The game was five-card stud. One card dealt face down, then four more, one at a time, face up. Betting between each deal of the cards. Military Pay Currency, not real money from home. You could only spend MPC back in the rear Muncey reflected, and new guys did not get to go back to the rear, so there was no point in having the stuff. You stayed in the field until relieved, as a company grade officer, which generally did not happen until you were six months in country. One month was all he had, but it was his third time visiting regimental headquarters.
The 5th Marine regimental HQ was also in the bush, as well as the Bird Colonel Commander, Thomas Pointer. “Three Tits,” as everyone called him behind his back, because he’d gone through West Point before choosing the Corps to serve in, plus he used a ‘III’ designation after his name. Derisive sexual humor was always big in a combat zone, as Muncey’s own NCO’s, some dating back to Korea, taught him. His nickname was ‘Muncher,’ which he didn’t much appreciate but could do nothing about.
He was only a Second Lieutenant, yet served as temporary Company Commander of Echo Company. The Marines had killed the previous allotment of officers before he’d been assigned. The Gunny told him that such things happened all the time in the Nam. The unit had a racial problem. It had taken three weeks for Muncey to fix that problem. You can’t have a racial problem if you only have one race. That 'fix' had also resulted in Echo having the highest casualty rate in the regiment, however, which was why, Muncey thought, Three Tits had called him in.
His first days in country had been the worst. Why he had ever lipped off to the Division General that first afternoon he would never know. In those first days and nights after being assigned he’d begged God to let him go back and fix things. He couldn’t possibly survive, he knew, in a company where the men had killed their own officers. His going in as a replacement for the lot of them could only end one way. So he hadn’t slept. At all. He’d learned that everything he’d read about sleep was just not true. You could go without it. Maybe a few hours of half-closed eyes every few days or so. His .45 out, safety off, cradled in his lap. The forty-five was a part of him now and he loved it. When you shot someone they went down. Then you could take your time in shooting them again. He cleaned the weapon four or five times a day, but only broke it down into parts when he could get away from everyone for a few moments.
His Marines just looked at him. They seldom talked to him at all, except for the Gunny. He gave orders and they did what they were told. The Gunny told him what orders to give them so they wouldn’t kill him for giving wrong ones. That part of Marine Officer training had been left out in Quantico, at the Basic School. Without the Gunny he’d have been dead already, and he knew it. Even with the Gunny he was not going to make it for six months. Echo was losing ten men a day from the enemy alone. With two hundred and seventeen ‘swinging dicks’ in the company it didn’t take a mathematical genius to figure things out.
He’d written to tell his wife about that, only days before. She was a wonderfully beautiful Irish girl. She’d find another, better, man. He’d written a list of the twenty things she needed to do when his body was returned. Putting that letter on a medivac chopper had been the only relief he’d felt since arriving in Da Nang so long ago.
The Five Stud hand closed out. He’d lost half his MPC. It was Muncey’s deal. He gathered the cards in and began to shuffle. Professionally. His dad had once been a dealer in Reno, and a demanding detailed son-of-a-bitch at home. Muncey thought as he shuffled.
After the Gunny had told him everything about Echo he’d not known what to do, except maybe lie down and die. Crying to himself in the hot fetid nights, slashed open by white-hot tracers and bellowing with high explosive muzzle blasts had not worked for him. Twice he’d run away, under the cover of all the fire. The Gunny’d found him each time. “Ya don’t get to run away when you’re the commanding officer,” he’d said, planting him in the mud back at their makeshift command post.
Then there had been the coffee stop along the rice paddy trail. Sitting there with the command and artillery radiomen. Drinking awful instant crap from a fire tab heated canteen holder. The guy. The leader of the pack. Purple sunglasses like a hippy. No rank on his cruddy utilities. No nametag. He’d squatted down facing the three of them.
“You fucking try any of that stateside leadership crap here and you’re dead when the sun goes down. We don’t fight, my guys and me. This is your fucking war so you people fight it. We do what we want. We won’t give you any trouble unless you fuck with us. You got it?”
Muncey presumed that the man was staring with beady eyes, unblinking, waiting for some positive response. He moved his canteen holder to his left hand, drank down most of what was left, and then tossed the remainder aside, off the narrow trail. At the same instant as the coffee flew Muncey drew the forty-five, brought it level, clicked the left side thumb safety off and shot the man three times in the chest.
The man was blown backward onto the path. Muncey rose up quickly, walked forward and shot the man in the forehead right above his glasses, which were unaccountably still in place.
