Summary: With his chosen personnel in place, Hannibal's team has a mission. But with "the best-laid plans of mice and men," nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Number Eight in the "Vietnam Chronicles."
Disclaimer: I don't own the A-Team, though sometimes they dance to my tune. I do lay claim to all the peripheral characters that wander through the Vietnam Chronicles, with the exception of those I'mpeckable coaxed into being. For those who haven't previously visited our version of Vietnam, this story is co-written by I'mpeckable and me and appears under alternating author names. Hogan's Heroes was initially televised from 1965 to 1971. The Pirates of Penzance was written by Gilbert & Sullivan in 1879.
RABBIT HOLES & FLYING MACHINES
Murdock walked through the outer office directly into the CO's office where the colonels were discussing possible conflicts between the two areas of operation. Dressed in fatigues rather than a flightsuit, it was obvious that he hadn't intended to fly at this time. Belatedly realizing the presence of the other colonel, the pilot glanced curiously at Hannibal, but addressed himself to his CO. "You wanted to see me, sir?" he asked.
Reinhart nodded. "Lieutenant Murdock, you remember Colonel Smith? He needs a chopper for a rescue mission." He scrutinized the pilot as he spoke. "The Colonel will brief you with his men. Any problems with this?"
The pilot's eyes flicked back at Hannibal in consideration, but he replied easily, "No, sir."
"Good," the CO replied. "That will be all." He turned to Hannibal and said, "Good luck, Colonel Smith," before returning to the papers on his desk.
Murdock hesitated, then asked, "Do I get Remy St. James?" He waited expectantly for the response.
Reinhart studied him for a long moment, then looked toward the outer office, where the corporal had returned. "Hutton?" he asked.
Hutton came to the door. "They are on their way, sir." He looked at Murdock, "Vincent is checking with Met Services and will meet you at the briefing room. Polanczyk said something about a phone call stateside, but that the chopper will be ready when you are." At the pilot's nod, he turned back to the CO, "I told St. James to report here after this mission."
"Any arguments?" Reinhart asked, sternly.
"No, sir," Hutton replied, with an inner smile. Remy's reaction had been interesting, but not out of order.
"Thank you, Corporal," the CO replied. "That will be all." He waited until Hutton closed the door, before turning to the pilot, who was still waiting for his answer. "Yes, you may have St. James," he replied, with a vexed air. "Dismissed, Lieutenant."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir," the lieutenant replied. He saluted, waited for the response, then exited the room.
"St. James?" Hannibal questioned, looking at Reinhart. BA's interest in the specialist had piqued Hannibal's own.
The CO looked up at Hannibal with exasperated amusement. "One of my door gunners," he explained, "I could use about twenty of him in the choppers-all the pilots like having him on their flight. Does excellent work, just hasn't mastered discipline on the ground." He lifted a folder from his desk and gestured absently with it. "Nothing major, more like the kid who can't sit still in school. Always finds some trouble to be in. And I have projects to keep him busy," he confided, tossing the folder back on the desk. "A full time job in itself sometimes, but St. James will fall in line."
Hannibal nodded. "I'd better get going. Thank you, Colonel," he said as he headed for the door.
"Good luck," Reinhart offered again, watching him go, before returning to his own concerns.
The pilot had already left when Hannibal walked through the outer office. The corporal, who was busy at the typewriter, didn't look up. Hannibal headed for the briefing room where Ray and Peck waited. As he arranged his paperwork in preparation for the briefing, a warrant officer, dressed for flight, entered the briefing room and smiled uncertainly. Hannibal nodded in acknowledgment and Pete found himself a seat, starting on the chopper's paperwork, while he waited.
BA entered moments later, and dropped his gear by the table. Seating himself in a chair, he fidgeted and glanced warily at the peter pilot, whose flightsuit was an annoying reminder of the chopper ride to come. Pete acknowledged him with a preoccupied nod before returning his attention to his reports. As the door opened again, BA watched the pilot come in, still in his fatigues, and cross the room.
Murdock glanced toward the sergeant, then his mouth quirked with a suppressed smile. "The losers in the weekly drawing?" he asked, gesturing at the special forces team, as he sat next to the warrant officer. "What happened, you run out of enlisted?"
BA snorted without replying, unwilling to start that kind of discussion with the pilot. Hard enough when the man made sense.
Ray and Peck watched Murdock curiously as the two pilots conversed in low tones. Both had caught the AC's reaction to BA and they darted curious glances his way. Peck leaned over to read their name tapes, then-as the names registered-shot a startled look at the colonel. He turned back to Ray, nodding knowingly at the pair. Ray's eyes widened and he turned to study them closer.
