fog had descended with such startling suddenness that several people had stopped
what they were doing and gone outside to stare at it.
Hannibal looked over his shoulder and couldn't see the hooch he'd just
left. As his eyes tracked across
the blankness where it had been, two darker patches in the greyness resolved
themselves into the figures of Face and Ray.
weather isn't it?" Face swiped a hand through the fog.
"How high up d'you reckon it goes?"
enough that the choppers are gonna be coming back on instruments," Ray
predicted. He swept his gaze across
the featureless sky. "Jeez,
I'm glad I'm on the ground today."
they're not due back for another half hour yet. It might have lifted by then." Hannibal said, carefully keeping his tone light.
Confident as he was in Murdock's piloting, he had to agree with Ray--the
thought of flying blind through this smothering murk was enough to put a shiver
down his spine. He patted his pocket for a cigar to dispel the chill and
protested in mock outrage as he found them.
"Hey, my cigars are getting damp.
I'm going back indoors."
was still staring up at the fog and Hannibal slapped him on his shoulder to get
not like we won't hear them when they get back," he pointed out.
nodded and turned back towards the still invisible hooch.
to outside, the normally dingy structure was a haven of light and warmth and
welcome and even B.A. scowling at them from across the room did nothing to
dispel the image.
done getting soaked?"
laughed, knowing what a dishevelled image they must present.
Face's hair was sticking in all directions from the damp and he didn't
imagine he looked much better himself.
we're about done."
that fool supposed to get back?"
smiled at the carefully hidden concern, and B.A. added, "He better not hold
up our leave, tha's all."
went out with the last flight. They
should be back pretty soon. Fog
might hold them up a bit."
snorted. "He crazy enough to
think this weather's fun. I seen
him the last time we had weather like this.
He was talkin' to it!"
laughed. "I remember.
Don't worry B.A. This time tomorrow we'll be in not-so-sunny Cam Ranh
was a little over half an hour, but not so much over that anyone had started to
worry, when the familiar sound of rotor blades broke the damp silence.
discussion, Hannibal, Face, Ray and B.A. all headed outside to watch.
fog had thickened to a penetrating drizzle and the rotorwash from the descending
helicopters whipped it into a spray which drenched anyone standing too close.
Hannibal lowered his head against it and tried to tally up if there were
any ships missing. It was a futile
task. With the helicopters
strung out across the sky and scattered for landing there wasn't enough of a
formation left to easily spot gaps, and the fog turned the Hueys into dim
shadows, impossible to count.
poured out of them and walked, or limped, across the landing area, many of them
supporting or carrying one another. The
ships' crews jumped out and began the post-landing checks on the helicopters,
scrambling around and under and on top of them. Medics milled about in the chaos, trying to identify those
that needed their help.
most of the crowds had dispersed and the people coming from the helicopters were
reduced to a trickle of crew and pilots, Hannibal felt the first stirrings of
worry. He caught the arm of one of
the passing pilots. The man was
almost stumbling with exhaustion and stared at Hannibal with glazed and reddened
eyes. He glanced at the other three
and recognition drifted across his face. He
shook his head miserably.
He was right behind me... And
then he wasn't..."
fog seemed to have penetrated right to Hannibal's stomach, bringing with it a
happened?" he asked.
don't know. I don't know, he was
taller man came up from behind and put his hand on the distraught pilot's
smaller man nodded and wandered off still looking dazed.
Smith? Lieutenant Johnson,"
the remaining man introduced himself. "I
was co-pilot on Owl's ship."
happened to Murdock?"
Johnson sighed. "Honestly, I dunno. Him and Shay took fire bad at the LZ getting the last of the wounded on board, and a couple of their instruments were out. They could still fly though so it weren't a problem 'til we hit the weather. Murdock said it was fine, said he'd just stay real close, keep visual contact."
Johnson shook his head. "Fog like that and no instruments... Hell to that--I'd have put down in the nearest spot I could find and taken my chances with the VC on the ground."
sighed again. "But, jeez, you
know what Howlin' Mad's like--no ways was he not going to fly home.
He was singing 'Summer Holiday' over the radio.
Said he wanted to make sure we knew he was there.
As if the fact we weren't damn near overlapping blades weren't enough of
a clue. Anyhow it seemed fine and
we didn't have far to go. Then we
starting taking fire from the ground. God
knows they couldn't'a seen us from down there, must have just been firing blind
at the noise. Didn't last long, not
really, but when we sorted ourselves out again there was no Murdock."
mean, I don't even know if he got shot down, or just lost in the fog, or what.
We're going to back out an' look soon as this lifts, but I don't--"
He didn't finish. "Look, I got
to go sleep if I'm flying again later."
