CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

October 16, 1973

2 Years, 8 Months, 14 Days

He had no idea exactly where he was, only that he did not want to be there any more. He knew it must be Cambodia, only because of the soldiers following him. Dogging him.

Herding him.

He'd tried to head back into the mountains and had been cut off each and every time. He didn't think there were that many of them at first. It was just a patrol that spotted him, but it kept growing from there. Maybe a platoon by now. Maybe more. The numbers just kept growing. He didn't know where they were coming from. He just knew they wanted him moving in one direction, and that's where he was going.

They didn't seem to be in any hurry, but they knew when he tried to double-back, and were there, waiting. They never got really close, not close enough to shoot, not even close enough to see clearly. More like shadows. Ghosts. Only getting close enough so he could see them coming.

Knew they were coming.

The last four days he'd been moving through farmland. Flat, wet. Little cover from the rain, from the soldiers, from the farmers. Farmers who'd had their fields, homes, families destroyed by American bombs. Farmers who were more than happy to help the soldiers hunt for this American.

He moved now into yet another rice paddy, both using and cursing the light of the nearly full moon. Smiled mirthlessly at the irony of his body being browned to the point it was nearly indistinguishable from the natives, his hair bleached so it stood out like a beacon. Not for the first time, he ducked his head into the muddy waters of the paddy, bringing up the mud with his hands to coat his hair and beard.

He got across the first paddy, and was crawling over the dike separating it from the next when he heard the first shouts. Throwing caution aside, he ran along the dike, praying he wouldn't run into any mines. He came to the corner of the dikes, looked back.

Damn.

Looked like the whole village was coming - how could that many people live such a tiny place? There were a hell of a lot of those damn scarves among them, too. How could they catch up so quickly? He turned back and continued running, ignoring the shots that, so far, were wide of the mark. Once they realized he wasn't stopping, they'd get closer.

He ran into a small stand of trees, bouncing off one and struggling to keep his balance. He came out of the trees, into another series of paddies. Sloshing straight across them, his only thought, his only instinct, to keep running. His breath was coming hard now, and his ribs and legs were aching. He didn't even see the last dike, fell over it and landed, half-submerged, in the next paddy. For a moment, only a moment, he thought of just staying there, letting them catch up.

Then he thought of Harry, standing over him.

He pulled himself up, staggered through the rice, up and out and the ground sloped upward, he saw shadows ahead moving in the woods, up the hill, paralleling his course, moving ahead of him. Had they flown over that field? He kept going, kept pushing, kept moving up and into more trees, ignored the shots coming at him, the shouts.

He hit a small patch of ground clear of trees and with his last bit of energy, sprinted across, eyeing the woods he could see in the distance. He could make that. He would make that.

Then he was free falling, nothing but darkness above and below. He hit the fast-flowing water nearly headfirst, feeling the impact with his shoulder and side, was swept under, dragged along with the current. He fought his way to the surface and flailed about, all of his energy, all of his concentration on keeping his head above the floodwater.

He was suddenly shoved up on the shore, the sand and rocks scraping painfully along his body.

And there he stayed, no longer caring who was coming for him.


*****

Trung moved his men further north. He was irritated, not an unusual occurrence. The war was going badly, and he, along with many other ARVN, felt an almost overwhelming feeling of betrayal by the Americans. Now he and his men were supposedly protecting the border, when in reality they knew they were only postponing the inevitable. Combined with the pouring rain, insidious mud and the fatigue of coming off night patrol, and his temper was more than ready for an outlet.

They were maybe a half-mile from the river, about to turn east toward Ton Son Nhut Airport, when they spotted movement across the field, coming from the river. Knowing the NVA were moving their troops into the area in small groups, Trung immediately spread out his patrol and moved to intercept.

It took several minutes to get within striking distance. Trung could see a figure moving stealthily through the thickets, and was about to call for him to stop when suddenly the figure straightened and began running back toward the river. Trung didn't have to shout any orders; his men immediately fired and then gave chase.

It was over in a matter of minutes.

Trung walked up to his men and the still struggling prisoner. He was shocked to see it was an American. His shock turned almost immediately to disgust. The only Americans left were either connected with the Embassy or deserters, unable to evacuate. It was obvious to Trung that this was one of the deserters, strung out on drugs and living out in the bush like some animal. His lip curled as he issued the order to restrain the prisoner.

Some forty minutes later, much of which had been wasted struggling with the deserter, they arrived at their camp. Trung commandeered one of the Jeeps, and with three of his men, shoved the prisoner onto the floor in the back. Trung drove while his men kept their feet firmly planted on the man, keeping him down.

The sun was fully up by the time they pulled up outside the American Embassy.


*****

He realized his mistake as soon as he heard them coming. Instead of arriving on the other side, he'd merely been driven further downriver. Instead of finding sanctuary in the far woods, he'd run right into their ambush. He turned and started running back for the river, but it was too late. They fired at him, this time not trying to miss. He felt the harsh sting in his arm but doggedly kept going. And then they seemed to rise up from every direction, coming at him, shadows turning solid. He fought with every bit of strength he had, but almost immediately found himself flat on the ground, several of them holding him down. Face kept struggling, until he saw him.

