This story is by Bradley Harper MD and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The Last Man
The mud erupted all around us, the only light our muzzle flashes and those of the North Vietnamese trying to overrun us. Then an artillery illumination round went off overhead, and when I saw the ground covered with forms in black pajamas crawling toward us, I wanted the darkness to return.
“I’m hit!” Bill screamed.
“How bad?” I asked, crouching in the shadow of our hole.
“Bad,” Bill said, panting.
I saw bloody froth coming out of his mouth. A lung shot. Very bad.
“Medic!” I shouted. “Medic!”
“Platoon medic’s dead,” Bill said. “Saw him get it while dragging Jones back. We’re all that’s left.”
I looked over the top. Charlie was starting to stand up, getting ready to rush us. “Time to scram, Bill. You and me. Let’s go!”
“Can’t run,” he wheezed. “Can’t walk. Go.”
“Come on, Buddy. I’ll get us out of here. Lean on me.”
We dropped our weapons and ammo. If we stayed to fight, we’d die. I put Bill into a fireman’s carry and headed away from the shadows carrying AK-47s. I hoped the booby traps would slow them down enough for me to get us into the jungle behind. I wasn’t staying to find out.
The trenches wound back and forth but I made it to the command post in record time. A mortar round had taken out the CO, radioman, and the company medic. Dead men should look dead, I thought, but Captain Henry and Specialist Wilkins looked like they were sleeping. Blast wave must have got ‘em. The CO’s West Point ring didn’t save him.
The medic had just arrived last week, and I forgot his name. Both legs were gone, and he looked dead. Medical supplies were lying all around so I laid Bill down, grabbed a large chest dressing, and slapped it on the gurgling hole between his ribs on his left side.
“How you doing, man?”
Bill gave me a thumbs-up. “Morphine?” he asked, looking pale by the dying light of the drifting artillery flare.
“No time, and it slows the breathing. Saddle up!”
“Next time, I travel first-class,” Bill said.
“Next time, you carry me!”
We both laughed at that. Bill was all of five foot two, and maybe one hundred thirty pounds, while I’m over six feet and two hundred. A battalion of North Vietnamese regulars was looking for us in the dark, and we were laughing like maniacs. At least we’d die happy.
The firing stopped. The sudden silence was scarier than the gunfire. Charlie was scanning the area, looking for survivors. Looking for us.
I looked down at the wreckage of the radio. The cavalry was not coming.
“Without radio contact,” Bill said, “they’ll send a scout chopper here at first light. When they see we’ve been overrun, they’ll blow this place apart. If Charlie doesn’t kill us, our own guys will.”
I made a dash for the tree line just as a napalm booby trap went off.
“That’ll slow Charlie down a bit,” Bill said into my ear. “Beat feet, Corporal. The rest of ‘em are gonna be mighty pissed!”
I wasn’t sure where to go, but knew by the screams of the burning men where not to. In the dark, that would have to do. I got into a rhythm of walking with Bill on my back, and we didn’t say anything for maybe fifteen minutes.
I stopped to catch my breath. I listened, and couldn’t hear anything over my panting, so laid Bill down for a minute. I felt naked without a weapon, but dropping it seemed like a good idea at the time. I wasn’t going back for it.
“Bill, ya still with me, Buddy?”
“I’m here. Where would I go?”
“Another smartass remark like that, and I’m charging you double for the ride.”
“Then leave me, Corporal. This place’ll be pounded by B-52s as soon as they can see. Ya gotta get out of here.”
“No way. We make it out together, or not at all.”
Bill nodded. “Thought you’d say that. Then let’s go.”
“Don’t leave me, Bill. Promise. We get out together.”
“I promise. Together. Now move!”
I got to the paved road that headed back to Battalion HQ. Ten clicks to go and we’d be safe. I checked my watch. Two hours ‘til dawn. On a dry track in running shoes I could do those 6.2 miles in about forty-five minutes. Carrying Bill, maybe three hours. We wouldn’t get out of range in time.
Bill must have read my thoughts. “We don’t have to get completely clear, just find a place to sit it out. Now get off your ass and move.”
“You pulling rank on me, Sergeant? And we were getting on so well.”
“And if you want to keep it that way, you’ll get it in gear!”
Usually, I wouldn’t dare walk on an open road as a sniper would have an easy time picking me off. But this was no time to play it safe, so I stumbled down the two-lane, Bill’s weight driving me into the asphalt with every step. I saw the east getting pink and the rumble of those big bombers made the brown water ripple in the rice paddies beside us.
“Hey, Corporal, look up!”
“Huh? What?” I said, coming out of a trance caused by heat and fatigue.
“There! See that bridge ahead?”
“Yeah?” I stopped, gulping air. The ground was shaking, and I felt the blast behind us from the high explosive bombs, maybe one click away.
“Engineers put it up last week. Hearts and minds stuff. That concrete can take anything short of a direct hit, and those Air Force pukes will be told to miss it. Get under it, now!”
I sprinted ninety of the hundred meters to the bridge, then I drug Bill down the embankment after a blast threw us to the ground. After I got us underneath, I screamed to keep my eardrums from bursting as the explosions bounced us around like marbles in the back of a truck.
I don’t know how long the bombs fell. Time stops when you’re being hammered by the air all around you. When the blasts finally faded, the bridge was still standing and I was still breathing. Bill called it right.
“Hey, Sergeant, you all right?”
“I’ve been better.” He winked at me. “Let’s go home, Corporal.”
“Deal, Buddy. You and me.”
The gate guard stared at us as I staggered past, Bill on my back.
“Medic!” I shouted. “Medic! Got a wounded man here!”
The battalion surgeon ran out, two medics and a couple of stretcher bearers behind him. I carefully laid Bill down, then collapsed beside him. I watched the doc examine Bill for a minute, then he shook his head and motioned for the stretcher bearers to take him away.
He helped me sit up before handing me a canteen.
“I’m sorry, Corporal,” he said, “but your friend’s been dead for hours.”
I sat and watched as Bill was carried past the medical tent and on to Graves Registration. I felt a sudden chill when I realized he hadn’t let death stop him from keeping his promise, and getting us back home. Together.