South Vietnam 1968
Taiwanese Operations Compound and Antenna Field at Dong Hoi
THE young Taiwanese radio operator leaned back in his patched rattan chair and stared out the heavily reinforced window of the operations compound. Above the encroaching jungle he could just make out the tips of the antennas. Soaring over the thick and unruly Vietnamese shrubbery and palm trees and flame-of-the-forest trees, the antenna field's silver towers glittered in the eerie morning sunlight like exotic birds frozen in mid-flight.
It was the man's last month in Vietnam, and already his mind was drifting back to the familiar streets of Taipei. To a small lane off Chung Shan North Road where in less than twenty days his wife and four-year-old son would welcome him home. Home from a boring tour of duty in a compound in a remote mountainous area of Vietnam surrounded by impenetrable jungle growth. He glanced at the pictures of his family on the nearby bulletin board and again felt the pride in being the father of a healthy, chubby son; a “Little Emperor.”
Then his eyes fell on the photograph he'd taken of his team of radio operators and linguists. The eleven Taiwanese were standing and clowning with an American helicopter gunship crew in the compound's landing zone. The gunship crew was on standby at all times to bail them out in case of emergency. The number on the tail of the chopper read 7-4-6. The seven and the six were of no consequence, but the sound of "four" in Chinese was similar to the sound for "death." Still, the radio operator regarded himself as a modern Chinese and traditional Chinese superstition seldom troubled him. The man let his eyes fall on the two flags farther along the wall - one American and one Taiwanese - and the photographs of LBJ and Chiang Kai-shek. Both were looking very serious indeed.
Suddenly his earphones crackled to life and he began intercepting his fourth message of the day. Chinese in southern China communicating with one another unknowingly being listened to by Taiwanese in South Vietnam. No doubt it would be another "Mother sick, send money"-type message. During his entire tour of duty he had intercepted almost nothing of military value. Still, the Taiwanese compound was located in what the American army had designated a "Hazardous Duty Zone" and, regardless of the dubious value of their interceptions, he and his crew were well paid.
The team chief, a short stocky and broad-faced martinet from northern China, stood beside his desk and spoke curtly to him. "Hai mei-you ne? (Still nothing?)"
The Taiwanese radio op sat up straight and shook his head. The team chief was an elderly ex-Nationalist Colonel whose tone suggested that those around him were more slaves than subordinates. The son of a general in one of Chiang Kai-shek's defeated armies which had fled the communist takeover of China in 1949 and brutally forced its authority upon the Taiwanese. The man still spoke Chinese with a heavy Beijing accent, and the Taiwanese-born radio operator often grimaced inwardly at the man's speech, usually sprinkled with difficult-to-decipher "r" suffixes.
The team chief grabbed the messages the operator had intercepted in the previous hour and took them to his own desk where he began translating them into Chinese characters and then into English. Each page was covered with rows of numbers and an outsider (i.e., someone outside the "intelligence-gathering community") would have no idea that each four-letter combination represented a Chinese character.
Just out of the operator's line of vision, along the perimeter of the compound, two South Vietnamese soldiers stood guard at a rear entrance gate, a strange but sturdy contraption of bamboo and barbed wire. The senior ranking of the two men suddenly pricked up his ears and turned to his companion, motioning silently toward nearby jungle growth. His subordinate obediently held his M-16 at the ready and turned to walk toward the source of the noise. His superior slung his M-16 on his shoulder, slipped a knife from a sheath, and followed closely behind him.
clasped one hand around his companion's mouth then plunged the knife into his
back. As he pulled the knife out, dozens of well-armed, black-clad Viet Cong
emerged from the jungle. One of them slit the throat of the dying soldier and
then joined the others as they rushed through the gate and into the compound.
As silent as the jungle itself.
THE shadow of the United States Army Bell UH-1C helicopter skimmed over the triple-canopy jungle stretching endlessly across Vietnamese hills and valleys. Anyone below would have heard the roar of its engine and the "whoomp" of its blades but would not have glimpsed the chopper's nose art where, depicted in vivid colors, a fierce dragon was being ridden by a scantily clad and very well-endowed young woman. The dragon was roaring and sending out streams of fiery smoke from its nostrils. The woman waved a sword with one hand and held on to the dragon’s green scaled-neck with the other. Beneath the nose art were the large, carefully painted black letters:
On each side were the helicopter's two rocket pods and two 7.62 mm rotary, six-barreled mini guns. The helicopter's tailboom read "United States Army" and on its tail was the number: 7-4-6.
On the underside of the fuselage was the irreverent crew's large bullseye painting of a target with scores inside each circle. Over the target were the words:
VC TARGET RANGE: HAPPY SHOOTING!
Inside the plexiglas cockpit of the chopper a pilot and co-pilot wore olive green flight helmets and their normal chest armor. Behind the cockpit area was a crew chief, door gunner and two passengers. Behind them on the bulkhead were neatly painted black letters:
82ND ASSAULT HELICOPTER COMPANY
MAJOR BRYON WHITE
The crew chief and door gunner manned M-60 machineguns positioned for action in each of the two open cargo doors. They and the two passengers were squeezed in between bandoleers of Claymore mines and crates of grenades which had been crammed into every available space. Of the two passengers, one was a prisoner in handcuffs. One was a military policeman.
Except for the MP, the men in the helicopter were combat-hardened veterans. It was especially obvious in their eyes: the Vietnam "thousand yard stare." The crew chief sat on ammunition boxes lining the cargo deck's bulkhead, his flight helmet off, and tugged on the stubborn string loops of its earphones.
Most of the men were in their mid- to late-20's, suggesting, perhaps, that this was their second or even third tour of duty in 'Nam. The MP, on his first tour, was about 19. His helmet liner was unspotted and his boots were spit-shined. The others wore faded fatigues, dirty combat boots, flak jackets and .45's.
The magic marker message on the back of the door gunner's flak jacket read: HAPPINESS IS A COLD LZ. That on the back of the crew chief read: DON'T SHOOT - I'M SHORT!
Only the prisoner, a man named Greenwood, wore a soft, narrow-brimmed flop hat. He was also the only one wearing green-and-black striped "tiger" fatigues -- symbol of the hunter-killers of the LRRPs -- Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols. In addition to poorly healed shrapnel wounds, his hands and face bore the scars of long nights lying in wait in jungle ambushes -- lacerations from elephant grass and bites from ants, mosquitoes, termites, leeches. Areas of his face retained traces of his greenish-black camouflage paint; as if he just came out of the bush. If anything, he appeared even more the classic picture of a combat-hardened veteran than the others. By comparison, his MP guard appeared boyish and unseasoned.
The pilot, John Haggerty, known to his men affectionately as Hard Bones, spoke to his co-pilot -- a twenty-three-year-old from Chicago named Fox. "I'd say it's about time we let Big Daddy know our whereabouts, don't you?"
"We'd better," Fox said. "Otherwise, he might worry himself to death."
Hard Bones initiated his radio conversation between helicopter and base. "Dragon base, this is Dragon seven. Do you copy? Over."
It took only a few seconds for a response. "...Dragon seven, this is Dragon base. Over."
"Dragon base, Dragon seven has accomplished its mission and is on its way home. Over."
"...Dragon seven, your CO requests your present position and estimated time of arrival. Over."
"Dragon base, we are 35 clicks southwest of Phu Bai and ETA is one hour. Over."
"Copy, Dragon seven. Your CO requests mission report on Firebase Alpha. Over."
"Firebase Alpha completely evacuated. The slicks took the troops; we took the weapons. However, please be advised we have one prisoner and one MP on board as our first priority and will be making an unscheduled stop at Ahn Lo. Over."
"Say again, Dragon seven. You have one VC prisoner on board? Over."
"Negative, Dragon base. Prisoner is American. Over."
"...Copy, Dragon seven. However, CO asks for a report on weapons. Over."
"Dragon base, please advise CO we have a shitload of armament on board including enough Claymores to mine every rice paddy in Vietnam. Over."
"...Dragon seven, your CO refuses to believe you could have loaded all the weapons he requested and be back so soon. Over."
"Dragon base, while it is true that a shitload of weapons does tend to affect one's flying speed, please be advised that a United States Army Bell UH-1C Huey gunship knows how to haul ass when the right helmsman is at the wheel. Over."
In the few seconds of silence, Hard Bones and his co-pilot exchanged smiles. Both men had had several run-in's with their CO, Major Bryon White AKA "Big Daddy". White took pride in presenting himself as a tough-as-nails, "no-nonsense" officer and in reminding anyone who would listen that he was a decorated veteran of the Korean War. When he'd first arrived in country, Major White had tightened up restrictions and brought charges against several of the men in his unit whom he said were having intercourse with their hootch maids. Hard Bones and his crew fought back with ingenuity and, when charges were dropped, were credited with persuading the Major that men facing death every day do not appreciate chickenshit from a turkey.
Whether harassing American military martinets or fighting communist armies, Hard Bones had proved himself to be one of the best helicopter pilots in Vietnam. He was daring, innovative, skillful and often totally disregarded deadly enemy fire to support soldiers on the ground. And the men on the ground knew this. In more than one action, grunts facing a well-entrenched enemy were reliably reported to have cheered wildly when a voice over their field radio reported that Hard Bone's unit was the one sending assistance. But the same independent spirit which motivated him throughout his years of flying had led to his being reprimanded and grounded on two occasions. The next order he disobeyed would be the cause of the only thing Hard Bones was afraid of: He would be permanently grounded.
"...Roger that, Dragon seven. Happy flying. Dragon Base out."
"Roger, Dragon base. Dragon Seven, out."
In the doorway, the watchful door gunner, known as Kool-Aid, gripped his M-60 machine gun slung on its elastic bungee cord from the roof of the cabin and looked down at the jungle as it grudgingly gave way to the smoke of cooking fires, ricefields, rubber plantations, banana trees and the tops of thatched roofs. He wondered idly which figures were VC and which weren't: The villagers leading their water buffalo; the fishermen net-casting for fish; the farmers peddling traditional chain-pumps and cone water buckets raising water from one level to the next. What this war needed was an invention to tell which pajama-clad farmers were innocent and which were aiding VC to lay deadly ambushes for American grunt patrols or hiding VC in the villages so American troops would never find them.
Inside the cockpit, Hard Bones Haggerty keyed his radio to tower frequency. "Ahn Lo Tower, this is Dragon seven...Ahn Lo Tower, this is Dragon seven..."
Suddenly, a frantic voice broke in on the emergency frequency radio; a voice in Taiwanese-accented Mandarin interspersed with occasional cries for help in English.
The co-pilot wrinkled his brow. "What the hell is that? Charlie on our frequency again?"
Hard Bones listened intently before speaking. "Chinese. Something about...Jesus Christ, it's Dong Hoi! They're being overrun!"
Larson shouted above the inrushing wind. "I thought we were fighting Vietnamese."
The prisoner gave the MP a slight smile. "No, sonny, this is the listening post at Dong Hoi. Chinese radio ops were brought over from Taiwan. They're on a mountain listening in on communications inside China."
"Dong Hoi?! That's VC territory."
"Yeah. The Brass decided that if the shit hit the fan these boys could get them out in time. How much you want to bet they won't?"
Hard Bones could tell the excited radio operator was becoming hysterical. He began to hear the sound of gunfire. All four crew members could hear everything clearly in their earphones; the MP and the prisoner listened to Hard Bone's side of the conversation over the sound of the chopper's turbines and blades.
Fox shook his head. "Jesus Christ! They haven't got a chance!"
Hard Bones spoke into his mike. "Dragon base. This is Dragon seven. Over."
"Dragon seven, this is Dragon Base. Over."
"The Taiwanese ops at Dong Hoi are on the air screaming for help. Request permission to assist. Over."
"...Dragon seven, this is your company commander. We are aware of the situation at Dong Hoi. Carry on with your present mission. Over."
Hard Bones glanced at Fox as if to reassure himself that he had heard correctly. "Sir, I repeat, the VC are apparently overrunning Dong Hoi. I can be there in minutes! Over!"
"Dragon seven, I repeat, your request is denied. You could not reach them in time and, in any case, at the moment, Dong Hoi is not your mission. Over."
"Dragon Base, Dong Hoi is our mission and twelve Taiwanese linguists are about to be killed! I might be able to save them. Over!"
"Dragon seven, you will proceed with your present mission! You will not- repeat - not render assistance to Dong Hoi! That is a direct order! Any attempt on your part to do so, and I will have you up for an immediate court-martial! Over!"
"Are you insane? If you don't care about the men, what about the intelligence documents! That station is handling top secret, cryptographic material! Over!"
"Request denied! Proceed with your mission! Over!"
"If the VC get their hands on those documents, they'll know every move-"
As Hard Bones stopped talking abruptly his co-pilot reacted. “What! What's the matter!"
Hard Bones spoke each word into the radio clearly and distinctly. "You son-of-a-bitch! You bastards want Charley to overrun the base; you've planted false documents. Over!"
As Hard Bones and Major White screamed to interrupt each other on their keyed radios, it created static and jammed their frequency until the other relinquished.
"Dragon seven, get off the air immediately! That is a direct order! So help me God, I'll have you crucified! Get off the air! Dragon Base out!"
"That's why you sent us to help evacuate Firebase Alpha. That's not our mission; you just wanted us out of the way. You goddamned- (static)"
"Captain Haggerty, I am ordering- (static)"
"A dozen Taiwan linguists sacrificed for some kind of CIA stunt. What did the spooks promise you for cooperating, Major? A promotion? Over."
"That's it! You get back here immediately and consider yourself under arrest! I will personally- (static)"
Hard Bones abruptly cut him off. For several seconds the crew listened to the radio sounds of AK-47s and the screams of Taiwanese ops. Then there was silence; then the sound of Vietnamese voices. Then nothing.
Greenwood turned to the crew chief. "Some hot-shot chopper crew. If you'd been flying instead of bullshitting on the radio, you might have saved them."
The crew chief was known to the rest of the crew as "Wizard," because of the way he could repair a helicopter with few tools and lots of improvising. Still in his early 20's, he was nevertheless a religious man. He glanced at Greenwood, then turned away, ignoring him, and pulled out a Bible looking for a quotation. Amid the weapons and ammunition, the Bible's silver clasp, large red capitals and black text, seemed like something from another world.
Greenwood scratched his chin with his handcuff link and continued his harassment. "You boys gonna be known as the crew that fucked up at Dong Hoi. The hot-shots that got the Chinks killed. You boys were their security. Some security."
The prisoner and the MP were seated close together but, except for them, aboard the helicopter, anyone not speaking into the intercom system had to shout to be heard over the whine of the turbine engine and the sound of the rotors. When the crew chief shouted to be heard the prisoner smiled at his pronounced southern accent. "Your problem, Greenwood, is that you don't know when to shut up!"
The MP joined in the shouted conversation. "His problem is he killed a man and he's going away for a long time!"
Greenwood moved closer to the crew chief. "See, chief, the thing is, I only killed one man -- not counting dinks, of course; whereas you -- you boys got a dozen killed. All because good little soldiers got to obey orders. Now, what does your good book say about that?"
Wizard suddenly lurched at Greenwood with his hands at Greenwood's throat. Kool-Aid took his own hands from his M-60 machine gun and turned to aid the MP as he struggled to separate them.
Fox, the co-pilot, heard the commotion and turned around. Fox was a big man and he had both the confidence and the authority of a big man. "All right, knock it off!"
Wizard released Greenwood and recovered his Bible. Kool-Aid shoved Greenwood against an ammunition crate then turned back to his M-60. Hard Bones had seemed unaware of the commotion. He stared straight ahead and spoke softly. "I could have saved them."
Fox started to say one thing then settled for another: "We followed procedure."
"Yeah, Fox, I followed procedure; and let twelve men die."
Fox stared at Hard Bones Haggerty. He had lost count of the American ground troops they had rescued under fire, but he knew Hard Bones seemed only to remember the ones he hadn't been able to get out safely. "Hey, buddy, don't always be so damned hard on yourself; it was the Major's call. The Taiwanese were sacrificed and we were set up."
Hard Bones still spoke mainly to himself. "I wish to God I had a second chance."
At the sudden eruption of loud ground fire, Hard Bones sharply banked the chopper and immediately spotted dozens of muzzle flashes. Green tracers of Vietcong automatic weapons fire were coming at them from a partial clearing in the jungle. For every round they could see, there were four rounds they couldn't see. And from somewhere below 51 caliber machine gun rounds chased them across the sky. And the clearing itself was surrounded by the strangest formation of low rolling hills Kool-Aid had ever seen.
Below the chopper, surrounding huts clustered together in the middle of several rice paddies, an entire company of Vietcong was defiantly out in the open, the men energetically emptying their AK-47's and larger caliber machine guns at the chopper. As bullets hit the chopper, one sailed cleanly through the Plexiglas cockpit chin bubble. Another ricocheted off Hard Bone's frontal ceramic plate knocking the wind out of him and causing a bloody shrapnel groove along his cheek.
"Hard Bones! You OK?"
"Yeah, Fox. I'm OK. The chicken plate stopped the bullet. But that makes it personal."
Kool-Aid spoke into the wind. "Oh, shit. Here we go!" The door gunner pulled a handful of pills from his fatigue shirt pocket and looked them over. He picked three of them. "You, you and you. Step out of formation." Kool-Aid popped them into his mouth and shoved the rest back into his pocket. "The rest of you are dismissed. But do not leave the immediate area."
As the chopper climbed steadily to 1500 feet, Hard Bones wiped blood away from his cheek, opened a console cover and pushed a toggle switch, arming the guns and rockets. Red lights appeared on the console.
Hard Bones spoke the words, by now long familiar to each member of his crew. "Going hot!"
The MP screamed at him. "What are you doing!" It took Larson a few seconds to realize that, because of his earphones under his flying helmet, Hard Bones couldn't hear him. Larson turned to the crew chief and spoke nervously. "What... what does he think he's doing?"
Wizard almost laughed at the man's evident fear. And his failed attempt to disguise it as indignation. "Just what he should be doing, Mr. Larson. Fighting a goddamn war!"
Larson raised his voice. "This helicopter has been commandeered by my commanding officer to transport my prisoner. Your orders are-"
Ignoring the MP, Wizard tugged his flight helmet on, positioned his earphone and grabbed hold of his M-60 machine gun while Kool-Aid readied his own M-60 in the opposite cargo door. Hard Bones continued preparing for battle and spoke to the crew through the intercom system. "I hope Charlie appreciates the fact that we're taking time out from our busy schedule to shoot back at him."
The MP moved to Kool-Aid and shouted next to his helmet. "This is not proper procedure!"
"I mean...if a helicopter is shot at, the pilot can't just shoot back. Not here!"
Kool-Aid spoke while keeping his eyes on the series of low hills. Since he'd been in 'Nam, he'd never seen any terrain quite so bizarre - long, low ridges of earth rising in and around otherwise flat ricefield terrain. He'd been in battle with Hard Bones dozens of times and his stomach hardly tensed anymore, but something about those hills—not to mention an unnaturally darkening sky--gave him the heebee-jeebies. "Oh, you mean, when fired upon, we should climb to altitude, find the village on the map, call headquarters and request permission to return fire? Something like that?"
"Yes! And your headquarters will call the province chief to see if-"
"Yeah, and then assuming by that time the war ain't over and that the province chief ain't a VC plant, we can shoot back. Fuck you very much!"
Despite his handcuffed wrists and the roll of the gunship, Greenwood inched his way closer to Larson. "At last! A little action. Hey, Larson, how about unlocking the cuffs? If somebody's hit I can-"
The increasingly nervous MP ignored Greenwood and moved between the seats of the pilot and co-pilot and shouted to Hard Bones.
"Listen, I think you should radio-"
Hard Bones snapped out the radio circuit breakers. "Sorry, son, I just lost radio contact." He then spoke to his crew through the intercom. "Weapons check!"
Fox pulled the minigun sight down from its stowed position. He felt both the fear and exhilaration of going into battle. Especially speeding through the sky over Vietnam in a tiny metal-and-Plexiglas bubble, as vulnerable as it was deadly. "You got it."
Wizard had grown up in Louisiana, the youngest of three mean brothers. He had learned early that life was a series of battles. If any man on board actually looked forward to combat, he did. He screamed into the wind. "Ready!"
Kool-Aid stopped staring at the strange ridge formations long enough to turn toward the cockpit. "Let's pop some caps!"
Hard Bones pulled up on the collective and pushed the cyclic hard forward, abruptly pushing the nose down, and sending the chopper into a steep dive. As it approached the target, still taking enemy fire, Hard Bones fired a pair of 2.75 inch HE (high explosive) rockets, while Fox fired two 7.62 miniguns, each with six rotating barrels, slamming 4000 rounds per minute into the target area.
As the helicopter broke off and banked, Kool-Aid and Wizard began firing their M-60 machine guns. Their spent brass cartridges ejected at an incredible speed. Red tracers were heading earthward, green tracers upwards, rocket pods were flaring, streaks of grey smoke trailed the rockets. Trails of brass cartridges tumbled out of the chopper like rain, silhouetted black against the blue sky, light coruscating off them like dozens of little suns.
Several huts, along with chickens, buffalo, cattle, trees and bits of Vietcong soldiers soared up in a big boom of dirt, straw and wood flying in all directions.
Hard Bones again worked the collective and cyclic, abruptly sending the nose down, and buzzed straight over the area at treetop level. The helicopter then began its climb. The crew ignored the sights and sounds of bullet holes appearing in the chopper, the sudden vibrations and the inexplicable engine noises and continued to climb in preparation for another dive.
Fox looked down at the bright yellow chip detector warning light as it came on. "Uh oh! We got metal chips in the transmission."
Hard Bones smiled and spoke calmly. It had not gone unnoticed that in the heat of battle Hard Bones Haggerty became a kind of serene Buddha. "Could be a short circuit."
Fox shook his head ruefully. "It's your call, Hard Bones."
Suddenly, a red hydraulic light lit up. Despite his best efforts, Fox heard the slightest hint of panic in his own voice. "Number two hydraulic system out!" He turned and motioned to the door gunner.
Kool-Aid stuck his head out the door into the slipstream, looked to the rear and spotted the hydraulic fluid squirting from the cowling. He ducked back inside and yelled above the sound of the chopper. "Hydraulic fluid leaking!"
Greenwood began thrashing about, yanking at his handcuffs. "We're taking too many hits! Larson, for Christ sakes, get these goddamn cuffs off me!"
Larson ignored Greenwood while trying to control his own voice. "I think you should...I am ordering you to head back!"
Hard Bones Haggerty maintained his insouciant attitude. The helicopter began its near-suicidal dive, swooping noisily and erratically toward the target area again like an enraged, wounded eagle. Again the gunship let loose on the VC and again the ground exploded sending up bits of huts, men and animals. Suddenly, there was the almost deafening sound of a loud roar sending an incredibly strong vibration through the chopper.
