Three Steps and You Die
THREE STEPS AND YOU DIE
Dallas G. Releford
Authors note: In the jungles of Vietnam, there was a saying amongst American soldiers that if you were bitten by one of the deadly krait snakes, you would die before you could take three steps. In general, this is not true unless you are bitten near a vital organ such as the brain. There are more than twelve varieties of the krait snake. The victim usually dies from suffocation and paralysis.
Chills inundated his body. Hot fever burned him like he was on fire as rain pounded his face with a viciousness he had only seen in the eyes of peasant rice farmers as they toiled in the paddies while they kept suspicious eyes focused on weary American soldiers who just happened to come their way.
Where was he? What was wrong? Where had he seen rice paddies and peasant farmers?
Slowly, painfully Gabe Carter managed to get one eye open only to have it splattered with drops of water that fell heavily from a dark sky. Realizing he was on sodden ground, that his body and clothes were drenched, he attempted to open his other eye aware that it was difficult for him to move. Frustrated, he fought the urge to scream and let the world know he was alive except someone had told him to remain quiet. Who had told him that, and why? He was sure it was for an important reason, although he couldn’t remember much of anything except dim images of soldiers moving wearily through rice fields and hostile faces of farmers who hated them with great alacrity.
The realization he was alone, on his back on rain-soaked ground staring up at dark skies above, terrified him. The only sounds he could hear were the steady pounding of raindrops on large jungle leaves and his own breathing.
Fearing that opening his other eye would reveal more than he wanted to see, Gabe resisted that horrible thought until he eventually forced his eye to look upon a dismal world. With both eyes open now, rain running down his face, he wondered who he was and what the hell he was doing here. What was it he should remember and why was it so difficult for him to remember it? Had he been in an automobile accident? If so, where was his car and why was it as quiet as a graveyard in Maine at midnight?
Urged to call out for help—a natural thing for someone in his predicament to do, he surmised—he quickly declined the notion when a silent voice told him that wasn’t a very wise thing to do. Something was out there that could hurt him real bad. Even his own gut feeling told him that.
Pain swept down his back into his legs each time he tried to move and he almost screamed except the only thing that escaped was a low groan. A cold hand covered his mouth prohibiting him from speaking and he realized with a cold shiver crawling down his spine that he was not alone after all. Someone was nearby.
“Don’t move, don’t speak,” a low voice whispered. “Spooks all around us. They’re moving closer. Hold on, Gabe. You’re going to make it.”
So, his name was Gabe. Well, at least he had a first name, he thought daring not to say anything that might cause the spooks to do them harm. Who was his friend who had warned him they were in danger? Did he have a name? Gabe could not remember. A cold hand gripped his shoulder. He could hear breathing in his right ear. Unable to move his legs, he wondered if fear had paralyzed him.
“Do you remember anything, Gabe?”
The voice, low and close sounded very familiar. With his lips quivering when he tried to speak, he was unable to utter a single word to tell the other person he didn’t remember anything at all. His friend seemed to understand his problem.
“Don’t worry about it,” the man advised keeping his voice low. “Move your head right for yes and left for no.”
Gabe tried to move his head to the right as instructed. Sharp pain in his back warned him something was terribly wrong. Further attempts only produced more pain. He grunted and tried to suppress the cry that wanted to escape from his throat. Eventually, enduring agonizing tenderness he didn’t understand, Gabe managed to move his head enough so his friend understood he could not remember. “Pain,” he managed to whisper although he wasn’t sure the other person heard him. Were his efforts in vain? “Too much damn pain.”
“Well, that’s clear,” the voice whispered. “Now move your head back where it was and I’ll brief you.”
Brief me? Gabe did as he was told. Staring up at the canopy of wide leaves above him, he listened ignoring a searing fever that was burning his body to cinders.
“You took a hit in your stomach, close to your spine—real close—and the medics are afraid to move you until morning when the chopper arrives.”
