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CHISOLM’S DEBT A River City Novella by Frank Zafiro


Every man is guilty of all the good he didn't do. -Voltaire


CHISOLM’S DEBT

1 River City, Washington 2004 Chisolm let the badge fall onto the desk with a loud clatter. Captain Bill Saylor jumped slightly, looking up from the pursuit review report that he was reading. He’d been engrossed in the document and hadn’t heard Chisolm enter. The veteran patrol officer stood in front of his desk wearing civilian clothes, an olive drab duffel bag slung over his shoulder. “You surprised me, Tom,” he said. “That’s what I call silent and invisible deployment.” Chisolm grinned. The white scar from his temple to the corner of his mouth flexed and pulled with the motion, making the grin seem more like a grimace. The warmth and humor in Chisolm’s eyes usually counter balanced the scar. Still, Saylor imagined what it might be on the receiving end when Chisolm’s intent was not to smile but to glare. “The mantra of every good street cop, Cap,” Chisolm said. “I suppose that’s how you managed to last so long,” Saylor said. 1


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Chisolm nodded. “That and a few other tricks.” Saylor motioned to the heavy silver badge on his desk. On its face was the number 005, etched beneath a River City Police crest. “What’s this?” Chisolm’s grin faded slightly. “Well, sir, it’s my badge.” “I know that. Why are you giving it to me?” “I’m retiring.” Saylor cocked his head at Chisolm. “Tom, I know that. I went to the retirement party last week. I even ate cake.” “It was pretty good cake,” Chisolm noted. “Cake is always good,” Saylor said, absently patting his stomach. Then he pointed at the badge again. “Explain.” Chisolm shrugged. “Last night was my last shift.” “I know.” “I turned in all my gear to the quartermaster this morning, right after I secured.” Saylor nodded. That was standard for retirements. Chisolm nodded toward the badge. “But I wanted to give that to you.” Saylor thought he was beginning to understand, but he wanted to hear it all the same. “Why?” “Well, sir, because turning it in alongside the rest of my gear seemed….I don’t know. I suppose sacrilegious is the word I’m looking for.” Saylor understood. The badge represented 2


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everything a cop stands for. Throwing it in a box with spare handcuffs, a leather belt and some old pens wasn’t respectful. Especially for a man like Chisolm. “Okay. But why me?” The grin returned to Chisolm’s face. “You’d be surprised how goddamn hard it is to find a ranking officer around here that’s fit to take it. You’re just about the only one, as far as I can tell.” Saylor felt a curious mixture of pride and shame. He thought about the other men and women who made up the administration of the River City Police Department. In a few of the instances, he had to admit that Chisolm was probably right. Civil service exams didn’t always single out the best leaders, and cronyism was alive and well. “You don’t like the Chief?” he asked, a trace of humor in his voice. Chisolm’s grin broadened. “Well, Cap, I like her just fine. But she’s only been here a year. I’ve been working for you, one way or another, since I got here.” Saylor thought about it for a moment and realized Chisolm was right. He reached out and picked up the badge. He touched the RCPD crest and Chisolm’s badge number with his thumb in what was almost a caress. “That was almost twenty-five years ago,” he said in a low voice. He’d served as the man’s field training officer when Chisolm had first come on the job in 1980. Saylor became a sergeant in 1982 and Chisolm was 3


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on his graveyard platoon. Later, when Saylor became lieutenant and the graveyard shift commander, Chisolm was once again one of his troops. Now that he was the patrol captain, everyone wearing a uniform worked for him, including Chisolm. Until now. “Jesus,” he said quietly, “where does the time go?” “It doesn’t go anywhere,” Chisolm said. “It just goes.” Saylor smiled. “Always the philosopher, Tom.” “It’s an acquired calling,” Chisolm said. “The only way to get through a police career is to become a thinking man.” He motioned toward Saylor. “You know. You’re one, too.” “I suppose I am,” Saylor agreed. “It’s how we survive,” Chisolm said. “And it’s why you’re the only person I can feel good about turning that badge in to.” A lump rose in Saylor’s throat. He wrapped his hand around the badge. He wanted to tell Chisolm that it had been an honor serving with him for almost a quarter of a century. He wanted to say that he thought it was downright amazing that a guy Chisolm’s age still worked patrol, chasing down bad guys a third his age and rolling in the alleys with them. He wanted to say that Thomas Chisolm was the bravest man he knew. But he didn’t trust his voice. 4


