Ban Me Thuot
by William T. Hathaway
two American advisors and their Vietnamese and Montagnard
paratroopers marched up the metal ramp into the back of
a C-130. As Spec.-4 O'Keefe took a sling seat against
the fuselage, he wished the plane had windows. From deep
under ginger brows his blue eyes probed the aluminum interior.
The door closed, muting the howl of engines. Sealed in
with the smell of nervous sweat, O'Keefe wanted to flee.
squirmed around, trying to get comfortable, but was too
laden with his parachute, medical kit, and the M-16 strapped
to his upper leg. Some of the men clutched their hands
and breathed in gasps; others, including O'Keefe, leaned
back and glanced around, feigning nonchalance. After all,
it was his second patrol.
flew for half an hour into the Central Highlands. Across
the plane, Special Forces Sergeant Traver slumped in his
seat, vein-lined hands clasped over the rucksack strapped
to his midsection, head bowed. O'Keefe assumed he was
praying until he heard snores purling from his open mouth.
Mr. Cool, O'Keefe thought and tipped his fingers in salute
at the older man's nodding form.
a boy, he had tied handkerchiefs to toy soldiers and hurled
them into the air. Usually they fell streaming back to
earth, but sometimes the cloth popped open and the metal
man came floating down, ready to fight. In those backyard
battles, the general, three inches tall with four stars,
was always his father. His father's real rank, though,
had been Pfc., lower than O'Keefe's now. They had fought
together from Guadalcanal to Okinawa, and they always
won. But when his mother ended the war with a call to
dinner, the general stayed in the field with his troops.
the jumpmaster slid open the door to a roar of wind and
motors, O'Keefe's chest clenched. "Stand up,"
the jumpmaster shouted. The men rose automatically.
up." O'Keefe's group snapped their static lines to
the anchor cable.
in the door." Wind rippled the jumpmaster's face
to a rubber mask.
Pressed tightly in line, O'Keefe was carried forward by
momentum. The man in front of him disappeared. Reaching
the door, heart jackhammering, he saw a flowing jungle
and a silver snake of river. The man ahead was now falling
and spinning in prop wash while the previous man's chute
burst into a green dome. On down, away and smaller, drifting
canopies dotted the sky.
leaped. The torrent snapped him around, shook him limp,
and threw him away, rolling and tumbling. A tug at his
shoulders shut off the blast, and he swung through quiet
men dangled in the air nearby. Above and far away, the
plane spilled more paratroopers. Below him, nubbly treetops
of rain forest spread over jagged hills into valleys gray
with mist. In the center stretched a wide clearing.
chute drifting under O'Keefe erased the earth. He pulled
on his risers to slip to the side, but was falling too
fast. His boots sank into the taut canopy until he stood
in the sky, his own chute collapsing above him. Imagining
himself plunging to the ground, O'Keefe bounded across
the bulbous nylon and dived free, fell for a swooping
moment, then hung upright from his shoulders again. As
he glided by, he met his Vietnamese neighbor's shout of
alarm with a shrug of apology.
clearing seemed to expand as it approached, and the horizon
rose above him as if he were falling into a bowl. His
stomach sank. The elephant grass met his boots, and he
rolled onto the welcoming hardness of the earth.
handkerchief had held.
the field, amber-skinned Vietnamese and sienna Montagnards
were bundling their chutes for the helicopter that would
haul the equipment away later. Everyone could have ridden
in on choppers, but jumping in was considered good for
the only other American, smeared a camouflage stick over
his high cheekbones to conceal his light skin. He handed
the stick to O'Keefe, saying, "Cover up, pale face.
We gotta blend in." O'Keefe rubbed the dark crayon
on his cheeks, but his pimples still showed through.
straggled in from the far reaches of the clearing, and
the ninety-man strike force gathered in ragged formation.
Their commander, Lieutenant Vanh, led them in singing
the South Vietnamese national anthem, and they marched
into the forest.
leaves dripped with moisture, though there had been no
rain. Clusters of tiny lavender orchids clung to the branches.
Emerald butterflies glided on currents musky with fumes
of fertile decay. O'Keefe heard the rustle and chatter
of birds and monkeys fleeing but couldn't see them through
the shadowed screens of foliage. The trail climbed steadily,
and tree trunks stretched out of sight into the jungle
walked leaning forward, leading with his chest. His mouth
was clamped shut, lips disappeared into a straining grimace.
