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The Last Bridge
By Brian Garfield
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1966 Brian Garfield
All rights reserved.
COLONEL David Tyreen stood at the window and looked past his gaunt reflection at the slashing monsoon rain. His eyes were hooded, and cigarette smoke was strong in his nostrils. He pursed his lips waspishly, glanced at his watch, and turned his back to the window. Ceiling bulbs pulsed faintly with the rhythm of throbbing diesel generators beneath the building: this quarter of Saigon had no city electricity after dark.
David Tyreen crushed out his cigarette and crossed the room to a corner half in shadows. A freckled sergeant sat by the telephone, scrubbing his hands, gazing at the silent black phone with the studied concentration of a monk attending his breviary.
The sergeant spoke without looking up. "It's nineteen hundred hours, Colonel."
"You can't make the damned thing ring, Harris. Relax."
"I guess there's time yet," said Sergeant Harris. The sleeves of his fatigues were rolled up. His hands were red from squeezing. "This is a bitch of a night, ain't it, sir?"
Tyreen searched the wall map of Vietnam. Red-ink circles marked seven areas, all of them north of the 17th parallel. It was the northernmost target-area that held Tyreen's attention.
Sergeant Harris said, "We should've heard from them by now, sir."
Within the red circle, crosshatched railroad tracks curved through mountains, intersecting the jagged blue thread of the Sang Chu River. Contour lines, indicating altitude, crowded close together—the sign of steep, broken country. Harris said, "That bridge ain't no crackerbox. I guess it takes time. But I wish the Goddamn phone would—"
"Shut up," said David Tyreen.
Rain spattered the roof monotonously. Tyreen whistled a French tune. It fluted loudly around the room. He shut his mouth abruptly. Harris looked at him. Tyreen turned his lip corners down and returned to the window.
A patrol of Canh Sat police pedaled by on bicycles, rain-slickers over their white uniforms. They flashed fragmented reflections. Floodlights threw into relief the main gate a hundred yards away.
David Tyreen was a gaunted man in a trim green jacket. His mouth was bracketed by deep creases. He stared out the window with half-shuttered dark eyes. His skin was beaded with an overlay of sweat; hair the color of old stained leather made a sidewise slash across his forehead. He looked as though he had gone a long time without sleep.
Sentries stood guard around a hangar where most of the command had assembled to watch a USO show. The post was quiet. Two infantry officers passed the window, their helmets bowed against the rain, gesturing in conversation, absently answering the salute of a passing enlisted man. Far to the west, on high ground, Tyreen could see faint white flashes on the horizon: the reflection of white phosphor mortar shells or thermite grenades. Flares arced across the jungle.
Rain trickled down the windowpane and Sergeant Harris sat over the telephone, pawing his brown-freckled face. Tyreen peeled back his sleeve to study his watch. He spoke sotto voce: "Come on, Eddie."
The telephone rang. Harris snatched it up, and Tyreen strode across the room. The Sergeant spoke a few curt words and hung up. Harris said, "Weather report. All we damn well need right now. Colonel, where's Captain Kreizler? Where in hell is he?"
Tyreen's eyes flashed. Harris looked away, toward the wall map. Tyreen's hand reached the desk and he gripped its edge. A wave of faintness broke over him. He swiveled on one heel and braced a hip against the desk. When the dizziness passed, he stood up with care and walked deliberately toward the door. He turned through it and stopped by the water cooler to fill a paper cup. Inside his pocket, his hand opened a tin and palmed a five-grain quinine sulfate capsule. He slipped it into his mouth and drank.
The hall was empty. He stood by the water cooler, unnaturally tense, as though afraid his body might betray him by faltering. He began to shake, seized by alternate heat and cold. He had to lean against the water cooler.
He heard the creak of the metal door. A shadow filled the opening, outlined in falling rain: a soft-cheeked man in the unmarked fatigues of a war correspondent. "Christ, it's wet."
The seizure kept Tyreen silent. The correspondent said, "Lots of weather we're having."
Tyreen stood straight. "I thought you people never crawled out of your bottles before midnight, Harney."
"Haven't had a chance to get started yet."
Harney had a round pink face. His eyes seemed to leer at all times. A strong aura of whisky hung suspended around him. "You okay, Colonel?"
"Sure. Everybody's tired. Seen the weather report? Typhoon coming off the South China Sea. Due to hit the coast tomorrow morning, up around Da Nang."
Tyreen glanced through the inner door. Sergeant Harris stared unblinkingly at the wall with one hand across the phone.
"Christ," said Harney, for no evident reason.
Tyreen plugged a coin into the candy machine and bent to fish out a packet of peanuts. He threw back his head, tossed a handful in his mouth, and chewed with bovine deliberation. His dark eyes seemed to recede back along dark tunnels in his face. He watched Harney sit in a canvas chair and pull out a flat pint bottle of whisky.
Harney said, "I'd say as a general rule Vietnamese women are really beautiful. You find damned few skinny ones or fat ones. Which is more than you can say for any other corn-patch I can think of." He offered the bottle to Tyreen.
