It was much different from his first tour, when he’d been stationed in Germany.
And right now all he wanted was to be back in Lisa’s arms. He was the stupidest fool in the world—he didn’t realize how much he had, how much he truly loved that girl, his wife, until he was hours away from dying.
Bayonets or burning. “Dear God.”
Father O’Brien’s soft voice had quieted Jimmy, and he now turned to Matt. “Sergeant—Matthew. Would you like to pray?”
“No, Father,” he said.
Not even prayer could help them now.
“THEIR CAPTAIN JUST LEFT them there?” Lieutenant Jake Robinson kept his voice even, kept his voice low, even though he absolutely could not believe what his chief had just told him. Wounded marines, left behind by their CO in the jungle to die. “And now the good guys are going to finish them off with friendly fire?”
Ham nodded, his headphones still plugged into the radio, his dark eyes grim. “It’s not as heartless as you’re thinkin’, Admiral. There’s only a dozen or so of them. If Charlie isn’t stopped before he gets to the river, we’ll have casualties in the thousands. You know that.” He spoke in a barely audible voice, too.
The enemy was all around them tonight. And well they should know. Jake’s team of Men with Green Faces, U.S. Navy SEALs, had spent the past twenty-four hours marking the Vietcongs’ location in this target area. They’d radioed the info in and now had exactly four hours to get out before the bombing raid began.
“Only a dozen men,” Jake said. “Or so. Any chance of giving me an exact number, Chief?”
“Twelve wounded, one priest.”
Fred and Chuck materialized from the jungle. “Only nine wounded now,” Fred corrected him in his soft Southern drawl. “We found ‘em, Admiral. Near a clearing, like they hoped a chopper would be able to come in and grab ‘em. Didn’t approach—didn’t want to get their hopes up if we didn’t think we could help. What we could see, three of ‘em are already KIA.”
KIA. Killed in action. It was one of Jake’s least favorite acronyms. Along with POW and MIA. But he didn’t let his aversion show on his face. He never let anything like that show. His men didn’t need to know when he was shaken. And this one had shaken him, hard. The commanders-in-chief knew those men were there. U.S. Marines. Good men. Brave men. And those commanders had given the order to proceed with the bombing regardless.
He met Ham’s eyes and read the skepticism there.
“We’ve pulled off some tough missions before,” Jake said. His words were as much to convince himself.
Ham shook his head. “Nine wounded men and seven SEALs,” he said. “Against thirty-five-hundred Vietcong? Come on, Lieutenant.” The chief didn’t need to say what he was thinking. This wasn’t just a tough mission, it was insanity.
And the chief had called Jake by his true rank, a sign of his disapproval. It was funny how accustomed he’d become to the nickname this team of SEALs had given him—Admiral. It was the ultimate expression of respect from this motley crew, particularly since he’d gone through BUD/S cursed with the label Pretty Boy, PB for short. Yeah, he liked Admiral much better.
Fred and Chuck were watching him. So were Scooter and the Preacher and Ricky. Waiting for his command. At age twenty-two, Jake was one of the two old men of the team—a full lieutenant having served three back-to-back tours of duty in this hell on earth. Ham, his chief, had been there with him for the last two. Steady as a rock and, at twenty-seven years of age, as gnarled and ancient as the hills. But he’d never questioned Jake’s authority.
Jake smiled. “Nine wounded men, seven SEALs and one priest,” he pointed out lightly. “Don’t forget the priest, Ham. Always good to have one of them on our side.”
Fred snickered, but Ham’s expression didn’t change.
“I wouldn’t leave you to die,” Jake quietly told the man who was the closest thing to a friend he had in this armpit of a jungle. “I will not leave those men out there.”
Jake didn’t wait for Ham’s response, because frankly, Ham’s response didn’t matter. He didn’t need his chief’s approval. This wasn’t a democracy. Jake and Jake alone was in command.
He met Fred’s eyes, then Scooter’s and Preacher’s and Ricky’s and Chuck’s, infusing them all with his confidence, letting them see his complete faith in their ability as a SEAL team to pull off this impossible task.
Leaving those poor bastards to die was not an option. Jake couldn’t do it. Jake wouldn’t do it.
He turned to Ham. “Get on the radio, Chief, and find Crazy Ruben. If anyone’ll fly a chopper in this deep, it’ll be him. Pull in all those favors he owes me, promise him air support, and then get on the wire and get it for him.”
Jake turned to Fred. “Go back there and get their hopes up. Get them ready to move, then get your ass back here on the double.” He smiled again, his best picnic-in-the-park smile. The one that made men under command believe they’d live to see another sunrise. “The rest of you gentlemen get ready to cut some very long fuses. Because I’ve got one hell of a plan.”
“THEY MUSTA PARACHUTED IN!” Jimmy had real excitement in his voice. “Listen to that, Sarge! How many of ‘em do you think are out there?”
Matt painfully pulled himself up, trying to see something, anything in the darkness of the jungle. But all he could see were the flashes in the sky from an enormous battle just off to the west. Deep in VC territory. “God, there must be hundreds.”
Even as he said the words he couldn’t believe it. Hundreds of American soldiers, appearing out of nowhere?
“They had to’ve dropped ‘em in,” Jimmy said again.
It seemed impossible, but it must have been true—because there came the air support, then, big planes screaming overhead, dropping all kinds of nasty surprises on Charlie.
Two hours ago a big, dark-skinned man had appeared, rising out of the jungle like an apparition, his face savagely painted with green and brown, a cammy-print bandanna tied neatly around the top of his head. He’d ID’d himself as Seaman Fred Baxter of the U.S. Navy SEALs.
Matt had highest rank among the men left behind, and had asked what the hell a sailor was doing this far inland?
Apparently there was a whole group of sailors out there in the jungle. A team, Baxter had said. Jake’s team, he’d called them, as if that meant something—whoever the hell Jake was. And they were going to get Matt and Jimmy and the rest of ‘em out of there. Stand ready for extraction, Baxter had said, and he’d disappeared.
Matt had been left wondering if the entire conversation hadn’t been some weird morphine hallucination. Seals. Who would name a special forces group after a circus animal? And how the hell was an entire team of them going to get out of the jungle with nine wounded men?
“I’ve heard of the SEALs,” Jimmy said, as if he’d somehow been able to follow Matt’s drug-hazed thoughts. “They’re some kind of demolitions experts. Even underwater, if you can believe that. And they’re kinda like ninjas—they can move right past Charlie—within feet of Charlie—without being seen. They go miles behind the line in teams of six or seven men and blow stuff up. And I don’t know what kind of voodoo they use, but they always come back alive. Always.”
Six or seven men. Matt looked up at the flashes of explosions lighting the sky. Demolitions experts … No. Couldn’t be.
“Chopper!” Father O’Brien shouted. “Praise our Lord God Almighty!”