Medics? Chopper? Where in hell was he, anyway? Trying hard to grasp fleeting memories rushing through his confused mind like butterflies in a field of daisies, he wanted to ask the voice a thousand questions. Foremost on his mind was the question of whether he was partially paralyzed or not. Sure, he could move his toes and fingers, a little, even though it felt as if an evil gremlin was sticking a thousand needles in them.
“You’re wondering who I am and what you’re doing here, aren’t you, Gabe?”
You’re damned right I am. Gabe wanted to scream because the frustration of a one-way conversation was as unpleasant as the pain he was feeling. His inability to speak was something he wasn’t quite used to. Without any other option, he moved his head slowly to the right. Yes, he thought, I am wondering about that and several other things.
“God, Gabe. Man, you took out seven of those spooks before they got you. I done the best I could. Pullman and me got you out of the line of fire, dragged you here under all these bushes.”
Thank you so much, now who in the hell are you?
“Ol’ Pullman got hisself a round in his shoulder. He’s back there under those logs with the other wounded. We suffered many casualties, Gabe. Over half the platoon was wiped out in the first assault. That ain’t good. The only good thing is that you got yourself a medal of honor. You know that, don’t you? Of course, I know you can’t talk yet, so I’ll just try to tell you what I know. Us black boys have to stick together, don’t we Gabe. I’m stickin’ with you until they put you on that Huey and fly you right out of here to that hospital in Sydney. Yes sir, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Black boys? Am I a Negro?
“Jerry is gonna’ take care of you, don’t you fret none about that. You are probably partially paralyzed from your waist down, Gabe. You might have some feeling in those legs, except I doubt it. Don’t worry. Those doctors in Sydney will fix you up real well.”
All I hear is you flapping your lips, Jerry. Tell me who I am and just maybe I can remember your full name. Where are we? Would you please tell me that much? I’m not totally paralyzed. I can feel my legs tingling and I can feel my toes, Jerry. Can I move my foot for you? Would that convince you that I’m not a vegetable? It’s my upper body that gives me the most trouble. Lips don’t move much and my mouth won’t open. I can’t speak. Wise up, man. Give me a little something to live for, will you?
“Oh, I’m sorry. You don’t know who I am, do you. I bet you don’t remember a lot of things. I can see it in your eyes. Those eyes look distant, Gabe. Well, I’m Jerry Caldwell from Mississippi. There are twelve others of us left alive that aren’t wounded. The damn Cong are all around us. If we live through the night, we’ll all be lucky.”
Don’t you have any good news, Jerry?
Jerry kept talking in a low whisper that was barely audible above the raindrops on the leaves around them. Gabe wanted to see his face, wanted to speak, but was unable to do so. In the darkness, he couldn’t even make eye contact with the other man.
“Where? Where are we,” Gabe managed to mumble even though he didn’t know if he was really speaking or if he only imagined it.
Gabe felt a hand clamp down on his mouth again. It was cold, damp and it was trembling like the leaves in the breeze above him.
“We’re in the jungle, in Nam, Gabe. Don’t you even remember that?”
Gabe moved his head to the left signifying he didn’t remember anything. How could he remember with all the ringing in his ears?
“The Nam,” Jerry reiterated just in case Gabe hadn’t heard his nervous whispers. “We’re in the jungle during monsoon season with two hundred spooks all around us anxious to kill some prime American stock. Does that shake your memory any?”
No, Gabe couldn’t say that it did, nonetheless, he tried to remember to no avail. The memories were there, and he knew it, except they were just jumbled together like pictures from a photo album someone had tossed into the wind. Turning his head again so he could look up at the sky, he hoped Jerry didn’t think he was an idiot.
“Well, hang in there,” Jerry whispered, “it’s only eight hours until dawn. You’ll soon be on your way to the hospital where pretty nurses will bring you back to health.”
Gabe managed to turn his head to the right. Was he gaining some of his strength back? He thought he might be. Something else was happening to him, too. He could feel his legs. They were hurting like hell.
“Charlie has us surrounded and you know what they’ll do if they find us. No groaning, no screaming and no hollerin’. Do you understand that, Gabe? You have to be quiet as a mouse. Those medics, they pumped you full of morphine. That’s the reason you is feeling so jovial now. When that morph wears off, there ain’t no more. No matter what happens, you have to keep quiet. Do you understand?”