The pilot had dropped into his seat, unmindful of military decorum. His lanky form gave the impression of sprawling over the area he occupied, as he leaned forward, intent on his conversation. His fatigues were worn and rumpled, presenting an interesting contrast to the peter pilot's uniform. In comparison, the peter pilot sat erect. His newer attire fit his frame as if it were custom made, and if it were a suit, wouldn't be out of place in a boardroom. Although the physical difference between the two wasn't that great, it was more of a difference in attitudes, one that went beyond rank.
Slouched carelessly in his seat, Murdock' eyes moved thoughtfully around the room, noting the occupants. Two lieutenants, as well as the colonel, and the big black sergeant. Third time with the sergeant and a different team each time. Baracus seemed so unapproachable, especially with that habitual scowl, he couldn't resist throwing something confusing at him.
He had words with the colonel the last time, although Smith had made no reference to that in Reinhart's office. This colonel seemed comfortable with his position. Murdock had met too many people who-given a little rank-had to impress their importance. How the mission would go off, he wasn't sure. Seems like another rush job with little backup.
Murdock didn't know either of the lieutenants. One, more his age, seemed relaxed and confident. The other, somewhat younger, cast darting glances toward the other members of the team, as if he were looking for their approval. Needs to grow into his lieutenant's bars, he thought. He eyed them covertly, between keeping track of the paperwork Pete was handling, but couldn't tell much. Their jungle fatigues had the wear patterns characteristic of field duty, rather than from sitting behind a desk. He directed his attention back to the colonel, as the room fell silent.
Hannibal paused before starting his briefing. "Where are your door gunners?" he queried, addressing the pilot.
Murdock shook his head. "Getting the bird ready. We were supposed to be off this morning. Maintenance was going to do some of the routine stuff so we could fly this aft if we were needed." He leaned back and stretched his long legs under the table as he continued, "I'll give them the run down of what they need at the chopper."
Hannibal nodded. It wasn't necessary to have the door gunners present. He just preferred knowing that everyone understood the objective. Also, since he was still feeling out this crew for permanent assignment, it would have given him a chance to observe their ground behavior. Competent for general assignment and what he wanted weren't exactly the same thing.
He explained the mission's objectives and again passed around the maps and reconnaissance photos. His men had already been through most of what he covered, but he was pleased to see they still kept close attention and took notes. He watched the pilots carefully as the photos were passed to them, wanting to see their reaction to the possible landing site.
Murdock's eyebrows rose as he flipped quickly through before handing them to Pete. The peter pilot's eyes widened as he carefully scrutinized the photos. He glanced at Hannibal, as if looking for the punch line, then silently shoved the photos back at Murdock. The room was quiet as the pilot studied the pictures. He looked up at the colonel, waved the photos in his direction and asked, "This is the best you can find?"
"The only one even marginally close to the ambush site," Hannibal affirmed, waiting for any objections.
Murdock gave a noncommittal shrug, and tossed the photos back on the table. BA, Ray and Peck exchanged confused looks.
"I take it that's a 'No'?" asked Peck, amused at the scowl BA directed toward the pilot.
"Well if you can't handle it," Ray teased, picking up the challenge, "we could find some real pilots from one of the other units. Maybe the First Cav?"
"Hey, hey," Murdock protested, abruptly sitting up. "I wouldn't want you to fly with less than the best." He glared around the room, ensuring no one was seriously questioning his piloting ability. Satisfied, his eyes sparkled as he settled back and queried, "What do you say, Pete? Should we give these folks a real chopper ride?"
Pete looked back, his lack of enthusiasm obvious, and shook his head ruefully. "It's your ship."
Murdock's grin broadened. "You did want to come back in one piece?" Seeing the briefing was basically finished, he glanced over the paperwork Pete had started, pointed to a spot, and quipped, "You made a mistake here."
Pete frowned in confusion as he rechecked his figures.
Murdock elaborated. "Two-forty is for standard infantry, but for big, ugly mudsuckers and all their gear, you have to figure a little extra, say five-six hundred." He glanced at BA to see his reaction, then turned to Ray. "Don't you agree, lieutenant?" he asked innocently.
Ray shook his head, holding his hands up in protest. "Don't get me involved in this," he dissented. "You can dig your own grave."
Pete looked worriedly at BA, who growled and rose from his chair. "Murdock," he warned.
Unruffled, the pilot remained in his seat as the sergeant approached. He watched BA for a moment, then turned calmly to Pete and said, "Of course you can take a little off for a mudsucker who has been working out, say fifty or sixty." Another look in BA's direction showed him still approaching, glaring fiercely. A hint of worry entered the pilot's voice as he continued, hurrying his words, "And maybe another fifty or sixty for one who's been eating right, just like his mama told him."
Hannibal smiled to himself, seeing BA had forgotten about the chopper ride he really didn't want to take. "BA," he admonished, not wanting to see what damage BA intended for the pilot. The sergeant halted, regarding Murdock with a challenging look.
With a sideways glance at the sergeant, the pilot heaved an exaggerated sigh of relief and went back to checking the paperwork without another word.
