CHAPTER SEVEN

September, 1969

Hannibal finished tying his boot and let his foot drop heavily off the corner of the bed. He pulled a cigar from his pocket and carefully lit it. He blew out the match with satisfaction. The tremor was almost gone.

He moved into the hallway, away from the thick hospital smell of the ward. Wiley was just going stepping into the shrink's office; he stopped and they nodded briefly. The last hurdle they all had to jump before they could get out of here. They'd all been cleared otherwise.

Almost all, anyway.

"Could be worse." Hannibal said, softly. "Could be worse."


*****

Hannibal pushed us pretty hard the second day. Didn't blame him. The gooks were all over the place, so we had to move when we could, no matter how tired we were, just to make sure they wouldn't find us hiding. Praying the whole time.

I was a little worried about Platt and his men. We didn't know them, but they seemed okay. Well, pretty much. Platt reminded me of Hannibal. He took care of his men. He listened to them. Russo and Cook, they seemed like good ol' boys, like me and Ray. And they knew what they were doing. But Shipley... I felt bad for Shipley. I guess he was a favorite target of Chow's, before they got to our camp.

Like, we split up the bag of fruit for our noon meal; it was mostly rotting, but damn, it tasted good. Hannibal and Platt, they made sure everybody ate it slow, in case it didn't go down too well, but I guess we were all so used to eating garbage by then, it didn't matter. Shipley, he ate just a little bit of his, and the rest he hid in his pocket. I watched him the rest of the day; he'd sneak a little piece out and eat it every time we stopped. Everybody saw it, I think, but nobody said anything.

I mean, everybody had their quirks. Figures, I guess.


*****

Hannibal wandered out toward what passed for a patio. It only took a moment for Hannibal to see him, off in the corner, sweating it out with a set of weights. He watched as BA finally dropped the barbells in the sand and grabbed a towel, rubbing down his arms. Wiley came out of the far door. The two men talked for a minute, then Wiley wandered around the corner, and BA headed inside.

For his turn.

Hannibal remembered what he'd told BA, seemed like years ago.

"There's bound to be repercussions..."


*****

That third night, Hannibal sent Ray and Wiley out scroungin. I think that was the worst night I had, even worse than when we first broke out. They both knew what they was doin, and Lord knows, we needed the food, but still...

Hannibal was real strict with the both of em. Told em over and over, one was to watch while the other one scavenged; kept sayin don't rush it. And if they couldn't get back to us, they was to keep goin. I know neither one of em liked that, but better to split up and meet at Mai Loc than get themselves killed.

But they made it back okay. Took em a while, cause we had another damn bunch of gooks come by. I could tell it scared Hannibal. I know he was afraid Ray and Wiley wouldn't realize Charlie was there, but they'd seen em even before we did.

Man, what a feast we had that night. Couldn't cook anything, cause the ground was too rocky to dig in a fire, and we couldn't have an open flame up there, course. But didn't really matter, cause it was all tuber things and nuts. We cleaned the mud off as best we could, and Wiley told us to crush the nuts up and sprinkle em over them tubers like pepper - man, that was good.

That was good...


*****

Ray was chatting with a couple of the nurses in the hallway. Hannibal stopped short, watched. Ray shouldn't even be here. Two tours, two extensions...he should've been back home long ago. But he wouldn't go.

"Who'd watch after these snot-nosed kids then, Hannibal?" And he'd laugh.

The shrink came out in the hall, Ray turned, smiled, and followed him back into the office.

Ray was short. Real short. And he would go home this time. That was a promise.


*****

I could've killed him. I don't even know for sure how long he'd been doing it. Probably from the first. I couldn't believe the others would've gone along with it, especially BA, but then again, that little shit could talk the wings off an angel. And, if I was honest, had he said the same thing to me those first couple of days, I probably would've gone for it, too.

But like I say, when I found out he was handing over his share of the noon meal to whoever had been toting him around, I just...He said he didn't need it as bad as the guys "doing the dirty work". That's how he put it. Even started apologizing because he'd only been able to "work it" for the one meal, and not everyone had gotten something. Like it was some kind of deal he'd reneged on.

Seems like he saw everything as a business deal.

At least he made sure Hannibal didn't see what was going on. I think he knew the trouble it would cause. I guess that's why I agreed not to say anything. Not only did Hannibal have enough on his mind, but it just would've caused big problems among the rest of the guys.

We had enough problems.