Gabe managed a low grunt. He could hear himself above the roar of a thousand bees. Proud of himself for not making too much noise, his memories began to drift into his tortured mind like puffy white clouds drifting across a lazy summer sky. Now, he could remember the sounds of mortar shells crashing into thick foliage around them, exploding shells, screaming bullets and sounds of dying men. He had thought he was one of them, the dead. Amidst the turmoil, the confusion and harrowing pain, he recalled someone carrying him on their shoulders. It must have been Jerry. Only he was big and strong enough to perform such a feat.
Closing his eyes he tried to block those memories out of his mind, except once the gate was opened, they kept coming. The morphine must have stopped the pain after he was shot, he thought and after that, they operated on him as best as they could. Jerry was right, when the morphine was gone, that excruciating pain he remembered would return. Silently, he prayed that Charlie wouldn’t find them and that the Marines would bring him plenty of morph.
As the night settled, it was quiet except for the pitter-patter of raindrops on leaves. Jerry’s hand on his mouth and the sound of his own breathing told him everything was as okay as it could possible be. Or, was it?
Something was wrapping itself around his leg just above his ankle. Something cold, clammy and something alive was down there and he couldn’t do a damn thing about it. The truth of the matter was that he wasn’t totally paralyzed. He could feel something down there. He was sure of it.
“You okay, buddy?”
Jerry, something is crawling up my leg, under my pants and you gotta’ do something about it before I scream. You know what that means. I hate slimy things. Gabe wanted to reach down, jerk it out, squeeze its little head off and watch it die. Numerous stories abounded about all the strange creatures to be found in the jungle. Giant leeches, enormous spiders and killer scorpions had all been mentioned to Gabe during basic training back in the states. Survival training had not taught him what to do when he was paralyzed, with a snake—perhaps a very venomous one—crawling inch-by-inch up his leg.
He was almost certain his tormentor was a snake. It was slimy. All he did know for sure was anything that crawled out of the jungle couldn’t have his best interests in mind. How was he going to make Jerry aware of his predicament when he could hardly speak and Jerry’s hand was clamped firmly over his mouth? Shaking his head back and forth, he tried to free his mouth from Jerry’s hand. Jerry awakened from his slumber. Gabe realized he had dropped off to sleep.
“What’s wrong?” Jerry’s voice was low and strained with exhaustion. “Are you in pain?”
“Snake,” Gabe said trying to make Jerry understand with his voice so weak he didn’t know if he had said anything or not.
“What? Are you trying to tell me something?”
“Snake,” Gabe tried to speak as loud as he could. To hell with the spooks, he thought. The snake was squirming around his leg, inching up toward his knee. “In my pants leg. Help!”
Ignoring the stiffness in his neck, Gabe turned his head toward Jerry. All he saw was darkness. Couldn’t Jerry see the horror on his face, the fear in his eyes and his trembling lips that could barely make a sound? Couldn’t he see he was about to scream his damned lungs out? “Snake in my right pants leg,” he whispered again. “Get it out. Please.”
“Oh, snake,” Jerry said keeping his voice low. “Must have crawled in there to get warm. Great, you can feel it, Gabe. That means you aren’t totally paralyzed.”
“Idiot! Do something,” Jake said trying to scream loud enough for the spooks to hear him. Maybe they knew how to get a snake out of my pants.
“Okay, hold still while I think about it.”
Gabe heard movement nearby and thought Charlie had found them.
“What’s going on here, Caldwell?” A low voice, a different voice asked the question and Gabe thought he might know who it belonged to. “Can’t you be quiet? Charlie is so damn close he can hear you take a piss.”
Caldwell? Of course, Jerry Caldwell. Now he remembered. Jerry was his buddy. The other voice belonged to Captain Mark Thomas. Thomas had pulled them through many firefights, but could he handle a snake?
“Gabe has a snake up his pants leg, Captain,” Jerry whispered as if they were discussing a golf game on a green at Myrtle Beach. “Got any ideas?”
