Just as the North Vietnamese firing squad lined up to execute the POWs, from behind a dried-up banana grove a burst of M16 automatic fire hit the four North Vietnamese soldiers in the squad, cutting them below the waist. With the next short burst the other two soldiers next to them keeled over.
Shirtless, face muddied, with a wide, white-toothed smile, Nino Aquino “the Lurp” –Sabino’s best friend– advanced, a ten-inch gleaming blade in his hand, and Sabino’s huge German Shepherd, Vinonegro, right by his side. Without effort, Nino cut the ropes, helping Sabino to his feet. Unable to contain his emotions much longer, Vinonegro stood up placing his front paws on Sabino’s chest and licked his face, all the while whimpering, yelping and emitting almost inaudible barks.
“Vinonegro tracked you down, man–he never lost your scent!” said Nino as he helped Major Bates to his feet. But the Major couldn’t hold himself up and collapsed to the ground. Both Sabino and Nino kneeled down to examine the Major’s severed tendon.
“That looks bad, man,” said Nino. “The river isn’t far from here, Vinonegro knows the way. But we need to make some headway now–I mean now!”
Only after a splatter of blood hit his face did Sabino realize that the mama-san had snuck up behind them and with incredible speed and viciousness slit Nino’s throat.
Shrieking and hooting, the wiry woman lunged off toward the banana grove, but before she even reached the edge, Vinonegro brought her down with one arching leap. In the next second he had locked his jaws around the woman’s scrawny neck, and with incredible force he whipped the woman side to side like a rag doll. By the time Sabino reacted and whistled his cease and release code, the woman was already dead.
“Never trust a woman with bad teeth in black pajamas – Mama-san Death,” Nino rasped weakly. “Take the blade… I want you to have it.” As he grabbed the 10-inch blade, he felt Nino take his last breath and die in his arms. That’s what life is –a sigh, a puff or breath– God’s spirit.
After collecting the dog tags from Lieutenant Burch and Nino Aquino, Sabino looked around, grabbed a pistol and a Zippo lighter, immediately heading west in search of the river. It was a painful journey. With Vinonegro, the magnificent hound, walking point, Sabino and Major Bates simply followed him. Once in a while Vinonegro would disappear as he trotted ahead, returning soon, his tail switching as if telling Sabino “this is the right way.” As daylight waned, they decided to hide in thick, knee-high elephant grass and wait the night out. It wasn’t long before they fell asleep, lulled by the distant shelling, the faint outburst of Russian AK-47 rifle fire and the drone of B52s in the stratosphere. So fatigued were they that even the trumpeting of mosquitoes or the scurrying of rodents, frogs, scorpions and other creatures and crawlers of the night could not stir them from their deep slumber.
At sunup, a soft snarl in his ear alerted Sabino to danger. When he sat up he saw Vinonegro point towards the edge of the grass patch; he then heard the stamping of feet. A squad of Victor Charlies-VCs, or Viet Cong fighters-was on the move in their opposite direction less than twenty yards away from them. A search party looking for us, he thought. As the noise from the footfalls faded in the distance, Sabino scratched Vinonegro ears, caressed his dew-damp coat, and whispered to him, “Good, boy, Vino! You can really sniff Charlie sweating out that nuoc mam.” Soon thereafter they got started, but made very little progress because Major Bates could no longer hop, his good leg now cramping and knotting. They halted for a while. Although the Air Force owned the skies –for during the day they heard the continuous drone of B-52s and saw fighter bombers and assault helicopters swoop overhead– they couldn’t signal at all because the fields and woods were teeming with Viet Cong squads. Only once, when a C-123 cargo plane swooped down in a low glide to unload defoliants did Sabino dare signal, but to no avail for a white dust-gathering into puffy clouds of Agent Orange-soon covered the sky.
“You go, Sabino…I can’t make it…this is as far as I can go.” Sabino saw that the Major’s foot had swollen to the size of a football.
“You are a noble man, Major Bates. You took that bullet because of me and I won’t leave you; I owe you my life and I will help you to the last gasp. We both go or I’ll stay with you and we’ll both die. Hang on. I will make a litter and drag you to the river…it is just a short ways, then we’ll be safe.”