Hannibal glanced around the room. "Any questions?" he asked. Hearing negative replies, he added, "We'll meet at the chopper in ten minutes." He gathered his papers and left the room, intending a quick word with Morrison on his way to the chopper.
Peck grabbed his gear and headed down toward the heliport. As he reached the door, he could hear the pilot's voice in a stage whisper, "Then again, if they're carrying snacks- it takes a lot to keep a mudsucker moving in the jungle." He didn't wait to hear the rest. Impatient for the mission to get underway, he also wanted to be out of the same room as the sergeant. He couldn't understand why the pilot baited him in that way, unless he was trying to get himself killed. There were easier ways, he thought.
The helicopter appeared deserted as Peck wandered out, ahead of the rest of the team. He was feeling confident and more than a little smug. His network was falling back in place, the nurses were a distinct possibility and he managed to handle whatever tests the sergeant had devised. The plan the colonel had laid out for the rescue should be a piece of cake, getting them back in plenty of time for-well, he had time to work on that.
The cargo doors were open and one of the big M-60Ds used by the door gunners sat precariously on the seat, partially blocking the doorway. Peck looked at it for a long moment, imagining himself as a door gunner. It was a heady feeling. Not that being Special Forces wasn't more important, he told himself.
He looked around, not seeing anyone, as he reached for the weapon, intending to move it out of the way. They wouldn't mind me holding it for a moment.
"Touch that weapon, I'll break your arm."
Startled by the slow drawl behind him, he flinched and whipped around. A black-haired crewman with Specialist Four patches on his flight suit stood on the path. The aggressive stance and hard stare had a distinct lack of welcome.
"What?" Peck asked in confusion, slow to comprehend with the other's accent. He scrutinized the crewman as he puzzled out his speech, wincing inwardly at the heavy bruising and black eye on the right side of the crewman's face. That had to have been one hell of a bar fight.
The enlisted insignia on the flightsuit meant this had to be one of the door gunners. Determined to make a good impression, Peck smiled in greeting, "Hi, I'm Lt. Peck. Nice to meet you. You startled me." He shrugged defensively, gesturing at the weapon, "I was just going to move it out of the way, ah, . . . " He looked at the other's name tape. ". . . Saint James?" he questioned, pronouncing the name as spelled.
The other man's eyes narrowed. There was no other response to Peck's attempts to smooth over the situation. His steely gaze followed Peck who lifted his hands in a conciliatory gesture as he backed away.
Peck glanced toward the briefing shack, hoping for some help. His problems were usually with officers and he somehow managed to talk his way out. Turning back to the chopper, he saw the crewman was no longer there. Peck sighed, shaking his head with relief. He turned the name over in his head, realizing that was also one of the personnel files he had examined for the colonel.
Another crewman, this one with blond hair, hustled up the path carrying a similar weapon, probably the other gunner. He set his weapon down and moved the one on the seat out of his way.
Peck watched, feeling more confident. It had to be a joke. "Your friend said he'd break my arm if I touched that weapon," he commented wryly.
"I'm sure he did," the crewman said distractedly, not looking at Peck. He didn't seem concerned about any consequences with his actions. The man wore the chevrons of a sergeant and Peck wasn't going to attempt pronouncing that name, not after the other gunner's reaction. The fourth crewman, of course. There couldn't be too many people with a name like that. After meeting them, he was beginning to think he missed something important in their files after meeting them.
"He has quite a sense of humor," Peck tried to keep the conversation going. "I really did believe him."
The sergeant glanced bemused at Peck. "Oh, it wasn't a joke," he replied diffidently as he scanned the interior, obviously running a mental checklist. He moved the second weapon to the other side of the bird and returned quickly the way he came.
Peck stared nervously at the weapon in the chopper. The sergeant had moved it, though he claimed the specialist wasn't joking about breaking Peck's arm. He was very aware about being the only one near the bird. If the door gunners weren't in this together, he was in big trouble.
He felt relieved with the arrival of the peter pilot, who greeted him politely before stepping up into the cockpit.
The black-haired crewman returned with ammo cases, which he stashed under one of the door gunner's seats. He completely ignored Peck, making no comment about his weapon being moved.
Apparently it was a joke, no matter what that sergeant said. Not a funny one in his book, but he could understand enlisted humor. It wasn't that long ago that he had been one. He looked toward the briefing room, hoping the colonel was on his way. Turning back, he inadvertently stumbled into the door gunner. Slammed face first into the chopper, he found himself pinned with his arm twisted behind his back.
"I told you to stay out of my way," the specialist snarled. As Peck struggled, the door gunner simply increased the pressure on the lieutenant's arm.
Feeling desperate, Peck pounded on the chopper with his free hand, attempting to attract the peter pilot. He was sure his arm would break under any more pressure.
The warrant officer looked up, realized what was happening, and stepped quickly from the chopper. "St. James," he enjoined, pronouncing the name, SIN-jin. "Let him go."
