CHAPTER SIX

September, 1969

When moving through the mountains, if a patrol had good weather, conditioned troops, and didn't meet up with too many enemy, it could take a day to move a kilometer. Hannibal figured if they made half that each day, they'd be lucky. Tonight, his only concern was putting at least some distance between his people and the camp, and then finding a place where they would be hidden until morning.

It took a while before Peck started coming to; Hannibal figured a combination of pain and exhaustion had kept him under. They moved into a heavy thicket, and as BA was relieved of his load, Hannibal could see the sergeant was pretty close to exhaustion himself. The rest of the men weren't much better; soaking wet and muddy, threadbare pajamas hanging on them, their ragged condition glared at him. He looked around, and decided this was as good a place as any to stay put. He needed to figure out exactly what their situation was before they went much farther anyway. No point walking head-on into another gook camp.

His first priority was to find out just how badly injured Peck was. As a couple of the guys focused their flashlights on Peck, Hannibal crossed his fingers mentally, hoping it was only a matter of walking out the stiffness. Unfortunately, at his first attempt to move the leg, Peck nearly bit through his lip trying to keep quiet; Hannibal figured he'd torn something. Not good.

He stood up, wiping the sweat from his face, and looked at the men, who'd been waiting quietly for the verdict. He shook his head.

"He's not going anywhere on that leg, guys."

"I can fix a set of crutches, Hannibal. Lots of good saplins round for that."

"I'd slow you down too much, BA."

"Not to mention leaving a trail a blind man could follow." Ray shook his head.

"How about a stretcher?"

Wiley frowned, looking at the thick trees and underbrush. "There's no way we can carry a litter through this jungle, Murdock."

"We ain't leavin him here..."

"They're right, BA. Just leave me a rifle..."

"Maybe we could send someone back for him." Murdock frowned. "No..."

"No way, man!"

"Listen, just leave me a rifle and some water and..."

"And nothing, Lieutenant. We aren't leaving you behind. Not when you're the one that got us out."

"I'm not going to be the one who sends you back there, either."

"Listen, Lieutenant..."

"No, Colonel, you listen! You've got eight other guys to worry about..."

"I know what my responsibilities are, Peck..."

"Why don't you all just shut the fuck up?"

The men all turned and stared. The prisoner Hannibal had first spoken to at the camp was standing in front of his three compatriots, glaring.

"You have something to say, Soldier?" Hannibal's voice was ice cold.

"Name's Platt. And, yeah, I got something to say. All of you are right! The kid might be able to walk with crutches, but Chow'd catch up with us in no time. And we can't carry no litter through this jungle. But you're right, too, Colonel. I'd be ashamed to leave anyone behind if we didn't have to. But look at him!" All eyes turned to the man on the ground, who suddenly reddened at the attention. "Think of all the shit we usually carry - that boy can't weigh much more'n that! Now maybe we ain't in the best shape, but there's no reason we can't take turns with him."

"Take turns? You mean carry him out?" Wiley stared.

"What? You never give any kids piggyback rides?"

"What?" Peck turned a darker shade of red. "Piggyback?"

Murdock grinned. "Well, if it's BA, you could call it horsey-back."

Hannibal bit back a smile. "He's got a point, guys. We have enough of us in somewhat decent shape. If we traded often enough..."

"Wouldn't be easy, but it's better'n leaving him here." BA was starting to smile. "I'm for it."

"Colonel..."

"You'd rather be left here for Chow to find, Lieutenant?"

Peck just stared at the ground.

Murdock started giggling.

"A Peck or a pack, take your pick..."

Wiley looked at Ray, rolling his eyes. "Very funny, Murdock. Very funny."


*****

BA, Wiley, Ray, and one of the new guys, Cook, were working out a rotation for getting Peck out. Hannibal and Platt were going over their stolen supplies. Besides the rifles and canteens, they'd also managed to bring along medications, a bag of fruit, and two compasses. Platt, with a big grin, pulled a large map from his goodie bag.

"Hope you can read gook, Colonel."

