Grass Dancer

Charlie’s coming.

Roger Thunder Horse poked his head above the sandbags and sighted along the barrel of his M-16 rifle. He focused his attention at the forest beyond the perimeter wire, searching for a line too straight, an angle that didn’t belong, something out of the ordinary. He knew the enemy was out there. Somewhere. Everything was just too damn quiet. Too still. Like the calm before a storm. Things always got that way right before they got hit. Even the tiny green treefrogs had hushed their shrill cries. Like Roger, they also waited.

The men of 3rd Battalion 26 Marines, K Company, knew what it was like to engage the enemy, and to face death. Their tiny outpost, stationed on top of a mountain known to them only as Hill 861, came under rocket and mortar attack nearly every night. Located in the province of Quang Tri, Hill 861 was just below the Demilitarized Zone, near the border of Laos, in the godforsaken country of Vietnam.

Two miles southeast of Hill 861 was the Khe Sanh Combat Base, home for a little over six thousand U.S. and South Vietnamese soldiers. Khe Sanh was a regular city compared to Hill 861. The base had an airstrip, twenty-four howitzers and half a dozen tanks. A couple of miles south of the base was the village it was named for. Several other U.S. Marine outposts were scattered around the base, in an effort to keep the North Vietnamese from moving south across the border.

Neither the combat base nor the surrounding outposts had much of a deterring effect upon the North Vietnamese. Intelligence reports complied during the past two months showed that Charlie was moving massive amounts of troops and firepower below the DMZ in preparation for something big. North Vietnamese Army divisions 325 C, 324 and 370, along with a regiment of the 304th — an elite home guard form Hanoi — were already entrenched in the area, with more units moving in every day. According to the latest estimates, there were somewhere between thirty and forty thousand North Vietnamese Army regulars in the surrounding countryside, compared with an allied force totaling less than seven thousand men.

Early yesterday morning, Company I from Hill 881 had made contact with a battalion of North Vietnamese Army regulars dug in between Hill 881 South and Hill 881 North. The tropical forest covering the mountains was so thick, they hadn’t seen the enemy until they were right on top of them. Twenty marines were killed, and another thirty wounded, in the first two minutes of the firefight.

Less than an hour after the ambush, a NVA defector had appeared at the Khe Sanh airstrip waving a white flag. The defector, a 1st Lt. La Than Tonc, informed the base commander that North Vietnamese troops were preparing to overrun the base in an effort to sweep across two northern provinces to seize the city of Hue.

Charlie’s coming.

Hearing the news, Roger and his fellow marines had dug their trenches deeper, added more sandbags to the bunkers, and reinforced the perimeter with additional claymore mines, triple coils of barbed wire, German razor tape, and trip flares. They had done all they could do to protect themselves. Now it was just a matter of waiting to be hit.

The waiting was the hardest part. To pass the time, most of them played cards, smoked pot, sang, or shot rats. There were a lot of rats in the bunkers and trenches of Hill 861. A few, usually the new guys, would stare at the jungle for hours until they developed a blank look in their eyes know as the thousand yard stare.

Roger wiped a hand across his face. He watched the sun as it slowly sank behind the hills to the west. Darkness was coming, and with it would come the enemy. Shadows already gathered in the valley below. To the south, a haze of bluish smoke marked the location of the village of Khe Sanh — or what was left of it. The Viet Cong had attacked Khe Sanh earlier in the day. They didn’t like it that the villagers were friendly toward the Americans, trading fresh vegetables for canned rations, cigarettes, and candy.

He had seen what the VC did to civilians who were friendly to Americans. Children with their limbs hacked off. Women with their vaginas cut out. Old people gut-shot and left to die. In the six months he had been in Vietnam, Roger had seen enough horrors to last him a lifetime. Maybe two.

Six months. Six months till I can get out of this hell hole. Six months till I can go home.

Going home was all he ever thought about. Day and night. Night and day. The war had lost all meaning for him. He no longer cared who won. Survival was the only thing that mattered anymore. He was just putting in his time, keeping his head down, trying not to get shot before he rotated out.

