He was flying over thick green foliage, the stick heavy and unresponsive in his hands. He glanced at the dials on his instrument panel, the needle on one steadily falling, and he knew that one of the bullets that had rattled off the fuselage earlier must have done more.
He shot a look over his shoulder, hearing the groans of the injured men behind him. At least one of them was hurt badly enough that he wouldn’t make the trek back to base if they had to put down.
‘Christ’, he thought. “I don’t wanna make that walk and I ain’t even been shot up.”
He couldn’t tell how bad the man was but the blood was pooling around him, even with the tilts he was making to their flight path.
They dipped lower, toward the trees, and he bit back a curse, pulling back on the stick in an effort to keep them aloft. One of them shouted, screamed, something behind him but without the headphones it was little more than an incoherent noise. All he could hear was the whup of the rotors which seemed to be slowing incrementally, and the swish as some particularly ambitious foliage brushed the skids beneath them.
It was a losing battle, he told himself. By now a matter of when they went down, not if. His best hope was that they’d put enough distance between them to evade capture. He’d heard things about these people, he’d been here long enough for that. Some of it was exaggerated, he was sure; but even if he discounted half of it… Even that was enough to know that being taken would be the end of them, only later rather than sooner.
They fell, no other word for it, the engine cutting out for a heartstopping moment before spluttering back into sluggish life. The skids caught on vegetation, tore free, caught again. He heard the engine failing, felt the trees pulling them down, and he barely had time to scream a warning before the impact.
He jerked awake. The ground fell away below him and for a moment he thought he was back at the crash. Then the big man’s voice, low but clearly audible snapped him back to the present.
“Y’all ‘kay over there?”
Gasping at the sudden rush of blood to his head, he glanced over at the other man. He was still swathed in the camouflaged netting. He hadn’t screamed. He was sure he hadn’t. But his throat felt harsh, raw; as if he had. Embarrassed, he avoided the other man’s eyes. Instead, he grabbed for his canteen, taking a long drink to cover the moment. He forced himself to go slow, conserve whatever water he had. No telling when he’d get a chance to refill.
His delaying tactic hadn’t worked. The big man was still watching him. It was hard to tell beneath the camouflage, but as far as MacReady could tell there was no humor in the big man’s face. No pity either, which he was glad of. Just a kind of understanding.
“How long was you in country?” The question was pitched somewhere between idle curiosity and teasing but there was again the same undertone of understanding.
“Two tours.” MacReady answered after a short pause. “Plus a month or so in a military hospital.”
The big man looked at him, evaluating. “’71, ’72?”
He shook his head in reply, although the guess wasn’t far off. “’72, “73. What about you?” He asked back, just a bit belligerently.
“Oh, Ah did ma time in uniform.” The other man replied. It wasn’t exactly an answer but MacReady had met enough vets who didn’t want to talk about those days. Most of the time, he was one of them himself. So, if the big man didn’t press the issue, neither would he. He watched the man, waiting for the next question.
“You get any rest?”
MacReady breathed a small sigh of relief. It was bad enough being back there in his dreams. He had no control over that. But doing so when awake; not if he could avoid it.
“Some.” He said slowly.
The big man grunted. “Enough for ya ta take ‘nother watch? Ah ain’t too keen on movin’ on ‘til dusk and Ah could stand t’ get some more downtime.”
MacReady shrugged. “Ain’t a problem.”
The big man nodded, settling back against the tree once more. MacReady watched him until he was sure he was asleep, then he unhooked himself and slid down the tree-trunk, landing quietly on the forest floor.
He stretched, easing the kinks in his legs and back left over from his interrupted sleep. His left leg was the worst. He still had two pins in that legs, souvenirs of his last tour. Two years, two years of his life he’d lost to that damn jungle.
He’d signed up for the army early in ’71. He didn’t have to worry about that draft by then but there hadn’t been much to keep him home anyway. He’d bounced from one shit job to another since he’d graduated, earning just enough to keep himself going but no more. Bus boy, short order cook, labourer. Strange as it sounded to him now; at the time he’d thought the army might actually be an improvement.
Six months in Alabama, learning how to fly helicopters and he remembered never feeling so free in his life. Being able to soar and hover at will, it felt like what he was meant for. Then training was done and they sent him to the jungle.
He remembered stepping off the transport plane for the first time; instantly coating him in sweat, his clothes sticking to him. The first year hadn’t been too bad; there were some bad days, some worse but nothing like the Ripcord mess he heard some of the long-timers talking about. When he rotated back to the world, he felt adrift; missing the structure, the camaraderie. Missing the sky. So he’d re-upped.
He moved some distance away from their tree, moving as quietly as he could through the vegetation. Once he figured he’d gone far enough, he unzipped and relieved himself, feeling the insistent pressure easing.
The skin between his shoulder blades itched, a nervous reaction born out of feeling exposed. He’d felt like that often enough over there, especially during the week he’d spent alone in the jungle. After that crash, he’d dragged himself from the wreckage, cursing the obviously broken leg. He’d hauled himself away as fast as he could, knowing that the crash would be visible to anyone still pursuing them. He never knew if the others were dead from the crash or from their wounds but none came out of that wreck with him.
He wasn’t sure how long or how far he’d crawled before he found a branch he cooed use as a makeshift crutch. By the time they found him he’d been half-insane; a combination of dehydration, pain and infection. The recon group got him back to their base camp, and then to Biên Hòa and a hospital bed he didn’t leave for the better part of a month.
He knew how lucky he’d been, the odds against him being found by friendlies. And by the time he was due to be shipped home, that feeling had been reinforced. During that three weeks, his broken leg had been set, the pins that gave him the current ache had been put in and the infection driven from his system. Eventually, he was able to move about the hospital and see the others who had been less fortunate than himself. There were still many with limbs lost to the NVA’s traps or others with bullet wounds, bayonet wounds; dozens of different injuries.
His return to the States had shaken that faith. He didn’t have anyone to come back to and the sense of something missing he’d had the previous year was stronger. He’d fallen back into the same pattern as before he’d left, drifting from job to job. This time though it was an aimlessness and more; a growing sense of disconnection. The people he’d had to deal with, answer to; they seemed so inconsequential, so oblivious. He’d ended up getting frustrated, mouthing off and then moving on with whatever severance pay they saw fit to give him. That hadn’t helped his attitude any.
He was within a dozen feet of their tree when he heard the rustling and froze. He saw movement in the vegetation and before he could hide, three men forced their way through the undergrowth ahead of him. They seemed almost as surprised as he did, but they had their rifles at the ready before he could even twitch in the direction of his .45.
All three of them were dark, swarthy; dressed in cheap looking shirts and pants. He recognized the type; a step below the ones that had once come offering him work and on a par with the ones that had been sent after he turned them down.