Tucker's Last Standby William F Buckley, Jr.
The year is 1964. Lyndon Baines Johnson and Barry Goldwater are vying for the presidency, and CIA master spy Blackford Oakes has been sent to South Vietnam to halt its infiltration by men and materiel coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Working out of Saigon with Tucker Montana, a shadowy Texan who designs a brilliant system for breaking the North's supply route, Blackford Oakes is caught up in the ambiguity and confusion generated as America's involvement in the conflict escalates. As Tucker's murky past, his torrid romance with the seductive Lao Dai, and the growing menace of global war come into focus, Oakes—and Tucker—find their loyalty called into question. Both men are forced to make a decisive move that will have consequences neither man can foresee.
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Tucker's Last Stand
A Blackford Oakes Mystery
By William F. Buckley Jr.
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1990 William F. Buckley, Jr.
All rights reserved.
February 2, 1964 Laos
Blackford Oakes tried to remember: Had he ever been hotter?
There had been that stifling cottage on the beach in Havana where he spent those miserable weeks waiting on the caprices of Che Guevara. How hot had it got there? he tried to remember, on one of those endless summer afternoons. One of his professors at Yale in the mechanical engineering school had said airily to his class that engineers always know the temperature of the air, even as pilots always know in which direction north is, and navigators can tell you within millibars what the barometer is reading: part instinct, part the need, every little while, to consult the thermometer, the compass, the glass. ... Yes, Professor Schmidt, the students would nod, mutely. God, what an iceberg; you always knew what his temperature was. He'd have sunk the Titanic in tropical waters.
Blackford brightened, as he stepped around the manure on the ground. A wonderful, creative thought had just occurred. Only a few years ago, when in October 1957 the Soviets had launched their dazzling satellite, striking dumb the great superpower of the West with this display of advanced technology, President Eisenhower had rushed through Congress a bill to help pay the college tuition of engineers and scientists, citing the critical scarcity of them. Could it be that Professor Schmidt had something to do with generating that shortage? Had the deadly word gone out from Yale to the whole of the Ivy League, to the state colleges, reaching even to California? Study engineering and you'll spend four years with the likes of Professor Schmidt. Well, Blackford could not remember exactly what the temperature had been in Havana, but it couldn't have been this bad — or was he suffering the normal biological decomposition of the thirty-eight- yearold?
"Shit," said Tucker Montana, as he removed from his massive left forearm what looked like a baby tarantula. Using thumbs and forefingers, he spread the little creature apart and examined it. "It's only a Tarantulus virgo," he said, tossing it at Blackford, who stepped deftly to one side, letting it fall into the steaming bush-nettle that reached up toward them, sometimes a foot high, sometimes three feet and more.
"If you want to make pets out of your tarantulas, make pets out of them. I don't collect them."
He realized suddenly that he had sounded more acidulous than he intended. He was feeling the heat, and now he was making Montana feel the heat — not a good idea at all; very unprofessional in tight, oppressive circumstances. He hadn't worked with Montana before, knew about him only that he came from a purposefully obscure unit in the Army, designed to take on special projects. And Montana knew only that Blackford was CIA. Blackford permitted himself to reflect that, really, Major Montana didn't know him quite well enough to toss tarantulas his way.
He forced himself to smile. "On the other hand, I might save it and send one to Mother. She loves nature."
Montana grinned and with his long ferule beat the bush directly ahead of him, calling out to Ma Van Binh, their sun-grizzled Laotian guide. "Binh, we getting a little too high? Yes? I mean, the trail is now a couple of hundred meters over" — he pointed to his right. Ma Van Binh said it was necessary to watch for "bayno" — booby traps — planted close to the trail. Montana interrupted. He knew all about booby traps. Hell, he even knew the specialist who had gone over to Hanoi to teach them the latest models. "I almost got the son of a bitch one time." He opened up to Blackford as he continued beating his way behind Ma Van Binh toward Point Easy, where the helicopter would meet them. "Former Huk. His name, I kid you not, is Jesus Joseph Sacred — Jesús José Sagrado, graduate of a fine little Catholic school in Luzon. Far as I can make out, all they graduated was Huks." With his hand he swatted the mosquito on his nose.
"I'm exaggerating, obviously; sure there were a couple of others besides Jesus the Boobytrapper came out of that missionary school. The Huks gave ol' Jesús a little portable laboratory all his own, and didn't like it if he didn't come up with a new trick every day. He got a chicken to swallow explosives before we walked into Miramar: that chicken stayed alive until one of the Huks turned him over to the cook for dinner — one less cook in the Philippines. Then there was the case of beer — not a trace of rust, no holes, nothing. Beer came out like a TV commercial, only when you drank it you had about three minutes to live, three unpleasant minutes.