Less than a year had passed since he left the Kiowa Reservation in Oklahoma, but it seemed like a lifetime. He longed for the wide-open spaces where a man could feel the wind on his face and sleep under the stars without worrying about mortar attacks or snipers. He missed driving into town on a Saturday night to catch a movie. He missed ice-cream cones. But most of all he missed his aunt, Ruth, and his brother, Jimmy. He still remembered how upset they had been when he told them he was leaving.

“What’s that?” Jimmy had asked as Roger entered the kitchen. He’d noticed the envelope in Roger’s shirt pocket. Aunt Ruth turned away from the stove, where she was cooking scrambled eggs and sausages.

“Bad news?” she had asked, eyeing the envelope suspiciously. Aunt Ruth may have been well into her sixties, but she was still as sharp as ever. She didn’t miss much. Roger had hoped to wait until after breakfast before discussing the contents of the letter, but he’d just have to go ahead and break the news to them.

“I’m afraid it is, Aunt Ruth,” Roger said, standing beside Jimmy. “It’s from Washington. I’ve been drafted.”

Aunt Ruth put a hand on the counter to steady herself. She recovered quickly and grabbed a towel to wipe her hands off.

“Here, let me see that.” She crossed the room and held her hand out. Roger handed her the envelope. Aunt Ruth read the letter twice before giving it back to him.

“So, what are you going to do?” she asked.

Roger shrugged. “What else can I do? It’s not like I have a choice.”

“There’ s always a choice to any situation.” She walked back to the stove to stir her eggs. “You could go to Canada till the war’s over.”

Roger thought about it a moment, then shook his head. “No, that would be running away. People would say I was a coward then. I wouldn’t be able to call myself a warrior, or much of a man for that matter. No, Aunt Ruth, I can’t run.”

She turned and looked at him, a sadness in her eyes. He really didn’t have a choice. A lot of young men were moving to Canada to avoid the draft, but they weren’t Indians. Roger was full-blooded Kiowa. In his veins flowed the blood of his ancestors. The blood of warriors. If he ran, he would bring disgrace on the entire tribe.

“When do you leave?” she asked.

“I have to report for my physical first thing Monday morning.”

“Do you have to go away?” Jimmy asked, tears forming.

“Yeah, I have to,” Roger said, squatting down beside his brother’s wheelchair.

Jimmy, who was eleven, suffered from a painful spinal disease that curved his backbone and made it nearly impossible for him to walk. If nothing else, the military would provide a steady paycheck. With enough money, they might be able to find a doctor who could fix Jimmy’s back. Ever since their parents had been killed in a car wreck, and they had moved in with their Aunt Ruth, there was barely enough money to buy food, let alone pay expensive doctor bills.

Roger stood up. “I almost forgot. I’ve got a favor to ask.”

He crossed the kitchen and walked back into his bedroom. When he returned, he carried his dance regalia, which consisted of buckskin leggings, moccasins, a ribbon shirt, porcupine hair roach, bells, dance stick and fan, and an eagle-feather bustle.

“I need you to take care of this stuff until I get back,” Roger said as he laid the regalia in Jimmy’s lap.

Jimmy started to protest, but changed his mind and remained silent. He knew what an important responsibility he was being given. An honor. Not only was Roger one of the best traditional dancers in the state, but the forty-three golden eagle feathers used in the regalia had been passed down for generations, from one Thunder Horse to the next. Roger had used thirty-six feathers to make the bustle and the other seven for the fan.

Jimmy ran his fingers gently over the feather bustle. “It makes my hand tingle.”

Roger smiled. It’s supposed to. That bustle is a medicine piece. What you’re feeling is its power...its energy. Not only are those eagle feathers sacred, they’re medicine feathers. The spirits of your ancestors are in those feathers, Jimmy. I guess a little bit of my spirit is in them too. They’ll protect you while I’m gone, keep you safe till I get back.”

Jimmy looked down at the bustle, then back up. “What if you don’t come back?”

“Then the regalia is yours, all of it,” Roger said, a sadness coming over him. It would be the first time he and Jimmy had ever been apart.

“You know I can’t dance,” Jimmy said.

