Josh glanced around, wondering who the captain was speaking to. He saw that they were alone at that end of the club. Only a couple of others, senior officers, were seated across the room at the bar sipping on their drinks and staring at nothing. “Who?” Josh asked, perplexed by the captain’s comment.
“Lili,” the captain responded extending one finger from the hand that held his drink to point in the direction of the jukebox.
The captain’s smile broadened as he watched the red flush up Josh’s face and spread across his face. “She’s one sexy old broad,” he observed.
Josh pulled his hand away and looked around for somewhere to escape.
“You need a drink,” the captain advised.
“I can’t,” Josh responded.
“That doesn’t matter here,” the captain said as he placed his feet under himself and rose unsteadily from the chair. “Follow me.”
Josh flinched at the words. “Follow me.” They had been sewn into the fabric of his shoulder patch in OCS. They were etched into his heart. “Follow me.” The cry of an infantry officer leading his men into a desperate battle. He hesitated, just a moment, then followed the captain to the bar.
The captain slipped onto one of the bar stools and patted the one next to him.
Josh hesitated, then climbed onto the proffered seat and looked around to make sure that no one disapproved.
When he looked back at the captain, he found the man waving to the bartender. “Two beers, please,” he said, “and bring the cup.”
“What’s ‘the cup?’” Josh asked with his eyes when the captain turned back to him.
“We’re going to play to see who pays.”
Nick winced as he calculated how much money was left in his wallet. There wasn’t much. He had joined the Army right out of high school and only earned eighty-nine dollars a month as a recruit. He had been bumped to sergeant E-5 as an Officer Candidate, one hundred thirty-two dollars a month, but most of that went for uniforms and laundry. A candidate had to have ten sets of fatigues and usually “broke starch” – put on a fresh one – three times each day. Then he had to buy his own dress uniforms when he graduated. They cost about two hundred dollars each – one set of dress greens and another of dress blues – with money he borrowed from his dad.
He was earning three hundred-three dollars a month now, plus combat pay, but he wouldn’t see his first check as an officer until he reached Vietnam because of some screw-up in the finance office.
“I can’t afford to lose,” he admitted softly hoping that no one but the captain would hear, but the bartender was standing nearby and he began to smile too as he shook the cup and Josh could hear something clicking inside.
“Don’t worry, my friend,” the captain assured him, “I’m buying.”
“But you said that we were going to play to see who would pay.”
The captain chuckled. “We are,” the captain explained, “the bartender and me.”
Josh cocked his head to one side. He obviously didn’t comprehend.
“We’re going to play Horses,” the captain continued. “Double or nothing.”
The captain took the cup from the bartender, gave it a shake, and spilled out five dice: three twos, a four, and a five. “Three deuces,” the captain announced, “one roll.”
The bartender collected the dice, placed them in the cup, and rolled: three ones.
The captain shrugged and paid double the price of the two beers that were sweating on the bar in front of himself and Nick. The bartender gathered up the money and returned the cup and dice to the back bar, before walking to the other end of the bar to refresh the drinks sitting in front of the senior officers sitting there.
“Where are you headed for?” the captain asked after he and Josh clinked bottles.
“The Americal Division.”
“Good unit,” the captain observed with a crooked little smile and a nod of his head.
Each man took a long pull from their bottles and sat in companionable silence.
“You listen to your platoon sergeant,” the captain advised. “He’ll get you through it.”
Josh listened without responding. It was the same advice he had heard many times throughout his training: Basic, Advanced Infantry, and OCS.
“Are you afraid?” the captain asked.
“N-no,” Josh stammered.
The captain frowned.
Josh lowered his gaze to the bottle and wiped away some of its sweat. “Yes,” he admitted.
“There’s no shame in that,” the captain encouraged him.
“I’m not afraid of dying,” Josh added. “Well, some.”
“I know,” the captain replied. “You’re more afraid of being yellow?”
“We all are.”
The men finished their beers in silence.
Josh waved to the bartender. “Two more,” he called out, “and bring the cup.”
He turned to the captain and spoke before the older officer could object. “I can afford a couple beers,” he said.
The captain smiled and let him play.
Josh rolled the five dice: two twos, two ones, and a five. He looked at the captain for advice.
“You can roll three times,” the captain instructed. “Roll as many dice as you like each time. The bartender will have the same number of rolls to try and beat you.”
Josh studied the dice for several moments before picking up the five and returning it to the cup.
“I would have stood at two pair,” the bartender observed.
Josh gave him a what-the-hell smile and rolled the single die. Another two. “Full house,” he beamed, “two rolls.”
The bartender whistled and the captain smiled broadly. The bartender took his two rolls, lost, and walked away to return the cup and dice to the back bar.
Josh and the captain clinked bottles again and drank.
“I hope your luck stays with you, lieutenant,” the captain saluted.
“Me, too,” Josh replied and shook his head slowly. “Me, too.”
It didn’t. Josh was killed on his second patrol during his third week in country.