"No, but I think I can recognize some of the coordinates. Our biggest problem is figuring out just where the hell we are; then I'll know where we need to go."

"What about the medicine?"

Hannibal looked through the small packets, and sighed. "I can't read these either. God knows what they are. But there's some American issue aspirin, at least. How are your guys doing?"

"They're all malnourished; Shipley's got a few more bruises than Russo, but otherwise I think they're okay. I gotta give that son of a bitch Angel credit for that; once he turned, my guys got a little better treatment. Wish I could say the same for the others."

"Others?"

Platt spat on the ground. "Five others didn't make it." He stood and looked around. "We oughta be all right here, if everybody keeps quiet. Uh, about that Murdock fella..."

"He'll be okay, Platt. That crazy thing was just an act so we had some way of communicating."

"Uh huh." Platt looked over where Murdock was seated near Peck. "Okay. If you say so, Colonel."

Hannibal hesitated a moment, but only a moment.

"I say so. Now, let's get these guys settled for the night. It's gonna be a long day tomorrow."


*****

The first patrol came through in the middle of the night. The rain had stopped, and there was just enough moonlight filtering through to see movement. BA gave Hannibal a soft kick, and Hannibal passed on the 'message'. He'd worried about this, but thankfully Platt's men were experienced. They woke without a sound. Murdock leaned over and quietly put his hand over Peck's mouth; his eyes snapped open, but he stayed down and quiet. Hannibal smiled, satisfied, before focusing on the patrol.

They were coming from the camp; of that, there was no doubt. There was a general stir among the hiding men when they saw Tommy Angel among them. Hannibal felt his own anger spike, but held it in check. One day, hopefully soon, he'd deal with that scum, but now was not the time. He couldn't help but take a quick glance in Peck's direction, and immediately felt ashamed. Then he saw he wasn't the only one. Wiley, Platt, and Ray were also looking.

And Peck was looking right at Hannibal.

Hannibal quickly turned his attention back to the patrol. They were moving slowly, literally beating the bushes, poking into the underbrush with their bayonets. He looked at the other men; no one was close enough to the perimeter to worry about that, but if the patrol discovered the thicket...

It took almost ten minutes for the patrol to move completely past the group. Even then, no one moved or spoke. Hannibal waited for what he figured was another ten minutes before he stepped cautiously out of the thicket. It was too dark to see anything, but he couldn't hear anything other than the normal night sounds. He moved back and crouched by the other men.

"Okay, they're gone for now. If they think they've lost us, that's great. If not, they'll be doing a more thorough search on their way back to camp. So we have to move."

"Where to, Hannibal?"

"If you guys think you can make it, we'll go up the mountain. Not far - just enough to get out of their way. Then in the morning we'll figure out where we're going and how to get there."

"Uh, Colonel, no offense, but I'm wondering if maybe we oughta split up. Be harder to find small groups than one our size."

"Well, I have no control over you and your men, Platt. What you say could be true - then again, a group our size has a little better chance if we are found. But it's up to you. Discuss it with your men. Whatever you decide."

"Hey, Colonel, I know what we want to do. I just don't want you getting yourselves in trouble because you have to deal with us as well as your own men."

Hannibal smiled in the dark. "Platt, if that were my concern, you'd still be back there with Tommy."

The men quickly gathered the few supplies they had, double-checking their weapons. BA stepped over to Peck. For a long moment they looked at each other.

"Problem, BA? Peck?"

"No, Hannibal. I just..." BA stood for another moment before taking a deep breath and sitting down with his back to Peck. "C'mon, man."

Hannibal watched, puzzled, as Peck also hesitated. Only when Ray stepped over, offering to help, did he nod and, with Ray holding his leg, push himself forward. Ray helped BA up and they stood for a moment, adjusting.

"That going to work, BA?" Hannibal realized he was holding his breath. If they couldn't do this...

"Yeah, I'm okay. How bout you, Lieutenant?"

"Yeah." Peck's voice was shaky, but he was holding on.

Hannibal frowned, but let it go. "Okay, then. Let's head out."

