BY: DOUGLAS DURHAM
It has only been a year since Jason Douglas, a retired thirty-year veteran police detective, narrowly escaped death in the deserts of west Texas. After that harrowing experience, all Jason wants is time to recover from his wounds, both physical and emotional, and to enjoy his retirement as he’d planned. Accompanied by his wife Sonya, he points his RV north to continue their sightseeing travels across the American West. In Wyoming, Jason meets up with two old friends, the three planning a dream fishing trip. Just as metal is drawn to a magnet, suspense, danger, and death are once again drawn to Jason and his two comrades as they make their way into the remote Missouri River wilderness of northern Montana, known simply as “Trail 79.”
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: in The River by Douglas Durham, Jason Douglas is back, this time in the Montana wilderness on a fishing trip where he gets caught in a battle between a debtor and his loan shark. Oops. Jason, along with Daryl Jackson and Corey Taggert, are after cutthroat trout, but what they find is danger and violence—and not just from humans. The trio hires a guide to take them in to the wilderness, but after the guide lets them off of the boat at a place called Trail 79, where they plan to hike the river to the best fishing spots, the guide’s past catches up with him, when his loan shark’s assassin comes to collect his unpaid debt. But humans aren’t the only deadly predators in the wilderness, and something out there is pissed off and after blood. Theirs.
Like Durham’s first book, Death in the Desert, this one is a fast-paced, mystery/suspense with our hero battling it out for the good guys against insurmountable odds. It makes for an exciting read.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: The River by Douglas Durham is the second book in Durham’s Jason Douglas Mystery series. This time Jason is on a fishing trip in the mountains of Montana. We are reunited with Daryl Jackson from Death in the Desert, the first book in the series, along with FBI agent Cal Johnson, two of my favorite characters from the first book. And like the first book, Jason and his cohorts are up against a very skilled and deadly opponent, two of them actually, only one of them is not human.
The River, like its predecessor, is fast paced and tension filled. And you never know what to expect. I love it when that happens. This is one you’ll want to keep around to read again whenever you’re in the mood for a fast, terror-filled trip down a river.
“Whop! Whop! Whop! Whop!” The popping sound of twin rotor blades attached to the main rotor hub of a Bell UH1-D Iroquois helicopter slicing through the air was distinctively unique. To anyone who had ever served on one, or simply just spent time being ferried in one as I had so many times over the past ten months, it was a sound that was never forgotten.
The sound was visceral and could literally be “felt” miles away and easily identified as a “Huey” long before the helicopter ever came into view. Inside the machine, when in flight, particularly with its doors locked open to allow the ugly fluted snouts of the M-60 machine guns mounted on each side to protrude, it was a maelstrom of engine noise, wind, and vibration, coupled with the stink of canvas, aluminum, hydraulic fluid, and JP-5 exhaust. Attempting to talk without a headset, such as that worn by the crew, was an exercise in futility.
I’d spent hours in these “birds” and was now so accustomed to the noise and smell that none of it really registered anymore. Sitting in the centermost of the five aluminum framed canvas seats bolted to the floor at the rear of the cabin, I was resting the back of my head against the thin, and mostly useless, sound insulation padding attached to the rear bulkhead. I was absentmindedly staring out through the front windscreen between the pilot and co-pilot. Both my hands rested on my Colt M-16A1 combat rifle upright between my knees. The weapon had a full thirty-round “stick” inserted into its magazine well, but there was no live round in the chamber. It was a well-known fact that this particular pilot wouldn’t even let his own gunner chamber a round in his ’60 until the need came to actually fire the weapon.
The story passed around was that this pilot had been on his first tour of duty when he was assigned to fly a load of Eleventh Cavalry troopers to an LZ out near Dak To. As the bird prepared to lift off, a young soldier sitting in a seat, just like the one I now had my ass parked in, had accidently discharged his “Blooper” grenade launcher inside the helicopter. The blunt rounded tip of the 40 mm fragmentation grenade had punched its way through the cabin roof and exited out the top where it was immediately struck by one of the spinning rotor blades. Fortunately for all concerned, the grenade’s passage through the cabin ceiling and the strike from the rotor blade kept the projectile from spinning the required number of times to arm itself, thus it did not detonate on impact with the whirling aluminum. It was simply knocked through the swirling dusty air in a high arch like a well-hit baseball, falling into the red Vietnamese dirt 300 feet away where it lay still, like the menacing deadly little green egg that it was.
