Heartland: An Overdue Mission

—based on the events of 1975, this is an original short story by R. Warden aka Walker Christian

When I Get My Wings
When I get my wings, I’ll forget the things that held me down.
I’ll say my goodbyes, then I’ll step into the sky and I— I— I—I’ll fly away!
That’s what I’ll do.
I’ll fly away—to be with you!

Photo by Arthur Edelman on Unsplash

      After the war—my war—I climbed aboard a motorcycle and rode way. I rode hard and fast, desperate to outrun the demons and dreams on my back trail. Jaunts became journeys, journeys became treks, and treks became uncounted odysseys—each empty of purpose and result. All were quickly forgotten in my haste to cram them—and everything else—into my rearview mirror.

      This trip was different. This was a mission—a mission that had me headed South—to the deep South—where time and tradition remain frozen for decades. Reluctant to honor the promise I’d made to a friend, and hoping to outrun all of my ties to the past, I’d avoided the issue—for too long.

      Now, with time running out—and my entire sense of self slipping away, I could only hope that it wasn’t too late.

      Anxious to make up for lost time—I pushed on, covering hundreds of miles between gas stops, midnight coffee breaks, and dozing fits of creepin’ thinkin’ that invariably jolted me awake and had me cranking hard on the throttle again—to get on down the road.

      Baked crisp and dry across the Saguaro-filled badlands by day, midnight found me chilled to the bone and shivering like a leaf in an arctic gale. By 3am—the devil’s hour—my hands were frozen into claws that were barely able to twist the throttle or squeeze the levers that governed the beast beneath me.

      “I’d do it for you—!”
      “Count me out! I’ve had enough!”
      “Heck, they done killed my daddy, and now they’ve killed me!”
      “You ain’t dead yet!”
      Silence.
      “What—you seen it?”
      Silence.
      “Come on, man!”
      “Why do you think I’m askin’—?”
      “Can’t be—it’s almost over—!”
      “It’s over for me—I seen it—felt like God Himself was punchin’ my ticket!”
      “Crap!”
      “Don’t worry about me. You just remember what I told you!”
      “Damn!”
      “Just go see for yourself. If it ain’t like I said, well—you can bail out.”
      “Ok!”
      “Promise?”
      “Promise what?”
      “If they come at ya—well, you know—do what you do best!”

      Funny how fast things can change. Without the roller-coaster lunges from slow-motion boredom to unspeakable terror, my existence had become meaningless. Life had lost its thrill, death had lost its malice, and tomorrow—especially for me—had lost all promise.

      Accustomed to measuring time in terms of consequential activities—such as the number of flights completed or missions survived or days since losing a friend, I had little use for clocks and calendars and datebooks. I knew time to be elastic and entirely relative to its perception. In the war—my war—days were weeks and months were years, and the rest of your life could be measured in a matter of minutes. Back at home, every moment had proved slower than the last—and the last had dragged on for what felt like a decade.

      When I’m on the road, time and distance are counted in fill-ups—tanks of gas. This mission—a one-way undertaking—would require twelve tanks, and Texas would consume at least three of them.

      To escape the excruciating monotony of time, I caught the fever—as I called it—a serene trance-like state induced by the mind-numbing vibration and throaty grumble of the engine between my knees, as consciousness ascended from a frenzied normality to a fleece-lined catatonic cloud.

      The fever endured seemingly forever, or at least until the gas tank ran dry. Only then is the spell broken, and I’m reluctantly grounded once more, at the exact moment the heel of my boot touches pavement, somewhere beneath the rusty canopy of an ancient filling station, existing though barely on the undulating backroads of life, and—like me—fading from this dimension to the next along the edge of nowhere certain.

      “This old truck’s about had it,” sighed the wizened farmer at the gas pump opposite mine.

      Hood up, with radiator hissing a high-pitched tribute to yesteryear, the old man’s faded Chevy pickup truck had seen better days.

      The sun, just kissing the Western horizon, made it impossible to cast more than a fleeting glimpse in the old man’s direction; his wavering form appearing as an indefinite silhouette in heat at its peak before sunset.

      The transition from dry and dusty to muggy and thick—now complete—first became noticeable in mid-Texas, just this side of Houston. By the time I’d reached Shreveport for the next tank of gas, the humidity had swelled to an oppressive and inescapable certainty. The only solution was to get back into the wind, and to stay there for as long as possible, or at least until the tank ran dry again.

“Where ya headed son?” The old man glanced at me briefly as he wiped greasy fingers on the bib of his faded overalls.
“LA!” I answered, not taking my eyes off the pump.
“Shoot, looks like yore goin’ the wrong way!”
“Naw, I’m headed for the other LA—lower Alabama—!”
“Haw, that’s rich! But don’t ask for no directions when you get down there. One look at that big ole road hog and they’ll send you ‘round and ‘round ‘til you drop dead!”
“Thanks! I’ll keep that in mind!” I replaced the nozzle and climbed aboard. I kicked the starter peg—hard—and roared away fast.

      At seventy miles an hour, I could catch the fever in a matter of minutes, and it’d be smooth sailing from then on. I know I’m there when I can’t remember why I’m travelling—or where I’m going. If I made the mistake of backing off to anything under sixty, consciousness and sensation would quickly return, followed by everything I desperately needed to forget—and outrun.

      To get by, I bartered woodworking skills for food and cash for gas. Wood is plentifulin the southern states—and used just about everywhereto construct inexpensive timber-framed buildings. The need for repairs to these structures is constant, and this never-ending demand provides ample opportunities for those who can do the work. People like me.

      As with most manual trades, skill equals speed—and it’s impossible to fool an expert; you either have the requisite competency or you don’t. And to find out, all you have to do is examine the tools of the candidate craftsman. Cherished items are always on-hand, well-tended, and ready to go. And, as each tool has a specific purpose, it’s easy to tell what the artisan—a carpenter in this case—can or can’t accomplish. 

      Though stiff and of varying densities, wood is uncommonly forgiving. At an early age, I learned that a dent or depression in an unfinished board or block of lumber could be removed with a few drops of water and a half-hour’s patience. If only life were as easy to repair. If only I were half as forgiving—as a simple block of wood, then maybe everything would have been different.

      Above all, wood is incredibly useful. From cradle to casket, it’s easily transformed into almost anything needed for human existence. With the right tools and a bit of skill, wood can carry you through life—and leave a hand-carved legacy of your passage. And with a bit of ingenuity and wit, a few scraps can be fashioned into a presentable façade that can mask your true intentions—for as long as you need.

      Roaming the southern states on a noisy motorcycle with California license plates did little to endear me to the locals, but I knew the South, and I had a plan—a good plan—inherited from a good friend. According to the plan, the best time for an outcast like myself to find work was Sunday noon, and the best place to look was at a church.

Photo by Colin Maynard on Unsplash

      A small chapel was best—one with a soaring spire in the midst of a dying township. A spire that’s tall enough to be spotted from the highway, its sanctuary partly obscured by longleaf pine and black oak—with limbs lushly draped in whispery strands of Spanish moss—was perfect for my needs. Originally marking the heart of the community, many of these towering steeples had faded into lonely topography markers—headstones really—that reflected earthly ambitions once bright but now dim, that would never be satisfied in this life.

      There I did linger on this midsummer Sunday morn. Posted patiently on the sidewalk in front of the faded, paint-chipped edifice—and careful to remain near the road—I held a time-worn cardboard sign that read; Would Work for Food. Knowing better than to hide the motorbike, I parked it far enough away to be noticed, yet close enough for a speedy getaway if needed.

      Timing was important. On Sunday morning, I could only hope that my timing was right, for rumors of my arrival would spread like wildfire. I needed to be in position before the end of the service and its hollow supplications, with organ notes and discordant vocal strains hanging high in the air near the apex of the cobwebbed belfry.

      The first to greet me would usually be a deacon—who—more often than you’d expect, was also an ex-cop or other badge-carrying pillar of the community. After a sneaky peek from the window, he’d amble down the rickety steps and mosey out to the road to move me along—before the congregation could file out and witness the encounter. In tiny townships like these, out-of-towners were generally discouraged, and after the war—my war—even veterans were actively shunned.

      Unlike previous wars, Vietnam veterans suffered not only from their experiences in combat but also from their treatment upon returning home. An uncounted number however, would turn these lessons to personal advantage, adapting in spectacular fashion to develop unusual capacities, fearful abilities—and more.

      This transformation from darkness to light took time and followed an uncharted route that offered little support and no assurance of outcome. Setbacks were common, and those suffering near-total dissociation—like myself—wound up kissing through glass for the rest of their lives. If my descent continued unchecked, I could lose all sense of self֫—and, according to the shrinks—disappear into an alternate reality known as a psychogenic fugue.

      The news wasn’t all bad; a dissociative disorder—by definition—is extremely impersonal, and those afflicted barely even realize they’re gone, or indeed—are well on their way to becoming someone else. If you really think about it—or if you’re already in that psychogenic neighborhood—a depersonalized dimension could easily be seen as uncharted territory.

      From a charitable perspective—if madness is worthy of sympathy—such a region, though initially foreign, would surely be worthy of exploration. And, if happenstance should dictate that I do happen to slip into an alternate persona (or had already done so), I could aspire to the role of intrepid explorer and devote the remainder of my existence to mapping the madness of my journey.

      My Sunday job-hunting strategy was risky—surely, but as folks in dying townships are not only needy but also bored, the real bossin this case, Granny Johnson—was nigh on the heels of the Sheriff-cum-deacon as the small congregation filed out of the solid-core doors of the dilapidated wooden sanctuary. Swept along by dutiful attendants, each clothed in their Sunday-best and trouping solemnly down the stairs in disheveled ranks, she magically appeared at the head of the pack—like a primeval warrior queen coalescing from the clouds of history.

Photo by
Christian
Newman

      Ancient, well wrinkled, and battle scarred, her crocodile smile reminded me of my framing saw with its shiny rows of offset teeth. A local schoolmarm for over forty years, her aquiline nose and condescending gaze marked her as the uncontested commander of all who’d endured her despotic tutelage in the formative years of their youth. Those that failed to venture out—or drop dead, or otherwise escape her overbearing influence—remained trapped in her shadow for the remainder of their lives.

Derby
Walking
Cane

      Emerging from the pack at the point where the walkway from the church meets the road, Granny stopped abruptly and tapped her cane, an exotic Derby walking stick with hand-crafted pewter collar, to formally announce her arrival. Crossing gnarled hands atop the polished neck of the expensive staff, she rocked back and forth, feigning patience, as her retinue—a dowdy gray mob in nondescript attire—jostled into haphazard formation and halted behind their leader.

      Leaning forward to capture every syllable to be uttered by their chief, their growing stillness signaled readiness for war. What surprised me about the eight or so members of the group—and shrinking steadily—was their advanced age; not a single unwrinkled face could be seen in the crowd.

      In the background, the now vacant building with its open front doors flanked high on each side by an unadorned window—proffered silent witness—like a sightless, toothless face amidst the trees. I scanned the sky for a celestial sign—anything would do—but none appeared.

      “What’s your name, boy?” Granny demanded over the rim of gold-framed bifocals perched low on the end of her hawkish nose.

      Fastidiously attired in a dowdy two-piece ensemble with a high-necked blouse closed at the throat by a cameo pin, I expected her to be sweating like a sinner on the road to perdition, yet there she stood, a generalissimo in her Sunday best, as cool as a goose on ice beneath a sun that could bore holes in concrete.

      Lacking the creases that develop around eyes and mouth from a lifetime of joy, Granny’s character was instead projected through an unblinking snake-like gaze beneath furrowed brows that seemed permanently affixed in a frown.

      With her hook nose, short stature, and commanding presence, she reminded me of a female version of The Little Corporal that overran Europe in the early eighteen-hundreds.

      The ex-Sheriff-deacon hovered nearby, fingers fidgeting in the vicinity of a shoulder-holster that was rumored to reside beneath his oversized Sunday-go-to-meetin’ suit coat. An aged bruiser with a course, humorless demeanor, Deacon Harold Dempsey had a history of making problems disappear without a trace, reportedly by way of the local bayou. Small piggish eyes under bushy brows sized me up carefully, his shoulders hunched like a buzzard appraising lunch.

