NEVER TURN YOUR BACK
by Lori Beatty
The small cabin smelled of mildew and rotting boards. A lingering aroma
of wood smoke hung in the air mingling with the musty odors of old
furniture and a greasy skillet still sitting on the counter. There was
another scent in the air: heavy and smothering - the smell of illness,
injury and fear.
Hannibal Smith, in an attempt to ward off the confined atmosphere of
the tiny cabin, set a match to the end of his cigar. The action also
helped to corral his wandering and morbid thoughts. For the last two
hours, he and BA had been keeping a concerned vigil at Murdock's side,
trying in vain to staunch the blood that flowed persistently from the
ugly wound in his shoulder.
Hannibal checked his watch again. A useless gesture. Only two minutes
had passed since he'd checked it last. Two minutes in which Murdock
lost more precious blood. They were down to just a few bandages now
and, with no antiseptic to ward off infection, the pilot's condition
had steadily worsened.
There was also the added complication of Decker. His presence in the
area put the odds against getting Murdock to the hospital at about
1,000 to one and all because he, the so-called leader of the infamous A
Team, had become overly confident. His cocky, self-assured, inflated
ego had overshadowed the cardinal rule of the unit: Never turn your
back on the Mark.
Hannibal winced inwardly as he heard again Murdock's warning shout and
the crack of the gun as it sent its bullet slamming into the pilot. He
had turned in time to see Murdock hit the ground. Instinct had taken
over then and he reacted by kicking Russ Clayton, their current mark,
in the face and relieving him of the weapon at the same time. Hannibal
had experienced a fleeting moment of satisfaction in that action but
his overriding concern had been for his friend.
Now he sat by his side, cursing himself for his carelessness and
lamenting the knowledge that Murdock was paying his bill. He looked
over to see BA staring at him and wondered if he also blamed him for
Murdock's condition. All he could read in the black eyes, however, was
a genuine and very deep concern for the unconscious man.
Murdock groaned and turned his head fitfully on the pillow. Instantly,
BA was bending over him, changing the bandage and wiping his brow. The
pilot settled down and BA leaned back with a sigh, giving his leader a
worried glance. Hannibal tried to nod his assurance to the man but he
suspected that his good intentions failed miserably.
Shortly after Face and Tawnia left to locate medical supplies, he and
the Sergeant had passed the time reminiscing about Murdock's many
contributions to the team. Those memories had become more and more
painful and depressing as each passing moment saw the pilot grow weaker
and weaker from loss of blood. His fever climbed steadily also as the
infection from the bullet took a stronger hold.
Now they had lapsed into somber silence, each entertaining his own
thoughts and concerns for Murdock. BA clutched his hands together as if
in a silent and fervent prayer. Hannibal rarely took his eyes from his
watch as he mentally urged his missing companions to hasten their
return. His eyes were drawn down to the bed when he heard Murdock groan
again and saw that the pilot was awake, his eyes glazed and straining
It was obvious to the Colonel that it took all of Murdock's remaining strength to say the name.
"Quiet, Captain. Just rest. Face will be back soon with some supplies."
Murdock held Hannibal's gaze and opened his mouth. Hannibal held up a
hand but the man licked his lips and tried again. Interpreting the
movement, he asked, "Are you thirsty?" Murdock closed his eyes, as if
relieved that his message had been received, then sunk back into the
pillow. "BA, get me a glass of water, quick."
In seconds, the Sergeant was back, handing the glass to the Colonel.
Hannibal hadn't realized until just that moment how weak Murdock really
was. He held out the glass but the Captain was unable to even raise his
head. Gently, the Colonel slipped his free hand behind the pilot's neck
and lifted his head so he could drink freely of the cool liquid. He
drank half the water, then turned feverish brown eyes to Hannibal.
"Hannibal, you'd better get out of here, man. You'd better leave me. You'd better leave me."
Hannibal nearly choked on the lump in his throat. Murdock was too weak
even to lift his head, yet his only thought was for the safety of the
team. It took Hannibal a long moment to force a reply from between his
lips, and when he did, it was cracked and strained. Murdock's concern
had shattered his fragile emotional barriers and the only way he knew
how to deal with the situation was to fall back on military demeanor.
"Captain, we go out together or we don't go out at all."