“You going to deal the cards or sit there shuffling all day?” one of the other lieutenant’s said.
Muncey passed the deck for cutting, and then hit each man quickly with a card. The man across from him was a square jawed First Lieutenant wearing a bush hat back on his head, like Gabby Hayes. He had aged crinkly eyes for an officer so young. They exchanged glances into each other’s eyes as the third cards fell around, but neither smiled.
Muncey didn’t care about the hand. He was waiting to get his ass chewed out by Three Tits, once again. He didn’t really care about that either, as he knew he wasn’t going home anyway. He wasn’t getting out of the field for any reason so what punishment could Three Tits dispense? He did like being at the HQ however. It was as safe a place as one could be in, other than in the rear with the gear.
His mind was not on the game. As he dealt the last card, the card under it, on top of the deck, fell to the surface of the makeshift table, face up.
“Mis-deal,” one of the lieutenant’s yelled, then immediately flipped his hole card atop the MPC piled in the center. The other officer’s followed his lead.
“I’ll re-deal,” Muncey said, starting to gather the cards together again.
“Double the pot,” the offended officer who’d first thrown in his money said.
“That’s the rule here. You mis-deal, you double the pot out of your own pocket.”
Muncey stopped moving, his hands frozen in mid-air, holding the deck in his left hand and some of the discarded cards in his right. He looked from man to man around the table. Everyone, except the square jawed First Lieutenant, nodded, although nobody said anything.
“I don’t have any more currency,” Muncey said, truthfully. All his money was on the table.
“Who gives a shit? Double the pot. Money’s your problem,” the man to his right stated, anger causing his voice to squeak a bit.
The cards in Muncey’s right hand fluttered to the table. The forty-five appeared as if by magic. The automatic’s safety made a sharp metallic snipping noise when it was pushed. Nobody moved. Even the jungle seemed to grow quiet, at least to Muncey.
He stared deep into the First Lieutenant’s dark eyes across the table.
“Everyone put your money on the table,” he said flatly, his voice little more than a whisper. Slowly, he dropped the card deck, and then removed his helmet.
He placed the helmet atop the MPC in the center of the table.
“I’m taking all your money,” he said.
“What, you going to shoot us if we don’t give you our money?” the complaining officer asked in amazement. “Right! In the regimental Headquarters you’re going to shoot five officers over a game of cards?”
“Yes,” Muncey answered. “I’m going to shoot you first, then the rest of them, but each of you only once. You’ll have a chance if they get a medivac in. Army though, as the Marine choppers won’t fly five of you out of here in one load.” Muncey moved the barrel of the gun to point at the offensive officer’s chest, “You ready?” he asked, his voice and the automatic flat and steady.
“You want us to put all the money in your helmet?” the First Lieutenant across the table asked. Without waiting for an answer began to fill the helmet first with the money on the table and then with MPC from his pockets.
“Yes, that’d be okay,” Muncie replied, simply, regarding the unusual man.
“Get your money out. Put it in his helmet,” The First Lieutenant said forcefully to the other officers.
“Jesus Christ Web, you going to let him pull this shit on us?” one of the other men inquired.
“Yes, I am, and so are you. Get it out.”
The men backed slowly from the table when the helmet was full. Muncey scooped it up with his left arm. He slowly lowered the forty-five to point at the ground near his right foot. The First Lieutenant smiled at him for the first time. He had a nice smile, Muncey realized. He could not smile back even though he tried.
“The Colonel will see you now, “ Web followed up, pointing at a large tent located near the edge of their small clearing.
Muncey walked inside the tent. The C.O. and his Executive Officer sat at small folding desks facing him. Muncey just stood before them.
“Come to attention and salute the commander,” the X.O. commanded, his black rank insignia indicating that he was a major.
“Not covered, Major,” Muncey answered, “Got my poker winnings in the helmet, sir, with respect, can’t put it on.” You did not salute in the Marine Corps, without your cover on, ever.
The major sneered, but said no more.
“Some reason you got that hog iron out, Lieutenant?” Three Tits himself asked, pointing at the Colt still hanging down in Muncey’s right hand.
“Dangerous in the bush sir. I get scared when I’m this far from my men,” Muncie answered.
The Colonel and the major exchanged a quick meaningful look, then stared back at him.
“Know why you’re here?” Three Tits asked.
“Again,” the major added.
“No, sirs.” Muncey replied.