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Instead, he transferred the badge to his left hand. He rose from his seat and extended his right hand. The two men clasped hands. “You’ll be missed, Tom,” he said huskily. Chisolm’s eyes glinted mischievously. “Ah, they’ll forget about me by graveyard roll call.” “Not likely.” Chisolm shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. Someone will carry on. Someone always does.” “I suppose they do,” Saylor said. “But you’ll still be missed.” Chisolm’s smile faded slightly. He released Saylor’s hand and snapped a fluid salute, holding it rigid and true at his brow. And though it had been well over twenty-five years since Bill Saylor had served as an officer in the Marine Corps, muscle memory took over. He snapped his own salute to his brow, then lowered it sharply. “Thanks, Tom.” Chisolm brought his hand down. The crooked grin returned. “It’s been fun, Cap.” He turned and left Saylor’s office. The patrol captain watched him go. And just like that, Thomas Chisolm wasn’t a cop anymore.

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2 Mekong Delta, Vietnam 3 November 1969 1844 hours Staff Sergeant Thomas Chisolm raised the canteen to his lips. He sipped the lukewarm water while squatting down and listening to Captain Mack Greene run the mission for the team. “Why the uniforms, Captain?” Bobby Ramirez asked. Chisolm stopped. He sent a stream of water from his lips, striking Ramirez directly in the ear. Ramirez swatted at the water stream. “Fuckin’ A, Chiz. Knock it off.” Chisolm swallowed the remainder of the water. “Stop asking stupid questions, then.” “It’s not a stupid question.” “You’re right. It’s a moronic question.” Captain Greene watched the exchange wordlessly. Ramirez glanced around the assembled squad, then at the officer. He seemed to consider asking for help but apparently decided against it. He returned his attention to Chisolm. “How is it moronic?” he challenged. Chisolm screwed the cap back on his canteen. 6


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He flashed his trademark grin at Ramirez. He sometimes forgot about the thick red scar that ran along his jaw from the temple to the corner of his mouth. But when he smiled, he could feel the scar tissue pulling at those facial muscles. Curiously, the sensation only made him grin wider. “C’mon, Bobby. Captain say, we do. When has there ever not been a good reason?” Ramirez shrugged. “Didn’t say anything about whether the reason is good or not. I just wonder why, that’s all.” Greene broke his silence. “Save the question of ‘why’ for the philosophers, sergeant. We do this mission in uniform, not in blue jeans and field jackets.” “Yes, sir,” Ramirez answered. “Fuck the philosophers. I got it, sir.” The other squad members laughed. Greene pressed his lips together, suppressing a grin of his own. Chisolm leapt at the bait. “Actually, some philosophers fucked each other. Socrates, Plato –” “That’ll be enough,” Greene grunted around his barely masked smile. “This is a battlefield, not a goddamn college campus.” The chuckling tapered off into an attentive silence. Chisolm watched as the captain scanned the faces of his assembled men. The Special Forces squad was a tight-knit group, one Chisolm was proud to be part of. They were effective. They were brothers. 7


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“This will be a direct action,” Greene said. Chisolm sensed the men grow more serious around him. The term direct action was a military euphemism for an assassination. “The target is in Phien Bu, a small hamlet about three clicks from the DMZ. His name is Colonel Tran Ng.” The captain handed Chisolm a black and white photo. Chisolm studied it and passed it to Ramirez. “MI believes he is poised to rise up to the rank of general soon,” Greene continued. “Our mission to make that a posthumous promotion.” Ralph Erickson, the medic, groaned. “This is an MI mission?” Greene gave a terse nod. “You have a problem with that, Specialist?” “Only that Military Intelligence could fuck up a wet dream, sir.” The men in the squad laughed while nodding in agreement. Greene did not laugh. “That’s entirely true. But it’s our job to prove that the sheets are stained.” More laughter from the assembled group. “Do we know why this guy is targeted for direct action, sir?” Ramirez asked. “What’d I tell you about ‘why,’ Sergeant?” Ramirez shrugged sheepishly. Greene allowed himself a small grin at Ramirez’s expense. Then he continued. “MI is apparently worried about this Colonel Ng making general because he has his shit somewhat together. 8


