CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

March 4, 1972

1 Year, 1 Month, 2 Days

They started planning immediately..

Arnie spent several days straining his neck, watching as what little light came in showed him the contours of the vent. There were blank spaces, sure, but they were willing to take a chance that they would be as open as the rest of it. Just barely wide enough to allow them to pass, one by one, and angled just enough so it wouldn't be a completely vertical climb. It wouldn't be easy, but they would do it. They had no choice. Not now that they'd found it.

They tried to estimate where it came out, to see if the guards would be able to spot them from outside, and how easy it might be for the guards to get to the top of the hill if they did. They finally decided on an area just east of where their grotto was, near the top of the steep hill.

They'd been able to check out the south and west sides pretty easily; their route for breakfast and to the creek went that way. They had clear sailing from both, with enough rocks and trees hiding the area from casual view. But the east side was a problem. None of them had ever been allowed over to that side of the camp. None of them were even sure what was over there, as the camp seemed to be confined to that southwest area.

There was also the very practical matter of getting out of their shackles. They weren't complicated things - wooden stocks fastened together with cheap padlocks. The men talked about smashing the padlocks with rocks, but discarded that almost immediately. There weren't any big enough where they could reach, and the noise would definitely bring the guards. It seemed they were stymied before they could even start.

It was Face who came up with the solution. Kyle had watched him at breakfast. For a couple of days he was casually examining the tin cups, and carefully pressing the sides in with his thumbs. Apparently satisfied, he told Kyle and Arnie that, if they could sneak one of those tin cups in, he thought they could be bent and torn to make shims for the padlocks. It would only take a few minutes to pop them open then.

They discussed the two obstacles to their escape in great detail for almost a week. Finally coming up with a plan, a diversion which, hopefully, would allow them to not only steal the cup they would need, but to see what was on that east side.

Arnie wanted to draw straws to see who the sacrificial lamb would be, but Face vetoed that. Arnie was the strongest; he had to be in good shape to get the others up into the vent, and climb up after them. And neither he nor Kyle had yet caused the guards any undue problems. If they were to act up now, it would only raise suspicions. That left only one practical choice. The prisoner the guards already knew to be stubborn and unpredictable.

Both Kyle and Arnie argued with him, but deep down, they knew he was right. And, as Face pointed out, they wouldn't kill him. The NVA frowned on that; as long as the prisoners were in reasonably good health, they had negotiating value. The Laotians liked to think they were independent, but they were actually held as tightly under the thumb of the NVA as the VC were.

They wouldn't do anything to Face that they hadn't already done.


*****

March 13, 1972

1 Year, 1 Month, 11 Days

"Another delay?"

"That's what the lawyer said. Which is okay. Gives us a little more time before meeting up with Saint Peter."

"Hannibal..."

"Hey, facts are facts, Ray. Eventually they're going to hand down a verdict, and you know as well as I do, we ain't walking out the door." Hannibal leaned back in his chair, hands behind his head, the handcuffs attached to his wrists jingling softly. The guard, standing just outside the visiting area, glanced over at him briefly. Hannibal grinned at him and winked. The guard frowned and turned back around. "We were set up, no two ways about that."

"So now what? Not like you to just sit back and take it."

Hannibal grinned. "Don't intend to." He suddenly sat up, leaning on the table with his elbows. "Remember the camp, Ray? Ol' Lin Duc Coo and his magic elixir?"

"Like I'd forget."

"He had a great idea there. Of course, it could've backfired. We could've gotten the dope instead, right?"

Ray tilted his head, frowning. "You think so?"

"Yeah, I think it could've been the prisoners instead of the guards." Hannibal smiled. "Real sick. Sick enough for a hospital stay." He stared hard at Ray. "Know what I mean?"

"Really sick. Yeah. That would've been bad, for the prisoners."

"That would've been really bad. The whole lot of us, sick as dogs. Even though it would've just been for a couple days. Of course, Lin knew what he was doing, what all kinds of herbs and plants could do. Folk medicine."

Ray smiled softly. "Yeah. I know about that. My grandmother used to dose people up, so they wouldn't have to pay to the doctors." He chuckled. "We got a lot of chickens and pies for those folk medicines."

"Yeah, they're the best. Modern doctors don't really know how to deal with them. But they can be dangerous, if you don't know what you're doing."

"That can be learned. Hell, I could even teach you the basics." Ray chuckled. "Real easy."

"Would've delayed the escape, of course. But then, the gooks wouldn't be expecting an escape, when we were still recovering. We would've had a distinct advantage."

Ray sobered. Squinting slightly, he nodded. "Yeah. Would've had to think up a different diversion, though. Lin couldn't drug them after you guys got sick. Not and protect himself."

"No, he would've had to think up something else. Something that would let us get away, but not point the finger at himself. Would've been tricky."