Beneath his mottled green shirt he felt the sway of two
sets of dog tags, his and his father's.
front of him their radio covered the back of a short Montagnard,
and its antenna waggled above. Traver strode ahead, breathing
heavily through his mouth, face taut and angular, blue-green
eyes scanning around. His lean body was bent under his
rucksack. To shift the weight, he hoisted his Swedish
K rifle across both shoulders and walked with his arms
hooked over it.
Vanh hiked without a pack; a stocky Montagnard carried
his equipment. The slender Vietnamese officer moved with
a grace that made O'Keefe uncomfortable but that he couldn't
help watching. His oval face held a symmetry of tapering
eyes, small nose, and pursed lips. Vanh's long, thin fingers
wore several rings and held a folding-stock carbine.
afternoon, sweat, grease, dirt, and camo wax were blending
into green gravy on O'Keefe's skin. His legs had slipped
into low gear and his mind into a nod. Dad and him...in
Burma...behind the lines on a raid...had to blow a rail
bridge. Soon they'd be going home...to mom, back together.
dad stayed there...shot in the throat on Okinawa a month
before the A-bombs ended it. Now just a white cross. Traver
had fought in Korea...about the age O'Keefe was now.
wire!" Traver's West Virginia twang broke the spec.-4's
reverie. His spread arms blocked the trail. The sergeant
gestured the radio carrier to back up and pointed at a
wire running above their heads to the straightened pin
of a grenade lashed to a tree. "This is how they
zap the command group. Antenna hits that, pulls out the
pin...that's all she wrote for the next guy—you."
O'Keefe said through the crimp in his camouflage-smeared
with the wire aren't that hard to spot. But sometimes
they get that clear fishing line. You can kiss your ass
good-bye." The skin around Traver's aqua eyes was
creased from squinting. The edges of his front teeth,
crooked and yellowish, chafed back and forth against one
sergeant bent back the pin, untied the grenade, and gave
it to Lieutenant Vanh, who accepted it with a forced smile.
O'Keefe wished he'd given it to him—it was a World
War Two pineapple.
dusk the company stopped on high ground to make camp.
O'Keefe dropped his pack and dropped himself beside it,
too tired to do anything but pant and stare at the ocean
of hills they had crossed. He tried to stretch back to
shook his head in mock disdain and kicked some dirt at
him. "Get up on your feet and jog around a little.
We gotta set a good example for the troops. You don't
see me layin' down, do you?" The sergeant limbered
his arms while he paced.
tarnished O'Keefe's smile as he struggled to his elbows
and looked up into Traver's sinewy face. "Look at
it this way, Sarge—you've had twenty more years
to get in shape than I have."
blew a breath of scorn. "Lucky for you we're just
fighting the sorry-ass VC. You'd been in Korea, those
Red Chinese would've scarfed you up a long time ago."
mean you wouldn't run 'em off?"
run, all right. You wouldn't be able to keep up with me."
Traver prodded him with his boot.
ate their rice and dried shrimp with Lieutenant Vanh,
who gave them stalks of wild sugar cane the troops had
cut. As they chewed the sweet fibers, Traver asked the
standard question: "What are you going to do after
the war, Lieutenant?"
clipped off a laugh. "That depends who wins."
White teeth sank into his dark lower lip. "We win,
I go back teach school. VC win...I go underground. Probably
six feet. You, Sergeant?"
wrinkled half-smile showed a new regard for Vanh. "If
I can't find another war...I'll go fishing."
chuckled. "Very good. I hope you catch many."
plotted the route of tomorrow's march, then Vanh checked
the guards on the perimeter. O'Keefe and Traver lay back
on a granite slab overlooking the Annamite range and watched
the hills they'd climbed merge into blue shadows as evening
cooled the land. The rock still held the day's heat, easing
their pulpy muscles.
groaned with relief. "First day's always the hardest."
He pushed his camo hat back onto his graying brown hair
and looked at O'Keefe. "You hung in there real good
today. Getting to be a pretty fair field soldier. But
I don't think you'd be worth a damn back in the States.
If you were in my outfit, I'd probably have to keep you
in jail half the time." His thick, joined eyebrows
and the pinched furrow above them made him appear to be
you're right. I'm a lousy janitor." O'Keefe's speech
dropped its "R"s and resonated with Boston nasality.