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If he makes general, then that is more together shit all over the Mekong Delta. That is beaucoup bad for us and the rest of our boys in uniform. Does that satisfy the inquisitive philosopher in you, Sergeant Socrates?” Ramirez nodded amidst more chuckling from his squad mates. “Good,” Greene said. “Now, MI tried to hit him once a few days ago with an artillery strike, but the word is that he survived. They now believe Ng is holed up in Phien Bu, recovering from some injuries from that arty blast. Our mission is to infiltrate the hamlet, locate Ng and take him out.” “Am I primary, sir?” Shawn Jackson, the sniper, asked. Greene shook his head. “Ng is inside a hooch. He’s hardly come out at all since arriving in the hamlet. MI doesn’t want to take any chances, so this will be an up close and personal job. Staff Sergeant Chisolm and Sergeant Ramirez will be our primary operators. You will be in support on the hillside about four hundred meters away.” Jackson nodded his understanding. “Shit, Jackson, that’s like point blank range for you,” Ramirez joked. “Groovy,” Jackson said. “Point blank is how I’d like this to happen,” Greene said. “If you can catch him sleeping and dispatch him with blade work, that is preferable. Intelligence reports are that he has one platoon with him in the hamlet, so we’re looking at about 9


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forty soldiers with their AKs if things get loud.” “That would most definitely not be groovy,” Chisolm said. “No,” Greene agreed. “Now, I’ll be just outside the village with the rest of the squad to provide fire support if things do get loud. We will egress along the same route as ingress. Jackson will provide support from his position. But let’s not let things get to that point, all right?” “Yes, sir,” several men answered at once, with authority. Greene nodded. He handed Chisolm a diagram. “That’s a rough sketch of the village layout. We have no idea how many additional military tents will be pitched, so take it for what it’s worth. After you memorize it, pass it around for everyone else to see.” Chisolm examined the small sheet of paper. The huts were represented with small house shapes. One was marked with a frown face. “We’ll move out at twenty-two hundred hours,” Greene said, signaling the end of the briefing. “Get your gear ready and get some chow.” “Yes, sir,” all the men replied. Greene turned and strode away. The men broke up and shuffled off to do their own small pieces of business. Chisolm remained, along with Ramirez. The young soldier peered over Chisolm’s shoulder, quickly copying the layout onto a Cration package. 10


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“Looks like we can move right up to the target hooch from the east,” he said. Chisolm nodded in agreement. “My guess is one or two guards at the door to the hooch.” “We can take care of those with a K-bar.” “Right. Then when we’re inside—” “Maybe one guard.” “And a doctor.” “At least.” “You still have that throwing knife you bought in Saigon?” Chisolm asked. “Yep.” “Use that on the doctor, if there is one,” he instructed. “Then move on the guard. I’ll take the general-in-waiting.” “Why do you get to take out the target?” “You’ve got the throwing knife.” Ramirez shrugged. “You’re a glory hound, Chiz. That’s what it is.” “Look at you,” Chisolm replied. “A philosopher and a poet.” “Don’t you know it.” Chisolm rose from his squat and headed toward the mess tent. Jackson was likely there stuffing his face. Chisolm wanted to be sure the sniper knew exactly where to cover them. He called out over his shoulder, “Take your artwork to the gunner and the medic, huh?” “Oh, great comeback,” Ramirez said. “Fuck you, Rammer.” “Save it for Saigon, pretty boy,” Ramirez shot 11