Fox spoke while trying to steady the mini-gun sight. "What the hell was that?"
Hard Bones exerted every effort to stabilize the gunship. "Nothing I ever heard before!"
The swirling dust from the ground thickened, almost blinding the crew. Within seconds the day darkened. In the face of an enormous roar of wind, the crew clung to whatever was at hand. The badly vibrating helicopter was almost helplessly spun about as it gyrated in narrowing spirals while being sucked deeper into some kind of irresistible whirlpool.
Hard Bones fought desperately to control the Huey while the others did their best to brace themselves. In the cockpit, levers, switches, buttons, circuit breakers and antitorque pedals were pushed to no avail. The entire instrument panel warning system now lit up in meaningless flashes of red, yellow and green. Gage indicator needles -- airspeed, torque, tachometer, engine oil pressure, altimeter, etc. -- spun out of control. Live ammunition, brass cartridges, and other items in the cargo area broke free and began flying about. Chalky white foot-long soft clay bars of C-4 explosive wrapped in olive-drab cellophane began slipping one by one out of their mesh container. Cartons of C-rations broke loose from their ropes and tumbled over.
The howling roar increased in volume and the wind increased in strength. Hard Bones screamed above it. "Instruments have gone crazy!"
Kool-Aid pulled a vial of pills from a pocket of his fatigue shirt. He hurriedly swallowed one while spilling several and replaced the vial. Greenwood and Larson jammed their thumbs into their ears against the deafening roar.
The velvety blackness surrounding the bucking chopper was total, eerie and unnatural. For a few quick seconds, an intense, blinding white light dispelled the darkness and the craft seemed almost aglow, suspended in time and space. It seemed to the men on board that everything now moved in slow motion. Then, as the darkness returned, the helicopter seemed to be traveling at incredible speed through a narrow tunnel.
Again, for only a few seconds, the intense white light dispelled the darkness and the helicopter was suspended in time and space. Then, again, darkness returned. Gradually, the roaring stopped, and the unnatural black smoke about the Huey began to dissipate. The worst of the vibrations ceased.
Fox took several deep breaths. "What happened? I feel like I've been mugged."
Hard Bones looked at his badly shaken co-pilot. "If that's a new weapon, Charlie's won this war."
Fox suddenly screamed. "Hard Bones! Look out!"
Hard Bones peered through the cockpit window just as the mist parted. The gunship was heading directly for a mountain formation. Hard Bones immediately pulled up. As they climbed, the chopper began vibrating dangerously and emitting noises like a machine straining to fly apart. Hard Bones fought desperately to control it.
The day was again perfectly clear. They were still flying over mountains but these were completely unlike anything they'd ever seen. The men stared at the mountains that seemed to rise unnaturally straight out of the ground in a series of bizarre limestone formations.
Fox's voice had almost returned to normal. "Where in God's name are we?"
Hard Bones flicked switches and checked gages. Needles were no longer spinning but neither did they move. Only the two original warning lights were on. He reconnected the circuit breakers.
"Dragon base, this is Dragon seven. Do you copy? Over...Dragon base, this is Dragon seven. Do you copy?"
His gloved hand grabbed the cyclic and squeezed the radio trigger switch several times. There was no click in his ear.
Fox tried a few more buttons and switches to no avail. While he reached into a compartment and pulled out a map, Hard Bones continued to fight the controls. The Low-RPM warning horn began buzzing loudly. "Instruments are out. Radios are out. I don't think I can stabilize this baby much longer. If I try for altitude, it wants to shake apart. We'll have to put her down."
Fox studied the map. "Not one thing down there matches with anything on here. Blue lines, nothing!"
Kool-Aid spoke while straining to shove crates of displaced Claymore mines away from his M-60. "Maybe they made the map during the monsoon. When the waters are down it's all different."
Fox looked out at the terrain and back to the map. "Negative, Kool-Aid! I don't know where the hell we are, but I guarantee wherever it is isn't on this map."
As the chopper approached a narrow river, it flew over a cluster of sampans and a junk with huge butterfly-wing sails. Men along the shore as well as on the junk looked up at the chopper in pure terror. Most ran in panic. Some jumped into the river. A few knelt and kowtowed as the chopper passed overhead.
The chopper passed over another boat, long and narrow -- a "scrambling dragon" -- with enormous sails. Over two dozen brightly dressed oarsmen were seated on low benches along the port side and another equal number of men were plying their huge oars at starboard. Many dove into the water.
Kool-Aid spoke in disbelief. "Hey, Hard Bones, what do you make of that?"
"Damndest thing I've ever seen. VC haven't run away from a chopper since the beginning of the war."
Fox forced a nervous laugh. "Maybe they heard Hard Bones Haggerty himself was flying it. Or, maybe-"
Wizard interrupted. "Look!"
On a hillside was an ancient pagoda, its crumbling brick base overrun with weeds. As the chopper approached, the remains of a burned-out village came into view. A few houses with sun-dried brick walls and hipped tile roofs smoldered but were still standing. The thatched roofs of wooden houses had collapsed upon sparsely furnished rooms below. Several bodies were lying on the ground. Vendors' baskets and farm implements lay overturned and abandoned in the dirt. As the chopper banked over a patchwork quilt of green and yellow ricefields, several terrified farmers either dove for cover or ran in complete panic.
Kool-Aid shook his head in disbelief. "Did you see those rice paddy daddies? They act like they never saw a chopper before!"
Larson spoke while rubbing his shoulder where a box of ammunition had slammed into him. "I don't know where we are but when we get back I think you may be faced with a court martial for-"
Hard Bones chuckled. "Roger that, son! But first we'll have to land and check the damage."
Larson started to continue when his anger turned to uneasiness. "How'd it get so cold in here?"
Kool-Aid stared at the sun's position in the sky and checked his watch. "Hey, Wizard, what time you got?"
"What time I got! Fuck you care what time I got? You got a train to catch?"
"Well, maybe it don't matter. But, before the storm, the sun was rising over there."
"So what's the problem?"
"Well, the problem is now it's setting over there!"
As the men reacted and looked toward the sun, the helicopter began to shudder dangerously. Hard Bones motioned to Fox toward a small clearing on a low plateau. The only visible occupants of the plateau were several emaciated sheep and goats.
For nearly a minute, Hard Bones fought with the heavily vibrating controls to guide the disabled chopper into the landing zone. He lowered the collective to reduce the pitch and strained to pull back the heavily vibrating cyclic. He applied pressure on the right rudder to maintain his heading and maintained rpm with throttle adjustments. The Huey's rotor wash pressed blades of grass to the earth and sent dust and leaves swirling about the LZ. The chopper flared as it decelerated, landed bumpily on the heels of its skids and then glided several yards to a sudden halt sending sheep and goats running for their lives.
The men in the cockpit quickly unbuckled their safety harnesses. Following Hard Bones's command to "Secure the perimeter," everyone exited the chopper and hit the ground running. Larson and Fox moved about the helicopter with their .45 pistols drawn and ready.
The second Greenwood had understood they would be making a forced landing, he had begun calculating the odds on an escape attempt. While the others inspected the perimeter of the clearing, he moved out of the line of sight of either Hard Bones or Wizard.
Larson and Fox walked quickly about, checking the perimeter. To their south and west, beyond a field of waist-high grass, was a forest of banyan trees. Wild doves swirled about groves of speckled bamboo. In the distance, rocky slopes tumbled downward, one after the other, leading to the South China Sea. To the north and east a series of rugged hills rose in the distance and formed mountains. A steep cliff between their position and the next hill offered them some protection on that side.
Kool-Aid noticed Greenwood edging away from the helicopter. He jumped into the helicopter's cargo compartment from the other side. He quickly extracted an M-16, inserted a clip, and sighted on Greenwood. "Hey, white boy! You gonna make my day?"
Greenwood gave him a smile balanced somewhere between a smirk and a sneer. "Maybe when I get these off."
"I see you with those off and you'll wish to God you'd left them on. Get your ass back here. Now!"
Hard Bones and Wizard climbed to the roof of the Huey, first to look about the LZ, then to check the chopper for damage. As Larson returned to guard Greenwood, Kool-Aid moved out to join Fox. Greenwood lay down on the ground, resting his head against a helicopter skid, his hat over his eyes, at peace with the world.
Kool-Aid and Fox walked cautiously toward the banyan trees, single file, weapons at the ready. Kool-Aid kept his voice low. "Anything?"
"Nothing I can see. But I don't like it. This place is spooky."
"'Nam always spooky."
"Not like this."
"You think Charlie saw us comin' in?"
"I don't know. If he did, we'll know about it soon enough. Come on, let's check those trees out."
The banyan trees were incredible in size and girth. The hundreds of thick columns towered high above the two men.
Kool-Aid held out his hand and spoke just above a whisper. "Hold on a second. I got to make an unscheduled stop."
Kool-Aid unbuttoned his fatigue trousers and was just stepping behind a bush when Fox and Kool-Aid both saw the boy and the old man simultaneously. In a knee-jerk response, Fox raised his .45 and fired a round but before he could fire another, Kool-Aid knocked the .45 lower with his rifle barrel. The shot went wild but the Asians hiding in the trees and in the grass began screaming and crying and running about.
Kool-Aid hastily buttoned up his trousers. "Cool it! All right, get out of there! Move! Di-di mau!"
Dozens of Asians, mostly men, moved out of the trees. They ranged in age from child to elderly. Although a few wore decent outer robes, most were poorly dressed in threadbare jackets and baggy trousers and were barefoot. Many carried their few possessions on bamboo poles and held (unlit) lanterns. Some of the men had flintlocks or matchlocks or swords or spears.
Each Asian male had most of the crown of his head shaved except for the plaited queue hanging down at the back, i.e. the pigtail. They moved toward an increasingly tense Kool-Aid and Fox and surrounded the two men.
Kool-Aid took aim at the nearest and, almost without conscious thought, began squeezing the trigger, but suddenly all knelt and kowtowed on hands and knees, offering up their weapons. Fox was stunned. "What the hell?"
Kool-Aid began yelling. "Hey! Knock that shit off! Get up! Yeah, up! Now, move it!"
Kool-Aid pointed with his M-16 and motioned for them to move toward the helicopter.
"I never saw Dinks dressed like that," Fox said. "They got pigtails!"
"Must be some Dink festival bullshit."
By the time they herded the Asians to the landing zone, Hard Bones and Wizard had already grabbed their weapons and climbed down. Hard Bones stared at the dozens of fear-filled Asians. Closest to him was the teenaged boy who had frightened Kool-Aid. He stood beside a very elderly man with a Ho Chi Minh-type beard. Everyone was wide-eyed and very much afraid. Hard Bones lowered his weapon. "What have we here, Kool-Aid? A costume ball?"
"I found a reception committee in the woods."
Wizard kept his shotgun at the ready. "Come on, Hard Bones, you're the linguist. Talk to them. Then let me know if I should blast them or not."
Fox glanced at Wizard and back to the Asians. "He's a Chink lingy; not a Dink lingy."
Hard Bones stared at the old man and several of the others. "They don't look Vietnamese, Fox."
Hard Bones spoke to the men in Vietnamese. There was no response. Then he spoke in Chinese mandarin. One of the men responded. Hard Bones sighed.
"What's the matter?" Fox asked.
"He doesn't speak Vietnamese."
Kool-Aid followed Hard Bones's lead and lowered his rifle. "So what does he speak?"
Wizard was growing impatient. "So ask the Dink why he doesn't speak Dinkenese."
"How am I supposed to ask him?"
"You learned Chinese in Taiwan, right?"
"I learned mandarin; he's speaking cantonese."
Wizard spat. "Motherfuck."
Suddenly the old man with the boy spoke to Hard Bones in mandarin. Hard Bones responded. As everyone's attention was completely on their conversation they failed to notice Greenwood's movements. Despite his handcuffs, Greenwood managed to edge his way beside a rucksack torn open during the storm. He reached in and withdrew a knife with a serrated blade. He slipped it inside his boot and quickly jumped from the cargo door to the ground. He walked slowly back to the group as Hard Bones turned to his crew to translate.
"He said: why should they speak Vietnamese?"
Kool-Aid took a step back. "Oh, shit. You telling me we not still in the 'Nam!"
"He says we're in southern China. Kwangtung Province."
Kool-Aid quickly took a pill from his pocket and popped it into his mouth. "China! I got R&R in Bangkok Monday morning with names and addresses of the most beautiful Siamese women in the world and you're sayin' you flew us into China!"
"He says we're near the coast."
"Great. I can swim to Bangkok."
Wizard at last lowered his shotgun. "That's bull! No way we could have flown that far! We didn't even have the fuel for that kind of trip."
Fox looked at his watch. "Ask the old man what day it is."
Hard Bones hesitated. "I did."
"So, what'd he say?"
"You're not gonna like it."
"He said: it's the 12th day of the 2nd moon of the 7th year of Hsien Feng."
Kool-Aid broke the silence. "Say what?"
"Hsien Feng was a Chinese emperor in the Ch'ing Dynasty."
"In the 1850's, I think. Or, thereabouts. Anyway, he wants to know if we're gods."
Kool-Aid spoke to the old man. "I'm God; these assholes are impostors! Translate that!"
"I told him we're men from across the sea. So he wants to know which tribute-bearing nation we're from and if it's true our emperor is a woman."
Despite his pills, Kool-Aid's laugh was tinged with nervous anxiety. "Ask him what kind of acid he's on and if he wants to sell some."
"He must mean Queen Victoria. That means he thinks we're English."
Greenwood spoke while glaring at the Asians. "I say we waste the fuckers."
Larson spoke. "Yeah, sure; destroy what you don't understand, right, Greenwood?"
"Always worked for me."
Fox took a musket from one of the Chinese and looked it over. He looked out at the other muskets the men were holding. "These are flintlocks! And matchlocks! And this is a wheelock! These are antiques! They're beautiful!"
The boy moved closer to Kool-Aid but seemed almost hypnotized while looking at his black skin. He hesitated then cautiously reached out and touched the back of Kool-Aid's hand then looked at his own finger.
Kool-Aid then hesitantly reached out and touched the back of the boy's hand, then looked at his own finger and gave an expression of mock horror. The boy was torn between fear and laughter. Finally, overcoming his fear, he laughed. "Mastah, you numba one first chop! How you dooa? My chin-chin you werry fine day."
"Huh? 'How I dooa?' What planet you from?"
As the boy reached out his hands, Kool-Aid reached out to shake but the boy held onto his own hands, and "chin-chined" Kool-Aid traditional Chinese style, holding one fist inside the other and bowing. Kool-Aid was left with his hand out and his mouth open.
"Mastah, no savvy my?"
"What language is he talking now?"
The boy took a step closer to Hardbones. "How many piecey man hab got come this side?"
Fox could tell that Hard Bones was becoming excited. "Six piecey man hab got come this side!"
"What for you makee so fashion come China in flying dragon ship?"
"Uh, no savvy. Muchee no savvy how we makee so fashion come China!"
"OK." The boy turned to Kool-Aid. "Mastah, my tink you numba one first chop! My chin-chin you, one good flen, take care for you."
"He wants to be your friend, Kool-Aid."
"Yeah, I think I'm gonna be needin' some."
"My God, pidgin English is how the foreigners in China communicated with the Chinese for hundreds of years! And he speaks it!"
Fox spoke the thought for all of them. "So what exactly are you saying?"
"We're really here!"
Greenwood and Wizard spoke simultaneously. "Where?"
"In the nineteenth century! In the Ch'ing Dynasty!"
Kool-Aid stared at the boy's baggy clothes, shaved head, thin thigh-length queue and cotton shoes. "Fuck me silly with an Easter lily!"
"Somehow we've flown into the past! I knew that storm wasn't natural!"
Fox shook his head. "Boo coo (beaucoup) dinky dau!"
Wizard nodded. "Roger that, son."
Hard Bones looked over the chopper. "Gentlemen, wherever we are, we're not goin' anywhere if we don't get this chopper fixed."
Wizard was happiest when he had something to fix. Something concrete he could put his hands to and work on. "Right. So maybe we should stow the bullshit and get to work. When and if we get it fixed then we can jawjack about where we are and when we are."
Hard Bones gestured in the direction of the trees. "Kool-Aid, you and Fox check out the perimeter. And watch your asses. Wizard will check on the chopper. I'll interrogate these people and try to make some sense of this."
"What about me?" Larson asked. His Marine Corps belt buckle glittered in the sun as if the light came from within.
Hard Bones grinned. Something about Larson's incongruous innocence and smooth boyish features made him smile whenever he dealt with him. "You, Larson? You I want to check out the pagoda. That'll be our observation post."
Larson gestured toward the prisoner. "What about him?"
"Secure your prisoner temporarily to the skid. Fox, check out the baggage compartment. There’s military gear in there we can use. Not to mention C-rations."
Suddenly, one of the Chinese noticed the dragon painting on the nose of the helicopter and excitedly called to the others. They approached the nose and immediately fell to their hands and knees, this time kowtowing the "dragon" helicopter itself.
"Oh, shit," Kool-Aid said. "Here we go again."
As some of the Chinese searched under the chopper, one asked Hard Bones a question in mandarin.
“Now what?” Kool-Aid asked.
“They want to know if it’s male or female.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s what I been wondrin’ about that chick you was with on Patpong last R&R. ‘Cause her Adam’s apple was-”
avoided Hard Bone’s kick just in time.
AT the edge of the landing zone, Larson sat on a rock using his P-38 can opener to open one of his C-ration cans. He smelled the canned fruit inside, dipped in his spoon and began eating. In the growing darkness, the shape of his thin body blended in with the night sky and he appeared as an almost disembodied wraith hovering above the hillside. Other crew members worked about the helicopter with flashlights or also ate from C-ration cans. Small chunks of C-4 plastic explosive being used to heat some of the C-rations emitted bright flames as well as an unpleasant chemical odor. Wizard read his Bible by lantern light. Two Chinese villagers with lanterns and flintlocks were posted at the highest lookout of the pagoda.
Hard Bones sat on the ground near the chopper still conversing in mandarin with the old man. The Chinese formed a semi-circle around him keeping close to their lighted lanterns and the fire Wizard had started.
Except for Greenwood, the men had changed into full combat gear -- Bandoliers of M-16 ammunition clips slung diagonally across chests, smoke grenade canisters and baseball grenades clipped to waists. Bands tied about camouflage helmets secured such items as insect repellent, spoons, and packs of matches. Survival knives were sheathed at their belts. Rucksacks and M-16s were nearby on the cargo deck.
In the grass near the MP, Larson turned his head at the sound of someone urinating. He then noticed the head and shoulders of Kool-Aid appear above some bushes. "I never heard anyone piss for five minutes before."
"Larson, my man, do you realize that the Budweiser I drank in the 20th century I am now pissing out in the 19th century? This piss is straddling two centuries! In reverse!"
“Damn right. This may seem like just a piss to you, but it is an historic moment in the urinary history of mankind.” Seconds after the sound stopped, Kool-Aid appeared, doing up his fly. He sat on a nearby rock and picked up his own C-ration can and continued eating. Larson glanced at Hard Bones. "Why do you call him 'Hard Bones'?"
"Hard Bones? 'Cause every time he gets shot down he breaks another bone. The Wizard got his name 'cause he can fix anything. The man is a genius. Fox is Fox; loves guns the way I love women."
"And 'Kool-Aid' because you're cool under fire?"
"No, my man. They's having a bit of fun with that one. 'Cause they know I tend to get my balls in an uproar under fire."
Kool-Aid finished eating and began rolling a joint. He lit it and offered a hit to Larson who refused. "Anyway, don't you worry, my man. Hard Bones got us out of worse scrapes than this."
"You like him, don't you?"
"Like? Try 'respect.' That white boy just happens to be the bravest son-of-a-bitch I ever met. Even among chopper pilots he's rumored to be totally stark-raving mad."
"And that's a compliment?"
"They don't come any higher, my man."
Hard Bones left the Chinese and moved over to sit with Kool-Aid. He motioned to Wizard and Fox to join them. "All right, listen up. For tonight, we'll put out guards and some trip flares. Tomorrow, Wizard will tell us how long he needs to fix the chopper."
"If it can be fixed, I said."
"Right. If it can be fixed. While he's working on that, the rest of us will have a chat with some people about a misunderstanding."
Kool-Aid rolled his eyes. "Uh, oh."
"Just talk I said."
"Yeah, that's what you said just before the last three bar fights we been in."
Hard Bones gestured toward the Chinese. "These people live in the burned out village we saw from the air. Pirates have been demanding money from them for years. They've been paying it. This morning they tried to fight back. They lost. Badly."
"So that's it," Fox said. "Why they're hiding in the woods, I mean."
Hard Bones nodded. "That's why they're hiding in the woods. So I promised tomorrow we would escort them to their village and have a chit-chat with the pirates."
Kool-Aid tossed his C-ration can toward the trees. "Man, I'm going on R&R to Bangkok on Monday; I got no time to be messin' about with pirates."
"Don't worry. As soon as we can get out of here we're out of here. I don't want to get involved in local disputes any more than you do."
Fox looked in the direction of the village. There were almost no lights. "No law around here?"
"The old man says the local magistrate is paid off by the pirates; so he executes villagers and sends their heads to Peking claiming they're the heads of captured pirates. That's how he gets promoted."
Fox whistled. "Whew! Nice place to visit but I sure wouldn't want to live here!"
Larson had been staring into the fire for nearly a minute. He looked up at Fox. "How can you people take this so lightly? We may have actually traveled through time!"
Kool-Aid laughed. "Don't sweat the small stuff, kid. Just so long as the Army finds a way to get my pay check to me, I don't really give a rodent’s ass about the rest of it."
Wizard let out a long sigh. "I still don't understand what the hell happened to us."
"I think we fell into a wormhole," Kool-Aid said.
Wizard cupped his hand to his ear: "Say again?"
"You know, the way gravity bends time and space into black holes and shit. But with wormholes, it's like a worm on an apple, only instead of goin' around the apple, we burrowed through it. Into a different time and space. Now we got to burrow the fuck out of it!"
"Don't look now, Kool-Aid, but I think you got a wormhole up your ass."
"My mama always told me, 'Never talk philosophy with a cracker.'"
"Who you calling 'cracker,' spearchucker?"
Both men jumped up and walked toward each other, seriously angry.
"I'm callin' you 'cracker,' numbnuts."
"How'd you like to bite my ass?"
"You'll have to move your nose over first."
“Your mama have any kids that lived?”
“How about I cross my legs and break your glasses.”
Just as they began pushing one another, Hard Bones interfered. "Gentlemen, the Civil War hasn't even started yet, so could you cool the bullshit. And, that’s an order!”
