Serpents Underfoot (an excerpt)

Lt. Curtis Cordell slowly clawed his way back to consciousness.

What the fuck happened?

He was lying flat on his back on the jungle floor. Looking up, he saw daylight filtering down through the jungle canopy above.

Shit! Where’s the damn chopper?

He tried to roll over and locate his weapon but a jolt of intense pain shot through his body. Mercifully, he faded into unconsciousness.

When Cordell  drifted back into consciousness the jungle was pitch black. He did not try to move. He lay still, trying to figure out what the hell had happened. I was trying to snap the rope into my D-ring … the door gunner was shouting and there was the sound of an M-60 firing … I was grabbing for the rope … Holy shit!  I fell out of the fucking chopper.

Cordell lay still a few more minutes, that thought slowly taking hold in his brain. What the fuck do I do now?  He began to assess his situation. It was not good! Vietnamese civilians in the area had been under Viet Cong control too long now.  That meant they would not likely render him any assistance. Either terrorized or indoctrinated into supporting the enemy … they would more likely turn him over to the VC.  Also, not good!

Curtis was in the highlands, so water was an issue.  He still had his canteen, but that held one quart … not enough!  Hearing “jungle” most people imagine lush growth and monsoon rains.  There are also long dry seasons with no rain … where water becomes an issue even in the lowlands.  It was currently such a season and Curtis was definitely not in the lowlands.

Time to see if I can move. It was painful but this time he managed to roll over, discovering his M16 and his rucksack beneath him.  Slowly, trying to keep movements to a necessary minimum, Curtis gave his weapon a thorough inspection … relieved to find the rifle was operational.  His helmet was nowhere to be found.  Just as well!  Damn steel pot … too hot and heavy anyway.

Luckily for him, the soft rotting soil of the jungle floor absorbed much of the impact when he landed.  It could have been a big fucking pile of Vietnamese rocks … with a very different result.

Painfully, Cordell managed to get to his knees … then his feet.  Every inch of his body hurt like hell. He was covered with bruises, scrapes and cuts.  A good amount of his blood too.  His head hurt like hell! Gingerly, he felt the huge knot on the back of his head.  At first inspection, it appeared that, despite considerable pain, there didn’t seem to be any serious injury. Damn lucky! Concussion maybe …

Cordell’s concern at this point was simple survival.  He was still disorientated and had no idea what happened to the chopper or his team.  He knew he was near the original LZ, and since there was no sign of a crash site, it was a good bet they’d gotten away.  Then Cordell realized that he had no radio.

What a cluster fuck!

Continuing to take stock of his situation, he concluded that it was not good.  Obviously they’d been spotted since someone had fired that rocket!  A VC or NVA patrol was almost certainly on the way right now to investigate, hoping to find the site of a crashed helicopter.  On his best day, Cordell couldn’t take on a well-armed Vietcong or NVA patrol alone.  He needed to move now.

Okay Cordell!  I know it hurts, but you better get your sorry ass moving.  His best option was to head downhill … toward water.

There were still a few Montagnard villages in the area and they would be located near a source of water.  With any luck, he’d find some friendlies willing to help him get back to his unit.  Cordell took a few steps in the downhill direction, his knees buckled and he hit the ground. He was unaware that someone was watching him, hidden in the jungle foliage about forty yards away … virtually invisible.

Dish squatted silently in the dense foliage, trying to decide what to make of the American who had just fallen from the sky. He was a Degar, a Montagnard of the Jari tribe from the Kon Tum Province of the Central Highlands.  “Montagnard,” was a term carried over from the French colonial period in Vietnam. It meant “mountain people”.  The Vietnamese people regarded the Montagnard as “Moi,” or savages, and little love was lost between them and the Montagnard. However, the Montagnard held an especially deep hatred for the brutal communist North Vietnamese and their Vietcong allies.

Many of these tough Montagnard tribesmen fought with U.S. Special Forces and LRRP teams in Vietnam and earned the respect and admiration of their American allies.  Both the Special Forces units operating in Vietnam and the Montagnard warriors excelled in jungle warfare. Both were very accustomed to operating under the harshest of conditions.  It was not surprising these warriors grew to respect each other.

Dish finished his lunch, a handful of sticky rice wrapped in “some kind of totally unpalatable vegetation” his Special Forces friends often teased. He stood and worked his way down to have a closer look at the American.  Suddenly Dish froze.  His eyes narrowed to slits.  He remained stock still as the many banded krait adjusted its coils just a few feet in front of him and directly in his path.  The krait was agitated, its tongue darting in and out, tasting the air … searching for what had disturbed it. Dish did not move. There was little Dish feared in his world, but death from the bite of the venomous krait was a painful way to go.  Not a good death for a Montagnard warrior such as himself.