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back. “Or for when we get back to the world.” 4 November 1969 0043 hours The men moved silently through the jungle thanks to the steady drizzle of rain that masked all sound of their passing. The darkness swallowed them whole. The entire effect made Chisolm feel almost like a ghost as he tread lightly along. Their long march to the small village was almost over. Chisolm’s muscles were loose and he felt ready for battle. Behind him, he sensed Ramirez’s presence without even glancing over his shoulder. The presence felt natural to him, like something that had always been there. Working with Ramirez made him more confident, and better. Chisolm looked to his left, trying to locate Jackson’s sniper nest on the hillside, but he couldn’t make it out through the dense foliage. He knew that the jungle opened up at the village. Jackson should have a clear line of sight. Still, Chisolm wondered about the efficiency of the sniper at night. How well would he see a target? Not your problem, he told himself. His job required the cover of night. If that was to the detriment of the sniper, so be it. Ahead of him, Captain Greene signaled a halt with his closed fist. Then he waved Chisolm and Ramirez forward. The two men shuffled ahead. 12


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Greene gave both of them a hard stare. In the darkness, only his eyes were visible, reflecting back what little moonlight slipped through the rainfall. The two men took in his stare, hearing the words he did not speak. Then, with a nod, he sent them on their way. Chisolm and Ramirez glided through the wet jungle toward the village. Behind them, the remainder of the team fanned out into cover positions. Glad for the muffling presence of the rain, Chisolm clutched the shotgun that hung from a sling. Water dripped off the end of the thick barrel. He much preferred the M-16, but for close jobs like this one, a shotgun was much more effective. Hopefully, he wouldn’t need to use it. He and Ramirez were prepared to use their knives, if they got close enough without being detected. Failing that, he had his shotgun and Ramirez carried an old-style Tommy gun. Both bore .45 pistols on their hip, in addition to the knives. All in all, Chisolm mused, great for close quarters, but not so great if an entire platoon of NVA soldiers get involved. A flutter of pre-game nerves went through his belly. Call it what it is. Fear. Chisolm embraced his fear. It was better than fighting it or denying it. He believed that bravery wasn’t the absence of fear. That was insanity. 13


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Bravery was doing what needed to be done in spite of fear. Or even because of it. He was pretty sure a philosopher said something like that once. Or maybe it was John Wayne. The jungle thinned. Chisolm let go of all thoughts except for accomplishing the mission. At the end of the clearing, both men stopped. His eyes long accustomed to the almost total darkness, Chisolm scanned the village ahead. Evidence of military presence was everywhere; a score of tents, guard posts and even a radio antennae mixed with the collection of a dozen or so huts. The camp’s light discipline was superb, as he couldn’t spot a single open fire, or the flickering of flames through the open doorways or slit windows of the hutss. Only a few windows emitted the subdued glow of a dying fire from within. Chisolm searched for guards. He saw the glow of a cigarette under a thatch-roofed guard post. That was one. Chisolm figured that soldier was probably warm and glad to be out of the rain. Hopefully that made him bored and inattentive, but Chisolm knew he couldn’t count on that. Two other guards trudged along the perimeter of the village, their steps heavy with either weariness or boredom, or both. After a few moments, Ramirez touched him on the elbow. Chisolm looked at him. The younger man signaled that he’d also spotted three guards, then pointed them out as Chisolm followed his 14


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finger. It directed him first to the smoking guard, then to the nearest perimeter walker. But the third one Ramirez pointed out was standing next to the entrance of a hooch in the center of the village. “That’s where the target is,” Chisolm whispered. Ramirez nodded. Chisolm held up four fingers for the total number of sentries. When Ramirez gave him a questioning look and held up three fingers, Chisolm pointed out the second roving guard on the far side of the village. Ramirez squinted, then nodded that he’d seen the walking man. Chisolm ticked them off in his mind. Two roving. One in the guard post. One outside the colonel’s hooch. Chisolm held out his open hand. He diagrammed their route to the target hooch. The route was essentially the same as they’d planned for back at base camp, modified to account for the guard post that they hadn’t known about before. Ramirez watched intently, then nodded. Chisolm nodded back. He slid his hand through the shotgun sling and took up the slack. Even with the metal parts taped for silence, he didn’t want to risk any noise. The two men slipped from the foliage and made their way into the village. Creeping along in a low crouch, Chisolm stopped at every natural hiding place. Before moving on, he checked the location of all four guards. None seemed alerted to 15