They moved slowly up the hill, Hannibal taking point this time, wanting to know what was coming. Murdock came next, with Russo to help him over the rough spots. BA and Wiley followed, Wiley giving BA a hand when he got off-balance. Then Platt with Shipley, and finally Ray, watching their backs. The climb was steep, and Hannibal tried to move them sideways up the mountain, tried to make it as easy as he could. Behind him there was little sound, a slip now and then on the mud, a gasp from Peck as he tried to stay quiet. But not a word, not a curse, not a whisper.

They kept climbing like that for maybe twenty minutes before Hannibal came to a stop. In front of him was a small bomb crater, with a few small trees trying to grow. There was enough room in and around the crater for all the men, and it would provide a good defensive position if needed. They would stay here for the rest of the night.

Slowly the rest of the men moved up, and each one moved to find a spot for themselves. Hannibal watched as Wiley and BA helped Peck get settled. And again, he noticed how quickly BA moved away, and how Peck was almost dismissive with Wiley. He looked around at the other men.

With the exception of Ray, who had stationed himself a few yards down from the plateau to keep watch, all the men were settling in for the night. A cold night, as they all were up in the mountains. And yet, they weren't positioning themselves to take advantage of each other's body heat. Each and every one of them was keeping as much distance from the next as possible. He frowned when Wiley started to lay down and his foot touched Russo. Both men jerked, and Wiley shook his head before shuffling another few inches away.

He looked over at BA. He was the farthest away of any of them, save Ray, and had yet to lay down. He had his knees up by his chest, and was staring down at the ground. Hannibal quietly moved over and sat down next to him. BA shifted a little, and then looked at Hannibal, shaking his head.

"Talk to me, BA."

"Don't know whatcha mean, Hannibal."

"You and Peck. The others." When BA didn't respond, Hannibal sighed. "It's harder than you figured, isn't it?"

"Well, goin uphill, yeah, but I think..."

"I'm not talking about that. The contact. Human touch. It's not just you, BA. Take a look around. They're all going through it. It was just tougher for you two. And it'll be hard on Ray, and Wiley, and Cook. Harder still for Peck. How long ago did we get taken, BA? Two months, a little more?"

BA nodded. "You know that as well as I do."

"Yeah. And in all that time, there was no physical contact with anyone, except to give Murdock a hand when he needed it on the trail. For Platt's men it's been even longer. No physical contact, no talking to each other, not even being in sight of everyone most of the time. Suddenly we're all here, close. Real close. And it feels too close, because we've gotten used to being so alone."

BA angrily pulled out a fistful of grass and tossed it back down. "I ain't one for...you know that, Hannibal. But carryin him, I just...I just wanted to git away from him. Not just him. All of em." He looked up at the moon. "It ain't right, man. Oughta be glad to have people to talk to, glad to have someone slap you on the back, or shake your hand. But all I want is for them to stay away."

"It'll get better, BA. There's bound to be repercussions, other things happening that won't seem right. I'll have a talk with the others. We all need to realize what's happening, know that we're not going off the deep end. It'll get better."

BA nodded, and Hannibal stood carefully. The day was taking its toll on him, but he wanted to get to the others before he called it a night. Men slept better when they knew what was going on.


*****

Hannibal squeezed his eyes shut tight, opened them, blinking. He hadn't slept much, even after he'd talked to the men. He knew they understood, at some level, but their thinking was screwed up. He'd seen these things before, Korea, here. He accepted it. As long as they understood this was 'normal', they'd be okay.

He looked at the map again, searching further for any landmarks he could recognize. He'd found the place on the river where they must have crossed, tried to remember what direction they'd gone from there, how long they'd walked. Wiley, coming off guard duty, crouched down next to him. They went over the map again and again, and finally Hannibal was satisfied he knew their location.

Wiley found their destination. The Special Forces base camp at Mai Loc, about 7 klicks away. If they were lucky, it would take them maybe ten days to two weeks to get there. With more luck, they'd be found by friendlies before that.

With a miracle, they'd all make it.