Shoulders slumped, he turned and headed into the camp.
looked at the other three. Face and
Ray were pale from more than the cold and B.A. looked stricken, fists clenched
tightly at his sides.
isn't going to lift before dark, Hannibal," Ray said after a long silence.
nodded agreement. It was obvious
that any search would have to wait until the following morning.
can look after himself until tomorrow."
He allowed no doubt to enter his voice.
He would not allow himself or his team any doubt that they would find
B.A. suddenly exploded. "I
told him! I warned him!
If he made us miss our leave..."
prediction proved correct and when full dark fell the camp was still shrouded in
the dense fog. The team sat quietly
in the bar. It was better than the
dismal silence in the barracks but not by much. The day's action had not gone well and the place was half
empty. Those that were there seemed
listless and morose, staring into their drinks or out at the fog.
A group of pilots, normally the most raucous group of all, were talking
quietly amongst themselves in worried tones.
Someone had a map out on the table and was sweeping a finger across it,
pointing out some detail to the others, who nodded agreement.
Hannibal spotted Johnson among them and crossed the bar to talk to him.
deference to his rank Johnson stood up from where he was leaning across the
table. Several of the other pilots
moved to do the same. Hannibal
waved them back into their seats.
ease." The group settled back
down but still watched curiously.
want to come out with you tomorrow on the search." Hannibal went straight
to the point. Johnson looked
hesitant, it wasn't exactly standard practice to take passengers along on search
and rescue missions, superior rank or not.
Hannibal had been prepared for that reaction and smiled companionably at
men and I have some leave due and if we choose to take it on a little aerial
tour, that shouldn't be a problem should it?"
No, sir. I shouldn't expect
so." Johnson still looked
bemused but not inclined to argue. Hannibal
see you tomorrow then."
unspoken agreement they all headed to bed early, though Hannibal didn't expect
for a second that any of them would get much sleep. He did try, knowing that tomorrow would be a long day without
extending it further with a sleepless night.
admitted defeat at around 5 am and rose to find Face and Ray already up making
coffee. Any hope that at least one
of them might have got some rest was dashed when B.A. walked in from outside.
gone," he said as he joined them beside the stove.
had much to say as they half-heartedly heated up some breakfast and sipped
was about half an hour later and just starting to get light when there was a
loud banging on the door. Hannibal
got up to open it to Johnson. He
looked mildly surprised to see them already awake but didn't comment on it.
doing the pre-flights now," he said instead. "If you want to grab something to eat 'fore we go you've
probably got time."
glanced over at the others. "We've
already eaten," he said. "Ready
to go when you are."
The rotor noise sounded louder than ever in the early morning quiet and nobody bothered to speak as the helicopter began a zig-zag path overflying their route of the previous day. Hannibal realised he was gripping the edge of his seat, and forced himself to relax.
He looked across at the others. Ray sat silent and motionless, his eyes closed but his body tense. Face was leaning forward in his seat, staring out of the open door. B.A. was stubbornly looking at his feet, refusing to even glance outside and Hannibal suddenly wondered what possible use he thought their coming along could be. There really was nothing they could do more any more than the helicopter crews could. Their mere presence wasn't going to change what they found. He hadn't really thought about it the previous night. It had been an instinctive reaction--one of his men was missing so he was damn well going on the mission to get him back even if only as a passenger.
least they'd know, he told himself. At
least they weren't sitting back at the camp wondering if the search party had
found anything yet. Wondering if he
and the team were sitting drinking their coffee while others were looking at the
burnt out remains of a downed helicopter and a dead crew.
he told himself firmly. You
wouldn't let any of the others wallow like this, so cut it out.
pressed the intercom switch on the headset Johnson had found for him.
close are we to where the attack happened?"
on top of it. If the chopper was
hurt bad, they'd have had to put down near here.
If they got lost..."
other pilot joined the conversation. "Howlin'
Mad may fly crazy but he's not reckless. I
reckon if he got separated he'd have looked for somewhere to land and sit it
out. Probably we'll find them sat
in some clearing fast asleep."
optimism sound forced and Johnson clearly didn't share it.
might have tried to get above it. If--"
broke off to listen to a radio transmission, but he didn't really need to
finish. Everyone on board had spent
enough time in the air to know the risks such a move would have presented.
Last flight of the day meant Murdock would have been low on fuel and with
unreliable instruments and no supplementary oxygen for altitude, any attempt to
climb high enough to escape the fog would most likely have been fatal.
intercom clicked on again.
got a bearing on some disturbed vegetation round what looks like a clearing.
