Then, a while later, there was a series of explosions off to the north and east. Tuppence woke up almost at once and looked at me. “Bombs,” I said.
“What the hell is that all about?”
“ U.S. bombers striking at strategic targets in the north,” I intoned. “Scratch a few more dugout canoes, I guess.”
“What happens if they drop bombs on us?”
“What do you suppose happens?”
“Uh-huh,” she said.
“A few months ago I signed a petition calling for a halt to the bombing in North Vietnam.”
“They should have listened to you, baby.”
“They didn’t. Go back to sleep.”
She yawned. “I can’t.” She crawled over to me. “Poor Evan,” she said softly. “I got you in one sweet mess, didn’t I?”
She touched my face. Her hand was cool in the heat of the jungle. “You and Dhang could make out okay if I weren’t around,” she said. “You could hook up with those soldiers. The way you look now, no hair and that yellowy skin, you could pass.”
“Not without knowing the language.”
“You could fake it. But I’m afraid I’m just the wrong color.”
“You’re also the wrong shape. But I wouldn’t have you any other way.”
She kissed me. I took her in my arms, and she cuddled up against me. She had been through one hell of a lot without breaking down, and I wondered how much more she could take. It would be a long time before things got easier, if they did at all. She was tough, hard, resilient, but everyone has a breaking point.
“Maybe we can find something to lighten your skin,” I said. “Some native plants or something. Dhang might know.”
“If you do, just take the formula back to Harlem. You’ll make a bloody fortune.”
She laughed softly. The bombs cracked again in the distance, but not so far in the distance as before. I tightened my arms around her and kissed her, and the noise of the bombing sounded a little less ominous.
And then, slowly, gently, both of us slightly embarrassed but driven past embarrassment by mutual need, we removed our clothes and found one another. She clutched me desperately, making urgent little sounds in the back of her throat. Her fingers stroked my bald head, moved down over my back. I kissed the richness of her dark brown breasts and stroked the black velvet skin on the insides of her thighs. She purred like a kitten and moaned like a freight train and sighed like a hiss of steam.
Until we had proved in the only truly effective way that we were both still alive. And, lying gently together, basking in the hazy yellow glow of life affirmed, once again becoming gradually aware of the bombs in the distance and the spiky jungle grass under our naked flesh, we opened our tired eyes and looked into the tormented eyes of Dhang.
“Oh,” Tuppence said.
Dhang turned away. Tuppence fumbled her way into her clothes. I put on my trousers and my tunic. Tuppence struggled to keep from laughing, and Dhang fought back tears.
And just when he had finally gotten his mind off sex, I thought. It hardly seemed fair.
Dhang was the first to hear them. He whirled sharply about, his hand cupped to his ear. I didn’t hear anything. He dropped to the ground and pressed his ear against the trampled earth. It was the first time I had ever actually seen anyone with his ear to the ground. Any moment now, I thought, he would put his shoulder to the wheel and his nose to the grindstone.
I too dropped to the ground and pressed my ear against it. I could hear it then, the thud of vibrations. “Sounds like a mechanized column,” I said. “We’d better get out of the way.”
A few miles back our little trail had merged with a much wider path that also was heading southward. This new route was far more open, with patches of sky visible overhead. I hadn’t been too enthusiastic over it at first. True, it proved we were on the right track, but new hazards presented themselves. It stood to reason that the route would see heavy North Vietnamese traffic, which meant we would have to be very careful if we wanted to remain undetected. Still more to the point, we were open to observation by U.S. planes and helicopters. The fact that they were on our side didn’t do a hell of a lot of good unless they happened to realize it. It was bad enough in World War II, when American marines got shot up with hunks of the Sixth Avenue El. But at least those bullets were fired by the Japanese. It was even worse to get annihilated by one’s own air force.
We were well hidden in the brush long before the advancing column came into sight. I rested the two sacks of jewels on the ground. A king’s ransom, I thought, and much good they were doing us. They were an extraordinary collection; I had finally let avarice triumph over nonchalance a day earlier and had had a good look at them. Most were cut gems, diamonds and rubies and a preponderance of exceptional emeralds, along with a variety of stones I couldn’t recognize. Many of them had started the trip in gleaming gold settings, but for expedience’ sake the original thieves had pried them free and stowed them away in individual leather pouches. No doubt the gold had long since been melted down and disseminated through the Bangkok black market. It would have been enough to finance the operation for the Pathet Lao, and everything left over was gravy.
There were also some jade carvings, and I knew enough about jade to realize that they were exceptional. So we were toting a fortune, and it did us no more good than paper money or gold, neither of which would have been of any use. I would have traded the lot for a gun or a machete or a flashlight, anything that would have helped us cope with the jungle.