*****

Hannibal was supposed to go see Murdock today. Reynolds, Murdock's CO, wanted a 'second opinion'. Like Hannibal was qualified. Then again, Hannibal had been there.

He'd seen it coming.

He stopped short when he saw Murdock's bed was empty. A nurse smiled, told him the doctor was with Murdock, but he could come back later. As he turned and walked away, he was ashamed at the sense of relief he felt.


*****

Shipley was crying that night. I figured he was just letting off steam. Tried to keep it quiet, but I heard him. I was sleeping right next to him. Well, as close as he'd let anyone, anyway. Some of the guys were getting over that, just like Hannibal said, but Shipley still wasn't ready. I wasn't real fond of it, myself. Ray and Wiley, and Platt, and Cook - they didn't seem to mind any more. Russo was coming round, just like BA - slow. Peck didn't really have much choice, but I don't think he liked it, either. Then again, I don't know if it was the contact, or the pain, or just being tense about being carried around like that. He sure didn't like that, I know for sure. Guess I can't blame him. It got kinda rough on him, with that knee so sore and then the guys couldn't help it when they slipped, or banged into a tree. Trees are too damn close in a place like that. Cook almost dropped him one day; I thought he was gonna cry, he was so upset about that, kept apologizing to Peck.

Well, everybody was kinda high-strung.

That's why I didn't think anything of it, that night. When Shipley was crying. I thought he just needed to let off some steam, y'know? I mean, I'd come close a couple of times, myself. But instead, I'd just go off into my head, y'know? I used to do that in the camp, because I was supposed to be nuts. But if I actually listened to what Chow was saying, I know I would've done something, and he'd know I still had all my marbles, so the only way not to react was not to listen, so I'd go off into my head.

That's what I thought Shipley was doing, though. Just letting off steam. So I went back to sleep. Gave him his privacy, y'know?

Then the next morning, he was gone. We looked all over, but that jungle...and with the rain...

I thought he was just letting off steam...


*****

"It's all right, Wiley. Only a couple more of these sessions and we'll be done. Not the best way to start the morning, I know, but..."

The doctor smiled as the door clicked shut.


*****

Things changed after Shipley.

It threw everybody off. Platt, especially. He said he didn't even know how long Shipley had been a POW. He was there when Platt and the others arrived at the first camp. He thought he was just quiet by nature.

Hannibal talked with Platt for a long time after we got back from looking. A long time. I don't know if it did any good, but Platt got up the next morning and just got down to business. He was all business after that. Well, until the very end, anyway.

It hit Murdock hard. Real hard. I guess he'd heard Shipley crying and didn't do anything about it. I don't think it would have made any difference. But Murdock thought he could've saved the guy. But how was he to know? Then Murdock started talking about Rib-Eye and Handy. Hadn't done that before. But then, even when we needed to be quiet, he'd start whispering about them. We came really close to losing everything a couple times. Hannibal was really at his wit's end with him.

I think part of the problem was that ass backwards scheme of Peck's, having Murdock act like he really was nuts. You know, you let loose a little bit, and then when the pressure hits, it's easy to let go a little more. And then a little more. Pretty soon, you get so far out there, you can't find your way back. Peck opened the damn door for him.

Peck just shut down. Wouldn't talk unless someone asked him something straight out. Which nobody did much, frankly. Probably just as well. There was a lot of resentment building there. Hauling his ass around after losing a guy like Shipley. Most of us knew damn well he'd had something cooked up back there with Angel. Look how Hannibal and BA had to make him come out of that cage.

Anyway, Shipley kinda...I mean, it could've been any one of us, really.


*****

"It won't be much longer, Sergeant. You've been very cooperative. I know this isn't easy, but I think you'll be able to get back to your unit very soon. We just need to get over this last hurdle..."


*****

We'd been on the move for eight days. I know, cause I kept track. It was startin to get dark, and we heard em. Choppers. Off in the distance, but they was there. And they was ours.

Funny thing was, most everybody just listened for a second, and then went about their business. Like nothin special was happenin. Me, too. I don't know bout the others, but to me, it didn't matter, cause they was still too far away. They weren't comin overhead. They weren't even comin our way. Maybe we shoulda been glad, cause it meant we was closer to the base camp, but we already knew that.

Didn't mean a thing.

Cept to Hannibal. He listened a little longer, I guess. Got that smile on his face, like he does when he knows things is startin to come together. Said one more day.