      Overhead, the mid-day sun at its zenith bore down hard on today’s performance; stilling the breeze, baking the concrete beneath our feet, and holding every breath for ransom.

      “My name’s Walker, ma’am, Walker Christian.” I lied, careful to look her in the eye. Not my real name surely, but when I’m on a mission, it’s only fair to provide a hint of my purpose and intentions.

      A turkey-necked pastor—identified by the miniature crucifix pinned to his lapel and his air of practiced piety—inched up quietly from behind, eager to participate and ready to speak for the Lord, or offer last rites, as the situation required. Looking as though he’d dressed in the dark and made no adjustments afterward, he twitched uncomfortably as he emerged from the pool of elderly alumni. Tugging first at his collar—buttoned to the throat—and then at the cuffs of his threadbare long-sleeve shirt, he avoided the eyes of those around him.

      “Knock it off, Timmy; It’s only poison ivy!” Granny scolded over her shoulder. “That itchin’ will be gone soon enough! And for heaven’s sake, stay the hell out of them bushes at Miss Maggie’s!”

      Accustomed to taking orders from powers earthly and otherwise, Pastor Timothy Baldwin lowered his shiny bald head and continued to twitch and tug and scratch. Those around him muttered softly and shuffled to give him a wider berth on the stage—er, sidewalk.

      Impatient in the heat and eager to attend the luncheon that always follows Sunday services, the group did its best to remain quiet, knowing better than to tangle with Granny when she’s astride her high-steppin’ horse.

      Returning to me, Granny began a top to bottom inspection, from my unwashed forehead to the well-scuffed toes of my canvas jungle boots, missing nothing.

      Beads of sweat gathered rapidly along my brow line as the inspection commenced and continued for an interminable period. I glanced around for a butterfly or a squirrel or a scissor-tailed kite but none made an appearance.

      Doing their best to remain patient, Granny’s retinue squirmed and perspired in silence. Those with leaflets and study books fanned themselves in a vain attempt to counter the noon-day sun at the height of its glory. At length, Granny focused on the sign I held beneath my chin.

      “Looks like you missed some of your spellin’ lessons!” She announced, to the immediate delight of her retinue.
      “No ma’am.” I replied.
      “Wha’d’ya mean, boy?” She quizzed, her crew leaning in for a closer inspection.
      “It’s a double entendre, ma’am.”

      “You watch your mouth boy!” The deacon cut in, moving a half-step closer to the ever-ready vengeance of my quick-draw rip saw.
      “What?” Caught off guard, Granny hesitated before continuing.
      “No offense, ma’am.” I lowered my gaze to half-mast.
      Another full second ticked by as Granny pondered briefly and then bore in for more. “I ask you again, boy; wha’d’ya mean?”
      “A double entendre, ma’am. It’s got two meanings.” I replied.
      “Well hell, I know that! But what does it mean?

      The pastor crossed himself and glanced toward heaven. The rest of the group giggled their approval as the boss, growing cross, accentuated her impatience with the tip of her fancy walking stick, rapping it smartly on the cracked concrete sidewalk.
      A faint aroma of confederate jasmine wafted by from somewhere distant, carried by a well-timed but short-lived breeze. A faint chirping sound could be heard through the trees. Heaven had joined the audience.

      “It means I would do some w-o-o-d work—if’n I can get some food and gas money for doin’ it.” I pointed at the words on the sign—once for wood and again for would—as I spelled it out. “It’s a joke—like a pun.”
      “A what?”
      “A pun!”
      “Well hell! That’s got to be the dumbest thing I ever heard! Are you stupid—boy, or just makin’ fun of us?” Her supporters scowled in unison as though on cue.
      “No ma’m! I ain’t half as smart as I wished I was, and there ain’t nuthin’ fun about none of ya’ll today,” I acquiesced, eyes returning to half-mast to monitor the movements of the feet nearby. Lord knows that Southern Baptists have been known to shoot their wounded without warning.

      “Look, Granny! He’s an outlaw!” exclaimed a rotund great-grandmother as she emerged from the group, index finger thrust out smartly; her green eyes huge behind an extra-thick pair of eyeglasses. “That there’s his motorsickle!” All eyes followed her finger to spot the machine in the shade of an ancient oak on the other side of the road.
      “Aw, shut up Margie. You wouldn’t know an outlaw if it bit ya on the butt!”
      “But he could be dangerous!”
      “If he gives us any trouble, we’ll force feed him some of yore Sunday meatloaf—which ever’body knows is last week’s leftovers!”
      The group snickered. Knowing better than to argue, Margie closed her mouth and retracted the finger. Better a live dog than a dead lion.

      “Shoot, that looks like a ’68 panhead Harley,” observed old Ralphie Prager, magically appearing in the shuffle, hastily wiping his eyeglasses with the tail of his necktie. A retired mechanic with oil in his veins and grease stains on just about everything he’d ever owned, Ralphie had been around since the dawn of the automotive age. He’d grown stooped and frail under its unbroken spell—mostly from contorting his body into unnatural positions on those never-ending assembly lines. A lifelong bachelor, his only dream was to do it all again.

      “Stuff a cork in it, Ralphie! I’m tryin’ to do business here!”
      “Just sayin’; he can’t be an outlaw, that’s all!”
      “And why the hell not?”
      “Because carpenters are a lot like mechanics!” Piped another voice from the group.
      “What the hell does that mean?” Granny looked around.
      “Means they both gotta work for a livin’,” explained the stooped old man belonging to the voice, as he emerged from the shadows between Dennis and Margie and pushed his way to the front.

      Anson Gebhardt knew what he was talking about. A cooper in the early days, he’d helped to erect this very building, right after the Great War, and he’d framed most of the structures on what was left of Main Street. He’d made some money running ‘shine in the early twenties, but that venture had earned him a lengthy hitch in the big house upstate. He knew exactly who to blame for that decade—sacrificed for political gain—and he’d always hoped to settle that score personally. But with his body shot and his memory failing, every movement brought pain these days, and every sunset took him farther away from the justice he’d hoped to exact with his own bare hands.

      “Aw, cork it AG, nobody cares what you got to say!”
The group snickered as Granny returned her attention to me.
      “So, where were we? Oh, yea—<em>double intenders!</em>”
Avoiding her gaze, I stared at my boots.
      “So, you’re just showin’ off—is that it boy?”
      “Yes’m, just tryin’ to be—smart—ma’am.” I admitted.
      “And what the hell are you doin’ here on Sunday?”
      Still squirming, the preacher sank into his shell with an audible sigh and closed his eyes, squeezing them tight. Public humiliation, cursing, blasphemy; what could possibly happen next—a lightning bolt from a cloudless sky?

     “Well?”

      “Is it wrong—to do good—on Sunday?” I asked.
      The group sucked in their collective breath and stared, aghast at the blasphemous insinuation of my impertinence. The preacher groaned and nearly swooned, catching himself when those closest to him shied away from any hint of his rescue.
      “What? You read the Good Book, boy?” Granny quickly changed blades to plow higher-than-thou ground.
      “Yes’m.” The sweat at my temples trickled down the sides of my face, then from cheekbones to jawline and from jawline to well-stubbled chin, and from there it dripped on my boots.
      Two figures in the back—nondescript, heads down, mere shadows really—never once looked up yet seemed captivated by every word, motion, grimace and glance of this exchange.

      “Jesus was a carpenter; didja’ know that, boy?” Granny inquired.
      “Yes’m; I reckon He could straighten up just about anything that might be a mite crooked!” I stared at the deacon as I twanged my answer with exaggerated emphasis.
      All eyes followed mine to pin the deacon, who quickly paled and withered visibly beneath their sudden scrutiny, obviously guilty of some long-gone but not-forgotten sins.
      “Hold on now!” He defended, glancing quickly from face to face.
Granny studied me carefully. After a slight pause, she laughed and slapped his back.
      “Well hell, ain’t he a piece of work! That’s another one of them double intenders, ain’t it, Harold?”
      In reply, Deacon Harold Dempsey scowled his contempt and made a clumsy grab for my shirt. “This asshole needs to learn some manners!”
      I used my sign to deflect his hand and ease him back into line, a task that was easy enough due to the slowing dexterity of his rapidly advancing years. The fire in his eyes burned bright as he settled back to await a better opportunity to teach me about suffering—along with its many exciting options.
     “Aw, knock it off Harold! He’s just teasin’ ya. Hell, he’s only been here five minutes and he’s already got you pegged—!”

      Then her eyes lit up as she turned to address the group: “Well ya’ll, looks like we got ourselves a scooter-ridin’ tool-totin’ Bible-thumpin’ prophet! And who knows, he might even be an outlaw!”
     The crowd snickered and exchanged glances. The preacher returned to his shell, still squirming and tugging at his collar. Dark clouds furrowed the deacon’s brow as he fumed quietly and mentally penciled me in for an unscheduled swamp tossin’ incident. Beads of sweat gathered between my shoulder blades and ran down the middle of my back as the tension ran its course and began to subside.

      Granny renewed her scrutiny, glancing again at my unkempt Army shirt and trousers. “Are you one of them soldier boys come back from the war?”
      “Yes’m”.
      “How come you’re still alive, son?” Her tone had softened but the steel in her eyes remained bright and unabated—and I still hadn’t seen her blink.
     “Well, ma’am, I guess God ain’t done with me yet.” I stared up at the sky and its wandering clouds. A masterpiece in blue—and—white. Blue—the azure firmament, the color of heaven itself. White—misty and uncertain; the Lord’s favorite hue. Together—an enigmatic veil over all that lies beyond—and completely hidden to eyes that can not see and ears that can not hear.
     How I longed to be back in the sky again; high above this six-foot layer of evil that forever blankets the earth.

     As an insignificant pawn in these proceedings—and a willing accomplice in most respects—I’d learned to keep one eye on the sky. Drafted by a power much greater than myself, yet unsure of exactly where my service begins and ends, I struggled to keep my more reactive tendencies under control, especially when dealing with those who truly deserved my undivided attention.
     And since I barely conformed to the basic principles of the eternal kingdom, my life—such as it was—hung by a thread. Each step and every word could surely be my last. I glanced up again—not for a lightning bolt—but for something exotic and much more appropriate. Perhaps a chunk of blue ice—from the crapper of an unseen airliner passing high above the clouds. Such is justice, ironic and swiftly administered, for an asshole—er, conscript—such as myself.
     Appraising Granny’s character in this encounter would be risky, in this realm and beyond, and I could only hope that she and everyone else involved—including myself—was ready for all that must surely lay ahead.

     Then came the words I’d been waiting to hear.
     “My grandbaby died in that war. Got his head blown off in some damn jungle—.”
     The pastor crossed himself again as Granny turned to the deacon.
     “Harold, what was the name of that damned place? Ant somethin’ or ‘nuther”.
     “An Loc” the ex-Sheriff-now-deacon answered sheepishly, head down and treading lightly to leave that grave undisturbed.
     “His name was Jimmy Johnson. Folks ’roundabouts called him JJ. Did’ja know him?”
     I avoided the question. “Can’t rightly say, ma’am, but there’s a whole lotta folks I ain’t never met, and there seems to be no end to what I don’t know.“
     At that, she smiled. “Yore a real card, ain’t ya boy?”
     “It’s been said—.” I answered.
     “JJ’s favorite subject was writin’. He couldn’t spell a lick but he sure liked words, especially fancy foreign stuff like double entendre.” Granny looked me in the eye as she continued. “And he surely loved a good story.”
      “Do tell—!”

      “Show me your hands, son!” Granny shifted her attention to the practicalities, beginning with the calluses on my palms, which I presented one at a time.
      Then she began an inspection of my tool bag, while simultaneously grilling me on fence-fixing and post-setting and a variety of other hard-labor and mending skills. As she rummaged through my meager possessions, I had a growing suspicion that my trial could be the most difficult of all. It wouldn’t be the first time an inquisitor was tried—and fried—or possibly clobbered by a chunk of blue ice, while in the process of constructing the gallows for others.