“I’m not going to repeat this. This is it your last warning. If you fuck up about it again, I’ll have your ass. Do you understand me? “
“Yes, sir,” Muncey responded, in his best junior to senior submissive voice.
“The X.O. is writing you up. If you use foul language on the combat or artillery nets again, that will be it. I don’t care if you’re in contact. Everyone’s in contact at night around here. No more profanity over the radio. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, sir,” Muncey replied, his eyes boring into the tent wall behind Three Tit’s head.
“Get the fuck out of here,” the major ordered.
Muncey did an about face, slowly so as not to spill the currency piled high in the helmet and also because the .45 just didn’t swing that smoothly in turning. He walked from the tent. All the lieutenants were gone except the square jawed one with the crinkly eyes.
“That your tracked carrier down by the paddy?’ he asked of Muncey.
“Mind if I walk with you?” the other officer went on.
“Okay,” Muncey answered, sliding the Colt back into its leather holster. He grasped the helmet before him in both hands as they walked.
“I’ve heard some things about Echo. You know. Scuttlebutt. Seems that things have been a little rough over there for quite some time. Lot of casualties. Lots of social problems. Bad morale. Stuff like that.”
Muncey said nothing, but walking a bit faster.
“Why’d you help me back there? I mean with the money?” Muncey asked him.
“Because you were going to shoot us. They didn’t know, but I did. They’re not bad guys really. Thanks for not shooting us, by the way.”
“Oh, that’s okay. You were good about getting me the money.”
“This is a tough combat zone so nobody’s quite right,” Web said. Do you know that you’re not quite right, Muncey?”
Muncey stopped walking, leaving Lieutenant Web to move a few steps before he too stopped. They stood facing one another. Neither man blinked.
“I know,” Muncey finally answered, sighing deeply, blinking, and then looking away. “I know I’m not quite right,” he said, more definitively.
The First Lieutenant nodded and smiled. “That’s good. Very good. If you know, you can do something about it. You can’t go back to the world like this. I know it doesn’t look good right now, but you may well see round eyes again some day. I’ve never seen anyone get dealt a worse hand, from the get go, in this mess, than you. But here you are, still alive. Unfuckingbelievable.”
“Ah, thank you,” Muncie said, in surprise. “What do you think I should do?” They began walking toward the armored personnel carrier again.
“No more killing anyone that does not need to be killed,” Web said. “No killing over poker, bad pay, loose women or because somebody won’t do what you want them to do. If you run into trouble with anybody just send him over to Delta Company. We’re in First Battalion on the far flank. Can you do that?” The First Lieutenant looked over at him with his smiling eyes when he finished.
“I think so. And then I’ll be okay? I’ll be alright?” Muncey asked.
“Yep, and you mind if I have that money? Those other lieutenant’s will think more kindly of you if you let me give it back to ‘em.” He stopped and held out both hands.
Muncey gave him the helmet, and then put it on his head when it was empty.
“You want any?” Web asked him.
Muncie shook his head. They had arrived at the tracked vehicle.
“You’re going to be fine. Just remember what I told you,” First Lieutenant Web
said, with a big smile, holding out his hand. Muncey shook it warmly. Then the other man hugged him. “Did you read Lord of the Flies by Golding?”
Muncey was surprised by the question, backing away from the embrace.
“Yes, I read it. About some boys stuck on an island. They killed each other and lost all semblance of civilization.” Muncie recited what he knew. Lord of the Flies had bad been one of the most perplexing books he’d read in high school. Simple yet strangely complex.
“You’re Ralph in that novel and this place is the island. Think of it that way and you’ll survive. Stop fighting and keep running until you’re rescued,” Web said, before turning and walking up the trail.
Muncey climbed to the top of the tracked vehicle. Officer’s rode on top, in case the personnel carrier ran over a booby trap, which was much more likely than being the target of sniper fire.
The Carrier Commander, also a Second Lieutenant, made a place for him in the webbing that stretched across the surface of the vehicle.
“Who is that guy?” Muncie asked, his eyes still on the First Lieutenant’s departing back.
“Him? You mean the First Lieutenant? They call him The Web. Once you get caught in his net, he’s got you for life, they say. His men love him. Wish we had him as our C.O.”
“I can understand that,” Muncey said.
“What’s your name?” the Commander asked him.
There was a long silence. The vehicle’s diesel started, and then clattered as the exhaust blew black smoke.
“Ralph,” Muncey finally answered.