I think, for the first time maybe, the guys didn't really believe him.


*****

"What you've told me has really been a big help in dealing with the other members of your team, Ray. Very helpful. But now I need to know..."


*****

Hannibal, BA and Platt got back to our little camp a couple hours after dark. We'd stopped earlier than usual that day, and Hannibal took the two with him to scout ahead. He was sure they'd find a place where we'd be able to signal a chopper. We all figured if they didn't, it would mean another day or more tramping through the mountains. The jungle was thinning out a little, but not much. We were wet, cold, and about as close to exhaustion as any group of people could get, I guess. If Hannibal hadn't come back with good news, I'm not sure what would have happened.

I could tell by the grin on his face that he'd found what he was looking for. He pulled out the map, and we studied it carefully with the dimming flashlights. We had four left, and Hannibal had us pull apart two of them, to get the reflective part out. We'd use those to signal the choppers. The only bad news he had was to remind us that it might take a day or more to actually make contact. But that was all right by me. It would mean only having to move camp around that area, not tramping for hours at a time.

I think everyone had a hard time getting to sleep that night. Our hopes had gone from bottom of the barrel to top of the world. Wish I'd remembered what my mother always said.

Never get your hopes up...


*****

Hannibal stared up at the ceiling, watching the last light of the sunset. Tomorrow he had his final session with that shrink. If he 'opened up'. He had to wonder if this was the first time that doc had been in combat. Hell, he looked like he was just out of school...

Another day gone by and he hadn't spoken to any of his men. Seen them, acknowledged them. Hadn't spoken to them. Told himself he wanted to give them time; time, not to be weak, but to not have to be strong. So he didn't talk to them, and that was okay. They knew he was there, that it was their call.

Ray, Wiley, BA, even Murdock. They all knew.

He closed his eyes. All but one.


*****

I knew the men were getting near the end of their rope. I'd pushed them hard all the way; maybe too hard, I don't know. I just kept thinking, every day we were out there, the better chance of getting recaptured. And I had a pretty good idea what would happen if we were. So I pushed them.

Shipley was...a mistake. I feel bad about it, but I'm not going to break out the sackcloth and ashes, either. I wish it hadn't happened; I wish Rib-Eye and Handy had made it, too. But there isn't anything I can do about any of them. Shit happens in a war.

As for the extraction...I take full responsibility for that, Doc. It was my call.

My fault.


*****

Hannibal looked up at the overcast sky above Nha Trang, and calmly lit his cigar.

He saw it like it was yesterday. They'd scouted around the perimeter, and they were positive there were no NVA or VC in the area. Waited, hours, keeping a watch not only for the enemy, but for the choppers.

The men were tired. Excited, but tired. They heard the choppers, got out the reflectors and the two flashlights that were still working. Anything that might draw the attention of the big birds.

It wasn't their fault; they were all focused on their salvation.

The choppers passed over them, and it seemed they hadn't seen the signals. And then suddenly, there they were, coming in slow, a little lower. Hannibal sent Platt and Wiley out, just to the edge, so the choppers would see they were Americans.

And then they were landing, and the guys started running. Cook and BA grabbed Peck and ran with him between them. No time for gentleness then. The guys already aboard reached down, pulled Peck up, then BA...

And then all hell broke loose. Cook went down, his body practically cut in two. Platt and Russo started yelling, everyone was firing at the tree line, the choppers took off...

It was no one's fault. That's what they kept telling him.

The rest happened in a blur. He remembered Peck, shaking on the floor, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling. He remembered Platt and Russo, swearing softly, crying.

And he remembered Wiley, leaning over Peck, saying something. Peck quit shaking, and closed his eyes. He never said a word, not the whole trip.

They landed at Mai Loc, and within what seemed like minutes, Peck was on another chopper, headed for the 18th Surgical Hospital at Camp Evans. The rest got a quick check-up by the medics, and then were on their way back to Nha Trang. Debriefings, doctors...the shrinks...

Now it was done. Mostly. Murdock would be staying in the hospital a little while longer, for "observation", but Hannibal figured within a month, tops, he would have his full team back together again.

He closed his eyes. All but one.


*****


July, 1976

Hannibal stood, and moved to the window. The sun was bright, the sky cloudless. He turned and looked back at Wiley, who was watching him.

"What did you say to Face, on that chopper?"

Wiley swallowed hard, and his eyes got bright.

"I told him...I told him, 'Congrats. You just killed another one.' "