Vaughn C. Hardacker
I stood next to the coiled concertina wire and watched the brilliant red sun creep below the Vietnamese jungle. As the fiery red ball descended, the heat that had held us in a chokehold all day began to loosen its grip on the land and the moist humid smell of the rainforest permeated the cool evening air. I sighed knowing relief from a day of sweating and struggling to avoid the 120 degree temperature was only moments away.
The night might be cool, but it wasn't our friend. We ruled the country during the day, but at night it belonged to Charley. Charley hid in the jungle all day and at night he came out to harass and play with us. I'd been in-country for seven months and had seen just about everything you wanted to see, as well as a good many things you never wanted to see. I had a reputation for being fearless, but then at twenty-one we all think we're invincible. Even in the heat of a fire fight, while your buddies are dropping like flies, You don't really think you're going to die, at least I didn't. But, in spite of all that, I still feared the jungle at night.
Fifty meters beyond the perimeter of our firebase a dense green wall of tropical grass, brush and trees wound around Hill 666. The firebase existed like a small island in the sea of tropical rain forest that isolated us from the rest of the world. At night the wire and our weapons were all that held the VC at bay.
There were a little less than a hundred Marines assigned to Firebase Voodoo. But, of the hundred, there was only one who felt at home in those ominous trees, Corporal Eddie Wolf.
Only Wolf had the courage to venture across the border of our small world after the sun had set, disappearing into that green morass. We called the bush Indian Country, which may have been why Wolf was unafraid of the dense jungle--after all he was a Malaseet Indian.
The Malaseets are a little known branch of the Algonquin nation and were fiece allies of the French during the French and Indian wars. They have been tame since that war ended, becoming farmers and reservation Indians in Maine and New Brunswick, Canada. If you're wondering how I got to be such an expert on the Malaseet Indians, well I grew up in Maine and raised my share of hell with a number of guys from the reservation. But, none of them were any where close to being as spooky as Wolf. Oh, they told crazy stories about the Windigo, which is some kind of cannibal that preys on anyone it finds in the woods during the winter, and other weird stuff, but nothing like Wolf.
Wolf was from another plane all together. He hardly ever spoke, when he did it was usually only to answer questions from superiors. He had a way of looking at you that made you feel as if he had x-ray vision. I swear he could look at someone and actually see the blood pumping through their veins. No matter how frustrated and up tight we got no body fucked with Wolf. When you have a bunch of young guys isolated from civilization and under constant surveillance from Charley, nerves just naturally get frayed and a lot of minor arguments and, on occasion, fist fights are bound to happen. But, no matter how frustrated, scared and irritable we were, no one, not an officer, NCO or common grunt, screwed with Eddie Wolf. I believe if you messed with him he’d rip off your head and shit in your neck--and never think twice about it.
I heard footsteps and turned my head to see who was coming. I recognized Sergeant Billy Reasoner and reached into my pocket, pulled out a pack of Marlboro’s and offered one to him when he stood beside me.
We stood looking out as we enjoyed our last smoke before it became too dangerous to smoke in the open. In the night, the glow of a cigarette can be seen up to fifteen miles away. Not that it mattered that much, Charley knew only too well where we were. But, why give a sniper any more incentive than you had to. We inhaled the smoke deeply and said nothing for several minutes.
“You seen him?” Reasoner broke the silence.
“Nah, nothin’ yet.” I turned to face Billy, “I’m gonna follow the bastard tonight.”
“Damn, Burt, you can’t be serious! That guy is crazier than a buzzard on a gut wagon. Three consecutive tours in ‘Nam and not so much as a scratch on him…”
“So he’s lucky.”
“Lucky my ass! He’s some kind of crazy fucking Indian from the boonies. He’s a whacko. You got to be to go out on one-man night patrols. If that ain’t bad enough, he never takes a rifle and only goes out when the moon is full. Never on a moonless night when the dark will protect him. He goes out when the place is lit up like the Fourth of July! You ain’t ever gonna find me following him. Hell, I don’t like to deal with him here at the firebase. Besides you'd have to be goofy to follow him. The fuckin’ Gooks will have you before you get a hundred meters out there.”
I inhaled and realized that Billy was right. Wolf was a refugee from someone’s Psycho ward. Even officers were hesitant to give orders to Wolf. They left him alone to do his own thing, not that Wolf shirked doing his share of the work. Quite the contrary, he did his share and more. As I said, he was just creepy, never said nothing to no one, never smiled and was always off by him self. I ground out what was left of my cigarette and watched Billy pull one from his pack and light it with the first.
I took the cigarette from his mouth, took a drag on it then handed it back to him. “Billy, my man, if anyone in this nuthouse of a country deserves to be called goofy, its you. Now I got to go get my shit together.”
