A few of the other soldiers were laughing at Smithy's losing streak. Amused seeing the man known for winning in all aspects of life crashing so dramatically. Most had obviously consumed a fair amount of drink, everyone winding down for Christmas.
"Ah, care to join us?" Smithy asked casually, turning to look at Trigger, as if only just noticing him. He was still running through their script.
Trigger flicked his eyes over to Deuce, fidgeting beside him, and back to Smithy.
The older man read it straight away.
"Gentlemen," he said, putting the flat of his palms on the table. "I'll sit this hand out, I have some business to address." He started to rise from his seat.
Deuce shoved his hands in his pockets and hopped from foot to foot, virtually levitating with unspent frustration. Unable to contain himself any longer he took a large stride towards Smithy.
"I found 'em. Binh's alive."
Smithy dropped all pretence and sat heavily on the seat, a giant smile slapped across his face.
In a rush Deuce continued. "Laken, she can't speak, but her and Binh are okay. Or I think they are. I don't know. They don't know, but I'm sure. I got a gut feeling. We gotta go check. We gotta go—"
Trigger put a hand on Deuce's arm to stop his verbal diarrhea.
Every gaze in the mess was now focused on the over-excited, rambling pilot and motionless captain.
Smithy looked at Trigger and raised his eyebrows, silently requesting a full report.
"A young mom and baby were picked up in the jungle. They're unharmed but the woman is mute," Trigger explained quietly.
He heard breaths catch around the room. A lot of these guys knew about Binh. In the middle of a war, two Green Berets becoming midwives in itself was big news. Though they never met her, many soldiers had raised a glass to the baby's good health, fervently clinging to the hope an innocent life brought. They were also painfully aware their unofficial symbol of peace had been wiped out.
"It'd be a fucking Christmas miracle if it's them," Ginger said, rubbing a hand over his jaw in disbelief.
"The Lord moves in mysterious ways."
All eyes pivoted towards an unassuming Padre. Reverend Taylor stepped out of the corner. Trigger was surprised to see him; they'd met in Saigon not long after the camps. Trigger had sought his guidance while trying to deal with life after being a brief but memorable guest of the Viet Cong. The brush with death too close for him to reconcile alone. If the SOG unit hadn't happened across them, during a transfer between POW camps, he would've been at the Pearly Gates by now.
He looked at the reverend, furrowing his brow with confusion.
"Flew in today to minister sermons tomorrow," Reverend Taylor answered his unspoken question. "Now we could be witnessing a true act of God."
Deuce was bouncing. "Ooh! Ooh! We're the wise men that's gonna find Jesus."
"More like the shepherds," Smithy chuckled, pulling a cigarette out of his fatigues. "Lieutenant, when do we ship out?"
Trigger tossed his Zippo to the captain. "Tomorrow, first light if I can work out a way."
"We need gold, myrrh and frankincense. We can't go on Christmas Day without gifts can we, Padre?" Deuce asked, rocking onto the balls of his feet.
Reverend Taylor laughed. "If you've found your angel, gifts are a wonderful idea."
"The mom and baby are in a small hospital," Trigger explained.
Taking a long drag on his cigarette Smithy looked thoughtful. "Can you source some med supplies... and maybe food?"
Trigger grinned back, he had seen the conditions at the non-military clinics, anything he could get hold of would be helpful. The medics were often working without the bare essentials, treating patients on hope, a wing and a prayer.
"Sure. I can get some short-dated gear."
"Do you need a door gunner?" Ginger asked.
"If you're volunteering," Smithy replied, nodding.
"I'll come," Poison, a senior crew chief, offered. "When do we report for duty, sir?"
"Hang on guys." Trigger nervously swiped a hand through his still wet hair. He was good but could he get a chopper on Christmas Day? "We haven't got permission to go anywhere. The birds are grounded for the ceasefire."
"Not quite," Reverend Taylor interjected. "There's a MACV flight taking letters to the troops in the field. Not sure who they've roped into doing it."
Trigger looked at Smithy, awaiting a barely perceptible confirmation nod. Seeing it, he smiled confidently. "It's done."
"We're gonna be Santa," Deuce shrieked with excitement.
"Let's start a collection." Ginger pushed his winnings towards Smithy.
Instantly soldiers were rummaging in their fatigues adding to the money. More offers filled the air.
"My girl sent me candy, you can have it."
"I've got cookies."