The door gunner eased up fractionally, but didn't release Peck. "He's trouble," he stated shortly. "Has a big mouth too."
The peter pilot returned, "He's also Special Forces."
"Fuck Special Forces," St. James retorted.
"I said 'let him go'," the copilot's voice snapped with the command. The two locked eyes for a long moment, before the door gunner abruptly released Peck and stepped back.
Peck turned around, his back to the chopper. He noted with alarm the look of relief that passed across the warrant officer's face. Deliberately not rubbing his arm, Peck protested, "I didn't touch your weapon."
The door gunner snorted, "No one said you did."
Murdock's arrival broke the uneasy impasse. He looked from Peck to St. James, then at the peter pilot, who silently shrugged and returned to the cockpit. "St. James," the pilot said, pronouncing it the same way Vincent had. He jerked his head, indicating the path near the heliport.
The door gunner glared at Peck before accompanying the pilot. They stopped a short distance up the path. Peck watched the conversation uneasily, not able to hear what was said. It probably wouldn't have helped, seeing that he barely understood the door gunner as it was. The abrupt, angry gestures weren't encouraging.
Hannibal, Ray and BA finally arrived at the chopper. Ray looked at the obviously heated discussion and asked, "What is going on?"
Peck shrugged uneasily, the relief he felt at their appearance fading slightly. "He got upset with me," he explained. "I'm not really sure why." Maybe Ray had an answer.
Ray shook his head worried, "St. James is probably the last person you wanted to start something with." He climbed into the chopper, settling himself before looking back at Peck. "He has a temper and the reflexes to back it."
"You could have warned me," Peck complained.
"You saw his file," Ray emphasized, sounding both exasperated and amused. "He didn't get that much disciplinary paper by escorting the CO's daughter to the dance."
Interrupted by the whine of the engines as the rotors started to turn, Murdock and St. James abruptly ended their conversation, and turned sharply to look at the helicopter. Unhurried, they walked to the bird, the pilot calmly opening the door to the cockpit and stepping up. The door gunner swung himself up to his seat, reaching for his harness.
As they loaded their gear, Hannibal looked curiously at Peck. "Are you all right, kid?" he asked.
Peck nodded, deciding to let the matter go for now. As he stepped into the chopper, his eyes met those of the door gunner. The ballistic glare hadn't changed and St. James jerked his thumb toward the other side of the chopper, indicating Peck was to sit there. Peck caught BA's amused look at the exchange.
Peck settled in a seat on the other side, facing Ray. He was aware of BA and Hannibal seating themselves. The helicopter sounded ready to take off, and Peck looked uneasily at the empty door gunner's seat on his side. He debated mentioning it, but the incident with St. James had left him rattled, especially since the guy was only about three feet away, with a really big weapon.
Hannibal solved that problem for him. Stepping up between the cockpit seats, he shouted, "Aren't you missing someone?"
The pilot interrupted his conversation with the tower. "He'll be here," he responded unworried, pausing only long enough to answer Hannibal.
Hannibal glanced around at his team and grinned. It was obvious that they-or at least, BA and Peck-had half a mind to get back out of the chopper. This was turning out to be an interesting ride.
They heard the pilot increase the power preparatory to lift off. At the same time, they saw a crewman check the pilot's door was closed and the protective panels slid into place. Moving around the front of the bird, he did the same for the peter pilot. As the chopper lifted, he stepped on the skid and slid into the vacant seat.
St. James looked across. "Were you late for your wedding, too?" he asked, with a touch of asperity, pitching his voice to carry across the cargo hold. The door gunner sprawled, deceptively relaxed, in his seat. Only his eyes still held an unsettling intensity.
The crew chief was trying to get his lifeline on and radio cord plugged in, while keeping both himself and his weapon in the chopper. "Didn't matter," he called back with a playful grin. "They waited for me." He thanked Ray, who had given him a hand, before continuing, "Are we in a hurry?"
St. James shrugged, unperturbed, turning to watch out his door. It was as much as dismissal as anything.
The noise of the rotors made conversation in the chopper difficult at best. Peck could see the crew chief's lips move as he spoke on the intercom. Without a headset, he could only guess at the conversation. He saw BA lean over and speak to St. James. The door gunner smiled wryly as he answered, gesturing with a hand.
The flight itself was uneventful, though there were strange sounds intermittently heard coming from the cockpit. It had a musical quality, but they shouldn't be able to hear the radio. Both door gunners ignored whatever it was, as they constantly scanned the jungle below. The canopy was thick here, blanketing the ground from sight.
Peck studied the blond gunner on the left side of the chopper. He looked familiar, but Peck wasn't sure where to place him. The sergeant stripes didn't help, nor did his being on a helicopter crew. It had to be somewhere off-duty. The club, maybe? The crew chief's sudden grin reinforced the impression.