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his presence. He moved to the next obstacle and hid there long enough to make sure he was still undetected. Ramirez followed him closely. Soon, Chisolm and Ramirez were crouched beside one of the hooches. The roving guards remained roughly on opposite sides of the village. The guard in the center of the village under the small thatched roof had a clear line of sight to the target hooch, but based on the cigarette’s glow, he seemed to be facing away. That made their progress a matter of timing. Even in the shadows of the night, with rainfall to camouflage them, Chisolm knew that the human eye was drawn to movement. From tent to hut, supply stacks to fence, the two crouching soldiers flitted along, timing their movement to the weary trudge of the perimeter guards. Chisolm’s boots sunk into the mud with each step, making his footing slippery. Each step elicited a squishing noise as his jungle boots pushed mud aside. The closer they got to the target hooch, the more Chisolm was concerned that the noise might give them away to the guard at the doorway. Or that some NVA soldier with insomnia might hear the movement outside his tent and rise to investigate. No time for worry. Move on, soldier. He and Ramirez adjusted their approach from an accordion to leapfrogging their way forward. Three huts away from the target, Chisolm heard the unmistakable tramp of muddy footsteps 16


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heading directly toward him. Shit! He wasn’t sure if it was one of the roving guards coming to investigate, or a guard he and Ramirez hadn’t seen, or just some soldier headed to the latrine. And he didn’t have time to speculate. Instead, he circled around the hooch in the opposite direction of the approaching feet. As he neared the front of the small dwelling, he saw the cherry coal flare of the smoking guard’s cigarette at the guard post a hundred feet away and facing almost directly toward him. Without thinking, Chisolm ducked into the hooch. His immediate hope was that the occupants would be sleeping. Then he could simply slip back out and continue his mission. He listened carefully to see if Ramirez had been discovered while his gaze flitted around the small room. It was empty except for two forms in the corner. In the low glow of the fire’s dying embers, the writhing forms initially seemed to Chisolm to resemble love-making. But it took only a moment for him to recognize the desperate urgency that the feminine hands pushed against the male’s shoulders and chest. Rape, Chisolm realized. The man wore the uniform of the NVA. Straddling her hips, he held one hand over her mouth while he tore at her clothing with the other. Chisolm paused. Caught in their own quiet, 17


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desperate struggle, neither one of them had noticed him yet. He could slip out, back into the rain, and complete his mission. That was what he should do. He couldn’t risk alerting the other soldiers, especially before the hard target had been neutralized. His duty— No. He strode forward without thinking. Letting go of the slung shotgun, he slid his knife from its sheath. In one swift motion, he stepped behind the rapist, clamped his hand over the man’s mouth and pulled him backward. Without pause, Chisolm drove the knife deep inside his back. The man shuddered briefly and went still. Chisolm tossed him aside. Then he turned and crouched in front of the woman. He guessed her to be no more than fifteen, sixteen at the most. Her eyes flew open in surprise and confusion. Both fear and gratitude swirled together in the look that she gave him. She opened her mouth and took a breath to scream. Chisolm’s hand shot out, covering her mouth before any sound came out. He stabbed his knife into the dirt and his palm up in a placating gesture. He tried his best to smile warmly at her. The young woman remained still, her guarded eyes taking him in. Chisolm imagined that she was worried that one attacker had merely replaced another. He brought his finger to his lips in a shushing motion, letting that sound escape his 18


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mouth as he did so. Then, slowly, he took that same index finger and pointed to the subdued American flag on his left shoulder. In the dim firelight, the broad stripes and pinpoint stars were very clear. He returned his gaze to hers, meeting her almond-shaped eyes with another comforting smile. The tension seemed to go out of her body. He touched his finger to his lips again and nodded toward her with raised eyebrows. Slowly, he removed his hand from her mouth, leaving only the single finger over her own lips. He kept his eyes locked on hers. After a moment, she nodded back at him. She understood, Chisolm figured. She had to be quiet and she would, though he wasn’t certain if it was out of gratitude or more likely, fear. Chisolm retrieved his knife, wiped the blood on the uniformed leg of the dead NVA soldier, keeping his eyes on the young woman’s face. Then he slid the knife back into his sheath. He raised his finger to his lips a final time. Her eyes drifted to the patch on his shoulder, then back to his gaze. She nodded slowly. Chisolm backed slowly toward the doorway. He glanced outside, then slipped out the door. He found Ramirez crouched behind the hooch. The soldier gave him a questioning look, but Chisolm shook him off. He signaled that they had to hurry. The pair moved like phantoms from one cover position to the next. Chisolm’s ears strained 19