Could be a crash site. We
gonna go check it out."
the helicopter swung round to change course Hannibal tried to keep himself from
running down a list of possible outcomes, but the expression on the others'
faces showed the same mix of hope and apprehension as he was sure was all over
flew over the clearing and Hannibal craned his neck to see out of the door and
down. The helicopter hovered low
over the trees and he could see the branches lashing in the downdraft of their
there's our missin' Huey." Johnson's
voice came over the intercom. "No
sign of movement though. I'm gonna
put us down up the other end of the clearing.
Looks like there's room."
was all Hannibal could do to restrain himself until they landed and to exercise
appropriate caution. It would be
perfectly in keeping for the VC to use the crash site as the basis for both
booby traps and an ambush.
need to do this carefully," he warned aloud. "We're probably not the only ones been looking for our
and efficiently he handed out his orders, all concern about being a helpless
passenger gone. He decided the best
thing would be for the Huey crew to stay put in case they needed a quick
cover our right. Face and Ray on
the left. I'll look the chopper
over for traps."
that was more B.A's speciality but the lack of anyone to greet them had given
Hannibal a dull fear that there was no one left to do so.
Had Murdock been present and able, he would undoubtedly have coming
running at the sound of the rotors. If
anyone was going to have to identify bodies, then as leader of the unit Hannibal
knew it should be him.
approached slowly. The helicopter
was peppered with holes and had obviously landed badly. It sat listing to one side with the right skid twisted and
crumpled beneath it. All four doors
were open and it was obvious even before Hannibal was close enough to search it
that there was no one inside. He
checked cautiously for any little 'gifts' from the VC but there was nothing.
In fact there was very little inside at all.
It had been stripped of weapons and supplies and the radio had been
continued his careful search nevertheless, hoping for some clue as to the
whereabouts of the missing men. They
must have had enemy soldiers in the area or they would never have abandoned the
helicopter. They'd have known as
well as the search teams did that a damn great Huey in the middle of the jungle
was a hell of a lot easier to find than half a dozen men wandering about.
There wasn't enough of a disturbance in the underbrush for there to have
been much of a fight though, which Hannibal hoped meant they'd got away clean.
He was certain Murdock would have tried to leave some sign if they'd been
persistence was rewarded when he slipped his hand beneath the instrument panel
and pulled out a hastily written note, in Murdock's distinctive large, scrawled
to all would-be rescuers, Hannibal
had to smile as he read the first line. Even
if he hadn't recognised Murdock's handwriting the flippant wording of the note
made it clear who the author was. He
we had to duck out early but we had company coming and decided to leave before
we had to be rude and turn down their dinner date.
If you're not Hannibal or B.A or Face or Ray then tell them for me to have fun at the beach and I bet I'll be back before they are.
Hugs and kisses from all of 170.
Hannibal stuffed the note in his pocket and climbed back to
the ground. 170 was the tail number
of Murdock's Huey and the light hearted tone of the note made it clear that
they'd all landed safely. He called
out to the others to return to the chopper.
"Anything?" Face asked as soon as he was close
enough to be heard.
Hannibal handed him the note. "They had ground troops incoming so they decided to head
out on their own. They're heading
back to base. Even got an
ETA." Hannibal reached out to
tap the part about the beach. "We'd
have been due back from leave on Monday."
The ride back to base was quiet, everyone lost in their own
thoughts and not sure whether to be relieved that Murdock and the others were
still alive or depressed by the failure of the search.
All of them realised there was no chance at all of finding them while
they were on foot, and no one bothered to suggest they try.
The loss of one helicopter wasn't nearly enough to disrupt
the routine of the base and as none of the remaining members of the team had to
heart to follow up on their leave without Murdock, they found themselves, for
the second day in a row, idling about the base with nothing in particular to do.
It was noticeable that, in spite of the apparently normal
pace of operations, there was a distinct tension in the atmosphere.
The contents of Murdock's note seemed to have circulated round the entire
base before the search teams had even returned and, while no one was incautious
enough to express either hope or doubt about the missing crew's return, there
were many glances cast towards the perimeter.
Conversations drifted towards discussions of hiking speeds through the
jungle, safe routes between enemy positions, survival tactics.
B.A. tinkered with a jeep which Face had discovered had
somehow 'disappeared' off the inventory a few weeks ago.
Ray talked half-heartedly about taking it into the town to get some real
food to replace the dull rations they'd been eating all week.
Face sat in the back, with his feet dangling over the tail of it,
apparently writing a letter, although at the moment he seemed to be averaging
about one word an hour.
Hannibal watched them, and watched the horizon.
Trying not to hope. Trying
not to doubt. Pushing aside
frustration and worry. Waiting and
wishing he hadnít had to become so practised at the waiting.
The fog had not returned but the sky was overcast and dusk
came early. When the light faded
too much for Face to write by or B.A. to work by, they joined him in simply
staring out into the fading light. Ray
tried to tune in the jeep's radio but found only static and abandoned the
As full dark fell, Face gave an almost imperceptible shake of
his head and turned to go inside. Hannibal
put a hand on his shoulder.