Puzzled, the lieutenant looked around, becoming aware something wasn't quite right. The wind was blowing in the far door, and Peck realized the pilot had it out of trim, turned to fly at an angle. Nights in Vietnam were generally cold, especially during the monsoon season, and the air hadn't heated up yet this early in the morning. This was even more apparent at the high altitude the chopper was flying.
The dark-haired door gunner shivered and actually looked blue with taking the full force of the freezing wind. He rose from his seat and moved toward the front of the chopper, ignoring the curious looks from the passengers. Removing his knife from its sheath, Remy reversed it and rapped the back of the pilot's helmet with the handle. "Knock it off," he growled over the intercom.
Murdock flinched with the blow, then glanced back, grinning broadly. "I thought maybe you wanted to cool off a little," he countered as he straightened the chopper.
"Que tu es emmerdant," Remy started, highly vexed, before he was interrupted.
"Ah-ah," the pilot scolded lightly. Lifting his hand from the collective, and without looking back, he shook his finger at the door gunner. "If you're going to cuss me out, do it in English."
"Fly this fucking thing straight," the door gunner snarled, not intimidated. "Can go back to a ground unit, where it's warm," he warned.
The pilot simply lifted his hand again, pointing his thumb over his shoulder toward Remy's seat. Remy watched for a moment longer, then headed back, satisfied with the results.
Neither crewman noticed the amused looks BA and Hannibal exchanged as Remy returned to his seat. The door gunner replaced the knife in its sheath and settled back behind his machine gun.
The sun rose as they continued flying, bringing the damp heat common to the daytime jungle. If their intel was correct, there would be just enough time to reach the landing zone and move down into position for the intercept. Hannibal ran through his hasty plans for the rescue, considering each member of the team in turn. BA and Ray, he had worked with before, and was fairly certain of their abilities in the field. It was the first real test for Lt. Peck, but he should be fine. Based on the information Hannibal had, there was no reason he shouldn't be able to handle his part.
Hannibal shifted his attention to the chopper crew. Last time he had flown with this crew, his concern had been with the abilities of the makeshift squad, for the bridge demolition. He watched each member in turn, trying to judge individual performances.
Murdock wore a slight smile, barely visible under his helmet and mike as he flew. It was obvious that the pilot enjoyed flying and, if BA was correct, he had the skill to handle difficult operations. The colonel again wondered what the temporary duty in Murdock's file covered. Being dual-rated might come in handy, though Hannibal was unsure of a plane's use for covert operations, here in the jungle. His training in the use of infrared for night flying was also a definite advantage.
Hannibal let his gaze move across the cockpit as he considered the peter pilot. This was his first tour of duty, but Vincent seemed to be settling in well. Hard to judge his flying ability, not Hannibal's job anyway, but the warrant officer handled the landing zone well. Murdock had trusted him to fly alone, though Vincent hadn't done his check ride for AC. He had also stepped in to intervene with Peck and St. James, whatever that problem was.
He glanced to the left side, where the crew chief manned the weapon set behind the passenger seats. According to Polanczyk's file, no problems or surprises here; though the crew chief had little infantry training or experience beyond Basic. Hannibal made a mental note to discuss a refresher training session with Reinhart, and probably for Vincent as well. Murdock moved well in the jungle and St. James should, based on his LRRP background, but additional training wouldn't hurt either. It would also give his people a chance to work together and become accustomed to individual idiosyncrasies.
He frowned as he considered the last member of the chopper crew. BA had some reservations there, though the sergeant wasn't ready to share his concerns. The sergeant had spoken with the door gunner as they lifted, and although Hannibal hadn't caught the words, he sensed the concern under BA's tight lipped flying stance. The sergeant didn't like to fly and liked admitting it even less. St. James' file wasn't the best, but then neither were BA's nor Peck's, nor Hannibal's own for that matter.
The chopper crossed a small area of rice paddies and he saw movement. Murdock had seen it also, the chopper dipped and slowed, but these were American soldiers, not a threat. They looked up, cheering and waving at the chopper as it passed, pleased with the momentary distraction.
Remy stepped on the skid. Leaning out from the chopper, he raised one finger and yelled back, "WETSU!" He had obviously recognized the men, though Hannibal couldn't understand the returned comments. Maybe it was just as well, he thought, seeing the gestures. The door gunner dropped back into his seat as the chopper left the clearing. His grin was bright and infectious as he glanced back into the chopper. It was impossible not to respond, which eased some of the tension about the mission and rushed preparations.
After a few more miles, the pilot looked back, commenting, "We should be coming up on that landing zone."
Hannibal nodded and scanned the canopy below, watching for landmarks. He knew the insertion site was marginal, but there should be just enough room for the chopper. He saw both door gunners watching carefully, and felt relieved when Cass pointed it out.
Murdock studied the LZ, which looked even tighter than the photos had suggested. "In there?" he asked in disbelief, glancing back at Hannibal.