"Tricky, but not impossible." Ray smiled. Hannibal recognized that smile. Just like he used to see before they dropped out of the choppers.

"Yeah, too bad we couldn't have escaped sooner than we did."

Ray grinned now, nodding. "The sooner, the better, I always say..."


*****

March 17, 1972

1 Year, 1 Month, 15 Days

It was the morning for their diversion. Kyle was watching Face closely, but there was not one sign of nervousness or dread. Maybe he just hadn't had time; they had been waiting for a particular guard to be on duty, one that Face said he'd 'dealt with' before. He knew how far he could be pushed, knew what to expect as reprisal.

Face had, in effect, chosen his weapon.

Kyle and Arnie were backing each other up. Whichever one was seated farthest from Face would make the grab for their tin cup; the other would watch the guards and make sure they were distracted. Having seen Face in action when there were women brought into the camp, Kyle doubted the guards would notice anything else.

The minute they saw the guard - they called him 'Harry' because of his thick eyebrows - Face glanced over at Kyle and Arnie. The three men shuffled out of the cave, and Face sat. Kyle ended up a couple feet from him, with Arnie further down the row. Kyle wasn't sure if it was lucky or not that there were several Hmong seated with them. If one of them noticed the cup disappearing and wanted to gain favor, it could all be over.

Face waited until both Kyle and Arnie had finished their meal before he put his plan in motion. Instead of carefully putting his own empty cup down, he threw it at Harry and was immediately up, glaring at the guard, shouting at him in Vietnamese. Apparently Harry was one of the Laotians who understood it, because he began shouting back, moving quickly toward Face.

Face backed up, but didn't back down. He continued to bait Harry, and the other guards watched, some surprised, some shocked, some amused. But they didn't interfere.

Nor did they pay attention to the other prisoners.

Arnie kept his hand on his cup, and as Face backed up, he leaned forward, pushing the cup as flat as he could before sliding it up and into the waistband of his pajamas. They all, out of necessity, had a habit of holding onto the waist as they walked; once the cup was hidden, no one would think it strange to see Arnie holding on.

Face, in the meantime, had moved back almost even with the cave entrance. His tone had turned from anger to taunt now, and Kyle knew he was pushing his luck. Harry was definitely losing his temper, and the other guards were splitting up, some starting to prod the prisoners up, other following along behind Harry, jeering. Kyle and Arnie were shoved roughly into the cave, but Kyle could see Face only had a few more yards to go before he'd be able to check out the east side of the hill. He mentally crossed his fingers, not only that Face would be able to make the distance, but that he'd be able to make it through Harry's rage.

The guards locked them up hurriedly, and rushed out to watch the fun. Immediately Arnie pulled out the cup, and they hid it in the hollow they'd dug next to the wall with stones, piling the gravel quickly over it so it would remain hidden.

And then they waited.


*****

April 10, 1972

1 Year, 2 Months, 8 Days

Hannibal looked tired when Ray came into the visitor's lounge. He wondered how BA and Wiley were doing. Hannibal just shook his head when asked, and Ray didn't push it. He had more important things to discuss.

"Well, I went down home last week, visited my folks. Got to reminiscing, y'know. Talking about my grandmother. Told her about Lin and his herbs. Yep, that was a real interesting talk we had."

Hannibal perked up noticeably. "Really? I suppose your grandmother passed down a few things, huh?"

"She sure did. Remember we were talking about making those gooks sick, instead of just putting them to sleep? Well, she didn't like the idea too much. A lot of those things can be, well, dangerous, y'know?"

Hannibal looked down at the table for a moment, and when he looked back up, Ray was startled at the look in his eyes. He'd never before seen Hannibal looking so...desperate.

"Life's full of dangerous things, Ray. The lawyer was here yesterday." He smiled, but it was a dull smile. "They've moved up the dates a bit. The brass wants this over and done with. Completely over and done with. Soon."

Ray frowned. "How much time are we talking about?"

Hannibal sighed, heavily. "He figures they'll finish up in another five, maybe six weeks. I figure that means we've got two months, max. Once the verdict is in, I don't think they'll beat around the bush. Got too many other things on their mind right now."

Ray looked out the barred window. Thought for several minutes.

"Okay." He stood abruptly, startling both Hannibal and the guard at the door. "I'll be back next week, just like always. Hope that you and the guys are feeling better. There's some kind of bug going around. Kinda sneaks up on you, hits all of a sudden. So take care of yourselves."

Hannibal stood, looked at Ray for a moment, and smiled with a genuine smile.

"We'll watch it, Ray. Hopefully it's just a slight bug from the damp."

"Well, we'll see how you are next week, then, Hannibal."

Hannibal left smiling.

Ray didn't.