Kool-Aid stood his ground but turned toward Hard Bones. "I think this bullshit is just some goddamn dream you having!"
"Me? Why is it my dream?"
"'Cause you the one that loves this shit."
"Chinese shit! You studied it and you wanted to see it. So now I'm caught up in some goddamn fantasy of yours and I want you to wake the fuck up so I can get the fuck out!"
Fox took a swig of water from his canteen, rinsed his mouth and spat. "Maybe it's like the guy in "Manchurian Candidate."
Wizard sat back down. "You sayin' we been brainwashed?"
"Yeah. We must have been captured in 'Nam, and Charlie brainwashed us into thinking we're in China. In the past."
Kool-Aid stared at Fox. "You sayin' we're being mindfucked by the Dinks to think we're with the Chinks?"
"What the fuck for?"
"How do I know what the fuck for? I'm not Charlie!"
Hard Bones stood up. "Gentlemen, I think we're all a little on edge here. Let's call it a night."
Greenwood stood and stretched. "I'll take first watch."
Hard Bones glared at him. "That's real funny, Greenwood. But I intend to guard you myself."
Larson was indignant. "My prisoner is my responsibility! I'll watch him."
hesitated, then reluctantly nodded his head. "All right, you guard him. Just
make sure he's cuffed at all times. But, remember, he's already killed one
American; if he gives you any trouble, shoot him."
Several hours later, the landing zone's camp fire smoldered. The men had fallen asleep to the soporific sounds of crackling logs and bamboo rustling in the wind. Like the rest of the men, Kool-Aid was snuggled inside an Army blanket against the early morning chill of the mountains. Although almost asleep, from the corner of his eye, he could see a figure stealthily approaching. Just as the feet were beside him he drew his .45 and grabbed the intruder's legs, tumbling him to the ground.
The boy looked more puzzled than afraid. "Mastah, my one good flen you."
"You one good flen me? Ok. I one good flen you. Just don't creep up on me like that. Not unless you want to get blown away."
Kool-Aid released the boy and sat up. The boy sat down beside him. Kool-Aid holstered his .45 then stared at the boy and lowered his voice. "Hey, kid, you got any sisters?"
"Hab got one piecey sist. Beforetime hab got two piecey sist. Baba no hab dollar; he sell sist for catchee chow."
"One of your sisters was sold for food!"
"Yes, mastah. Now here hab too muchee fightee - too littee chow. Pirates velly bad heart. One piecey sist fightee too muchee! Kill Many!"
"Your sister is fighting the pirates?"
"Yes, mastah.” The boy gestured toward the mountains. “She somewhere. Watchee for chance make pirate-man die."
Hard Bones, lying near Kool-Aid, rolled over to face the boy. "So where's your parents? You know, mama-baba."
"Them catchee die. Pirates -- too muchee bad heart man -- makee them catchee die."
"Well, tomorrow we go see pirates. Maybe we makee them catchee die."
"My too muchee thankee you."
Kool-Aid stared at the boy. "Pidgin English, huh? Well, I think 'Pidgin' is just the right name for you. OK with you?"
"Yes, mastah. And 'spose you wanchee any first chop t'ing, my can catchee for you!"
"Great! You catchee me the fuck outta here and I catchee you boo coo dollars."
Hard Bones chuckled. "You still don't get it, do you?"
"You don't have any money."
Kool-Aid reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of Vietnamese piasters and military payment certificates. "So what do you call this?"
Hard Bones grabbed the money and flipped through it. "There isn't any Vietnam yet, Kool-Aid. Just independent kingdoms. This is play money, you get it? Funny money -- and the people who authorized it haven't been born yet." Hard Bones tore up the money and watched it flutter off in the wind.
Kool-Aid's eyes widened. "I think I'm gonna be sick."
"Be sick in the morning. Let's get some sleep."
Several yards away, on the cargo floor of the helicopter, Greenwood and Larson prepared their ponchos for bed. Greenwood held up his handcuffed wrists. "Come on, man, at least let me sleep without these damn things on!"
"Larson, we're surrounded by people! I'm not goin' anywhere. And I'm not about to leave the chopper! What if we're attacked and you're hit? I'm a sitting duck who can't even fight for his life!" Greenwood smiled inwardly as Larson hesitated. "Jesus Christ, man, I haven't even been found guilty of anything yet!"
Larson dug out his key and unlocked the cuffs. "You even so much as snore and I'll slap these back on you."
Greenwood rubbed his wrists, then rolled over to sleep facing away from Larson. "Hey, thanks, man. Now let's grab some shuteye when we can. Charlie'll probably attack at dawn."
"Charlie! You still think we're in the 'nam?"
"Damn right I still think we're in the 'nam. I'll believe pirates when I see them. Just like Charlie to come up with some trick to mindfuck us."
Larson settled down to sleep, his .45 near his hand. He had wanted to keep his eye on Greenwood until he was sure he was asleep, but the excitement quickly took its toll. Before long, he was dreaming of the girl he’d almost married in high school; the one who still sent letters to him. As he began to snore, Greenwood reached for his boot and, in the dark, his hand found the knife.
AS the misty gray morning light broke through the banyan trees and over the clearing, a hand reached up and touched Kool-Aid's ear. Kool-Aid, in sleep, brushed it away, and rolled slightly in the blanket. The hand tugged his ear harder. Kool-Aid spoke, still more asleep than awake. "Yeah, baby; later, baby. You had enough now, you hear? Don't be greedy. Ole Kool-Aid need his sleep."
Again the hand tugged at his ear, this time hard enough to wake Kool-Aid up. He turned quickly to see Pidgin staring at him wide-eyed. "Mastah! You looksee! Hab plenty much trouble!"
"Whoa! Slow down. What trouble we got?"
"You looksee! One piecey man hab die!"
Kool-Aid and Hard Bones jumped up.
Hard Bones laced his boots as he spoke. "One piecey-man have die! What man?"
"Flen you inside flying dragon ship catchee die!"
Kool-Aid grabbed his .45. "My friend died?"
"Bad heart man hab knifo! Him makee flen you catchee die!"
They rushed to the helicopter. What they saw on the cargo floor stopped them in their tracks. The body of Larson lay across the cargo floor. His throat had been cut and his eyes were open in death. Blood pooled beside his head. His .45 was missing. So were his ears.
As the men jumped on board, Fox and Wizard rushed up. While Kool-Aid closed Larson's eyes, Hard Bones looked over the chopper.
Pidgin stared at Larson's body. "He no 'cassion makee so fashion! No b'long reason."
Hard Bones continued his frantic search. "Some ammo missing. M-16! .45! Grenades! Jesus! The starlight scope's gone!"
Fox whistled. "If that sucker got the scope, he owns the night."
Hard Bones moved Pidgin away from Larson. "It's my fault. I never should have left the kid alone with Greenwood."
"He allo same bad heart pirate-man. My t'ink bad heart man walkee chop chop pirate ship-side."
"Great!" Fox said. "Greenwood joined the pirates."
Wizard was the only one who seemed unperturbed. "So the sick son-of-a-bitch found his true calling at last. Anyway, that just evens up the odds."
Hard Bones stared in the direction of the South China Sea. "I'm afraid it more than evens up the odds. Greenwood is a LRRP, a hunter-killer who didn't care in 'nam who he killed. He enjoyed it and he was good at it. He killed ARVN troops for the fun of it and when his own patrol leader tried to stop him, he killed him."
Wizard looked over the helicopter with concern. "I don't give a damn what he stole. He tries to destroy my chopper and I'll be waitin' for him."
"He won't try to destroy it. He wants it for his own. So you can be sure he'll be back to get it. It's us he'll try to destroy. We'll have to post guards, use passwords and clear the grass around the LZ. And we'll have to put out Claymores, flares, trip wires and any tricks we learned from Charlie."
"Punji traps?" Fox asked.
"Yep. He'll dig his, we'll dig ours."
The men exited the chopper. Wizard walked around the helicopter shaking his head and mumbling: “hydraulics needs work, electrical system needs work, battery is shot up, engine oil reservoir took some hits, sheet metal of the cowling got more holes than a golf course….” He began collecting the scattered tools and an overturned tool box near the chopper. Fox gestured toward the Chinese now crowded around the helicopter. "What about them?"
"They'll have to wait. First we prepare our defenses, and then we go after Greenwood."
Kool-Aid was genuinely shocked. "Go after Greenwood? I thought you said you didn't want to get involved.”
"Greenwood killed a man on board my chopper. That makes it personal."
"What's your problem?" Fox asked.
"Every time he says it's 'personal' the shit hits the fan."
"You don't want to live forever, do you?"
"I hope to shit in your mess kit I want to live forever!"
Wizard reappeared at the tail of the helicopter. "I reckon there's another reason we'll be going after Greenwood."
The others followed Wizard's gaze to the rotor head.
Hard Bones threw down his M-16. "Jesus Christ! He stole one of the pitch change links."
Wizard spat into the dirt. "That he did; and without that, we won't be goin' nowhere."
As the men attempted to absorb this disastrous news, the Chinese old man stared at the MP's body and spat out some words.
Fox turned to Hard Bones. "What's he sayin'?"
"He says, whoever we are, we're not gods."
Suddenly, Hard Bones spotted something emerging from the woods. He retrieved his M-16. Everyone turned in that direction and quickly secured their weapons.
About three dozen Chinese warriors walked toward them under silk banners fluttering in the breeze.
They wore turbans and sashes at their waists. Their tunic-like tops with loose sleeves hung low over loose petticoat trousers. They carried bows-and-arrows and some had flintlock pistols tucked into their waist sashes. Wizard lifted his rifle. "Trouble."
As soon as Kool-Aid noticed their tight-fitting garments clearly revealed the swelling of breasts, he lowered his rifle. "Women!"
Hard Bones stared in disbelief. "Jesus Christ! They're Taipings! They must be a small part of a Taiping Army, Christian Chinese rebels.” Hard Bones stared at the four Chinese characters on their stylish, close-fitting, green-and-yellow uniforms. “The characters mean "Great Peace Holy Warrior."
Kool-Aid began running toward the Taipings. “Far out! Somebody sent us some Donut Dollies!”
Hard Bones shouted after him. "Kool-Aid, for God’s sake, wait! They’re not Donut Dollies! Taiping women warriors are fierce! They might-"
Kool-Aid kept running. "It's all right. Old Kool-Aid got a way with women!" He shouted to the women as he ran. "Hey, girls! Hey, over here!"
In a flash, several arrows were shot into the dirt inches from Kool-Aid's feet, effectively tripping him to his knees. Kool-Aid's eyes widened in surprise. "OK, OK! First dates always make me nervous too! Just unbend the bows a bit, will you?"
Hard Bones and the others moved forward with weapons at the ready. There was a dangerous stand-off. The only movement was a startled songbird with black-and-yellow plumage which flew up and away. In the distance wind rustled through the stems of bamboo. The first rays of morning sunlight streaked down through billowy clouds and glittered on the womens’ swords. Pidgin shouted to the leader of the Chinese who was training her bow-and-arrow on Hard Bones; Pidgin then shouted to Hard Bones in Chinese.
“He says these are Taiping women warriors fighting against the Manchu emperor. They came to protect the village. The leader is Pidgin's sister."
Fox kept his M-16 aimed directly at the women. "What do we do?"
Hard Bones stared at Pidgin’s sister. Her well proportioned face was the same shade of brown as her brother’s, the copperbrown of the Hakka Chinese. Her turban was the same shade of red as her short red jacket which reached just to her waist. She wore a loose, embroidered skirt open at the sides, and beneath that broad blue silk petticoat trousers tucked into Chinese boots. A short-sword was tucked into the black sash at her waist. Hard Bones spoke as she slowly fitted another arrow into her bow and pointed it at him. "Just take it easy, men. The way to handle a woman is to impress her right off the bat. Leave this to me." Hard Bones shouldered his M-16 and drew his pistol. "Kool-Aid, you got your fatigue cap in your pocket?
"My cap? Yeah, I got my cap; what about it?"
"Throw it into the air."
"I already used it for target practice in 'nam. It's already got bullet holes in it."
"You know that and I know that; she doesn't know that."
Kool-Aid shrugged and threw the cap into the air. Hard Bones fired three times. Several white-collared crows flew up from the banyan trees. Pidgin grabbed the hat before it hit the ground and handed it to his sister. The girl looked over the hat. It had five bullet holes in it. She gave Hard Bones a look of disbelief. Hard Bones smugly holstered his gun and crossed his arms.
Pidgin's sister motioned for one of her warriors to fling her banner into the air. She did so and the woman quickly let fly the first arrow and with amazing speed strung her bow again, fired, strung her bow again and fired. Each arrow pierced the banner and kept it in the air. When it came down, Pidgin ran under it, caught it, and handed it to Hard Bones. The arrows formed a perfect triangle in the center of the banner. Pidgin's sister smugly replaced her bow in its case and crossed her arms.
Kool-Aid tried not to laugh. "You sure handled her."
Fox joined in the fun. "Yeah. I've never seen a woman so impressed."
Hard Bones threw the cap to Kool-Aid. "I hate show-offs."
Pidgin returned the banner to the woman warrior and walked to Hard Bones. "One piecey sist name Ai-ling. She no likkee foreign man; all bringee muchee yapien into China."
"Well, you tell your sister we don't have any opium."
Kool-Aid tapped his fatigue shirt pocket. "Roger that. A bit of marijuana, maybe, and some uppers and downers, and a very minor quantity of LSD, but opium, hell no!"
Hard Bones motioned for his men to holster or sling their weapons. Pidgin's sister did the same with her women warriors. The Taipings then joined the villagers who supplied them with what food and drink they had, mainly poor quality rice and sweet potatoes boiled together and seasoned with pickled cabbage and ginger. Hard Bones and Pidgin's sister stared warily at one another even as she sat nearby. Hard Bones opened up a carton of C-rations and passed cans of food out. Wizard stood beside Hard Bones. "What do you think? They friendlies or we grease ‘em?"
Hard Bones smiled and saluted Ai-ling while she drank rice wine from the woody shell of a dried gourd; she stared at him with wary eyes. "I think an enemy of my enemy is my friend. So as far as this Chinese beauty goes, we can use each other."
Fox joined them. "When do we go after Greenwood?"
"First we prepare our own defenses in case Greenwood strikes first." Hard Bones glanced in the direction of the helicopter. He put his can of C-rations down and stood up. "But right now we've got a grave to dig."
AN hour after dawn, Greenwood stood on a hillside overlooking a three-masted pirate frigate below, watching as its crew on shore haggled with local Chinese soldiers for provisions.
The square-rigged ship was anchored offshore with nearly all of its twenty thousand square feet of white canvas sail reefed or furled. Colorful flags flew from its masts, including a Jolly Roger pirate ensign -- a white skull and bones on a black flag. Beneath the skull was a white hour glass. Chinese in bumboats sculled provisions across the dark blue water of the bay to the side of the ship. Some of the crewmen were in swimming.
Suddenly, Greenwood heard a voice behind him. "Slide that rifle off your shoulder and be real careful not to make me trigger-happy."
Without turning, Greenwood did as he was told.
"That's real good. Now turn around, mate. Slow and easy."
Greenwood turned to find himself facing three Caucasian crew members from the frigate. They covered him with flintlock pistols. Greenwood chuckled. "No eye patches? No parrots on shoulders? No wooden legs?"
The men stared at Greenwood. And at the pair of human ears strung about his neck. “Who the devil are you?"
"I'm a man with crates of modern weapons for sale. Your captain on board?"
The men moved forward. One reached to pick up Greenwood's M-16 and one moved behind him to tie him up.
“Don't you worry about where our captain is, mate. But we'll take you on board, all right. And shackle you in double irons.”
With lightning speed, Greenwood spun about, using the man behind him as a shield. He slit his throat, and kicked the man picking up the M-16 in the face. He spun sideways, throwing the knife into the chest of the first crew member who tried to cover him with the pistol.
Greenwood recovered his knife and slid his M-16 back on his shoulder. He reached down, picked up a flintlock pistol and looked it over. The flash pan was filled with priming powder and a slice of flint was fastened in its cock, ready to fire. He pointed the pistol in the direction of one of the moaning men. "How's this pirate shit work?"
He aimed the long barrel directly at the man’s face and pulled the trigger. The man’s left eye and parts of his brain disappeared. Greenwood watched the blood spurt out of what was left of the man’s face. Only when the sharp crack of the pistol faded, did he lower it. As bluish-white smoke rose about him, Greenwood gave the weapon a look of mock surprise. "Oops."
As he walked off he pulled the ring of a grenade and tossed it into the center of the three men. He spoke with a cold smile on his face. "I'll find my own way, thanks. I don't want to be a bother."
At the sound
of the expected explosion, Greenwood didn't bother to turn back.
At the periphery of the landing zone, while the Taipings listened to the complaints of the displaced villagers, the helicopter crew gathered around Larson's grave. Two red-and-yellow swallow-tailed butterflies flew playfully around the gathering. From somewhere in the nearby woods, the cooing sound of wood pigeons punctuated the silence. Hard Bones held Wizard's Bible. On the wooden cross erected at the head of the grave was the inscription:
D. (about) 1857
REST IN PEACE
Hard Bones spoke softly. “...Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And may he find peace before...he rises in eternal life...May he-“
Hard Bones was interrupted by an incredible racket from Chinese beating gongs, pots and pans, blowing Chinese horns and setting off firecrackers. The crew grabbed their weapons.
Wizard grabbed his shotgun and looked around. “What the hell?”
As an unusual darkness began to fall, they looked up at the sky. The moon moved between the earth and the sun. The disc of the moon gradually concealed the sun's face until its umbra passed over the landing zone creating a total eclipse. Flaming red prominences of the sun flared violently at the periphery of the black circle of the moon. And all around the sun, magnificent yellowish-white streams of corona stretched hundreds of thousands of miles through space in every direction. It was dramatic, breathtaking, spectacular.
Wizard spat into the dirt. “I’ll be damned: An eclipse.”
The noise the Chinese made grew in intensity. Pidgin and others ran to the crew while beating gongs and pots and pans.
“Mastah, this plenty much trouble! Hab got one piecee largee dog topside catchee sun!”
Wizard looked at Hard Bones for an explanation. “Chinese always panic during an eclipse. They think some monster is gobbling up the sun.” He yelled to them in mandarin to calm them down. It had little effect. Some of the Taiping women warriors began fitting arrows to their bows and shooting them at the sun.
“I've never seen people so scared,” Fox said.
“I just wish they'd stop that damn racket!” Wizard said.
Kool-Aid looked at the sun and back down to Pidgin. “Run that by me again, my man. You think a dog is eating the sun?”
“Yes! Velly largee dog! He wantchee makee chow chow! Supposey topside no hab sun! Aiyaah!”
“You likee Kool-Aid makee the velly largee doggie go bye bye?”
“Yes, mastah! Must makee fixum! Can do?”
Kool-Aid raised his M-16 and aimed it toward the still blackened sun. “Fuckin'-A I can do! I'm Kool-Aid - King of the Ch'ing.”
Kool-Aid began firing intermittent bursts toward the sun while swearing at the dog.
Hard Bones took a step toward him and got a tight grip on his shoulder. “Hey! What the hell are you doing?”
Kool-Aid twisted about, shaking off Hard Bones’s grip. “I'm shooting the dog's ass so it will get the fuck away from the sun so my Chinese compadre will be happy again.”
Kool-Aid continued firing.
“Are you nuts?! We don't have ammo to waste!”
“You said he’s my friend. Well, my friend has a problem. If you ain’t part of the solution, you part of the problem.”
Wizard suddenly racked his shotgun. “Kool-Aid is right. No damn dog gonna pig out on the sun while ole Wizard is around!” He took aim at the sun and fired. “Take that you crass canine creep!”
Fox aimed his M-16 at the sun, slid it into full auto, and began firing. Wizard and Kool-Aid continued to fire.
Fox was indignant. “Keep your fucking paws off my sun, you foul droppings of a misbegotten she-pig!”
The noise from the three of them firing, plus gongs, horns, firecrackers and the yelling of the Chinese was ear-splitting.
Hard Bones stared at them. “What is the matter with you people? Are you all loony? It's an eclipse!”
Hard Bones watched them as they ignored him. “Oh, fuck it!”
Hard Bones pulled his .45 from his holster, gripped one hand in the other, spread his feet apart in a classic Weaver stance, aimed toward the sun and began firing. “Take that, you mangy dog!”
The crew continued to scream insults at the celestial dog, unleashing all the firepower they had in their chambers. Taiping arrows continued to fly.
As the umbra gave way to the penumbra and the sun began to reappear, Hard Bones, Pidgin, Kool-Aid and the others congratulated one another on their victory. Hard Bones finally interrupted. “All right. Lots to do; let’s get it done.”
Hardbones queried the villagers about the landscape and the paths leading through what was left of the village and up to the helicopter. Once everyone was agreed on where to set traps they moved out and walked for nearly fifteen minutes. They stopped beside a small creek beyond which was a marsh, its soft wetness sparkled in the sun. Wading birds with long straight bills and others with slender curved bills moved through the marsh untroubled by the arrival of the group. The hills beyond were flecked with copses of camphor and chestnut trees and with patches of deep red tallow leaves.
The men dipped their canteens into the creek and dropped in their Army-issued Halozone tablets. They began working side-by-side with the Taipings and the villagers. They cut and sharpened stakes for Punji traps, dug holes, set the stakes upright at the bottom of the holes and covered the holes with a tilting lid camouflaged with bamboo sticks, dirt, grass and leaves.
The Chinese were already familiar with the whip. As soon as Hard Bones described it, several village men moved toward the hills to collect strong lengths of green bamboo.
Pidgin and Ai-ling watched warily as Kool-Aid, Hard Bones and Fox set out claymore mines and trip wires for flares. Hard Bones took the curved fiberglass case from the equipment bandoleer and set it on its scissors-type folding legs, placed the blasting cap into a top hole and unrolled the firing wire connected to the hand detonator. He and Kool-Aid began the task of teaching Pidgin, the Taipings and village men about modern weapons. Not without difficulty.
While shooting an M-16 for the first time in his life, Pidgin immediately fell over backward from the force of the weapon sending Hard Bones and Kool-Aid ducking for cover as the shots went wild. As Kool-Aid instructed Pidgin on grenade-throwing, Pidgin threw the grenade but it landed a mere 20 yards away. Kool-Aid grabbed Pidgin and they both ducked for cover as it exploded.
When the villagers returned with the bamboo, they quickly fashioned sharp spikes and attached them to the bamboo. The bamboo was then affixed to a tree and bent back and held by a catch. Anyone walking the trail and hitting the trip wire would cause the bamboo to be released and the spikes would be whipped into his chest.
