From January 21 to July 9, 1968 in the Quang Tri Province of the Republic of Vietnam, a battle was fought. Six thousand marines under the control of General Westmoreland faced constant attacks from the North Vietnamese army that surrounded them.
U.S. forces countered with an aerial assault, dropping 100,000 tons of explosives onto the area surrounding the base at Khe Sanh. In March, ground forces that included marines, army, and South Vietnamese ground forces broke through to the marines trapped at Khe Sanh.
The base was subsequently evacuated, and the North Vietnamese rushed in to fill the vacuum. Both sides declared victory. Khe Sanh later proved to be a diversionary engagement, drawing forces from the south and allowing the North Vietnamese to successfully launch the Tet Offensive.
The men carried axes and chainsaws into the woods. They wore canteens around their shoulders and haversacks filled with supplies. Many wore light jackets or long sleeve button down shirts made of heavy cotton, but a few had already stripped down to their undershirts. Colorful bandanas protruded from their back pockets or hung around their necks, easily accessible when the air filled with sawdust.
They were met at the rendezvous point by a man in a black suit and tie and wearing a wide round hat and holding a bible in his hands.
The men fell into a single-file line. In two man teams, they approached the man, who gestured with the bible toward the tree he wanted cut, and off they would go, their boots crushing through the fallen leaves.
Two men carried a six-foot-long, handsaw—the electric models having all been claimed by the time they arrived at the tool shed.
“You’re late,” the man in the wool suit said.
“I know,” said one of the two workers, whose name was Taylor. He lifted his end of the antiquated saw.
“I have something special for you,” said the foreman, smiling. He led them a short distance up a gentle slope toward a seventy five foot white oak with a base at least three feet thick. “I’ll be back to check on you shortly,” he said and walked away.
The men looked at each other and then went to work. First they set down the saw blade and then unburdened themselves of their axes, canteens and knapsacks. The second man, whose names was Lester, removed a holstered pistol from around his torso and stowed it in his knapsack.
Taylor looked over his shoulder, checking to make sure the man in the suit was out of sight. “Hand me your piece.”
“You might shoot yourself,” Lester said as he stowed the knapsack with his other things.
“I might shoot my uncle,” Taylor said, hooking his thumb in the direction of the man in the wool suit. “Come on. I just want to look at it.”
Lester gestured toward the haversack. He placed his hands flat against the tree, looking at all the places it could fall. “No good place to drop,” he said. “Trees everywhere.”
“So we’ll drop it against another tree,” Taylor said as he rummaged through the bag.
“Fool, haven’t you ever done this before?”
“I try to avoid it whenever possible,” Taylor said. He slid the pistol out of its case. “What is this, a .38?”
“Just a .25, a pea shooter,” Lester said, still lining up the direction the tree should fall. “Other trees increase the danger. Like cutting a tree on a slope. I want to limit the danger.”
“What’s life without a little danger?” Taylor said. He tossed the gun from hand to hand then held it up to a squint, sighting it in the direction of his uncle.
“This way, I think,” Lester said as he backed away from the tree. He picked up his ax and waited. “Is your uncle still preaching over there in Cottage Grove?”
“The churches won’t have him,” Taylor said, “but that don’t stop him from preaching’ all the damn time.” He holstered the gun and set it down with Lester’s other things. He picked up his ax and with exaggerated slowness joined Lester by the tree. All around them, the chainsaws rumbled and cried as they tore apart the pines.
The started with an undercut, removing a triangle-shaped chunk from the tree on the side toward which they wanted it to fall. They took turns swinging their axes; Taylor swung to his right, Lester to his left. Each chop sent chips of bark flying into the air, and their cheeks stung from flying projectiles.
After finishing the undercut, they tossed their axes aside, and lifted the handsaw.
Six feet long, mostly blade, with jagged metal teeth and wooden handles on each end, the saw was an instrument of forced cooperation. The men had to operate in tandem, one pushed and one pulled until they fell into a familiar rhythm. Their muscles strained and glistened in the light shining down through the tree branches.
The worked without talking. Only the saw made sound, and even the cry of nearby chainsaws faded with the intensity of their focus and exertion.
They were not yet halfway through the tree when Taylor motioned to Lester to stop. He walked over to the stump where he had stowed his things, and lifted his canteen.
“Too soon for a break,” Lester said.
“I don’t give a shit,” Taylor said. “I’m dehydrated.”
“You drank too much last night.”
“I drink too much every night.”
“Don’t let the Reverend see you shirking,” Lester said.
Taylor smiled. “He wouldn’t hurt his sweet little nephew.” He took a long drink from his canteen.
“He won’t hurt family?” Lester said. “Tell that to J Christopher.”
“I can’t,” said Taylor, laughing. “He’s dead.”
Lester dropped his ax blade into a stump. “You think they’ll ever stop him?”
“Who? The police?” Taylor asked. “He’s doing them a favor.”
“It’s like there’s no such thing as justice in this world,” Lester said.