It was an accident in every sense of the word, of course, but that didn’t change the situation, nor aid the young trooper with his misfortune. The helicopter’s engine was shut down and the operation was quickly handed off to another unit. EOD was called out to dispose of the grenade, and the damaged helicopter had to be deadlined, pending repairs. The soldier was given an Article 15 and quickly transferred to a rear area support job. The incident made a zealot of the pilot when it came to loaded weapons on board his aircraft.
Can’t blame him I guess, as I thought of the story and snorted, shifting my position in the seat. Sitting as I was, I was not comfortable. My steel-pot-style helmet was wedged upside down between my legs and jammed tightly under my crotch. The endless vibration made the ride miserable as the helmet chafed the inside of my thighs and my groin, but it gave my genitals a small measure of protection against any potential ground fire.
Granted, the thin steel of the helmet would do nothing to stop a heavy caliber anti-aircraft round, should it burrow its way up through the aluminum floor and out the roof taking my balls with it, but it was certainly more protection than the seat canvas or the thin fabric of my jungle fatigues.
“Yeah you prick, I’m wearing jungle fatigues,” I mumbled out loud to myself as I looked down now at the mottled camouflage pattern of my pants and shirt with the name DOUGLAS embroidered in black lettering above the slanted right breast pocket. My thoughts strayed to my recent conversation with this new jerk-off of a second lieutenant named Momus Savage. I snorted again. Momus…Jesus spare me, I thought as I recalled his first name. This black FNG was shiny new and straight from “The Point.” Several days earlier he had taken me to task, telling me, “Military Police are not authorized to wear jungle fatigues, troop!”
I, of course, answered him with a snappy “Yes, sir!” and a perfect hand salute. I knew well how to play the game, but I had no intention of taking them off. They were way too comfortable, compared to standard-issue fatigues. This guy had been in-country for only three weeks. He didn’t know shit and didn’t want to listen to those who did. I’d be surprised if he was alive in two weeks, much less two months. Most importantly of all, he wasn’t my lieutenant. “Kiss my honky white ass,” I remembered mumbling as he’d walked away satisfied I would bend to his will and obey his order. Race relations were not good in the US Army in 1971. I chuckled softly. Fuck that guy was my final thought on the matter as I turned my attention back out through the windscreen to the checkerboard pattern of green rice paddies and red dirt passing beneath the helicopter.
There were six of us inside the noisy, smelly machine today. A flight crew of three, two MPs, including myself, and the prisoner. We were fifteen minutes away from landing at the headquarters of the XXIV Corps at Phu Bai. The prisoner was another black soldier who had deserted from an airborne infantry battalion, bivouacked just outside the nearby city of Hue, two months before. He’d been living in the Cholon district of Saigon, shacked up above a combination bar and whorehouse with an attractive half-French, half-Vietnamese prostitute, one of hundreds in Saigon.
When the bar’s proprietor confronted the soldier over his not paying for the girl’s services for a week, he’d told the man to fuck off. The bar owner promptly called the Saigon National Police, or “White Mice,” as they were known, due to their small stature and white uniforms. It took six mice to drag the kicking, flailing, cursing soldier out of the bar, where they turned him over to the US Army Military Police in Saigon. It was soon discovered that he had been listed as AWOL from his unit. The Saigon MPs shipped him to the army stockade at Long Binh to await court martial.
Holy shit. I shook my head thinking about that one–LBJ, the notorious Long Binh Jail. No place I’d want to be.
At some point, some REMF OIC decided the imprisoned soldier should be sent back to XXIV Corps HQ for special court martial as opposed to standing a general court martial in Saigon. HQ Saigon probably didn’t want the publicity, race relations being what they were. My accompanying MP partner and I had been detailed to pick the prisoner up and escort him back to our small holding facility to await trail. Someone must want his ass out of Saigon ASAP to detail a chopper instead of having us just take a jeep or truck, I thought. I was looking at his handcuffed wrists, his wrinkled uniform, and his tired, yet still hostile, black face when he noticed me staring at him.