"Jesús liked most of all gravity, though. Some of those trails, hunting down those man-eating bastards, some of those trails got so you didn't want to walk over any surface of any kind, didn't matter what it looked like, didn't matter if it was a slab of concrete, because old Jesús Sagrado had a way of covering his boobies so no geologist could tell that it wasn't a good solid stretch ahead of you. But every now and then it was just a wafer-thin layer of earth, and just under that a nice deep hole with maybe three punji stakes, almost always got their guy right in the crotch. One of those boobies was worth a hundred casualties, if you counted the morale; got so you couldn't get the Filipinos to tread over freshly laid concrete."
Blackford confessed he had never heard about Jesús Sagrado.
"We never caught the bastard, but after the surrender in 1954 Colonel Lansdale's scouts discovered he had been scooted out to Hanoi and given some medal or other by the great Ho himself, and reestablished with a new and better laboratory so he could do something to diminish the frog population."
The conversation had the effect of sharpening Blackford's vision. Granted, he was walking directly behind Montana, who was walking directly behind Binh: he had, in effect, without planning or even desiring it, two forward scouts to step into any of Jesús's booby traps, plenty of warning. Still, the heat and the fetid air seemed to magnify all ugly possibilities, including the bizarre possibility that either man could walk safely right over a booby trap without setting it off, yet it would go off under Blackford. Time for a drink of water. And yet one more photograph.
He gave word to stop the column of five men and snapped what must have been his five-hundredth picture, yet another view of the jungly bramble that all but covered the trail that was serving the North Vietnamese as the vital, if narrow, difficult, and treacherous supply line into the southern part of the country they were determined to conquer. It was Blackford's responsibility to specify, and then design, with his own engineering background and especially with the help of the wizards at Aberdeen Proving Ground, means by which traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail could be detected, so that something might be done to interdict the materiel and men beginning to travel over it in greater and greater volume. Down the Trail they came: guerrillas, of course — members of the North Vietnamese army — and weapons, weapons, weapons, everything from .22 pistols to bazookas, the latest kind, made in the Soviet Union.
They had walked almost eight miles that day, the fifth day of Blackford's exploration, and he was habituated now to the redundancy of the Trail's surrounding features — the hanging Spanish-moss-like vegetation, the sprouts of sharp underbrush, the varicose little ditches engraved by the spring floods. He was to isolate one hundred miles of the Trail, in pursuit of the Grand Design to block it, and he needed to come up with specifications for whatever mechanisms might transform this otherwise unseeable, impenetrable bush-jungle "road" into a highway as visible as a stretch of highway laid over Arizona desert.
A hell of an assignment, but then President Johnson was a big man and he thought big and the word to the CIA was: Find out a way to block the trail those mothers are using, what the hell we got all that technological know-how for, if we cain't stop a few half-armed yellow savages from supplyin' a major revolution in South Vietnam? When the Director called Rufus and Blackford in and told them what he wanted, he paraphrased the President's instructions, running them through that verbal laundry he and so many others in direct contact with the Commander in Chief used when relaying instructions to subordinates. But when the President, in his impulsive way, had said he wanted to see this Tucker Montana in person, plus the two CIA officials he'd be guiding to do the necessary surveying of the Trail, it was only left to make the appointment and the arrangements. So that at 10:30 at night, Appointments Secretary Jack Valenti took all three of them to the White House, where they had a personal taste of the presidential vernacular. They were not shown into the Oval Office, or even to the private quarters, but were taken directly to the swimming pool. Five minutes before they arrived, the President had decided he wanted to go for a swim. When Rufus, Tucker Montana, and Blackford were led to the indoor pool the water was dimly lit, but it was easy to see the President, lying on his back, his nose and his penis projecting just above the water, his paunch like a mountain protecting the artillery pieces on either side from each other.
The water's fine, come on in, the Commander in Chief said, more an order than an invitation. Blackford was unhesitating. Montana looked at him, then followed his lead. They stripped, an attendant taking their clothes, and dove in. Rufus simply turned away, tilted one of the canvas chairs to one side so that his eyes did not fall on the pool, and said nothing. The President was gurgling in the water and chatting away with great spirit about the magnificent resources at Aberdeen with which he intended to meet the yellow bastards who were doing everything they could do to ruin his administration and maybe even turn the country over to that maniac Goldwater, if he ever got nominated, and elected, "though I myself like the dumb son of a bitch, except maybe he would get us into a third world war, and that would be bad for my spread down on the Pedernales." He sank his head a final time and waddled to the stairs, climbing out of the pool into the bathrobe held stretched out for him. Towels were given to the other two men as they climbed up the ladder and sat on the marble bench while dressing. One was still tying his tie, the other lacing his shoes, when President Johnson walked out fully clothed and motioned them all to follow him.