"Do ya think they'd want pencils?"
Trigger beamed at the generosity of the men. He glanced at Deuce, who had found an ammo can and was piling the money inside. Relief washed over him; today they had stopped the devil possessing his best friend. He silently prayed it was going to be Laken and Binh; Deuce wouldn't cope if it wasn't. Trigger schooled his expression to neutral. None of them would cope.
"Hello, pretty lady," Trigger said, radiating pure charm at Betsy.
The young nurse jumped. The dressings she'd been putting away tumbled to the ground.
"Lieu-Lieutenant Ashton, sorry I didn't know you were there."
Trigger lavished the stuttering nurse with his most dazzling smile. "Let me help you, and please, call me Tom."
He gathered up the dropped dressings, making sure his fingers lightly brushed the nurse's trembling hand as he passed them over. He was rewarded with her cheeks flushing as she struggled to meet his eyes.
"Thank you, LT.- um... Tom," she managed.
She turned back to the shelf, but not before he saw her cute smile.
"Betsy, I wanted to bring you a Christmas gift," he explained when she looked at him again. "I've got to go off base first light so I need to give it to you now."
He stepped a little closer than was correct etiquette and couldn't help grinning as the blush crept down her chest and under her uniform.
"Oh, you shouldn't have. I haven't gotten you anything." She eagerly accepted the small brown paper-wrapped parcel he pulled out of his jacket.
"Your smile is a gift in itself." He let his finger tips linger against her a little longer than was necessary before releasing the parcel.
Still looking flushed, she tore the paper open and gasped. "Oh wow, chocolate. I'm watching my figure but a little treat couldn't hurt."
Trigger smirked, he sure as hell had been watching her figure, too.
Betsy stuffed the candy in her pocket before nervously pushing away some hair that had escaped the tight, regulation bun. "I thought there were no missions tomorrow. Why do you have to leave the base?"
"My Alpha team is doing the Christmas milk run. Then we're gonna do some aid work in a small hospital." He wanted to remind her that he was with an elite unit, adding in details of his selfless nature would seal the deal.
Success. She looked enraptured.
"I was hoping you'd have some spare supplies I could take with me. Y'know, in the spirit of Christmas." He delivered his killer smile.
Mouth slightly open, she nodded and blushed a deeper shade of crimson.
He leaned down and placed a chaste kiss on her cheek. Turning slightly he whispered against her ear, "Can I take you to dinner when I get back?"
He grinned as she shuddered and mumbled her confirmation.
Trigger whistled 'Good King Wenceslas' while relocating the generous donation to the flight line. Betsy had filled several crates to the brim. He passed Smithy and AJ who appeared to have acquired the base's entire weekly food rations. He smiled to himself, Christmas was looking brighter by the minute.
In a moment of genius he started chuckling and headed towards the laundry.
"Ya may be good, Trigger, but I think the captain still has the edge."
Trigger stopped loading the chopper and followed the laughing pilot's gaze.
Smithy casually strolled towards them, each arm slung around the waist of a young Donut Dolly.
Trigger smiled at the Red Cross volunteers and gave a knowing look to Smithy. He wondered if the girls had been planning to come on the mail run or if his CO had coerced them into it?
He admired the Donut Dollies' festive red and blue Christmas uniforms, the dash of color was a welcome addition to the drab greens and browns on the FOB.
The SRAO program delivered candy, juice and smiles to the troops in the field; "A touch of home" was the slogan. A home that seemed another world away.
"Maureen, Rachel, please meet my team," Smithy chuckled, releasing the girls and helping them towards the Huey.
Trigger noted the crude way Smithy had emphasized his seniority and ownership of the team. Deuce was wrong, he still had the edge over their CO. Trigger prided himself on the art of seduction; he didn't need to put the other men down to win a female's affections. He'd let it pass, a kind of Christmas gift for the older man.
Trigger loved women -- all of them -- and it would be a crime to limit his affections to one girl. 'Nam taught him to live each day as if it was his last. That included experiencing as much of the female form as was possible in this Hell-hole. Now he had two beautiful ladies as companions for Christmas Day.
Ever the gentleman, he smiled at Rachel, catching both her hands and lifting her into the cargo hold. He hadn't seen her before, she really was attractive. A nice Christmas present to himself would be to take her to dinner before New Year.
"Thank you, LT. Ashton," she said, her eyes scanning his chest for his name.