With as much energy as he could muster, Sabino cut some branches and tied them together with strips of cloth he tore from both of their shirts. The rest of the cloth he used to improvise a harness, and when the harness broke, he fashioned stronger strips from his pants. Sabino was a sight to behold: blood was caked on his six-day unshaven face, one eyebrow hung loose over his eye, his legs were bleeding from hundreds of tiny grass-blade cuts, and his hair was thickly matted. And were it not for his boots and the torn skivvies –by now a scant, muddied apron that partially covered his rump and private parts– he would be totally naked. This, too, shall pass, he’d repeat to himself, and he’d drift into long-ago-lived scenes: His freshman year at Columbia College. He’d see himself walking along Broadway and stopping by the West End Bar to have a beer, or having a cup of coffee at the Chock Full O’Nuts at the corner of 116th Street, or hurrying to class, circling around the Sun Dial on his way to Hamilton Hall. Or he’d conjured up visions of his sophomore and junior years in which he roamed through the Lions’ Den, Canon Bar, the Abbey Pub, and other waterholes frequented by Columbia undergrads.
With the will of a possessed Olympian god determined to win against all odds, he dragged the litter one step at a time, all the while hearing his father’s voice: God and honor, Sabino; or what’s a man for? And at times he’d also hear the melancholy peals of his mother’s organ, or Melodium, as she was fond of calling her much beloved instrument, or her sweet voice: You’ll grow up to be a man of right, Sabino; a man who loves God and defends his friends and his women.
Wearied beyond human endurance, he trudged on with quaking, weak-ever weaker-steps, while his burden seemed to get heavier with each pull and tug. Yet, glancing over his shoulder, he’d prop up the Major’s sagging spirit: “I hear the water, and now I smell it – hang in there, Major!” When Vinonegro trotted ahead and didn’t return within his usual scout time, Sabino knew something was up. Major Bates asked Sabino to go see and to take the gun, to which Sabino signaled no: a gunshot would bring a swarm of Victor Charlies in a minute. He whispered, “I’ll take Nino’s knife.” Then he heard Vinonegro’ growl– for the kennel geneticists had hardwired his breed not to bark when out in the field searching for Charlie– growing more menacing.
In one second, Sabino assessed the situation. Vinonegro had cornered a Monocled cobra against a rocky wall. Hissing, baring its fangs, the huge snake wasn’t about to yield an inch of its territory. Vinonegro would retreat only enough to get out of the cobra’s striking range, for when the primeval reptile stood on its end, it rose at least seven or eight feet tall. During a pregnant interval, both stared at each other as if locked in a blinking game. At times Vinonegro would also stand on his hind legs, his black-reddish coat fluffed up, the black and copper bristles on his face and neck straight out like knitting needles. The instant the cobra saw Sabino it stood again, challenging him, its tongue darting and flicking, its head frozen as if suspended in the air by an invisible rope, gently swaying and biding its time to strike. After the initial sighting, Sabino backtracked less from fear than from awe of the magnificent beast. Angel and Fiend, he thought as he turned back to the spot where he had left Major Bates. But in a minute he returned to find Vinonegro and the cobra locked in a staring down duel. Time, noise, change, motion, and succession had stopped for both. Stillness reigned. Taking advantage of the frozen moment, Sabino got closer –feeling his heart stop between beats– and with a swift thrust, he trapped the cobra’s coiled end with the V shaped pole from the stretcher. In the next second Sabino heard not a hiss but a cavernous grunt from the depths of the monster-cobra while its ribs fanned outward forming a sinister hood. Slowly the fearless man moved the V end of the pole towards the head while holding its tail with his heavy boot, but just then a grating sound distracted Sabino, causing the snake to break out of the hold.