His words carried a sting that he hadn't intended but he didn't know
what else to say. Murdock had always responded to his commands and
maybe it would help him get through this now and stop worrying about
the safety of the others. Murdock's eyes stared back at him, only
partially comprehending what he had said. Gently, Hannibal placed his
head back on the pillow with orders to rest.
The cabin suddenly seemed too small, too close. The walls pressed in on
him, the ceiling slid downward, the air grew thin. Hannibal felt like
he was being pinned inside a tomb and, if he didn't escape now, he'd be
"I'm going to check the perimeter," he muttered to BA and quickly exited the small, stuffy cabin.
Once outside, he leaned against the large tree and closed his eyes, one
hand wiping the perspiration from his forehead. He couldn't stand to
see a man suffer. Never had been able to harden himself to that. Oh,
he'd steeled himself against death, learned to accept it on its own
terms: fast, swift, impartial death in the jungles of Vietnam. The kind
the VC specialized in. A Bouncing Betty could take five men in a second
and you closed your eyes and moved on. A booby trap, a firefight and
ten men gone. Quick, clean and final. The men never knew what hit them.
And the blood. The sight had long ago ceased to send his stomach into
reversed gears. He'd seen rivers of blood, oceans of it from young men
sent to spend their year in Hell. He sometimes wondered why the jungle
didn't turn red from it. But even worse than the blood was the
mutilation: the gruesome, grotesque sights of twisted limbs,
decapitated bodies, men turned literally inside out.
Oh, he'd seen it all. No atrocity had escaped him. He'd built strong
walls around himself to protect against the loss of his friends,
against the men who were blown apart at his side, against the cruelty
and bestiality of his captors.
But one thing he'd never learned to handle, could never build a wall
against, was the suffering of another human being. To see them injured,
in pain, and to be unable to assist in any way was more than he could
stand. His mind recoiled at the sight of a man suffering. Their cries
cut through to his very soul and he felt as if he'd been sliced open
and every nerve in his body rubbed raw. Somehow he'd pull himself
together to take care of them, comfort them, but all the while inside
he was dying, sick and twisted with the thought of their pain and his
own inadequacies. Death, he conquered easily. Suffering easily
How many soldiers had he longed to put out of their misery as much for
his own relief as theirs but lacking the strength to pull the trigger.
had begged him to let them die. Death was preferable to the suffering
they endured. How he had longed to grant them that wish but he never
could. He wondered often, and even now, if his inability to embrace
euthanasia was due to his strength of character or the abysmal lack of
Pushing away from the solid strength of the tree, Hannibal forced his
thoughts away from the past and the current frustration with Murdock
and surveyed the area around the tiny cabin. They needed a warning,
some means of detecting intruders. Mentally, he ordered himself to
proceed. Get busy: check the perimeter, stake out a territory, locate
necessary tools, lay the trip wire. Don't stop to think about all the
things that could go wrong, and above all, don't remember.
Memories were the enemy now because they made you face the end of
something. He'd indulged in a few memories earlier with BA but those
had been happy ones, good memories. His mind now wanted to dwell on the
bad ones, the ones best forgotten or kept buried. Yet try as he might,
they moved inexorably into his mind, dark and haunting like some evil
He remembered another time when Murdock was wounded and he had no way
to give him relief. Only then, it had been Face and himself keeping
vigil instead of BA. It was one reason he had sent Face to get
supplies. He knew the situation would bring back painful memories for
the Lieutenant if he stayed. He only wished there was some way to
prevent his own memories from resurfacing. But try as he might, his
mind persisted in replaying the events in his already troubled mind.
Vividly, he recalled the long hours in the jungle, gagging the
delirious pilot so his cries of pain wouldn't alert the VC that dogged
their steps. The guilt that hung around Face's shoulders was another
unwelcome companion. It was because of his insistence on taking a
quick, and unauthorized, trip into Saigon that had landed them in the
perilous predicament in the first place. Murdock had been reluctant to
"borrow" a chopper for their excursion, but Face had cajoled him with
his usual persuasive tongue, and the pair had set out.