      Another of the aged onlookers tapped her shoulder with a bony forefinger and leaned in to whisper in her ear.
      “What? Speak up Stanley, I can’t hear a dang thang yore sayin’!”
      “Can he string barbed-wire?” Stanley croaked before settling back to reclaim his place in the group.
      In reply, I nodded my head and answered, “Yes.”

     Of special interest was my small collection of gleaming chisels, each sharpened to a fine edge and separately sheathed in a hand-fashioned cardboard pocket. Accompanying the set was a small carborundum sharpening stone encased in a hand-carved wooden case.

     Anson Gebhardt elbowed his way forward and gently removed one of the stubby blades from its corrugated compartment. Slowly, he raised it up to the sun. With an admiring smile, he rolled it between finger and thumb, pleased with its form and glinting reflection. Dropping it into the palm of his hand, he tested its heft and balance. With a practiced flourish, he laid the chamfered edge of blue tempered steel along the plate of his thumbnail and pushed it slowly forward. A translucent curl, effortlessly shaved from the surface of the nail, rolled back toward the cuticle of his gnarled thumb. Shifting his gaze to the overbearing bulk of the nearby deacon, a momentary temptation flashed past his cloudy blue eyes. If he should happen to stumble, there might be a chance—albeit slim—that he could make it look like an accident. Frozen for a moment in heady contemplation, the temptation passed and he carefully replaced the tool in its sheath and the sheath in the bag. With a resigned shrug, he shouldered his way to the rear of the group and disappeared from view.

     Then, to the surprise of all—and over the strenuous objections of the deacon, Granny invited me out to what was left of her family’s homestead, a full-section now withered to a mere handful of overgrown acres.
     “What about us?” Inquired the rotund Margie Jeffers, her eyes huge behind the lenses of her glasses.
     “Y’all go on to lunch. I’ll catch up!”
     “But we need help too—!”
     “If he’s still alive after I work him to death, then I’ll send what’s left of him right on over to yore place!”

     And so it began.

      The deacon, whose parcel of land lay between the church and Granny’s place, helped the aged matriarch into his truck and then led the way for the short trip down the road.
      Circling the front house to the old barn out back, he off-loaded Granny with a flurry of ham-handed gesticulations and a near foaming of the mouth. Although I couldn’t hear their conversation over the noise of the bike, he was obviously unhappy about the arrangement. True to her character, Granny responded in kind, her walking stick punctuating her well-placed replies.
      Then, as Granny approached the barn, Harold fingered a salute in my direction and climbed back into the truck. Stomping the gas, he peeled out in a flurry of flying gravel—also aimed in my direction.
      “That jackass never did have a lick of sense,” piped Granny as she opened the small door in the face of the barn and swept away cobwebs with her cane. With the yank of a small hanging chain, a lightbulb snapped on to illuminate a tiny patch of the interior of the musty building.

      The layout matched a map I’d seen previously. A dilapidated old cabin and a nearby creek slumbered in the shadows of a setback tree line, fronted now by Granny’s house, a small but sturdy home constructed of concrete block, positioned humbly near the road that ran into town, and less than a quarter-mile from the church to the West. The old barn—my temporary home—sat behind Granny’s house on the Eastern side of the property, not far from the access road that led to a river and bayou at the rear, about two-hundred yards North as the crow flies.

      Day one. I went to work immediately, eager to wrestle the land for favor—and all it could reveal. There’s something about contending with the earth for sustenance that feels right somehow, like I was meant to be doing it. When I work hard all day, I feel nearer to the world as it was when new—and a part of it—in kinship with eras gone by. And when fully exhausted, I can finally sleep—though rarely without flashbacks, dreams, and tangible forebodings—and only for an hour or so at a time. The balance of the night was spent roaming—to examine the boundaries, to explore the tracks discovered by daylight, and to search everything in all directions.
I slept on a cot in the barn, bathed in the creek behind the old cabin, and worked hard—in exchange for Granny’s home cooking—and boy could she cook!

      Day two. After trimming the overgrown bushes around each of the buildings, I repaired the stairs off the rear porch of Granny’s house, replacing the stringers and treads with heavy boards affixed with hot-dipped galvanized lag bolts.
The materials I needed were hauled in by unknown members of the congregation. I gave Granny a list of supplies each morning and sure enough, every item would arrive, to be discovered neatly stacked in front of the barn; a bucket of bolts or nails or post staples, a re-sawn timber or two, a thermos of coffee, or a ham sandwich protected by plastic wrap. I would often hear a vehicle arrive and depart in the distance, but I was never near enough to make out who was making the deliveries, and they—whoever—were always in a hurry to depart.

      Day three. The labor effort well underway, Granny showed her gratitude by introducing me to chocolate gravy, layered thick and hot over steaming homemade biscuits. I’d heard about it beforehand, from that selfsame friend, but I daren’t tell her how or why. Bottom line—it was delicious!

      Feeding me on the rear porch with a dog and an old cat, we sat on decrepit wooden chairs around a tiny metal table beneath a raggedy canvas umbrella and competing clouds of flies, mosquitos, and gnats. She watched in silence as I devoured the meatloaf and beans that she’d shoveled onto a large tin plate. It—the meatloaf—could have been roadkill for all I know, or Margie’s leftovers. No matter; I’d had worse, if you count rat-steak stew and rice paper rollups stuffed with crunchy insects.
      I never asked for second helpings, but to Granny’s dismay, I often licked the tin, sometimes grunting my satisfaction, right there before God and all the saintly saints.

      “How long has it been?” She asked.
      “For what?”
      “Since you et’ in decent company?”
      “Sorry, ma’am. I ain‘t been fit for decent company in a long time.”

     And then I ignored her frowns and finished the lickin’, followed by each of the fingertips on my shovelin’ hand. When she returned to the kitchen to refill the water jug, I let the dog and old cat have a taste, for in my current condition I knew we weren’t that far apart in the grand scheme of things. I never shared the gravy though, because everybody knows that chocolate’s bad for our four-footed friends—and besides, there was never any left.

     Squadrons of aerial attackers swarmed in continuous waves and it became hard to sit still with all the dodging and swatting and slapping goin’ on. Granny however, seemed unphased as they ignored her completely.

     “How long you been home?”
     “Never went back,” I lied.
     “Why not?”
     “Couldn’t bear it. Besides, I’m more at home out there in the woods than anywhere else.”
     “What d’ya like about it?”
     “It’s free. Free to do whatever you please and nobody cares, ‘cause there ain’t nobody there except me.”
     “JJ loved it too!”
     “And there’s still some wild out there to contend with.” I wasn’t talking about the four-footed beasts of the area, but Granny’s thoughts were elsewhere. “What about them old trails runnin’ out to the bayou. Is anybody usin’ ‘em nowadays?”
     “Naw, not since JJ left. At least there better not be! You see anybody out there, you be sure an’ run ‘em off, ya hear?”
     “Yes’m!” Indeed, she could count on me to handle that—and more.

     From a spiritual perspective—albeit on the periphery of madness—the most unusual aspect of any mission is the process of receiving an assignment. A specific sensitivity is needed—a level of receptiveness that usually results from study, devotion, and decades of increasing levels of responsibility. I got lucky—if you can call it that—by way of the war—and went straight to the head of the class. There’s something about elevated stress over prolonged periods that can radically alter every aspect of your existence, and induce non-pathological—and otherwise—states of consciousness.

     After you’ve developed the requisite propensity, the next step is patience. The first hint of your next mission often arrives as either a waking premonition or a sleeping dream—with each incident remarkable in its form, timing, content—and frequency. At first, you think you’ve lost your mind, but over time you begin to notice subtle connections in seemingly random and haphazard events, and from then on, you eagerly embrace the simplest of clues and indications.

     After the dreams comes manual labor—lots of it. Hard labor sidelines your mental and physical capacities and helps you to “tune in” the direction you’ll soon be moving. Fasting also works, but only for a protracted period. Hard labor is unwise for those lacking physical strength and endurance, but in my experience it’s surely the more dependable option. And working outdoors—in a natural setting—is preferable, for obvious reasons.

     When you think you’ve tuned in the expected task and initial direction, it’s time to step out in faith—to begin acting on the chore or role to be performed. From that point on, it’s all doors and windows—opening and closing. If you’re on the wrong track, the doors in that direction will close, but if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice a window opening nearby—to indicate an altered or adjusted heading. When you’re finally on the right track, all doors will open before you and progress will be swift.

     Fathoming the logic of this process comes easiest to those inclined to service—for they’re already familiar with sacrifice; to those with no choice in the matter—for they’re committed to the outcome; and to those who’ve slipped the bonds of normality and have learned to embrace the mysteries that lay beyond. Chief among these mysteries is the assignment process itself.  

     Or, if you’re willing to suffer the consequences, you can cut through all the waitin’ and workin’ and behavin’ crap—and get down to business—! This mission seemed to incorporate elements of both approaches—divine direction punctuated with impatient self-indulgent overtones.

     That night—the night of Day 3—by the slimmest sliver of moonlight, I extracted my bag of tricks—a folded oilskin pouch—from the false bottom of my tool bag. Killing the light in the barn and slipping outside, I waited for my ears to map out the wildlife orchestra, already tuned up and actively charming the darkness. Crickets chorused nearby—an uneven rhythm section, backed by boisterous bullfrogs in the distance.

     Closing my eyes, I cleared my mind and waited; no threats detected. Then I reached into the pouch and pulled out a pair of high-top leather moccasins—obtained in the nations on my way across the desert. There’s nothing as soft or as supple as the hand-tanned uppers, or as sensitive as the horsehide soles. After slipping them on and lacing the knee-high gaiters in place, I pocketed a penlight, a Kabar knife, a few hooks and some fishing line. Then I hid the pouch and set off into the woods.

     Once a brush-choked, vine-strewn full-section of six-hundred and forty acres, this territory was originally filled with pitcher plant bogs, mist-laden hardwood swamps, an aquatic labyrinth of winding creeks, and a prehistoric assortment of cypress ponds.

     Unlike the triple-canopy jungles of Asia, Southern forests allow just enough moonlight to penetrate to highlight the topography, but not enough to support movement—especially if you’re movin’ fast.

     Traversing these trails at night would be difficult, even after I’d paced them off and memorized the distances between landmarks. From the outset, it was clear that I’d need to make some adjustments—if I were to have any chance of success in the expected upcoming proceedings.

     Testing each step to avoid dry branches and brittle twigs in near-total darkness takes patience and an unerring sense of direction. Thankfully, the humidity of the deep South quickly converts dead leaves into a soft bed of mulch underfoot. Unfortunately, the slightest breeze drops a steady supply of dead branches and limbs, and an ill-timed crack from one of these could instantly give away your position.

     Proper foot placement and weight shifting are essential to stealthy movement. Working deliberately, and following a memorized list of pace counts, I made my way from one pre-selected location to the next, careful to step from toe to heel and to roll my weight to the outside edge with each step. Moving slowly, I halted often to sense the pungent night air and surreal landscape.

     A more difficult task was dealing with the chirping ranks and bellowing horns of the nightly swamp ensemble. Their habit of suddenly going silent at the slightest hint of intrusion was unnerving. Impossible to prevent, there’s little choice but to move gradually and take full advantage of natural breaks in their repertoire. Give the soloists a chance to become accustomed to your presence before progressing, and then move slowly. If they do go silent, you either have to freeze or run like hell.

     At each location—a well-chosen choke point—I rigged a gotcha trap from green sapling limbs and hellacious lengths of thorny vine, disguised to appear natural—though suspiciously so to the practiced eye. Then I made my way to the mud at the edge of the bayou, to judge the voracity of my primordial neighbors. This task accomplished, and loathe to linger in gator country, I retreated as fast as my midnight movement routine would allow. The topography confirmed and the first-round traps prepared, it was time to await the opening gambit.

      Day four. Dawn found me up early and repairing the fencing along the access road that paralleled Granny’s Eastern property line. The access road continued out to the river, the bayou, and the freeway North of town.
      The goal of this day’s early start was simple—I needed to see—and be seen. Traffic at that time of the morning consisted mainly of locals heading out to jobs in Enterprise—the largest town around—and points beyond.
      Few commuters took note of my labors along the road. I, however, was able to get a look at each vehicle that passed by, especially those coming into town. One such vehicle, a newer pickup truck with a couple of good ole boys in the cab slowed down for a better look. Instead of responding to a friendly wave of the hand, they stared sullenly as they drove by. About an hour later, they passed again, this time on their way back out to the freeway.
      By noon, as the sun reached its apogee, both tasks—the fence repair and the target spotting—were done.