The faint light from the sun kept him in silhouette, but he recognized him anyway. The same stance, the same swagger, the same anger and contempt in his voice.

Harry.

He spoke in Vietnamese. Face knew he should understand what was said, but it sounded blurred, fuzzy. It made no sense. His hands were tied behind his back, and he was pulled up. The familiar march began, a man on either side pulling and tugging, dragging when he slipped.

By the time they reached the camp, Face hardly realized he was walking at all. The men holding his arms never loosened their hold, and he caught glimpses of smirks from the other soldiers. Suddenly he was shoved forward, lifted and dropped into the back of a Jeep, feet on his back and legs holding him in place.

It was a long and uncomfortable ride to wherever they were going, and if he shifted at all he felt a boot slam into his body. He'd forgotten how badly that hurt. The Jeep suddenly swung around, and his head slammed into the side, his body slid across the rough floor as they came to an abrupt halt.

He could hear two men talking and then he was grabbed by the arms and pulled roughly out of the Jeep. He blinked at the sun in his eyes before he was dragged forward. He looked up, groggy, and saw the new soldier in front of him.

He heard the voice, but the words didn't register. Only that uniform. That Marine uniform. The voice got louder, and Face saw the baseball bat. Swinging. In his hands. His hands. Someone grabbed the dog tags, jerking them from his neck. He just saw the uniform. Covered in blood. Getting smaller and smaller as the noise from the chopper got louder and louder...


*****

Sergeant Dominick tensed as the Jeep came rolling up in front of the Embassy. Things had been pretty quiet until recently, and then all the action had been further north. Still...

As soon as the Jeep pulled to a halt, he relaxed. That jerk off, Trung. He spent a lot of time around the Embassy, kissing ass, hoping for favors later on, no doubt. This time he seemed pretty excited though.

He glanced over at his partner, rolling his eyes. The other sergeant just grinned as Dominick walked over to the Jeep. Both men jumped when the three ARVN in the back suddenly started pulling at something on the floor. Next thing they knew, the four Vietnamese were standing there with a filthy, bleeding American between them.

Naked.

"Good Jesus, Trung, what've you done now?" Dominick rushed forward, but Trung intercepted him.

"This man deserter, Sarge. Deserter! We caught over by river, he fight us, try to run. See - deserter!"

The man looked up at Dominick, and his gaze fastened on Dominick's chest.

"Hey, buddy, who are you? What happened to you? Hey, hey, I'm talking to you, man. Listen up."

Dominick stood back. Man, this guy was blown away big time.

"See, Sarge? He not spose to be here now. Deserter only."

Dominick cast a glaring glance at Trung, shutting him up. The guy had to be military; he had dog tags. Dom's eyes narrowed. He had a lot of dog tags. He reached over, yanked the chain from the guy's neck, not wanting to get any closer.

He looked over the tags - three different sets, all right. Three different names. Dammit. He looked at the dregs standing in front of him, and looked back at his partner.

"Hey, Joe. Call Neil Bursey, get him down here. I'm gonna put this guy on ice till we figure this shit out."

Unlocking the gates, he led the ARVNs inside, dragging their prisoner with them. Dom stopped at the door to a small storage room off to the side. It would do for now. Tossing a set of handcuffs to Trung, he searched for the key to the door. He glanced up when the guy started jerking around, but he was just fighting the cuffs. Shaking his head, he unlocked the door and swung it open. The now-cuffed prisoner was shoved inside, and he slammed the door shut, locking it.

Dom moved Trung and his cohorts back, still holding the illicit dog tags, ignoring the pounding from the storage room. They'd wait outside the gate, let the freak cool off before he talked to the head of security.


*****

He saw the door opening just before the shove. He stumbled to the floor, landing hard on his knees, before falling to a sit. He looked up just in time to see the door slam shut.

In a split second he was up, running at the door, slamming his shoulder against it, again and again and again. The door didn't even shudder. He slid down to the floor, trying to look through the narrow crack between the door and frame. Breathing hard, he looked around the storage room. Shelves, mostly empty. A couple buckets off to the side. A single light hanging from the ceiling.

He had to get out.

He had to get away.


*****

Neil Bursey had only been at the Embassy for about six months, but it wasn't his first time in-country. He'd been with the Combined Action Platoons in I-Corp back in '67, and again in '69 before moving to the civilian arena and eventually ending up in the diplomatic corps. He got along well the Marine Embassy Guards, and even with the civilian personnel. When you were head of security, you had to.

Now he headed across the compound, impatient, unhappy. He had no sympathy for deserters, and preferred to ignore their existence. Unfortunately, having one dumped on his doorstep meant not only finding out who he was and where he belonged, but getting him there. And that meant dealing with the military bureaucracy - which at this point in time, could mean talking to a dozen different pencil pushers in as many different locations.

"Okay, Dom, what have you got for me?"

Dominick gave him a quick rundown of events, with Trung interrupting every few sentences, and then handed over the dog tags. Bursey frowned.

"Do any of these belong to this guy, or was he just collecting them?"

"Don't know, Sir. He was too spaced out to say anything."

"Where is he now?"