His round face turned eager and his blue eyes gleamed
as he plucked a blade of grass and whipped it through
the air like a fly rod. "But I'm a good fisherman."
not." The sergeant pulled out a cloth and rubbed
the dust from his rifle. "After this, I'll take you
to Ban Me Thuot for a week, recruit some more troops for
the strike force. We'll live with the Montagnards. They're
all Rhade back in there—best people you'll ever
know. If they like you, they might initiate you into the
tribe, give you one of these." He held up his wrist
to show a plain copper bracelet.
O'Keefe sat up, nostrils widening above his closed-mouthed
grin, more enthused than he wanted to show. "But
the language...no biec."
teach you enough." Traver checked the bolt action,
ejecting several shells. "Just don't try to sweet-talk
the women. The chief'll turn you into a Montagnard sacrifice."
tossed up his freckled hands. "Been so long, might
be worth it."
soon drove them into their nylon hammocks. O'Keefe's was
tied to a palm tree whose swaying, hacking fronds loomed
above him like a spectral hand. Rocking back and forth,
he repeated the sergeant's
praise: "a pretty fair field soldier."
asleep, O'Keefe sank into his mother's stories about his
father. She had told and retold them, then made them up
when he demanded more. He had reread a stack of fading
letters until they crumbled. Out of a yellowed snapshot
stared a man with a lopsided grin, high cheekbones, and
deep-set eyes hidden in shadow.
riffed in the swift brightness of the tropic morning.
The air was cool, about ninety degrees. The troops were
lighting cook fires and fat, hand-rolled cigarettes. O'Keefe
tumbled out of his hammock with sweaty
feet: he'd slept in his boots to be ready for a night
attack. He saw Vanh pulling his shirt over his supple
arms and smooth chest, and he wished his mother would
appear, bringing hugs and waffles. Instead, he and Traver
shared a can of c-ration scrambled eggs.
strike force left the forest for a valley rife with bamboo
and elephant grass. The sun filled the sky and glinted
from grass spears. Humid heat clung to O'Keefe, more freckles
bloomed on his nose, and sweat stung the acne chafing
beneath his pack. In a plodding trance, he noticed only
the toes of his boots, the back of the man ahead, the
freight on his shoulders.
of smoke stood out from distant bamboo; shots splashed
like ice, shocking him out of his stupor. Chest pounding,
he lifted his rifle and clicked it off safety.
pushed the barrel down. "What are you supposed to
do, first thing we draw fire?"
Get us a spotter plane." Traver's squinting eyes
probed the bamboo; he raised his Swedish K and fired a
burst. Brass cartridge cases sprayed from the side of
his rifle as he braced into the recoil.
motioned to the radio carrier, a five-foot-tall Montagnard
with chestnut skin. The teenager saluted, flashed a gold-toothed
grin, and offered him the handset with a brisk, "Radio."
called Forward Air Control and relayed the patrol's coordinates
while Lieutenant Vanh, eyebrows arched in concentration,
read them from the map.
troops were letting rip with carbines and grenade-launchers.
Their barrage tapered off, and after a peering, breath-held
silence, a last defiant shot rang from the VC.
a sniper," Traver said, "trying to slow us down...help
his buddies get away." He told Vanh to send two squads
ahead in a pincers.
rest of the troops sprawled on the ground, grateful for
a break. O'Keefe sat leaning against a thicket of bamboo.
Now he could write the guys back home that he'd been shot
at. He wouldn't tell his mother, though. He touched the
lithe bamboo, admiring its alternations of pliant shafts
and rigid seams, the canes strong but able to bend. They
reminded him of the Vietnamese: The thin leaves could
be double-edged daggers or elongated hearts. When soldiers
trod the young stems, they didn't break but sprang back
minutes later, shots echoed as the lead squads fired into
the sniper's position. They radioed back that it was empty.
spotter plane arrived, but the pilot said he could see
no enemy movement.
they continued marching, the sniper fired again. The men
stopped, but the far, haphazard shots weren't worth falling
on the ground for. O'Keefe remembered that snipers aimed
at the tallest, in hopes of hitting an American; he scrunched
down a little.
can chase the bastard now that we got air cover,"
the sergeant said, cinching his pack firmer. He turned
to Vanh. "Tell the troops to double-time."
chopped his hand in front of his chest. "We no chase
sniper. Too risk." His lips tightened in his fine-boned
face, and he stood straighter to meet Traver eye to eye.