>Hannibal nodded. "It's the only one close enough," he responded, watching the pilot. It was up to Murdock at this point, whether he could get the chopper down. If not, they would probably have to abort the mission.
The landing zone looked small, far too small to accommodate the Huey, and there were several branches that might pose a problem. The pilot held the chopper still as he considered. It seemed like an eternity, but was only a few seconds.
"Oh, my ears and whiskers," Murdock murmured, a slight frown appearing on his face.
Pete glanced at him, then responded with a shrug, "Maybe the rabbit's not home."
"Hope, not," Murdock agreed. "I'd hate to meet him halfway down." They exchanged considering looks, then the pilot made his decision. "OK," he acquiesced, glancing back again. "We'll give it a try." He looked to the front as he clicked the intercom on. "Cass! Remy! Out!"
Looking bemused, Cass stood and made a prying motion like he had a crowbar in his hand. Remy rolled his eyes, shaking his head in exasperation as he rose. Both door gunners reexamined their lifeline fastenings before stepping out. Standing on the skids, they had a better view of the trees surrounding the landing zone. The chopper inched down slowly, making minute adjustments as they warned the pilot of possible impediments.
The reduced power on the descent muted the roar of the engine, making it easier to hear conversation. Remy casually leaned out from the chopper, balancing with a one-handed grip. Seeing this, BA gripped his weapon convulsively, resisting the urge to yank the door gunner back inside. He could hear snatches of Remy's course corrections and could almost touch the branches as they passed. He could have sworn there wasn't an inch to spare on either side of the tail as Murdock backed the chopper to get under a branch.
On the other side, Peck watched apprehensively. The branches were just as close, and the lieutenant could hear Cass's directions from where the crew chief nonchalantly stood out on the skid. Leaves and small twigs were flying everywhere as the main rotor chopped them off. It only takes one big branch, he thought, glancing back to see Hannibal's grin-at least one person was enjoying himself.
They were below the second layer of the jungle canopy, when Peck realized he could see the ground. He habitually scanned the landing zone, then frowned and shifted on seeing movement.
"What is it?" Hannibal asked, alert to Peck's change in attitude.
"I thought I saw something," Peck admitted, still scrutinizing the area.
Hannibal attracted the pilot's attention. "Hold up," he ordered.
Murdock halted the descent and held the chopper in a hover. "See anything?" he questioned the door gunners, as the pilots also visually searched for whatever Peck had seen.
Peck was already feeling like the boy who cried wolf. The negative replies from the door gunners made him think it was a case of mission jitters. It could have been anything. There were a number of wild animals in the area.
Unable to locate any activity on the ground, Murdock looked back at Hannibal. "Well, Colonel?" he queried. "Up or down?" The chopper stayed in a steady hover.
"Take it up above this canopy," Hannibal responded. "Let's see if anyone cares."
"Going up," Murdock acknowledged, as the chopper reversed directions. They had only lifted a few feet, when rifle fire erupted from the tree line below. Hannibal's squad slammed clips back into their rifles and returned fire, bracing themselves into position. Back behind their weapons, the door gunners fired, not at the enemy forces on the ground, but at the surrounding branches. The heavy caliber weapons disintegrated whatever was in their path, effectively enlarging the maneuvering area as they retreated up through the trees.
As he changed clips for his rifle, Peck saw Cass flinch and duck, turning his head to follow the round that impacted on the panel behind him. He started to go over to check on him, then stopped as the sergeant shook off the close call and realigned his weapon to continue firing.
There was a palatable feeling of relief when the chopper rose above the top canopy, moving away from the landing zone. Rifle fire had little chance of doing major damage at that altitude, but there was the possibility the VC forces had something more powerful.
"Guess he didn't want visitors," Cass cracked as he relaxed back against the interior cabin wall.
"Irascible old curmudgeon with a shotgun, huh?" Murdock questioned. "What have you been up to?"
"Not me," the crew chief returned, waggishly. "I don't get in trouble."
"You don't get caught," Remy corrected, leaning on his gun mount and still watching the tree tops. "There's a difference."
"It helps to look innocent," Cass agreed as he sat forward to see the gauges in the front. Turning serious, he told Murdock,"Looks good from here," and shifted to scrutinize the tail boom and rotor for damage.
The pilot looked to Pete, who-finished with his own inspection-turned and nodded. "Everything checks out," he replied, not quite hiding the relief in his voice.
Murdock finished his checklist, before addressing the colonel. He didn't need a systems failure without a good place to set down. They had run the RPMs dangerously high to gain altitude quickly. "Does that mean we're aborting?" he inquired, imperturbably, glancing back, "or did you intend to try it again?" He looked forward, checking his position, then leaned back again and confided, "Hole's gotten bigger, a few more tries, we could probably get a Shithook in there."
