoner in Face's condition; they'd just leave him behind to die. Hannibal shuddered, remembering what he'd done for a close friend in Korea under similar circumstances. He had done it once; if necessary, he could do it again. A quick, painless death from a single shot would be preferable to a slow, agonizing death abandoned in a swamp.
Suddenly, Hannibal halted. Another, larger patrol was coming up behind them! The three men were nearly to the edge of the jungle, the swampy plain now visible through the thinning trees. The colonel chose a low, overgrown spot and the team slithered underneath the heavy ferns. Hannibal and B.A. faced out from the hollow, M-16s ready, an almost senseless Face between them. The colonel felt something brush his right foot. Glancing aside, he saw the lieutenant gesturing weakly for his rifle. Hannibal hesitated then eased the weapon from his back. As quietly as possible, he helped Face set up to fire. Well, at least I know how we're going out. The final decision for his team's survival had been taken out of his hands. His two men had decided how it would be.
Hannibal felt the adrenaline rush through his body as he settled back into position and watched the approaching NVA soldiers. They were heavily armed, some carried rocket launchers in addition to their AK-47s. The colonel looked one last time at his watch. It was 0709 and he could hear the dull beating of helicopter rotors in the distance. Hannibal looked up through the sparse leaves and watched as a lone chopper rose above the tree line in the south. Even from a distance, the colonel identified it as the standard Bell UH-1D, the model of Huey soldiers had dubbed "slicks". Murdock was right on time.
The enemy patrol was almost upon the team when they, too, became aware of the approaching chopper. The twenty soldiers gazed up through the thinning canopy, pointing in excitement, before bolting for the swamp. Hannibal and Face watched as they ran past toward open ground and B.A. quickly spun around. At Hannibal's command, to save Murdock's approaching Huey, the three opened fire on the patrol.
The North Vietnamese soldiers were confused by the attack behind them as they raced to fire at the solitary American helicopter. The quickest were saved by ducking into the swamp. They could see the flash of three M-16s in the jungle when they discharged. Training their weapons to the spot, they opened up, shattering the dense vegetation. The single chopper approaching was of little concern. The rest of their unit was waiting for it in the clearing down stream, their big guns concealed in the abandoned hootches. There would be no escape for the American soldiers trapped inside the jungle.
B.A.'s blood was up now that the fight had begun. He fired relentlessly at the remaining members of the patrol, letting his instincts guide his aim. Hannibal changed clips with hardly a hesitation but he noticed Face was in trouble.
"Up, Face!" he yelled above the noise of guns. "Fire up!"
Face tried doggedly, but it was all he could do not to pass out. He didn't have the strength left to raise the weapon and thus was mercilessly slaughtering a little mango sapling ten feet in front of their position. Hannibal grabbed his pack and jammed it under the lieutenant's rifle, before hauling the young man to his gun's new position. Then he broke open another package of the ammonia salts and waved it quickly in front of Face. The lieutenant revived somewhat. Hannibal wasn't sure but he thought he heard Face give a strangled laugh.
"Thanks, Colonel," Face muttered as he started to fire again. Hannibal shook his head watching Face's erratic aim. At least he wasn't shooting the hell out of the mango tree anymore. But God alone knew where the bullets were going.
The chopper was almost upon them when they heard the unmistakable sounds of missile fire. The NVA entrenched in the clearing below the swamp were determined to bring the helicopter down. Hannibal groaned. Get the hell out of here, Murdock! To his utter relief he didn't hear a hit. But he watched the drab green Huey sweep wide out over the swamp and turn west, away from the intense fire - and away from the team.
Hannibal was down to his last magazine, when he thought he heard another helicopter. Looking up, he saw the enemy soldiers watching the sky off to the south beyond the clearing. The colonel raised his eyes and watched a second helicopter ascend above the tree line. He squinted through the early morning mist, not sure if he was imagining it. The chopper was still there, its rhythmic chugging growing unbelievably loud, but it was too narrow, too black for a slick. My God! Murdock brought a Cobra! The noise was deafening! As he gaped, another attack chopper materialized, and another. Eight HueyCobra gunships, in assault formation, were bearing down on the clearing!
The remaining members of the NVA patrol raced for the cover of the jungle when one of the Cobras broke from the others, and with blazing speed, swooped in low over the swamp, it's two miniguns blasting thousands of rounds into the marshland.