Traver shrugged. "So I'll tell the plane to go home."
expression flickered. "No."
don't need him then."
aqua eyes stared impassively. "Only if we're in contact."
losing their air cover, Vanh glared at the sergeant out
of oblique dark eyes. He dropped his hands in disgusted
concession and shook his head, then shouted to the men.
They ran toward the sniper, equipment rattling, waist-high
grass slicing their hands.
he ran, O'Keefe saw himself as one of the general's men
fighting amid toy tanks and cannons on his sand table
at home. Above them he had strung models of Flying Tigers,
Zeros, and Messerschmitts, and from his favorite power-diving
fighter he had hung his father's dog tags.
imagined going with Traver to Ban Me Thuot after the patrol.
The sergeant would teach him the language. They would
recruit more soldiers, and at night they would drink rice
wine and chant with the tribe while an old man beat on
a monkey-skin drum. The Montagnards would initiate him,
smear his forehead with ox blood and clasp a copper bracelet
around his wrist. He and Traver would be Rhade together.
sniper had fled, and the company pushed on into rice paddies
separated by dikes and boxed in by bamboo. The rectangular
plots filled with nodding grain looked inviting after
the rough country they had been hiking through, but the
troops tensed and began scanning the tree line and murmuring.
A breeze rustled the bamboo to a soft clatter, stirred
shimmering ripples on the green rice, and carried them
scents of stagnant water and dungy earth.
they filed along the central dike, more puffs of gunsmoke
blew out of the bamboo ahead, and the doubled reports
of incoming fire jabbed at them, sporadic at first, then
increasing rapidly, punctuated by the hammering of a machine
gun. Men wailed. Winds shrieked past O'Keefe. A hole appeared
on the face of the radio carrier, who fell in a half turn.
O'Keefe collapsed beside him.
voice steadied him. "Get us some jets!"
held the Montagnard's twitching body and looked into his
agate eyes. Gone.... O'Keefe wished he could hear his
bright voice saying, "Radio."
made himself pull off the blood-wet transceiver. Fingers
quivering on the knobs, he called the spotter plane and
watched helplessly while the boy writhed in the paddy
mud. O'Keefe's hand moved towards his medical kit, then
stopped—not even morphine could help him now.
got a flight on the way," the pilot said in a soothing
Georgia accent. " Y'all hang tough down there."
Machine gun tracers streaked up at the plane but missed
as it climbed away in a fast chandelle.
go too far, O'Keefe wished as he slung the radio over
enemy gunner returned to closer targets, flailing the
paddy water. When he found his range, spouts leaped at
the men. Troopers screamed as bullets plunged among them.
clamped his jaws and squeezed his hands together. Don't
lose it...not in front of Traver. Hold on.
Vanh scrambled to Traver. "I told you too risk. Boocoo
VC. We no can do. You get helicopt. We go back Kontum."
gonna fight," Traver yelled into Vanh's face, pale
as a blanched almond. "Airplanes come...bomb VC."
He shook him until he stopped trembling. "See that
dike up there? That's where we're going."
machine gun threw another volley, and their company began
go," Traver hollered. "Chung ta di mau-len."
He ran among the men huddled beside the bank, kicking
them, pulling them to their feet, pushing them forward.
O'Keefe and Vanh followed his lead, dragging men up by
the collar and forcing them ahead. One man O'Keefe lifted
sagged limp and heavy, then splatted back into the paddy
when he dropped him. The rest ran with nightmare slowness
through the gripping mud twenty-five meters to the dike.
Some in front crumpled into the rice and were run over
by those behind.
threw himself sobbing into the embankment. His chest was
drenched; he clutched it, thinking he'd been hit, but
found it was water. Bullets cracked overhead. The machine
gun gnawed at the dike, spitting dirt into the air. Some
fell on O'Keefe's neck, and he brushed it away as if it
were burning. Bile corroded his mouth and tears blurred
his vision. His mind gaped open, no longer screening its
input: On the dike a crab snapped its pincers at him,
as threatening as the machine gun. A cricket fought a
horde of red ants in a battle equal to his own. Any instant
he might disappear.
corded face brought him back. "Crawl down there.
Get everybody firing."