     To establish a pattern of predictability, I initiated a daily routine that ended with lights-out at exactly 9pm. Then, after a half-hour delay, I slipped through a hole in the roof of the barn to a nearby tree, where I waited until sure it was safe to descend to the ground outside.

      By the moon’s early rising, I constructed a hide of fresh branches, woven loosely to create a tiny lean-to structure with an entry that was carefully screened by vines. After completion, I sprinkled leaves around the site to mask my activities. From the hide, I could surveil the barn, a mere twenty paces away. This task complete, I set off on my nightly patrol.

     Beginning with the three main paths—which intersect to form a triangular clearing from Granny’s house at the front, to the barn on the East by the access road, and old cabin to the West, I worked my way out to survey the overgrown trails that led to the bayou beyond.

      Surprised to discover activity so soon, I risked the penlight to get a better look. The closest gotcha trap had been sprung, and judging from the mess on the trail, two intruders were involved—one entangled—the other scrambling to assist with the extrication. Obviously out of their element, this pair should have stayed home. Working quickly, I removed the trap and all evidence of the struggle that had ensued.
      Following their tracks, the incursion appeared to have gone from bad to worse. While beating a hasty retreat, both intruders had stumbled into a second trap rigged near the West fence, which separates Granny’s property from Harold’s. One intruder had stumbled over the trip line and fallen headlong into a lacerating coil of thorns that whipped up to slash and encircle their target. The victim or accomplice, or possibly both, had had to cut their way out of this nasty predicament. Bloody scraps of fabric told a story of surprise and panic. The remaining traps—situated near the access road to the East—remained untouched.

     Following the fence work, which allowed me to examine every approach from the flanks and rear by daylight, I moved on to clear an overgrown thicket out back of the old cabin. Sawing the downed limbs into usable lengths, I labored to split the leftovers into firewood, which I stacked and tarped along the path that led back to the house.

     I used a foot-pedal sharpening stone and an assortment of rusty metal files—salvaged from the barn—to maintain the edge of the axe and hatchet. After two days of hacking, splitting, stacking, and hauling, I scavenged the limb of a white oak, downed by an ancient storm, to shape a new handle for the axe. I oiled it well and added a leather wrist strap to keep it from slipping away in the heat of the day when my palms grew too sweaty to maintain a grasp on the haft.

     Under cover of the bush-hogging and cleanup activities, I took the opportunity to lay in a series of toe brakes along the trails out to the bayou. A homegrown trail marker, each brake consisted of a three-foot length of carefully selected tree branch—about three inches in diameter—half-buried in the middle of the trail at intervals of fifteen running paces. A straight brake signified a straight section; a curved brake mirrored the angle of the trail ahead—regardless of the direction of passage. With practice, toe brakes were adequate for staying on track—and for supporting the pace count—in near-total darkness. And, in mimicking overgrown tree roots, they formed a tripping hazard for anyone unfamiliar with their location and purpose.

      Day nine. After lights out, I set about rigging a new series of gotcha traps, this time in a tight perimeter around the barn. This task took most of the night.
      Troubled by premonitions and unable to sleep, sunrise found me at the river upstream from the bayou, using bamboo strips and vines to construct minnow traps with inverted funnels attached to each end. By mid-morning, the traps were in place, and by late afternoon I’d caught and scavenged all that was needed for round-two and my next stage of defense.
      By nightfall, nearing exhaustion but with much yet to do, I stopped at Granny’s back porch to pick up a cold meal of leftovers, conveniently preserved in layers of plastic wrap, before returning to the barn.
      After lights out, I made my way to the hide to make final adjustments to an especially insidious device—something specially designed to impress my expected visitors. Then I slipped into the brush to wait. With no time to sleep, I stood watch. This time, my focus was on the hide I’d been inhabiting for most of the last week.

      Missions like these generally follow a series of predictable events. Round-one begins with a deliberate incursion—a recon effort—followed by a go-no-go decision to either back-off or intensify.
      In this case, round-one had been a cake walk; some nasty scratches had been administered but no permanent damage had been inflicted. The double tap of identical gotcha traps made it obvious—even to amateur thugs—that a purposeful defense had been prepared—as a warning. After hitting the traps, any rational individual would have cut their losses and backed off. Only a fool—or a psychopath with huge gambling debts—would choose to proceed. The fact that they’d arrived now—could mean one of two things—either someone’s creditors were growing impatient, or they’d guessed my true intent and purpose. Either way, they’d have to get through me to obtain what they were really after.
      By round-two, all sense of pretense would be gone, and learnin’ and tryin’ would become doin’ and dyin’. For that type of work, an appropriate level of expertise would surely be needed. I could hold my own against the average gunslinger, but if it came to round-two out here, I wasn’t sure how I’d fare against a locally-grown specialist—especially an experienced woodsman.
      A third round is rare, and generally relegated to family feuds and infantry platoons. Anything beyond round-three is reserved for Hollywood movies and crazy folks—such as myself.

     After midnight, the landscape begins to cool. Crickets cease their disjointed rehearsals and bullfrogs return to their burrows to rest. A growing stillness creeps through the trees and spreads across the bayou beyond as the earth slowly slips into slumber. Unexpectedly, so do I.

     The ring of smoke that marks the launch is clearly visible from my perch in the sky. The missile is eerily beautiful in its heat-seeking fury. The telltale plume forms a perfect ring around the deadly shaft that is arcing to intercept our path through the heavens. I stamp the foot switch and yell “STRELA STRELA STRELA” into my helmet mic. The pilots react with practiced precision and we drop like a rock from the vain and vaporous blue.
     “Talk to me chief!” the commander orders over the wire that binds our lives together.
     “Single Strela, eight o-clock low, coming FAST!”
     The overhead rotors thunder deep-throated reluctance as we slide out of our dive and roll to our starboard shoulder in a desperate attempt to evade the determined pursuer. My side of the bird rolls up to the sky and I find myself staring directly into the sun
that blasts through my visor—and blinds me—with visions of you!

     Never was a woman so beautiful, yet beneath your gentle facade lies tempered Celtic steel. So warm, so lovely and exciting, yet shy and demurring when the eyes of the world are upon you. I remember the inimitable grace of your every movement in our last moments together. Tiny freckles dust the bridge of your nose. Your perfume is exquisite as you rise to your toes and whisper in my ear; “You know that every time I dream, I always dream of you!” And then you laugh and you’re in my arms again and all thoughts of tomorrow fade away.

     The unmistakable snap of a gotcha trap brought me awake with a start. A series of muffled curses trailed away and faded into the darkness. Dyin’ time. Barely more than an indistinct shape among moonlit contours and shadows, a large figure was coming down the trail—fast.
      Surprised that my inborn radar had failed, I had little time to react. At the last moment, and relying more on reflex than practice, I tossed acorns at the hide I’d been so patiently monitoring. Then I hunkered down and held my breath.
      After a heart-stopping delay, a flashlight snapped on and the intruder attacked with a vengeance, firing three fast rounds into the concealed hiding place. Then, wielding the flashlight as a club, he broke open the leaf-covered structure and ducked inside to press his murderous advantage. Too late, he discovered the cottonmouths suspended inside.
      The first strike elicited a high-pitched howl, followed by a flailing of arms as he vainly attempted to shield his face. Stumbling backward and thrashing wildly, the flashlight and pistol proved useless as ongoing strikes produced a staccato series of shrieks. In a fleeting revelation, the flashlight froze a moment of terror in his eyes and illuminated the ribbons of blood streaming down his cheeks.
      In desperation, he dropped the pistol and raced back the way he’d come, the yellow beam of the flashlight predicting his passage through the brush.

     The darkness and stillness soon restored, I reflected on the speed and ferocity of the attack, hoping to feel something beyond an ongoing disgust and mistrust of all things human—but alas—nothing. Indifference reigned within a cloak as dark and as tight as the night surrounding me.

     Accustomed to being alone, I hadn’t yet come to grips with my increasing alienation and lack of sensitivity, and as my condition seemed to be deteriorating with the accelerating events of each day’s passing, there was a good chance I wouldn’t make it out of here—the heartland of America—alive. The moment passed slowly. If indifference has an advantage, it must surely be expedience, as I wasted little time with feeling about anything. I retrieved the discarded pistol and retraced my steps to the barn.

     From a practicality perspective, radical dissociation is not without merit. It often produces an unparalleled clarity that’s accompanied by heightened cognitive functioning. And, as a coping mechanism, it enables the body to tolerate high levels of stress, and to react calmly to highly emotional circumstances. In addition to not wasting time on emoting over anything, I rarely second-guessed my decisions—which, for better or worse, was also expedient. In a combat setting, a healthy dose of dissociation can easily mean the difference between life and death.

     Day ten. Supper over and the tiny table cleared, it was time to relax and talk. The local rhythm section struck up their nightly favorites to backdrop our conversation from the woods and bayou beyond.

     “Heard a lot of racket this morning. Sounded like someone doin’ some shootin’,” Granny began.
     “Yea, I heard it too. I checked the trails; didn’t see a thing,” I lied. Then, changing the subject; “I sure could use some bleach!”
     “Bleach? What on earth for?”
     “For my hands. I need to soak ‘em. An old trick my father taught me.” I held them out for inspection. Bleach quickly turns bleeding ulcers into thick pads of leather that can painlessly withstand the friction and splinters of bush-hoggin’ and timber work.
     “How ‘bout gloves? I’ve got some around here somewhere.”
     “No thanks, I’d just lose ‘em in the brush.”

     Often silent and lost in thought, Granny would eventually open up and speak her mind. As the sun slipped past the horizon, I listened quietly, content to relax with a full stomach and a weary frame, welcoming the authenticity of her wisdom, the clarity of her introspections, and the whispers of the nearby woods.
     “Do you believe in dreams?”
     “Yes’m.”
     “I had a dream about JJ. He was smilin’ and foolin’ around, just like always; so real it woke me right up.”
     “And?”
Somewhere in the distance, the distinctive call of a barred owl wafted by; who cooks for you—who cooks for you-all? Heaven was listening.
     “And then the next day, there you were, standin’ out by the road in front of the church. At first, I thought it was JJ, but I knew that couldn’t be—.”
     “Is that why—?”
     “Yea; it don’t matter if this place gets cleaned up or not—I won’t be around to see it.”

     Our small talk continued. At length her remarks rounded the bend and headed toward home. She asked about the war, curious about her grandson’s experience. She wanted to know what it was like to die so far from home for a country that didn’t give a hot damn about its history or its heritage or its soldiers.
      Like a tree felled by lightning in the midst of a sudden summer storm, JJ’s passing marked the end of his father’s branch of the family line, and initiated a descent that I knew too well.
      I had the answers she needed but I dared not plow too close to the truth—for those rows could only sow harvests of sorrow.

     Rather than answer her questions directly, I recited a narrative I’d been contemplating for thousands of miles. Over the next hour or so, I chronicled our rapid transition from boys to men—from the sudden shocks of childhood’s end—to the bittersweet assurances of our maturing realizations.

     I began by describing our journey to Asia. The island of Okinawa, so tiny from cruising altitude that you’d swear it was too small to land an airliner, but land we did, to the amazement of all aboard the plane.

     During the layover, we sneaked off to explore. Among other revelations, we peeked inside a huge warehouse to discover it packed with tiny Nissan automobiles, not much larger than the clown cars in the Shriners parade, or those King Midgets from just after World War 2. We didn’t know it at the time, but those little cars were destined for the States to help with the emerging gasoline crisis. After years of apparent stability, the world was changing fast—much faster than we realized.

     I spoke of the sudden blast of heat that kicked us in the chest and stole our breath away as we exited the plane at Tan Son Nhut airbase near Saigon. And how we watched that silver bird skedaddle back to the world—as we called it—as fast as it could go—so as not to be caught on the ground with us. I remembered an overwhelming aroma of desperation and decay, mixed with diesel exhaust and a lingering hint of life less valuable. I recounted the knowing of it—the certainty that nothing would ever be the same again.

