Read P. O. W. Online

Authors: Donald E. Zlotnik

P. O. W. (18 page)

Spencer paused. “What’s wrong with him?”

“I think he wants us to climb the tree….” Garibaldi looked at the boy, trying to understand why he was so excited all of a
sudden.

The nine-year-old pushed Garibaldi against the tree and then ran over and shoved Spencer before he started climbing as fast
as he could. They had been warned, and if they were stupid enough to stay on the ground—well then, he would have to tell his
grandfather that they had been too stupid to help themselves and had been eaten by a tiger.

Spencer felt the boy’s fear and looked around the jungle that hugged the narrow path. He felt a primeval survival shiver run
along his spine. “I think we’d better just trust the kid, Colonel.” Spencer started climbing up the vines. The boy had already
reached the first fork in the branches and had turned back to encourage the Americans to climb faster. “Come on, sir.”

The colonel stood on the jungle floor and looked up the trunk for a better avenue to the large branch the boy sat on. He could
see the fear in the child’s face and decided that he should just start climbing.

Spencer reached the branch and straddled it. The boy started talking rapidly in Bru and pointed down at the ground. Barnett
smiled at him and then looked where the kid was pointing. She was directly under the tree, looking up at Garibaldi struggling
with a loose vine. The colonel lost his grip with his left hand, and all of his weight was transferred to his right hand.
He swung against the tree and dug his toes into the matting of vines to regain his balance. He fought not to fall the fifteen
feet back down to the ground.

“Colonel… don’t fall…
hang on
!” Spencer leaned forward on the branch with his arm held out.

“I don’t think I can make it up this way; I’m going to climb back down and come up the side you did….” Garibaldi looked up
to where the boy and Spencer sat.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Colonel….” Spencer tried keeping the fear out of his voice; he didn’t want the colonel
to panic.

“I can’t make it up this way, Spence!”

“Look down over your shoulder and see if you change your mind….”

Garibaldi flashed an angry look at Spencer and looked over his shoulder. She was
huge
. The tufts of fur sticking out around her face made her head look as large as a wash-tub as she studied the live meat in
the tree. She had gained a few more pounds with her pregnancy, which filled out her sides a little more, but she was huge
anyway.

“Oh shit…” Garibaldi whispered the words.

“Come on!” Spencer didn’t need to encourage him again.

Suddenly Garibaldi found handholds in the vines he hadn’t seen before, and he scurried up the tree with a newfound energy.
He straddled the branch behind the Montagnard boy and leaned back against the trunk.

“Oh shit!” Garibaldi exhaled so hard that he could have extinguished a match twenty feet away.

Spencer had been watching the tiger circling the tree as she looked for a way up. “There’s something wrong with her hip.”

Garibaldi risked another look down at the beast. “It looks like a hunk of her fur has been burnt and her leg has been broken….”

“Yeah… look how it bends out funny.” Spencer looked at the colonel and added, “I wonder why she didn’t just reach up the tree
and swat you off the vines….”

“What do you mean?” Garibaldi swallowed air down his dry throat.

“She was under you when you were only eight or ten feet off the ground. A normal tiger could have easily jumped up that high
and had you.”

“Shit, Spencer! You didn’t need to tell me that!” Garibaldi realized how, if he had walked around the tree looking for a better
way up it just
one
extra time, he would have been lunch for—he looked at the tiger’s rear end as it slipped behind the tree—her.

“I haven’t seen a tiger that big in a zoo.” Spencer had been to only one zoo, but the tigers there had been well fed and were
bigger than the ones normally found in the wild. The tigress circling the tree below them seemed to be a good two hundred,
maybe three hundred pounds larger than the ones at the zoo.

Garibaldi watched her for a half-hour before he spoke. “I think she’s a man-eater.”

“Why do you say that?” Spencer had been watching her too.

“Look at the way she hobbles…. She could never catch deer and wild pigs… and she’s way too
fat
.” Garibaldi balked at his next thought. “She’s probably been living off dead animals from bomb strikes….”

The full force of Garibaldi’s statement hit Barnett all at once. “That bitch!” Barnett pulled his eight-inch knife out of
his waist string and start climbing down the trunk.