“FUCK YOU HONKY PIG! I AIN’T IN YOUR CRACKER ARMY NO MORE!” the prisoner shouted at me above the noise.
The MP sitting on the other side of him jabbed his rifle butt into the prisoner’s ribs, hard, doubling him over. I just shook my head. Curse me all you want, boy, I thought, you’re the one that’s in deep shit now. He was right about one thing, though. He would be given his discharge from the US Army. I was certain it would read “Dishonorable.” Since he’d been AWOL for longer than thirty days, he was now classified as a deserter. They’d hand it to him as they put him on a plane, under guard, bound for the confinement barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The army took a dim view of soldiers who were convicted of desertion in the face of the enemy in times of war. That’s exactly what the charges read on the warrant paperwork in my pocket.
Legally, the army could even hang this soldier for such a conviction, but that hadn’t happened since Private Eddie Slovik in the second world war, and it certainly wasn’t going to happen to this guy.
Hell, when it’s all said and done, they’ll probably just kick him out as undesirable and give him a bus ticket back to whatever ghetto shithole he was drafted out of.
I shook my head again. Leaning closer to him, I looked directly into his hate-filled eyes and shouted back, “CONSIDER YOURSELF LUCKY, ASSHOLE! IF ARVN WAS FLYING YOU BACK OUT HERE, THEY’D HAVE THROWN YOUR BLACK-ASS OUT THE DOOR FOR MOUTHING OFF LIKE THAT.” I smiled, gestured my thumb toward the open door, then added, “THEN THEY’D HAVE WRITTEN IT UP AS ‘KILLED DURING AN ESCAPE ATTEMPT!’”
The prisoner glared at me, but he knew it was true. The South Vietnamese Army was not fond of most Americans at this late stage of the war, but they particularly didn’t like Black American soldiers shacking-up with their women, even if they were prostitutes.
“FUCK YOU HONKY MOTHER-FUCKER!” the prisoner shouted back at me, which earned him another blow to the ribs.
One dumb son-of-a-bitch, I thought as I shifted my gaze back to the windscreen between the flight crew. Fuck him too.
I was anxious to land, dump this guy into what passed as a stockade at the firebase, take a shower, and go have a few warm beers at the NCO club.
Sitting as I was, I could see a good portion of the many dials, gauges, and switches that surrounded the two men piloting the aircraft. Suddenly, as if responding to my gaze, a small yellow light in the center of the control panel began urgently flashing. By the pilot’s reaction, I instinctively knew that it was flashing a “you may be about to die!” message. The two warrant officers piloting the aircraft had, just seconds earlier, been relaxed in their seats, discussing over their helmeted headsets the difference between women’s breast sizes and which golf club was best to tee off with. Now they both suddenly sat up straight and began paying very close attention to the array of gauges and controls in front of them. I could not hear what they were saying to each other, but it was plain that something was seriously wrong. The co-pilot turned toward me in his seat, shouting to me over the noise, “CHECK THAT LITTLE ROUND VIEWING GLASS IN THE BULKHEAD BEHIND YOUR HEAD!” I gave him a questioning look, but un-fastened my lap belt and turned in my seat so I could see what he was pointing at. Sure enough there was a small round viewing glass, about an inch and a half in diameter, right behind my head. The glass was stained dark, however, and I could see nothing.
“WHAT AM I LOOKING FOR, SIR?” I shouted back.
The flight engineer turned from his machine gun on the right side, as if trying to decide if crawling across everyone to assist me would accomplish anything. He finally decided to just reach across and hand me an “L” shaped green army issue flashlight that had been clipped to his flight suit.
Shouting above the noise, he instructed, “USE THIS AND SEE IF YOU CAN SEE THE FLUID LEVEL!”
I took the light from him and shined it into the small porthole. Turning back to the co-pilot, I shook my head and yelled, “I DON’T SEE SHIT IN THERE, SIR!”