Roger laid his hand on Jimmy’s shoulder. “You can do anything you put your mind to. Anything at all.”

He turned away and went back into his room to pack. Vietnam was a long way away.


The first mortar shell landed about fifty yards away. Dirt and rocks rained down like tiny hailstones all around him.

Whump! Whump! Whump!

Three more rounds landed in the same area as the North Vietnamese walked a line of fire from east to west.

“Incoming!” someone yelled, but by then everyone already knew they were under attack.

Roger hunched lower and searched for something to shoot at. The sun was down and night had come. The shadows along the perimeter were as deep as those in the valley below. He thought he saw movement along the fence line but couldn’t be sure. A few seconds later someone set off a trip flare.

The flare streaked into the sky and exploded, splattering the area into a metallic brilliance as it drifted gently in the air, swinging slowly back and forth. Roger saw several dozen men in black clothing, VC guerrillas, scurry along the fence line. As the flare revealed their position, the VC opened fire with machine guns and rifles. Roger returned fire.

Charlie’s here.

Slapping a fresh clip into his M-16, Roger hit the bolt release and chambered a round. He held his breath to steady his hands and squeezed off a short burst. There seemed to be no end to the number of enemy soldiers swarming up the hill. A company of NVA regulars, about two hundred strong, had joined the VC at the fence. Using bamboo ladders, they had already breached the outer perimeter in two places. Those in the lead used satchel charges to clear a path through the claymores. Once past the minefield, there were only two more fences between them and the base.

The area between the fences was lit up like a carnival as explosions, flares, and tracer rounds split the night. The noise was a deafening blend of detonations, shots, screams, and curses. From somewhere near the outer perimeter a bugle sounded, its shrill notes like that of a wailing demon. Roger would have loved to throttle the neck of the person blowing it, for each piercing note caused his flesh to crawl.

As Roger raised up to fire off another burst, he felt a hand upon his left shoulder. He turned and saw 1st Lt. Chris McGee standing next to him.

“I wouldn’t poke your head up too far,” the lieutenant warned. Roger looked up and saw a stream of blue-green tracer rounds pass like fireflies above his head. The North Vietnamese had opened up on their position with a heavy machine gun. Roger nodded and hunkered lower in the trench.

Lt. McGee, an artillery officer, kneeled down and placed a radio on the ground before him.

“What happened to your radio operator?” Roger asked. He had to yell to be heard.

“He took a round between the eyes,” McGee yelled back. He picked up the radio’s receiver and called the artillery unit at Khe Sanh.

“Oh-eight to Marine Artillery Jacksonville. We have enemy troops inside the wire. Request H and E shells, fire number five.”

“Jacksonville to Oh-eight,” came the reply. “What kind of fuses?”

McGee looked at Roger, who shrugged. He thumbed the button to talk. “Oh, hell, mixed quick and delay, I guess.”

“Roger, Oh-eight.” The radio hissed.

Twenty seconds later, Roger ducked as a single artillery shell whistled over their heads, sounding as loud as a freight train roaring through a narrow canyon. The shell exploded just beyond the outer fence. Two more quickly followed.

McGee thumbed the receiver again and shouted above the noise. “Oh-eight to Jacksonville. Mixed shells H and E, and WP. Air burst twenty meters. Keep it working up and down the road.” He turned to Roger and motioned for him to take cover.

Roger dove to the bottom of the trench as a salvo of artillery shells sailed over their position. The shells, both high explosive and white phosphorous, detonated along the edge of the forest. Night became day and the earth trembled as burning phosphorous and white-hot steel slammed into the ground. Trees exploded, bushes burned, and soldiers were ripped apart, their screams of agony drowned out by the shells bursting above their heads. Roger stood up and watched as NVA soldiers endured the hellfire of the howitzers.

But though the artillery shells rained death down upon them, the North Vietnamese hadn’t been stopped. Nor had they given up. As those in the front died, others crawled forward to take their place. Like an army of spiders, they kept coming.

“Out of my way!” someone yelled.