During the first break, Ai-ling and the other women prepared rice and vegetables. They boiled water chestnuts in a pot and boiled dumplings in a sweet syrup. Hard Bones watched Ai-ling eat her rice with the chopsticks and walked over to her. She stared up at him and stopped eating. He asked her to teach him how to use them. As he sat beside her, her hand moved to her short-sword and then gradually relaxed. She placed his fingers on them and laughed at his incredible clumsiness.
Kool-Aid stood behind him. “Hey, didn’t I see you use those things back at-”
“Just mind your own business, son.”
“Oh. I get it. Sure, OK, carry on fraternizing with the ladies. I’ll never tell.”
Pidgin taught Kool-Aid a gambling game played with fingers and thumbs; Ai-ling suspended an old gong on a branch of a camphor tree about fifty yards from them. She began teaching Hard Bones to shoot the bow-and-arrow. Whenever she fired, an arrow made the gong ring. Hard Bones’s arrows always went wild. Village children finally dared approach members of the crew. They touched their noses and laughed at how big they were compared to theirs. Hard Bones and Kool-Aid swung the children about, and started marching them in cadence: “I feel pretty and I feel good; I should be in Hollywood. Mr. Charles is makin’ me sore; I’m kickin’ his ass but he’s winnin’ the war! Sound off!”
Pidgin and other Chinese males stared at the nose art on the chopper, and reached out to touch, not the dragon but the woman. Until they were shooed away by Kool-Aid. “All right, don’t be messin’ with mah woman! Scram! Anyway, she hasn’t been born yet.”
The crew and some Chinese assistants worked on the helicopter. Thanks to Chinese suggestions, strips of ox-hide and bamboo were used to reinforce damaged parts, such as damaged engine cowling. One of the Chinese motioned for the helicopter to fly and Wizard pointed to the remaining pitch change link and to where the missing pitch change link should be.
Fox aided an elderly blacksmith repair their antique weapons with his anvil, bellows and portable forge. The crew and villagers dug a latrine and a trenchline with the crew wearing broad-brimmed farmers hats.
In the early evening, several Chinese men presented Wizard with a bamboo rod about a foot and a half long and pointed to the rotor head.
Kool-Aid stared. “A bamboo pitch change link? No thanks, my man; I'd rather die in my sleep.
Wizard interrupted. “Wait a minute! If the chopper stays on the ground, we're not changing the pitch!”
“So we're not putting any stress on the pitch change link.” Hard Bones examined the rod. “It just might work.”
The bamboo rod was painstakingly positioned as the pitch change link, held in place by tough reeds. Kool-Aid and Pidgin sat in the cockpit and Hard Bones started the chopper. The blades began moving.
The crew, Taipings and Chinese surrounded the chopper while Kool-Aid checked gages which sluggishly began to respond. Rotor blades turned and the blades tracked reasonably well. Hard Bones picked up to a hover then set it back down. He exited the chopper and looked at the bamboo rod. “It held.”
Kool-Aid slapped Pidgin on the back while the men cheered.
Later that night at the Landing Zone, everyone was together in a group cleaning and preparing weapons. Kool-Aid looked over at the Taiping women. “Hey, how come these chicks don't have bound feet?”
Hard Bones turned toward the women and back to Kool-Aid. “Taiping women didn't go in for bound feet.”
“That's cool, but you keep usin' the past tense to talk about somebody standin' in front of me and you gonna be sending shivers down mah spine!”
Fox smiled. “There it is!”
Ai-ling cautiously sat beside Hard Bones and stared at him. He stared back. She spoke to him in Chinese.
“What'd she say?” Fox asked.
“She wants to know if my eyes have faded.”
“I don't think she ever saw green eyes before. She thinks they faded.”
Hard Bones and Ai-ling were obviously smitten with each other. Kool-Aid looked them over. “Uh, oh. I detect a case of sexual dynamics coming on. Hard Bones, I think you're in.”
“Don't kid yourself. Taiping women were- sorry, are a lot more liberated than other Chinese women but they kill opium-smokers, prostitutes and destroy every Buddhist temple in sight.” Fox laughed. “In other words, they're good Bible-belt Christians.”
Fox looked over the sight on his flintlock. “They're pretty impressed with us, though, right?
“In a manner of speaking. They think our complexion is unnaturally pale like ghosts, our ears resemble donkeys' ears, our noses are huge and hideous and she says we smell worse than the Manchus from eating too much meat.”
Kool-Aid scowled. “Yeah? Well, happy Valentine's Day to her too.”
As Hard Bones made a face, Ai-ling laughed. Hard Bones put his food down and reached up to remove her Taiping scarf. At first she resisted, grabbing his wrist and pulling her knife. But Hard Bones spoke to her softly in Chinese. She relented and he continued. Her long hair spilled out. She spoke to Hard Bones in Chinese and he looked at his watch and replied in Chinese. She spoke to the other Taipings in Chinese, got up and grabbed Hard Bones's wrist. As he rose, she led him into the woods.
Kool-Aid gave him a raucous laugh. “I told you she was an easy lay, man!”
Hard Bones frowned. “This doesn't make sense. Taiping women aren't like that.”
“Just relax and enjoy it,” Fox said.
Kool-Aid grinned from ear to ear. “I always had them figured for boom boom girls! You need assistance, you just call!”
Kool-Aid sat down beside Fox. Together, they watched Hard Bones and Ai-ling disappear into the darkness. Kool-Aid grew thoughtful. “Mah mama always said: the trouble with sexual dynamics is it can lead to dynamic sex.”
“Amen to that, brother.”
One of the Taiping women walked over to Fox and another stood beside Kool-Aid. They pulled them up and began leading them into the woods.
Kool-Aid’s grin widened still more. “Br'er Fox, I don' know 'bout you but I is beginning to love this heyah Ch'ing Dynasty.”
“Kool-Aid, we don't get some boom boom in the bushes with these lovely ladies, my name isn't 'Fox.'”
In less than a minute they reached a small clearing among the banyan trees. Kool-Aid’s grin disappeared. “Br’er Fox, you see what I see?”
“Deed ah do.”
The Taiping women were kneeling in rows in front of a makeshift altar. Several had Bibles. On the altar were three cups of Holy Trinity tea, smoldering joss-sticks, candles and a large painting of Jesus' crucifixion. Jesus was a Chinese dressed as a Taiping.
Ai-ling was in the midst of
leading the women in singing Christian hymns (in Chinese) and in prayer. Fox
and Kool-Aid knelt just behind them next to Hard Bones. Kool-Aid’s “woman”
handed him an open Bible. He and Fox were especially unhappy. Kool-Aid elbowed
Fox in the ribs and whispered through clenched teeth: “Your name ain't 'Fox'.”
The next morning at the landing zone Hard Bones demonstrated his style of kung-fu to an admiring group of young Chinese men who were following his movements. Kool-Aid watched Hard Bones for several minutes then raised his hand. “Hey, teacher, I got a question.”
Hard Bones continued his movements as he answered. “What might that be?”
“You learned this kung-fu style on Taiwan, right?” “Yeah.”
“Well, you learned it from people who carried on the tradition they learned from their ancestors. Right?”
“And their ancestors are the very people now learning it from you.”
“Is there a point to this?”
“So don't that make you both teacher and student? I mean, if you're teaching it here and learning it there, and they're learning it here and teaching it there, then who actually started it? Who the fuck learned it from who? Where did it-”
Hard Bones stopped his movements and turned to Kool-Aid. “Are you trying to fuck with my mind?”
“No, man, I just-”
“Then go help Wizard and stop bullshitting!”
“Yeah, sure, Hard Bones. Take it easy.”
Hard Bones attempted to resume his movements but was obviously thinking about what Kool-Aid had said.
Kool-Aid picked up his M-16 then put his arm around Pidgin's shoulder. “Uh, Pidgin, I think it's time for you and me to take a walk in the woods for awhile. People gettin' uptight, you know what I mean?”
“Don't matter. Just so long as we shag ass outta here.”
Kool-Aid and Pidgin walked through the banyan trees and waist-high grass down rocky slopes. Within minutes they were able to see glimpses of a bay in the distance. Several Chinese villagers came running toward them speaking excitedly in Chinese to Pidgin.
“What’s up with these folk?”
“Ship bad-heart man have come this side!”
“Ship bad-heart man? You mean, the pirates?”
“Yes, mastah. Chin-chin, ga-la! We go look-see?”
“Damn right we go look-see.”
Pidgin yelled something to the villagers and the villagers scattered. Kool-Aid and Pidgin began walking at a fast pace. As they descended the mountain they soon came close to a position looking down on the bay. Pidgin pulled Kool-Aid to the side of a trail and through some bushes. He pointed to the scene below.
In the bay was the same three-masted pirate frigate as before, its sails still furled and its Jolly Roger pirate ensign still fluttering in the breeze. British, American and Chinese pirates, some aloft and some on deck, were hard at work. They were responding to the orders of the captain, shouting orders through his speaking trumpet. The surrounding hills created an echo. Greenwood stood next to the captain, his M-16 slung on his shoulder; grenades on his belt.
Kool-Aid’s eyes widened. The ship was a floating fortress with its main deck, quarterdeck and bulwarks brimming with cannon, rockets, swivel guns, bow guns, and stern chaser.
At the bow a rack was lined with grappling hooks and boarding pikes. In addition to the cannon on the main deck, the gun ports lining the gun deck suggested that even heavier cannon were lashed out of sight.
The frigate's crew were dressed as seamen of the period and as hardened in their way as the helicopter crew was in theirs. The European sailors wore guernseys, denim or duck trousers and sea boots. The Chinese sailors wore loose jackets and wide trousers. Others were wearing very little. Most were barefoot.
A wide-eyed Kool-Aid nudged Pidgin and motioned for them to go. As they started to run from the bush, Pidgin grabbed Kool-Aid and pulled him down. Kool-Aid started to protest but Pidgin covered his mouth and pointed to the path.
Dozens of Chinese soldiers - Tigers of War - appeared in loose military formation. Each man wore the same type of bizarre uniform: close-fitting yellow-and-gold striped jacket and trousers, with a striped cap nearly covering the face. Each cap snugly fit the head and ended in tiger-like ears. Each man was armed with a sword and a bamboo shield painted to represent a fierce tiger's head with open mouth and immense teeth. Some carried ammunition on bamboo poles.
They looked fierce but absurd. As they passed they spoke and laughed among themselves. They walked down the path, passing within a few yards of Kool-Aid and Pidgin, then disappeared around a bend.
“What the hell was that?! Halloween?”
“Tigers of War! They likee fight! More better they no can see us.”
“Roger, that! Come on, let's get outta here! Hard Bones needs to see this!”
As they hurriedly but cautiously rushed back up the path, again several dozen Tigers of War approached. Kool-Aid and Pidgin threw themselves under bushes but one of the Tigers of War had to urinate. His release came perilously close to Kool-Aid.
An hour later Hard Bones studied the frigate through his binoculars. All sails were furled and the men on deck were attending to chores: holystoning the deck, tarring the shrouds, refitting block-and-tackle. A few men were swimming in the water near the ship. The pirate captain was on shore trading flintlocks and matchlocks to the Tigers of War in exchange for the ammunition they had brought.
“I'm telling you the son-of-a-bitch practically pissed on me!”
Hard Bones took the binoculars from his eyes and handed them to Fox. Kool-Aid, Pidgin, Ai-ling and some of the Taipings stood beside them. Ai-ling spoke to Hard Bones.
“Ai-ling says Tigers of War are special units fighting for the Ch'ing Imperial Army. A kind of elite force.”
Kool-Aid let out a sigh. “Oh, shit! You mean I just ran into the Green Berets of the Ch'ing Dynasty?”
“Something like that. But she says this is an isolated group that decided to join with the pirates.”
Fox smiled. “Congreve rockets! Damn! I never thought I'd ever really see Congreve rockets! And those cannon must be 24-pounders which means the gun deck probably carries at least 32-pounders!”
Kool-Aid gave him a baleful look. “Yeah, well, I’m glad you’re enjoying this shit. And what the hell is the hour glass
on the flag for?”
“It was the pirates' way of warning enemies that if you oppose them your time is running out.”
“Oh, man, I had R&R in-“
Fox spoke while looking through the binoculars. “-Bangkok. Yeah, we know, Kool-Aid, bad break. But you worry too much.”
“Worry! Why should I worry? Oh, sure, Greenwood was a Recondo School instructor; the man has taught Green Berets how to survive! And now he's got a loaded M-16 and a crew of bloodthirsty pirates and a brig full of cannon! He knows he has to kill us to get to the chopper and he knows where we are!”
Hard Bones studied the ship. “It's not a brig; it's a frigate.”
“And some nut cases in tiger outfits -- Ch'ing Dynasty counterparts of Greenwood -- are runnin' around the woods looking for trouble. And, not to bother you with minor details, but my black ass is stuck in the wrong fucking century. But, you are so right, my man -- why should I be worried!”
Hard Bones turned back to Kool-Aid. “You sure you saw Greenwood?”
“Not many pirates wearing US Army-issued tiger fatigues, my man.”
“OK, then. Tonight we'll pay that frigate a courtesy call and see just whose time is running out.”
Kool-Aid draped an arm
around Pidgin. “Bye, bye, Bangkok.”
Once the sliver of a moon had dropped behind clouds, Hard Bones led Wizard, Kool-Aid, Pidgin and Ai-ling along a narrow trail through the woods. Single file - 'nam style. The three Americans had modern weapons and helmets camouflaged with twigs and leaves; Pidgin and Ai-ling carried bows-and-arrows.
The sky was overcast and the woods were dark and foreboding. The men knew the overcast sky would at least hinder the effectiveness of the starlight scope; but the dim light transformed the moving shadows of every tree, every bush, every clump of grass into something more sinister than complete darkness. Kool-Aid glanced over his shoulder at a nearby slope where about fifty villagers were dug in. They were armed with muskets and bow-and-arrows. Almost all had their lighted bamboo lanterns beside them, their candles fixed on wooden spikes within transparent oil paper.
Kool-Aid spoke just above a whisper. “Look at those poor bastards up there with those lanterns. They make perfect targets!”
Hard Bones looked in their direction. “I told you before. It's a Chinese thing -- you wouldn't understand. She says that's the way they fight. I can't change history.”
“The way they fight could get us all killed!”
“You talking too much is what could get us all killed! I think if we break brush about here, we can-”
Suddenly, there was movement behind a bush. Hard Bones stooped and halted the column. Kool-Aid nudged Hard Bones and whispered into his ear. “Hey! I think I saw a Tiger of War!”
Hard Bones questioned Ai-ling and she replied.
“What'd she say?”
“Well, she said pretty much what John Wayne said to Henry Fonda in "Fort Apache." If you saw them, they weren't apaches.”
“Yeah, well, John Wayne ain't been born yet, so fuck him and the horse he rides in on…or rode in on…or will have ridden in on. Fuck it!”
The bush rustled again. Ai-ling shot an arrow at the bush and a wild goat squealed and ran out. It ran in circles, grunting in panic, and then dropped dead.
Hard Bones gave Kool-Aid an I-told-you-so look and signaled for them to move out. For several minutes they continued moving down the trail. Suddenly, Kool-Aid stumbled into a trip flare and as it went off all hell broke loose. The sky lit up with streaks of flame and suddenly the night was filled with the sinister hissing of incoming Chinese arrow-headed rockets.
Wizard pushed Ai-ling to the ground. “Incoming!”
They ran and rolled to cover. It was a typical Vietnam-style firefight - fast and fierce, with the helicopter crew letting loose with maximum firepower into darkness and terrain concealing unseen targets.
Hard Bones shouted above the noise. “They were waiting for us! Head back!”
Hard Bones covered the retreat for the others with his M-16 and grenades and then ran back to join them. He was almost out of breath. Firing continued all around them.
“The frigate was the bait! We fell for it!”
Suddenly, Several reddish-orange flashes came from beyond the hill. Kool-Aid screamed above the sound of explosions. “They hit the claymores! That means they're goin' for the chopper!”
Wizard rolled closer to Hard Bones. “They got us damn well pinned down; I'll say that for them!”
The enormous crash of heavy rounds landed not far from them, each crash followed by a loud boom. Wizard shouted again. “Hard Bones, what the hell was that!”
“I think they're firing the ship's cannon at us!”
Kool-Aid stared straight ahead, attempting to adjust to the new situation, then turned to Hard Bones. “You mean, like, Mr. Charles is calling in coordinates for an artillery strike on us!”
“Something like that, Kool-Aid!”
“But we're supposed to be doin' shit like that!”
Kool-Aid glanced toward the slope. “And those fools up there still got their lanterns goin'.”
Wizard shook his head. “Perfect targets!”
Ai-ling moved up beside Hard Bones and spoke rapidly.
Hard Bones’s handsome face broke into a smile. “That's it! Perfect targets!”
Wizard spoke while watching the Chinese with their lanterns. “What are you talking about?”
“Chinese military strategy! The cicada sheds its skin; then moves on! But the skin left behind looks like the cicada! This woman is a genius!”
“Could you make some sense?”
“Wizard, you keep firing as if there's twenty of you! The rest come with me.”
Hard Bones disappeared into the bushes and Kool-Aid, Ai-ling and Pidgin followed. Wizard furiously racked and fired his shotgun.
Not far away, Chinese pirates, as well as their equally scruffy allies who deserted from the Ch'ing army, walked in loose military file through an area of trees and tall grass. At the head of their formation were two western pirates from the frigate. Some of the Chinese were carrying lighted lanterns as well as weapons. Suddenly one of them pointed to the hillside. The hillside was covered with lanterns moving about in the darkness.
The first British pirate reacted. “They're trying to escape!”
The pirates aimed and fired furiously at the lanterns. The darkness was lit up with flashes from flintlock rifles, matchlock rifles, wheelock rifles and minie rifles. Two men fired a jingall, a long-barreled pipe fixed to a wooden stock, propped up on a tripod, and each time it fired the man firing was knocked down by the recoil.
Grayish smoke from the rifles using old-fashioned black powder partly obscured the scene. In the darkness sparks from flints dropped into rifle pans filled with priming powder, igniting their maincharges, and the lit matchcords of the matchlocks seemed to give the night eyes.
On the hillside the lanterns were moving in all directions at great speed. The pirates were confident, almost gleeful, in their victory. They rushed toward the hillside.
The British pirate leader ran out front. “Look at 'em run! Keep it up!”
As the pirates moved closer to the hillside, one of the lanterns approached them from the darkness up ahead at full speed. The British pirate shouted a warning to the American pirate: “Look out!”
“I got 'im; he's mine!”
The pirate aimed his flintlock and fired. The lantern stopped moving.
“You got the bastard!”
The two pirates and a group of Chinese rushed forward to claim their trophy. When they reached it, they stopped abruptly.
At their feet was a dying goat with a lantern tied to its horns by a strip of bamboo. The American pirate knelt to examine the lantern and the bamboo, then looked up at the hillside still full of lights zigzagging in all directions and realized in horror that he had been tricked.
Suddenly, there was an enormous explosion and sounds of automatic weapons fire. At the pirates' rear, Hard Bones and others threw grenades and fired their M-16s. The Chinese used bows-and-arrows.
The British pirate screamed a warning. “They're behind us!”
The battle was furious but quickly over. The Chinese pirates had no chance at all against the surprise attack with modern weapons. Those not fallen were soon in full retreat. In close fighting, the Taiping women proved as fierce as their reputation, using knives and short-swords to dispatch their enemies.
Wizard began running after the retreating pirates. “They're trying to escape!”
Kool-Aid ran just behind him. “We got 'em!”
In the confusion and darkness, Kool-Aid and a pirate unknowingly headed for one another. They were about to collide as they both rounded the intersection of a trail from the opposite sides. Kool-Aid had his M-16 and the pirate had a matchlock with the end of the slow match (cord) burning. As they met, each in shock fired his rifle before taking proper aim. Neither hit the other.
The pirate recovered from his shock at seeing Kool-Aid just as Kool-Aid also recovered. Kool-Aid aimed and squeezed the trigger but his clip was empty. With practiced speed, he ejected the magazine and shoved another one in and then aimed to fire. However, the sight of his opponent painstakingly reloading his matchlock fascinated him and he slowly lowered his own weapon.
The pirate grabbed his powder-filled leather container from his bandoleer. He opened it with his thumb and then poured the powder into the barrel. He then took a lead ball from his pouch and started it into the muzzle with his thumb. With his ramrod he rammed the ball down the muzzle. He withdrew the ramrod, grabbed his small priming flask, and primed the flash pan with fine powder, being careful to keep the burning match at a safe distance. Finally, with the gun fully loaded the pirate raised it, blew ashes off the match cord tip and clamped it firmly into the serpentine (S-shaped hammer) and then aimed at Kool-Aid.
At the sound of the shotgun blast from behind him, Kool-Aid threw himself to the ground. When he looked up, the pirate had been blown away. Kool-aid turned to see Wizard standing behind him. “You waiting for an engraved invitation to shoot?”
Kool-Aid stared at the fallen pirate. “It's not fair, man. He never had a chance.”
Wizard grabbed Kool-Aid's M-16 away from him, picked up the matchlock and threw it to him just as Fox arrived on the scene with several armed villagers and Taiping women warriors. “Here. You use the matchlock from now on and I'll give the pirates the M-16. How's that?”
Kool-Aid snatched his weapon. “Give me that!”
Wizard saw Fox approach. “Pirates hit the claymores?”
“More like the claymores hit them. What's left of them is still out there. Full of hot little pellets.”
Kool-Aid suddenly noticed the layer of black on his arms. He rubbed it with his fingers and looked at them. The tips of his fingers were full of a black substance. “Jesus Christ, it is coming off!”
Fox laughed. “That's black
powder from the flintlocks, you idiot!”
Early the following morning at the landing zone, Hard Bones and Wizard worked on the helicopter. Kool-Aid, Pidgin and Fox were nearby, cleaning rifles and small arms.
Kool-Aid threw a mock kung-fu kick. “So, Hard Bones, mah man, did we kick their ass last night, or what?”
“Don't kid yourself. We were lucky. And that was just a probe. They'll be back. Before that happens, we've got to get the pitch change link.”
“Yeah, I sure would like to be airborne when they come. We are gonna be airborne once we get the missing link, ain't we?”
“Wizard, Kool-Aid wants to know if we're gonna be airborne once we get the missing link.”
“If we got Kool-Aid on board then we got the missing link.”
“Hey, that's real funny, Wizard, my man. One more crack like-”
“Can't tell 'til we get it, Kool-Aid. I can tell you that even if we get the link, we still got torque problems, lift problems, and we got a rotor blade out of track so the whole shebang is dynamically unbalanced.”
Fox spat into the dirt. “Is that all?”