     I described tiny people on two-stroke motorcycles and three-wheeled Lambretta taxis scurrying to and fro on overcrowded streets; how they didn’t use toilets and had barely heard of toilet paper, or soap that floats, and how they didn’t need chairs because they don’t sit like we do.
      There were no blondes or blue eyes, or fair skin, and the children would run up and touch me to verify that I wasn’t a hungry ghost or a wandering soul in search of justice or retribution.
      They ate anything that moved, and lots of stuff that didn’t. In some areas, dogs were a delicacy. Cats, if you saw ‘em at all, were really skinny, and they had tigers that could turn you into a jungle version of fast food that was rarely fast enough.
      Tree spiders the size of your hand could drop from the foliage and bite you on the neck, and your buddies had to beat ‘em off with a rifle butt. You had to be careful though, ‘cause your buddies could beat the crap out of you and then swear it was to save you from a big damn spider that somehow got away.

      Granny’s eyes grew large and she stifled a smirk, realizing that I was doing my best to serve up the truth with heapin’ helpins’ of side-salad.

      “So, how’d ya do it?”
      “Do what?”
      “You know—wipe your backside—”
      “Oh, yea. Well, in the field, we used paperback books—mostly Louis L’Amour western novels, ‘cause he sure wrote a bunch of ‘em—in non-smearin’ ink—and they fit right in your pocket!”
      “Non-smearin’ ink?”
      “Yea, ‘cause you don’t wanna leave a racin’ stripe on your butt!”
      “Haw, haw!” In the ten days I’d known her, that was the closest Granny had come to laughing out loud.
      “There was a catch though—.”
      “A catch?”
      “Yea. You had to be careful to always wipe from the front—!”
      “What?”
      “The front—the front of the book—and never from the back—of the book!”
      “Why?”
      “Because nobody cares how a story begins, but everybody wants to know how it ends! Shoot, if a Smiley gets ahold of a book with the endin’ missin’, well, he’d be shootin’ you!”
      “A Smiley?”
      “Yea—a Smiley—.”
      “What’s a Smiley?”
      “That’s another story—.”
      “Tell me.”
      “A Smiley—is a walking ghost.”
      “A ghost? Why do you call ’em—Smiley?”
      “’Cause that’s somethin’ they never do—again.”
      “What, smile?
      “—or laugh—dance—sing—or play, and most of ‘em never even pray—again.”
      “Never?”
      Silence.
      “Why?”
      “Too much—too long—and then suddenly, you’re gone. It’s like flipping a switch or blowing a fuse. One minute you’re filled with anticipation, anguish, fear, rage—and every shade of sorrow. And then—it just breaks. You break—in the blink of an eye.”

      For me, it was triggered by the death of a dog; a mal-formed flea-bitten puppy named Dinky Dow. God how I loved that mutt! His death marked the beginning of the end for me—and the last time I felt anything. A dog; Just a dumb-ass mangy little dog.
     But that’s how it goes. From that moment on everything was different. The world was different. I was different. Life—and everything in it, and death too—became simple. Act and react. Study, analyze, decide—and endure. Or die. That’s it. No more anguishing over decisions or whether you’ll return from tomorrow’s mission. From then on, nothing mattered. Why? Because you’re already dead, and dead people don’t feel much of nuthin’.

      “What happened to ‘em?”
      “Most of ‘em never made it home.”

      Then I moved on to relate the fear that dogged our first days in-country. Our first response was to turn to superstition, only to discover that charms and spells had no power at all. Like everything else, they failed us when we needed ‘em most and we just started falling—into alcohol, drugs, rage—and more.

      Finally, at the edge of despair, our catechism kicked in. We remembered that everything is up to Him. It’s not the enemy that determines our fate, and it’s not ourselves or our skills or our training, though each of those factors played a role. No indeed; it’s all up to Him that sent us. If He wants us to survive, then we surely shall. If He wants to take us home, then we shall surely go. To sum it all up, we simply learned to say, I’ll see you in the morning!
      Upon reaching that conclusion, we at last became soldiers and we acquitted ourselves well, for as long as the Lord allowed. And then we went home, sometimes crashing to the jungle below, or—like me—to hoggin’ brush in the backwoods of LA!
      We’d learned how to live—if you can call it that; we’d learned how to fight, and finally—we’d learned how to die. Some of us—like JJ—even went so far as to die well. And after a month or so, we became old-joes too, just like the rest of ‘em.

      There was plenty I didn’t tell her, of course. Not only about the war, but also about myself. I’d learned more than expected from reading all those dog-eared paperback books. Sitting there in the bush, reading and wiping, and hoping not to get shot or snake bit with my pants down, I came to realize that I had much in common with the pioneers of the old West.

      Getting hammered by the war wasn’t such a bad deal as it had transformed me into a survivor, not only in the skies above the jungle, but also on the battlefields back home. Portrayed by hippies and anti-war activists as baby killers, psychos, drug addicts and war mongers—many returnees wandered the streets and alleyways as zombies—until they faded away, went to prison, or dropped dead of an overdose. This blowback from an increasingly cancerous counter-culture climate was initially devastating for patriots like myself, and a sign of malignancy in the heart of the nation itself.

      The irony of the situation couldn’t be starker; in the same year I returned home, the Supreme Court passed Roe v. Wade and America began slaughtering babies—American babies—by the millions. So much for human rights.
      An unlikely pairing, the undead—like myself—and the unborn—who had no chance at all, were condemned as inconvenient and irredeemable. Such is the face of evil incarnate.

      Abandoned by popular society, humiliated by the news media, and doomed to endure a contemptuous form of prejudice, those surviving the war would not land a decent job for almost a decade, and then only by hiding their military service and combat background. At twenty years of age—a decade was forever—and forever was long enough to lose everything.

      The good news, if you could call it that, was equally ironic. In some respects, Hanoi Jane, the hipsters and the peaceniks were right—war is truly transformative. It can change schoolboys into corpses. It can also change human-rights activists into the unwitting pawns of a devilish contest. The vacuum left by America’s departure from Southeast Asia led to the slaughter of more than two million freedom-loving Asians—killed by a series of communist takeovers and horrific genocides that led to the ascendance of China. So much for peace.

      Stripped of youthful insecurities, educated ignorance, insincere pretensions and every shade of weakness, the animal within me had been unchained, trained, and indoctrinated by fire. Before combat, I’d been a mere child. Within a few short months—and hundreds of missions later—I’d faced the truth of evil, the devastation of misguided power, the arrogance of ignorance, and the unpublished certainties of death and beyond.

      The price of survival—and my transformation—was huge but unavoidable. I’d become dispassionate but acutely reactive, devoid of traditional goals and expectations—and completely disconnected from all I’d known before. I’d become a man without substance, without merit, and without a future—and thus, uniquely equipped to handle all that must surely lay ahead. As stories go, mine was taking an uncommon trajectory.

      Regarding God, I didn’t mention that most of us blamed Him for our circumstance and the carnage of the battlefield. Only as a last resort and with no other choice did we resign ourselves to His keeping and disposition, and for those He would choose to spare, that delay of the inevitable proved to be the beginning of wisdom—for me—and an unexpected, though often clumsy—path to service.

      Day 10 refused to end until long after midnight. Sleep found me at last, as did the dreams that I couldn’t avoid.

      I elbow my way to the door of the plane that has brought us home. Tears of joy and expectation run down our faces as that first glimpse is finally realized. We’re home, and we’re alive!
      I toss my bag over the side and I chart my course down the stairs. One step and then the next but my progress is painfully slow. Reunions are already taking place at the foot of the stairs. “I’m coming!” I shout over the din of the families and lovers that are crying and hugging and clasping hands and hearts before me. “I’m here!”
      One step and then another and the way is suddenly open before me and then two at a time I’m bounding down the remaining tiers. At last I reach the concrete and I’m running as fast as I’m able in a desperate bid to hold you again. The wavering heat of the flight line and the pungent odors of jet fuel and turbine exhaust assail my senses as I race across the vast cement slab that serves only to keep us apart. Others around me are enacting a similar course—as the wounds of many separations are suddenly healed—that we might be whole and happy once more.
      My cap flies off but I don’t look back. You’re yelling and pointing to something behind me, but I’m oblivious to everything but you. We draw closer at last, and then you’re leaping through the air and my arms are wide to receive you. Music begins to play—a heavenly orchestra—and I feel like dancing!

     By the eleventh day, we were like family; me, the grandson she’d never see again; she, the grandmother I‘d never known before.
      Granny’s first husband had been an airborne trooper in WW2. A decorated member of America’s greatest generation, he didn’t make it home from his war.

      Her second husband was also gone—now pushin’ up daisies in the cemetery on the bluff overlooking the creek. A single majestic oak with ancient widespread arms stands guard over the lonely weed-choked site, moaning softly with the wind in Winter as it grieves above the headstones below. I already knew that Granny had a heart problem and would soon be joining the congregation—and the choir—on the hill. Then, her land—and everything else—would go to Harold Dempseythat Harold Dempsey—the ex-Sheriff-deacon, a wholly undeserving and wretched character with plenty of blood on his hands.

      “I’d rather leave it to his daughter, Cindy, ‘cause she’s always been an angel with the old folks hereabouts.”
      “Can’t you just will it over to her?”
      “Not that easy. Harold’s got hisself some debts that he can’t repay, and some mighty nasty associates. He’s been deep into gamblin’ and God knows what all of his life. I’m surprised he hasn’t knocked me off already, just to get his hands on what little he thinks I’ve got. God only knows what’d happen if I bypassed him and left it to her.”
      This I knew, and more. Harold had been associated with the Southern Mafia since the early fifties. Heavily involved in gambling, drugs, racketeering, and more, his specialty had been—and remained—cold-blooded murder.

“How come she’s never at church?”
“Cindy?”
“Yea—.”
“She’s got a job down at the Piggly-Wiggly store.”
“How come you don’t show up at church?”
“Shoot, that’s my only day off. I spend it fishin’ in the bayou!”
“You gotta be careful down there—!”

      “What if sumthin’ happened to Harold—would she inherit?”
      “Yep, she’s next in line.”
      “I see. Sounds like sumthin’ the Lord’ll have to handle.”
      Granny studied me closely. “I reckon so—.”

      That evening, just after chow, Granny began to dig a bit deeper. The light from the kitchen streamed through the window to illuminate our discussion on the back porch as the evening drew on and the mosquitos gathered en masse.
      “Tell me about your sign, Would Work for Food.
      “Well—”, I began. “I got the idea from a story about an immigrant who arrived in America a hundred years ago, and how he used his wits to get by.”
      “And?” Granny prompted.
      “He sold bananas from a pushcart in New York City.”
      I paused before continuing. Granny may have heard this story before. If so, then I was about to reveal too much, but with time running out and little to lose, I continued.
      “It was the way he sold them bananas that made him special.” I explained. “There were other banana carts in the neighborhood, and they all had a sign that read: One for thirteen, Two for twenty-five. In those days, sales were in cents, and bananas weren’t cheap!”
      A quizzical frown clouded her face. “And?” Granny prompted again.
      “Well, bein’ the new guy on the block, he needed to stand out.”
      “So, what’d he do?”
      “Well, he thought on it hard, for his babies were hungry you know, and then he scribbled his sign to read: One for thirteen, Two for twenty-seven.
      “What? I don’t get it!”
      “Well, he dressed shabby, shuffled like an old man, and from the start he had everyone thinkin’ he was an illiterate bumpkin that didn’t know a thing about arithmetic, or sales, or anything else.”
      “I still don’t get it!” Granny raised her voice for the first time today.
      “He outsold all of the other vendors combined, and in time, he went on to make a million dollars!”
      “What? How the hell’d he do that?” Granny was climbing to her feet now, thoroughly confused.
      “Well—there’s somethin’ I left out—”
      “What?”
      “He came over from Poland.”
      “What’s that got to do with it?”
      “He was a Jew—a Jewish rabbi!
      “So what?”
      “Some say he had a direct line to the throne room in heaven!”
      “Ah, hogwash!”
      “What? You talk to God, don’t you?”
      “So?”
      “You don’t believe he talks back?”
      “Well—.”
      “Anyway, he somehow figured out their weak spot!”
      “Who’s weak spot?”
      “Them New Yorkers buyin’ bananas.”
      “Yea?”
      “Yea—their pride!” I explained. “A customer would call him over and buy a bunch of bananas for thirteen cents—.”
      “Yea?”
      “Then they’d wait until he walked off, and then they’d call him back again, to buy another bunch of bananas for thirteen cents.”
      “So?” Granny shrugged.
      “He made a penny more for two bunches than anybody else! And in those days a penny was a lot of money!”
      “That don’t make no sense at all! Who’d pay extra when they could save a penny with them other vendors?” Granny demanded.