Seated in the Oval Office, he talked about the report he had had from "Secretary McNamara — back only a few days from 'Nam, you know, and he says we going to lose all fucking Indochina unless we stop them at the Trail." The President then paid the legendary Rufus a handsome compliment, stroking him as if he were a long-lost brother, and was clearly distracted by Rufus's failure to purr: Rufus was that way, laconic, formal. Everybody who had ever worked with him knew that, and Blackford permitted himself a smile as President Johnson worked, like Jimmy Durante on a reluctant nightclub audience, trying to get it to swing with him, Durante lifting his chair and bashing it down on the piano. LBJ soon gave up on Rufus, and turned now to Tucker Montana. "Montana," he said, "you got one Medal of Honor already. I'm prepared to give you another one, but I want you here alive for that, so don't take any of those crazy risks you're famous for." Tucker Montana was not displeased that his name was known in the White House. Blackford, who knew nothing about Major Montana's past, except what he had just heard, did know that it was one of Jack Valenti's jobs to give the President useful biographical data about the men and women who came to see him. Addressing Blackford now, the President said simply that he knew the esteem in which Blackford had been held by "my predecessor." Blackford bowed his head ever so slightly. "One of these days I'm gong to bring you in and hear you tell me yourself about the time you spent with Che Guevara. Son of a bitch is takin' Castro's revolution to South America; hope they catch the bastard, string him up."
LBJ lifted his right index finger ever so slightly, and Valenti, looking out for the signal, rose, followed quickly by the three men he had brought in to the White House. The President rose too. "McCone says you'll be in the field within a week. I've told him to report to me directly what recommendations you come up with." He extended his right hand to each of them. With his left he opened a drawer and pulled out a fistful of presidential tie pins, money clips, and cuff links, dropped them in Valenti's open hand and said, "Jack, you give these distinguished genelmen some of these souvenirs." He nodded his big head, and walked out of the office ahead of his guests.
The sun was directly overhead and the little scouting party huddled under the shade of a tamarind tree. Ma Van Binh sat at one side of the tree trunk with his two Vietnamese porters, who put down the radio and photographic equipment and laid their rifles alongside his. They ate the rice from their moist sacks silently, taking sips from their water gourds and exchanging only at long intervals a few words in Vietnamese. Behind them Blackford was thinking over the question. Montana wanted to know why we hadn't raised hell with North Vietnam for violating the two-year-old treaty guaranteeing the neutrality of Laos.
"Because they know we have no means of enforcing it. I mean, we have no means of enforcing it that we're willing to use."
Montana was silent for a minute. Then, "Why don't we make them?"
Blackford swallowed a draft of water and leaned back on the tree trunk, removing his large-visored sun hat and using it as a fan. "Well, that reminds me of something that happened when I was at college. There was a professor there, political science, bright as hell and ornery as hell, loved to twit his colleagues, ACLU types. A faculty meeting was called to protest the prosecution in New York of the Communists rounded up under the Smith Act, the Foley Square trial — you remember that?"
"Yup. I was in Japan. Just before the Korean War, right?"
"Nineteen forty-eight, I think. Anyway, for an hour or so it went around the big table in the faculty room, all the professors talking about the unconstitutionality of the Smith Act and so on, and then they came to my mad professor, Willmoore Kendall, asked him what he thought about it. And he said, 'You know, there's an elderly Negro lady who cleans up my Fellow's suite every day and this morning just before I came over here she said, "Professor, is it true that there are people in New York who want to overthrow the government by force and violence?" And I said, "Yes, that's true, Mary." And she said, "Why don't we run them out of town?" 'Now, that lady'" — Blackford was imitating the Oklahoman-Rhodes scholar accent of his old tutor — "'that lady knows more about politics than any full professor in this room.'"
Montana laughed. And then he paused. "What's the equivalent? How would you run the North Vietnamese out of town?"
Blackford changed the subject. "The President wants to control the traffic on this highway, that's true. The North Vietnamese shouldn't be on it in the first place, but then they shouldn't be in South Vietnam, the way I figure it —"
They were distracted by the sound of the helicopter approaching. The rotors were deafening as the large OH-13 Sioux began to squat down. It had reached a hovering station only a few feet above the ground when they heard the shot coming from the bushy ravine below. One of the pilots slumped in the cockpit. Montana snapped orders even as his own rifle began to spit fire into the densest bush to the right of the plane.
"Cover cover cover move your ass Binh!"
The three natives were on their stomachs firing. Blackford had only his pistol. He leaned over and shouted to Montana.
"We'll have to run for it." Montana needed no instructions in guerrilla technique. He slapped Binh on the shoulder. "Tell your men to continue firing, you run into the chopper with Mr. Oakes. Resume firing when you get there. Tell the other guys to begin running when we pick up your covering fire."
Excerpted from Tucker's Last Stand by William F. Buckley Jr.. Copyright © 1990 William F. Buckley, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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