“Medic. we need the medic for Duque,” yelled lieutenant Popper at the top of his voice.
Thick sweat ran down the officer’s face and over the blondish eyebrows as he finally reached the village plateau above the jungle gorge that so lushly camouflaged Bao Cat from the world outside. He made a few attempts to approach the dying Duque, but sniper bullets held him back behind the boulders.
“Rawlings, get up here, man,” he hollered loud, calling for the troop combat medic. “And, Thibo get the radio up here, too. Up. Up, damnit!”.
Shielded by the huge rocks, Popper with only hand signals divided the platoon into two sections to flank the hamlet on the north and south boundaries of the mesa. It was not clear at that moment if the lieutenant maneuvered the troop for a defensive action or a counterattack.
The officer’s screams –noted Duque– broke the silent voice order that earlier in the day allowed the impromptu assault troop to creep up the ridge to the isolated commune. No one knew what they would find there, all hoping it were merely rustic peasants shying away from civil war and Saigon’s political follies. Or they may encounter a tiger. Perhaps bamboo vipers, beehives, the stinger of a scorpion under the dry rocks by the stream. Anything but a hail of bullets.
Duque made an effort to talk to Popper, whom he spotted some fifty feet feet away by the rocks, as the officer dodged ricocheting bullets aimed at his head. Ulises tried to articulate words by shrinking his diaphragm muscle, moved his tongue, then lips to let out a voice.
“Don’t bring Rawlings to me. He’ll be shot,” Ulises barely vocalized in a hoarse, blood drenched utterance that only he could hear. An abrupt desperation set in, not so much of difficulty in breathing, but of Duque having no sense of control to his situation.
Damn, he gathered. How in a single instant, one half-inch slug of cheap lead can alter an entire lifetime.” Time was fast shrinking in Duque’s mind. Days became seconds, weeks moments and years a quick memory.
He conjured how a week before, captain Cardenas sent out the platoon-size combat operation to “poke around” the environs of Bao Cat. It was to be a recon patrol with only light rifle armament. The Tango platoon was to snoop around a while, Duque would take pictures, the buck sergeant map out the place and soon all head back to a clearing in the valley below for a chopper pickup a day or two later. Clean, swift and neat field intelligence as was Cardenas’ operational trademark. Orders were to avoid any clash with the Viet Cong.
“Move. move Rawlings! Duque’s gonna die on us,” Popper came with another high pitch holler. Consequently, another bullet whizzed by his steel pot, missing him by inches.
Although not an infantry officer, lieutenant Popper volunteered to lead the expedition but only if given proper offensive weapons in case of an ambush. His insight proved right. The trek to and up the Annamite cliffs had taken six days through lush forest and unfriendly terrain. The uphill stone path seemed to be alive and menacing ever since the troop set their boots on the ancient trail. Many of the grunts, Duque noted, bore an uneasy stares all over their eyes.
“It’s fate calling. I get the feeling I’ve been here before,” Duque recalled that Mimas Bolanos, told him as they gazed up hard at the rocky climb. The Cuban santero warrior always seemed to sense things that would later happen to the ragbag troop.
“Fate my eye,” interspersed platoon clown Raymond Galán. “This is one big ugly mistake. You know… Us being here in such a small unit. Big time deja boo-boo to me.”
Specialist Four Galán had been in country ten months and was going to take early departure from Nam when Cardenas recruited him for the Papa, Whiskey, Tango mission. He recaptured Galán by promising another stripe. A month away from ending his tour, the jester grunt took the gamble.
En route, the platoon met with two brief ambushes, a prelude to what awaited them at Bao Cat. Popper had sent a distress situation report back to base camp via radio two days ago. Duque heard him explain how the terrain they entered was not a pacified war zone as described by the military intel of the day. Three times the lieutenant told Cardenas via RTO that the encounters along the way were getting heavier. Popper requested a recall to base and a redesign of the mission as a helicopter assault. The entire troop heard on the radio’s telephone voice box how Cardenas replied angrily and with a quirky analogy.
“Dammit, lieutenant. Do you think Hernán Cortés would’ve turned back when he met the first Aztec attackers out of Veracruz.”
Popper seemed perplexed but Duque quickly deciphered the statement.
“The captain wants us to go on, sir,” Duque translated to Popper. The lieutenant figured it was code conversation and acquiesced.
Duque and sergeant Chuco Tabal knew better. It was not talk code. The captain was a fanatical student of the conquest of Mexico. He did a master’s thesis at the US Army War College on how Cortés cunningly used primitive field intelligence to conquer the Aztec Empire. Finding a willing ear for such spiel, Cardenas conversed frequently with Duque about the historical aspects of the Cortés expedition. Tabal, although born in New Mexico, had a strong Mayan ancestry, both in lineage and features –short, stocky, oblique eyes and spiny, raven black hair to the brow. In Cardenas’ fired up imagination about the Spanish Conquest, Tabal became in Viet Nam an emulation of one of Cortez’s indigenous scouts. In all truth, the staff sergeant, now in his second tour in Nam, was an expert trailblazer and for Duque, a damn good marimba player.
It was amidst such musings that Ulises Duque thought back about the day of his arrival in Vietnam, age 26, one of the oldest of the crowd at the Da Nang Deployment Station. A rookie, a tenderfoot warrior in a war stage teeming with an Middle America adolescent militia, untimely aged by battlefield brutality, all commanded by Korean or World War II veterans with crimped bodies revitalized by addictive combat zone adrenaline.
Soon, faint shouts of village dwellers began to stir inside Bao Cat. Duque instinctively searched for his M-16 and realized he was laying heavily and motionless atop of his field weapon. Talking about combat inexperience, Duque cursed inside his mind.
Next, he sensed a prompt guerrilla break out from the entrails of the hamlet. A vexed guerrilla tiger team coming towards him for the kill.
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