“Yeah, leave it there and hope it crawls out. No more noise, understand?”
“Won’t happen, Captain,” Jerry said with a tinge of anxiety in his voice. “Most snakes in Nam are deadly. Might be a Krait.”
“Deadly? So is Charlie,” Thomas whispered. “We go foolin’ with that thing, Gabe starts screaming and Charlie lights up the sky with mortars.”
“Sir, we have to help him. He’s paralyzed and has a bullet near his spine.”
“Okay. What do you suggest? If it is a Krait and it bites him, he’ll be dead before he takes three steps.”
“He can’t walk,” Jerry informed him growing impatient. “Besides, that’s just an old saying amongst the vets in our midst to scare the green kids into watching out for snakes and such things. Kraits are timid during the day. It is at night when they become more aggressive. It can take from thirty minutes to three hours to die.” He paused, looked over his shoulder as if he expected Charlie to be there and then continued. “The krait is one of the most deadly snakes in the world. Its venom is many times more potent than Cobra venom. Sometimes paralysis occurs immediately while at other times it takes hours. The victim suffocates and it’s not a pretty thing. I learned all that when they trained me to survive in this jungle hell-hole,” Jerry whispered. He had seen his share of kraits, especially the banded kind with black and white bands wrapped nicely around their bodies. How much did he hate them? Only Einstein could figure that out, he thought because he hated the bastards a lot, a whole lot.
“What do you suggest?” the captain asked, frustrated.
“Cut his pants leg, jerk the snake out and kill it.”
“The snake will bite him, Caldwell,” Thomas said firmly.
“Shoot it,” Jerry said. “We can put the barrel right up to the lump in his pants.”
Jesus. You’re both nuts. What if you shoot the wrong lump? I might want to have kids someday. How about cutting, ripping and tearing until you find the snake and then surgically remove it.
As if they read his thoughts, Thomas answered. “Nope, that would only provoke the snake when we put the barrel of the gun up next to it. If it bites him, he will die from respiratory failure and maybe paralysis. We can’t risk a shot anyway with Charlie so close.”
Feeling his lips moving even though he didn’t think he could speak again, Gabe pleaded, “This is serious. Get that thing out of my pants.” Before anyone could respond, mortars pounded the soggy earth around them. The sky became as bright as if a thousand suns shone overhead.
“They found us,” Thomas said. “Pull him to cover behind those trees over there.”
As Thomas crawled away, Jerry asked, “What about the snake?”
“Snake won’t mind,” Thomas argued as he hurried away to help the men.
“No, don’t move me,” Gabe pleaded with his voice rising above a faint, weak whisper as the explosions grew louder, and closer. Hearing small arms fire, Gabe knew Charlie had arrived.
“Keep quiet, Gabe. I’m going to pull you into that ravine over there. Maybe those spooks won’t find us.”
Fat chance, Gabe thought. If the damned snake doesn’t get me, Charlie will. As Jerry struggled with his half-limp body, attempting to move him to shelter, Gabe realized that the bullet had entered his stomach and lodged somewhere near his spine. That was the reason they had put him on his back to stare up at the gloomy sky above. As the sound of death and dying paraded all around them, Gabe realized that his memories were flooding his mind with things he didn’t want to remember, except he couldn’t do anything about it.
Wanting to scream louder than the noise around him, he shuddered as he recalled the rice paddies where his company had first encountered the Cong. Then, he followed dim, moving figures as they moved hastily through flooded streams, dense jungle and deadly creatures in pursuit of the fleeing enemy. His heart hesitated for a brief time when he envisioned the part he had forced out of his mind where the Viet Cong ambushed them. Shuddering as cold sweat broke out on his burning face, almost in shock, he recalled bullets flying all around them like angry bees. Then the inevitable happened as he felt the bullet enter his stomach knocking his breath out of him. The thought left him frozen just like he had died and wasn’t really alive now.
He was alive though. He knew that all too well. As Jerry took his arms and prepared to move him toward cover, he could feel pain and he could feel the slimy snake slithering around his leg.