“Hell, no! Rockets are screwed up, bearings are shot, minigun linkage is damaged so they won't move. And that's the good news.”
Conversation stopped immediately as a well-dressed Chinese man walked up and approached Pidgin. He was dressed in a light blue satin collar, beige Chinese tunic over loose blue trousers. His nankeen cloth stockings were tucked into shoes of satin. His queue was long and had been extended with black silk. On his head was a satin round-crowned hat with upturned brim. He evinced no fear of the foreigners.
“Who the fuck is that?”
“Don’t know, Fox. Pidgin! Find out what he wants.”
Pidgin walked quickly up to the newcomer and then the two moved away and conversed in Chinese. They stood over Larson's grave and the newcomer raised his voice.
Pidgin walked to Hard Bones and Hard Bones followed him to join the new arrival at Larson's grave. Fox nudged Kool-Aid to query who the newcomer is. Kool-Aid shrugged. But as they continued to work Kool-Aid grew thoughtful. “So, Fox, mah man, answer me this: if we're really here how come I didn't read about us in my fifth grade history book?”
“Why? because we're in a remote area, that's why. That right, Wizard?”
“I asked Hard Bones that very question. He says it's because if any official reports to the emperor that a flying dragon ship landed, the emperor would think the official was covering up some rebellion that got out of hand or else was high on British-smuggled opium. In either case the official would lose his head.”
Kool-Aid began patting his shirt pocket. “Speaking of opium, I wouldn't mind-”
Hard Bones returned with Pidgin and the newcomer. “Take a break and gather round.”
The men put down their weapons and stood near Hard Bones.
“This gentleman is the assistant of a very famous feng-shui man.”
Kool-Aid almost got the question out. “What the fuck is-”
“A feng-shui man is a geomancer; somebody who uses charts and compasses and all kinds of things to...determine the natural harmony in the currents of the cosmic breath.”
Fox couldn’t suppress a laugh. “You been into Kool-Aid's pills?”
“To make a long story short, we seem to have buried Larson in such a way that the grave has disturbed the natural harmony in the currents of the cosmic breath and that can affect the living adversely as well as the dead.”
Kool-Aid grew indignant. “Well, pardon me all over the fuckin' place, but I don't hear Larson complainin', so-”
“And so this gentleman would greatly appreciate it if we would rebury Larson in a more propitious spot.”
“Propitious my ass! How about-”
“This gentleman says his master has heard about us and believes he knows how we got here and why and, most important, how we can get out. So, if I may have your word that you will hear me out without any further asshole interruptions, I will proceed. ”
Wizard said: “If you're saying that what you got to say will get me back to the world, I'll make damn sure you aren't interrupted and I'll kiss his ass.”
Kool-Aid added: “He can get us outta this fucked-up dynasty, I'll send him my sister.”
“I don't think either will be necessary, but it's the thought that counts.” Hard Bones shook his head and continued. “OK, I can't quite get all of it, but basically what he says is that when we shot at the VC in 'nam the ground we shot up with bullets and missiles was actually the forepaw of a huge sleeping dragon known as the Star Green Dragon. And the injured dragon rolled over and roared, which sent us spinning out of control and flying into China exactly where we came out. Disturbing the dragon also sent us into the past. I can't understand how exactly but he says it has to do with yin and yang and trigrams, hexagrams, the five elements, the Book of Changes, and with the fact that we destroyed the natural harmony in the currents of the cosmic breath...In other words, gentlemen, when we shot at Charlie we pissed off a dragon.”
The men stared incredulously at Hard Bones but true to their word, there were no interruptions.
The feng-shui man began to speak slowly and paused several times as Hard Bones translated. “However, he says we can get back into the present and back where we came from by shooting up the dragon's tail which is here in Southern China, and is, where we came in. When the dragon roars and rolls over we will emerge back in Vietnam with as much time passed there as has passed here.
Fox began chuckling. Hard Bones glared at him. “Something funny, Fox?”
“Somebody's been in the sun too long.”
Wizard joined in the laughter. “We got to get Hard Bones to a medic. Fast!”
“OK, I’ll let that pass. Anyway, he says we need to be at the exact spot we came in at exactly the right hour and right day.”
The feng-shui man spoke again and waited for Hard Bones to translate. “He says his master needs to know the year, month, day and hour of our births to check them with the map of the heavenly bodies because there are lucky days and unlucky days to start any journey, and time is divided into cycles such as the twelve animals, the five substances, the five principal planets, the five colors, the five- Anyway, he needs to find the day and hour that will best harmonize with them all.” When no one spoke, Hard Bones continued. “And if I will pay a courtesy call on his master, and engage him in a game of Chinese chess, he will attempt to help us.”
For a moment, no one said a word. Then Kool-Aid came to life with false enthusiasm. “Hey, I get it! Yeah! All we gotta do is shoot up the dragon's paw, he rolls over, lets out a roar, and we're outta here! Back in 'nam! Sure. Makes a lot of sense. Uh, can I see you in private for a minute?”
Kool-Aid smiled and nodded to the feng-shui man as he led Hard Bones a few steps away from the group. “Listen, mah man, I don’t claim to be the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree but I know this: this Papasan Chinaman is beaucoup dinky-dau! I mean, he has got his head so far up his ass he needs a glass belly-button to see out, you dig?”
“You could be right. But you got a better explanation for what happened to us?”
“Well, no, but-”
“You got a better idea of how we get outta here?”
“No, I ain't, but-”
“Then shut the fuck up and give the nice feng-shui man your birth date.”
Hard Bones walked back to the group.
“Jesus Christ, you're more dinky-dau than the Chinaman!” Kool-Aid walked after him. “Hey! I got a question. What if the dragon rolls over the other way?”
“OK, that’s a fair question; I’ll put it to him.” When Hard Bones related the question to the feng-shui man, the feng-shui man began laughing uproariously. He spoke to the other Chinese who joined in the laughter. Then the feng-shui man spoke again to Hard Bones.
“He says even a child knows the Star Green dragon cannot roll the other way because the White Moon Tiger is sleeping there.”
Wizard and Fox joined in the laughter and began mocking Kool-Aid for his ignorance.
Kool-Aid spoke mainly to himself. “Something about this fuckin' dynasty makes everybody dinky-dau.”
“Kool-Aid, take Pidgin and check on the frigate. When we get back, we're going for the missing link. And be careful!”
“Come on, Pidgin. Anything to get away from these fruitcakes.”
Pidgin tapped his head. “No b'long reason?”
“You got it, my man. These jive-ass honky jokers no b'long reason!”
As they were leaving the perimeter, a villager armed with a flintlock jumped up from behind some bushes. He pointed the flintlock at them and screamed in English. “Passelword!”
Kool-Aid screamed back: “Jimi Hendrix!”
Pidgin joined in. “Jimme'enlik!”
Kool-Aid walked a few steps
and then stopped. “Wait a minute! You're supposed to ask for the password when
people are tryin' to get in the landing zone, not when- Oh, fuck it!”
The assistant to the feng-shui master led Fox and Hard Bones through a magnificent bamboo forest in which crystal clear creeks reflected the sunlight like sheets of silver, cinnamon trees perfumed the air and dragonflies reflected the sunlight. Colorful birds darted about the fernlike plumes of bamboo and chirped incessantly. On hillsides, paths through terraced ricefields were curved to bewilder evil spirits who can travel only in a straight line. A closely cropped hedge of tall bamboo interspersed with mandarin oranges partly hid an upper-class brick house with red tiled roof from view. Dragons and other fierce mythical creatures lined the roof eaves.
Fox and Hard Bones were led through the inner gate and into the courtyard. The man bowed politely and disappeared. Fox and Hard Bones sat on Chinese blackwood chairs. All around were beautifully carved roof beams, tiled walls covered with paintings and calligraphic scrolls, carved blackwood tables set with jade vases and prize plants. The only sounds were those of the distant quacking of ducks and the creak of a waterwheel.
Fox walked around the courtyard and sat back down. “In the midst of a war, this guy seems to have no problem keeping a place like this? How does that figure?”
“Most likely he keeps safe by making himself useful to the pirates and to government troops.”
“Yep. Somebody here knows how to look out for number one.” “Hard Bones whispered to Fox. “Now, look, feng-shui men are very dignified, you understand? Dollars to donuts he'll be wearing a silk robe and a long white beard.”
“I'd rather he has the donuts.”
“Protocol is everything. If he offers you tea, don't drink it. Only when he drinks from his cup, that means - Oh, shit!”
“What's the matter?”
“I'm trying to remember the right responses. He'll say something like ‘You are too kind to honor me with the delightful presence of your jade footsteps’ and I have to say something like ‘The honor belongs to this unworthy disciple.’ He'll ask, ‘What is your honorable age?’ and I'll say my worthless number is such and such. When he asks, ‘Where is your mansion?’ I say, my hovel is such and such. He'll ask-”
“Sounds like a lot of bullshit to me.”
“That's because you're an American from the 20th century. But-”
The door opened and an extremely short, pudgy, self-absorbed man entered the courtyard followed by the assistant. The man wore a blue striped western suit several sizes too large and burgundy Chinese felt shoes with thick white soles. He peered through enormous Chinese-style tortoise shell spectacles and blinked almost constantly. They were held fast to his face with strings passing behind his abnormally large ears. The tortoise shell magnified his eyes and gave them the appearance of being nearly twice normal size. He used his long, pointed nails to expertly strip off the hard shells of watermelon seeds and constantly popped the kernels into his mouth. He spoke with an English accent and added a small cackle to almost all his dialogue. His voice was very high-pitched. He was the type who seldom lets others finish a sentence.
He walked quickly to them and stared at them. Hard Bones nudged Fox and they both rose. The man pointed to Fox. “Who play chess? You?”
Hard Bones spoke up. “Venerable sir, this unworthy person does his best to play the-”
“At last, an opponent! Come! Come!”
The feng-shui master grabbed Hard Bones by the arm and led him on. Fox and Hard Bones followed him and his assistant through various courtyards toward the door of a building at the rear.
“Very difficult to find a worthy opponent here. When I was in Canton, I taught an Englishman to play.”
“You worked with the English?”
“Yes, yes, all English in Canton know me. I am Bamboo Jack!”
“Yes, yes! I think you have heard of me, yes?”
“Well, it's possible, but we’ve been a bit out of touch. It might be that-”
“Now, there is war between English and Chinese so I retreat to here. Wait for better days. Today the river is low and the ants eat the fish; tomorrow the river is high and the fish eat the ants - simple yin and yang, yes?”
The Feng-shui master slapped both men jovially on their backs. “Now, let us looksee which you are -- fish or ants!”
The Feng-shui Master cackled loudly. Fox threw Hard Bones a look then whispered. “You do realize Bamboo Jack isn't flying with all his rotor blades intact, don't you?”
“Let me get this straight. This weirdo will help us get back to 'nam if you win the chess match; and if he wins we take a look at some silkworms.”
“That's what his assistant said.”
“Can you beat him?”
“I don't know. On Taiwan I was pretty good.”
“What do you call 'pretty good'?”
“I made substitute in the amateurs.”
Bamboo Jack was clearly excited. “You are from America but from the future? Marvelous! I never played chess with men from future before.”
“Well, I never played with men from the past before, so I guess that makes us even.”
Fox looked around him. “This place is like a palace!”
“Ah, yes! Men from other countries bring in special goods to trade and Bamboo Jack helps both sides chase the dollar.”
Again the man let out a cackle and slapped Hard Bones on the back. “Come, come. Now we go to the chess room.”
Hard Bones whispered to Fox. “I'd say Bamboo Jack made his fortune in opium, wouldn't you?”
“Yeah, but why does he want people to look at silkworms munching mulberry leaves?”
“I don't know. He's obviously eccentric. Maybe he-”
The door opened and they stepped inside. The chess room was huge and the entire tiled floor set up as a chessboard. Hard Bones could see an actual stream of water running between the two opponent's "camps" and all along the walls were banners in Chinese testifying to the feng-shui man's many victories. Chinese guards with huge swords and lances stood nearby scowling at Hardbones and Fox.
But Hard Bones and Fox could only stare at the "chessmen." All of the chess pieces were beautiful Chinese women in diaphanous robes. Half were wearing red and half were wearing blue. They were each in their proper place on the board sitting on specially made platforms. Each platform had a flag colored blue or red.
Each woman wore a tall Manchu-style hat with a Chinese character signifying her value. Each side of the chessboard had 16 pieces (women) in place: Five pawns, two ministers, two counselors, two knights, two cannon, two rooks and one king. The women stared at Hard Bones and Fox and smiled. They turned to one another and spoke softly, then laughed.
Hard Bones stared at those closest to him. “Oh, my God.”
“You were saying something
about Bamboo Jack being eccentric?”
Seconds after they realized they had walked into a trap, Kool-Aid and Pidgin dashed into a thickly wooded area and ran for their lives. Every ten or twenty seconds they turned to fire at the large group of Chinese pirates from the frigate in hot pursuit. Kool-Aid let out a screech as his boot entered a punji trap and his M-16 went sprawling. The trap was composed of two rows of sharpened bamboo stakes facing each other beneath a mat carpet covered with leaves; the type of trap in which the stakes are angled downward so that once a foot steps in, it cannot be pulled out.
Kool-Aid tried to ignore the pain and attempted to extricate his foot. It was useless. Pidgin grabbed the M-16 and threw himself beside Kool-Aid and kept firing. Arrows and bullets thwacked and smashed all around them. Kool-Aid screamed at Pidgin. “Pidgin! Get out of here! Go!”
Pidgin continued firing. A Western pirate snuck up behind him and was about to pull the trigger of his flintlock when he was suddenly blown away in an enormous blast. Wizard spoke as he continued firing his shotgun at the ever increasing number of targets. “I thought you boys were gone too long.”
“You cracker asshole! Get out of here! There's too many of them!”
Wizard ignored the advice
and stood in the open killing pirates as they rushed in. Several Chinese
pirates with bow-and-arrows let loose their arrows. Wizard was hit in the
shoulder and leg. He continued to fire. He was hit again in the leg. Several
Chinese jumped on Kool-Aid. A pirate clubbed Pidgin with the butt of his rifle,
knocking him unconscious.
In the Chess Room, Hard Bones walked slowly between his female chess pieces and returned their come-hither smiles. He reached a spot between a cannon and a pawn. A gong sounded and the feng-shui master announced “ten seconds.”
Hard Bones reflected for only a few seconds then touched one woman's shoulder. “Cannon on line four, forward six spaces!”
The judge repeated the move in Chinese. The girl (cannon) grasped Hard Bones's red flag, rose and walked in a tottering, sexy bound-foot gait across the river bridge to where Bamboo Jack's knight was located. She removed Bamboo Jack's blue flag and replaced it with the red flag. The knight took Bamboo Jack's flag and walked off the board and onto a balcony overlooking the chess board. Hard Bones's cannon gracefully seated herself onto the stool and smiled at Hard Bones.
The feng-shui man was obviously upset with Hard Bones's move. He walked slowly among his remaining pieces while staring at Hard Bones's remaining pieces south of the river. Hard Bones returned to his seat beside Fox.
Fox playfully punched his shoulder. “You got him worried now, old buddy.”
“I'm not so sure. I can see why nobody ever beats this guy. He's clever as hell.”
“Well, I learned something.”
“Erections in the 19th century are a lot like the ones I got in the 20th century.”
For several minutes, the feng-shui man and Hard Bones quickly called out moves and each time one of the women got up and walked to a new position. If they were capturing an opponent's piece, the 'captured' woman took the appropriate flag and left the board.
“Damn! Bamboo Jack is a fantastic chess player.”
Fox tried to keep the worry out of his voice. “But you can beat him, right?”
“Well, he tore up my Three-Step Tiger offense, but now we're in mid-game, so we'll soon know just how good he is.”
“Is there a reason a lot of your pieces have left the board?”
“Yeah, there's a reason. He's winning.”
The feng-shui master passed by Hard Bones while studying a move. “I saw eclipse and I knew a game would begin. Oh, so much time since someone visited the Silkworm Chamber!”
Suddenly, all the color drained from Hard Bones's face.
Fox spoke just above a whisper. “Silkworm Chamber?” Hard Bones didn’t reply. “What's the matter?...Hey! Talk to me!”
“Now I understand why nobody ever shows up to play chess with this guy.”
“What are you talking about?”
“He didn't say 'room of silkworms'; he said, 'Silkworm Chamber'. And there aren't any silkworms in it.”
“Could you drop the riddles and make some sense?”
“They used to have rooms called the Silkworm Chamber because that's where men were sent to become eunuchs. Because a recently castrated man and a newly hatched silkworm both need a heated room to survive.”
“Castrated! You mean Bamboo
Jack is a...”
On the frigate’s gun deck, Wizard and Kool-Aid sat on sailors' slop chests, their arms tied behind them by ropes stretching to hammock hooks. Wizard was bleeding from his wounds and in pain. Their possessions, including Wizard's Bible, were piled near them. The room was lined with cannon lashed to the wall.
The several Chinese pirates guarding them were completely absorbed in a noisy game of dice for money.
The door opened and four western pirates entered. They curtly motioned for the Chinese to leave. Although none had an eye patch or wooden leg or a parrot on his shoulder, in every other respect they fulfilled everyone's worst nightmare of menacing cutthroats. In addition to the sheath knives at their belts, they were armed to the teeth with flintlock pistols and cutlasses.
The pirate captain motioned for his men to sit on chests or casks, then all sat facing the prisoners. They stared at the two men, especially Kool-Aid, as if they were exhibits in a zoo. Kool-Aid and Wizard stared back. Finally Wizard broke the silence: “Hey!”
“Weren't these guys extras in Mutiny on the Bounty?”
“All of them.”
“I mean, which version?”
“You know. With Clark Gable.”
“Nah. They're too young. I think it was the one with Marlon Brando.”
The pirate captain spoke with a Cockney accent. “Clap a stopper on your tongues!”
A wide-eyed Kool-Aid started to giggle. “What did he say to do with our tongues?”
“I think he said to ‘clap a stopper’ on them.”
Wizard and Kool-Aid began to chuckle. Wizard's laughter was mixed with winces from the pain of his wounds.
The pirate captain quickly became incensed. “Goddamn ye! Belay your gabble or you'll cop a packet!”
Wizard and Kool-Aid found it more difficult to stop laughing. Kool-Aid managed to nudge Wizard with his shoulder.
“Hey, I seen this guy in Pittsburgh once!”
“Yeah, he was playin' shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates!”
“Hey, come on, Kool-Aid, it hurts when I laugh. Knock it off!”
An angry pirate spoke with a heavy Cockney accent. “Thi siyuh blaow kiz feh bawmi!”
“What did he say?”
“I think he said, ‘This here bloke is fair balmy!’"
Tears of laugher rolled down their cheeks while the pirates looked at them in wonderment. Wizard tried to talk while laughing hysterically and wincing from the pain. “I don't mind...being stuck in the Ch'ing Dynasty but...I do mind being an extra in a shipboard version of Treasure Island.”
“Yeah, baby, dig those bellbottoms! They'd fit right in at USC! And dig these snappy red floors! It's like a brothel in here!”
“No, man, they paint gun deck floors red so in battle the guncrews won't notice how much of their blood has spilled.”
At that, Kool-Aid abruptly stopped laughing. “Did you have to tell me that?”
“Well, Wizard, my man, we are in deep doo doo. But don't sweat it.”
“OK, if you can give me one good reason why I shouldn't sweat it, I promise not to.”
“Because even as we sit here
I guarantee you Hard Bones and Fox are figuring a way to get us out of here.”
In the chess room, there were six pieces left on the board: only two belonged to Hard Bones. Fox became increasingly nervous and whispered urgently. “He's got twice as many players as you!”
“So he has. But we're in the end game and I've got a rook to his knight and two ministers.”
“Hard Bones, don't play games with me! My family jewels are in the balance! Can you win!”
“Well, the saying goes that one rook can make ten pieces tremble.” Hard Bones suddenly shouted out to his opponent: “Rook on line four forward one space!”
Hard Bones and his opponent again rapidly called out moves, sending their pieces scurrying about the board.
Bamboo Jack smiled and
stepped forward to make his move.
In the woods, Pidgin was just waking up. He held his throbbing head and looked around; then moved painfully but quickly into the woods. He had traveled less than ten minutes when he heard voices. But when he peered through shoulder-high grass he saw they were farmers with enormous bundles of rush-pith for lamp wicks balanced on their bare shoulders. They were just stopping to join with others who were boiling short, fleshy tubers of lotus for their lunch.
He spoke to
the men briefly. They had not seen any long-nosed foreigners but they had seen
men with swords and spears and bands of long feathers circling their head; men
who did not kill them only because the wind was whistling through the bamboo.
Pidgin knew they were speaking of Miao tribesmen. He decided he had better try
to make it back to the helicopter and report to Hard Bones. He knew the Miao
were working with the Manchu soldiers. And he knew the Miao were said to scalp
A door opened on the frigate’s gun deck and Greenwood walked in, armed to the teeth. He was dressed in his Army-issued tiger fatigues and Larson's ears were on a string around his neck. Behind him, several Chinese pirates entered the room, including one female. One of them carried an unlit torch. Two carried a chest on a pole. As they set the chest down, Greenwood smiled and walked to Kool-Aid and Wizard.
Kool-Aid attempted to avoid looking at the human ears. “Look what the cat dragged in.”
Wizard spat. “Yeah. A rat.”
Greenwood shouldered his M-16 and simply smiled at their remarks.
“Hey, Greenwood, how about getting a medic for Wizard?”
“Medic! Where the fuck you think you are, back in the 'nam?” He pulled out a pack of Marlboro from his pocket, then realized it was empty and flicked it to the deck. “Shit.”
Despite his fears, Kool-Aid managed to keep his voice steady. “Looks like Marlboro Man just ran out of Marlboro.”
Greenwood looked at the two of them. “You boys wouldn't happen to have an American cigarette on you now, would you?”
Wizard laughed. “I got a whole carton of Camels in the baggage compartment on the chopper. Let us go and I'll be right back with it. Cross my heart!”
Greenwood sat and gave them the same cold smile as before. “Well, now, that's what I wanted to talk to you about. I suppose by now Hard Bones has pretty much mined every square inch of land all around the chopper.”
Kool-Aid continued his tone of harassment. “That should be no problem for a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol he-man like you, Greenwood.”
“Yeah, just don't trip over any wires.”
“Well, it'd be a lot less of a problem if you boys show me where the traps and wires are. You do that and I'll consider you members of my team.”
“You mean like the team you sent out last night?”
“Shit! Come on, Wizard, give me a break. I let those assholes probe your position 'cause I knew they'd get the shit kicked out of them. Now I get listened to around here. Ain't that right, Captain?”