Unbeknownst to them, Hannibal had overheard their little scheme, and to
teach the recalcitrant Lieutenant a lesson, had slipped on board the
craft before they took off. He had just made his presence known and was
about to issue a severe reprimand when the slick was attacked. Before
they could retaliate, the Huey was plunging earthward and when the
smoke cleared, Murdock was critically injured. He and Face had suffered
only minor injuries, and thanks to some benevolent gods, they managed
to transport the pilot into a temporary safe hiding place.
By acting as a decoy, Hannibal had managed to divert the VC from their
position, leaving Face to tend Murdock and get them both to safety. The
ordeal had lasted four days and Murdock had nearly died. Silently,
Hannibal prayed that whatever gods had looked over them then, would be
as generous again.
The numbers on Hannibal's digital watch had moved relentlessly onward
as he had gone about his task. He looked at it now, gritting his teeth.
Another 45 minutes had passed and no sign of Face and Tawnia. How much
blood had Murdock lost in that amount of time? How much had the
infection spread, the fever risen? Turning on his heel, he tossed the
stub of his cigar aside, stopped then walked over and ground it under
the heel of his boot. They didn't need a fire to attract Decker and his
He walked slowly back toward the cabin, stopping just short of the back
door, dread, like a huge tidal wave, rising inside him. He realized in
that instant that he'd been lying to himself. He hadn't accepted death.
Not really. Not for these men who made up his team, his last little
military command, his family.
Death in wartime had been a constant threat looming over their heads.
It hung in the air as thick as the humidity; soaking through your skin,
permeating your mind, an ever present companion with each breath you
drew. Eventually, each soldier came to adopt the same attitude: "When
your time comes, it comes." And they would stop worrying and just
exist. But now Hannibal saw that he'd lost belief in that credo
somewhere through the years.
Vietnam was 12 years ago, a lifetime ago, and while the memories still
remained vividly in his mind, the years of civilized living had dulled
the edges. The threat of death had changed its form from an ever
present evil spectre to a sometime ugly nightmare. The missions they
tackled now were mere shadows of the ones in the Vietnam jungles. The
men they sought to destroy and subdue were comic book caricatures of
the VC and the inscrutable officers of the NVA. The Crazy Tommy T's and
the Viscary's were amateurs, easily frightened and intimidated by
someone who stood up to them. They lacked the dedication to cause, the
sheer ruthlessness and disregard for life that was the hallmark of the
VC. The men they battled now all shared one common bond: a core of
civilization that their oriental counterparts lacked.
Oh, Decker was a threat, to be sure, but one not taken too seriously.
Men like Russ Clayton were the real threat because they had the power
to puncture the safe little world that Hannibal Smith had constructed.
Somewhere in the last 12 years, among all the incredible luck, the long
shots that paid off, and the risks that were taken and won, he'd come
to believe that he and his band of misfits were indestructible. He'd
convinced himself that they were illusive to capture, immune to attack,
and impervious from harm. Their life as fugitives was a game; a round
of King-of-the-Hill for big boys with real guns; a ride on the carnival
dodge 'ems using real cars and trucks; a carefree throw at the dunking
booth with grenades instead of baseballs.
Then a Russ Clayton fires a gun and he's reminded that it's not
a game. It's real, it's dangerous and most of all, it's deadly. This
magic combination, his special unit, could be snuffed out at any
moment, shattering his world forever.
The screech of a squirrel overhead jolted Hannibal back to reality and
he took a deep breath. He had to go back in there, school his features,
mask his concerns and relieve BA. He, as the leader, set the tone. BA
was as worried as he, but he couldn't show it. He was the commander.
With a heavy step, Hannibal entered the cabin and moved toward the
couch. BA still sat beside Murdock, head bowed. He touched his shoulder
"Go take the next watch, BA. It'll do you good to get some fresh air. I
set some trip wires just in case those hunters or Decker shows up."
Silently, BA nodded and left the room. Hannibal took up the position in
the chair, reaching out a hand to touch Murdock's forehead. The pilot
was burning up. The infection was spreading rapidly. A wave of guilt
washed over Hannibal, dragging up realizations that he wasn't prepared
to face right now. He winced under the sting. Because of his
over-confidence, Murdock's life had been put on the line. He had to
accept responsibility for that.
How many times had he taunted a vanquished adversary with the line: "An
over-confident commander can be defeated." Dozens? Hundreds? He thought
he'd overcome that fault in himself. But here he sat, watching a friend
suffer because of that very trait he so despised.
