Authors: Lindsay McKenna
After two tours in Vietnam, Major Gib Ramsey, U.S. M.C., knew that war was hell. But how could he convince beautiful, stubborn Dany Villard that her beloved plantation seesawed on a time bomb? The lush land and its gentle people had given Dany the only love she'd ever knownâlosing them would crush her. Long a warrior, Gib now battled an unfamiliar urge: to blanket a woman in tenderness and promise her more than a fleeting moment of gloryâ¦.
RIDE THE TIGER
Da Nang, Vietnam
April 15, 1965
must you go to the military base at Da Nang?” Dany Villard spoke to her mother in French, trying to keep the concern out of her voice as slender Amy Lou Villard glided elegantly toward the dated blue Renault parked in front of their plantation home. Really, at twenty-six she shouldn't have to worry about her mother, Dany thought. But sometimes it felt like Amy Lou was the daughter and Dany the mother.
Dressed in a summery silk dress, Dany's mother was every bit the plantation mistress, airily waving her hand as if to dismiss Dany's concern. A wide-brimmed white straw hat shaded Amy Lou's delicate skin from the burning sun overhead.
one does not turn down a luncheon invitation with a marine general, does one?”
Standing tensely on the wooden steps of the porch, her fingers digging into the carved rail, Dany frowned. In a fierce whisper that she wanted no oneânot even their loyal Vietnamese helpâto overhear, Dany said, “But what about Binh Duc?” Dany knew that if the local Vietcong chieftain even suspected the Villards were consorting with the Americans, their rubber plantation would no longer be safe. “
think!” she pleaded. “Please! Don't expose our neutrality like this.”
Whirling on the high heel of one pink sandal, Amy Lou laughed as she opened the car door. “As usual, Dany, you worry too much and you think too much. Binh Duc has promised to allow us to remain neutral.” She wrinkled her small, fine nose. “I'm sure the American marines at Da Nang would like us to take sides in this ridiculous situation, but we're French, and we're not at war with the VC, or anyone else.”
Dany stepped off the stairs. Probably her mother was right, she told herself. Still, her heart pounded with a strange feeling of dread. Compared to her mother, who was dressed in the latest French fashion, a gossamer creation in a print of pink, red and white peonies, a three-strand choker of pearls around her neck, Dany felt plain. Well, wasn't she? She glanced down self-consciously at the long-sleeved blue cotton blouse that hung to her thighs, the simple pair of dark cotton slacks and her bare feet, stained by the red earth. Yes, she was a colorless bird next to her beautifully attired mother.
Binh Duc warned you about the Americans coming here!” A marine general had shown avid interest in her mother, whom he'd met a few months ago at a charity luncheon at a newly erected Da Nang French restaurant. The general had sent his official staff car to pick up her mother soon after, and Binh Duc had snuck into their home the next day, threatening her mother that if he ever saw another American on Villard property, he would have to reconsider their neutral status. Dany distrusted the VC leader, whose political fervency was fanaticism in her opinion. She could accept his determination to practice Communism, but Dany couldn't tolerate his cruelty in forcing his belief on others.
“That's why I'm driving our car to Da Nang,
” The new military base was located next to the Vietnamese city. “I told the general no more staff cars or men in uniform coming to our plantation.” Amy Lou's smile didn't reach her carefully made-up blue eyes. Patting her pale blond hair, she said, “Stop fretting, Dany! You always act as if Duc knows our every move.”
“He does,” Dany warned grimly. Long ago, the revolutionary Vietminh commander had given his word to her father that he would leave the Villard plantation alone. Binh Duc was the most recent in a series of commanders who had accepted the long-standing agreement. However, Duc was becoming more skittish and demanding every month. The truce with him was fragile, and Dany didn't count on it, even if her unrealistic mother did.
The Villards had a similar pact with the South Vietnamese Armyâthe ARVNâand the plantation was one of the few neutral zones that all sides had respected. Dany chafed daily under the knowledge that if either side broke its word, the Villard plantation, which had been in the family since the early 1930s, would quickly be destroyedâa fate that already had befallen so many other French plantations since the battle at Dien Bien Phu.
Placing her purse in the car, Amy Lou called out, “
Dany. I've been so bored for so long. This is a wonderful opportunity for me to get out and enjoy myself.” She pouted playfully. “Now, you will not hold that against me, will you,
Dany's throat tightened with complicated emotions. Then she sighed in helpless resignation. “No,
” Her mother was a butterfly, Dany had decided long ago, and she, the dutiful, hard-working water buffalo, possessing neither her mother's lilt, glitter and gift for small talk, nor her love of parties and social status.
Dany looked down at her hands as Amy Lou slipped into the Renault. They were long and slender like her mother's, but there the similarity ended. Amy Lou had her hands massaged daily and anointed with expensive creams by her personal maid, getting her long nails polished bright red.