Finally, the krait seemed to lose interest and uncoiled itself. It slithered off the trail and into the jungle growth.  Dish remained still for several more minutes.  Kraits were highly aggressive … and sometimes waited in ambush for unwary victims.  Finally, Dish continued down to where the American soldier lay.  It was obvious to Dish that the American was in terrible shape.  He noticed the large swelling on the back of the soldier’s head where he’d been struck by a tree limb while tumbling through the jungle canopy.

Dish looked at the American’s uniform, seeing that he was a lieutenant from the American 1st Calvary Division.  He’d worked with American Special Forces teams over the past years, but not the 1st Cav’s LRRP teams.   Dish noted with appreciation that, though the soldier lay unconscious on the jungle floor, he still maintained a grip on his rifle.

Falling from the sky was not a smart thing to do!  This American soldier must be very clumsy or stupid.  Perhaps both.

He grinned as he recalled the picture of the American tumbling down through the canopy, hanging up momentarily on the vines, and finally flopping onto the jungle floor.  It was a very funny picture.  It had been quite difficult not to laugh out loud.

Better not leave him here or this clumsy American would soon become a dead American!

Dish’s life as a Montagnard warrior in the Central Highlands and his martial arts training with his father’s friend, Ang Dung, turned him into a very strong and capable young man.  He scooped up the American, rucksack and all, and slung him over his right shoulder.  Grabbing up the American soldier’s M16 in his left hand, Dish moved off through the jungle following a faint trail most Americans, or even NVA, would never notice.

Even with the extra burden Dish traveled quickly.  By nightfall he felt near enough to the village to stop for a short rest.  He set the M16 down and settled the American gently on the ground, propping him up against the base of a water pine tree.  Dish knew that several times on the trail the American had regained and lost consciousness.  There had been no struggle.  Perhaps he’d noticed the crossbow hanging from Dish’s hip.

The Montagnard were famous for their deadly use of this silent, accurate weapon. Perhaps the American knew he was in friendly hands and so there’d been no struggle to get away. Dish unslung his crossbow and squatted down to eat a little more rice.  He noticed that the American was conscious and watching him, so he went over and offered him a drink from the canteen he’d retrieved from the soldier’s gear.  The American was grateful and drank greedily. Dish helped himself to a drink.

“You okay,” he said quietly. The human voice carried a long distance in the jungle.  “My village is close.”

Cordell tossed and turned in the grip of a fever dream.  Hurt, he was desperately trying to make his way through the jungle … searching for his team.   Everywhere he turned or tried to crawl, the jungle became an impenetrable mass of vines, thorns and underbrush.  He could not break through.  The jungle floor was a hot, steaming mass of rotting vegetation.  He could not breathe!  He was suffocating!  He was being steamed alive.   Then … the feeling of cool relief … like a gentle breeze, would flow over him.  Starting with his head and spreading throughout his feverish body.  Pleasant and cool … bringing him back to life.  It was, however, just a temporary respite. That oppressive heat always returned and again he was suffocating … like some giant, constricting serpent was coiled around his chest and slowly squeezing the life out of him.

When Cordell opened his eyes, he found himself looking up into the face of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.  At least he hoped she was really there and he wasn’t just hallucinating.  She was gently washing the scrapes and cuts that covered most of his sore and aching body.  He was embarrassed when he realized that he was lying naked on a woven mat.  To his great relief, he found that his midsection was discretely covered. Mai noticed that the American was awake. She indicated that he should remain still until she finished tending to his injuries.  That task completed, Mai smiled at the American and gave him a reassuring touch on his arm.  He was aware that she got up and left. An instant later, Cordell was asleep.

Cordell awakened some hours later, to find Mai had returned with bowls of clear broth soup and plain rice on a tray she placed next to him.  He glanced around the room and was relieved to see his M16 leaning against the wall near his mat.  It looked as though it had been recently cleaned and he could see a magazine seated in the magazine well … he assumed it was loaded.

“Please eat,” Mai stated in clear English.  Cordell was shocked.

“You speak English?“ he asked somewhat surprised.

“Yes,” Mai replied.  “I learned in the mission school.  I would sometimes help my father talk to the Americans when they visited our village.”  Being the daughter of a village chief had its advantages.

“You are not Montagnard,” Cordell observed.

“No,” Mai replied.  “I am Vietnamese.  My family was killed by the VC.  I now live with the Montagnard.”

Cordell nodded. “I am sorry,” he replied.  A look of sadness flickered briefly across her face, then she went on.

“The man who brought you here is my Montagnard brother, Dish.  You rest now.  Okay.”

Cordell nodded.

“My name is Curtis.  What is your name?”

“My name is Mai.  Rest now.  I will come back later.”

It is very nice to meet you, Mai, Curtis thought, drifting off to sleep.

