A syncopate sequence of thoughts ran through Duque’s head. Memories, opaque or alternatively flashy, emotions, words and sounds emerged in counter rhythm to the coarse reality around him. Fear of death grew as his heart skipped beats and perceptions pulsed on and off. Ulises began to panic.
He came to the realization that his life was in its final moments. The shouts of the marauding troop, Popper’s screaming out orders and a few more blasts from Papio’s M-60 towards the village gate, seemed diffused and distant at times. The landscape around him acquired hues or sounds he had never before distinguished.
As his breathing became heavier and more difficult, Ulises Duque tried to imagine the visage of the sniper who so expertly had put a bullet through his throat and now was letting him suffer cruelly. Blood drop by blood drop. He convinced himself this could only be the brutish military artwork of Quyet Thang, the executioner. It was thus that captain Cardenas constantly described his target: El Verdugo in Spanish. But for Duque, this ruthless persona also seemed to be a war poet. The writings by Thang that Duque had studied, said so.
Upon his arrival at Dan Nang base that Spring of 1967, Cardenas quickly took Duque under his wing as an anthropological researcher and groomed him for the capture mission. He continually briefed Duque about the Viet Cong chieftain and the lethal ideology that constituted the cadre’s motives to become a patriot for the Vietnamese revolution and a headman for the battle.
In the historical documents culled by Cardenas from French war dossiers and recently captured Viet Cong materials, Thang came out as an uncanny warfare strategist since a young age, responsible for planning dozens of mortal ambushes to Marine and US Army infantry patrols during the first years of US troop presence in Nam’s central highlands and it’s nearby coastal towns. Also, as Cardenas personally knew, the guerrilla boss had an unearthly ability to know where to locate key US and South Vietnamese honchos operating in the Quang Tri, Da Nang, Hue, Dak To and southward to Pleiku or even the inner city Sai Gon combat zones. Then Thang and his pack would kidnap them.
Almost every day, Cardenas feverishly poured over the yellowish folios. Duque, who transcribed many of the classified translations from Vietnamese from a rusty portable Lettera typewriter learned that Thang had personally executed most of his prisoners of war. This included –and Cardenas’ faced twichted with spite each time he said it– his uncle Bernard Cardenas, a 25th Infantry top sergeant who was completing his tour in Nam. Bernardo, as the captain called him, was ready to retire after 35 years, a dozen medals for gallantry in combat and three wars stacked into his jungle fatigue pockets. Ulises Duque thereby knew by hard that capturing Quyet Thang and seeing him “severely” punished was not only a scheme to advance Cardenas’ military career, but an obsessive though unexpressed urge for personal revenge.
In Bao Cat, Cardenas expected to find a trail that would lead to Quyet Thang’s definite hideout in the jungle, were it not the hamlet itself. The captain collected deficient reconnaissance images and visual sightings of a large radio antenna sticking out of the jungle foliage behind the hamlet. Also, a pair of reinforced bunkers behind the pigpens supposed an underground heavy weapons cache. The bunkers had a design that only a high echelon Viet Cong political cadre would command. Most significantly, the aerial evidence showed tin roofs over the hamlet’s hooches, most camouflaged by straw pelts. Cardenas’ field intel savvy told him the huts had to be housing a command and commo post of provincial, if not regional control. As he lay bleeding slow bt the Bao Cat gate, Duque could eyeball close up that Cardenas’ intuitions were precise.
During the expedition to Bao Cat, no one in the Tango troop had an inkling of such intelligence. Not even Popper nor the sergeants. Cardenas always kept his playing cards close to chest and far from prying eyes. Duque did have knowlede of such facts. He had carefully categorized the documents by date and constantly retrieved them from the captain’s security pouch during briefings with Peter Amador, the air recon pilot recruited for the mission. Other field intelligence reports and parchments from the old Viet Minh days of the initial Vietnamese insurgency, convinced Cardenas he had finally located a possible Thang hideout, or at the least a true path to it.
Sworn to secrecy as he was, Duque hardly had to tell the Tango troop much about the operation. Clairvoyant as they almost all were, each silently intuited the dangers awaiting them as the unit got closer and closer to the ridge top battle scenario. Tango troop, as it turned out, was another of Cardenas’ classified military intelligence experiments. The captain had put together a small and bizarre expedition force with an uncanny collection of abilities that included infantry, music and psychic faculties, all rolled into one surrealistic phalanx like a robust enchilada.
That early Summer, as the grunts recruited by Cardenas began to coalesce into the Tango platoon, Duque began to realize each soldier brought with him some sort sensing skill, earthly but with a certain paranormal flair.
“I already smell the blood of humans and animals gushing out of that place,” grenadier Jairo Jaramillo told Duque as both took a cigarette break behind an abandoned Buddhist temple in the Pineapple Forest. They were then still 37 klicks away from Bao Cat. Jaramillo’s sharp eyes spotted the outline of the faraway ridge line and restlessly sensed a tragic outcome for troop as if he could see through the heavy mist that in the mornings covered the ancient village sitting on the high, rocky ridge.
“Guerrillas in the mist,” was the way Missouri guy Theodore Thibodeaux, the troop radioman described the hamlet sighting from afar each morning. “Not good. Not good.”
Yet, the platoon moved on, spurred by Cardenas’ ceaseless radio messages from homebase. The Tango team was also prodded by lieutenant Poppers urge for protagonism as a rookie commanding officer. It was to be a covert long range patrol with the possibility of briefly entering Laotian territory, but only if the village paths led elsewhere to other key locations where Thang might be.
All illegal, as everyone new, without the possibility of logistical, air or firepower support from the coastal US friendly bases. Duque also secretly knew Cardenas had no authority for the mission, except the like-mindness support of a Special Forces colonel friend of his operating in a nearby Laotian secret commando base. A warrior, also entranced with Quyet Thang’s sagacity. The man mortician Kikei Santos did a death mask on her gossing able when she and Duque.
Ulises could not tell her so, but the colonel’s death so infuriated Cardenas that despite the weak intel on Quyet Thang’s whereabouts and the ill preparations of the expedition troop, the captain moved the mission forward ahead of time and with a new vengeance boiling in his blood. Revenge with hurried retaliation.
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