The Captain was dark-complexioned and wore a pepper-and-salt beard. His face was lined and weathered but it was clear he was not someone to anger. He said nothing but glared at Greenwood.
Wizard looked from the captain back to Greenwood. “Looks like the Captain doesn't think much of you either, Greenwood.”
“Oh, we just got a little difference of opinion about who runs the show. No big deal.”
“Well, you probe all you like, but there's no way in hell you'll ever get that chopper.”
“And that's your final word on the matter?”
“Well, then, I'm afraid it is. Your final word.”
A Chinese pirate looked to Greenwood and Greenwood gestured toward the chest. The pirate walked to the chest and opened it. Greenwood walked to the chest and reached in. Holding it just behind its head, Greenwood pulled out a snake about two feet long and nearly as thick as a man's wrist. He gestured to the Chinese pirates and two of them held Kool-Aid's arm. Greenwood carried it to Kool-Aid and, although Kool-Aid struggled to draw back, the snake lashed out and bit him on the arm. Greenwood sat down on a slop chest and smiled. “It's a pit viper. You'll begin to stiffen in twenty seconds and you'll be dead in two minutes.”
Wizard laughed. “Fuck you, Greenwood. That ain't no pit viper.”
“Aw shucks, I forgot. You southern boys know all about shit like that. No foolin’ you boys, that’s for sure.”
Greenwood allowed the snake to bite his own arm, then, still holding the snake, got up. “Last time, gentlemen. You goin' to show me where the traps and trip wires are?”
“If they was up your ass you'd know where they was.”
Greenwood chuckled. “That I would, Kool-Aid, my man, that I would. Greenwood nodded to the British pirates. Except for the Captain, they moved toward Kool-Aid.
“No. Not him.” Greenwood pointed to Wizard and let his thumb fall as a gun hammer. “Him.”
Although Wizard struggled to resist, the men forced Wizard's mouth open, jammed a bamboo funnel between his teeth, and placed the snake's head inside.
Kool-Aid screamed at Greenwood. “Jesus Christ, Greenwood, what the hell is the matter with you!”
“Me? Nothing the matter with me. It's just that I owe this boy something from on the chopper.”
The men holding Wizard paused and looked toward Greenwood who gestured again. The pirate holding the torch used flint and steel to light it. He then took the burning torch and applied it to the tail of the snake. The snake, its head trapped in Wizard's mouth, writhed about madly, frenziedly, desperately trying to escape. Even the pirates seemed to wince at Greenwood’s method of interrogation.
Kool-Aid fought back his terror. “Greenwood, you son-of-a-bitch, stop it!”
The pirate captain got up, his hand on the pistol at his belt. “That's enough! You don't need to kill a man that way!”
The pirates kept the snakehead in Wizard's mouth but moved the torch away, not certain whom to obey.
Greenwood glared at the captain. “This is my business.”
“On my ship it is my business!”
“I told you: you run the ship and I do what I have to do to get the helicopter! They fix that helicopter before we get it they can blow this ship out of the water! You want that?”
The pirate captain glanced toward his men, then angrily strode out of the room. Greenwood motioned for the pirates to continue their torture of Wizard.
The snake continued its furious thrashing and finally slithered down Wizard's throat almost out of sight. Wizard began choking and madly straining against his captors until finally he stopped struggling -- out of air -- dead. One of the pirates immediately doused the torch in a fire bucket.
Kool-Aid spoke with tears streaming down his face. “You sick motherfucker! Even the VC didn't think of that one!”
As Greenwood retrieved the still-living snake from Wizard's throat and returned it to the chest, several men threw Wizard's body into a corner. Wizard stared sightlessly out at them.
“I'm sick? You think I'm sick, do you? Kool-Aid, you are so innocent.”
Greenwood rolled a barrel in front of Kool-Aid and then gestured to the female pirate to sit on it. He then motioned for the Chinese pirates to unwrap one of her bound feet. “I'll show you who's sick. Take a good look at the world we live in now.”
The Chinese slipped off the tiny three-inch shoes from the woman's foot and began unwrapping the white cotton cloth. The woman blushed and hung her head but did not resist. “Golden lilies, they call these tiny feet. Millions of women here have 'em. Every Dink mama wants her Dink daughter to have 'em. I thought you should see what they look like.”
“They're not Dinks! You think you're in 'nam?”
“Hey, Kool-Aid, you know, killin' Dinks in the 20th century or Chinks in the 19th -- I really don't give a shit as long as I'm killin'.”
As the last of the wrapping came off the foot, Kool-Aid looked at it in horror. The woman's stump displayed the characteristics of a bound foot: deformed, grotesque, hideous and repulsive.
Greenwood held up the woman's foot to give Kool-Aid a better view. The four smaller toes had been crushed under the foot and years of constantly tightening the wrapping had drawn the heel and toe closer together, creating the appearance of an animal’s hoof. “That's beauty here, Kool-Aid. Years of torture produce it. Oh, sure, in 'nam, you boys might throw a VC prisoner out of a chopper at a thousand feet, and the VC might torture a GI and strip his skin off while he's alive, but how does that petty shit compare to this! If I'm sick, what are millions of Chinks?”
“You'll never get out of here with that chopper, you sick son-of-”
“Get out of here? Hey, man, I belong here; I love it here; I was reborn to be here; I don't want the chopper to escape; I want the chopper to be King of the Ch'ing!”
Greenwood motioned for the woman to leave.
“Greenwood, you're an American! One of us! How can you betray us?”
“Well, Kool-Aid, since you asked, I'll tell you. I never did fit in in the States. A real James Dean outcast, you know? Hell, it wasn't until I was in the jungles of 'nam with a weapon in my hands that I came to life. It was the first thing I was good at. Damn good! And I came to realize that the only side I was on was mine.”
“Nobody's alone, man.”
“That's where you're wrong, Kool-Aid. Everybody's got a cause -- Ch'ing imperial army, Taiping Revolution, Republic of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, duty, honor, country -- and you know what? It's all bullshit! Me? I got the one man I can trust -- me.”
“Listen, Greenwood, you help us here and-”
“And what? I serve only twenty years instead of life? I got a better idea. How 'bout I get that chopper, and then do any fucking thing I want.”
Greenwood gestured toward the chest of snakes and the pirates moved to take it out. “OK, Kool-Aid. We'll let you thaw out down below for awhile. Then we'll see if we can exchange you for the chopper. Let's see where Hard Bones's loyalty really lies.”
Kool-Aid was roughly taken out by the pirates. “You are one sorry asshole, you know that, don't you, Greenwood?”
Greenwood gave him a cold
smile. “It remains to be seen who’s sorry.”
Bamboo Jack and his assistant escorted Hard Bones and Fox to the gate and waved goodbye. The two men stepped into rattan seats carried on bamboo poles. The bearers picked them up and began their journey. The seats swayed gently from side to side with each step of the bearers.
Fox turned to Hard Bones and shaded his eyes from the sun. “A draw! Jesus Christ, my manhood was saved by a draw?”
“What are you complaining about? If he hadn't let me move first he'd have won. Besides, he said because I had the guts to play him, he'll try to help us.”
“What was he looking at your hand for?”
“He was reading my palm. He said he saw three of us -- not four.”
“Well, he got that wrong.”
“I guess. But he said the one who was gone would save us twice; even after he died.”
“Jesus! Bamboo Jack is freakin’ nuts! Are all Chinese dynasties kinky like this one?”
pissing off dragons, we just might find out.”
Kool-Aid shifted his weight on the wooden cask but his arms and legs were securely tied, and he soon gave up his effort of escaping from his bonds. He looked about him for anything in the ship’s store room he might be able to use to his advantage. A lantern swung slowly back and forth, casting an uneven light and dispelling very little of the cavernous gloom around him. Even at anchor, the creaks and groans of the ship were loud. Kool-Aid looked at the barrels of provisions and at the rats which scampered about, gnawing their way into cheeses and ship's biscuit.
He tried one last time to work his way out of his ropes but quickly gave up the idea as hopeless. He noticed the rats watching him. “Oh, yeah, now I remember how it works. I smear the ropes with food and you guys chew the ropes and I'm free. But how the hell do I smear the ropes with food if my hands are tied? How about we play a game of 'Let's Pretend'?”
The door opened slightly and a Chinese crew member entered the room carrying a lantern. He turned to gesture to someone behind him. Pidgin entered the room followed by Hard Bones. Hard Bones was dressed in pirate clothing: flat, broad-brimmed tarpaulin hat, seaman's checkered shirt, pea jacket, duck trousers, sea boots.
Kool-Aid’s eyes widened in disbelief. “Hard Bones! Pid-“
Hard Bones covered his mouth with his hand. “Shhh! Whisper!”
Hard Bones quickly slid a knife from his sheath and cut Kool-Aid's ropes.
Kool-Aid gestured to the Chinese with the lantern. “Who's this?”
“He inside-my-village-man. Bad heart man makee him work this place.”
Hard Bones gave Kool-Aid’s wrists a brief but vigorous rub. “We've got a boat waiting. Let's move!”
“Greenwood killed Wizard.”
“I know.” Hard Bones gestured to the Chinese. “He told us.”
“We're just gonna-”
“We'll get our revenge later. We have to get out of here first.”
Kool-Aid quickly picked up his belongings and some of Wizard's. He glanced at the Bible, hesitated, then grabbed it. “How many men you got?”
“Fox is on shore with a few men. But I had to leave most with the chopper. Bring those ropes.”
The crew member opened the door, peered out and motioned for them to follow. The men moved out into the passageway.
Kool-Aid whispered. “Where'd you get the pirate outfit?”
“A fellow on shore was taking a nap. He was kind enough to let me have his clothes. We'll have to get you some. First, we've got to get the pitch change link. Stay close.”
The men moved cautiously up a ladder and scrambled up through a wooden hatch. At the sound of someone approaching, they threw themselves behind huge coils of rope, narrowly avoiding detection. The villager whispered to Pidgin. Pidgin turned to Kool-Aid and gestured toward a small cabin, guarded by two English pirates. “Flen him say t'ing you want for flying Dragon ship b'long inside.”
At sounds of movement in the passageway, the pirate guards looked up. First to enter their line of vision was Kool-Aid with his hands up followed by Hard Bones holding a pistol at his back. The guards pointed their flintlock rifles.
Hard Bones lowered his voice and spoke gruffly. “Relax, mates, I got 'im. The bloke was trying to escape. I think the Captain might want to chat with 'im a bit.”
As Hard Bones passed them, the guards lowered their rifles. Hard Bones and Kool-Aid immediately snatched their rifles and used the butts of the weapons to knock them out.
Pidgin continued to whisper. “Hab got one piecey man room inside catchey whiskey too muchee. He Engelissman.”
From inside the cabin, Kool-Aid and Hardbones listened to the singing of a man who had been indulging in some serious drinking. “She died of a fever; and nothing could save her; And that was the end of sweet Molly Malone; Now 'er ghost wheels a barrow through streets broad and narrow-”
Hard Bones grasped his knife and gestured for the crew member to knock on the door. The others stood to the side. The crew member knocked. A rough voice came from inside the cabin. “Blimey! 'Old your 'orses, guv'nor! I'm comin'.”
The door opened and the English Pirate stood facing the crew member. “Well, my heathen friend, what is-”
Hard Bones rushed the man, pushing him inside the room with the knife to his throat. Kool-Aid, Pidgin and the crew member quickly followed. Kool-Aid slipped the man's double-barreled pistol from his belt and held it on him.
Hard Bones studied the man carefully. “Now, my heathen friend, you make one sudden move or sound and I'm gonna cut you up for Irish stew. You got that?”
The man nodded his head. Kool-Aid and the Chinese dragged the unconscious guards into the room and locked the door. Kool-Aid began searching the room.
“I'll only ask it once. Where's the pitch change link?”
The man hesitated; Hard Bones seemed about to use the knife; the man nodded toward a seaman's chest. Kool-Aid rummaged in the chest and quickly pulled it out. “Got it!” He tossed it to Hard Bones. Hard Bones ordered the man to strip to his underwear then roughly tied him and gagged him. “Let’s move!”
On the gundeck, the villager peered cautiously from around a corner. Gun ports had been opened to allow light and air to enter and the villager could make out three western pirates fast asleep in hammocks. The villager motioned for the others to enter.
Pidgin entered followed by Hard Bones and Kool-Aid, both now dressed in pirate clothes. An oversized sailor's ditty bag around Kool-Aid's neck contained his fatigues and Wizard's Bible. The pitch change link was tied to Hard Bone's belt.
The villager looked out a gun port then motioned for Hard Bones to tie the rope to a wall hammock hook. The rope was then passed out the gun port. The villager was first out, followed by Pidgin.
Below the waterline of the frigate two Chinese villagers waited in a dinghy. One held the boat steady while the other prepared to aid those sliding down the rope.
Inside the cabin, the pirate, tied up in his underwear, was just working his bonds loose.
Just as Hard Bones slid through the gun port, one of the pirates woke up and rolled over. Kool-Aid turned his back blocking Hard Bones from the pirate's sight and pretended to be looking out the gun port. The pirate was half-asleep.
As he spoke, the pirate seemed still half-asleep. “How many bells have gone?”
“Bells?..Uh, don't worry, mate, it's not your watch yet.”
The man rolled back over and closed his eyes. “On this ship, everybody's in everybody's mess but on nobody's watch.”
“Right on! Power to the peo-”
Hard Bones nudged him in the ribs with his elbow and whispered urgently. “No!”
“Uh, I mean, you got that right, mate! Some 'o the blokes on this 'ere ship are fair balmy!”
The pirate mumbled something and began snoring. Kool-Aid glanced over his shoulder and then quickly followed Hard Bones out the gun port and slid down the rope.
At the waterline of the frigate, Kool-Aid held tightly to the rope as he slid down, now about halfway between the frigate and the boat. Above him, on the main deck, a pirate unbuttoned his trousers to take a leak off the side of the ship. Kool-Aid turned as best he could to avoid being urinated on as he slid into the boat.
On the main deck of the frigate, the pirate, still in his underwear, rushed on deck blowing on a boatswain's pipe. He spotted Greenwood. “The prisoner's escaped! They got the thing you hid!”
Greenwood brushed the urinating man aside and spotted Kool-Aid still holding the rope sliding down toward the boat. Greenwood aimed his M-16. It jammed. He swore, threw it to the deck, drew his knife and leapt overboard. He landed on Kool-Aid, knocking him almost unconscious into the boat. Hard Bones immediately charged Greenwood while villagers at the oars panicked and jumped into the water. The boat rocked wildly. Pidgin and the remaining villager from the ship grabbed the oars and rowed.
Pirates on the main deck attempted to fire at them without hitting Greenwood but Hard Bones was too close to Greenwood, desperately holding onto his arm as the blade of the knife inched closer to his throat. He managed to extract the pitch change link from his belt and thrust it into Greenwood's crotch but as the boat lurched the link fell into the water. Kool-Aid had recovered just enough to see what was happening and immediately dove for the link.
As they struggled, Hard Bones forced Greenwood's hand holding the knife back behind his shoulder and Pidgin managed to sink his teeth into Greenwood's hand. Greenwood cried out and dropped the knife. Hard Bones hit him with a right, left, right, knocking Greenwood out of the boat. Pidgin reached over, clinging to one oar, and helped Kool-Aid into the boat. Kool-Aid managed to retrieve the link.
Kool-Aid screamed at them. “I got it! Go! Go! Go!”
Bullets smashed into the boat as the men poled and paddled the boat away from the frigate parallel with the shore.
As Greenwood was picked up by a boat from the frigate, he could see the boat with Hard Bones and the others quickly disappear.
On the main deck, the pirate captain yelled through his speaking trumpet at men in sampans and small sailing boats near the shore to pursue their boat. Another ship's boat was also hurriedly being launched.
The other boats quickly gained on theirs. Hard Bones and the others crouched as low as possible while arrows whizzed overhead and musket balls thudded into their boat and splashed beside it. Finally, they reached shore and as Fox and his men covered them, they jumped out and ran into the woods.
In the confusion, Hard Bones and Kool-Aid became separated from the others and ran together up a forested hill and down again. They emerged from a large patch of tall sugar cane, almost out of breath, when they suddenly ran into several ferocious looking regular army Chinese officers in full Ch'ing Dynasty military dress practicing archery. Each officer wore a monstrous tiger-like face embroidered at his waist. They were something out of a bad dream. They turned to stare at Hard Bones and Kool-Aid. Kool-Aid began backing up near a tree. “Oh, man, these dudes are dressed down heavy!”
Hard Bones smiled warily. “Uh...Hi, guys. Don't mind us.”
Kool-Aid gave them an enormous grin. “Yeah, We just passin' through. So, happy trails and all that shit. Tell the emperor if he in Detroit some time, he should look me up. Well, so long for-”
As Kool-Aid turned to go, an arrow thumped into the tree an inch from his ear. The soldiers quickly surrounded the two men and while some pinned their arms, others grabbed their ditty bags and dumped the contents onto the ground.
Hard Bones knew resistance was useless. “These guys must work for the local magistrate.”
“Oh, shit! You mean the pirates' friend?”
“Yeah. We let them take us we'll end up back with Greenwood.”
“Shit! My mama told me not to join the goddamned army.”
The soldiers rummaged through the contents of Kool-Aid's ditty bag and then opened the Bible. Suddenly, they cried out and jumped back in horror. One began screaming to Kool-Aid in Chinese.
“What's his problem?”
Hard Bones spoke softly. “They think it's a book of sorcery! They think you're some kind of demon!”
Hard Bones and Kool-Aid were released and the soldiers backed away.
“It's the same kind of book as their book of the dead - red capitals, black-letter type and silver clasp! And your blackness scares them!”
“The way they actin' it's beginnin' to scare me!”
“This is our only chance! Act crazy! Like you're in a spell or trance or something!”
“What kind of spell?”
“Just do it!”
Kool-Aid picked up the Bible, opened it and began his act, shaking, quaking and moving toward the soldiers as he spoke.
“Ooohhhh! Ooooohhhh! I call upon the gods of...music! Ringo! George! Paul! John! Jimmy! Jefferson Airplane!”
He opened his vial of pills and took one as he sang. “One pill makes you larger!” He took another pill. “And one pill makes you small! And the ones that mother gives you!” He threw pills at the soldiers who cowered and moved back. He moved closer to them and then finished with menacing gestures and full histrionics. “Don't do shit at all! Go ask Alice! When she's ten feet tall! Keep your head! Keep your head! Keep you head!”
The soldiers ran off in panic, throwing their weapons to the ground.
Hard Bones quickly began gathering their belongings. Kool-aid snatched up as many of his pills as he could. Hard Bones grabbed him by the shoulder. “Well done, amigo! Now, Let's get out of here!”
As they started to run, weapons fire from an M-16 and flintlocks churned up the ground around them. Greenwood and several pirates were on a hillside with a clear shot at them. Greenwood shouted to them. “I knew you'd come for them! Now you can kiss your ass goodbye!”
Suddenly several arrows whizzed about their heads, striking two of the pirates. The Taipings appeared on the other side of the clearing, providing cover for Hard Bones and Kool-Aid who managed to make it to safety. During the fighting, another pirate was struck with an arrow but Greenwood's M-16 cut down two of the Taiping women.
Along a forest path, Fox and the Chinese ran toward the sound of gunfire. As Greenwood pursued the Taipings, Fox sent him tumbling for cover with fire from his M-16. “Hard Bones! You OK?”
“You mean except for the fact that I'm living in the wrong century? Yeah, I'm fine. Thanks to Wizard's Bible and these lovely ladies.”
“Pidgin says Wizard's dead.”
“He is. Greenwood killed him.”
“That son-of-a-bitch! Where's Kool-Aid?”
Hard Bones turned around without spotting Kool-Aid. “He was here a minute ago.”
Hard Bones and Fox come upon Kool-Aid's body lying in the midst of a bamboo thicket. Hard Bones knelt, lifted Kool-Aid's eyelids and took his pulse. Fox also looked him over, then threw a questioning glance at Hard Bones. Hard Bones suddenly grinned. “This fool passed out from his pills.”
Over the landing zone at sunset the sky was turning various shades of red and yellow. Hard Bones, Pidgin, the villagers and some of the Taiping women were grouped together. Hard Bones adjusted a bandage on Ai-ling's arm. Two of the village men had their arms in slings made of a belt of bamboo slips. Fox sat beside a still sleepy Kool-Aid who was just waking up. Fox slapped his face and forced him to drink tea. “How you doin'?”
“My head wants to burst and my arms ache and my ribs hurt. Other than that...”
“I heard about Wizard. I wish we could have been there for you guys.”
“Yeah, so do I. Anyway, where was you people?”
“Playing chess with Bamboo Jack.”
Kool-Aid practically choked on his tea.
“Hard Bones thinks he's a eunuch who wants company in more ways than one!”
“Man, am I fucked up! I just thought I heard you say- Hell, never mind. If you could have been there, you would have been.”
“You got that right.”
“So what are we gonna do about Greenwood?”
Hard Bones spat out the words. “We're going to test the chopper. Now. If it works, then we'll see if we can avenge Wizard's death. It was his Bible that saved us.”
Fox shook his head. “Jesus, Your mad feng-shui man said that one of us would die but would save us after he died - twice!”
Hard Bones got up and walked to the helicopter. “Well, that's once. Anyway, now it's time to find out if we can get out of here. So, let's do it.”
The men began working on the helicopter, installing the pitch change link and performing a careful preflight inspection: Switches on, one by one. Hard Bones squeezed the start lever. The igniters activated, the turbine whined and the blades began to turn. Except for the backup hydraulics, all instruments registered in the green.
Kool-Aid had been watching the rotor blades. He gave Hard Bones a thumbs-up. The villagers and Taiping women moved away. Hard Bones motioned to Pidgin. Kool-Aid helped an astonished Pidgin into the co-pilot's seat and strapped him in. “Don’t worry, mah man. We all have to get through our pucker factor stage.”
Hard Bones raised the collective, rolled the throttle in and added left pedal. He centered the chopper by moving the cyclic to the right rear. As he achieved a hover, he accelerated forward across the grassy plateau achieving transactional lift just before the tree line perimeter. Bad vibrations continued when climbing because the blades were not tracking perfectly. As Hard Bones put the helicopter through its paces, Pidgin’s eyes widened and his knuckles whitened from gripping the cushion. “Mastah, we OK?”
“Yeah, we’re fine, Pidgin. The trick with helicopters is to try to make sure the number of landings equals the number of takeoffs. All it takes to have a bad day on board a helicopter is to have one less landing than takeoff. But we’ll be fine.” Hard Bones skimmed fields of sugarcane and flew across broad leaves of lotus which swayed wildly in the chopper’s downdraft. He flew just above bamboo forests and thatched huts surrounded by fences of bamboo and low over ricefields, sending farmers scattering. As he rolled and banked the chopper those on the ground could glimpse Pidgin's astonished smile and his queue flying in the wind.