My hands are red, all right,
Dany thought ruefully, slowly turning them over. Her nails were blunt cut, with dirt beneath them from working among the rubber trees. Although she scrubbed her hands and nails nightly, Dany could swear they retained a faint red stain, as if her skin were permanently marked by the soil she loved so fiercely. Dany didn't see it as bad, but rather as a badge proclaiming her oneness with the land.
“Do not worry about me,” Amy Lou called lightly as she put the little car in gear. “I will share the gossip I hear at lunch with you when I return later this afternoon.” She blew Dany a kiss with her gloved hand.
The sudden urge to run over to the car and give her mother a genuine kiss startled Dany. There had never been real warmth between them, although Dany had sometimes ached for it. Butterflies like her pampered mother were airy and light, never landing anyplace long enough to learn about deeper, more serious commitments. Dany took two steps forward, then checked herself. If she did run over and kiss her mother's cheek, Amy Lou no doubt would playfully chide her for making a childish demonstration, and would not return the kiss. Much better to quell her own emotional needs and avoid embarrassment, Dany thought.
Licking her lower lip, she raised her hand. “Bye,
Have a good time.”
“Oh, I will! I will!”
Dany felt oddly emotionalâshaky without knowing why. The Renault started down the quarter-mile-long driveway. Built from imported red brick, the driveway wound toward Highway 14, a main thoroughfare to Da Nang. Tall, lovely silk trees paralleled the road, adding to the rich veneer the Villard plantation presented to those passing by the highway. But lately, the only vehicles to pass had been long convoys of American marines in trucks, an almost constant occurrence. The Renault coughed noisily as it chugged toward the dirt highway, and bluish smoke popped several times from the exhaust pipe.
The midmorning sun lanced through the canopy of trees near the front steps, and Dany felt perspiration begin to dot her face. High temperatures and equally high humidity were a fact of life in Vietnam. But, born at the plantation, Dany had never been bothered by the weather as her parents had.
Dany frowned as she saw another American military convoy making its way past their driveway on its way to Da Nang, ten miles to the north. Dany was terrified that if any American vehicle came into their long driveway, for whatever reason, Binh Duc would retaliateâviolently. When the Americans had landed on Da Nang's soil in March the Villards had made it known that the plantation was off-limits to any and all military personnel. Thus far, the brash Americans had respected the Villards neutrality and land.
The Renault had almost reached the intersection to Highway 14, still sputtering and spitting a bluish trail of exhaust. Dany smiled. Her mother knew nothing of mechanics and would drive the Renault until it stopped dead on the spot. Amy Lou would die of embarrassment if her car stopped somewhere other than where she wanted it to. Rubbing her brow, Dany decided she'd better have the car looked at when her mother returned. One of their Vietnamese workers, who was something of a genius with inventions, also served as makeshift mechanic, although he never did well on the Renault.
Just as Dany began to turn toward the house, a huge fireball enveloped the Renault. As if part of a movie stunt, the small car lifted upward through the fireball, flew apart and landed in pieces alongside the brick drive.
Dany barely had time to scream before the pulverizing sound concussion slammed into her, knocking her off her feet. Another cry tore from Dany as she hit the brick driveway. Skin was torn from her elbow and hand, but she barely felt it.
her mind caterwauled. In a daze, she lurched to her feet, the heat momentarily stinging her skin, the smell carried on the blast a combination of oil, metal and another odor her mind instantly rejected. A sob tore from Dany and she began running toward the flames.
As she sprinted down the driveway, a second blast erupted from the already charred wreck with a force of heat that scorched Dany's skin. This time the sickening odor was undeniable, and her stomach lurched. Choking back the bitter taste of bile in her mouth, Dany threw her hand up to protect her face and eyes as she continued to run headlong. Her mother! Denial surged through Dany along with nausea at the terrible smell of burned human flesh. Dany raced on, her mouth open in a soundless shriek, her eyes blurred with tears.
* * *
“Good God!” Major Gib Ramsey breathed as the blue Renault exploded into a fireball less than a quarter mile away. His hand flew to the jeep's dashboard to steady himself as Captain Pete Mallory slammed on the brakes. As the jeep skidded to a stop, Gib leaped out and began running toward the car, already engulfed in flames. The French car must have hit a land mineâor someone had put a bomb in it. He knew, even as he ran, that no way could anyone in that car have survived the explosion.
Adrenaline shot through Gib, making him excruciatingly alert. His nostrils flared and his gaze narrowed in calculated swings from right to left. VC could be hiding nearby. This could be an ambush. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a slender young woman screaming as she ran down the driveway toward the burning Renault. The charred remains of the car body had landed on its side and fire and black smoke poured upward through the arms of the silk trees, smudging the bright blue sky.
Gib's heart pounded triple time, fear of stepping on another land mine foremost in his mind. Still his huge strides carried him forward along the bank of the narrow dirt road. Mines usually were buried in the dirt near the tire-track ruts, so he avoided the center of the road. Realizing there was nothing to be done for the driver of the car, he changed direction to intercept the young woman, who seemed to be aiming herself directly at the burning car. Didn't she realize that if the gas tank hadn't already exploded, it could, possibly killing her as well?