Quang Nam Province, Viet Nam
"Typhoon," said Brandon Condley, his hard gray eyes expertly searching the bruised horizon.
It had been drizzling all morning, which was no surprise because actually it had been drizzling for weeks. But off to the east the real deal was rolling in from the South China Sea, having just wreaked havoc in the northern islands of the Philippines. Condley zipped his rain jacket all the way up underneath his throat as if to emphasize the coming storm, then pulled his worn baseball cap lower over his eyes. And finally, just to make the point that he did not really care, he laughed.
"Hey, Professor, Buddha's pissed. Welcome to the real Viet Nam!"
Hanson Muir stood like a dreamer ten feet in front of him, near the prow of the narrow wooden boat. The boat was struggling against the angry current of the chalky, swollen Thu Bon River, its two-cylinder motor putting like a loud lawn mower. Its bow yawed this way and that, smacking against odd flotsam and swirling eddies. The monsoon had come to central Viet Nam five weeks before. It had dropped a hundred inches of rain in two weeks and then settled into an intermittent drizzle that would last for months. The fog-shrouded, unending mountains to the west were still weeping tons of water every hour from it. The rivers and streams had outgrown their banks. The endless terraces of rice paddies that filled the valleys leading eastward to the sea were now hidden under vast lakes of rainwater, often indistinguishable from the rivers or even the sea itself. And along the tree-choked knolls and ridges in the middle of the paddies, hundreds of villages sat serenely above the water, isolated like ancient little islands.
"How much further, Brandon?"
Muir's posed stance made Condley laugh yet again. The brilliant scientist seemed to be imagining himself as a Viking marauder with his puffed chest and raised chin, one hand stroking his beard as the other held on to a railing. Hearing Condley laugh, he turned and caught the smaller man's amused expression.
"Having your fun, are you?"
"You look ridiculous, Professor."
"And it'll be even funnier if we drown, I suppose?"
"You won't drown. You're too fat to sink."
"I'm surveying the riverbanks," said Hanson defensively. "In the event I am required to swim ashore."
Condley laughed again. He knew this river. "I wouldn't give a nickel for you making it to shore if this boat splits in two."
"I thought you said I wouldn't drown."
"That doesn't mean I think you can swim."
"Your sense of humor leaves me weak."
"Then don't lose your grip, there."
Condley walked carefully toward the stern and caught the attention of the boat's owner. The tight-muscled little man, whose name was Tuan, was intently working the till of his creaky wooden craft while standing barefoot in a gathering pool of water. Three hours before, Tuan had seemed incurably happy when these two Americans had offered him forty dollars to take them upriver to the village of Ninh Phuoc and back. Now he had lost his smile. His narrow eyes squinted as he watched the clogged current. He was drenched and shivering, his rain jacket and shorts soaked all the way through.
"Bao," said Condley, using the Vietnamese word for typhoon and pointing again toward the distant sea. "Sap den! Phai khong?"
Tuan glanced quickly up into the sky, then focused back on the dangers of the river. He tilted the rudder away from a swiftly moving log and then narrowly dodged the bloated carcass of a dead pig. "Khong co sao," he answered. Condley could tell that a typhoon would never deter Tuan. Forty dollars was the equivalent of a month's wages, and the little boatmaster had already planned on how he was going to spend it. "Di Ninh Phuoc di ve Danang, bon muoi do-lah, duoc, duoc."
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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No Man's Land
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