At the landing zone, guards were posted, and everyone else ate supper around two fires that crackled loudly in the stillness of the night. In the distance, moonlight was diffused by the aerial roots of towering banyan trees. Beyond them, the dark forms of rolling hills and mountains were silhouetted against the night sky. The almost constant hum of cicadas filled the night air. Fox, Kool-Aid and Pidgin sat together; Ai-ling and Hard Bones were seated a short distance off. The woman seemed as wary of Hard Bones as she was fascinated by him.
Pidgin gave his excited report to anyone who would listen: “Pidgin walkee topside in flying dragon ship! Too muchee faint heart! Flying dragon ship can walkee chop chop topside, bottomside, allo place!”
Fox finished ripping open the C-rations accessory pack, passed the gum to Pidgin and lit up one of the Salem cigarettes at the fire. He gave Pidgin a pat on the back. “You said it, Pidgin. Choppers are great!”
“Yeah, choppers is great. But maybe next time we flip the coin, if we win the toss, how about Charlie gets the choppers and we get the jungle?”
“OK, Kool-Aid, I'll mention it to General Abrams when we get back.”
Kool-Aid and Pidgin ate the local’s poor quality red rice and vegetables and scraps of what Kool-Aid believed to be goat meat with a special sauce. Kool-aid slapped at a mosquito. “Damn! I’m out of bug juice, I got jungle rot and it’s been over a century since I been laid. He pulled a crumpled photograph of his girlfriend from his wallet and stared at it.
Pidgin looked at the photograph of the girl in a bikini kneeling in sand at a beach. “One piecee wifo you?”
“Almost. But how am I supposed to get mail from her?”
Fox looked over his shoulder. “At least you know she won’t be sending you any ‘Dear John’ letter.”
“And just how do I know that?”
“Because she hasn’t even been born yet.”
A pile of coins in front of Kool-aid glittered in the light of the fire. Pidgin and Kool-aid began gambling with the coins in a traditional Chinese finger-throwing game. Pidgin threw a small finger; Kool-Aid a thumb. “Damn! Concubine beats the husband, right?”
“Yes, mastah, you savvy too muchee!”
Pidgin happily snatched up another coin from the pile.
“Yeah, well, if I savvy too muchee, how come I keep losing too muchee!”
As he continued losing at gambling, Kool-Aid wolfed down the Chinese food Pidgin had given him. He noticed Hard Bones was heating up a canteen cup full of soup with C-4 and digging into a can of C-ration.
“Hey, Hard Bones, what you eating that C-ration crap for? I thought you into Chinese food.”
Hard Bones took a spoonful of C-ration beans with frankfurter chunks in tomato sauce. “Some I like; some I don't like.”
“Well, I can tell you, you is missin' somethin’ here. This goat meat in sweet sauce ain't half bad.”
“No, mastah, chow-chow this no same goat meat. This first chop number one food Swatow people.”
“Real fancy shit, huh?” Kool-Aid looked it over and took another bite. “So what is it?”
Pidgin tried to say it in English but finally spoke in Chinese to Hard Bones.
“He says it's a Swatow specialty: 'mice dipped in honey.'”
Kool-Aid blanched and rushed to some nearby bushes to vomit. Hard Bones spoke over the sounds of Kool-Aid vomiting. “Yep. Sure do love these C's.”
Pidgin closed his eyes and tried to sleep but sleep wouldn’t come. The act of flying was simply too exciting an adventure and there was no way his mind would stop replaying the images of the flight again and again. He felt as if his body was still soaring above the ground and he couldn’t help wonder if it had all been a dream.
Ignoring the chill in the early morning air, for the fifth or sixth time he sat up and looked over at the helicopter. The moonlight bathed its blades in a ghostly silvery white sheen and he felt as if he had been part of a mystical, supernatural experience; something he would have to reflect upon to understand. He felt as if nothing in his life would ever be the same again and he had to resist an urge to light incense and prostrate himself before the mysterious flying machine.
From somewhere deep in the forest an owl hooted. He knew that the sound of an owl was an ill omen. He looked over at the others sleeping nearby and up to the pagoda with the aureate light of its lanterns spilling through the crevices of the top two stories and out into the darkness. The Taiping warriors had been posted in and around the pagoda and he wasn’t sure but he thought he recognized his sister looking out from a breach in the top story. He was about to lie down again when he glanced toward the banyan trees and a sudden chill passed through him. He threw off his blanket and crawled over to where Kool-Aid was asleep, grasped his shoulder and shook him. “Mastah!”
Kool-Aid opened his eyes. “Pidgin?”
Pidgin pointed toward the forest of banyan trees and whispered. “Mastah, you looksee!”
Kool-Aid sat up and looked at the nearest banyans. It was too dark and he was too sleepy to discern anything unusual. But he could see the tiny specks of light. Kool-Aid rubbed his eyes. “You mean the fireflies? Don’t worry about-”
“No, mastah! No hab fireflies!”
“No? So what are they?”
“Pidgin t’ink now hab men makkee light for fire guns.”
“Nah, can’t be. They don’t need matches for flintlocks.”
“Mastah, Pidgin hab see Miao come this side from mountains. Miao use old guns!”
“You mean matchlocks!”
Greenwood lay beneath the nearest banyan tree not more than ten feet from where the bodies of the two village guards lay with their throats slit open. He tightened his finger on the trigger of the M-16 and peered through the starlight scope. He focused on Pidgin, then when Kool-Aid sat up he moved the scope to focus on Kool-Aid. Thanks to the ambient light of the moon and the stars and the residual glow from their reflections on the chopper, Pidgin and Kool-Aid appeared in the scope almost perfectly clear in shades of green and black. Around him, pirates, Ch’ing army regulars and Tigers of War were set to launch their surprise attack on the camp.
No matter how many guards they posted Hardbones had had too much respect for Greenwood’s prowess to rely on them. And, so, in addition to the six claymores he had set out to protect their site, he had set the last one in a thickly wooded area behind the pagoda. Just in case Greenwood and his allies approached from that direction. The two trip wires led from a bamboo stake outward at 45 degree angles and each ended at a firing device attached to a smaller bamboo stake. From there, the buried detonating cords led to the olive-colored antipersonnel claymore secured on two sets of scissor-type adjustable legs. Encased in its curved plastic casing were one and a half pounds of plastic explosives and hundreds of deadly steel ball bearings. Behind the ball bearings was a steel plate to concentrate the blast in the direction of the enemy. A blasting cap had been inserted into a hole at the top.
The point man of the two dozen Tigers of War somehow made it past the trip wire without setting it off; the second soldier was not so fortunate; his right shin tripped the wire and sent 700 spherical steel pieces of shrapnel hundreds of feet across a 60 degree fan-shaped arc tearing into over half of the Tigers of War and sending the few survivors running for their lives. And the explosion caused Greenwood to jerk his weapon just as he fired sending the round whizzing past Kool-Aid’s ear. And then the night erupted with shouts, screams, and the explosion of the first of Greenwood’s grenades.
As the pirates and Manchu soldiers charged the clearing, Fox and Kool-Aid threw grenades and fired with their M-16’s. Unseen in the darkness, arrows reigned down on Greenwood’s men from the Taiping women in the pagoda and from villagers defending the site. Despite firing from behind earthen berms and bamboo shields, arrows and accurate fire from flintlocks began taking their toll of the defenders.
Hardbones kept low to the ground, ran and tumbled into the shallow bunker set up for the claymore detonators. He moved the safety in the first firing device to the “fire” position and squeezed the clicker, setting off three daisy chained claymores in a deafening series of blasts. He stuck his head above ground to view the battle scene and saw still more Manchu soldiers rushing toward him from another direction. Just as he reached for the second firing device, one of Greenwood’s grenades landed less than ten feet from him. He threw himself down at the same time squeezing the second clicker and setting off a second daisy chain of three claymores. The darkness came alive with sound. In the enormous explosions he wasn’t certain if he’d heard the grenade and for several seconds afterward he couldn’t hear at all. He grabbed his M-16 and rolled out of the bunker. He realized he was almost deaf but he could see that the battle was over.
Kool-Aid rushed up to him. “You all right?”
Hard Bones pointed to his ear. “I don’t hear much right now. Too close to the explosions. What about Fox?”
Kool-Aid grabbed his shoulder and spoke into his ear. “Fox is OK. We won, baby. The sons-of-bitches ran away. We won!”
“Don’t kid yourself. Greenwood got what he wanted. We’ve used up all the claymores. Next time he comes it’ll be war on his terms.” Hard Bones looked over the battlefield with its maimed and mutilated corpses. “Come on, let’s clean up this mess.”
Dawn broke over the landing zone. Except for the heavily reinforced Taiping guards, everyone was still asleep. Someone appeared in the distance and spoke to the guards then rushed into the landing zone. Hard Bones struggled up out of sleep. He drew his pistol but saw that it was Bamboo Jack’s assistant. He began speaking hurriedly to Hard Bones. Hard Bones was not pleased by what he is hearing.
Kool-Aid yawned. “What's up?...OK, on a scale of one to ten, ten being the worst, where are we?...OK, twenty being the worst.”
“According to his master's charts, our best chance of getting out of here is to leave this morning. After that, we won't have another opportunity until one full Cycle of Cathay passes.”
“Cycle of Cathay?”
“Sixty years, Fox. According to their calculations, we should leave and fly due north during the Hour of the Dragon at exactly 7:46 a.m. We’ve got to reach a mountain shaped with a dragon’s head and tail no later than nine. That’s the Star Green Dragon. We then send a missile into his tail.”
“And that’ll piss him off and take up back into the storm and into ‘nam?”
“Yeah, Fox, that’s what the man says.”
Kool-Aid looked at his watch. Seven forty-six. “Hour and forty minutes from now!”
Hard Bones spoke after a few seconds of silence. “You know Greenwood's buddies are just waiting for us to leave so they can finish these people off.”
Kool-Aid spoke softly. “We don't go now, we don't go at all.”
Fox spat into the dirt. “There it is.”
Hard Bones glanced at Ai-ling; Kool-Aid looked at Pidgin. Everyone looked at Hard Bones. Finally, Hard Bones headed for the chopper. “Let's get ready if we're going!”
The men gave extra food and weapons to the villagers and their Taiping allies and then removed Wizard's M-60 from the helicopter. They placed it at the periphery of the clearing beside a sun-hardened earthen berm. Fox routed the linked chains of ammunition into the weapon’s magazine. Kool-Aid gave Pidgin three clips of M-16 rounds and a refresher course in how to throw grenades and reload an M-16. Hard Bones partly straightened out the safeties of two grenades to make them easier to pull, and set them near Pidgin’s position and then He and Fox began preparing the chopper. The blacksmith interrupted their work to present Fox with an extremely well crafted flintlock rifle complete with silver etching. Fox protested but the blacksmith insisted he take it. Hard Bones distributed the steel helmets from the baggage compartment. He placed one on Ai-ling's head and adjusted the strap.
Finally, everything was loaded and ready for takeoff. The crew was inside, again wearing flight helmets. Hard Bones rapidly went through startup procedures. Fox checked his watch.
The blades begin whirling. Pidgin ran up to the cargo door, took off his Buddha amulet and handed it to Kool-Aid. Kool-Aid placed it around his neck then looked about for something to give Pidgin. He took off his .45 pistol, handed it to Pidgin and gave him a black handshake. Ai-ling spoke to Hard Bones through the cockpit door. When he tried to speak to her, she placed her fingers to her lips then to his lips and backed away.
Hard Bones sent the helicopter airborne. Through the chin bubble and windshield and doorway, the three men saw the landing zone very quickly drop away beneath them. Fox noticed the strange look on Hard Bones's face. “What'd she say to you?”
“She said not to worry. She said...’a Taiping woman warrior knows how to die.’”
Kool-Aid removed his Buddha amulet and handed it to Hard Bones. “Pidgin had the old man carve something for me. You read that stuff?”
Hard Bones studied it and handed it back. “It says: 'Oh, go and ask that river flowing to the East, if it can travel farther than a friend's love.'”
Kool-Aid snatched it back, stared at it, and turned to face the door.
The helicopter flew across hills and between valleys, occasionally shuddering. The men on board remained silent.
Kool-Aid looked out the cargo door while Fox nervously checked his watch. Fox had to shout to be heard. “We can't go faster than this we won't make it. You've gotta go over these mountains.”
Hard Bones struggled with the controls. The helicopter started to climb but immediately began to vibrate dangerously. It also began crabbing, a sideways drift.
Hard Bones lowered the collective. The helicopter stopped climbing and the vibrations and drift ceased. “Damn! If I keep this up we'll vibrate to bits. No way I can get over these mountains! We’ll have to fly through the valleys and hope they take us there.”
“I'd hate to miss the victory celebration! Wouldn’t you, Fox?”
“What victory celebration is that?”
“When we win in 'nam!”
“Only victory celebration in 'nam you'll ever attend is the one Charlie invites you to!”
“Hell, get me back there and watch me kick ass!”
For nearly twenty minutes they flew low to the ground, above isolated villages and rice fields and winding streams and hills flecked with dark green firs. As they exited a valley, they saw it. Kool-Aid grinned. “The Star Green Dragon! There she is! OK, let’s piss off that sucker!”
Fox looked at his watch. “We got about five minutes to nine. I’d say it was time to arm, wouldn’t you?”
Hard Bones didn’t respond. Kool-Aid spoke up, unable to hide a tremor in his voice. “Hey, Hard Bones! We gonna make it or not?..Hard Bones, are we gonna make it on time?”
Fox stared at Hard Bones. “What's the matter with you?”
Hard Bones spoke without turning. “I'm not leaving them.”
For a few moments there were only the sounds of the turbine engine and the rotor blades.
Kool-Aid broke the silence. “Say again?”
“I'm not leaving Chinese on a mountaintop to die. Not this time. Not again. After we let the Taiwanese be overrun, I said I wish to God I had a second chance. Then we got fired on; and all the rest happened. And here we are – with a second chance.”
Hard Bones banked the helicopter and the vibrations increased.
Kool-Aid tried hard to maintain his composure. “Hard Bones, we can't help them! We miss this chance, we'll never get back!”
“He's right, Hard Bones. This isn't our...century.”
“I don't give a damn what century we're in, Fox, we still have to live with ourselves.”
“I'm the aircraft commander. I say again, I'm not leaving them. You gentlemen didn't want to be here you shouldn't have signed up for the Ch'ing Dynasty Holiday Excursion Package Tour in the first place!”
Kool-Aid and Fox exchanged glances. It was Kool-Aid who spoke. “Look, Hard Bones, I understand how you feel but think how I feel. People who died last century are alive and well and trying to kill me!”
“I’m not going to debate the point with you, Kool-Aid. But I know some people in 'nam trying to kill you.”
“Yeah, right, but in 'nam I only got Charlie trying to kill me. Here, I got pirates and Manchus and Chinese, and Tigers of War and-”
“And I say we've been given a second chance to do the right thing; and this time I'm not leaving Chinese to die.”
For several seconds, the men remained silent. Finally, Kool-Aid opened an ammunition crate and began preparing his M-60 for action. “Well, if you're dumb enough to challenge a man-o'-war with a busted-up gunship and one machine gun you'll need a door-gunner who knows his black ass from a hole-in-the-ground.”
Kool-Aid shook his head. “What the hell. I can't do any worse in the 19th century than I been doin' in the 20th. Besides, I got a debt to collect on behalf of Wizard.”
Fox remained motionless for several seconds then slowly reached up and pulled down the pantographic sight of the miniguns. “All right, I'm with you. I figure it’s my own damn fault.”
“I violated the rotary-wing aviator’s rule number one: Never fly with anyone crazier than yourself.”
Hard Bones stared at him. “I'm sorry, Fox.”
“Fuck you sorry about?”
“You're married. You got kids.”
“Hell, that's why I'm with you.”
The helicopter flew nose over toward the Taiping camp at top speed.
On the mountainside, fierce fighting raged all the way from the pagoda to the landing zone. The defenders – villagers and Taipings – on the side of the mountain were making a desperate stand against a much greater force. Despite their bravery, the pirates and their allies were slowly fighting their way up the mountain.
The M-60 was surrounded by dead Chinese but once the ammunition was finished, more Chinese swarmed over the gunner. Pidgin (wearing Kool-Aid’s battle helmet) used the last of the grenades Kool-Aid gave him. He was also very accurate with the M-16 but as he reached for another clip he saw that the ammo box was empty. He retrieved a flintlock from a fallen companion, loaded and fired.
Ai-ling and her warriors were making effective use of their bows-and-arrows. Chinese combatants on both sides fought one another with exotic Chinese weapons in hand-to-hand combat on the ground and in the pagoda.
Gathered in the bay at the base of the mountain were dozens of picturesque boats including the “scrambling dragon” and all types of makeshift small Chinese junks, jolly boats, gigs and sampans with sails. These were the landing crafts of the pirates. And more pirates were scrambling out of them to aid in the attack.
Two Tigers of War rushed toward Pidgin. Pidgin picked up a broken rifle and held it as a club. But he knew his death was imminent as they Tigers prepared to hurl their spears him. Suddenly, they froze in place and looked up, petrified by the “whummph,” “whummph,” “WHUMMPH,” of the helicopter as the main rotor blades rose in a cyclic climb above the hill. For several seconds, all action on the ground froze as the combatants looked at the rising helicopter in awe.
Hard Bones quickly surveyed the scene below. “They’re too close to the enemy to use the rockets! Kool-Aid, I’ll make a pass and you show them what you can do with that machine gun of yours.”
“You got it!”
The chopper rolled over and made its pass, zooming down the incline at treetop level. Kool-Aid furiously fired his M-60 machine gun at the pirates nearest the boats.
On the ground, the terrified pirates, Westerners and Chinese alike, threw down their guns and ran toward the bay with Pidgin and his friends firing after them.
Inside the helicopter, Hard Bones could see the action on the ground through the helicopter’s windshield, chin bubble and doors. He began a climb.
Fox spoke over the sounds of a chopper much in need of repair. “If we’re goin’ after the frigate I don’t think we should use much ammo on those boats.”
“We might not have to use any ammo.”
“Remember when Major White took his main Vietnamese squeeze out in his fiberglass sloop at Qui Nhon?”
“Yeah. And somebody came along in a gunship and flared so the chopper’s rotor wash blew the Major and his Vietnamese honey into the South China Sea.”
Kool-Aid gave him a big grin. “You sayin’ that was you?”
“I’m just sayin’ it’s a tactic that’s worth a try.”
Kool-Aid began chuckling to himself. “Man, I never saw a major so mad.”
“Or so wet!” Fox added.
Once over the bar, Hard Bones banked the vibrating helicopter, dead-dropped in place for a few seconds, and then rolled in for a pass flying the helicopter three feet above the water at 140 knots. About two hundred yards from each vessel, the helicopter flared back, tail skimming the water, skids raised karate-style, and sent its rotor wash to fill mainsails, jibs and mizzen sails. One by one, as the helicopter zigzagged forward, each of the small boats was capsized by the rotor wash.
Panic-stricken Chinese pirates and their crews jumped ignominiously into the South China Sea. Hard Bones worked the controls, abruptly dropping the nose down, tail up, buzzing straight over the capsized vessels and streaked off into the distance. He glanced at Fox and smiled. “Now let’s find that fucking boat.”
Greenwood had never felt quite so alive: the minutes before a battle always energized him and made him feel almost immortal. Manchu spies had told him about the “silver dragon” taking off into the air the day before and this morning as well; and now as he walked slowly across the quarterdeck of the ship he felt certain Hard Bones return to fight. He smiled as he looked toward shore. For men like Hard Bones courage was their weakness; bravery their Achilles heel.
He suddenly stopped and listened intently. It was distant but he could hear it: the faint but increasingly loud sound of whump, WHUUMP, WHUUMP! He ran across the deck, readying his weapon while shouting. “It’s the chopper! Get the men to battle stations!”
The pirate chief shouted his orders through his brass speaking trumpet. “Clear the decks for battle! Hands to quarters!”
The boatswains' mates' shrill pipes alerted all hands and the drummer's roll of the drum sent them to battle stations. Throughout the ship, men rushed about, swiftly clearing for action. A man at the bow of the ship on the headrails answering the call of nature hurriedly pulled up his breeches and joined other men scurrying up the ratlines of the shrouds. Men rushed to prepare rows of Congreve rockets set out along port and starboard, bow and stern.
Gun crew captains shouted out their orders: “Clear for action! Cast loose your guns!”
Cannon and swivel guns on the main deck were quickly uncovered and untied. Minie rifles, muskets, flintlocks and cutlasses were rapidly drawn from the arms locker and passed to crew members. Men scrambled up the rigging to man the fighting tops with rifles. Sails and decks were splashed with water to protect against fire.
Hard Bones slowed the chopper and, with great effort, managed to keep it in a perfect hover. Through the windshield, the masts and sails of the frigate appeared in the distance.
Kool-Aid pointed. “Thar she blows!”
Fox shook his head. “That's for spotting whales, you idiot!”
“Oh, ain't you Moby Fucking Dick! Well, I got a dick you can-”
Hard Bones practically shouted. “All right, listen up! we are about to go into battle with a very formidable adversary and if you don't want your collective ass blown all over the South China Sea, then I suggest you start taking this seriously!”
Kool-Aid gave him a mock salute. “Aye aye, Captain, one cannon ball hits this chopper and we're history.”
“You're forgetting we already are history, Kool-Aid.”
Fox turned to Hard Bones. “They want to surrender, they just haul down their flag, right?”
“Yep. They strike their colors.”
“How do we communicate if we want to surrender?”
Hard Bones glanced back at Kool-Aid and then back to Fox. “We kick Kool-Aid out of the helicopter.”
Fox nodded. “Sounds like a plan.”
Below decks, while the powder monkeys rushed gunpowder and shot from the shot lockers up to the cannon crews, men frantically rushed to the gun deck. Chests, casks and tables, whatever might splinter during battle, were rushed to the hold or simply cast overboard.
The activity inside various dimly lit rooms was carried out at a frantic pace: the ship's carpenter quickly set out his tools and materials ready to repair any damage which enemy fire inflicted on rigging or hull; the ship's surgeon laid out his instruments - including saws and "dismembring blades" - ready to deal with the inevitable carnage of battle.
Men working by the glassed-off dim light of spark-proof lanterns carefully removed canvas-covered tubes of gunpowder. An American pirate retrieved a cross from his slop chest, kissed it, and placed it around his neck. Chinese sailors knelt before the shrine of the Goddess of Heaven.
Well-armed sentries guarded the fore and aft hatches preventing men from hiding in the hold during battle.