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through the wet darkness, braced for a feminine scream, a call to arms, but he heard nothing but the patter of rainfall. He wondered if he had won an ally. Behind the target hooch, Chisolm and Ramirez paused to make eye contact. Chisolm counted three slowly and gave Ramirez the signal. Ramirez disappeared around the side of the hut. Chisolm went the other direction. They appeared at the front simultaneously. Chisolm struck the guard in the head with the butt of his shotgun. The guard stumbled toward Ramirez, stunned. Ramirez slid his knife across the man’s throat in one smooth motion. Without pause, the two soldiers slipped through the entrance to the hooch. Inside were three sleeping forms. Ramirez fell upon the nearest one. Chisolm crossed the small room and dropped his knee onto the one nearest the dim coals of the fire. With three quick thrusts, he made certain the man was dead. The form next to him stirred. Chisolm raised his knife. As the form rolled over and sat up, he saw that it was another young woman, probably brought in to care for the colonel. Or provide sexual favors. Chisolm didn’t know which and he didn’t have time to find out. The woman gasped in surprise, then took a breath to scream. Chisolm turned his wrist over and drove the 20


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butt-end of the heavy knife into the corner of the woman’s jaw. Her eyelids fluttered and she dropped beside the dead man next to her. Chisolm glanced up at Ramirez. Ramirez’s face was grim. He drew a finger across his throat. Kill her. Chisolm shook his head. He sliced a piece of the dead man’s blanket, balled it up and shoved it into her mouth. Then he removed a shoelace from his cargo pocket and lashed her hands together with a quick noose. He knew that once she awoke, the knot wouldn’t keep her for long, but it would be long enough. Ramirez watched the door, clearly agitated. He gave Chisolm a hurried wave. Chisolm grabbed the dead man by the hair and turned his face toward the embers of the fire. It was Colonel Tran Ng. Chisolm looked up at Ramirez and nodded, rising and moving toward the door. Ramirez gave him a withering look, but Chisolm ignored it. He counted to three silently, gave the signal and the two button-hooked out the door. They met at the rear of the hooch, crouching down and surveying the scene. The perimeter guards were nowhere in sight. That worried Chisolm. The smoking guard seemed to be missing, too. Chisolm felt his stomach clench. This was about to get very ugly. Then he saw some movement under the 21


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thatched guard position. The guard was still there. He’d only finished his cigarette. Chisolm signaled Ramirez. The two scrambled from hooch to hooch. As they moved along in a hustling crouch, Chisolm scanned the perimeter for the mobile guards. When he finally noticed one, he breathed a sigh of relief. The man was well ahead of them on the circular route of his patrol. Based on that guard’s location, Chisolm was able to locate the other on the opposite side of the village. Ramirez touched him on the elbow and motioned toward the dense jungle foliage only twenty yards away. The grass between their position and the edge of the jungle was hip high. Chisolm nodded his approval. The two men dropped to their knees and elbows and low-crawled toward the jungle’s protective cover. The cold mud slathered across Chisolm’s knees, elbows and chest as he wormed his way ahead. Fifteen yards. Now ten. The spitting rainfall stung his face as he crawled along. He strained with his ears, listening for any shouts of alarm. He knew they would come. It was only a matter of when. Five yards. Chisolm pushed forward. He heard Ramirez grunt with effort behind him. 22


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Three yards. In the distance, a leopard let loose an angry howl. The eerie sound sent a shiver down Chisolm’s spine, almost as if the great cat were crying out to the NVA soldiers in the village, trying to warn them. The two men reached the edge of the jungle. They scrambled a few yards inside the protective foliage before rising into a crouch. Ramirez reached out with his left hand. Chisolm clasped it with his own and squeezed. They’d made it. Without a word, Chisolm turned and the two men made their way back to the rest of the waiting team.

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Chisolm's Debt (sample)