Monday, 29th May 2023 - 16:33:18 pm

They passed the end of the old camp on the right of the road. The vegetation was not near as thick here as in the lowlands along the coast. There was little undergrowth.

"You nearly got me killed. You know that?"

"I nearly got us killed, you mean. I didn't know Charlie would have that road blocked. Last time I went that way it was open."

"Well it's closed now."

They had to stop talking as some people came toward them along the road. When they got closer Kincaid saw that they were three young Rhade women. All were topless but he was getting accustomed to that now. He had seen many like that from the bus. The women seemed to recognize Hao. They started chattering at him when they were close enough. Hao stopped when they were opposite and spoke to them for several minutes. There were many giggles and sideways glances at Kincaid as they spoke. He thought one made an obscene gesture.

When they were far enough past Hao said, "It's all clear. There are no VC in the village."

"What would we have done if it wasn't clear?"

"I don't know," Hao said, laughing. "I hadn't thought about it."

"Great. I was afraid you might not have a plan."

"Those women liked you, Steve. They wanted to take you in the bushes right there."

"All three of them?"

Hao laughed. "Sure. Get used to it. I told you our women are aggressive. And there's a shortage of men in the villages."

Kincaid tried to digest that. "Do they all dress like that?"

"It's our custom," Hao said. "Before the war, Rhade women went bare above the waist wherever they went. But now the GI's shout at them from trucks as they pass, or stare at them in the towns. So many of them wear clothes when they go outside their villages."

They were nearing the end of the rubber plantation on their left. Kincaid guessed they were about a mile from the highway. There were no fences around the plantation. He had seen no one working inside.

"I don't see why it should be such a big deal," Hao went on after a while. "You know, a tit is just a tit. You see one you've seen them all."

"It's our custom," Kincaid said. He was starting to get thirsty and they had brought no water. "How much farther do we go?"

"Not far now."

The dirt road turned left where the trees of the plantation ended. Kincaid saw that it was a perimeter road for the plantation. Hao didn't turn. They started onto a narrow trail barely wide enough for a single vehicle. There were tracks from a jeep on the trail. The tracks weren't fresh. Tracks left by carts were more recent.

It made Kincaid nervous to walk along the trail without a weapon in his hands. He had never done that before. "Shouldn't we assemble our rifles?" he asked.

Hao thought about it a minute before replying. "Better not," he finally said.

"Tell me something about the Rhade." Kincaid followed Hao's lead and pronounced it rah-day. "Why do the Vietnamese dislike you?"

Hao laughed a nasty laugh. "It's because they fear us. Ask the Vietnamese why they stayed out of the highlands for thousands of years and they will answer, 'Because there are tigers there.'

"It's true, there are tigers here. They are all around us."

Kincaid glanced nervously about.

"But it is the Montagnards in the highlands that the Vietnamese have always feared. That is why they stayed out. We are as one with the forests. When the Vietnamese come here, they are at our mercy."

"Okay tiger," Kincaid said. "Calm down. How many Rhade are there?"

"I don't know. I don't think anyone has ever counted us. Some say there are about a quarter of a million. But we are only one tribe of Montagnards. There are more than thirty tribes. Some of the tribes are small. Altogether there are, I don't know, maybe two million."

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