*****

April 15, 1972

1 Year, 2 Months, 13 Days

Tonight was the night. Everything had been planned. The tin cup had been worked and worked until they finally had three narrow shims, one for each padlock. A fourth had been made, and tried, just to make sure they would actually work. They had all grinned like hyenas when the padlock popped open with only the slightest of clicks.

They had no worries about being seen, although that assurance had come at a much higher price than any of them had imagined. Face had disappeared for almost three full days; when he was finally returned, his wrists were raw meat, and he walked like an old man. He'd managed to get around to the east side before Harry finally had enough and four guards had taken him down. Besides the requisite beating, he'd been hung in the dry well. He tried to brush it off, saying he was just glad the guards hadn't forgotten he was down there, but there was a look in his eyes that Kyle hadn't seen before.

He also told them they needn't worry about the east side. It was sheer cliff; no guards could come up that way. And no guards would be over there to see them, either. The east side was their bone yard. Every victim of the camp was there, in varying stages of disappearing into the earth.

Kyle was pretty sure that seeing that was one reason for the harsh retribution. He also worried, without saying anything, that it made their escape even more imperative. Tales of such things were not what Hanoi would want plastered on the front page of American newspapers.

The next few weeks they worked on the padlock shims, quietly bending and turning the cup until it split, and then bending and turning again until they had one shim. Using small stone to scrape away at the edges until they would fit. Arnie exercising his arms as much as possible, keeping them in shape so he could help lift the other two into the vent, and then pull himself up.

And they waited, carefully marking off the days. They had chosen to wait until the Laotian New Year, Pi Mai, to make their escape. Face had assured them that the entire camp took part in the three-day celebration, although probably not in the traditional sense. He also warned them to be on their best behavior, and not only because of their plans. It was one of the few times when the commander allowed alcohol. Those not actually on duty tended to get a little 'out of hand'.

The first day of the holiday started quietly enough for the prisoners, but they knew almost immediately that the next three days would not be good ones. As they sat at breakfast, a small band of soldiers came into camp, dragging with them maybe half a dozen young women. Dragging being the operative word. The women were very young, crying quietly. Face glared, but said nothing as they were taken across the camp and shoved into a small hut. Kyle noted, with some discomfort, that Harry was watching Face closely.

A few of the guards, the younger ones, were laughing and tossing water at each other. As Face had stated, it was probably more in fun than for the traditional 'cleansing' for the New Year.

One of the guards, 'Stick' for his heavy use of it, watched the playing for a bit, smiling. Then he looked at the prisoners, and muttered to the group around him. They all laughed. Stick called the younger guards over, and the next thing Kyle knew, the three of them were being herded toward the creek. He grimaced at Face, who just shook his head, resigned.

This time was different. They were stripped of their clothing, such as it was, and made to sit on the bank. Three of the women were brought from the hut and given knives. Under close watch, they began sawing away at the men's hair and beards. Only when their scalps were scraped to the point of bleeding were the women roughly pulled away and taken back to the hut. The men were given rough brushes and shoved into the creek. With rifles pointed at them, they began scrubbing.

Only when their skin was nearly rubbed raw were the guards satisfied. But they didn't allow anyone out of the water. They couldn't sit, because of the rocks; nor could they stand without being poked with sticks or bayonets. They had to crouch in the water, still ice cold from its mountain origins. After a while, Kyle could no longer feel his feet or legs.

Later that day, he woke up, back in the cave, still shivering, but alive. His body ached, and his scalp and face stung from the myriad scrapes and cuts. He looked over at Arnie, who stared back at him for a moment before smiling, wryly.

"Well, at least we got fresh clothes out of it."

Kyle smiled and nodded, then sat up, slowly. Then he saw Face was gone. Arnie's smile disappeared.

"Harry came in a bit ago, with a couple others. I pretended to be asleep, but Face was already sitting up. They took him."

The next two days they were left alone, other than their morning rituals. They both looked for Face during breakfast, but saw no sign of him. At night, they could see the glow of the bonfire in the main cavern, over which buffalo or deer was being roasted, and hear the celebration still going on - drunken laughter, shouting, women crying.

Now it was the evening of the third and last day. The bonfire was gradually going out, the women had gone silent, one by one, and the laughter and shouting had quieted. Kyle and Arnie had stopped talking, stopped wondering where Face was, what was happening. Not sure if they should postpone their plans, or go ahead without him. Neither wanted to do that, but when would they have another opportunity?

They saw the shadows before the people. Harry, with two other guards, dragged Face back into the grotto, dropping him on the ground, not bothering to shackle him. Harry's grin could be seen in the dim light. Without a word, the guards walked out.

Face lay for a moment, then painfully dragged himself up to lean against the wall. Kyle and Arnie waited, watching both Face and the front of the cave.

Finally, Face looked at them, giving them a sickly grin.

"Remind me...to thank Harry...for making this so easy..."