Four days later, the Fat Lady was finally on its way to the extraction point. Drained both physically and mentally, they had gathered all the information they required and plotted the coordinates of numerous enemy bunkers, hooches concealing munitions and food supplies, at least half a dozen field bases, and a bridge that, once taken out, would seriously hamper the NVA’s supply line. Fletcher was startled at just how quickly Charlie was advancing and how strong he had become. He was on the ascendancy, dramatically so, and they all knew it. Despite his thousands of dead, the war was his to win. All they could do now was try to slow him down.
They had narrowly missed being intercepted by NVA patrols and had twice been forced to separate. In the end, they had conducted most of their forays in two squads: one headed by Rogan and the other by Wayville, who, before being assigned to the Fat Lady, was a fully fledged operational squad leader.
With only two kilometers left to hike, the men were quiet. Having survived a week in the enemy’s basement, they were anxious for fresh air. Mitchell, still at point, was completely wired and absolutely focused. He appeared determined not to let his guard down. He seemed to regard Charlie’s traps not so much as weapons of war, but more as personal affronts. He would shuffle forward a few steps, then stop, breathe deeply, scan the area in front of him, and then dart forward again. Sometimes he would rub his hands on the ground and lick the tips of his fingers. Fletcher wondered, with genuine concern, how he would ever adapt back to normal life.
As was typical toward the end of an assignment, Rogan dropped to the back of the platoon to shepherd his men from the rear. Within a matter of hours, their entire area of operations would be the subject of an intense bombing campaign. Most of the men they had stolen past, laughing and drinking cheap alcohol outside huts and bunkers, would soon either be dead or wishing they were. The thing about war is that you could be on the winning side before breakfast, but still be dead by nightfall.
The thought brought no joy to Fletcher.
“What is it?” Kingston asked.
Mitchell shook his head as if his eyes were deceiving him. “A dog.”
Fletcher turned to his right. In the distance, a yellow Labrador with its tongue lolling out the side of its mouth emerged from between the trees. The animal was moving badly, favoring its left side. What appeared to be a large cut ran from the top of its back down its front leg. Flies, like a black mist, hung over the wound. More disturbing, though, was a swollen mass of what looked like dried blood caked under its neck. “What the hell is a dog doing out here? Christ, look at him.”
Rogan briefly studied the animal, then gestured to Fletcher.
“Take him out.”
“You heard me, Carson.”
Fletcher was taken aback by the order. He watched as the dog slipped on the wet undergrowth and then struggled to get back up.
He looked weak and hungry. “What are you talking about?”
“Are you deaf? Kill the fucking dog, that’s an order. There’s something around its neck, probably a mine.”
Fletcher raised his rifle and looked through the scope. “It’s just blood and dirt.”
“This isn’t a debate. Take the shot.”
Fletcher followed the animal in his sights as it approached them.
In his first days in Vietnam, he’d spent some time at a base that had a dog unit attached to it. All the animals there had been German shepherds, but he had heard that there were many Labradors working as scout dogs throughout Vietnam, trained to provide early warning of enemy patrols, ambushes, mines, and traps. “I’m not doing it. There’s no danger.”
Rogan placed his palm over the top of his sidearm, but kept it holstered. “Take the shot.”
“You first,” Fletcher said, glancing down at the lieutenant’s hand.
“What the fuck is wrong with you? It’s just a goddamn dog!”
“He’s one of ours. The only Labradors in Vietnam belong to us.
He must’ve got separated from his handler. He’s a soldier, for Christ’s sake! Besides,” he bargained, “if I shoot, we’ll reveal our position—”
“I’m warning you. This is your last chance.”
“I’m not doing it.”
The Labrador was less than a hundred yards away and closing.
“Keens . . . take the shot,” Rogan instructed.
Arnold Keens, who’d been watching their exchange in disbelief, recoiled at the sound of his name.
“Your rifle, Keens! That metal thing strapped around your skinny neck. Use it! Take out the dog.”
“C’mon, lieutenant you can’t expect Arnold—”
“Shut up, Tucker.”
“But, lieutenant, I . . . I can’t. Wh- what—”
“Fire your weapon, son!”
Reluctantly, Arnold raised his gun and took aim.
“Don’t do it, Arnold. Let him come to us. He’s hurt. He recognizes our uniforms. He’s one of us. There’s no danger—”
“Shut your mouth, Carson.”
Fletcher turned to face the teenager. “Arnold, look at me. Please, don’t shoot him.”
“Discharge your weapon, or I’ll have you thrown in prison!”
Fletcher locked eyes with the young man and immediately realized he’d lost him. Arnold was scared to death and did not have the resolve to defy a direct order. Sorry, Fletcher, he mouthed.
The Labrador, sensing that something was wrong, stopped walking.
“Forgive me,” Arnold whispered, and squeezed off two rounds.
The first shot punched into the dog’s chest, and the second into the top of his front leg.
He collapsed onto his side and immediately tried to stand up, but his legs buckled under him. The wound in his chest, just below his head, was oozing thick black blood. Confused, he looked down and began to lick at the holes that were hurting him.
Something unraveled in Fletcher’s mind. He threw off his pack and launched himself at Rogan.
“Fletcher, no!” Travis yelled, scrambling toward them.
A look of surprise lit up Rogan’s face. Before anyone could intervene, Fletcher lowered his shoulder and hit him in the stomach. The force of the blow lifted him off his feet and sent him hurtling into a tree. Fletcher charged after him and started swinging his fists wildly, connecting with his face and chest. “You fuck!”
Wayville and Kingston quickly pulled Fletcher away. A thin rivulet of blood flowed from Rogan’s nose. “Have you lost your goddamn mind, Carson?”
Fletcher didn’t reply. He couldn’t. His mind was teetering on the edge of a breakdown. He had rarely felt such anger, such hatred. He turned away and ran toward the dog.
“No,” Gunther warned. “There could be traps.”
But his words were lost to the jungle. Fletcher could think only of getting to the animal’s side. As he passed Arnold, the young man held up his arm. “I’m sorry, Fletcher. Please . . . I’m so sorry.”
Fletcher struck out at his hand as if it was poisonous to the touch.
By the time he reached the dog, it was clear he was dying. His chest was heaving in an irregular motion. Blood from his wounds had formed a half moon around his body. There was blood, along with other fluids, draining from his nose. Kneeling down, Fletcher carefully placed his hand on the Labrador’s side to try to comfort him. As he touched his coat, the dog lifted his head and looked at him. Instead of fear, his eyes conveyed a look of sadness, a glimmer of betrayal. Fletcher felt his stomach tighten. “You were coming to us for help, weren’t you?”
The dog tried to lick his hand, but was slipping away.
Fletcher gently stroked the side of his face. “I’m so sorry, boy.”
Then, steeling himself, he withdrew his sidearm. With his hand shaking and his vision blurred with emotion, he took aim. “Close your eyes.”
The Labrador looked first at the gun and then back at him. Slowly, his tail swept across the ground.
“No,” Fletcher pleaded, biting down on his lip hard enough to draw blood. “Please.” He was about to pull the trigger when he heard a voice over his shoulder.
“Don’t do it,” Travis said softly, pushing the top of the gun down with his hand. “He deserves a chance to live.”