"Or our dead carcasses," Pete muttered over the intercom, shooting Murdock an exasperated look. "Sides, you can't fly one," he emphasized each word. As the AC turned to him with a considering grin, the peter pilot added, "Don't even start!" The grin broadened as Murdock turned back to his controls. Wisely, neither pilot turned to see the door gunner's reactions.
"Anyone hurt?" Hannibal asked, ignoring the byplay, as his people settled back in their seats. Receiving negative replies, he turned to the pilot. "Head on back," he said grimly, "this mission is a bust." Even if they could find another landing zone that would work, there was no way to get in position on time.
The AC acknowledged the order and the chopper turned back toward base. The door gunners took turns replacing the barrels on their weapons and checking their ammo supply. They weren't going to chance being caught unprepared, even though they were moving into American-held territory.
"Good job on the pickup, kid," Hannibal commented, looking over at Peck. The squad followed protocol in removing the clips from their weapons. They also checked to make sure full ones were available, just in case.
Peck smiled hesitantly in acknowledgment. It widened to include the other lieutenant as Ray reached over and patted Peck's knee. He glanced at BA, but the sergeant was lost in his own thoughts as they flew through the skies.
The sounds coming from the cockpit resumed. This time it was obviously singing, opera if he wasn't mistaken. More specifically, the pirate king's song from The Pirates of Penzance. Although, against the background noise of the chopper, this rendition sounded more enthusiastic than accurate, the mental image of the pilot playing that particular part made him grin. The music continued unabated nearly the whole trip back, stopping only when the instrumentation or radio distracted the pilot.
When the chopper landed, back at the base, BA turned to the colonel. "Had to be a setup," he growled. "How they know we coming?"
Hannibal's blue eyes were bright with anger. "I don't know," he said tightly. "Could have been just chance, but we also could have a leak." He stepped out, then looked back up at BA. "I'm going to see Morrison. Maybe he'll have an idea."
As the colonel stalked away, Murdock finished shutting down the chopper and stepped out of the cockpit. He walked back to where Remy stood in front of his weapon, removing his gear. "I'll see you in my hooch tonight," the pilot confronted the door gunner. "With an explanation, a good one."
Remy protested, "Haven't finished the colonel's extra work." He fidgeted uneasily, not looking at the pilot.
"Later then," the pilot consented, nodding in acknowledgment. "Wake me if you have to." He studied the door gunner grimly, emphasizing, "I will see you tonight or tomorrow it will be in Reinhart's office."
"But . . . ," the door gunner tried again, stopping at the pilot's questioning look. "Yes, sir," he capitulated. Disconcerted, Remy looked down and chewed his lip. He couldn't disobey a direct order and he still wasn't sure what to tell the pilot. Damn you, Forsythe! Drawing a deep breath, he lifted his chin, staring past the pilot, and straightened into the correct position of attention. He had learned a lot of things in Basic. One was how to hide behind a proper military attitude.
Murdock studied Remy, who still refused to meet his gaze. He reconsidered forcing the issue now, but, aware of the activity around them, decided to wait and question him in private. He walked away from the door gunner and, as he reached in the cockpit to start his after-flight checklist, noticed the Special Forces sergeant watching intently. Baracus scowled fiercely and stepped down from the chopper the minute he noticed Murdock looking. The pilot was the taller of the two men, but he had the impression of an authority figure glaring down at him-kind of like your grade school teacher. The pilot smiled faintly and shrugged, turning back to his work. He already had one sergeant who thought he was in charge, and he didn't need a second.
Watching from his seat inside, Peck smiled in satisfaction, seeing the door gunner dressed down. He wished he could hear, but from his stance St. James didn't like whatever the pilot had said. Exiting from the other side of the chopper, he saw Polanczyk examining the bullet hole directly above his seat. "Are you all right?" he asked sharply, gesturing at the damage to the left side of the crew chief's helmet.
Cass removed his helmet as he turned back toward the lieutenant. "Yeah, I think it missed me," his voice trailed off as he spied the deep gouge in the side of his helmet. His eyes widened and he sat down hard, realizing how close the shot had been. The crew chief ran a hand through his hair, and looked at the palm. It was clean, no blood. He turned the hand, putting thumb and forefinger together, and looked back at Peck in amused disbelief as he resumed his comment, "Oh, by about this much."
Ray had been standing by the chopper talking to Pete. The conversation had caught their attention, and Ray turned to check. "Let me see," he said and gestured Cass over. As the crew chief obligingly sat in the door area of the passenger section, Ray examined his head carefully. "Nothing." He stepped back with a relieved glance at the other officers.
Hearing the conversation, Murdock had come around the chopper. He waited until Ray was finished, took the helmet from Cass and stared down at the large gash. "Damn," he breathed and turned to study his crew chief. "Better go get checked out anyway," he ordered.