The flight engineer finally decided he needed to see for himself and crawled over to me, grabbing the light from my hand and shining the beam into the glass. He turned to the co-pilot and drew his right index finger across his throat as he spoke into his headset. This set off an immediate reaction. The co-pilot turned quickly, relaying that information to the pilot, who swiftly began to move the cyclic stick between his knees, the pitch/throttle control on his left side, and the foot pedals all at the same time. This combination of movements put the helicopter into a steep and fast decent toward a dry rice paddy.
“MAKE SURE YOU’RE STRAPPED IN AND HOLD ON!” the flight engineer shouted to everyone as he clawed his crawled his way back to his own outboard seat behind his machinegun, taking the opportunity to place his left knee squarely into the balls of the prisoner as he did so. As he buckled his own lap belt, he turned to me a winked. He was a southern boy, from Georgia, he’d told me, and he had zero tolerance for mouthy blacks. I shook my head and grinned to myself as I quickly re-fastened my own belt. I didn’t know much about the mechanical workings of helicopters, but having turned wrenches on cars a good portion of my early life, I was well aware that when it came to any powered machine, if there was no fluid where there should have been fluid, bad things happened. This was particularly true in a flying machine hurdling through the air at 120 MPH, three thousand feet from the ground. I quickly examined the prisoner’s lap belt. As an afterthought, I un-handcuffed his hands, which were in his lap. The other MP partner shot me a questioning look then just shrugged. The guy wasn’t going anywhere. He knew that, if he tried to escape, one of us would crack his skull with a rifle butt–or just shoot him.
The pilot was now struggling to get the machine on the ground before it stopped flying. He almost made it. We were still fifty feet in the air and moving fast when there was a loud “BANG!” from over our heads, and the helicopter lurched hard to the right.
The transmission had seized due to loss of fluid. When this occurred, the jarring collision of gears had caused the large bolt attaching the “Jesus Nut” of the aircraft to sheer off. In theory, this was supposed to allow the ungainly aircraft to auto-rotate to the ground under the pilot’s control. In this instance, the entire assembly failed, allowing the main rotor hub, along with the blades, to separate from the body of the aircraft. When that happened, Mr. Gravity made his presence known.
In the blink of an eye, the Huey fell the last forty feet, slamming into the ground belly first, still moving forward at fifty MPH. Both landing skids immediately snapped off and the fuselage bounced high into the air like a fatally injured bird attempting to fly once more. It violently crashed back to the ground, flipped onto its left side, and slid to a stop, pieces of the tail rotor blades flying through the air in every direction like deadly scythes. Both doors blew off on this second impact and joined the broken skids and rotor hub, all cartwheeling away. Dirt, sticks, rocks, broken Plexiglas, papers, helmets, weapons, ammo cans, and anything else that wasn’t bolted down or strapped in flew around the inside of the cabin. We might as well have been in a blender, being beat to shit as we were. Finally, the heavily damaged fuselage of the helicopter settled to a stop on its left side in a cloud of dust and smoke.
Stunned speechless, I was trying to grasp what had just happened. You’ve got to be shittin’ me! We crashed? I asked myself as I hung painfully sideways in my seat, held there by my lap belt. Blood dripped from a multitude of scrapes and abrasions on my face, head, and arms. My M-16 was nowhere to be seen. I was still trying to get my wits about me when the pilot shouted, “GET OUT! WE GOTTA GET OUT OF THIS FIRE TRAP!” Fire? FIRE? Oh shit!
I flipped off my lap belt. The others in the cabin did the same, which resulted in all of us falling into a heap, against both the left inside wall of the chopper and the hard packed ground which now filled the void left by the open door. Cursing and yelling, the four of us in the main cabin struggled to untangle ourselves from each other as all six of us began to claw our way up and out of the right side door openings, now pointing skyward.
My own instincts for survival took over then, as I had absolutely no intention of burning to death in this aluminum coffin. I crawled up and out onto the right side of the fuselage which was now ten feet from the ground. Closing my eyes, I tried to let my body go limp as I rolled off, waiting for another jarring impact. I landed hard on my right side.
I was puzzled. Strange, that didn’t hurt at all. I opened my eyes a second later. I couldn’t comprehend what greeted me. It was not the hard red dirt and dry stubble of a long abandoned Vietnamese rice paddy that I’d expected. Instead, I found that my face was pressed into…carpet?
© 2015 by Douglas Durham