Johnny Hendricks had told them to run. He said he’d be okay, that he’d see them back at the chopper that would take them away from this maddening place, even if only for a brief respite. He’d said it all with a smile, so there was no reason to dispute him in the matter, because he’d always been fine, why should this instance be any different?
They came out of the jungle, the eight of them that made up the 172nd. Private first class Reginald Simonson whose spectacles were so thick his fellow soldiers swore he could be their company’s sniper without need of scope if only he could shoot straight. Corporal Sawyer Mikkel, the farm boy, Private 2nd class Royce Callihan who loved cars almost as much as he loved women. Sargent Mckinley Lassiter who was second in command behind Hendricks and still no one under him knew which was actually his first name for sure despite it being on his uniform. Corporal Sellis Brown who preferred carrying radio equipment as supposed to a rifle and who prided himself on having never killed another man with his own hands. Howard and Ronald Beach, the twins, redheads and freckles. And lastly was Gunnar Tate, much like his name was at home most with a gun in his hands at all time and a finger fondling the small seam in the middle of the trigger.
The chopper was ahead of them and was the only noise within earshot. The team felt a sense of ease come over them at the site of it despite it being on the ground and still looking to be nearly a mile away. Royce was the first to stop upon coming out of the jungle. His eyes caught the lush green field before him and for a moment he found himself lost in thought on its beauty and he thought how nice it would be for a picnic here, with a woman of course. He smiled and it was quickly knocked from his face as Sargent Mckinley elbowed him from behind reminding him to keep moving. The shuddering thump of helicopter blades quickly fell back into the steady rhythm of hammering against his ear drums. It just made him run faster.
Sawyer looked back from near the front of their ranks and saw Gunnar bringing up the rear, he’d never been the best at moving quickly. He slowed his pace some until the rest of the unit passed him up and Gunnar was finally able to run with someone.
“You’re making me look bad, farm boy.” Gunnar said through heaving breaths.
“Actually I’m making you look good right now.” Sawyer said with a smile that cracked one on the side of Gunnar’s mouth.
Howard and Ronald were at the front of the pack, and only yards away from the chopper stopped cold, dropped to their knees in near unison without a word to one another and brought their guns to aim at the open entryway to the vehicle. McKinley came up fast and slapped their barrels down towards the ground.
“What in shit are you two doing?!” He yelled over the budding sound behind him now. “Get your asses off your knees and into that chopper unless you feel a need to pray in which case get the fuck over it and get in the goddamned chopper!”
The rest of the unit quickly caught up unsure if they should pull their weapons or not and train them where the twins still had eyes set.
“It ain’t right, Sarge.” Howard said, and quickly followed by Ronald’s “There should be someone at the door, you know?”
“We ain’t got men to spare to keep someone at the door to hold down a welcome mat. It’s War! Now get on that chopper!”
“No sir.” Came Howard’s voice as he pulled his gun up again followed instinctively by Ronald’s.
The rest of the unit even took to their knees at their backs, Royce coming up to the side and pulling his barrel to aim as well. As Gunnar and Sawyer fell in line and came in low to kneel beside the other men it was Reginald that finally spoke up, squinting his eyes and adjusting his spectacles. When he spoke Sargent McKinley had already balled up his fist to strike Howard for his insubordination.
“Sarge! Bullet holes, front section, pilots down, pilots down!” Reginald shouted pulling up his gun to aim.
Snapped out of the moment, McKinley took out his pistol, its what he felt best with in his hand as he took to his knee and fell in line with the rest of the men.
“Good eyes, Reginald!” He said before making a circular motion with his hand and finger pointing up towards the sky. “Do the boys in blue proud back home now, make us a nice round donut!”
The men followed the order, rounding out their number so that each trained gun fell around the circle to cover the wide land that was all around them. When McKinley ordered them to move out, they moved in unison, some backwards, some sideways, and the rest forwards slowly as they made their way carefully ducked low towards the empty helicopter.
Only about twelve feet away and the first shot was fired. Howard saw a face appear from the other side of the chopper, just between the grass and the opening and saw it downed in only a moment.
Gunnar was next to fire, a wide spray as he saw a number of spots in the high grass move in a way he knew wasn’t the wind. The rest of them began to open fire as well moments later as they kept pressing forward to the helicopter.
“Keep Straight! Eyes on Targets! Mow them down!” McKinley shouted out.
It only took seconds to get to the entrance of the helicopter’s wide opening but they’d already taken out well over a dozen men that had appeared from the tall grasses, and still more came. McKinley shouted orders quickly as he took up position by the entrance, breaking the circle as he took a grenade from his belt, pulled the pin and let it fly. Then another and still another as he barked orders between explosions.
“Ronald, Howard, get in! Take the guns, clear it for us!”
They followed swiftly and bound up into the chopper, taking hold of the mounted guns at the sides and quickly pulling the triggers as they let small bolts of superheated metal fly out into the fields where they could see small movements still edging ever closer to their position. They kept their fingers on the triggers until the rest of the men were onboard and finally Sargent McKinley shuffled to the front and took the controls after putting the dead soldier in the seat to the ground.