Garibaldi grabbed him and pulled him back into the fork of the tree. “Where in the hell do you think you’re going!”

“That bitch
ate
Fillmore!”

Garibaldi didn’t understand what Barnett was babbling, but he could see that the young soldier was very upset. “Spencer! You
can’t kill a tiger with a
knife
!
Now stop it!

Spencer leaned back against the colonel, realizing that what he had heard was true. He started crying softly. “You bitch!…
You bitch!”

The Montagnard boy sat on the limb and watched the man cry. He wondered what was making the man cry. They were safe from the
tigress in the tree; there was no reason for the man to cry.

Garibaldi waited until Spencer had gained control of himself and then he asked him about Fillmore.

Spencer shook his head. He didn’t want to talk about it.

The tigress lay down next to the trunk of the tree and started licking her front paws. Her tail flicked every once in a while
as she waited patiently for the meat to come down out of the tree and be eaten. Monkeys would usually panic after a few minutes
and try jumping out of the tree and running to what they thought was a safer tree.

Darkness came, and she was still waiting. Garibaldi had Spencer and the boy all straddle the branch in front of him and hold
on to one another. He remained closest to the trunk, with Barnett sitting in front of him holding the small Montagnard boy.
The order on the branch was based on size, with the colonel being the tallest; it would have been hardest for him to balance
himself farther out on the branch. All three of them knew they wouldn’t fall asleep during the night, but they might doze
off. A single mistake, and they would not have a second chance.

There was no moon. A heavy cloud cover had slipped in during the night and blocked out all of the light. The tigress coughed,
letting everyone up in the tree know that she was still waiting. It made no difference if you closed your eyes or kept them
open. The darkness was the same. The Montagnard boy scooted back against Spencer on the branch. The darkness and the hated
man-eater were scaring him. Spencer placed both of his arms over the boy’s shoulders and hugged him against his chest. He
heard the child sigh, and then the tiny boy dropped his head against Spencer’s arm and fell asleep.

“You awake, Colonel?”

“There’s no way I’m going to fall asleep with her down there!” Garibaldi whispered into Spencer’s ear. “I’m not Tarzan!”

Spencer smiled in the dark. The colonel had a sense of humor. “Fillmore was on patrol with us, and the night before we ran
into the NVA ambush he was pulled out of his foxhole by a tiger and hauled off into the jungle screaming for help…. Man! That
was some heavy shit….” Spencer stopped talking long enough to catch his breath. “You know, I had forgotten all about that
until she came along.” Barnett looked down but couldn’t see the tigress lying on the ground below them.

“That’s pretty normal… most people block stuff like that out of their minds.” Garibaldi reached up and squeezed Spencer’s
shoulder. “It must have been pretty bad having to listen to all that….”

“You can’t imagine!” Spencer shook his head from side to side. “It was horrible, listening to his screams fading away in the
jungle and there wasn’t a fucking thing we could do!” The Montagnard boy jerked in his sleep and Spencer squeezed him. “What
I’d give for a fucking gun right now! With just
one
fucking bullet!”

“At least she didn’t get one of us, Spence.” Garibaldi adjusted his position on the branch. “You’ve got to look for the good
things, or you’ll go crazy.”

“Colonel… I think I’m already crazy.” Spencer spoke the sentence matter-of-factly, without having to accent it.

Garibaldi nodded his head in agreement, but the darkness hid the gesture. “Me too…”

The first rays of morning light let the tree dwellers know that the big cat was still with them. She had slept the whole night
under the tree. She could smell the fresh meat above her head and roared her anger and her hunger. The sound traveled for
miles in the quiet jungle. She roared again, ending it in a snarl.

“I think she’s pissed.” Spencer spit, trying to hit her. “Hey, bitch! You hungry?” He spat again, and it landed right on the
tip of her nose.

She roared and shook her head from side to side, trying to dislodge the horrible man-smell from her sensory organ.

“You don’t like that, bitch?” Spencer almost laughed.

The Montagnard boy looked at Spencer with an expression of total respect. He was taken in by Spencer’s bravery.