A horned beetle crawled from my foot to my leg. I flicked him away with my forefingers. Tuppence and Dhang crouched in silence on either side of me. The column of North Vietnamese was drawing close now. A trio of jeeps were in the lead, followed by a brace of motorized antiaircraft guns, a convoy of troop carriers, and, in the rear, four lumbering tanks.
And then, from the south, we heard the cheering sound of American air power.
Tuppence glanced at me, eyes wide with alarm, and I nodded. She pursed her lips and whistled soundlessly. Fly away, fellows, I urged them silently. Fly like birds. Don’t be heroes today. Go bomb Hanoi or something. But don’t drop anything around here.
They didn’t listen to me.
Just a few yards from us the North Vietnamese braced themselves for action. The column ground to a halt, and the antiaircraft guns readied themselves for the encounter. The troop carriers peeled back their canvas tops and dozens of foot soldiers spilled out, rifles in hand. They scattered in the brush. We waited for them to stumble upon us, but almost all of them chose the other side of the road, and the ones who came over to our side were concentrated to the north of us.
The planes droned overhead. The tanks – Russian T-34’s, the same sort I had seen in Korea – pointed their massive guns at the sky. Keep going, I urged the planes. Knock out the oil depots in Haiphong. Do anything, but go away.
In perfect formation the U.S. aircraft peeled off and dived for the trail. A pair of jet fighters led the way, flying directly into the stream of flak, peppering the trail with machine-gun shells. Behind them fighter bombers laid their eggs.
It was just what I thought it would be. Napalm.
The jungle burst into flame. “Fall back,” I told Tuppence and Dhang. “Don’t even worry about the soldiers. They couldn’t care less right now. Just get the hell out of the way of that fire.”
We scattered like field mice in a burning barn. More planes passed over the trail, and from the heart of the napalm fire came the report of high-impact shells. Now and then the antiaircraft fire found its mark. One of the fighter-bombers took a blast in its middle and broke in half. A fighter evidently caught some flak in the cockpit, went out of control, and spiraled insanely off to the north, crashing and bursting at once into flame.
But the planes were giving better than they got. Three of the T-34’s were out of action in no time at all, two taking direct hits, the third getting the backlash of the bomb that landed square atop the troop carrier in front of it. The ground troops screamed and died in the fire that raged around them.
We missed most of what happened, running crazily through the brush. We outran the napalm, then sprawled at last in a tangle of vines. And lay there, deafened by the sounds of battle, hearts shaken by the combined effect of exertion and panic, until the last burst of ground fire was still and the last plane flew south.
We had hated the jungle. Slogging through it, through the mud and the snakes and the insects and the treacherous vines, we had personified it and cursed it as an enemy. Now we crept toward the ruined army column and looked upon the alternative to the jungle. Acres of plant growth had been burned out of existence. What had been green was burned black, with little vestigial fires still raging at the perimeter. The air was filled with the scent of burning vegetation and the more pungent stench of roasted flesh. The wounded shrieked in agony or moaned in the throes of death. The dead were mercifully silent.
Those Vietnamese who remained unimpaired were unequal to the task of coping with the situation. We watched them from the sidelines, less afraid now of discovery. I scanned the row of ruined jeeps and antiaircraft guns and troop carriers and tanks.
“That’s it,” I said.
“Our passport. They got three of them, but one’s still operable. All we have to do is get into it and roll.”
Tuppence looked at me as though I had gone over the edge. “You rest a minute,” she said. “The fever-”
“No fever. I’m talking about the tank.”
I pointed. “The T-thirty-four,” I said. “The tank. That’s our out. It doesn’t matter what color you are inside one of those. We’ll all be invisible. We can cut right through North Vietnam and across the demilitarized zone without anyone wondering who we are.”
“How do we get one?”
“Change places with the clowns inside it.”
“Suppose they don’t go for the idea?”
“They’re probably dead,” I said. “They probably got cooked. If they don’t come crawling out in the next few minutes, we can count on it. The napalm generates a hell of a lot of heat. But that last tank never took a direct hit, and the machinery should be all right. Sooner or later it ought to cool off. By that time the rest of the column should be long gone.”
“Have you ever driven one of those things?”
“I never paddled a dugout, either. Maybe I can figure it out.”
“You really think so?”
“Do you want to walk the rest of the way?”
“Then it’s worth a try.”
We waited on the sidelines while the uninjured soldiers and walking wounded rounded up as many of their wounded fellows as they could and made their way back north again. The air attack had been a fairly comprehensive success. What had begun as a motorized column left on foot, with all of their vehicles abandoned. Almost everything had been destroyed, and it was only barely possible that the one undamaged tank was still functional. But it seemed like a good gamble.
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