"They're going to make it back, Lieutenant."
No doubt. No hope.
A plain fact. He wouldn't
allow himself to believe anything else.
Face nodded, but it was a token gesture.
He didn't believe it.
A moment later B.A. rose too.
"Gonna take a walk."
Ray jumped up to join him.
"Mind if I come along?"
B.A. shrugged and they headed off.
Hannibal waited until their footsteps faded and the silence
was complete again.
"Come on, Murdock." Almost a prayer, whispered to the empty night.
"Come on home."
Hannibal rolled over restlessly, sat up and reached for his
lighter. Flicking it open, he
peered at his watch by the flickering glow.
1AM. He'd been
asleep barely an hour.
some battles you can't win.
He gave a shrug and stood up, reaching for his clothes.
Outside the air was still.
Even the usual nighttime noises of the base seemed absent.
Hannibal wandered almost without thinking towards the perimeter.
A sergeant patrolling there nearly cleared the wire in a single startled
bound when he came upon him unexpectedly.
saluted hastily. "Sorry,
Hannibal acknowledged the salute. "At ease, sergeant.
Just taking a walk."
The sergeant looked at him oddly but didn't comment other
than to say, "Yes, sir."
For no reason he could name, Hannibal found himself lingering
there. Sitting, looking out into
the jungle as though he could see right through it to find the missing crew.
Almost as the thought crossed his mind, a silhouette appeared a hundred
yards in front of him, skylined for a moment before a second figure lunged at
the first and they both went down in a tangle and crash of breaking vegetation
as a rattle of gunfire from the nervous sergeant further shattered the silence.
"Hold fire!" Hannibal yelled futilely, as the other
perimeter guards opened up in response to the first shots.
He got back to his feet and cupped his hands around his mouth to bellow,
"I said, hold fire!"
Slowly the cacophony died away and in the tense, not-quite
silence he could hear the incongruous sound of someone singing.
"This old man, he played two..." An odd, lilting tune, almost a nursery rhyme. "He played knick-knack on his shoe..."
Slowly, a smile spread across Hannibal's face.
"With a knick-knack-paddy-whack, give a dog a
bone... This old man came rolling
Again Hannibal raised his voice, this time shouting out
towards the unseen singer.
"Captain Murdock! Report!"
The singing stopped abruptly and was replaced by a laconic
"Weelll, this is Howlin' Mad out here, and if you can
keep your gunner, and I can keep my co-pilot from getting each other shot then I
think we might do okay."
Hannibal was grinning in earnest now.
"Stand down," he waved at the perimeter guards.
"Murdock, get yourself back the right side of the wire, will
Again a silhouette appeared before them, taller this time,
and waving vigorously. Slowly,
others joined it and eventually eight men, two of them leaning heavily on the
others, made their way back inside the perimeter.
They were tired and filthy and staggering with fatigue, but no one was
Murdock limped to a halt into front of Hannibal and gave him
a wobbly salute. "All crew and
passengers of 170 present and accounted for, sir."
Hannibal nodded gravely.
"Well done, Captain."
By now the noise had woken half the base as well as drawn the attention of those who had not yet made it to bed. A small crowd was formed and as people slowly realised the cause of the disturbance a racket of cynical, but relieved, catcalls and cheers broke out.
Again, pilot rumour proved to be the fastest thing on base
and Johnson and the others appeared from nowhere and were soon laughing and
slapping the returned men on the shoulders.
"You broke another chopper H. M.?
Jay-zus, what is it with you? You
on commission from Bell, or some'in?"
Swaying from the enthusiastic physical greetings, Murdock
returned a dizzy grin. "Sure,
you should sign up. You'd have made
a million by now."
Johnson's response was drowned out by a bellow from somewhere
near the back of the crowd.
"Git out the way!"
B.A. barrelled his way through the throng, people jumping to
left and right to avoid him.
"You made me miss my leave, fool!"
Murdock spun, wide eyed as B.A. grabbed him in a rough bear
hug that left the already dazed pilot staggering.
"Now Faceman's gonna have to scam us twice as long next
time!" He turned back to where
Face and Ray were hurrying along behind him.
Face dodged around him and slung an arm across Murdock's
shoulders. He grinned broadly.
"Right. No problem. I
mean this poor war-weary crew's gotta deserve a break with their good pals,
Ray laughed, reaching out to grasp Murdock's arm.
"Good to have you back. Told
you the weather wasn't going to hold, didn't I?"
grinned. "Guess next time I'll
take my foghorn along."
Hannibal stood back and watched contentedly as the familiar
banter took over from the first flush of relief. He smiled and reached for his cigars. His team was whole again.
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