      “People that’re poor, that’s who! Poor and pained and desperately wanting to feel better—even if it’s at the expense of someone else—anyone else—that’s who! And for a penny they could do it! They could punish that poor man by taking advantage of his apparent stupidity—and make themselves feel better in the process!” I continued. “Life is like that. It starts out rough and over time, people grow callous, and before they know it, they’re takin’ advantage of those they should be helpin’. Worst of all, they blame their actions on somebody else!”
      “Ah, phooey, that’s just crazy talk!”
      “And instead of trustin’ the Lord to supply their needs, they get to helpin’ themselves, and they get involved in stuff they surely shouldn’t be doing!”
      “So, what’s that got to do with your sign?”
      “Same deal—!”
“What?”
      “Yea, some smarty pants is bound to ask about the spellin’, and that gives me the opening I need to hit ‘em with a curve ball.”
      “Curve ball?”
      “Yea, the double entender curve ball—!”
      “What?” Granny could hardly believe her ears.
      “Yes’m, and sometimes it works!”
      Granny stared at me for the longest time, gears grinding, trying hard to understand. And then she hobbled into the house, muttering softly, her cane scraping across the uneven planks of the ancient wooden deck. Mosquitos continued to press their advantage. The screen door banged closed, followed by the light abruptly clicking off in the kitchen. Bathed in sudden darkness, the eleventh day faded into history.

      Contact is sudden and unexpected. An enormous explosion is echoed by shrapnel that sings its way through fuel bladders, thin magnesium skin and erupting jets of thick black smoke. Something has happened but I’m at the bottom of a warm liquid pool and I’m floating slowly to the surface to investigate. I open my eyes and I’m lying on my back on the deck of the bird, staring up through a roiling haze.
      I close my eyes and you’re back again. I whisk you off your feet and I’m holding you in the air, the way a father presents a newborn child to the heavens. I feel your warmth through my hands and your weight upon my shoulders. What words can there be that are sufficient to tell you how much I love you in this moment?
      With an effort, I force my eyes to open. My visor is gone. The wind is blowing and shadows are flashing by and we are spinning and falling and spinning and falling and reality has slowed to separate frames that appear as disjointed slices of reality. Warning signals beep and buzz and merge together in a distant and foreign chorus. A small calm voice is speaking from a place that is very far away; “mayday, mayday—niner-niner-seven—four souls on board—mayday, mayday—!” The gunner is kneeling over me and I wonder at the fear in his eyes. He’s strapping me to the deck with D-rings and a rappel rope. I try to talk but I’m only blowing bubbles, like that machine at the County Fair, last summer—the one near the Ferris Wheel with all the colored lights.
      I close my eyes and we’re dancing! I in my uniform and you an angel in white—with glistening eyes and a retiring smile. You’re in my arms and we’re spinning across polished marble in shiny patent leather shoes to the lilting crescendos of the orchestra. Crystal chandeliers hang from an ornate ceiling. God is in His heaven and all is right with the world this night. Each measured lift above the floor is flawless as I raise you to Him who has ordained and arranged our score together. We are surrounded by soldiers and our families and the moon on high smiles down to inspire us all. We spin and we glide by as one, as the music plays on—.

      Day twelve. Scouting the woods with a bamboo fishing pole over my shoulder and a hatchet shoved in my belt, I affected a nonchalant attitude for the benefit of any watchers—and thus prepared—I casually strolled out toward the swamp and the river beyond.

      Footprints were everywhere—the same smooth-soled brogans I’d noticed on previous occasions; reasonably new judging by the sharpness of the edge of the heels, and fresh—from this morning or last night. Probably size ten, but there was something odd about the shape of the prints—they were decidedly obvious in their formation—and they never strayed into the brush. I had a nagging suspicion that I could be looking at an over-sole, ingeniously fashioned to mask the true length and breadth of the foot.

      Cutting through the brush to the Western trail, I was surprised to discover waffle prints out back of the old cabin. Small—size six? Hmm. After a half-hour, I found myself at the edge of the bayou.
      Overcrowded pines, rising from the mire like stranded steeples, choked out the sun and painted shifting patterns across the verdant ferns of the underbrush.
      Chorusing bullfrogs relayed their secrets across the undulating surface of the thick mirrored blackness.
      Freed by the odd errant breeze, leaves of various hues drifted down from the patchwork overhead canopy, some landing in the bushes, others becoming boats on the bog—tiny vessels that never made it to shore. Beneath it all, slick-sided mud trails and gator holes embroidered the periphery of the never-ending pool. Staking out a vantage point, I squatted among the ferns to scan the surface of the water.

      “They’re unpredictable!”
      Surprised, I spun to my feet to discover an attractive woman standing behind me, almost within arm’s reach.
      “Whoa cowboy!” Stepping back abruptly, her brown eyes flashed panic. Long dark hair, early thirties, clothed in a short-sleeved smock and high-top waffle-soled hiking boots, her unadorned simplicity was immediately disarming. Most noticeable were her eyes; large, engaging and without guile—deep innocent pools—like those of a happy little puppy dog.
      “They’re not the only ones!”
      “What?”
      “Unpredictable—how’d you get so close without me hearin’ you?” I instinctively palmed the Kabar and shoved the hatchet back into my belt.
      Hands clasped shyly, she evaded my gaze and studied the ground. “Shoot, I’ve been roaming these woods all my life—.”
      “You must be Cynthia—Cindy.”
      When she looked up, the warmth of her smile was unmistakable. No makeup, lipstick, or pretense—just stone-cold natural beauty.
      “And you must be Walker—Granny told me about you.”
      “So, where’s the best fishing?”
      “Oh, you don’t want to be fishin’ here. That’s why I came over—I saw you headed this way—to warn you.”
      “Warn me about what?”
      “Bad things happen here. Really bad things! Shoot, just the other night—wait—I know you! You—you’re—him!”
      “Him?”
“Tall, blonde, scary blue eyes—scars—sorry! Yea, you gotta be him!”
      “Him?”
      Her eyes lit up as she continued. “You’re—the ghost! My cousin wrote about you, just before—well, you know. He said if anybody could make it back, it‘d be you!”
      Silence.
      “Oh God, it was you! You’re the one they’re whisperin’ about! Does Granny know—who you are?”
      No answer.
      “Don’t worry. I won’t say anything.” Her eyes returned to the ground between us.

      A brazen shaft of sunlight broke through the canopy to highlight her face, affording a chance to study her closely. An urge to protect and preserve welled up within me for a fleeting moment—and then quickly faded—an echo of a bygone era and nothing more.
      “And for God’s sakes, you’d better not say anything!”
      Her face snapped up, eyes shifting quickly to scan the woods, followed by a furtive glance over her shoulder. The unsettling change in her demeanor was startling.
      And then she was gone, as quickly and as silently as she’d arrived. Surprised for the second time by her stealth and speed, I was relieved to avoid the questions her presence had raised.

      Granny was right. Cindy was indeed special. Her presence conveyed an uncommon tenderness—that could quickly put people at ease. I could imagine her delivering home-cooked meals to the old folks of the community, and assisting with their daily chores. I could imagine her standing vigil at their bedsides—trying hard not to show her fear of the inevitable—as one-by-one they slipped away to join the congregation on the hill above the creek.

      I was surprised that she’d deduced my identity, especially since her only clues had to come from a note that was scribbled more than a year ago. Had it been that long already?
      We might very well be opposites—her and I—somehow maintaining the balance of the universe. She, developing personal relationships and loving those that needed it most, while I, looking in from the outside, could barely remember such wonders—and would never know either again.
      Whereas Cindy would always fear evil and its handmaiden—death—I’d become immune to both. I knew death for what it really was. I knew its true purpose, and could recognize its many forms and faces. I could sense its approach and I knew when it would strike.
      For most people, death is an unexpected but certain visitor—a growling lion, scattering the fearful in every direction, separating them into easy targets to be picked off and slaughtered at leisure.
      Far from a permanent consequence, I knew death to be a liar. Of greater import was the truth of life—and how it should be conducted.

      The waterscape grew dark and still again; a stranded forest in a murky stew, limbs draped in willowy veils of Spanish moss, teased intermittently by the breath of an unseen breeze.
Alone with my thoughts, I resisted an urge to follow—her.

      That night, on midnight patrol along the Eastern trail, I spotted two intruders; one standing guard with a penlight and a sawed-off shotgun, the other on his knees with a good-sized stone, working diligently to pound the anchor stake of some sort of trap. After camouflaging their handiwork, they moved slowly North toward the bayou, brandishing a tree branch to sweep away any trip wires that might be rigged in their direction of travel.

      After they were out of range, I moved up cautiously to inspect the rig. The steel teeth were large, the spring strong—a bear trap; obviously new—and wickedly sharp. Carefully, I released the trigger and eased the jaws to their closed position. With a sharp stick, I pried up the stake and tucked the unit under my arm.

      Moving quickly, I cut through the brush to the access road on the Eastern boundary. Travelling North at a steady lope, I reached the edge of the swamp and cut back into the brush, gaining several minutes on the interlopers. Using the penlight to help gain my bearings, I paced off the distance from the nearest toe brake to the largest gator den in the area.

      After a moment to catch my breath, I nervously rigged a sloppy version of the gotcha trap, complete with a patch of trampled brush, a half-dozen footprints, and several splintered limbs. Then, reversing course for a count of two paces, I selected a likely location and staked out the bear trap—right in the middle of the trail. Working quickly to complete the task and conceal the trap, I backtracked another twenty paces and hastily pulled myself into a tree.

      After about a minute, a faint swishing in the nearby waterfollowed by a sudden stillness in the croaking sectionriveted my attention. The swamp was holding its breath, and I wasn’t the only creature standing watch on the ambush site.
      I pitied the team moving into the kill zone. Hired to do what Harold was too old to handle for himself, they’d suffer the fate they’d planned for me—and more. In the words of my first-sergeant father; the best way to meet a gator is to climb in the swamp and introduce yourself.

      I tossed an acorn at the gotcha trap and waited. After a short interlude, the chirping and croaking returned and the swamp came back to life. It stopped again a few moments later, signaling the imminent approach of the intruders.
      Resisting a wicked urge to witness the show, I slipped out of the tree and headed for the barn, glad to be clear of the swamp. I was almost back when the screaming began—a single primordial shriek followed by a rapid succession of shotgun blasts; then a decreasing series of wretched cries as the night—and round-three—were shredded to silence. I shivered at the thought of the carnage taking place in the woods. Accustomed to preying on the aged, the timid, and the decent, these guys had reaped a just reward. I slept well that night for the first time in many days

      Day 13. Ten o’clock in the morning. Hot, humid and still with forecasts of more of the same. A shiny red pickup truck, windows down, eased slowly into the weed strewn drive and crunched through the gravel to halt near the front porch of Granny’s house. Harold stepped out stiffly and slammed the door. A gaudy wristwatch on his left forearm flashed gold in the blazing sunlight. Using the new handrail to pull his ancient bulk up the steps, he peered through the screen door and yelled.
      “Granny?”
      No answer.
      “Granny?” Louder this time, to counter the whine of a noisy exhaust fan mounted in the front window.
      “I hear ya, Harold—what d’ya want?” The screen door pushed open and Granny appeared in a long apron, one hand mopping her face with a kerchief.
      “Looks like ya got them stairs fixed—finally.
      “What d’ya want, Harold?”
      “Just checkin’ in; makin’ shore yore alright, with that boy still here and all—.”
      “Aw, Harold, you’re embarrassing yourself. Ain’t nobody worked harder—in years—and all you wanna do is run ‘im off!” The screen slammed shut as Granny returned to her chores in the house, leaving Harold alone on the porch.
      “Aw, come on Granny. Ain’t like that. Just lookin’ out for yore welfare. Hell, no tellin’ what that boy’s really up to—ain’t safe—that’s all.” Then, yelling over the fan. “Shouldn’t he be movin’ on?”
      Granny returned to the screen and looked him in the eye. “And what was all that shootin’ out by the bayou.”
      “Probably just some knuckleheads takin’ potshots at gators.”
      I listened from the bushes, mere feet from where Harold was standing. Round-three had me hoping the showdown was over, but Harold had a reputation to uphold and debts to pay. This visit made it clear that he hadn’t given up—on getting rid of me.