Tyreen declined. Harney droned, "Quart a day keeps the medic away. I go through hell keeping a supply of this rotgut." He waved a hand around. "We seek no wider war," he quoted in a singsong drawl. "Crap. Smoke?"
"I just had a physical." Harney thumbed a cigarette out of a mangled pack. "Want to know what the doctor said to me? He said, 'Harney, you've got a liver that won't quit. You've got a Goddamn pool-shaped liver.'" He burst into laughter, dragged a sleeve across his face, and drank from the bottle.
Tyreen sweated. He leaned against the candy machine, weak and drowsy. Harney said, "You feeling all right? Scout's honor?"
"What are you rooting around for, Harney?"
"A story. What else?"
"Knowing you, the possibilities are limitless."
Harney chuckled politely. "Everybody's on the lip of something, and I'm out of it. I don't like being out of it. I don't get paid not to know things."
Tyreen said absently, "Let the magazine save some paper this time around."
"That's like telling a fellow to stop his watch to save time." Harney sat back and sucked at his bottle, looking like a man ready to relax and reminisce. Tyreen looked into the office again; the phone was still on the hook. The chills came again. He said, "I'll take one of your smokes now."
Harney tossed him the pack and a book of matches. "A fellow gets sick of living on press-release handouts from MAC-V and the Dien Hong palace, Colonel."
"Security," Harney said, and sighed. "You can't blame me for asking. You're about as lavish with information as a Goddamn Vermonter. You come from New England?"
"I didn't think so. You talk like a cracker. Texas?"
Tyreen lighted his cigarette. Harney said, "Want a swig of Valley Tan? You look like you could use it."
"Everybody out here seems to talk like Confederate rejects or refugees from the HatfieldMcCoy feud. It's a Southern army. Speaking of which, I saw a friend of yours this morning—that colonel from Atlanta. What's his name? Urquhart, isn't it? Colonel Urquhart. His battalion just got transferred down to this sector from Qui Nhon to reinforce Colonel Farber's outfit. You seen Urquhart?"
"I guess maybe they're shipping them straight on out to the enclave. Hell of a flap going on down there." Harney looked out through the window; the white flashes were bright on the horizon. "Maybe a regiment of Vietcong. They love suicide, the little bastards. I was up in the tower, watching for a while. The Air Force is murdering them. Napalm, the whole enchilada. You sure you don't know anything I can use, Colonel? On the record or otherwise."
"Not a thing."
"Well," Harney said, "maybe I'll check back with you later, hey?" He slipped into his raincoat and paused in the doorway, but seemed unable to think of anything to say; he made a sharp turn through the door, and Tyreen saw his head bob past the window.
Tyreen finished his smoke, alone in the outer room. He had a nervous habit of pursing his mouth and then turning his lips sharply down at the corners; his mouth was moving in a set rhythm. He looked down at the shine on his shoes and then lifted his head to listen to the chugging of helicopters overhead. The smell of whisky lingered from Harney's visit.
Rain, soft and thick, splashed on the window's outer sills. He went back into the office. His pulse throbbed. Sergeant Harris had given up the crossword puzzle; the newspaper lay folded on his desk. The headlines were flat, lifeless: yesterday's news. MARINES CAPTURE VC DEPOT AT CAM THOU. Tyreen pinched the bridge of his nose and pressed his eyes shut. He listened to the quiet drip of the diminishing rainfall. The quinine sulfate was taking effect; he felt drowsy.
The telephone rang.
Sergeant Harris reached for the instrument. Tyreen brushed Harris's hand away and picked up the receiver. He held it to his ear, not speaking. There was a pause, a crackle of static on the line. Then on the phone Captain Theodore Saville's round, deep voice boomed at him, startling him:
"Go ahead, Theodore. Are we scrambled?"
"Yes. Bad news, I'm afraid."
After a moment, Tyreen said, "All right. From the top."
"They didn't make it at all."
Tyreen drew in a long, thin breath and let it out slowly. His eyes flickered to the red-crayon circle on the wall map—the railroad bridge across the Sang Chu River. He glanced at Sergeant Harris's silent, expectant eyes and shook his head. Harris's face fell. Tyreen said into the telephone, "What about Eddie Kreizler, Theodore?"
Theodore Saville's voice rumbled across the wires: "Eddie is down. Dead or captured. Probably captured, and his exec with him. Corporal Smith thinks they were captured. Smith got away."
"The only survivor?"
"Anyhow the only one who walked away. He said they marched right into it. The Reds were waiting for them."
"I wouldn't doubt that," Theodore Saville said, and although he was not a subtle man, there was an overlay of sarcasm on his voice.
A bit of peanut had got stuck in Tyreen's back teeth. He worked it out with his tongue and swallowed it. Saville said, "Corporal Smith said he'd stand by to receive orders at twenty-three hundred hours."
"I'll have to take it upstairs, Theodore. You know that."
"Yes, sir." Saville added, "But maybe I ought to start getting a team ready. The job's got to be finished."
Tyreen said, "Hang on a minute." He glanced at Sergeant Harris. "Get General Jaynshill on one of the other phones."