Attempting to tell Jerry that the snake wasn’t happy with the situation, he could not make himself speak. The damn snake was going crazy. The pain in his back and legs was unbearable. Before he could protest, he felt muddy ground slide under him as Jerry dragged him across the jungle floor, up an incline and down into a ditch that had running water at the bottom of it. Swinging him around so the bank elevated his head, and his feet were pointed toward the water, Jerry positioned himself near him with his automatic rifle in his hand. Gabe knew Jerry would defend him with his last breath.
Heavy mortar fire sent trees crashing to the ground, lit up dark jungle and sent shivers down his useless spine. Nonetheless, Gabe resigned himself to keeping as calm as possible. He had been under enemy fire before. However, he had never been under fire with a snake in his pants.
“How’s your friend?” Jerry’s voice roared above the chatter of machine gun fire and the thunder of exploding shells. “Is he alive?”
Eyes wide, Gabe shook his head. “He’s moving. The bastard is moving. Hurry, do something, please.”
“Can’t shoot him, can’t stab him and I most certainly can’t choke him. What would you suggest?”
“Your knife,” Gabe whispered anxiously. “Cut my pants leg off. Maybe he’ll leave on his own.”
Jerry thought about it weighing the chances that it would work. Pulling his knife, he put his weapon on the ground within reach. Reaching down, he took Gabe’s pants leg with his left hand and inserted the razor sharp knife under the cloth.
“Easy,” Gabe cautioned knowing that if he touched or scared the snake, it was all over.
Jerry wasn’t one to do anything slow, to use caution when death was all around them, so with one quick deliberate motion he laid the pants leg open just like he had seen his mother slice watermelon when he was a kid. An evil head with dark eyes, venomous fangs and a long forked tongue popped up from the cut cloth. Its body was short, slender with black and white stripes around it. Jerry’s hand was only a foot away. Before he could move, the snake struck suddenly sinking the sharp fangs into his soft flesh. Dropping the knife, he stood as a long, mournful scream erupted from his throat. Jerry never finished the scream. Gabe noticed two dark holes appear like magic in his chest as bone and flesh exploded into the air above him. The damn Cong got him, he whispered. The Cong were much more deadly than a krait.
As if satisfied that it had killed the aggressor that had imprisoned it, the snake unwrapped itself from Gabe’s leg and crawled upon a nearby log where it coiled itself and stared threateningly at Gabe. All around the snake and the wounded soldier, a battle for survival raged. Neither of them seemed to care. They both were alone now in their own private little contest for survival. They were warriors in a jungle hell where the mighty ruled. Only one of them would survive to face Charlie now.
After staring at the snake for five minutes, five minutes that seemed like hours, Gabe knew that something had changed since Jerry died. Silence had taken over. Gabe had little doubt about who won the battle. He could not cheer for his team. They were all dead, or dying. The spooks would come soon slashing throats, cutting off private parts for souvenirs and torturing those who still breathed until they died hoping to learn a few secrets. Gabe knew they had a little more respect for black men than they did white men, except he considered himself part of the American team and he didn’t care about their racial prejudices.
No, they would not treat him any different than any other American soldier. They would cut his ears off, slash his nose and do other horrible things to him until he became as mad as they were. A quick death wouldn’t be his. It was all over for him and he knew it. They were coming and he had to make a decision. He could hear their whispers, smell their sweating bodies and feel them as they approached. He had one chance to escape.
Wreathing in horrid pain, summoning all his strength, he rolled over toward the irritated serpent offering his hand to it. As the snake struck sinking its sharp fangs into his hand, he smiled knowing he would be dead soon. The bite was almost painless. Dazed from shock, Gabe rolled closer to the krait. It struck again hitting him on his neck near his jugular vein. In a dark jungle full of violence, death and the quietness of a graveyard at midnight, Gabe lay on his back gazing up at a dark sky wondering if the Cong would find him before he died. As the krait crawled away, darkness surrounded him. He prayed that death would come soon knowing that it was much more welcome than what the Cong offered.