But Matt wasn’t Catholic, and they hadn’t made it out yet.
Someone lifted him up and the sudden knifelike pain in his leg made him scream.
“Sorry, Sergeant.” The voice held the quiet confidence of a seasoned officer. “No time to ask where it hurts.”
And then the pain was worth it, because he was inside, his cheek pressed against the olive-drab U.S.-made riveted metal of the chopper floor. And then they were lifting up and away, on an express flight out of hell.
But fear cut through his waves of relief. Dear God, don’t let them have left anyone behind!
He forced himself over, onto his back, and the pain nearly made him retch. “Head count!” he somehow managed to shout.
“We got all of you, Sarge.” It was the steady voice of the man who’d carried him aboard. He was crouched by the open doorway, a grenade launcher in his arms, aiming and firing even as he spoke. He was younger than Matt had imagined from his voice. He wore no insignia, no rank, no markings on his camouflage gear at all. Like the other SEALs, his face was streaked with green and brown, but as he turned to glance over his shoulder at the wounded men, Matt could see his eyes. They were an almost startling shade of blue. And as he met Matt’s gaze, he smiled.
It wasn’t a tense, tight grimace laced with fear. And it wasn’t a wolfish expression of adrenaline-induced high. It was a calm, relaxed, “let’s get together and play softball sometime” kind of smile.
“We got everyone,” he shouted again, no room for doubt in his voice. “Hold on, Sergeant, it’s going to be a bumpy ride, but we will get you out, and we will get you home.”
When he said it like that, as if it were an absolute truth, even Matt could believe him.
THE HOSPITAL WAS THE PITS, filled with pain and stink and death, but Matt knew he was only going to be there a little while longer.
He’d been given his orders, his medical discharge. He was going home to Lisa.
He was going to walk with a limp, probably for the rest of his life, but the doctors had managed to save his leg. Not bad for a guy who’d been left for dead.
“You’re looking much better today.” The nurse that stopped by his bed and checked his leg was a pretty brunette with two deep dimples in her cheeks when she smiled. “I’m Constance. You can call me Connie for short.”
He hadn’t seen her before, but he’d only been here about forty-eight hours. He’d spent most of that time in surgery and recovery.
“Oh, you’re one of Jake’s Boys,” Connie said as she checked his chart, her Georgia peaches-and-cream accent suddenly hushed with respect.
“No,” he said, “I’m not a SEAL. I’m a sergeant with—”
“I know you’re not a SEAL, silly.” She dimpled up again. “Jake’s SEALs don’t turn up in our hospital beds. We sometimes have to give them extra penicillin, but perhaps I shouldn’t mention that in mixed company.” She winked.
Matt was confused. “But you said—”
“Jake’s Boys,” she repeated. “That’s what we call you—the wounded men that Lieutenant Jake Robinson brings in. Someone started keeping count here at the hospital about eight months ago.”
At his blank look, she tried to explain. “Jake has developed the habit of resurrecting U.S. soldiers from the dead, Sergeant. Last month, his team liberated an entire prisoner-of-war camp. Don’t ask me how, but Jake and his team came out of that jungle with seventy-five POWs, each one looking worse than the last. I swear, I cried for a week when I saw those poor souls.” She shook her head. “I think there were ten of you this time, weren’t there? Jake’s up to … let’s see … I think it’s four hundred and twenty-seven now.” She dimpled again. “Although if you ask me, he should get extra points for the priest.”
“Four hundred and …”
“Twenty-seven.” Connie nodded, taking his blood pressure, her touch businesslike, impersonal. “All of whom owe their lives to him. Of course, we only started counting eight months ago. He’s been in-country much longer.”
“A lieutenant, huh?” Matt mused. “My captain couldn’t get even get one single chopper to fly in to pull us out.”
Connie bristled. “Your captain is a word I will not use because I am a lady. Shame on him for leaving you boys that way. He better not come to this hospital for his annual checkup. There are a dozen doctors and nurses who are dying to get a chance to tell him to turn his head and cough.”
Matt laughed, but then winced. “Captain Tyler tried,” he said. “I was there. I know he tried. That’s what I don’t understand. How could this lieutenant make things happen when a captain couldn’t?”
“Well, you know Jake’s nickname.” Connie looked up from her gentle but methodical checking of his shrapnel wounds. “Or maybe you don’t. His teammates call him Admiral. And it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if he made it to that rank someday. He’s got something about him. Oh, yes, there’s something very special in those blue eyes.”
Blue eyes. “I think I met him,” Matt said.
“Sergeant, you wouldn’t just think it if you’d met him. You’d know it. He has a face like a movie star and a smile that makes you want to follow him just about anywhere.” She sighed, then smiled again. “Oh, my. I am getting myself worked up over that young man, aren’t I?”
Matt had to know. “So how did a lieutenant manage to get all those soldiers dropped into the area? There must’ve been hundreds of them, and—”
Connie laughed but then stopped, her eyes widening as she looked at him. “My goodness,” she said. “You don’t know, do you? When I heard about it, I didn’t quite believe it, but if they managed to fool you, too …”
Matt just waited for her to explain.
“It was a ruse,” she said. “Jake and his SEALs rigged a chain of explosives to fool the VC into thinking we’d launched a counteroffensive. It was just a distraction so he could get Captain Ruben’s chopper in to pull you out. There weren’t hundreds of soldiers in that jungle, Sergeant. What you saw and heard was solely the handiwork of seven U.S. Navy SEALs, led by one Lieutenant Jake Robinson.”
Matt was floored. Seven SEALs had made him believe there was a huge army out there in the darkness.
Connie’s dimples deepened. “Gracious, that man might be more than an admiral someday. He just might go all the way and become our president.” She raised her eyebrows suggestively. “I’d give him my vote, that’s for sure.”
She made a note on Matt’s chart, about to move on to the next bed.
She turned back patiently. “Sergeant, I can’t give you anything for the pain for another few hours.”
“No, that’s not … I was just wondering. Does he ever come around here? Lieutenant Robinson, I mean. I’d like to thank him.”
“First off,” she said. “As one of Jake’s Boys, you and he are on a first-name basis. And secondly, no. You won’t see him around here. He’s already back out there, Sergeant. He’s sleeping in the jungle tonight—that is, if he’s sleeping at all.”
Washington, D.C., today