Muir had decided to ignore him. The brilliant academic had turned away from him now, studying the flotsam as if history itself were slapping and bumping along the gunwales. The old boat shuddered against the current, causing its boards to creak. Muir shifted his gaze from the river to the dangerous beauty of the mountains that now rose up fierce and shrouded on all sides. "Do you know where we are?"
Condley pulled out an old American tactical map he had kept from the war, carefully unfolding it. As a Marine thirty years before, he had laminated the map to protect it from the rains. It still bore black and red stains along its folds from where he had once used grease pencils to mark checkpoints for patrols and on-call targets for artillery. Turning it this way and that, he started matching the map to terrain features that rose up near the banks of the river. This was his area. He had walked every inch of it in another life, and neither he nor it had changed a whole lot since he'd left. Finally he held his finger on the map, showing Muir where they were.
"We're right here, Professor. That mountain over there is Nui Son Su. It was one of our key outposts on the edge of the Fifth Marines regimental headquarters in An Hoa. An Hoa is just behind the mountain. Or its ruins are, anyway. So that means we have two or three more turns in the river. The mountains will close in on us, then open up, then close in again --- right here. And when they open up again, we'll be in Ninh Phuoc."
Muir looked upriver. Indeed, the mountains were assembling themselves through the rain-mist, pushing at the river from both sides. He gave off a little shiver as he stared into the gap. The current picked up, turning frothy as the river narrowed where it passed between the mountains. Condley watched Tuan, studying the boatmaster's face for clues and deciding from the little man's steadfast eyes that they were going to make it. Then for a long time he peered upriver through the rain, lost in memories.
Lots of memories. Years of them, clinging to the crags and standing deep inside old foxholes that still scarred the hillsides.
They broke through the pass and entered calmer, wider waters. Muir seemed to relax, his scientist's need for certainty calmed by Condley's map-reading skills. The river turned sharply to the left and Condley pointed to a high, steep mountain that rose more than a thousand feet up into the mist.
"That's Cua Tan," he said. "We're almost at Ninh Phuoc."
After Cua Tan the river's left bank opened into a valley that reached far to the east. Condley knew that the valley would eventually end in a huge canyon up against even higher mountains, a fiercely sharp range called the Que Sons. The Americans used to call the big box canyon the Antenna Valley. And at its entrance, just off the river, he could finally see the village of Ninh Phuoc.
"There it is," he said. "We made it."
Long time no see.
The boatmaster thankfully followed his directions and left the river's main current, navigating across the floodlands toward the village. "A badass place," said Condley as they approached the looming darkness of its tree lines. "Lots of people died in here. The NVA kept a division up in those mountains. We had a reinforced Marine regiment back in An Hoa. When they ran into each other it could fuck up your entire day."
Tuan didn't know ten words of English, but as he expertly worked the tiller he understood exactly what Condley was saying. He laughed, still shivering from the cold rain, and pointed toward the mountains.
"Da, truoc nay, co nhieu linh Bac dang kia." Tuan then slipped from Vietnamese into the mix of pidgin French and English still left over from the region's thirty years of war. "Boo-coo bang bang obah dare."
"Boo-coo," laughed Condley, repeating the murdered French phrase that had become so common in Viet Nam. "Boo-coo bang bang."
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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