O'Keefe said, wanting to hold on to him.
it." Traver lunged to the top of the dike and fired
his Swedish K in long bursts.
crawled among the soldiers, prodding and shouting, startled
by his voice. A man lay at the base of the dike, covering
his head and shaking. O'Keefe wanted to do the same but
instead pulled him to the top and made him shoot. As he
continued down the line, he imagined his father smiling
approval at him.
leech, like a slice of raw liver, sucked at his arm. He
struck a match and singed the worm until it shriveled,
then plucked it away with a shudder, leaving a puckered
crimson circle surrounded by burnt hair.
the clangor he heard Traver calling for him; he ran back
in a crouch. "They're flanking us." The sergeant
pointed to where the bamboo was stirring. "Tell the
spotter we need those planes now. If he's got any rockets,
put 'em in there." On Traver's temple an artery pulsed,
and tendons stood out on his neck.
radioed the pilot in a stammer while Traver lobbed rounds
from a grenade-launcher.
jets are only five minutes off," the pilot said.
"You boys are doing a great job. Here's a little
something." The plane made a low pass, pivoted on
its tail, and shot a rocket that exploded into dome of
fire over the bamboo, then faded in a moment, leaving
the thicket still.
reloaded, breathing fast and shallow, forehead creased.
"If they get around that side, we're in deep shit.
And they're sure gonna try again. Another lesson for you—it
don't always pay to chase a sniper. Vanh was right."
Traver swept his arm toward the tree line. "You wanted
to find Charlie, didn't you? Well, there he is, Hard Charger."
the jets take care of him?" O'Keefe turned his round,
shivering face away.
peered above the dike with his M-16, but Traver pulled
him down. "Get back on the radio. Tell him how far
our position runs. We gotta be ready when the jets get
gripped his rifle. Damn it, if he could shoot back, he
wouldn't be so afraid. More leeches were sucking at his
legs, but he couldn't look at them.
crump of sound carried across the paddy. Traver yelled,
"Mortar!" and plunged into the mud. O'Keefe
and the others followed and lay helpless until a hurtling
screech exploded thirty meters away in a fountain of brown
water and yellow flames. As O'Keefe clawed deeper, he
pictured the enemy gunner deftly clicking the mortar dial
and dropping another round down the tube. He heard the
outgoing report and stole a glance skyward, seeing only
a tranquil cloud, then clenched his eyes and covered his
head until the sickening rush came down closer this time,
concussion knocking his eyes open. The ground bucked and
heaved as he tried to hold it together. The round had
struck the other side of the dike.
he heard the outgoing slap of a shell. Stop it, he begged,
doubling up with no place to hide. The suspended silence
was broken by a roar as two jets swept over the trees,
checking the target area. To O'Keefe the planes shouted
the loud beauty of deliverance. The mortar slammed in,
erupting the paddy fifteen meters away and hurling rice,
mud, and shrapnel at the men.
first plane sprayed the grove with hundreds of cluster
bombs. While they detonated into slivers of steel, the
second jet swooped down for the high-explosive run. Its
pair of bombs tumbled end over end, slower than the rising
plane, and burst into jagged white fire that engulfed
winced as shock waves hit him. Those poor bastards at
impact. Brains boil, fingers crisp to tendrils, vacuum
sucks the screams from their throats. Then the families
explode...never the same again. How do they find out?
A visit from a cadre, or a form letter?
returning planes shredded the thicket with their 20mm
cannons. Inside him, his own loss rose in a flood; to
keep from drowning in it, he clung to his rifle like a
spar from a shipwreck.
spotter flew in calm circles off to the side; the pilot
radioed that the jets were empty, but others were on the
way. On their last pass the jets rocked their delta wings
at the troops before flying off, trailing a snarl through
the blue. The men, who had been whooping and cheering,
gazed after them with stricken looks.
cut the trousers away from a Montagnard's shattered leg.
He poured wound powder into the pulp and tied two compresses
around it while the man ground a handkerchief between
his jaws. O'Keefe punctured a morphine Syrette, jabbed
the soldier's rear with it, squeezed in the liquid, then
stroked his sweating, mahogany forehead.
rush of tears made O'Keefe close his eyes. In flashes
he was a child again looking up at his mother crying over
a piece of yellow paper. He forced his eyes open.
grimaces, the Montagnard was trying to smile at him. An
inlaid gold star gleamed on his front tooth. O'Keefe couldn't
return the smile, but they nudged fists. If they couldn't
get him out today, he'd lose the leg.
field brimmed with quiet. Smoke lazed in the air. Through
his ringing ears O'Keefe gradually heard the drone of
the spotter plane, the pops of burning bamboo, the cries
of wounded men. He tried to slow his breathing as the
Fourth-of-July scent of cordite drifted over the paddy.
