CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

April 20, 1972

1 Year, 2 Months, 18 Days

Arnie woke that morning, stiff and sore, and looked cautiously around. It was quiet, for the most part. Only the normal noises one would expect to hear in a mountain forest. He stood carefully, stretching one limb at a time, still watching. There was a joy in being able to stand when one wished, and stretch without getting hit, and look around, freely.

Free.

He looked north, down the nearly invisible path he'd come yesterday. Hoping to see some sign of the others. Knowing he wouldn't. Not yet. Ever? He shook himself, and moved out of the small copse, looking. Always looking. And started moving southward.

He'd been moving for nearly two hours, at his estimate, when, off in the distance, a flock of birds suddenly took wing. He immediately looked for cover, and stepped between two large boulders, crouching down. If he hadn't been seen already, he wouldn't be now. Moments later, he heard a small branch snap. He felt cold, ice cold, but stayed still as the rock beside him. It might just be an animal of some sort. Or it could be another predator completely.

A movement, higher up the slope, caught his eye. Uniforms.

Hmong uniforms.

He waited, letting them get closer, making sure they were what they appeared to be. He grinned, finally. Only the Hmong could walk straight up a mountain, making their own trails. He slowly stood, arms raised. No sense getting shot before they knew who he was.

Within moments the hill people, grins on every face, surrounded him. They gave him food and water immediately, and someone handed him a shirt, although it was way too small. Most of these guys barely came up to his shoulders. Several of the Hmong understood basic English, and he quickly tried to tell them about Face and Kyle. It was difficult to explain where they were, or should be. He described the overhang, where he'd left them, and tried to think of other landmarks he'd passed. Anything to help point them in the right direction.

Not that they were happy about it. They assured him they would try to find the others, but it meant going into an area flush with the enemy. They would have to move carefully, and they couldn't guarantee anything. But they would try. They would try very hard.

Arnie wanted to go back with them, but they made it clear they could work much faster without him. Instead, with four of the patrol, he headed for their camp. Not only would he be able to rest up and get some medical attention, but they would be able to contact the Americans in Thailand, and arrange for him to be picked up.

Their camp was only a short distance, but that was traveling the way the Hmong did - as a crow flies. With Arnie along, they were forced to take an easier route, and it was nearly noon before they arrived. Arnie was warmly received, but he kept looking back up the mountain. And when the radio operator wanted to call the Americans, Arnie asked him to wait.

He wanted all three going out together.


*****

April 21, 1972

1 Year, 2 Months, 19 Days

"I'm gonna kill him."

"Now, BA..."

"I'm gonna kill him. Givin us that shit..."

Hannibal sat up in bed, wincing a little. His stomach muscles were still sore. "BA, you don't keep quiet, you'll have plenty of opportunity, because he'll be right along with us back at Bragg. Besides, what other choice did we have?"

BA grumbled, but quietly. Three days of "severe digestive problems", as these damn doctors called it, had put him in an even worse mood than he was usually in. And he still didn't know if the whole damn plan was going to work. They were supposed to be taken back to Bragg later in the morning, and Hannibal had said to play up their 'weakness'. He wanted the guards relaxed.

BA looked over at Wiley, who was on the third bed, staring at the ceiling. He hadn't said much of anything so far today. Wiley'd gotten real quiet since being locked up. Not at first, after they'd gotten put back with Hannibal. But, over time...

"All right, gentlemen." The doctor, flanked by three armed guards, smiled benignly at his patients. "If you'll be so good as to get dressed, your transportation is waiting."

"C'mon, doc..." Hannibal frowned, holding his stomach. "Look at us. You really think we're ready to leave? Jesus..."

"Yeah, man," BA groaned. "You don't even know what it was yet."

"Oh, I'm satisfied it was some kind of bacterial infection, although we still haven't been able to isolate it. And I know you're still feeling some of the effects of that, but Colonel Lynch has assured me that he had your quarters thoroughly cleaned and sanitized, so the chances of relapse are very slim." He checked his watch, and smiled at them again. "Well, I have other patients to see. Goodbye, gentlemen, and good luck...uh, I mean...well..." Flustered, the doctor hurried out, followed by the guards.

"Well, at least he had the grace to be embarrassed."

"Yeah, luck's what we been damn short of, Hannibal."

"Relax, BA. I have a feeling that's going to change. Right, Wiley?"

Wiley finally looked over them, sitting up stiffly. "Sure, Colonel. Whatever you say..."


*****

Arnie was awake long before the rest of the camp. Long before the dawn even thought about breaking. He climbed out of the small tent, once again feeling that gratitude that he could actually step outside. But his thoughts were on the mountain above.

The patrol hadn't come back yesterday. The commander of the camp didn't seem worried. They had a long way to go, and would be searching for tracks, any other signs that the two men had passed that way. Arnie had been assured they would keep looking until they either found the men, or knew what had happened to them.

Arnie wandered across the camp. It wasn't large, and definitely one that could be easily broken down and disbanded quickly. He was aware that he still wasn't completely safe, but after the camp, after the flight over the mountains, it was safe enough. And these were war-hardened guerillas, not teen-aged boys.

He looked up at the mountain once again, thinking of that boy, trying not to. And that's when he saw them, coming over the rise, heading for the camp.


*****

Ray sat back in his chair, looking at the clock on the wall. The guys would be leaving the hospital sometime in the next half-hour, making the trek across the base to the stockade. It was a long trip.

And the base wasn't really as secure as people thought.

He stood and wandered over to the window. An unexpected bonus, there. He was able to see the rear entrance to the hospital, and could just see the top of the transport, waiting. He waited, as well, until he saw the doors at the back open, and two MPs came out. He turned from the window then, and walked casually out to his secretary's desk. They chatted for a few minutes, then he made a show of looking at the clock, and announcing he was headed over to the Officer's Club.