“This is getting to be a bit too much.” Garibaldi tried adjusting his position on the branch, but nothing worked after the
all-night vigil. “Maybe she’ll leave if she gets hungry enough.”

“I’m more worried about the NVA finding us right now than her…. She can’t stay down there much longer.”

“So what if she leaves…. I don’t really relish the idea of getting down from here and trying to make it to the A Shau camp
with her nearby.”

“We really don’t have much of a choice.” Spencer didn’t like the idea either. There was one good thought, though: they would
have no problem wanting to take breaks on their way.

The NVA patrol heard the tiger roar. It was the first time any of the city-raised soldiers had heard that sound in the wild.
The sergeant pushed the safety off his AK-47 and dropped down into a battle-ready squat, turning slowly from side to side.
The parachute cloth he used for a camouflage cape ruffled in the breeze, coming down the mountain trail. He signaled for the
point man to continue down the mountain trail in the direction they had been going, directly toward the roar.

She coughed and moved her head from side to side with her mouth open in a quiet snarl. The smell was too strong coming down
the trail. She looked up at the meat in the tree and snarled again before leaving to find something better to eat.

“I think she’s leaving!” Barnett took a deep breath, hoping that she wouldn’t turn around and come back at the sound of his
voice. She slipped off the trail into the thick brush.

“We’d better wait a while before getting down. She might be trying to trick us.” Garibaldi had reason to be paranoid.

“Fuck! She’s going the same way we are….” Spencer didn’t like that one bit.

They waited up in the tree for an hour before deciding to get down. Spencer wouldn’t let the Montagnard boy go down first
and made Garibaldi hold him so that he wouldn’t follow. Spence didn’t enjoy the climb down one bit and stopped when he was
about ten feet off the ground and waited, just in case she was lying out of sight in the brush. His hands started hurting
and his grip was slipping on the vines, forcing him to finish the climb down. He felt his foot touch the ground and turned
around quickly, fully expecting to see a charging tiger coming after him. What he saw instead was an NVA soldier step back
onto the trail, pointing a AK-47 at his chest.

“We’ve got visitors, Colonel….” Spencer’s voice reached the colonel at the same time as the sound of a rifle butt striking
flesh reached him. Spencer folded over, holding his stomach with both hands.

The NVA sergeant screamed for the colonel and the boy to come down out of the tree. Garibaldi was five feet off the ground
when he felt rough hands yank him the rest of the way down.

The walk back to A Rum seemed like it would last forever. The NVA didn’t spare the nine-year-old and beat him as much as they
beat the Americans. Spencer didn’t think he would make it. Frankly, he didn’t care.

Enough was enough.

One of the NVA struck out with his rifle butt at the Montagnard boy and caught him on the side of his knee. Spencer heard
the bone crack under the blow. The boy fell down on the trail, wriggling in pain, but not a sound came out of his mouth. The
NVA soldier raised his rifle to shoot the boy, and Spencer stepped over and pushed it to one side. With his eyes he dared
the NVA to shoot him and then reached down and swung the small-framed boy onto his back. He grabbed hold under each of the
child’s thighs and started walking again on the trail. The boy grabbed hold around Spencer’s neck and laid his head on the
soldier’s back. Spencer could hear the boy whimpering softly.

Spencer had a new reason to live. He would get the boy back to his grandfather.

Lieutenant Van Pao sat on the porch of her hooch and tapped her bamboo whip against her pants leg. She had been informed by
radio that the Americans had been found and that they would be arriving in camp very soon. She felt the fire for revenge burning
in her throat. Everything had changed in the four days that they had been gone. She was now considered the worst POW camp
commander in the North Vietnamese Army. She was told that an American had
never
escaped from one of their camps before. She was disgraced.

The guards calling back and forth alerted her that they were arriving with the POWs. She left the shade and stepped out into
the clearing where she could see. Colonel Garibaldi was the first one to appear behind the camouflaged field soldier. Spencer
Barnett stepped out of the jungle with the Montagnard boy on his back. She felt the hate erupt. How could they be so stupid
as to let the American return a
hero
in front of the Montagnards! The NVA sergeant stopped the patrol and pulled the boy off Spencer’s back. The child fell to
the ground and remained there, moaning.

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