At the gun deck, all gunport lids were raised. Crews spread sand and salt on the deck to avoid slipping in their own blood. The guns of the port and starboard batteries were hurriedly untied and men hauled on the train-tackles until the thick breech ropes were taut. Each cannon was readied for firing and was then run out with its muzzle pointing through the gunport. The crews then stood by with lit hemp cords on their lint stocks (slow matches) for the order to fire.
Men employed a handspike under the gun carriage to maneuver the cannon left or right toward the helicopter. As the above actions were occurring, each gun crew's captain shouted out the same orders, one after the other. “Load your guns!...Run out your guns!...Prime!...Point your guns!...Full elevation!”
The gun crews elevated the guns to maximum elevation, and the gun captains continued their orders: “Stand to your guns!...Steady...Steady...Make ready!...”
Hard Bones edged the helicopter closer to the frigate. The ship was a magnificent sight, its sails billowing in the breeze and the bows of the ship gracefully rising and falling in the rolling waves.
Its skull-and-bones pirate ensign at the mizzen-peak and colorful pennants at the other masts all flapped about in the breeze as if in defiance. Facing the helicopter were grinning tiers of cannon, 24-pounders on the main deck and 32-pounders on the gun deck.
Beneath the low cloud bank, sea gulls trailed the ship. Occasional whitecaps broke the swell of the pea-green sea. Hard Bones kept pace with the ship as it plowed through the waves at about ten knots. The chopper's altitude was only slightly higher than the height of the mainmast. The helicopter crew was in awe at the sight of the frigate in full sail.
Hard Bones stared as if mesmerized. “My God, it's beautiful!”
Fox stared downward as well. “Yeah, beautiful like a scorpion.”
“They got their rockets positioned at both bow and stern so that however we approach we face either rockets or cannon or both.”
Kool-Aid spoke not without awe in his voice. “Look at their mainmast! It must be over two hundred feet high! How in hell did pirates get hold of something like that?”
“The Manchus bought it from the British to fight the Taipings. Then the pirates grabbed it.”
“Hot damn, Uncle Sam!”
The men on deck rushed to the starboard side to stare at the helicopter. A pirate spat into the sea. “Jesus in heaven, it's the devil!”
The man next to him had few teeth but his sentence was clear. “We'll all be in Davy Jones's Locker before this day is over.”
The captain closely observed his men manning the cannons as the fear of the unknown enemy made them afraid. Some began crossing themselves. Two men quietly deserted their posts and began moving away when they ran into the pirate captain. The captain’s right hand rested on the stock of a pistol in his belt. “Get back to your posts!”
One of them hesitated while the other kept running toward the forwardmost hatch. The pirate captain pulled a pistol from his belt. “Goddamn ye! Stand to your guns!”
The man continued running. The pirate captain aimed the flintlock at him and fired. The back of the man's head was blown away. The other man returned to his post.
The helicopter crew prepared for battle, readying the machine gun, flicking switches, pressing buttons, arming rockets, and positioning the gunsight.
Kool-Aid looked about the chopper. “I always thought I would die in bed.”
Fox smiled at him. “Don’t worry, you will. A riverbed.”
“That's real funny, Fox.”
Hard Bones joined in. “Nothing like facing a cannon ball from a pirate ship in the South China Sea to give a man a new perspective on life.”
“Yeah, Kool-Aid, we lose this one and you get a real colorful obituary,” Fox said.
“No way, man,” Kool-Aid said. “Let's slam-dunk these fuckers!”
Hard Bones grew serious. “Guns ready?”
Hard Bones flew the helicopter several hundred yards beyond the bow of the ship and then turned the helicopter to face it. As the helicopter nosed slowly forward, the frigate plowed through the waves straight toward it. It reminded Fox of two souped-up automobiles facing each other in a narrow alley revving up to play chicken.
Along the rocky shore, Chinese gathered to watch the two combatants in the distance. They stood in expectant silence, shifting their attention between the sinister female figurehead of the frigate and the woman on the helicopter's nose art; from the mainmast and mizzenmast of the ship to the main rotor and tail rotor of the helicopter. And though they could not see all, they knew they were witnessing centuries colliding: from the tattooed forearms of the gunners (with mermaids and sea monsters) to the gloved hands of Hard Bones and Fox; from the ship's compass and binnacle to the helicopter's instrument panel; from the ship's wheel to the chopper's cyclic and collective.
From the pods of the helicopter's rockets to the metallic cases on the Congreve rockets. From the muzzles of the cannon to the muzzles of the six-barrelled mini guns of the helicopter. From the olive green flight helmets to the pirates' black knit stocking caps and tarpaulin hats.
From gunners blowing on the ends of the lit "slow matches," ready to touch their glowing ends to the priming powder to Kool-Aid's finger on his M-60 machine gun. From the silence on deck and creaking of timber and rigging and cries of the sea gulls to the sounds of the turbine engine and rotors of the helicopter. From the Jolly Roger flying in the breeze to the United States Army on the helicopter's tail boom. From the ferocious tiger face painted on the rattan shield of a fallen Chinese tiger of war to the fierce lion face carved into the frigate's starboard cathead to the face of the dragon on the helicopter.
Hard Bones peered at the ship through modern binoculars and on the foredeck a smirking Greenwood stared back through a three-drawer brass telescope of the period. Hard Bones could make out the two sets of ears around his neck.
Greenwood gestured upward and Hard Bones moved the binoculars in that direction. He paused, then handed the binoculars to Fox. “Mainmast! Right at the top.”
Fox moved the binoculars to the top of the mainmast then stopped abruptly. He handed the binoculars to Kool-Aid. Kool-Aid moved them to the top of the mainmast and focused. Just below a colorful banner, he could see Wizard's earless head secured to the mast, bobbing in the wind.
Kool-Aid slowly took the binoculars from his eyes. Mixed with his tears was determination and the need for revenge. “That makes it personal.”
Hard Bones quickly took all weapons off safety. Red lights flashed on. “All right, gentlemen: Going hot!”
Flying just beneath the massive cloud bank, less than two hundred and fifty feet above sea level, the helicopter banked, lowered its nose and flew forward, toward the frigate's starboard bow. A round of missiles were launched at the frigate. They whooshed in around the ship in curved, inaccurate trajectories, churning up water but none hit the ship.
Fox depressed the "deadman" switch and opened up with the chopper's mini guns. Bullet holes appeared in the sails and deck; various spars of the frigate were blown apart into flying scraps of wood. Several bullet holes appeared in the face of the figurehead.
Men in the fighting tops aiming minie rifles at the helicopter fell wounded into the sea. Congreve rockets were fired from the frigate's bow, making a horrible whoosh and scream as they narrowly missed the helicopter.
The pirate captain watched the battle from the main deck of the frigate. “Standby to tack ship!”
As the men carried out their orders, each order was repeated down the line. The men began their frantic tactical maneuver and the ship's bow began its slow passage through the eye of the wind.
Hard Bones followed the progress of the ship’s tacking and pressed the button sending more rockets out. Rockets whizzed about the ship’s main deck to plunge harmlessly into the water, only one tearing away some rigging as it passed.
On the gun deck, the gun crew captains were determined to keep their men too busy to entertain thoughts of fear and flight.
“Discharge cannon on the uproll! Load quick and fire high! Fire as you bear!”
As the cannon were fired, the gunners jumped aside to avoid the cannon's enormous recoil. Guns plunged inboard straining against their tackles. The men beside the cannon held their ears at the enormous explosions of discharging cannon and smoke poured out of the barrels and from the vent holes of the cannon.
On the main deck, congreve rockets roared out toward the helicopter. Men pointed rifles and fired the smaller deck cannon. A rocket from the helicopter passed just over the deck but exploded at the ship's stern destroying sheep pens and hen coops, sending the surviving ducks and geese rushing about the deck mad with fright. Greenwood, clutching his M-16, ran to the starboard shroud of the mainmast, climbed a few of the ratlines, aimed at the chopper and fired.
The pirate captain shouted orders which were passed on in equally loud shouts by his gun captains. “Fire at will!”
Thick smoke swirled about the gun deck greatly hindering anyone from seeing anything. Despite pushing their thumbs into their ears as the cannons were fired, some of the men were soon unable to hear anything in the incredible noise. They were temporarily deafened. As the helicopter's miniguns sprayed the gun deck through the gunports, the men screamed in unbearable agony.
For the men deafened by the noise, the ferocious battle scene was being carried out in eerie silence, but they continued to follow orders and work with the guns, sponging out barrels and reloading, by making and following gestures. In the horror of battle, they could see lips of their Gun Crew Captains issuing orders: “Stop the vent!...Sponge!...Load!...Run out!...Prime!...Point!...Elevate!...Ready...”
Hard Bones watched columns of smoke from the frigate's cannons eddy about her cordage and, immediately after, some cannon balls and rockets splashed in the water below the helicopter and some passed just beside it. Only then did the booming of the cannon reach the ears of the men in the helicopter.
Fox shook his head. “That was close!”
Kool-Aid was getting angry. “Jesus Christ! I'm actually getting shot at by a cannon ball!”
Kool-Aid fired his machine gun at men on the ship as congreve rockets whizzed by the helicopter. One rocket passed right through the cargo area of the helicopter, in one cargo door and out the other. A stunned Kool-Aid stopped in mid-motion.
As cannon blasted and boomed from below, the men on the helicopter watched the approach of a chain-shot style cannonball as it headed right for the cockpit, then passed just over it briefly entangling itself in the main rotor blades before passing on. The helicopter shuddered terribly, then returned to normal. The men stared at one another, each silently understanding how close they had come to death.
As the helicopter flew over the ship, Greenwood fired his M-16 and other crew members fired swivel guns, flintlocks and minie rifles. Bullets pinged and snipped off the helicopter.
Kool-Aid shouted to Fox. “Hear that?”
“My favorite breakfast cereal: snap, crackle and pop!”
As Hard Bones flew low over the frigate's deck, skimming lines and sails, Kool-Aid threw grenades out the cargo door, one after the other. “Bon voyage, motherfucker!”
Hard Bones watched the first two grenades explode on the deck of the ship killing and wounding several of the crew. He suddenly banked to narrowly avoid a Congreve rocket, and the third of Kool-Aid's grenades hit the inner roof of the helicopter and landed near the door. Kool-Aid kicked it out just in time and it exploded very close to the chopper.
Fox shouted at him. “Whose side are you on!”
As the helicopter flew off to make another pass, cannon from the other side of the ship opened fire in a furious discharge, again narrowly missing the Huey. The frigate was rocked by the power of its own broadside. Congreve rockets continued to whiz past the helicopter as it turned, banked and again flew nose down straight at the ship.
“All right, gentlemen, the wheel stops now -- place your bets.”
Hard Bones began skillful maneuvering with his controls -- collective, cyclic, anti-torque rotor. The Huey came to a quick stop, darted backward, sideways, then hovered again, throwing off the aim of anyone on the ship. The chopper then lowered its nose and continued toward the frigate. Fox held the hand grip of his mini gun sight, peering through the sight, firing in short bursts. Suddenly, he began swearing.
“She’s jammed.” Fox pressed the trigger desperately trying to fire them.
Hard Bones let loose with several pair of rockets. Again the rocket trajectory was skewered but this time one passed through the main topgallant sail before landing in the water while another passed by the bow of the ship destroying the figurehead.
Hard Bones yelled to Fox. “I can't hit them this way! I'm goin' in close!”
“That's suicide! You'll place us right in front of their cannon muzzles!”
“Can't help it! The rockets won't fly straight and I've only got two left! I'm goin' in!”
Fox groaned in protest and picked up his flintlock. He cocked the hammer and pushed the barrel out.
The helicopter flew toward the ship, almost at deck level. The last two rockets left the helicopter just as the frigate's cannon flashed in a ferocious broadside.
The men in the helicopter could clearly see the cannon crews watching through their open gunports. As they fired their cannon, the rockets from the helicopter crashed into them, instantly incinerating some while sending a mass of lethal splinters into other men whose screams could be heard on board the helicopter. Gun crew captains shouted orders to load and fire even as their men slipped in the blood of their own wounds. Hard Bones banked just in time to see a man draw a sight on him with a rifle. There was no time to maneuver and he thought he might just be a goner. Then a loose cannon slammed into the man and crushed him to death.
The helicopter rose above the deck of the ship as the cannon balls whizzed a few feet below the cockpit. A cannon ball destroyed one of the skids of the chopper, knocking the helicopter off center until Hard Bones managed to straighten it. Bullets smashed into the helicopter's skin. One of the pirates threw a grappling hook at the helicopter which briefly caught its main rotor blades, then flew off. Fox killed the man with his flintlock. The helicopter began to sound as if it was about to fly apart.
Wounded men were carried down to the "cockpit" where the surgeon operated. Men were held down while their limbs were amputated; their only pain-killer: rum. The bucket of amputated, tattooed limbs was fast overflowing. The lower decks of the ship were filled with men cursing, screaming, praying and dying.
In the gun deck, the overworked gunners sponged out barrels of overheated cannon. The men stripped to the waist, their bodies glistening with sweat and grime and smeared with the blood of those fallen, and their arms and faces were black from the smoke. Dead men were quickly thrown through the portholes into the water.
The ship's carpenters desperately tried to repair holes in the hull with wooden shot plugs and lead sheets. But the destruction caused by the rockets was too great and the ship began taking on water.
Flames raced up the sail hit by the rocket and sparks from its fire caused several small fires below. Men rushed about with wet blankets and buckets of water and sand to deal with the fires.
As Hard Bones tried to keep the vibrating helicopter steady it flew in erratic paths about the ship. Kool-Aid opened up with his machine gun.
Fox shouted to Kool-Aid. “Try to start more fires!”
“Don't you worry, my man, red sails in the sunset is my specialty!”
The machine gun riddled the frigate's masts, yards and sails and cut rigging to pieces and splintered spars. Men fell from rigging and fighting tops. Lines broke loose and whipped through pulley-blocks; bullets rang the ship's bell. On deck amid growing chaos the ships' mates screamed at men trying desperately to replace lines and torn-away sails cracking in the wind.
Suddenly, Greenwood spotted the pirate captain rushing to lower their "colors." Greenwood shouted to him. “Hey! What the hell you think you're doing!”
“My men are being massacred! I'm surrendering the ship!”
Greenwood aimed his M-16 at the captain’s back. “The hell you will.” He fired a long burst sending the captain over the gunwale and into the sea.
As the helicopter made another pass, Greenwood climbed hurriedly aloft to the royal yard, high above the deck of the ship. He walked out along the footrope below a tattered sail and leaned out precariously. He fired his M-16 at the helicopter, adding still more bullet holes to the windshield.
As bullets ricocheted inside the cockpit and cargo area, one grazed Hard Bones's hand; another grazed his leg. Gages were shattered. As thick, acrid smoke poured from an electrical fire in the cockpit, Fox wielded the hand fire extinguisher.
Hard Bones made no attempt to evade the fire and bullets pinged off the chopper and a few passed through the helicopter's windshield. Hard Bones seemed about to pass by, drawing Greenwood to lean out even farther. Greenwood aimed directly at Hard Bones. “Bye bye, you asshole.”
Hard Bones suddenly banked the chopper and dead-dropped several feet. Greenwood belatedly attempted to duck back in. As he grabbed for a line while still aiming at Hard Bones, he accidentally grabbed Wizard's wildly bobbing head.
As Greenwood reacted and let go, he lost his balance and backed too far out. A blade from the main rotor of the chopper cut through the backstays and braces and instantly severed Greenwood's head from its body. His severed head slammed against the chopper's Plexiglas windshield, smashing the windshield to pieces, then continued on downward and into the sea. The body tumbled onto various lines spinning and cart wheeling to the deck.
As Hard Bones turned toward Wizard's head, He remembered Bamboo Jack’s prophesy. A shot from a swivel gun ripped off the Huey's chin bubble beneath Hard Bones's feet. Blood dripped from his hand. Hard Bones pulled hard on the collective and the helicopter roared upward. The red hydraulics light came on. The chopper shuddered dangerously and began spiraling toward the water.
The battle had moved closer to shore and the Chinese watched the helicopter's plunge with cries of anguish. Pidgin jumped into a dinghy and screamed at others to jump in and row.
As the sea rushed toward them, Hard Bones worked the controls and managed to stabilize the helicopter seconds before it would have crashed. He began a dangerously shuddering ascent. The helicopter began vibrating and making an incredible racket.
On the rotor blades and fuselage of the helicopter, bamboo strips and ox-hide leather strips began tearing. Lines from the ship became entangled in the main rotor blades.
Hard Bones gritted his teeth. “Let me make one more pass. That's all I ask. Then I can die happy.”
On the next pass Kool-Aid's machine gun bullets riddled the main deck. The British pirate Hard Bones tied up stood on the quarterdeck, aiming Kool-Aid's M-16 at the helicopter. As he fired, machine gun bullets slammed into his body. He fell to the deck, and burning rigging and spars crashed on top of him.
Flames begin licking up the spars, smoldering along the rigging, and swallowing the yards until, as one by one the masts let go, a flaming mass of wood and cordage hurled itself into the sea with a hissing cloud of steam.
Inside the magazine room of the frigate a seaman ran from flames licking at spilled gunpowder. “Fire in the magazine! Abandon ship!”
Suddenly, with an enormous roar, the frigate exploded. After the bright white flame, a tremendous spiral of smoke gushed skyward. Debris filled the sky. The Jolly Roger pirate ensign blew into the helicopter's tail rotor blades.
Kool-Aid shouted. “We did it!”
Suddenly there was a loud bang. The helicopter began a sudden and fast descent. Hard Bones frantically worked the controls. “We're hit! Must be debris from the explosion! We're going down!”
Fox observed Hard Bones beginning the emergency autorotation sequence. Fox began shouting. “We're too damn low for a controlled autorotation!”
“Who said anything about 'controlled'!”
The force of uprushing air pinwheeled the rotor blades providing an unsteady but controlled decent toward the water, but as it moved forward in its erratic glide, the chopper began spinning.
Hard Bones screamed: “No tail rotor! Prepare for hard landing!”
Kool-Aid shouted: “Flare! Flare! Flare!”
As they neared the ground Hard Bones frantically worked the controls to maintain the forward airspeed and use the stored energy in the rotor system to slow the descent. Just before impact, the craft glided above the water and then slowly settled into it. Hard Bones rolled it to stop the blades, and water immediately rushed in through the cargo doors and into the cockpit. The men unbuckled their seat harnesses and threw themselves out.
They quickly whipped off their flight helmets and swam toward shore. The Chinese were furiously rowing out boats to aid them. The men scrambled into the boats. Pidgin grabbed hold of Kool-Aid and helped haul him in. Kool-Aid grimaced in pain.
“Mastah, you come back! How you dooa?”
“I just had my sorry black ass autorotated by a maniac pilot and you ask, 'How I dooa?'”
“But you come back!”
“Yeah. I missed the food.”
Pidgin, with tears in his eyes, stared at Kool-Aid. Kool-Aid began a black handshake which Pidgin returned perfectly. Kool-Aid then gave him a hug.
They were quickly rowed to shore where they joined the others. Ai-ling walked to Hard Bones, removed her helmet and headscarf and began wiping the blood from his hand. Hard Bones moved his hand to her cheek. She reacted as if to pull back but then allowed him to keep it there until she gently brought it down. For a few moments they watched the hulk of the frigate burn and the helicopter disappear beneath the waves.
Pidgin took off Kool-Aid's steel helmet and placed it on Kool-Aid's head. Ai-ling placed Hard Bones's helmet on his head. The old man removed Fox's helmet and placed it on his head.
Hard Bones glanced at Kool-Aid. He reached up to the band on Kool-Aid's helmet, pulled out the spoon and threw it away. He then gestured to the old man's chopstick holder at his belt. The old man smiled and gave it to Hard Bones who placed the chopsticks in the band where the spoon had been. Other Chinese replaced Fox's spoon and Hard Bones's spoon with chopsticks.
Hard Bones looked them over. “That makes it official.” He whipped out a smart salute. “Gentlemen, welcome to the Ch'ing Dynasty.”
Kool-Aid and Fox returned the salutes. Fox grew thoughtful. “You think anybody will remember us back there?”
Kool-Aid laughed. “Yeah. Major White. He'd like to court-martial our ass for disappearing with his chopper.”
Led by Hard Bones, the group began slowly walking away from the scene. Kool-Aid looked at the women warriors of the Taiping army walking with them. “Hey, Hard Bones, whatever happened to the Taipings, anyway?”
As the group turned to take one last look at the still burning and smoldering wreckage of the frigate hissing in the water, Hard Bones looked up at the sky. The cloud bank was dissolving and patches of light had begun shining through individual clouds, brilliantly backlighting others. “They almost won. Then the British and Americans weighed in on the Manchu side and the Taipings were massacred.”
Kool-Aid breathed in the scent of sweet perfumed shrubs and wild magnolias and smiled at the woman nearest him. “Oh, what the hell. Even Clark Gable went for the losing side in Gone With the Wind.”
Fox laughed. “That's it, Kool-Aid. You can be the Clark Gable of the Ch'ing Dynasty.”
Kool-Aid glanced at one of the attractive women Taiping soldiers who smiled back at him. “Fucking-A right I can!”
Kool-Aid and Fox exchanged smiles. Hard Bones again stared at the cloud formation above them, certainly the most beautiful he’d ever seen. And then he looked at Ai-ling. And he knew he had been right to come back. This time Chinese did not die on a mountaintop.
The aged Vietnam veteran carried his hickory wood cane and slowly hobbled up to the Vietnam Wall Memorial. He bent down with some difficulty, struggling to keep his balance, and reverently placed his flowers against the base. He had lost so many friends in ‘Nam and now his memory was beginning to fail him. “Beginning stages of Dementia,” his doctor had said; no doubt carefully avoiding the word Alzheimer’s. He couldn’t prevent his emotions from overwhelming him and, hiding his actions as best he could, he brushed away his tears. It was bad enough that he had lost friends in ‘Nam; now he was fated to lose his memory of them as well. He realized he was headed for some kind of assisted living facility or nursing home and that this most likely would be his last visit to the Wall.
He steadied himself with his cane as he looked up at the strange formation of clouds that had gathered overhead. A stream of eerie golden light broke through the cloud layer and reflected on the highly polished, fine-grained black granite wall panels. The light splashed against the names of six men listed just to his right. The vet leaned forward, again maintaining his balance with his cane, and ran his fingers over the names. He didn’t know who they were but he knew that the cross beside each name symbolized missing in action or unaccounted for. They had all disappeared in 1968.
He wondered how they had met their fate. Then he said a silent prayer for them; for all the men who had died in the war. And as the light faded, he steadied himself with his cane and moved on.
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Copyright 2006 Dean Barrett