He took a long time ordering lunch, teasing the waitress, making sure she would remember him. And then, just as his lunch was being served, he checked the clock again.

Hopefully, they were right on schedule.


*****

'Hey, Murdock! C'mon - gotta go over the fence, man!"

"What? Why? We just..."

"They found one of ours! Arnhold, remember? Lost him a couple months ago."

Murdock stared in disbelief. "Really? Where at?"

His crew chief frowned. "That's the problem. He's at a camp west of LS168, and they want us to pick him near the camp."

"Aw, man..."

"I know, but they said he can't walk that far. Guess he came from somewhere further north, and he's about done in."

Murdock shook his head. Not that he wasn't eager to pick up a fellow pilot, but they'd been having way too many close calls lately, lost too many people. Landing at the Limas was dangerous enough; trying to find a place out in the boonies...

"Okay, Chris, let's get 'er up!"


*****

They waited in the bushes, just beside the road. They'd been waiting since late last night, long after dark, long after both the town and the base had quieted down to almost total silence. For six veterans, most with two or more tours under their belts, it had been, to quote the Old Man, a piece of cake.

The ambush was a variation of one they had seen and used many times before. And with only one vehicle to deal with, and MPs versus experienced combat soldiers, they weren't worried about failure. They not only felt confident about their mission and their ability to pull it off, but their reasons for doing it. And those were as different as the men themselves. Some automatically believed the story the colonel had told; others felt, orders or not, it was a great idea; still others had their own grudges against the Army. The one unifying factor was Hannibal Smith.

The large security van came around the curve, down into the short hollow. It was made for an ambush, but who would worry about that on a military base? The driver thought he heard a shout, slowed down, thinking there was a problem with the prisoners, then slammed on the brakes as the road ahead was suddenly filled with smoke.

Six men, heavily bearded and wearing dark sunglasses to complement their jungle fatigues, ran from the bushes, taking quick advantage of the confusion caused by their smoke bombs. With the driver covered, they banged on the back door, ordering the remaining guards out with the real-sounding threat of shooting the driver.

Less than an hour later, the MPs were found, handcuffed together around a large tree. The van was found later that day, still on Army property, but there was no sign of the hijackers, or of the three escaped prisoners.


*****

"They know where he is...where the body is. Please! It's not that far by air. These guys said they'd go along..."

"Look, I'm sorry, but I damn near got my ass shot down getting here, and it ain't gonna be any easier getting back. They'll go in for the body later, when there's not so many gooks around."

Murdock could feel the glare going right through him, and heard the bang of a fist on the side of the chopper. He didn't blame the guy one bit. But he had to accept reality. He not only had to get this guy back to base safely, but he had his crew to think about as well. If he was lucky, he'd have just enough fuel to get back to base, not to mention he'd gotten fired on more this trip than he ever had before. Damned if he was going to get them all killed trying to find and pick up a body.

There'd been too many deaths. He sometimes thought he could remember every one of them.

Some never left him alone.

They arrived at Udon on fumes, with a few more holes in the bird, but intact. Arnie was immediately hustled off to see the doctors; Murdock and Chris promised to stop in and see him after they got their paperwork filed. Murdock watched as the entourage headed for the hospital, growing ever bigger. He shook his head. He should feel good. Should feel great. Instead, he just felt tired.

Murdock and Chris finally headed over to the hospital some time later, figuring to wait until the doctors were finished. Even so, they had to wait until the brass had finished talking to him. Chris decided to go get some coffee, and Murdock pulled up a chair on the other side of the curtain surrounding Arnie's bed. He could hear them talking on the other side. He leaned back, closed his eyes, and tried to sleep, half-listening to the murmurs.

"So the patrol saw everything?"

"Yeah. They were about to go down and get them both, when the PLs came running up from the north. Grabbed him, tied him up and took off again, back toward the camp."

"And they're sure the other one was dead?"

"Yeah. As soon as the PLs were gone, the patrol went down to make sure. He'd been dead a while, they said."

"Well, I'll see if we can recover the body as soon as possible. I hate to make anything official until we know for sure."

"It had to have been Face, Major. He was on his way out when we left the camp."

" 'Face' is the only name you knew him by?"

"That's it. He never really said..." Arnie stopped, staring, puzzled, as Murdock ripped the curtain aside and stared back, voice barely above a whisper.

"His name was Templeton Peck. But he's been dead for a long time..."


*****

May 13, 1972

1 Year, 3 Months, 11 Days

"Captain?"

Go away.

"Captain Murdock, I'd like to speak with you."

Murdock rolled over on his cot, staring at the officer standing beside it. He didn't bother getting up, or saluting.

"What are you? Another headshrinker?"

"No, Captain. I have some news..."

"You found Face?" Murdock practically jumped from the bed, grabbing the man's shoulders. "You got him? Where is he?"

"Captain, please." He removed Murdock's hands, almost gently. Murdock stepped back like he'd been shot. Something was wrong.

"We did locate the area where he was. Unfortunately, even though the Hmong buried him, well...with the rain coming early, and the...wildlife..."

I don't want to hear this. I don't.

"We were able to recover some of the...some of the body, but...not enough to make a positive ID. Not to the Army's satisfaction, at any rate. But, I believe, based on Sergeant Arnhold's statement..."

Murdock hadn't mean to hurt him, of course. He just got in the way.

He looked out of the window. The window with the little criss-cross wires in it. The window that looked out over the grounds of the VA hospital.

He wondered when they would come and tell him that the rest of the guys were dead, as well.