The mortars rained out of the hot ’Nam sky, Crump! Crump! Crump! into the shit-stinking paddy mud. Den Carlsson threw himself flat, scanned the battlefield, and the third round always took the looie as he stood noble and inspirational out in the middle of harm’s way like they taught him in ROTC and damn near chopped him in half at the waist. He fell the same way every time, dreamtime-slow leaving his legs and hips standing for a moment while his chest and head toppled like a felled tree and his face showed dumb surprise. AKs chattered from the treeline, and Brownie kept the pig hammering back at them from behind a dike. At least that M60 made the bastards keep their frigging heads down.
Now Red was on the horn, trying to call in coordinates for a fire mission or some air. Dammit, this was supposed to be a friendly ville, and they landed in a hot LZ instead. Then Charlie lobbed in another salvo of mortars and the paddy muck rained down and Eason gave that startled grunt you get when high-speed metal stops in the chest cavity but he stared at his arm instead. Blood spurted from a ragged gash, bright arterial blood with the pulse in it, and he reached out to Carlsson with his other hand.
Den slithered up and over the dike, slugs and shrapnel whining past his ears. He felt the thump of choppers in his gut, gunships probably. Already the fire slackened, Charlie fading back into the boonies to let the friendlies cowering in the ville eat napalm and iron in his place.
Den clamped on to the pressure point, high on Eason’s arm. With his other hand and teeth, he tore a bandage pack open and slapped its wrapper over the chest wound, trying to seal a sucking hole the size of a silver dollar.
The treeline burst into orange flame, black smoke, streamers of white phosphorus smoke arching high and falling back. Thatch flew into the sky as the ville dissolved under the incoming.
Eason . . . young, strong, black, damn near the first black man Den had ever known. Peppercorn hair and gang scars and jive talk and joints and bro’s dap, ten months in-country and honkies can stay the hell out of the Brother’s Hooch. He’d taken Den into the squad as a green troop, kept his white ass alive and seen him make corporal and buck sergeant by the simple process of surviving. And now he lay dying under Den’s hand.
Den stuck his head up over the dike. “Medic!”
“Frat’s down!” Sounded like Jelly, over on the left flank.
So Fratelli had also bought a piece of it. Figured. Charlie went for rank, radio, and relief. That cross on Frat’s helmet was as good as a bull’s-eye.
“Hey Red, you still kicking?”
“On the way!”
Too damn slow. Den felt rage building inside, overpowering the helplessness. That damned butter-bar looie, he didn’t matter. Another month of his frigging rotsie regs and gung-ho head-on tactics, someone would have fragged him, anyway. He was more dangerous than Charlie. But Frat was a good man, brave as hell, conchie or not. And Den knew, dream-memory of things out of sight, Green had bit the big one, first round incoming, short-timer with two weeks left before he punched his ticket back to the World.
And Eason. Den felt the life ebbing, through the flow of blood he couldn’t stop, through the drowning bubbling lung, through the cold seeping up from the paddy mud until he could feel it spreading across that glossy walnut skin.
Eason stirred and looked up. “Hey . . . Bro.”
“Be easy, man. Chopper’s on the way.”
“Bull . . . shit, honkie. Take . . . you, patch yo’ white ass up . . . .” The deep Louisiana accent faded into bubbles.
Den felt the fire burning deep in his calf, where some jagged chunks of iron were settling in for a visit. Yeah, they’d patch that up, shoot him full of vitamins, have him back in the boonies in a couple weeks max.
Rage boiled in him, to the point where he’d seen men snap and stand up and play John Wayne, “Come and get me, Commie bastards!” with an M60 in one hand firing from the hip and cartridge casings spouting like an arterial wound, tracers washing the jungle with their red glare, and then the switch flipped and icy calm flooded through. He could be a hero, or he could save a life.
Something twisted, under his heart, and a deep hollow silence settled around him in the roar and chatter of death and said, “The ravens can feast on other flesh.” Or that was what he heard, again dreamtime-slow, out of words that weren’t in English. He clamped down with his fingers. Eason’s pulse steadied. He felt one chunk of iron decide that it had really slid along a rib instead of punching straight through into the lung, while the other settled into muscle a scant quarter-inch from that throbbing artery. The black man twitched and his eyes grew wide until the whites stood out like blackface makeup.
“Gris-gris. Man, what be you?”
Then the medevac swooped down, spraying mud and smoke and shredded rice stalks and noise all over and breaking thoughts about whatever miracle had just occurred. A big man himself, Den shook himself and picked up his two-hundred-fifty pound platoon sergeant like a doll and hauled him to the chopper, shoving him into waiting hands. Then they loaded Frat, and Green, and what was left of the looie, and four troops from third platoon, and five more from first, stacking them up like cordwood. No room for Den, this load. He could still fight.
The chopper thundered up and clawed into a sharp turn and didi-mau’d with its load of misery and blood. Two hundred yards out, it vanished into a ball of orange and dense black smoke, bits and lumps fluttering down like crippled pigeons.
James A. Hetley also writes as James A. Burton. He lives in the Maine setting of his Hetley-authored contemporary fantasy novels The Summer Country, The Winter Oak, Dragon’s Eye, and Dragon’s Teeth. His residence is an 1850s house suitable for a horror movie, with an electrical system installed while Thomas A. Edison still walked the earth, peeling lead-based paint, questionable plumbing, a furnace dating back to Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency, a roof perpetually in need of shingling, and windows that rattle in the winter gales. He’s a retired renovation architect. And the cobbler’s children go barefoot . . .