The crew chief grinned and stood, as he retrieved his helmet. "Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades," he quipped, glancing back to the bullet hole above his seat. The grin broadened as he looked back at the pilot with a shrug, "Good thing it wasn't a hand grenade."
"Or a horseshoe," the pilot retorted, relinquishing the helmet.
"How many points for ringing a chopper?" Cass queried. The initial shock over, he was starting to find the whole thing amusing.
"Depends if the horse is attached," Murdock countered, then flicked his fingers in dismissal. "Go, before someone has to carry you!"
As Cass headed toward the hospital, he noticed Remy. The door gunner stood silently by the tail, watching with concern, but unwilling to approach the officers. "C'mon, Rem," he said, collecting the door gunner by the arm without breaking stride. "Doctor Black wanted to check you anyway, right?"
"Yeah," the door gunner acknowledged warily. He resisted momentarily, then yielded to the crew chief's relentless tug.
"Besides, we need to get some blood," Cass continued conspiratorially. He released his grip on the door gunner and tapped the damaged helmet.
"Why?" Remy's voice was even more wary, if that was possible.
The rest of Cass's explanation was lost as the door gunners moved away from the chopper. "Why?" Murdock echoed, mimicking Remy's accent and wary tone accurately.
Pete laughed as he turned back to the pilot, "Makes you wish you were enlisted. This I would like to see." He sat in the open cockpit door, swinging his feet.
Murdock rubbed the back of his head as he considered. "I think I need to pull a Sergeant Schultz on this one." His voice changed to imitate the hapless German guard from Hogan's Heroes, "I know not-tink."
Ray settled into Cass' vacated spot. "Can't believe he didn't get a scratch," he said incredulously, indicating the crew chief's empty seat. "Someone is looking out for him." He shifted to make himself comfortable, not in any hurry to get anywhere.
"Charlie was actually too late." Murdock corrected dryly, shaking his head in bemusement. "That guy already has a hole in his head."
Pete snorted, "Not the only one." He turned to Ray as he countered, "I can't believe he isn't dead and stuffed under a rock somewhere, yanking Remy's chain like that." The peter pilot paused and eyed Peck curiously before looking back to the pilot. "Speaking of. Did someone get the license number of that truck?" he questioned with a worried frown. "He sure is a mess."
Annoyed, Murdock shook his head. "He's been avoiding me," he grumbled. "That's going to stop."
"What is his problem?" Peck asked, turning to the pilot for answers. "He nearly took my head off."
BA had also moved around the chopper. He scowled at Peck, but didn't comment. If neither Remy nor Cass had said anything about the other night, he wasn't going to start blabbing. The lieutenant could stand to be set down himself.
Murdock noted the scowl with curiosity. Aware of BA's attention while reprimanding Remy, he had the impression the sergeant intended to protect the door gunner. Though as far as the pilot knew, Remy never had any dealings with Special Forces.
"Don't worry about it, Faceman," Murdock said, frowning absently at Peck as he responded, not noticing the lieutenant's quizzical look at the name. "I'll talk to him." Unless someone had an explanation on Remy's injuries, he had no intention of discussing the door gunner any further. As for Cass, he treated everyone like a little brother. Pete just hadn't figured that out yet.
Murdock turned his frown to the peter pilot, who reluctantly got to his feet. "Let's get the inspection done," the pilot said brusquely. "I don't want to be out here all day." They went back to checking the helicopter systems methodically, eager to be out of the hot sun.
Amused at their abrupt dismissal, Ray looked at Peck and BA. "OK, I guess we know when we're not wanted." He glanced at his watch before continuing. "Hannibal will call a briefing, let us know what's up, as soon as he's done with Morrison. We'd better dump the gear and get something to eat."
Grabbing their gear, they headed to their hooches to unload. They were off duty until the afternoon briefing or if something urgent came up. And knowing the colonel, he would find something.
Author's Notes (back with a vengeance)
A Shithook is a CH-47 Chinook helicopter. This is a tandem rotor helicopter, meaning it has two equal sized rotors, front and back, both on the top of the machine. Just over twice the overall length of a Huey, it got its nickname because of the amount of dust stirred up by the rotors during takeoffs and landings.
Met Services is the Meteorological Services. It is the peter pilot's job to check the weather report before any mission.
The 240 pounds is the standard weight for infantryman with field gear, used when exact weights are not known, to determine if the load is within the carrying capacity of the helicopter.
Upon arrival, new pilots flew for three or four months as peter or co-pilots to become familiar with the area and with combat piloting. Before being promoted to Aircraft Commander, they would normally fly a "Check Ride" with an experienced pilot, like the road test for your driver's license. This pilot would observe their piloting skills to determine if they were ready for the added responsibilities of commanding a chopper.
The game of horseshoes is played by throwing actual horseshoes at a post. Competitors receive two points for ringing the post or, if no one accomplishes this, one point for being the closest. The horses are not normally attached, despite what Murdock said.