Suddenly exhausted, Hannibal rested his elbows on his knees and cradled
his head in his palms. How he'd preached and preached to his team,
drilled into them the cardinal rule, and yet how quickly he himself
forgot. Never turn your back on the Mark.
Stirring and a soft moan drew Hannibal's thoughts back to the couch.
Murdock was restless and drenched with sweat. Hannibal spoke to him
softly, pulling the blanket up to his chin and mopping the fevered
brow. The Captain cried out in pain unexpectedly, then lapsed into
unconsciousness with a suddenness that sent a chill of fear through the
Colonel's veins. With a trembling hand, Hannibal searched for a pulse.
He was nearly overcome with relief when he found it and he rested a
hand affectionately on top of Murdock's head.
A lump formed in his throat and he choked trying to swallow around it.
It was a macabre sight, seeing Murdock so silent and still. Like some
horrible distorted image of the usually energetic and animated man.
He checked his watch yet again. "Damn," he growled between clenched teeth. "Where are they?"
His eyes returned to the man in front of him and he felt a gale force
of emotion blow into his mind. He tried to push them back but it was a
futile attempt. His feelings for Murdock were too strong, ran too
deeply to control. They had been through so much together. More than
the shared experiences of soldiers, more than men linked by
circumstances, more even than most friends had shared. Their bond was
unique. They each had earned and paid dearly for a large part of the
other's soul. They were at times nearly the same man: thinking alike,
Hannibal's mind traveled backward, sliding into the channels of his
memory where the three years of hell were stored and he selected a
picture of a helicopter careening wildly into the green lush foliage of
the Cambodian highlands. No one knew he and Murdock were even out
there. Hannibal had taken it upon himself to check out the location of
a VC encampment from information he'd received from one of his many,
highly paid informants. He'd talked Murdock into going along as pilot.
Always eager to go "up there," Murdock gladly agreed.
But the VC saw them coming and opened fire, damaging the chopper
severely. Murdock had managed to get it back near the border before
they crashed, away from the main body of VC. Still the Huey ended up in
a heap in the jungle. Miraculously the pilot only suffered a minor leg
injury. He hadn't been so lucky. He'd sustained a severe stomach injury
which rendered him totally immobile. Murdock, knowing the seriousness
of an untended abdominal wound, had carried him through the jungle,
avoided the VC and NVA, and somehow managed to get him to safety before
peritonitis could set in. He later learned the details of his ordeal:
how Murdock had tricked the VC by shouting out bits of conversation in
their own language, making them think he was one of them.
Hannibal looked at the man who had saved his life time and time again,
and wondered why it seemed that those who least deserved the pain were
the ones most often stricken. Murdock was one of the gentlest men he
had ever known. His compassion, loyalty and capacity for caring was
boundless. Even with the emotional scars inflicted by the war, Murdock
still possessed a core of gentle strength that never ceased to amaze
him. Yet, he was slowly losing his life for no better reason than a
careless moment on the part of a man who was supposed to be his friend.
should be lying on that couch now losing precious amounts of blood, not
Murdock. And if, God forbid, Murdock should die, Hannibal knew he could
never bear that load of guilt upon his shoulders.
A sudden noise from near the door jolted loudly into Hannibal's morbid
reverie and he responded instantly. The trip wire had been pulled.
Someone was approaching the cabin. BA appeared at his shoulder, holding
out the makeshift stretcher they had made earlier. Wordlessly and with
some unrehearsed, yet perfectly orchestrated unison, they carefully
lifted Murdock and placed him upon the litter. He moaned and inhaled
sharply but remained unconscious. Quickly as possible, the men
maneuvered their burden out the rear door of the cabin and into the
safety of the thick forest beyond.
Hannibal felt his cloud of depression lift somewhat. At least they were
moving. It was better than sitting in the cabin watching Murdock's life
slip slowly beyond his reach. It wasn't over yet. In fact, it had
suddenly become more complicated, but to Hannibal, the mental and
physical activity was a welcome respite from the morbid paths of his
Silently, he sent a prayer up to the clear heavens above him. If there
was any justice and compassion left in the world, then they would find
a way to save Murdock. He had to believe that. He couldn't face any
other ending to this as yet unfinished tale.
After crosses and losses,
Men grow humbler and wiser.