I left Billy smoking by the wire and walked to the sand bag bunker we sardonically referred to as 'The Hilton'. It wasn't much to look at, but dirt floor and all, it was home. I could hear Billy muttering to himself as he lit another link in his endless chain of cigarettes. I took my time gathering my weapon and gear. It was still a good half-hour before it would be dark enough for Wolf to start on one of his monthly patrols.
“He’s over by his bunker,” Billy announced when I rejoined him at the wire.
Trying to appear nonchalant, I glanced in the direction of Wolf’s bunker. Because he was the sole inhabitant and had built it alone, he even hung a crudely painted sign over the entrance, proclaiming it 'The Wolf’s Lair'. The sight of Wolf laying on the roof smoking as he waited for darkness made me believe he was the dominant male and above the struggles of the rest of us in the pack. Maybe, I thought, he’s appropriately named. I tried to appear uninterested in him and checked my rifle. “What’s he doing now?” I asked Billy.
“Just layin’ there, like King Shit on Turd Island.”
I took Billy’s cigarette and once again drew the smoke into my lungs.
“Oops,” said Billy, “he’s moving.”
I handed Billy his cigarette and saw Wolf toss his cigarette into the red dust and jump from the bunker to the ground with a grace I could never duplicate, only envy. He started to walk down the path that led to the perimeter.”
Bill trembled. “He ain’t natural.”
Wolf did not pause he exited the compound and loped down the trail that led to the jungle.
“Well,” I said, “time to move out. See you in the morning?”
“I sure as Hell hope so…”
The jungle trail looked like a gray gash through the black trees and tropical ferns. The open area through which the path snaked was the only place where moonlight could filter through the canopy, illuminating the jungle with sporadic splashes of light, giving it the appearance of a dog with a bad case of the mange. I cautiously studied my surroundings. An involuntary shudder ran through me. In my haste to discover what Wolf did on his moonlight excursions, I had completely ignored something--where I hated the bush during the day, at night I was terrified of it. Every movement of a leaf or sound of an insect or animal had me imagining death by attack from some nocturnal danger or another. I began to believe that I was as good as dead, my demise was only a matter of time. If a Gook patrol didn't stumble across me, the snakes or tigers or who in hell knew what would.
I sat back and softly inhaled deeply, trying to get control of my nerves and stop my imagination from scaring the beegeezus out of me. Damn, I would have killed for a cigarette right then, but to give in to my nicotine habit would result in only one person being killed—-me. I took a deep breath trying to purge the thought of a luscious smoke from my mind.
Suddenly, I felt the presence of something sinister.
At first I wasn't sure if it was my imagination again or not. But there was one thing of which I was certain—some one, or something, was watching me. Sweat seemed to gush from every pore in my body, quickly soaking through my camoflage uniform, pouring down my face and burning when it entered my eyes.
For some strange reason, possibly an influx of adrenaline, my senses seemed infinitely keener. I could hear the drops of sweat hitting the rotten, dead vegetation that littered the jungle floor. Each drop sounded as loud as the boom of a kettledrum in an orchestra. I realized if I could hear them, then whatever was stalking me could probably hear them too.
I held my breath realizing that I was so far out of my element. Whoever, or whatever was watching me had superior senses of hearing and smell and surely had my location fixed. I frantically peered around the vicinity and when I looked across the trail the moonlight reflected in the eyes of some large animal!
The sinister eyes glowed like two fiery coals in the dense darkness. I tried to identify what type of creature it was but the dark foliage protected it from any prying eyes.
I stopped breathing. I firmly believed I was eye-to-eye with one of the tigers thought to be hunting in the area. By itself meeting a tiger in the bush was no pleasant thing, but when one realized that the war had forced most of the big cat’s food supply out of the area and it was most likely starving the situation became damned lethal. The local cats were rumoured to have become, out of necessity, man-eaters!
I swallowed hard, trying to digest my fear. I knew if I showed the slightest indication of fear the tiger would strike without hesitation. Although it was the last thing in this world I wanted to look at, I forced myself to maintain eye contact with the beast. I felt like Davy Crockett staring down the bear and fervently hoped that like the bear the tiger would blink first.
The dark mass that I believed was the tiger’s head turned forty-five degrees, breaking eye contact. I did not know if it had heard something I had not or if it was merely trying to figure out what in hell this fool was doing out here at night. To be frank, the same thought ran through my mind.
I decided to take a chance and see if I could get away. I slowly stood up and stepped out onto the trail, taking a few apprehensive steps as I tried to gauge the animal’s intentions. I kept my eyes glued on the cat as I carefully (in what I hoped was a non-threatening manner) began to walk away.
The beast snapped its head back regaining eye contact with me. I immediately stopped moving, cursing both me, for being stupid, and Wolf for attracting me into making such a stupid decision. If his damned monthly disappearances hadn't peaked my curiosity, I'd be back at the firebase with the rest of the guys, safely tucked inside my sleeping bag in my bunker. I decided that I'd committed myself and began to slowly back down the trail keeping my eyes on the cat. I was completely unprepared for what the cat did next.
It stood up on its hind legs!