“You know how to fly Sarge?” Royce asked.
“I know a couple things. We’ll get off the ground, make sure you boys keep us up there.” He said toggling a couple of switches as the force of the blades grew, flattening the grass in a neat circle around the chopper, exposing bodies already fallen to the ground and others that would soon join them as the mounted guns continued to throw glowing metal out towards the ground.
As the chopper took off from the ground, the gunfire began to settle. Ronald and Howard loosed a few more salvos for good measure seeing the many little dark splotches that were littering the field they’d just escaped from.
“What about Hendricks?” Royce called to McKinley trying to yell over the sound of the propellers.
McKinley didn’t answer, his eyes kept forward.
“What about Hendricks?!” Royce said again this time grabbing the bit of uniform he could by McKinley’s shoulder which caused a jerk with the controls of the chopper.
McKinley shook Royce’s hold on him off and straightened out the level. “You crazy son of a bitch, I’m barely able to fly this thing! You trying to kill us all?!”
“I’m trying to find out how we’re going to get Hendricks? No man left behind. Remember, Sarge?”
McKinley didn’t respond.
“Sarge!” Royce shouted.
“I heard you, Private! There’s nothing we can do. He’s gone.”
“No he ain’t! The Lieutenant has gotten through worse, without a scratch, we have to go back and get him! He’ll be dog food if he comes out into that field!”
“He’s already dog food! They were waiting for us! And we were already pulling back so that we didn’t get surrounded, but we already were! We were dead and we still survived! Don’t you see that?!”
“What I see is we’re leaving our commander behind, with tails between our legs!”
“You Goddamned idiot! We go back there and circle around looking for another man then they’ll know he’s there for sure and won’t stop until they’ve combed every inch of jungle until they found him and anyone else still in that hell! So you want to go back? Get us all killed in the process? There’s a chute in the back somewhere, find it and drop!”
Royce’s eyes were red and his lips were ready to unload words that even he wasn’t ready for, but a hand met his shoulder and he turned to the rest of the men. Both Ronald and Howard had wounds, Ronald his shoulder, Howard his right leg. Gunnar had one through his side, nothing that would kill him unless they waited too long to get him treated, but it wasn’t helping his breathing at all.
“That’s enough, Royce.” Callihan said. “We lucky we got out at all. All of us. Sarge is right. We go back, we’re killing the Lieutenant for sure.”
“I know that, but this isn’t what we do! We don’t just leave a man behind!”
“We aren’t.” McKinley said. “We’re saving his Goddamned life if he’s still alive! Which, if we’re lucky and I can land this thing, we’ll all get through this the same.”
Royce closed his mouth and turned to stare out the front cockpit and didn’t say a word the rest of the trip. When they arrived back at base, McKinley was able to radio in and get instructions on landing appropriately. They’d all been silent the rest of the trip back, but before they began to load out, McKinley looked back, and said, “Soldiers. We’ll go back, with more men. We’ll find him. Because like shit I want to command you sorry sons of bitches. Get healed. Get rest. I’ll talk to my superiors and see to it we’re on the first chopper back out there. You understand?”
Hardened eyes met his, but not a word was spoken. Those that were wounded were taken quickly to the medical tent and tended to. The rest of the men went for showers, for a smoke, or just to sit in the quiet shade for a moment. McKinley went off to the command tent to report of the loss of their commanding officer and the men in the chopper and the bravery of the men he was entrusted with. His request to go back in the morning was denied. Their reason being that they would not jeopardize platoons of men for one man when they needed every man they had to win the war. He argued with them for nearly an hour as men sat around updating maps with enemy field movement based on his report and concluded that the area that McKinley and his men had barely escaped from was not occupied fully by the enemy. Instead another section of land was picked to be the next entry point, one that was nearly fifteen miles away, and they wouldn’t be going anywhere near where they’d left the Lieutenant. Their final say on the matter was that he was missing in action, and they would list him as such. When McKinley left the tent it was with a commendation for getting his men out of the situation alive, but he felt no joy or pride in it. Instead his eyes fixed on the setting sun and the distant jungles.
In those trees he could only see his own failure. This place, this war, all of it seemed like a worthy fight when he’d first arrived. But now he’d watched friends die, comrades, and commanding officers. Some right before his eyes, and that, he told himself, he could live with. Because he was there, because they were all fighting together and were simply overwhelmed, or there were just lucky bullets out there finding their targets. This, though, this was already haunting him. While he saw the dead and dying faces of those he’d watched die many times in his dreams, it was nothing compared to the feeling that one was still out there, dead or alive, and he simply wouldn’t know. And that would haunt him more than any gruesome image he could recall.
That night he decided he’d go back, even if he had to walk the entire way there himself. He knew it meant defying orders. And knew it would cost him his rank, and possibly his life, but he no longer gave a damn.