When she looked up he confidently held her gaze, knowing his blue eyes were hypnotising to the fairer sex.
Before he could speak, Deuce jumped into the Huey.
"He's Trigger and I'm Deuce, captain of your carriage, young lady," Deuce said with a flourish, bowing and offering his hand.
Rachel dragged her eyes away from Trigger and gave a Donut Dolly-trademark smile, warmly shaking his hand.
Trigger mused how it was going to be a good day. The chopper would be filled with testosterone as the team vied for attention, but they so rarely got to see the pretty women sent to boost morale, it'd be nice to have the opportunity to assist the Donut Dollies with their mission.
The base was unnaturally quiet, no running choppers, shouts or rumble of machinery, even the usual buzz of radio chatter was silenced. Both sides relished the ceasefire -- if only for a day.
This is what peace sounds like, he thought wryly.
Poison was telling Ginger and Bazza, the copilot, about his wife planning a second Christmas when he got home in a couple of weeks. He would also be meeting his daughter for the first time. His story of hope summed up the moment. Everyone on the flight line was in a jubilant mood.
AJ was the only exception, he didn't look impressed. He glared at Trigger, who grinned back. The bulky man scowled, reluctantly clambering up behind Maureen whom Trigger had just lifted in.
Trigger chuckled softly, watching AJ check and double check the crates were securely strapped down, then quickly attach his harness to an internal fixing point. Despite an outwardly tough appearance, he knew the muscular man had grown more and more nervous about flying.
"Amigo, ya look like you're fixing for a ride at the fair." Deuce laughed at AJ.
"Be safer at the fair with no idiot in control," AJ growled.
Rachel sidled closer to Trigger to whisper in his ear, "Does Private Tatoe not like the pilot?"
Trigger stopped laughing at AJ's discomfort and ran his hand through his hair remembering the cause. Since they had crashed and been captured by the Viet Cong, AJ struggled with flying. He was as close to Deuce as any of them -- you could not help but be close after what they had experienced together. The ribbing and banter more comparable to sibling squabbles than genuine animosity. Not that Trigger wanted to share those details.
"More not liking the chopper," he replied lightly, quickly schooling his expression to neutral.
He wasn't going to let the memories of the beatings and starvation ruin today. Today they had a mission to find Binh and deliver good cheer along the way.
Smiling warmly, Trigger beckoned Maureen over, then quietly explained his plan to the pretty girls.
Trigger realized Deuce was flying higher than normal. Despite the ceasefire, he expected his buddy to be extra careful with the ladies on board. Trigger sat next to Poison, his legs hanging out the open side of the chopper. Both men intently scanned the jungle for threats.
Maureen gasped, causing Trigger to glance over his shoulder. Her expression was positively glowing.
"It-it looks like snow," she said staring past him.
He looked out the side of the chopper to see what had grabbed her attention. He also caught his breath.
The early morning sun was slowly rising behind the mountains. Long shadows were cast by the light. The rain had stopped, bringing the promise of a warm, clear day. A blanket of white mist sat in the valleys while the mountain tops reached proudly towards the sun.
Maureen was right, it did look like snow. A quick check of the other passengers assured Trigger that all of them were staring at the serenity outside. Even the nervous AJ had cracked a small smile.
Damn, it was a beautiful country. He had been there twelve months yet it felt this was the first time he had noticed. The horror of war had stopped him from appreciating the stunning place he was in.
Deuce's voice briefly crackled over the headsets as he spoke to the MACV men they were visiting first. That was Trigger's cue. Smithy looked confused when he retrieved several large boxes of laundry soap flakes.
He purposely ignored his CO while Rachel and Maureen enthusiastically opened the boxes, he wanted it to be a surprise for Smithy, too.
Over the crew headsets Deuce sang an almost perfect rendition of Bing Crosby's "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas." The pilot had acquired a Santa hat which he had somehow rammed over his flight helmet. The women soon harmonized the song with him. As the bird dropped towards the first outpost even AJ reluctantly joined in. The radio filled with the crew and passengers singing of festive cheer.
Trigger leaned out the open side and looked down at the dirty, tired soldiers waiting on the LZ. He gave the women a wink before grabbing two large handfuls of soap flakes and launching them out of the side. Rachel and Maureen copied him.
He watched with satisfaction as the white flakes swirled and fell. More soap followed until they made it 'snow' on the bemused men staring up at them.
