Pitcher struggled under the weight of the man on his back. The man was not large, but navigating the swamp was no easy task to begin with. As he stumbled over an exposed root, Pitcher swore dispassionately. The man on his back stirred and began to fight against Pitcher’s grip. Pitcher had bound the man’s wrists and ankles with vines. He wasn’t going anywhere, but he could make a lot of noise if not silenced.
Dropping the Chinese soldier roughly on the ground, Pitcher reached into the cargo pocket of his pants and pulled out a small metal box the size of an Altoids tin. The box was wrapped in duct tape. Pitcher peeled a length of duct tape from the box and secured it over the smaller man’s mouth. The man’s eyes fluttered as he began to regain full consciousness. Pitcher put his index finger to his lips signaling to the man that he should remain silent.
The U.N. scout’s eyes grew even wider as he took in Pitcher still covered in mud and swamp slime. Pitcher slapped the man lightly on the cheek to focus his attention. He then pointed at the muzzle of the man’s rifle and then to the man’s forehead with his thumb and forefinger in the shape of a pistol. Pitcher pulled his hand back slightly and let his thumb fall like the hammer of a revolver. The U.N. soldier got the picture.
There was no reason to continue to carry the Chinese solider now that he was conscious Pitcher decided. He reached down and quickly slipped his folding knife from his right-front pants pocket. The blackened blade of the Benchmade Presidio flicked open with an ominous automatic click. The scout began to squirm. His eyes went wide again.
“Not yet,” Pitcher chuckled as he slipped the razor-sharp blade between the man’s ankles and cut the vines holding them together.
Relief flooded the scout’s face as he realized that his time had not yet come.
“Up,” Pitcher commanded as he motioned with his left hand, the scout’s rifle held steady on the man’s chest.
The Chinese soldier struggled to his feet without the use of his hands and looked at Pitcher with questioning eyes. Pitcher once again motioned with his left hand while holding the rifle in his right. The motion was made with a flat, bladed hand held vertically. Pitcher’s arm chopped forward at the elbow signaling the direction.
“Move,” Pitcher growled.
The smaller man nodded his head and began to walk in the direction that Pitcher had motioned. The two picked their way slowly through the swamp. From time to time, Pitcher would nudge the man in a new direction. As they navigated the difficult terrain, the scout made mental notes … just in case.
After nearly an hour, the two came into sight of a cluster of shacks sitting on pilings near the headwaters of the Suwannee River. Long before, the river was made famous in the Stephen Foster song, Old Folks at Home. Pitcher laughed to himself every time he thought of Foster and the song. Foster had never visited the river when he wrote the song. He had even misspelled the name of the river “Swanee”.
As the U.N. scout took in the shanty camp, he was in no mood to laugh. The bank of the river bustled with activity. There were no less than 50 people swarming around like ants at a picnic. Every one of them appeared to be well-fed and in good health. Most carried side arms and, the soldier noted, there was a rack of rifles nearby that appeared to be U.S. military weapons. Many of the people were busy performing tasks that were beyond the scout’s experience. Perhaps most disconcerting was a group of three men expertly butchering an alligator. A deer carcass hung nearby, blood pooling beneath it. Several alligator and deer hides were in various stages of curing. Something boiled in a large cast iron cauldron over a bed of glowing coals. A sturdy looking woman, dressed in bib overalls, stirred the cauldron with what appeared to be the remnants of a boat oar.
Pitcher gave the U.N. soldier a shove in the direction of a shack built on land perhaps fifty meters back from the bank of the river. In front of the shack was a large fire pit. Behind the shack the dense woods closed in limiting visibility to only a few yards beyond. The scout looked around as he walked slowly in the direction of the shack. Several boats were tied to the pilings supporting the river shacks. The scout puzzled over the boats with the large fans in the back. He had never seen boats like these at home on the Yangtze.
When Pitcher and the scout were within a few feet of the shack, an elderly man emerged from the front door and stood on the porch. His hair was curly and mostly gray with a few sprinkles of black. He wore a light-colored, long-sleeve cotton work shirt and gray striped overalls. The U.N. scout sized up the man and guessed his age at near 80. He appeared to be in excellent condition for an octogenarian, however. The scout continued to be amazed at the health of this group of people living in the swamp without support from their government.
“Manny!” the octogenarian’s voice boomed.
A Hispanic man, who appeared to be in his late twenties or early thirties, turned from his alligator butchering duties and responded, “Yeah, Pappy?”
“Come on over here,” the older man’s voice was thick with Cajun drawl.
Manuel Colón put down his knife and wiped his bloody hands on a towel. He removed his bloody butcher’s apron and hung it from the branch of a nearby tree.
Manuel, or Manny as he was called by anyone who had known him for more than about three minutes, was a naturally friendly guy who also happened to be a very deadly Army Ranger and Chinese linguist. There were easily a dozen souls who had left this earth shortly after seeing Manny’s teeth flash in what they thought was a friendly grin. Manny’s natural ability to connect with people had made him a lethal combination of cobra and teddy bear. As a backup to his ability to get information from informants through positive means, Manny had also developed a full suite of less pleasant interrogation skills. Manny had established himself as the go-to guy, before the crash, when his unit needed information from anyone that spoke Cantonese or Mandarin. Manny had proven his value once again as the Chinese U.N. troops advanced into Georgia.
“Manny, we need to know what this here fella knows,” Pappy said, a placid look on his face.
Manny’s pearly whites flashed as he shifted his gaze from the grizzled old man to the young Chinese scout. After a quick assessment, Manny spoke softly to the Chinese soldier.
The scout was surprised when the olive-skinned American spoke in Mandarin. The dialect wasn’t quite right, but the scout understood Manny perfectly.
Manny gently took the scout by the arm and led him over to one of the thick logs that circled the fire pit.
“Here, sit down,” Manny invited in flawless Mandarin as he flipped the short section of log on its end making a flat seat. “You must be tired.”
The scout looked at Manny, a little bewildered, and then nodded his head and sat.
“This will hurt just a bit,” Manny said as he reached for the tape across the scout’s mouth.
The young U.N. soldier flinched as Manny reached toward him but then noticed Manny’s winning smile and held fast. Manny peeled the duct tape from the young man’s mouth as gently as he could.
“You OK?” Manny looked into the scout’s eyes with what appeared to be genuine compassion.
The scout nodded as he returned the gaze.
Manny pulled up a second log and sat down next to the young man. He continued in a conversational tone for several minutes building rapport and ferreting out bits and pieces of information that he might be able to use later … if necessary.