      The brush hoggin’ and repairs nearly finished, I had little excuse for hanging around. Though I had yet to complete the mission, time was running out fast.

      After supper, I spent the evening studying weather forecasts in ancient copies of the Old Farmer’s Almanac—looking for a clue, any clue—as to how much time I had left. My desk was a stack of musty upturned bushel baskets positioned beneath the lightbulb hanging from a rafter in the barn.
      Careful to remain punctual, I clicked off the light at 9pm and slipped out. I made my way to the bayou, there to contemplate my dwindling options and probable timeline. Another attack was imminent, and this time the adversary would  be cloaked in shadow. I thought about the prospect of losing my life—again. Thinking back on the challenges I’d faced over the years, I settled on a fitting course of action.

      After scrounging the materials needed, I set to work—with a vengeance. Two hours later, the task finished, I hid the tools—except for a short-handled folding shovel—and returned along the Western trail. Moving methodically, I was halfway back when my radar went off. I wasn’t alone. Freezing in place, I closed my eyes and waited. The human brain has fearsome abilities—especially when it comes to survival. On a hunch, I toed the trail with my boot, and there it was—a brake—directly beneath my feet.

      “Don’t move!” A deep voice came from directly in front of me, about ten yards out. A flashlight clicked on, rising from the trail to find my face.
      “Open your eyes!”
      “Why?”
      “So you can see what’s comin’!”
      “You ain’t gonna shoot.”
      “What makes you so sure?”
      “’Cause ya would’a done it already. And besides, you don’t wanna miss out—!”
      “On what?”
      “On the loot.”
      “What loot?”
      “Why do you think I’m here, asshole?”
      “Who you callin’ asshole?”
      I heard the ominous click as he slipped off the safety of his automatic pistol.
      “A half-million dollars—!”
      The flashlight wavered slightly; offering a slim chance that was better than none. I launched myself off the trail and rolled into the brush, immediately bouncing up and stumbling back toward the bayou, counting each stride as I ran.
      Gunshots rang out. Bullets whizzed by, snapping nearby limbs with loud cracks. Eyes wide open now, my night vision intact, I held a distinct advantage over my assailant—at least for the present—as he moved to close the gap from behind.
      Tangled branches tore at my clothing and a thorny vine raked my forehead as I pushed through the untamed scrub in near total darkness.
      Five strides out, I quit the brush and returned to the trail in two desperate leaps. Back on track, I resumed the count: fifteen, thirty, forty-five, toeing for the brake that should be right about there—and crash—I tripped over the damn thing and fell headlong into the scrub. Crap! Thankfully, I’d managed to hang on to the shovel; Lord knows I would need it now!

      With no time to spare I bounced to my feet and resumed the race. Fifty, sixty, sixty-two—or was it sixty-one, then bearing to the left edge for two strides before resuming my flight atop the brakes. Seventy strides—hopefully—and then I halted abruptly—stopping dead, my back to the assailant as he arrived near breathless a few seconds later. He stumbled up warily and stopped, his flashlight scanning the surroundings for trip wires and traps.
      “Turn around!”
      “It’s here!”
      “What?”
      I pointed at the ground in front of me. “It’s buried here!” I rammed the tip of the shovel into the ground as if to dig.
      “Freeze!” After a moment’s hesitation, he began to move up behind me. One step, two. “Stand up slow—drop the shovel and put your hands behind your back!”

      I haltingly complied, extending my arms as instructed. Three, four, five, his footsteps continued to advance.
      “It’s about three feet down—.”
Six, seven, eight. Suddenly, I heard snapping branches as he hit the pit. Crashing forward, his right leg went into the hole, forcing him into an awkward position on his other knee. Losing control of the flashlight, it rolled into the brush to cast an eerie footlight on the scene.

      In the same instant, his pistol went off with a thunderous roar, triggering a hair-raising scream that echoed through the trees. I turned in time to witness him dropping the pistol to grab his left side just above the waist—as blood spurted and quickly puddled the ground. He’d shot himself! Moaning in misery and suddenly desperate, he switched back to the leg in the hole. Yanking hard with both hands, he attempted to extricate the trapped limb. This action earned a shriek that pierced the darkness for a hundred yards in every direction.
      “I wouldn’t do that if I were you!”
      “Why the hell not?” He moaned after catching his breath.
      “’Cause that’s a genuine punji pit!
      Small in circumference, the pitfall was two-feet deep. Sharpened bamboo stakes, angled downward in the hole, were framed to prevent extrication; the harder you pull, the deeper they rip through your flesh.
      “And there’s a snake in there too—!”
      “Son of a—!”
      “Naw, just kiddin’. There ain’t no snake!”
      “Help me, for God’s sake!” His plea was the cry of a child, forced to respond by the certainty of this mortal moment. Where have you been young friend, hiding within? Behind jealousy sowed in pride. Watered for years with insecure tears. From eye to hand and hand to heart, to justify childish fears. There to grow, fast to fruit, and now the moment of truth! Or, shall we judge your music? Composed at length by force and brute strength; hearken now the refrain! Sorrow unending, a merciless rending—and thus, you’ve composed—your fate!
      “Naw, He ain’t gonna help ya—and neither am I.”
      In reply, he snatched up the pistol and pointed it at my chest.
      “I wouldn’t do that either—.”
      “Why not?”
      “’Cause you only got four rounds left—and you’re gonna need ‘em all!”
      “For what?”
      “I’m gonna need this—.” Slowly, I reached down and fished through the brush to retrieve the flashlight from where it had fallen. Using it to illuminate the trail ahead, I continued. “Because the biggest damn gator you ever saw is gonna be comin’ down that path in about five minutes—!”
      “What?”
      “Yep, I been feedin’ him every night for the last two weeks—right about where you’re sittin’!”
      “You’re kidding!”
      “Yep—!”
      “What?”
      “Not about the gator—about the snake!”
      “What?”
      “Yep, there really is a snake in that hole; a baby cottonmouth!”
      “Christ!”
      “Say hello for me when you see Him!”
      “Who—the gator?”
      Shining the light in his eyes, I answered. “Naw! Christ, who else? You’ll be meetin’ Him real soon!” With that, I clicked off the light and disappeared in the opposite direction.

      Returning to the barn, my radar went off again—eleven o-clock, ten paces out—between me and my destination. I stopped, closed my eyes and opened my mind.
      “Are you here to kill me?”
      “Not sure I could. And technically speakin’—ghosts are already dead—!”
      “Hello Cindy.”
      “Hello Walker, or whatever your name is.”
      “Fancy meetin’ you here.”
      “You’re a real piece of work!”
      Silence.
      “Was JJ—you know—like you?
      Silence.
      “You talk about God, but you’re killin’ people.”
      “Iron sharpens iron—.”
      “What does that mean?”
      “All I did was turn the tables. So technically speakin’, he killed himself!”
      “Ripped apart by a gator?”
      “They prefer snakes and such, but if asshole is all you’ve got—.”
      “What? Where did you learn—never mind. Are you—?”
      “What?”
      “Hopeless?
      A rapid series of gunshots echoed in the distance, followed by a blood-curdling scream that trailed away slowly.
      “That’s gotta hurt!” I remarked.
      When I turned back, she was gone.

      Again, well—the numbness remained. A minor flutter—deep down—that quickly faded into the empty space where sorrow and every other emotion had been vanishing for a long time now. Born a soldier, raised a soldier, it was clear that I’d been created for a purpose. I had a job to do and little choice in its undertaking. Nothing more.

      Dies Dominica—two weeks in. Granny had said little in the last few days but on the fourteenth evening she appeared unexpectedly in the barn and pushed a hundred-dollar bill into my hand. She closed my fingers around it.

      “You know my hearin’ ain’t that good.”
      Silence.
      “But I heard that racket last night!”
      Silence.
      “I don’t know who the hell you really are, but I know you’re here for a purpose.”
      I stared at the money. God is good!
      “So, tell me; why’re you really here, son?” Granny asked.
      “How’d ya know?”
      “I told you about the dream—and then there’s that shoulder patch on your Army shirt—it’s the same one JJ had on his’n.”
      I said nothing.
      “And that double-entendre routine. He couldn’t spell entendre if his life depended on it, but he surely loved to sling ‘em around!”
      Silence.
      “And then there’s all that people goin’ bad under pressure crap—.”
      Silence.
      “Tell me—!”
      “Yes’m. I came to deliver a message.”
      “And?”
      “I promised to hug ya when I gave ya the message.”

      After a moment, Granny hobbled forward and I pulled her close for the embrace that I’d promised a friend. A promise made long ago, far away, and overdue. Trembling slightly, she smelled of Ivory soap, mothballs, and—death.
      “Yea, I knew JJ,” I began. “Helluva’ guy! He knew he wasn’t gonna make it home, and he made me promise I’d come to see you.”
      “How’d he know?”
      “That’s hard to explain, but like the Good Book says; it’s written in the stars—or in this case—the sunrise. Most of us knew when we’d seen our very last risin’ of the sun. A horrific moment, surely, but unimaginably beautiful in its finality. And hopefully, we’d have just enough time to say goodbye, or ask someone to do it for us.”

      “What happened?”
      “I was on the chuk-chuk bird when JJ’s chopper went down. Chuk-chuk’s the command-and-control chopper, overseein’ the operation. A rescue bird came in to pick ‘em up, but the LZ—that’s landing zone—turned hot—that means firefight, and JJ lagged behind to provide cover fire. He was killed during the extraction. The rest of ‘em wouldn’t have made it out if it weren’t for him.” I dared not relate the details.
      I felt her sobs against my shoulder.
      “I promised him that I’d give you a hug—and a message.”
      Granny pushed back and looked me in the eye. “What’d he say?”
      “He said, meemaw—I love you very much—and I’ll see you in the mornin’—!
      Granny melted with each word and I held her tight to keep her from collapsing. Her tears came fast as closure at last brought an end to questions unanswered—and her last reason for holding on. She sobbed quietly as the sun disappeared beneath the horizon and darkness at last grew full.
      “So that’s why you told me all that—banana man crap—?”
      “That was JJ’s doin’—he had stories that just wouldn’t quit!”
      “But what’s it mean?
      “It means he understood—what life can make people do.”

      At length her tears subsided. I relaxed my embrace and she pulled gently away. She wiped her cheeks with the back of a gnarled hand and continued.
      “What’s it like—being one of them—?”
      “Them?”
      “Smiley—.”
      “You really wanna know?”
      “Tell me.”
      Truth to tell, I inhaled sharply. “It’s like being alone in a place where nothing can touch you—and time stands still forever.”
      “I think I know—what that’s like—.” She leaned on her cane and studied me closely, a growing dose of pity in her ancient gaze. “Yore nuts, boy!”
      “It’s been said.”
      She made as if to leave and then turned back to face me. “Did he say anything else—?”
      “Like—?”
      Granny looked me in the eye. “Are you here—for justice?”
      Silence.
      “Tell me—please,” she tapped her cane on the ground. “I ain’t got long—!” The fire in her eyes blazed briefly and then faded in sudden realization.

      “The secrets and lies—of his family; the murder of his father—he couldn’t get past it. And he made me promise—.”
      She pulled away quickly. “So, you know?” Her gaze wilted in shame.
      Suddenly tired, she hobbled out of the barn and vanished into the darkness beneath strengthening clouds and the warm earthy scent of an approaching summer storm.