Hannibal couldn't believe it. He lay there, shaking his head in amazement when his radio began demanding attention. He picked it up, increasing the volume to hear over the roar of the Cobra and the crackle of the two M-16s still firing beside him.
"Hey, Hannibal! Colonel, Sir! You still down there? Repo-one is knocking on the door!"
"Murdock! You are absolutely brilliant, Captain! Jesus, I said bring gunners and you bring gunships! Nice, Murdock! Nice! Where are you?"
B.A. and Face stopped firing after the Cobra made its pass. There was nothing left for B.A. to shoot at and Face had lost his battle with awareness.
"Yeah, well, I thought we might need a little cover at this stop. These boys were just hangin' around camp, drinking all the beer, wishing they had somethin' exciting to do this morning. When they found out I was comin' to get you guys, they insisted on tagging along. They're taking out a secret little NVA camp just outside the clearing. I'm right behind 'em."
Hannibal was surprised. "I thought you'd already gone by? Weren't you that first slick?"
Murdock became very theatrical. "Moi? In an ordinary green helicopter? I don't think so, sir."
Hannibal groaned wondering what the captain had done to his chopper.
"Great diversion, huh? Hey listen, Colonel, sometimes these Cobra jockeys get a little carried away. If I were you, I'd pop smoke so they know where you are. Say, how's our Lieutenant Faceman doin'?"
The colonel looked over to the motionless figure. "Ah, well, right at the moment he's not complaining," Hannibal admitted.
Urgency came through the pilot's next transmission. "I'll be there ASAP! Keep your heads down!"
"Yeah, well Face is doin' a real good job of that but I'll make sure B.A. takes the advice. Hurry back!"
Hannibal called across to the sergeant. "B.A.! Get out there and pop a couple smokes before those gunships come back and turn us into Swiss cheese!"
B.A. flashed a huge smile. "You got it! Man, I ain't never gonna call that fool Murdock a fool ever again if he gets us outta here!"
Hannibal laughed covering the big man with his rifle as he sprinted towards the swamp. When B.A. reached the forest edge, he tossed out a couple of small canisters, billowing thick yellow smoke. After the sergeant made it back into the cover, Hannibal turned his attention to the unconscious lieutenant.
"B.A., keep an eye out for any visitors coming our way. Those Cobras might flush a few of Charlie's boys this way."
The sergeant nodded and peered over his rifle sight, watching the jungle.
Hannibal was distressed to find Face's wound hemorrhaging again when he turned the young man over.
"This is really getting old, Lieutenant," he muttered, grabbing the radio. "Hey, Murdock! Where are you? How much longer before you can get us?" the colonel asked.
"I'm just comin' over the clearing again. Seems fairly secure. Can you make it there?"
Hannibal looked down at Face. "I don't think so, Captain. How about down in the swamp where we popped smoke?"
There was a long pause.
"Is that you guys flashin' the pretty, fluffy yellow stuff down there?"
"That do be us," Hannibal laughed.
"You oughta to hear my slick now, Colonel."
Hannibal grinned at the sound of the approaching Huey. "Loud and clear. She sounds great, Murdock! Take a circuit and we'll be there on your next round."
"Okey-dokey, Colonel my Colonel! Murdock's Medical Transport will be ready for dustoff in T minus four minutes and counting. Repo-one, under and in. Damnation, I always get that wrong. I mean, over and out."
Hannibal looked towards the approaching helicopter, then did a double take, staring in disbelief. Murdock had painted a huge red and white bulls-eye around the entire nose of the thing. The challenge "HIT IT HERE" was stenciled in big black letters across the target. He broke into a grin as the chopper passed low along the swamp, one of its pilots waving furiously.
"Our ride's here, B.A. Time to pack it up and go home."
The sergeant groaned. "If it weren't for Face I'd jus' as soon walk, Hannibal."
"B.A., weren't you the one promising to lay off Murdock a little while ago?" the colonel teased, standing up to pull on his pack along with Face's rifle.
B.A. frowned. "I said I wouldn't call him a fool no more. I didn't say I wanted to fly with him!" The sergeant adjusted his own rucksack. "If you watch our backs, I'll get Face."
"Fair enough," Hannibal agreed, watching B.A. cradle the lieutenant with surprising gentleness. "Watch your step, Sergeant."
"I always do. You jus' watch for Murdock."
Hannibal winced. "Ah, that won't be a problem. Believe me, you'll know it's him."