He shut his eyes and saw a flag folded in the closet,
a Purple Heart in a velvet case, the medal's enamel worn
away from O'Keefe having touched it so often. Wails of
mourning rose within him, faint at first, then surging
over him. He had to get away from all that—cut it
off before he dissolved into it, trapped forever as that
little kid. No way...anything but that.
slipped another morphine into the trooper's pocket for
the men firing," Traver said, lips drawn back from
his crooked teeth, turquoise eyes keen, face almost exultant.
"We can't give Charlie a chance to regroup. And get
me a casualty count."
voice braced O'Keefe; he molded himself to it, drank it
in. This way's better. He could tough it out—he
was a soldier, not that soft kid. With a sob he stifled
the grief back down. Get them!
O'Keefe started along the line, Traver called, "You're
doing good." He nodded and kept crawling, imagining
himself as the first warrior, a primate with a stick.
It must've always been this way.
ancient Skyraider flew over the paddy. O'Keefe stopped,
hands to his face, watching the single-engine plane. Just
like World War Two. The stubby, propellered fighter—a
Flying Tiger model above his childhood battle. She'd sat
on his bed and read to him while the air force flew on
guard. Now dad was here...they'd fly away...back together.
jumped up and ran toward Traver while the fighter dived.
at that baby come in.
plane released its canisters, which bloomed into orange
globes of napalm.
out by flames, a dozen gray figures with leaf-covered
helmets rushed from the bamboo, yelling and firing their
AK-47s. The Skyraider roared in low, strafing the VC.
Several fell but others kept coming.
hot cloud of engine exhaust cascaded over O'Keefe, blowing
his camo hat off, baring his sandy hair. He rubbed his
blue eyes from the sting of the av gas. Bullets tore past
him with dopplered whines.
sergeant rose to his knees above the dike and shouted,
"Get down, you fool."
shook with spasms and fall back into the paddy. Through
the fumes he looked wrinkled.
mind broke in a shriek; a bright, frozen glaze spread
over his sight. He ran to the sergeant, who lay twisted
in the mud, legs still trying to move, three holes across
his chest gushing blood. O'Keefe sank down beside him.
"I'll fix you up." He pressed his hands to the
wounds, but Traver's wet warmth throbbed through his fingers.
eyes fluttered and darted, lips moved mutely, fingers
scratched O'Keefe's arm. O'Keefe dropped his rifle and
held the twitching hand. "We'll call a medevac."
He clutched the sergeant while his M-16 sank into the
Vanh crawled to them and knelt. One slim hand wiped mud
from Traver's cheek and the other touched O'Keefe's head.
troops began throwing down their packs and carbines and
running back across the paddy. Vanh yelled at them to
stop, then pulled out the VC grenade and hurled it to
cover their retreat.
go," Vanh told him, and O'Keefe nodded dumbly.
gave the radio to Vanh, took off Traver's pack, and gathered
him in his arms. Unaware of the weight, he ran, splashing
and frantic, following Vanh back the way they had come.
Everybody going home. The Montagnard with the shattered
leg held up his hands as they ran past him. O'Keefe's
lurching steps jerked his vision and his tears smeared
it so the images of bamboo, running men, and swaying rice
stalks registered in blurry jumps.
down at Traver limp in his arms, he noticed for the first
time the sergeant was smaller than he. Breath whistled
from the chest holes and blood flowed warm and steady
down their bodies, staining both their uniforms ruddy
passed through a bamboo grove and reached another beyond
it before they stopped running. Vanh called the spotter
plane while O'Keefe laid Traver down next to a small fan
palm. Keep him from going into shock. Raise his feet...wrap
him up. He tried to prop Traver's boots up, but the sergeant
began thrashing and convulsing. He squeezed O'Keefe's
hand then stared blindly at him. A flicker of recognition
lit his face, and his lips parted as if to speak, but
red froth bubbled out. O'Keefe tried to draw the filming
eyes into his, to keep their light as they faded.
drew his knees to his chest; his jaw sagged, breath rasped.
O'Keefe cradled him in his arms and rocked back and forth.
"You can't. You didn't teach me the language yet.
We never went to Ban Me Thuot."
pulled all the morphine Syrettes from his medical kit
and counted aloud while stuffing them into Traver's shirt
pocket, then slipped the last one under the general's
watch band. Winken, Blinken, and Nod...the wooden shoe
through the velvet night, the stars to guide them home.
© 2006 by William T. Hathaway