"What did he say?" asked Hanson Muir.
"Roughly, he said, So fucking what?' The rain doesn't matter. He wants the money. He's a tough little bastard, I told you that."
"No, let's put this in character, Brandon. If you hired him, he's got to be the toughest little bastard in all of central Viet Nam, right? And by the time we finish this trip he'll have become a legend."
"He's already a legend, just for taking us," said Condley, secretly enjoying Muir's unease. "If we finish the trip, they'll erect a shrine in his honor."
Muir shrugged, nervously looking at the sky. "I take your point about the storm. Tell him we'll give him the money anyway. He didn't even look up at that cloud bank, you know."
"He was born here. He can smell a typhoon from fifty miles away." Condley waved the boatmaster on, laughing grimly. He loved the nguoi trungs, as they called the combative, tough people from Viet Nam's central mountain region. "The fucker's going to die for forty bucks."
"I told you, give him the money."
"Well, then you've got to deal with his pride. He's a nguoi trung, Professor. He'll never take a handout." Condley nudged Muir. "Are you sure you want to keep going?"
From the look on his flabby moon of a face, it was clear that Hanson Muir was not sure at all. The boat hit a half-submerged log, jarring them and knocking Muir sideways. The heavyset anthropologist held nervously to the boat railing and pushed his dirty eyeglasses back up his nose. Finally he sighed. "We're almost there, aren't we? If we return to Da Nang we've got to come back out here and do it all over again."
"If we keep going and then get back to Da Nang after the typhoon hits, we won't get out. The plane from Sai Gon won't even come in there. The entire airport area will be underwater. And if we get stuck in Ninh Phuoc during a typhoon, we might end up staying there till spring. The way the Taiwanese have been strip-logging up in those mountains, the root systems are almost gone. This whole region could become one giant mud slide."
Muir forced a grin, masking his fear. "I've always been tempted to take a Vietnamese wife."
"Trust me, you're not going to feel like settling down in Ninh Phuoc. If you want a wife, I'll find you one in Sai Gon."
"I was teasing. My present wife would object rather violently to being replaced, you know."
"No need for that," shrugged Condley. "The Vietnamese have always been polygamous. You can have as many wives as you can afford."
"Now you're teasing me."
"Actually, I'm not."
Muir rolled his eyes, obviously thinking of a retort, then let the notion go. Sai Gon was a long way away, but Ninh Phuoc was just up the river. If they could make it up the river. He gave Condley a questioning look. "You haven't really told me what to do or say when we get there."
"It depends on what they've got, Professor. If it's real, you can do your thing. If it's chitchat, just be nice. Make the people feel important."
"I'm a scientist. I'm not supposed to be nice."
Another dead pig floated past, and then off next to the shore a dead villager, spread-eagled and bloated, spinning in the rapid current. Muir swallowed hard, watching the body twirl past them. Condley nudged him, snapping him out of it. "When we get there, just watch me. Smile when I smile. Eat the rice when I eat the rice. Drink the tea when I drink the tea. Smoke the cigarette when they give you one."
"I don't smoke."
"You do now."
Condley's craggy face twinkled with secret happiness as the boat fought its way upriver. His shoes were squishy from the water in the boat and his fingers were crinkly from the rain. He feared the raw, surging power of Song Thu Bon, but at the same time he felt oddly content. The chalky river that ran from the mountains in Laos all the way to the sea just south of Da Nang was as comforting as an old friend. He had memories along its banks. Some of the memories were horrible. A few of them were even good. But all of them had meaning. And what was life if it brought you no meaning?
Excerpted from Lost Soldiers by James Webb Copyright 2001 by James Webb. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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