Suddenly, it stepped out of the shadows and into the moonlight and I realized how very wrong I had been. It was not a tiger at all. I felt my knees go weak! It was a wolf, yet not a wolf! And it was the biggest wolf, for lack of a better way to describe it I’ll call it one, I'd ever seen in my life. The wolf took a step toward me and I felt a sob of terror rise in my throat. I was no coward and had seen as much action as any other Marine, but this was something else! This fucking thing was supernatural! If there was such a thing as a werewolf, this was one!
The wolf-man took another step toward me and snarled. I could see saliva dripping from the razor sharp fangs in its open mouth. I knew those canines were razor-sharp and more than capable of ripping my throat to shreds. I forced my eyes away from the threatening teeth and realized it was walking upright, more like a man than any member of the canine family I knew of. Then I noticed it wore the utility uniform of a U. S. Marine! The monster raised its arms and the moonlight reflected off the sharp claws protruding from the pudgy pads that would have been a man's fingers.
I knew that either madness or death were only seconds away, though I kept hoping that I'd soon wake up from this horrific nightmare. The M-16 rifle I held slipped from my hand and I threw caution to the winds, turned tail and ran!
I ran as fast as I had ever run in my life. Throughout the mad flight I fought against the urge cry like a baby. I wanted to cry out for mercy, for my mother to come and save me from the nightmare that was chasing me through the Vietnamese jungle!
I could hear the soft pounding of the werewolf's paws hitting the ground, getting closer as it bore down on me! My breathing was becoming labored and I got a cramp in my side. I knew it was gaining on me fast! In a final burst of adrenaline I gave it my all. With a explosion of speed that surprised even me, I tore around a turn in the trail and through the middle of a VC patrol!
Weird as it may sound, the werewolf probably saved my life. Like the British in Johnny Horton's song, 'The Battle of New Orleans', "I ran so fast, the hounds couldn't catch me." I tore through the VC, who were taken completely by surprise and thrown into disarray. I didn't hesitate, I don't care what any one says, fear is a great motivator! I raced on down the trail.
The howl of a wolf filled the night and I ventured a glance over my shoulder, to see where the werewolf was. I tripped over a tree root and flew head first into the bushes that lined the trail. Realizing I had no rifle I unsheathed my K-bar knife and waited to defend myself against whoever or whatever might come at me.
What I saw in the bright moonlight was more terrorizing than any horror movie could hope to duplicate. The werewolf leapt into the midst of the confused enemy troops and began ripping into them. It slashed through them and threw them every which way! It tore them apart with its flashing claws and snapping fangs, ripping out throats and tearing off limbs as it rampaged through them. One VC was able to land a glancing blow with a machete, cutting the beast along its left arm. The werewolf spun on him and lifted him up, its hands (paws?) covered with blood that streamed out of the VC’s arms where the razor-sharp claws gripped him. The enemy soldier was still screaming in terror when the wolf-man sank its huge fangs into his neck and ripped his head from his body!
The fight quickly left the few VC who were still alive and they scattered, bolting away into the jungle with the rampaging monster on their heels.
Silence returned to the night and I lay still, frightened into immobility, for several minutes. Suddenly, screams echoed through the jungle. I knew the werewolf must have caught up with one, or more, of the VC. I knew that if I was going to escape, I had to do it while the werewolf was occupied. I bolted to my feet and ran toward safety, back toward the perimeter of the firebase on Hill 666! It seemed as if I ran for hours, but in reality it was only minutes, and when I finally broke out of the trees I wanted to cry with relief. Once I could see our perimeter I began to shout, “Don’t shoot! I’m a Marine!”
I heard Billy call out, “Is that you, Burt?”
All I could say was, “Fucking A! Don’t shoot!”
Billy must have seen me coming and he pulled the barbed wire aside, creating a entrance for me. I raced through the opening and didn't stop running until I was in my bunker.
The next morning I was sitting on my bunker, smoking and drinking coffee. I was trying to decide how much, if anything, to tell anyone about the previous night. My eye was attracted to movement and I saw Wolf come out of the trees.
He casually sauntered up the hill, through the perimeter and over to my bunker. He reached out and took the canteen cup of coffee from me and took a drink. He held up an M-16 rifle and said, “I found this last night. I think it's yours--wouldn't want Charley to get his hands on it, would we.”
Suddenly the terror of the night before returned. “You saw...”
“Nothing,” He said, then placed my rifle next to me on the bunker’s roof and handed me back the coffee. “See you around, Sarge.”
He leered at me for a second and I had feelings akin to those I'd experienced last night. I felt like a piece of meat being inspected by a hungry wolf. “You seen the corpsman?” he asked, raising his left arm and exposing a long nasty gash. “Looks like I finally earned my Purple Heart last night.”
He winked through feral eyes and walked away. “Looks like another full moon tonight,” he called back to me. “I don’t know about you, but I’ve always loved taking a stroll on a moonlit night…”