Harris got up. Tyreen said, "All right, Theodore. Get the crew together and stand by."
"Who's going to command?"
"I'll try to get Major Parnell."
"He's pretty sick."
"I'll worry about that, Theodore," Tyreen said gently.
"I'll have to scrounge like hell. Too many new offensives—all the best men are way out in the field with Special Forces units."
"Do what you can."
"Sure. Good luck, David." Saville swore mildly. "I wish to God we had time to fly a reliable team down from Guam or someplace. Who knows what these people will do when it gets hot? I've only got one halfway reliable pilot left for this kind of work, and even he's hard to trust—for all I know, he's passed out right now with a Vietnamese broad and a bottle. This could be a mess, David—if just one of these bozos cracks at the wrong moment, we're all up shit creek."
Tyreen smiled gently. He had a vision of Captain Theodore Saville, big and round like the voice—a sergeant-major by nature, a military mother hen. Tyreen said, "Take care, Theodore," and hung up the receiver.
A truck surged past the Quonset hut. Sergeant Harris said, "Line's busy, Colonel."
"Keep trying. And in the meantime call Major Thomas at Bien Hoa. I'll want a jet standing by for me at twenty-three thirty hours to fly me up to Nha Trang."
Harris was reaching for the telephone when it rang. He listened to a voice that squawked metallically; when he hung up he said, "Another Goddamn radar weather report. That typhoon's zeroing in on Da Nang. Due to hit the coast around nine tomorrow morning. That going to slow us down, Colonel?"
"We'll try to beat the storm. Try the General again."
After a moment Harris shook his head. "Still busy. I'll call the Air Base."
Tyreen turned and stared at the wall map. Tacked up beside it was a strip of overlapping aerial photographs: jungle-covered mountains, the seacoast running northeast-southwest along the right-hand edge of the strip. A whitechalk circle surrounded the area where the darker green canyons of the Sang Chu, slicing through the mountains, crossed the westward surge of the railroad tracks. The bridge itself was not shown in the photographs; the concave cliffs of the Sang Chu gorge overhung the bridge. It was invulnerable to aerial attack.
A string of monotonous curses droned through Tyreen's mind. He turned back to the desk. Sergeant Harris covered the telephone mouthpiece and said, "Major Thomas ain't on duty right now, sir. I got the duty officer. He's making static."
Tyreen beckoned. Harris handed him the phone, and Tyreen spoke into it: "Colonel Tyreen here. Who's this?"
"Captain Grove speaking, Colonel. I understand you want an aircraft and pilot."
"That's right, Captain. What's the flap?"
"Can you give me the purpose of the mission, sir?"
Tyreen said, "I'm calling on General Jaynshill's authority, Captain," and winked solemnly at Harris, who regarded him with bland round eyes.
The answer was a long time coming. Presently the telephone squawked: "General Jaynshill left here two hours ago, Colonel, and he didn't say anything about needing a plane tonight. Sir, I've got a dozen priority missions for every available jet on this field. People are trying to claw the walls down around here, demanding air support for ground operations all over the map. I've got pilots taking off right now who've flown at least sixteen sorties since noon today—and in this weather. Before I can release a jet for passenger-carrying purposes, I'm afraid I'll have to have a general's signature in writing. I'm sorry, Colonel."
Tyreen took a long breath. "You're new on the base staff, Captain?"
"Yes, sir. But—"
"Before you refuse me that plane, Captain, I'd suggest you get in touch with your superior officer."
Sergeant Harris made a point of studying his fingernails. Tyreen listened to the telephone with impassive features. The Air Force Captain spoke deliberately: "Major Thomas has been standing alerts for two and a half days without sleep, Colonel. He's asleep on a cot behind the ops room. I wouldn't have the nerve to wake him up for anything less than a direct bombardment on this base. I've got full responsibility for aircraft releases as long as I'm duty officer here, and I'm afraid I'll have to stand by what I said before, sir."
Tyreen clamped his teeth together. "You get me that plane, Captain, or in the morning you'll be looking for a new job."
He could hear the man breathing on the far end of the line. Tyreen's nostrils dilated. He saw Harris looking at him with one arced eyebrow; he felt like saying to Harris, "God damn it, I've got a right to pull rank—that's what rank is for." But he said nothing. Into the phone he added more mildly, "I'll be there at twenty-three hundred hours with written authorization from General Jaynshill, Captain. If I don't produce it, you can scrub the flight. But have the plane standing by for me. Understood?"
"You've made yourself clear, Colonel." The Air Force Captain didn't bother to disguise the resentment in his voice. There was a rush of sound over the phone—a jet taking off. Someone evidently opened the Captain's door: in the background Tyreen could hear the rattle of voices spitting takeoff and air-traffic instructions into microphones in the control tower. The Captain said, "Can you hang on just a minute, Colonel? I may have something for you."
"All right." Tyreen cupped the phone and spoke to Harris.
"Get on another phone. Get through to the General's aide and ask him to hold a line open for me."
Excerpted from The Last Bridge by Brian Garfield. Copyright © 1966 Brian Garfield. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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