Ginger and Poison caught on and snagged another box and added to the cascading 'snowflakes.'
Deuce's song smoothly changed to Frank Sinatra's "White Christmas." Bazza and Smithy laughed loudly at the spectacle.
Trigger smiled at the success.
By the time Deuce landed and shut the bird down, the 'snow' had been whipped up and dissipated by the powerful rotor blades.
All the men at the remote outpost had glistening eyes, and Trigger didn't think it was because of soap flakes getting in them.
"Merry Christmas, boys," Smithy laughed, jumping out of the bird, clasping a stack of foil-wrapped packs containing hot turkey and pumpkin pie.
Rachel and Maureen were soon distributing Red Cross care parcels, mail and Christmas gifts, but most of all the soldiers lit up being in the presence of the young American girls. The Donut Dollies really were a touch of home, representing the wives, mothers and girlfriends waiting thousands of miles away.
After an all-too-short fifteen minutes, the team and crew climbed back into the chopper. They hung out the side waving and loudly singing "Jingle Bells" bidding their new friends goodbye.
The festive scene was repeated at each isolated firebase and outpost they visited. Trigger was completely caught up and never stopped grinning. After the images of Hell he'd had burned into his memory, it was breathtaking to have this new memory.
Today was the day they made it snow in 'Nam. Today they gave the troops a white Christmas.
Trigger easily identified the hospital as the chopper banked around. The simple wooden structure had a white roof to try and reflect some of the sun's relentless rays away from the patients inside. A large red H was painted across the top, in an effort to stop an aerial attack on the place of healing.
The roaring thud of the rotor blades had drawn the staff out of the building. They ran towards the chopper, carrying collapsible stretchers as the bird lowered into a yard beside the hospital.
Deuce shot through the cargo hold and jumped out before the skids touched down, his long legs sprinting past the approaching medical staff. Trigger laughed, assuming his buddy had left Bazza the job of landing.
He hopped out and went to chase after Deuce, but a firm grip on his arm stopped him. A tall, heavily bearded man wearing a crumpled lab coat looked at him with a note of panic.
"How many injured?" the bearded man asked urgently.
Trigger watched Deuce disappearing into the hospital before smiling at the man grasping his arm.
He felt the grip soften slightly.
"The US Army is bringing you Christmas presents."
The man released him.
"LT. Tom Ashton," Trigger said, offering his hand.
"Doctor Henry Ramsey," the doc replied with an Australian accent, shaking Trigger's hand.
Smithy and the others joined the group of medics standing by the chopper as the blades slowed.
AJ set one of the large crates down.
"For the hospital," he said, scowling, then he gave the doctor a small smile.
Two nurses dived into the crate, pulling out packs of syringes and bags of saline. Based on the excited noises they were making, Trigger took it they were pleased with the donations.
"Merry Christmas, from Phu Bai FOB." Smithy passed the ammo can over to the confused-looking doctor.
Doc Ramsey opened the lid and gasped, his fingers raking through his beard in disbelief. He showed the contents to the nearest nurse who promptly burst into tears and threw her arms around Smithy's neck.
He chuckled while patting the excited nurse's back. "We've got lots more for you." He looked at Trigger for some help as the sobbing woman hung off him.
"Doc, we've got medical supplies, a few crates of food and some gifts from the troops. Where would you like them?" Trigger asked.
Despite the non-verbal cues, he wasn't about to deal with the nurse. Smithy was perfectly capable of looking after the virtually hysterical woman. Instead he just smirked at his CO.
"Strewth, all for us?" The doc continued rubbing his beard looking like it was a dream and he was expecting to wake up at any minute.
Trigger nodded; the rest of the crew was carrying more crates over.
Rachel obviously knew what to do and took charge. She spoke to a small orderly, then directed Bazza, Ginger and Poison into the hospital, all ladened with donations. Maureen gently pulled the nurse away from Smithy and followed. Trigger chuckled at the expression of relief Smithy gave Maureen.
"W-why? H-how?" the doctor stuttered, still staring at Trigger.
"We couldn't visit on Christmas Day without gifts," Smithy said, pulling a cigarette from his fatigues.
Trigger seamlessly passed his Zippo over and smiled at the dumbstruck doctor. "I understand you have a young Montagnard woman and her baby here?" he asked soothingly.
He had a priority -- to find Binh -- he'd explain the details about the donations once he knew the truth.