"Locked in the storage room. Not real happy about it, but he ain't...isn't going anywhere."

"All right. I'll see what I can find out on these tags." Bursey turned, staring at the tags.

"Uh, Sir? What should we do with him?"

"Leave him where he is for now. At least then I'll know where to find him."

Bursey walked back across the compound. He heard a thump from the storage area, ignored it.

There was nothing in there to damage anyway.


*****

He'd rest for a while, then push himself up, stagger a few feet and take another run at it. But it wouldn't budge. Not even a little. Then he'd move around the room, bumping into the shelves, looking for something, anything, to break him free, but there was nothing. So he'd go back to ramming the door.

He'd just jarred himself dizzy when he heard that voice outside the door. Harsh, angry. He knew that tone. He ran to the far end of the room, between the shelves, trying to hide in the shadows. Watched as the door swung out, open.

The Marine. He stepped inside, and Face could see another one behind him, baton loose in his hand.

So this was it.

The first one glared at him, shaking his head, and put a plate down on the floor. Face could smell the food, recognized it. The smell of pork. He felt sick to his stomach.

"You eat that, freak. And then put these on. And quit pounding on the fucking door. You're not going anywhere just yet. Got it?"

The door slammed shut once more, and Face slid down the wall to the floor. He stared at the plate, and the pajama bottoms on the floor. Looked up at the walls, watching as they crept ever closer.


*****

Neil Bursey came back to the Embassy after lunch, anxious to see if he'd gotten an answer from the Army yet. He passed the storage room without a glance. He'd see if he could find some place more comfortable for him until it was decided what to do with him. Undoubtedly he'd be put on the next transport to face a courts martial Stateside.

He glanced through the stack of reports his secretary handed him and continued on to his office. Most concerned the evacuation plans for Cambodia; he'd look through those later. Then he found the one he'd been waiting for, the Army's response to his inquiry on those dog tags.

He got a nasty lump in his stomach as he started reading. All three men in a POW camp in Laos; one escaped, now discharged; one dead; the third...

Bursey stared at the last one. He didn't believe in coincidences. No way this guy would have all three dog tags unless...

He hurried out of the office, yelling at his secretary to have Sergeant Dominick meet him in the yard, and raced down the stairs and out the door. He was waiting impatiently at the door when Dom came rushing up.

"Open it up! Now!"

"Sir?" Dom was fumbling with the keys.

"He's not a deserter. He was a prisoner of war. Must have escaped. Hurry up, man!"

The door swung open, and Bursey looked at a scene of chaos. A plate of food was upside down on the floor, with some kind of cloth nearly covering it. The shelving units had been tipped over, contents scattered, and were now laying end to end forming a cross. The prisoner sat against the far wall, feet pushing against one set of shelves, as if holding it in place. He sat still as stone, staring right through them.

It was the first time Bursey had actually seen the man, and he was shocked. Naked, filthy, hair and beard tangled and matted, body bruised and scarred. Bursey felt sick. He stepped forward, and the man immediately scrambled to a crouch. Bursey saw the handcuffs and shuddered at what that must have felt like.

"Sergeant Hanson?"

The man continued to stare at him, eyes wide.

"Sergeant Kyle Hanson?" Bursey stepped closer, slowly. "My name is Neil Bursey. You're at the American Embassy, in Saigon. You're safe now, Kyle. We're going to get you home."

Dominick had followed Bursey inside the room, leaving the door open. Now he stepped to the side, slowly as Bursey had.

"Kyle? Do you understand? You're free now."

It took a split second. From immobile to a streak of lightning, Face was headed for the open door. Only Dominick's quick reflexes prevented his escape.

Bursey watched in horror as the former POW fought like an animal to get away. At a nod from Dominick, he slipped out the door himself, and a moment later, Dom followed, once again slamming the door shut.

The thudding started almost immediately.

The two men looked at each other, and Bursey shook his head.

"Wait here. I'll go call the doc."


*****

October 20, 1973

2 Years, 8 Months, 18 Days

Bursey stepped out of the truck when it pulled to a stop beside the transport plane at Ton Son Nhut. He walked slowly to the back, watching as the Marines gently pulled the gurney out. Sergeant Hanson was strapped tightly to it, and even though he'd been sedated, he still struggled. Bursey watched sadly as the gurney was carried clumsily up the stairway and into the plane. He felt desperately sorry for the man, but he also felt a deep sense of relief at seeing him leave. Every day they'd been waiting for the Army to make up its mind what to do with him had been a nightmare. Just getting the man cleaned up had taken three men, none of them happy about it. Bursey hadn't been allowed to send him to the Saigon hospital; the fact that he'd been in Laos created all kinds of political problems, problems the government didn't want getting out to the public just now. So he'd been confined to a room in the Embassy, and after he'd tried to leap through the window, they'd been forced to keep him restrained to the bed. He wouldn't eat anything they cooked for him, not voluntarily. And he would not talk.

Bursey woke from his thoughts as the Marines shoved the now empty gurney back into the truck and climbed aboard. Well, maybe once the guy got Stateside, to that hospital near Mobile, he'd work things out.

It was going to be a long trip.