Near the Laotian/Vietnamese border
"Gym! Nooooo!!!!!!!!!!" he screamed, watching as the bullets first cut down the Vietnamese woman and then her daughter as she turned back. Tran fell to the ground, and a moment later Gym fell on top of her. Harm started to run back to them, to see if he could help them, but a strong arm grabbed him back, pulling him through the thick jungle, ignoring Harm's attempts to free himself.
"Quiet," Stryker, a former Marine Colonel ordered sharply. "Or they'll be after us as well."
"We have to go back for them!" Harm insisted, not caring that there were tears on his cheeks. It had been his fault. Since he was sixteen, Gym, who was fifteen, had insisted that she could go with him and Stryker to look for 'bones' of Vietnam War vets. Tran had reluctantly agreed - with the proviso that she would accompany them as well. If Harm had insisted, maybe Gym wouldn't have been so determined - maybe she'd still be alive.
"They're dead, kid," Stryker ground out, stopping and pulling Harm around so he could look into those iron-grey eyes in a lined and weather-beaten face. "And we're going to end up the same way if you don't be quiet and we don't get the hell out of here."
"You don't know that they're dead!" Harm insisted,
trying to pull away from the larger, bulkier man's hold.
"Trust me, Harm," he said, holding Harm still. "I know death. I've seen death before." Harm saw the proof of those cold eyes. He'd seen death and so many other things that he would probably never tell anyone about. "They're dead."
"You don't care! You lived with them! And you don't care that they're dead!" he accused, needing to strike out, to *force* the man to feel *something*. If only to prove that he was still a human being and not some kind of animal.
Stryker's fingers tightened painfully on Harm's shoulders. "Don't you dare to tell me what I do and don't care about, kid. You have *no* right to tell me that. Yes, I cared for them. Hell, I got them out of Nam and into Laos because I cared. But my wearing sack cloth and ashes and wailing isn't going to bring them back." He released Harm, pushing him away. "When you asked to come with me, I told you that you'd see things that you wouldn't like," he reminded Harm. "And you agreed to follow my orders without question. Since you've obviously decided to go back on your word and turn into a crying little mama's boy, I'll take you back to Thailand and put you on a plane for the States."
"You can't do that!" Harm insisted, "I haven't found what I came here for!"
"Because there's nothing to find, kid. You could search this area for the next twenty years and never find it."
"I'm not going to stop looking," Harm declared. He'd come too far. He'd saved the generous allowance that his stepfather gave him, along with the money from his weekend job in a restaurant; he had sneaked "Soldier of Fortune" magazines into the house when other kids were trying to sneak "Playboy" into theirs. He had scoured every military publication he could for information about the search for MIAs in Southeast Asia. Grabbing his backpack, he turned back toward the jungle path. "With or without you, I'm going to do what I came here to do."
He had told his mother that he was going to stay with Grandma Sarah for the summer, and told Grandma Sarah that he'd decided to stay in La Jolla and work. He knew that the two women would ultimately compare notes and send out the alarm, but this was too important. In ten years, Harm's faith that his father was still alive had never wavered - if anything, it had grown stronger. Now that determination was mixed with the memory of Gym's face as they bullets cut her in half.
Suddenly a hand clamped down on his shoulder again, stopping him and turning him around. Angry, and more than a little worried that it might be a Laotian border guard instead of Stryker, Harm used the backpack as a weapon came around swinging, causing Stryker to step back in an effort to avoid being hit in the head. "You're not going anywhere alone, kid," he declared, taking the backpack from him. "You're my responsibility."
"I can take care of myself," Harm declared. "I've been doing it since I was thirteen." Not quite wholly true, but at times Harm *did* feel as if he was the only one he could count on.
"All of three years?" Stryker replied in a droll tone. "Well, for someone who can take care of himself - you don't have a very good sense of direction. The place we were heading for is in the opposite direction. Keep going on this path and you'll come face to face with the border guards again.
Harm looked around, trying to get his bearings. The tall trees filtered the sun in such a way that he couldn't tell where it might be. Several trees had moss on their trunks, however, and when Harm realized that the ex-Marine had been telling the truth, he gave a sheepish grin. "I - guess I got - turned around."
"Not a good thing to do for someone planning on being a jet jock."
"Those planes have a compass," Harm pointed out. "Maybe you're right. Maybe I should just give it up. I don't know if I can do this anymore," he said, sinking to the leaf covered ground in defeat. "It was my fault," he said, referring to Gym and her mother's deaths. "If I hadn't been here -"
"Gym had come with me before," Stryker told him, squatting nearby. "It could have happened anytime. Hell, she could have gotten sick. She could have fallen into quicksand and drowned in her own back yard. It wasn't your fault, kid. Don't blame yourself."
"Easier said than done," Harm sighed. "I guess I thought that if anyone got hurt, it wouldn't be someone I knew and cared about."
"Unfortunately, that's not how this world operates. We lose people close to us all the time, but we go on. We keep going out of respect for those who are no longer here. Would your dad expect you to give up?" he asked. "Would Gym?"
Harm looked at him. "No. They'd both want me to keep going. But I don't know how to do that anymore. After what happened - I keep thinking that if I'd gone back for them, maybe -"
"It wouldn't have made any difference except to get us killed as well." Stryker's eyes softened slightly. "I had to leave them behind, Harm," Stryker said. "There was no choice. I've seen what the border guards' weapons do to a person. There was no way they could have survived. I'm not unaffected by it, but I can't let it control me." He held the backpack out. "We'll get their bodies on the way back in, give them a proper burial before we head back out tomorrow. You think you can follow orders now?"
"Yes, sir," Harm agreed somberly. He couldn't work up any excitement for what they might find at the end of the trail. Because whatever it was, he would always wonder if the cost had been too high. Standing, he straightened his shoulders and took the backpack as they set off again. Even if he found his father, he would always be haunted by a pair of dark, almond shaped eyes, and he knew that he would never be quite the same again.