Saturday, 4th February 2023 - 3:06:00 am
Whalen was out the door of the chopper as soon as it touched the ground. Under his arm he carried two brown boxes that looked like oversized bricks. He ducked down as he moved away from the helicopter even though he knew it wasn't necessary. A jeep started across the field toward him. There was only a driver in it. When it got close enough he recognized Kincaid
Bob Douglas, who was piloting the chopper, cut his engine when he saw the jeep.
There was something changed about Kincaid. He looked older, thinner. His face was drawn. Some lines were appearing on it. The lines were vertical making his face look even more narrow. It looked as if it took great effort for him to smile. He was smiling now. "Congratulations," he said. "I see you got your bird."
Whalen had been promoted to full colonel. He got into the jeep and set the boxes down on the floorboard alongside his feet.
"Thanks," Kincaid said. "I ran out of cigars last week."
Whalen made a face. "Manila Blunts. I don't see how you can smoke them."
"If you think they're bad, I've been smoking the Rhade tobacco the last week. You should try that."
"I've got something else for you." Whalen took something white out of a breast pocket and held it out to Kincaid. It was a piece of cardboard with two silver oak leaves attached to it. "You are now a lieutenant Colonel." He looked at Kincaid's near nakedness. "I would pin them on but, there's a problem."
Kincaid looked at the insignia with distaste. "What the hell are these for?"
"These," Whalen slipped the cardboard between Kincaid's leg and the seat when he couldn't take them, "are the good news."
Kincaid started the jeep back off the field. "I figured that," he said.
"The bad news is: you've got a new province chief." Whalen hesitated.
"And it's not General Trinh Won," Kincaid finished for him.
"No, it's not. But he's a Montagnard. His name is Lieutenant Colonel Huong."
"Lieutenant colonel, huh?" Kincaid held up the insignia. "Is that why they did this?"
"We couldn't have the province chief outrank you."
"Huong, Huong," Kincaid repeated the name. "I think I've heard of him. But he's not a Rhade, is he?"
"No. He's a Jarai." The Jarai were a neighboring tribe of Montagnards.
"Shit! That's nearly as bad as having a Vietnamese. This province is mostly Rhade. Why couldn't they put a Rhade in charge? Trinh Won is going to be running things here anyway. Why didn't they make him province chief like I asked?"
"Because they're pissed with you. That's another thing I had to talk to you about."
"You gonna stay for lunch?"
"No. I've got to get right back. I only flew in to talk to you about stuff we couldn't put on the radio, even in code."
Kincaid stopped the jeep right there, in the middle of a heavy growth of trees and brush. He turned off the engine. "So talk," he said. He opened one of the boxes, took out a cigar and lit it.
Whalen glanced around nervously before he began. "There's talk," he said, "among our Vietnamese allies, that you are playing footsie with the Viet Cong. Some are even branding you a Communist."
He waited for a reaction from Kincaid but none came.
"Don't you have anything to say?"
"People talk," Kincaid said, "and some people talk nonsense. What do you want me to say?"
"Don't you want to know why they are saying that?"
"Okay. I"ll play the game. Why are they saying that?"
"This area has been very quiet in the last two months. Practically no action at all has been reported. That's one reason."
"For Christ's sake! That's known as pacification. Isn't that our objective in this area? Isn't that our objective in this goddamned war?"
"All right, all right. I didn't say it was a good reason. Another thing they're talking about is that you haven't launched any offensive actions. The South Vietnamese think maybe you've go an agreement with Charlie. You don't bother him, he don't bother you."
"That's known as peace, Colonel. The South Vietnamese ought to try it. That was our aim here, remember? I told you the Rhade only wanted to be left alone. Are you forgetting what we talked about the first time we met? You told me we had a deal."
"I didn't know you were going to make the same deal with the Viet Cong."
"We don't have the same deal with the Viet Cong. We don't have VC observers in our area. Have the South Vietnamese observers complained about any of our actions?"
"What else are your friends talking about then?"
"We're not finished with that point. They want you to launch offensive operations."
"No way. Charlie leaves us alone, we leave him alone."
"The war isn't over, Kincaid. You can't make a separate peace."
"The hell I can't."
They stared eyeball to eyeball until Whalen looked away. "We've got to work something out," he said.
"We did work something out. We made a deal."
"That was a year ago. Who would have expected, way back then, that you would actually have cleaned this area out by now?"
"So now you want to change the rules just because we carried out our end?"
Whalen looked out the windshield of the jeep. "They're putting pressure on me." His tone was suddenly confidential.
"Okay. But look at it from my point of view. I made the deal with the Rhade. Do you want me to go to Trinh Won now and say my government has changed its mind? If I did, they'd never listen to me again. They'd never listen to anyone from our side again. They might all go over to the Viet Cong."
"What? All of them?"
"We're talking about a lot of men here."
"Do you really think they would?"
"I don't know what they'd do. I'm just saying that's a possibility."
Whalen thought a moment. "That would be a damned good reason not to ask you to do that." He nodded his head and smiled. "That would clinch it with our people, anyway. The General wants you to know that he's damned pleased with the job you've done out here."
"Thanks. Is that all then?"
"No. I saved the worst for last. The South Vietnamese are really pissed about Major Ngai's assassination. They filed charges against you. They think you had something to do with it."
"Oh yeah? Why is that?"
"They think it's strange that the only casualties in the last two months were the province chief and his assistant. Especially after you had been trying to get him replaced for weeks."
"War is hell," Kincaid said. "Strange things happen."
"When we wouldn't bring you up on charges, they started talking about taking some sort of action against you. I think it's just talk but, be careful. We're behind you a hundred percent, as long as they can't prove anything. They won't be able to prove anything, will they?"
Kincaid gave him an innocent look. "Prove what?"
"Good," Whalen said. "Good." He looked around as if there could be a chance of their being overheard there in the boonies. "Just between you and me," he started conspiratorially, "was he informing? Did you catch him?"
"Yeah. We caught him."
Whalen sucked in his breath. "So. Then you had more to go by than what you told me that Viet Cong officer said."
"Yeah. We caught him cold."
"Then it was you that got him?"
"Off the record?"
"Off the record."
"I took him out myself. Him and his bastard assistant. They cost us Phillips, Salazar, Hinh, Trung, Nguyen and about fifty more good men. Your damned right I took him out."
"Good." Whalen put a hand on his shoulder. "You did good."
"I don't know why Saigon was protecting him."
Whalen shrugged. "He had friends in high places."
"I wouldn't be surprised if they were VC too."
Whalen didn't reply. He had his own ideas about that subject, but they were best left unspoken, even among friends. "I've got to be getting back."
Kincaid backed the jeep until he found a wide spot in the road. He turned it around and headed back to the chopper pad.
"There's talk of an American pull out," Kincaid said just before they reached the landing zone.
"Don't worry about it," Whalen said. "They're sending home some troops, that's all. We"ll never pull out completely. We're here to stay."
"The United States has made commitments to a lot of people around here that we mean to keep. You don't have to worry about any pull outs."
Kincaid stayed at the landing zone until the chopper was out of sight.