The colonel ignored B.A.'s questioning look and moved out. By the time the team got to the swamp's edge, choppers could be heard coming back around from the south. Hannibal watched Murdock and a Cobra approach, waiting for B.A.'s comment on the Huey's new artwork.
"I take back whatever I said 'bout that crazy fool! He's nuts, man! Whoever heard of paintin' a bulls-eye on a chopper? He gets shot down enough already. He don't need to be givin' Charlie somethin' to aim for! I ain't gettin' on that slick! No way!"
Hannibal heard the panic rising in the sergeant's voice. B.A. didn't care much for flying to begin with, but to be faced with climbing aboard a helicopter that amounted to a flying dartboard was too much. Hannibal wished Murdock could have found a different canvas on which to express his creative urge.
The colonel threw out another smoke grenade. Hannibal smiled brightly as he searched for something in his pockets.
"Look at it this way, B.A. Murdock probably figures that the NVA can't hit anything they aim for, so by painting a bulls-eye on his chopper he's made sure it won't get hit."
B.A., shifting Face in his arms, scowled at his CO while Hannibal, his quest unfulfilled, began to hunt through the lieutenant's breast pockets.
"You don't really believe that, do you?"
Hannibal's bright blue eyes danced in triumph as he withdrew a cigar from Face's fatigues. The colonel bit off an end, lit the cigar and took a long drag.
"Yeah, B.A., I do," Hannibal admitted, savoring the smoke.
The sergeant shook his head in defeat as the Huey eased down to float only a couple of feet from the marshy ground while the gunship hovered menacingly protective above her. Hannibal clapped B.A. on the shoulder.
"Let's move it out, Sergeant!" he ordered. "Face isn't going to like it if you keep him from those nurses."
Reluctantly, B.A. trudged through the shallow water to the waiting chopper. A pair of medics inside reached down and dragged Face aboard as Hannibal and B.A. hopped onto the skids before scrambling inside. An ecstatic Murdock, relief in his dark brown eyes and an enormous grin on his face, was there to greet them.
"Hannibal! Faceman! B.A.! Come on in here and give me a kiss, ya' big, ugly mudsucker! I've missed you!" The captain threw his arms wide open. B.A. looked at him in terror.
"You idiot! Get up there an' fly this thing!" he screamed. Murdock's smile grew broader though he thought it prudent to return to his pilot's seat.
"Easy, B.A. Lieutenant Atkins here is perfectly qualified to fly this bird." Murdock clapped the co-pilot on his shoulder before mumbling, "S'long as we stay on the ground."
"We ain't on the ground, fool! And why'd you paint a bulls-eye on the slick? Like askin' to be shot!"
"Isn't it great? I don't know why I never thought of it before. This is the safest bird in Vietnam. Nothin' can bring her down now!"
"Nothin' but her crazy pilot!"
"Come on, B.A.!" Murdock implored. "A bulls-eye is perfect! Everyone knows the NVA can't hit anything they aim for! It's when they're not aimin' for ya' that you're in trouble!"
B.A. gave the pilot a menacing snarl before turning to his colonel.
"I tried to tell you!" Hannibal laughed.
The sergeant crawled to the center of the Huey where he wouldn't have to watch the ground fall away.
"Thanks for the lift, Captain - I'm buyin' tonight! Now, let's get the hell out of here!" the colonel hollered into the cockpit. Hannibal sat in the wide doorway of the helicopter next to the gunner, his legs hanging over the edge, feeling the cool wind in his face as the Huey lifted rapidly. He looked over his shoulder, watching the medics work on Face. To his surprise, the lieutenant's eyes were open.
"Hey, kid. Welcome back!" Hannibal called, relieved to see Face give a tentative grin. "How's he doin', Corpsman?" the colonel asked.
The closest medic nodded optimistically. "He's hangin' in there, Colonel. He'll be okay. We're heading for the 18th surgical hospital at Quang Tri. If the cap'n opens her up, we'll be there in twenty minutes or so. That suit you, sir?"
"How are the nurses?"
The corporal looked up confused. "Sir?"
Hannibal gave an exaggerated sigh. "What are the nurses like there?"
The medic's sly grin answered the colonel's question.
"Sounds fine, just fine. Face'll like that."
Murdock had indeed "opened her up". From two thousand feet, Hannibal watched the jungle canopy speed by at 150 miles per hour. The colonel puffed contentedly on his cigar, unable to control the grin spreading across his face. I love it, he mused. Sometimes, I don't even have a plan and it still comes together.
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