Hannibal watched through narrowed eyes as his man crept through the underbrush. It wasn't a job he liked sending any of his men on, and he usually preferred giving something like this to his more experienced guys. But it was the kid's turn, and he couldn't place that life above any others.
All he could do now was wait and hope the kid came back in one piece.
Or just came back, period.
Guiltily reminding himself that he had five other men on this patrol, he took a fast look at each of their positions. Okay. Ready, waiting. He smiled softly. All good men. Seasoned the way only this God-forsaken place could do - fast, with few second chances. The longest any of them had been in country was five months.
He looked back at his newest. And froze.
The kid wasn't where he should be.
He wasn't anywhere.
Hannibal looked over at BA, the closest to him, some forty feet away. A second later BA sensed his CO's look and turned his head. They both knew something was wrong. Sure, there was a point where they would've lost sight of the kid, but not yet. Not there.
So where was he?
Hannibal glanced around at the others. They were further behind, but were catching on to the fact that something was up. That wasn't good, either. Patrols were nerve-wracking enough without having one of the team suddenly disappear into thin air.
Hannibal waited another minute. When there was still no sign of the kid, he had to accept the worst. Sighing heavily, he signaled BA to move up and take the kid's place. He and the rest of the men also moved, more slowly, behind him. They all knew they would stay closer to BA, knew the enemy must be closer than they had thought.
They remained spread out, watching for booby traps. Hannibal had drilled them over and over about that. A stick stuck in the ground, a small bit of paper stuck in the bark of a tree - anything that didn't belong. Even if it looked like trash from an old camp.
Nothing was what it appeared.
They stopped again. BA had disappeared, but where Hannibal had expected him to, and when. It would take two, maybe three minutes, before Hannibal would have reason to worry. If BA didn't reappear, it would be time for a strategic retreat and a quick call for an air strike.
Hannibal pulled the guys to a halt. He could sense their tension and didn't like it. The jungle did strange enough things to men's minds; something like this could spook them into shooting too soon, too wild. He watched the jungle ahead, waiting. Feeling spooked himself.
Suddenly there was movement up ahead. His weapon ready, he squinted, trying to see who it was. It wasn't the face he was hoping for. He tensed, one hand on his gun, the other signaling the others. Then he realized the VC moving toward him had his hands on his head. So did the one behind him. The third man was BA. And from the way they were moving, the rest of the area was clean.
Relief turned to confusion and then disbelief as three more VC appeared behind BA. And trailing behind them all was the kid.
Hannibal waited until the prisoners were secured before pulling the kid aside. He frankly didn't know whether he should congratulate him or slug him.
"So...I got the drop on them."
"How? You didn't do what you were supposed to."
"That wasn't the best way."
"It wasn't...and since when did you become the expert?"
The kid at least had the good sense to look embarrassed. "I'm not an expert, sir, but begging the colonel's pardon - I was there, you weren't. They were too close to do it the way we planned. So I had to improvise. I'm sorry if it caused problems, but it worked. The other way..." He shrugged, no longer embarrassed.
Hannibal took a deep breath. The debate between slap on shoulder and fist in mouth continued. "So just how did you capture them?"
"Uh, aerial assault, sir."
"Yessir." The kid squirmed under Hannibal's glare, but went on. "I saw them up ahead. The ground cover was such that I couldn't sneak up on them that way. They were prepping to move out, and I couldn't have gotten back in time to warn you without giving myself away. With the weapons cache they had, you wouldn't have stood a chance, Colonel. So I really had no choice."
"No choice in what? You still haven't explained..."
"I climbed a tree, and maneuvered my way closer that way. When their leader got below me, I just kinda dropped down on him. The rest decided to drop their weapons when they saw him with a knife to his throat. And that's when BA showed up."
"You climbed a tree?"
"Well, yeah. I mean, I used to do it all the time back at the...at home. When I wanted to sneak out at night. So when I saw what the situation was here, it just seemed like the thing to do."
"What if they had seen you?"
The kid just smiled. "According to BA, you guys didn't, and you knew I was out there."
Hannibal just shook his head and walked away, hiding a smile. He no longer felt the urge to slug his new lieutenant - but they were going to have a long, long talk when they got back to base.