He looked up into the trees. The branches of oaks and pines reached out for each other and his mind traveled across the world and landed beneath a jungle canopy. The sound of the chainsaws brought back the cries of wounded men, and the repercussions of M-16s entered his head like an old song he couldn’t get rid of. He had to look at Taylor to orient himself.
Taylor shook his head. “That place really fucked you up,” he said.
“Come on,” Lester said as he wrenched his ax from the stump. “I need to work.”
“Then you have a problem,” Taylor said, and sat down.
Lester fired a few more chops at the undercut, just to have something to do. A rustling of leaves and the crack of a fallen branch made him turn around.
Taylor was scanning the area too and saw something black looming out of grove. It was too late for him to jump to his feet, so he extended his legs into a more relaxed posture and smiled in greeting as the Reverend emerged from the woods.
As usual, he carried no gear, only his small, well-worn copy of the Bible. He looked from Lester, holding his ax, to his nephew, sitting on the stump, still holding his canteen.
“Hey Uncle Will,” Taylor said, smiling. “What brings you to this neck of the woods?”
The Reverend stared at his nephew until the younger man’s smile melted away. “How long will you sit there, oh weak and slothful servant? When will you arise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber and want like an armed man.”
“I wasn’t asleep. I was just sitting here. I was just about to get up.”
“It’s from Proverbs, you fool.”
“I figured it was from the Bible.” Taylor screwed the cap onto his canteen and tossed it in the grass.
The Reverend turned to Lester. “Now, we command you, brother, in the name of the Lord, that you keep away from the brother who walks in idleness.”
Lester said nothing. His knuckles whitened as he clenched his ax.
“You are a good worker,” The Reverend continued. “You add value to my operation, and you served your country, but you do yourself no favors hanging around with this sluggard.”
“I have others I’ve got to serve as well.”
The Reverend smiled. “I hear you have been seeing a lot of my stepdaughter, Cassandra’s girl. She is over at your house quite a bit.”
“Lucy comes over sometimes, yes. She visits with Mary and the baby.”
“Now that she is a teenager, she is becoming quite a handful.”
“Well, she’s always welcome at our house.”
The Reverend laughed. “Be careful what you say. I might let you have her.” He glared at Taylor as he walked by and then disappeared into the woods.
Lester looked at Taylor, who shrugged and took another drink from his canteen.
* * *
Lester arrived at the bar around eight. He was early as usual, but there were already enough people there to make him anxious. He had the bartender pull a beer from the tap, and then he stepped cautiously into the seating area, aware of every flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye.
The juke box played a song by Marvin Gaye. “What’s going on?” Marvin sang, and Lester tried to let the music soothe him. It entered his body through his hips and shoulders and carried him to a table at the back of the room. There, he could sip his beer and watch the entrance and feel safe in the knowledge that no one could take him by surprise.
Waiting. Taylor was always late. Lester finished off three more beers.
Around 10:30, a scuffle broke out at the bar. Lester’s hand instinctively fell to the lump in his jacket pocket, but nothing came of the fight. Just then a man came up to him from the opposite side. Lester turned to a heavy set man with a large afro.
Out of the corner of his eye, the two men at the more were pushing against each other, their voices rising above the music from the jukebox. Lester slipped his hand into his pocket.
The man touched the patch on the shoulder of his army jacket. It showed a raised Ivy leaf enveloped in gold. “You marines?” The man asked.
Lester looked at where the man’s finger had touched him. “Army,” he said.
“Really? You see any action?”
“Yeah,” Lester said.
The owner of the bar had come out of the back, and was lecturing the men at the bar. The drunker of the two men mouthed off at him,” and the owner grabbed him by the ear and pulled him out of the bar like a mother leading away a child.
“Oh shit,” the man next to him said. He laughed and followed the commotion as if there was anything else to see.
Lester went to the bar and ordered another beer. “Goddamn Taylor,” he mumbled.
* * *
Early the next morning, Deputy Ford cruised down Highway 22, following his regular route. He noticed a pick up truck parked in the grass and pulled over to the side of the road.
Once perpendicular to the abandoned vehicle, he called the station on his CB radio and barked his coordinates into the handset. “Hey Lonnie, I got a gray 69 Chevy flatbed down here on 22 about a half mile from the 138 crossing.” He reeled off the numbers on the license plate.
He stepped out of the cruiser and then paced the perimeter, examining the abandoned vehicle and looking for signs of movement within. Gradually, he moved his circle close enough to the vehicle to peer inside the driver’s window. Someone was slumped across the seat.
He banged on the window with the heel of his palm. Unable to stir the occupant, he checked the door handle and found that the vehicle was unlocked. He opened the door. “Sir. Sir, are you okay sir.” There was no movement inside the vehicle.
Ford registered the man’s generic characteristics in a pocket notebook. “Black male, approximately twenty seven years old. No visible signs of trauma.” With one hand on the butt of his pistol, he leaned into the vehicle and placed two fingers on the man’s neck. He leaned out of the vehicle, and added one more notation. “DOA.”
Ford pushed his notebook into his pocket as he walked back to his cruiser. He picked up the CB. “Lonnie,” he said. “Better get the sheriff. We’ve got another one.”
Go to Chapter 17