Roger leaped to the side as James Smith — Smitty to everyone — slid into the trench. Smitty, a muscular black man from southern Alabama, was a machine gunner in the same squad as Roger. Back in the States he had been an amateur boxer. In Vietnam he was a professional killer. Pushing between the lieutenant and Roger, Smitty rested the barrel of his M-60 machine gun on the stack of sandbags in front of him.

“I figured you could use some help, Geronimo,” he said as he fed an ammo belt into the gun.

“Hell, the lieutenant and I were planning on winning this war by ourselves,” Roger answered.

Smitty grinned, cocked the M-60, aimed, and commenced killing the enemy. Roger turned his attention back toward the fence line and proceeded to do the same.

Jimmy Thunder Horse sat up with a start, his heart pounding. At first he wasn’t sure where he was, the darkness was so complete. But gradually his eyes adjusted and he could make out the familiar shapes in his bedroom. The nightstand beside his bed. His dresser. His desk. He listened carefully and was further reassured that all was well by the gentle snoring of Aunt Ruth from down the hall.

“Just a dream,” he whispered. “It was just a bad dream.”

Bad dream nothing. He had just had the worst nightmare of his life. Jimmy had been in a deep forest, fleeing from something he couldn’t see. Though it was nighttime, the sky was lit with explosions of colors. Red. Yellow. White. Like the Fourth of July. He wasn’t alone. Dead things ran with him. Half-naked men with no arms, or parts of their faces missing, lumbered along beside him. He tried to outrun them, but the ground was slick with blood. He slipped and fell and the men were upon him. All of them had the same face. They were all Roger.

Jimmy leaned over and turned on the lamp on his nightstand. His hands still shook as he opened the nightstand’s drawer and took out a stack of letters. The letters, fifteen in all, were from Roger. He opened the first envelope and removed a photograph.

The picture of Roger had been taken a little over two months ago. He was standing on top of a building made out of sandbags. There were similar buildings in the background, with narrow trenches between them. Roger wore green fatigue pants and dusty combat boots. He was shirtless, which showed how thin he’d become in the last six months. Around his neck hung a pair of dog tags and his medicine pouch. In his right hand he held a M-16. In his left he held a dead rat. Roger was smiling in the picture.

Jimmy had stared at the picture for hours, studying every little detail of it. Maybe, he thought, if he stared at the photograph long enough, he could make Roger climb out of it and come home. The letter that came with it portrayed a different side of the war than what was shown on the evening news. Roger talked about humorous things, like rat races, mud football and burning shit on latrine duty. For the life of him, Jimmy could not understand what was so funny about burning shit.

All of the letters Roger sent to Jimmy were lighthearted. But there were others, sent to Aunt Ruth, that told a different story about Vietnam. Jimmy wasn’t supposed to have seen the letters, but he found them in the kitchen closet, tucked behind his aunt’s jar of sassafras roots. The letters spoke of horrors unimaginable to an eleven-year-old boy. They told about firefights and land mines, body counts and mutilations. One thing for sure, despite how cheerful he seemed in the letters he sent to Jimmy, Roger was scared. He had sent extra money home in his last letter to Aunt Ruth, with a request that it be used to purchase a special prayer song at the next powwow.

He put the letters back, threw off his covers, and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He lowered himself carefully into his wheelchair and rolled across the room to the far wall. Roger’s dance bustle hung from a nail on the wall, low enough that Jimmy could take it down whenever he wanted. He slipped the bustle off the nail and laid it in his lap.

His hand tingled as he gently touched the eagle feathers. The bustle had lost none of its power. As he stroked the feathers, an image of Roger came to mind. Jimmy saw his brother step proudly as he entered the dance arena during the grand entrance, his face painted, his head held high. He saw him challenge the other dancers in the sneak-up dance, dropping to one knee to search for the enemy’s trail, only to rise again to charge the drum. Roger never missed a beat when he danced, never failed to turn toward the drum when an honoring beat sounded. People always said that Roger’s medicine was strong, that the Great Spirit came upon him when he danced.

A tear ran down Jimmy’s cheek. It fell upon one of the eagle feathers. Jimmy quickly wiped it off. “Please, Roger, come home. Come home and dance for me.”

Part 2 |

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Updated Monday, 13-Mar-2017 14:46:48 PDT