      Yea, I knew—the whole story. Harold was Granny’s stepson—from her second marriage. He was near grown when his father married Granny. Both were bad apples—father and son alike—bad to the core.
      Granny had another son too—James, from her first husband—the soldier that never made it home. James—fifteen years younger than Harold—was as different from his stepbrother as night is from day.
      Harold dropped out of school and went to work to forestall a rapid slide into poverty—a slide hastened by his aged father’s uncontrollable drinking. It was months before Granny discovered that Harold’s job was dealing drugs. He brought home plenty of cash—cash that initially bought groceries but then went on to pay the mortgage and more—much more.
      In time, James went off to state college and came back with a Sociology degree. Harold stayed home to grease the wheels all the way to the state capitol, eventually emerging as the Sheriff.
      As county-mounty, he had plenty of problems to handle, starting with his father’s drunk-driving, assault and abuse charges, and then he expanded outward and upward to ingratiate himself with underworld heavies from Montgomery to Biloxi.
      Where Harold had a daughter—Cindy, James had a son—JJ. Shortly after JJ was born, a falling out between the stepbrothers resulted in death on a stormy midsummer night very much like the one amassing around us now.
      As the local badge-toter, Harold was above reproach and had never faced a judge—at least not an earthly judge. JJ eventually figured it out, and as he grew older, it was all Granny could do to keep him from exacting revenge. A trumped-up charge of drug possession—by uncle Harold—had resulted in a stark choice for JJ; either jail or Vietnam.

     I also knew about the Degas—a19th century painting of five dancing girls—ballerinas—that had been “liberated” in WWII and somehow made its way to the states. It was rumored to be here, somewhere on Granny’s property.
JJ had spent his youth searching the place from top to bottom, but finding nothing, he’d written off the story as wishful thinking. I too doubted the story; even if it were here, such a masterpiece could never survive the humidity—and bloodthirsty kin—for more than thirty years.

      The tornado hit us by surprise, roaring like a freight-train in the middle of the night. The barn came apart with audible shrieks and swirled away in large splintering chunks, alternately highlighted and shadowed by jagged bolts of lightning as they searched the ground for targets.

      I rolled out of the hide and clawed my way to the house and Granny. After a clumsy search through rubble in near darkness, I found her on the floor of her bedroom closet, mouthing prayers and staring up at the gale where the roof had been mere moments before. Sheets of rain slanted in hard. Windblown debris clouded my view. A series of blinding flashes made it difficult to catch more than meager glimpses of the destruction.

      When she saw me, she raised a finger to indicate something above. I ducked through what was left of the doorway to get a better look. Along with the roof, I could see that the sheetrock had been torn away from the inner wall. And there it was, in the light of an extended flash—the missing masterpiece—Five Dancing Women, carefully wrapped in plastic sheeting; the same stuff Granny used to wrap leftovers. It had been here all the time, carefully sandwiched between the wooden studs of Granny’s closet.

      I knelt down and hugged Granny to my chest. Although it seemed to continue forever, the twister departed almost as fast as it had arrived, leaving slashing torrents of wind-driven rain in its wake.

      Granny went limp and I thought she’d fainted. But then I realized the truth: she was gone—gone with the whirlwind.

      Sadly, I remained—unmoved. Aside from the merest tweak of sorrow, the empty place where emotion once reigned remained void. “I’ll see you in the morning, Granny,“ I whispered. “I’ll surely miss youand your gravy too!” I pushed the hair out of her face and strained between flashes to make out the features of the stranger that had treated me with kindness.

      Peace smoothed the lines and eased the years of her countenance, as each flash sliced off a memory that would remain with me until the end—which should be any minute now.

      Scooping her up, I waded through the wreckage and carried her down the steps and out to the road, cradled in my arms like a child. I turned toward town and began a long march to the church. Wind and rain slashed each footstep, yet their combined threats served only to harden my resolve. Soaked to the skin, my strength and determination seemed to mount with each stride as I continued.

      A bolt of lightning erupted nearby, searing my eyeballs and standing my hair on end. Thump, thump! Incoming! Nowhere to hide! Strike! The sharp scent of ozone filled the air; biting, metallic, distinct in each step. The wind alive and surging; angry, then sad.

      Flash. Moan. Boom! Boom! Cannonballs echoed through mountainous thunderclouds, rolling wildly across an inky sky, unstoppable, unseen, unavoidable. Raindrops; angry, slashing. Enraged, the heavens demand their due—justice.

      Time stands still as I plod on. Over the bridge, past shadowy cotton fields bordered by lodgepole pine, thorny raspberry, and a vague aroma of confederate jasmine, followed by the rusted hulks of abandoned vehicles ghosting silently amid windswept tangles of brush and rubble. Flash. Sizzle. Granny grows heavy but I have far to go. Each flash of lightning, crisp and sizzling, unleashes the shards of a shattered mirror, forever reflecting the defining moments of youth.

      Boom. Rumble. Boom. Three-thousand feet, walking the skids before dawn; desperate to witness the very first rays of the sun.
      Flash. Boom. Goodbye! Lucas snatched from the ground on his monkey-strap, dangling beneath the bird, drawing machine-gun fire like bait on a sky hook.
      Flash. Strike. Goodbye! JJ sliding into home plate, the back of his head blown away. Too late. Too late. Flash. Goodbye old friend! I’ll see you in the morning—!
      Flash. Strike. Rumble. Goodbye Dinky Dow! More than an ending—the end of me! Goodbye old friend! Goodbye—! Will I see you in the morning—?
      Flash. Boom. Goodbye! Granny—JJ’s Granny—on the measured mile—headed home. Goodbye—!

      Shaking uncontrollably, I’m suddenly overcome and unable to continue. My strength fails completely and I collapse to my knees, Granny still clutched in my arms—a rag doll now, yet I can’t put her down.

      Flash. A wooden post stands at the edge of the road; a mailbox affixed to the top. Flash. Luminous letters and red reflectors.

      Moan. Sizzle. Flash. Boom. Dempsey! Gazing down the long crushed-gravel drive between flashes of light and rolling echoes of thunder; a vehicle, headlights on and growing larger, dances in my direction. Coming fast!

      Flash. Sizzle. A pickup truck! Transfixed by the sight and unable to flee, I‘m instantly relieved and grateful. My strength is gone, my servitude is over and I’m ready to go—home—if there is a home for me.

      Flash. Moan. Tempted to turn away, I force myself to watch it unfold—just like the first time—and the next, and the next. God, I’m tired! Darkness. One more flash and it’ll all be over. Sleep—at last. I strengthen my grip on Granny, clutching her tight to my chest.

      An extended sizzle. A blinding flash. A tremendous boom followed by a resounding crash. Ears ringing, face burning, eyes overwhelmed, a billowing cloud of dust and smoke rolls over me, pungent with the scent of burning wood—and flesh.

      I wait for the impact but it fails to arrive. Crap! The smoke clears quickly, banished by the wind and rain. The truck stands motionless, barely ten paces out, headlights aglow but now strangely askew, pinned to the ground by an enormous uprooted oak, engine smoking, the driver dead at the wheel, crushed mid-flight. A gruesome sight. From cradle to casket indeed—pinned like an insect in a glass case. War is hell—surely—but nothing compares to the wrath and the might of the Lord! For a fleeting moment I’m relieved, then dismayed by the realization that I yet remain, a puppet indeed, from the gallows reprieved; my availability—for service—retained.

      My disappointment is short lived; a sharp tang of ozone is followed by a blinding flash and a horrendous boom. And then my world went black.

      It is in these wordless whirling moments that our movements tell a story of devotion. His duty is to lead, to precede in all things, and to stand for the truths and the freedoms that God has bestowed.
      Hers is the light that guides his devotion and exemplifies the love and understanding that bring honor to their union, even in the face of constant resistance and overwhelming uncertainty. Life for women of such courage is difficult beyond expectation—in this life, yet rewarded beyond measure in the halls of forever. We pirouette and we advance together in perfect synchronicity as history is etched by the steps of our passing.
      The gunner’s lips are moving but I hear nothing over the rumble of the wind that’s blowing through my mind. He shrugs his shoulders and tries to smile, though tears are coursing down his youthful cheeks. I do my best to smile back at him. In a twist of divine judgment, he will not survive the day, and I will not be conscious to say goodbye, or to thank him for saving my life. I am tired now and anxious to return to the dance, where the arms of my partner await my return. The smoke is growing thicker and the ground is rising to claim its bounty.
      “Tell her—!” I gasp, striving to be heard over the din. He yanks back his helmet and brings his ear to my lips. “Tell her!” My strength is gone, and it’s time to rest. I’m sinking beneath the surface again and drifting off to sleep. Your slender hand is grasping mine and we’re twirling across a shining floor that honors our youth and our life together. And you know that when I dream, I always dream of you!

      Two days later, I woke up in a hospital bed. Standing patiently in the doorway, Cindy noticed my revival and entered the room slowly, stopping at the foot of the bed. Simply attired and abidingly beautiful, her dark eyes are a trap for any man, and the only adornment she would ever need.
      “Do you know where you are?”
      “Is this heaven?”
      “The doctor says—.”
      “Crap!”
      “—you’re lucky to be alive.”
      Silence.
      “You were hit by lightning!”
      That explained the migraine headache, the strange taste in my mouth and the pain in every joint of my body.
      “Any mention of—?”
      “What?”
      “Blue ice?”
      “What?”
      “Never mind! I’m sorry about Granny—and your dad,” I lied.
      “Yea, me too.”
      Silence.
      “Strange—.”
      “What?”
      “They didn’t find any identification—on you. No driver’s license, no credit card, nothing—!” Her dark eyes examined me closely.
      Silence.
      “Almost like you don’t exist.”
      “Did you find—it?”
      “Find what? Oh, yes! Guess I should thank you—!”
      “Thank God.”
      “Why?”
      “He sent the storm, and—.”
      “And what?”
      Silence.
      She stared at me for a long moment before continuing. “How’d you know—never mind—!”
      Slowly, she turned and moved toward the window. Outside, the world was green, humid, and hot.
      “While you were out—.”
      “Yea?”
      “You kept saying, tell her—.”
      Groan.
      “Were you talking about Granny?”
      Silence.
      “If you don’t mind my asking—I’d like to know.”
      “Someone I knew—before.”
      “Before the war?”
      “Someone who thought they could count on me.”
      “Can I count on you?”
      “She—they—they’re all dead!”
      “So, what about me?”
      “What do you mean?”
      “Can I count on you?”
      “For what?”
      “You wouldn’t believe who’s out there; and they’re asking lots of questions.”
      “Where’s the bike?”
      Turning away from the window she approached my beside. “It’s in the old cabin.”
      “You gotta get me out of here!”
      “Why? Never mind! But you didn’t answer my question.”
      “What question?”
      “Can I count on you?”
      “For what?”
      “If I ever need a ghost?”
      “Depends.”
      “On what?”
      “How fast can you get me out of here?”

      Two hours later I was on the bike and roaring for the Florida border. Sore from head to toe, I felt as if I’d been roasted over a spit and then hit by a train—over and over for at least a week. Still a bit disoriented, I could barely walk, but riding was no problem—so far.
      The doctor warned me to expect blackouts, and he advised me to stay in bed for at least a week, but since he didn’t specify which state to sleep in, I’d try for the beaches of Panama City—one tank away—if I could make it that far.

      The fever set in sooner than normal and I zoned out fast. Happy to be in the wind again, my memories of the last two weeks evaporated quickly. Questions arose that would remain unanswered. What would she—Cindy—do with the painting? Could it be that she’s more like her father than I’d imagined? God only knows. I had the strangest feeling that I’d been here before, and I’d surely return if commanded—as myself, or perhaps, by then—as someone else—to deal with evil in the heartland. Barring an unexpected encounter with blue ice, of course. No matter now. I was long gone, far away by any measure, and ready for the next dance—with the woman of my dreams.

—————- Fin —————-

Authors note: All of the stories in the Walker Christian End-of-Time series are based on actual events. They won’t be released in chronological order because there isn’t enough time. We’re much closer to the end than you think!
     If you enjoyed this story and would like to support the Walker Christian End-of-Time saga, please make a PayPal contribution to rjwarden@pacbell.net. Thank you!