The next day, Mai tended her small patch of garden near the long house.  Pulling some of the ever-present weeds, she loosened the soil around a few plants. This was difficult work because the ground was very hard and dry.  She hoped the rains would come soon.  After she finished, she made several trips to the river to water her garden.  Last, she found a turnip and some cabbages to add to tonight’s meal.  She did not need much for herself and Dish was rarely around for meals. Feeding the American who needed to recover his strength, however, was putting a slight strain on her resources.

She’d decided she liked the American soldier.  He was quiet in a pleasant, thoughtful way and tried hard to stay out of her way while obviously enjoying her company.  Mai was not sure that this was a good thing.  He would be leaving soon and she must continue her life in the village.  It was not a good idea to become too friendly and … as a young Vietnamese lady, it would not be proper.  Returning to the long house, she found the American sitting on the steps enjoying the sunshine.

“What are you doing?” Mai scolded.  “You should be lying down and resting.”

Cordell smiled.  “I just needed to move a bit.  Can’t get too lazy.  Anyway the sun feels pretty good right now.”  Mai noticed the rifle leaning on the step beside him and frowned.

“You must go inside.  You should not been seen outside.  Too many VC.”

“Okay, okay.  You might be right.”  Cordell, using his M16 for support, hobbled back into the house with Mai right behind him.

“With your brother in the area I do not think too many VC would bother this village.”

Mai admitted to herself that he was probably right.  The VC generally steered well clear of this village.  They’d learned from experience that they didn’t last long in this area with Dish and the other Montagnard men from the local villages on patrol.  And too, the American Special Forces teams would often pass through on missions to disrupt the flow of weapons and other supplies coming down from the north.  Despite all of this, her painful memories had ingrained in her the importance of always being on full alert.

Mai busied herself preparing vegetables and rice for the evening meal while Cordell found a place to sit and relax.  He was feeling better but still needed several more days recovery before he could attempt to get back to his unit.  His head still hurt pretty badly where he’d gotten that prize-winning knot.

Cordell found it pleasant just sitting there watching Mai move about, concentrating on her tasks.  She was so very beautiful!  Her face, her hair … she moved with such an easy grace.  He wanted to help her prepare the food but thought better of it since he still felt weak and was much safer sitting down, and he certainly didn’t want to overstep any cultural bounds.

The next morning Cordell awoke feeling much better.  He worked his way down the long house steps and over to a bench where he sat to enjoy the morning sunshine.  Dish had returned to the village and was engaged in some kind of martial arts practice with other men from the village.  Being a soldier, Cordell always found an interest in such things and he enjoyed watching them practice.  Whatever they were doing, it looked practical, efficient and damn lethal.  He was intrigued.

Dish saw him sitting on the bench and when they were done, came over and sat down.  Dish also liked this quiet American who didn’t complain too much and seemed genuinely interested in the village and its people.  Dish could tell Mai liked him too.

“You like,” Dish asked indicating the martial arts practice session.  “You try tomorrow.  Okay?”

Cordell wasn’t too sure he would be ready by then, but nodded and smiled.

“Okay,” he replied, hoping he would somehow survive tomorrow’s practice session.

Two days later Cordell’s general condition was greatly improved.  He’d survived two of Dish’s training sessions and was beginning to understand a little of the basics.  Mai explained that Dish was showing him Vovinam, a Vietnamese martial art originally taught to Dish by her father.

Later that evening Cordell, with Mai translating, asked Dish about getting back to a U.S. base and his unit.  Mai was surprised to realize that she was very saddened to think of Cordell leaving.  Dish replied that the Vietcong were currently very active to the south, in the very area they would have to pass through to reach the closest U.S. military outpost.  His recommendation was to wait a few days until the VC moved into another area.  They were constantly moving to help avoid detection by U.S. forces.

Cordell took the translated advice from Mai well enough.  It made sense and he found that he liked the idea of being around Mai for a few more days.

Days turned into weeks. The VC seemed to be staying put. Cordell spent the time gaining back his strength, practicing Vovinam with the village men, and helping Mai with her chores.  At first Mai resisted his help, saying it was woman’s work.  Cordell countered that he could not sit around and do nothing … and besides, he needed the exercise.  Finally, Mai relented. She had found she enjoyed the time spent with Cordell, whether in the garden, fetching water, or doing other odds and ends.  He’d even learned the names of her pigs.

Dish joined them for the evening meal.  He had news. Through Mai, he explained that the VC had moved off to the northwest. Cordell should have no trouble getting to a Special Forces camp a few days walk to the south.  Unfortunately, he and the other village men would be heading north to track the VC’s movements. He could not guide Cordell.

Damn it!  He needed a guide.  He had no radio, maps or even a compass. All of that was lost when he was thrown from the chopper.

“I will show you the way,” came quiet voice. Cordell looked over at Mai, ready to argue.  Dish looked at Mai and nodded, and that was that.

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