It took him but a fraction of a second to realize that the accursed brute had distracted him by grating its scales against each other. But just as the fiend attempted to flee, Sabino seized its neck with his two bared hands, both –man and fiend– wrestling and rolling on the ground away from the rocky wall. Within seconds the giant serpent wrapped its body around Sabino’s torso and legs, entwining and crushing the man’s flesh and sinews. Meanwhile, Vinonegro, as if guided by human sense rather than canine instinct, kept sinking his teeth into the snake’s soft underbelly. Though the animal didn’t have the power of a Boa Constrictor to crush his ribs, Sabino knew that he could only keep his grip for so long, and that the snake would outlast him despite Vinonegro relentless attack.
I’ve been in worse situations, he thought, and always come out alive-this shall pass, too. Slowly he regained his balance and attempted to maneuver himself onto his knees, but the cobra as if guessing his intentions constricted even tighter. He recalled the time in his childhood when a farm worker had caught a rattle snake by its tail and swung its head against a rock. He could still see the man then drawing his machete and slicing the animal in two, and his fascination in seeing that out of the belly of the mother snake four or five diminutive neonates slithered out; the farmhand explaining to him that the mother protected her hatchlings by keeping them warm in her belly, that it was a myth that the rattlers ate their babies. Crush her head against the rocks, he heard himself say. But how if I can’t get near the boulder?
Try as hard as he might, he just couldn’t maneuver his legs. The muscles in his forearms were now beginning to feel tired, and he could feel his grip begin to slack. In panic and desperation he drove the head into the ground, but the damned animal tensed up, twisted, and resisted. Just when he was about to let go, for he could no longer keep the hold, he heard a familiar voice: “Hold her still,” he heard Major Bates yell.
Sabino saw the Major hopping in one leg, Nino’s gleaming blade in hand. With one sharp stroke of the well-balanced blade, Major Bates decapitated the huge fiend. The Major patted Sabino on the shoulder, “You’re some tough hombre, Sabino.” They both looked at each other in silence and in that finite instant in that remote, godforsaken place of the universe they bonded; though little did they know that they had bonded for a lifetime. While the snake’s body twitched and uncoiled, Vinonegro –belly down on the ground– his ears drawn back, watched it, fascinated by the leeches springing out from between the scales. Soon after Sabino eviscerated and skinned the magnificent but lethal creature and raw snake filet was their appetizer and main dish. And for dessert Sabino skewered tidbits of the juiciest and softest meat, which he charred with the Zippo lighter he had wisely carried away.
Without hunger pangs and refreshed, Sabino hitched up the harness again. After a long stretch of super-human effort, they reached a patch of rocky terrain. He stopped talking to Major Bates because the man was –exhausted and wasted by the hobbling and pressure he had put on the tumescent foot– feverish and delirious, his bad foot glistening like an unripe, oversized, dark-green eggplant.
So tired…The straps were now cutting deep into his chest and shoulders, his hands blistered.
When Vinonegro pointed at the dark squadron of bats flying overhead towards the line of white-dusted poplars and weeping willows, Sabino knew the river was near. And in a short while he saw a forlorn, napalm-burnt Buddhist pagoda and the boulders, both a football-field distant. And just as he collapsed from exhaustion, his mind a blank slate, Vinonegro took off at full speed.
In an eerie subliminal zone of his feverish mind, Sabino dreamt or imagined that the cobra’s pining mate had slithered to his side and wrapped herself around him immobilizing his legs and arms, and that her fiery breath was not only scorching his mouth but also muting his voice. Loud as he might scream no one could hear him; his scream was utterly voiceless. Then the fire subsided and a refreshing coolness soothed his smoldering face. Sabino came to his senses when he felt Vinonegro’s thoroughly wet snout refreshing his face, and standing next to him three Buddhist monks with shaven heads, looking down at him.
With a feeble gesture Sabino groped for his blade like a punch-drunk boxer looks for his lost mouth protector on the canvas. “Take it easy, brother,” he heard a voice resonate and echo in the chambers of his mind: “easy… easy…. brother… brother. Relax, homeboy, boy… boy… boyyyy-you’re in good hands now,” the voice continued in perfect American English. Sabino’s eyelids fluttered and when he focused, his eyes seemed to say, “Who’n the hell are you?” Reading the quizzical look, the senior monk said, “CIA–your hound brought us to you.”