The blades of the UH-60 Blackhawk slashed at the air as they flattened the grasses of the meadow in which General Wei and his troops were camped. The helicopter had been “re-assigned” from a U.S. military unit to the Chinese PLAAF troops under General Watanabe’s command. Still relatively new to the bird, the Chinese pilot was getting used to the controls. He set the Blackhawk down hard jarring the troops inside.
Although he had studied the helicopters used by the PLA, General Wei had little actual experience with the birds and walked fully upright into the wash of the idling main rotor. His battle dress headgear was unceremoniously blasted off of his head and tossed several yards into a soupy section of the meadow. One of his troops noticed and immediately retrieved the general’s cover with a salute.
Wei returned the salute, grumbled under his breath and climbed into the chopper. The Blackhawk’s engine revved as it lifted from the meadow, wobbled slightly and then rose above the tops of the trees and disappeared in the distance.
Wei’s men stood in silence looking at the treetops where the chopper had disappeared. He had left them no final orders before his departure. With no orders and no idea of when or if, Wei would return, the executive officer meekly suggested that the men make themselves as comfortable as possible and wait for the general’s return.
The troops mumbled as they returned to their previous locations.
A few miles away, Pappy, Manny, Pitcher and the rest of the swamp dwellers were scrambling. The camp was alive with activity. Camouflage nets were pulled from boats. Gear was packed and stowed. Weapons and ammunition were distributed. Packs were slung onto backs.
As with most things, the group had practiced this drill. Everyone knew their job and each job was performed with near-flawless efficiency. In a matter of less than 45 minutes, the camp looked like a ghost town on the bank of the river. All of the personnel and essentials were in the various boats as they headed down the river.
The boats fanned out as the river widened. Eventually, each boat went its own way into the river’s offshoots and backwaters.
Only a few hours later, a formation of five Xian JH-7 fighter bombers skimmed the tops of the trees before delivering their payload. The explosions rocked the swamp and diminished the camp into nothing more than ashes and a massive hole in the ground. River water quickly drained in and filled the hole erasing even the ash-laden evidence of the former camp. The swamp, as it had for centuries, took hardly any notice of man’s attempts to destroy it as well as his fellow-man.
Pitcher carefully guided his air boat to a stop as the sounds of the reverberating explosions reached his ears over the roar of his engine.
He let out a low whistle, “Whooee, they really wanted to get us.”
The two women sitting up in the bottom of the boat looked up at Pitcher.
“Do you think they’ll come after us?” the older of the two asked.
“I doubt it, Ma,” Pitcher replied. “Even if they do, we’re spread from here to breakfast and we left no trail.”
Both women sighed and hugged each other.
“Where do we go from here?” the younger one spoke up.
“That, I don’t rightly know,” Pitcher admitted. “Pappy established a meeting place in the event something like this happened. We need to get there in the next three or four days. After that …”
Pitcher’s voice trailed off as he watched the dark smoke of burning trees and undergrowth roil toward the sky.
“After that,” Pitcher continued, “we’ll have to see.”
Manny Colón maneuvered his John Boat carefully through the tangled roots of the cypress trees as Pappy sat amidships. Manny’s comms specialist buddy sat in the bow.
“Where we headed, Pappy?” Manny asked as he ducked under a low-hanging branch.
“You know where the rendezvous point is, son,” Pappy seemed annoyed.
“After that,” Manny ignored the tone in Pappy’s voice. After all, the old codger had just lost his home.
“Don’t rightly know,” Pappy now seemed lost in thought. After a brief pause, he continued, “We got enough supplies in our boats to last us for a while. We can live off the land. Been doin’ it down here in the swamp for centuries.”
“What about the Chinese?” the radioman chimed in.
“You think they’ll come in after us to clean up?” Pappy seemed incredulous.
The comms specialist chuckled, “No, Pappy, I was thinking about cleaning them up and helping ourselves to some of their supplies. It’s the last thing they’d expect.”
“Son, you is one mischievous devil,” Pappy laughed.
“That I am, sir,” the radioman fell silent.
“Boys,” Pappy’s light mood continued, “I don’t know you all that well, but you seem like fine fellas. I’d hate to lose either of you over vengeance on some Chi-coms that bombed my house.”
“Pretty sure he wasn’t thinking about vengeance,” Manny replied.
“No, sir,” the radioman confirmed. “We need more supplies. We need more ammo. We need a place to stay. The Chinese have all that … and more.”
“Well, I’ll be a son of a gun!” Pappy exclaimed. “You boys don’t care none at all about my home.”
“That’s not it, sir …” Manny began.
Pappy cut him off, “I’m just joshin’ ya. Don’t you worry none.”
The three men were silent for a few moments as Manny navigated the narrow waterway.
Pappy spoke up again, “Can either of you fellas fly one of them whirlybirds?”
“We’ve both completed a basic course in helicopter flight,” Manny replied, “but neither of us is a pilot.”
“Any of the other Rangers a pilot?” Pappy asked with a wry grin. “I’d like to have me one of them birds.”
“No, sir,” Manny replied. “None of our pilots came with us. I’m pretty sure we could fly a Blackhawk, though. It’s a bit tricky, but, like I said, we’ve been trained.”
Pappy slapped his hands together startling an alligator sunning itself on the bank of the small tributary, “Let’s go get us some choppers then!”