He was a large man, broad and tall like John Wayne in his best days, with hands like catcher's mitts, which could gently cradle a newborn calf or barn-born kitten even as they could wield an axe or a chainsaw when cleaning a fenceline on a winter's afternoon.
And he was dying.
It was a slow death, this death, the same one which killed his father decades before, a growing mass in his liver that the doctor back in the small prairie town he had spent most of his life in except for the brief time he did his duty in the jungles of Viet Nam, hunting Charlie, had reluctantly told him one long, cold November afternoon.
Rather than submit to radiation to add maybe 1? 10? 5? more years to his life, he sold the family farm to a developer, there being no son or daughter to continue a tradition of nearly 100 years, his wife dead of breast cancer, his son killed while doing his duty in some Middle Eastern shithole.
With the money, despite the pain, he traveled.
First he went to visit the new monument, the one his father's generation made blood sacrifice to build – their welcome home, their parades a dim memory of his childhood.
He paid his respects at Arlington to his son, standing by the small, mass-produced white stone, one of many sticking out of the green grass like so many orderly teeth, a giant in a battered feed cap, boots, and overalls, silent as the wind blew through the leaves in the grand old trees. He had stood the same way on his wife's grave years before in the prairie wind, raw earth beneath his feet, at a loss for words, battered feed cap and rumpled polyester Sunday suit and tie from Montgomery Ward's, the marks where pins had held neatly held his shirt, new bought for the occasion, in the plastic packaging, still visible.
He stood the same way at the Wall his generation had earned, no parades, only derision from a bunch of people he'd never met, long-hairs with guitars who laughingly urinated on his duffle bag at the San Francisco airport when he'd paused in the long, limping walk to his flight home in the Midwest, jeering, "Babykiller!" while demanding his mustering out pay – now it was all just names on a black stone wall, small offerings to the dead blown against the foot of it by the echoes of Charlie's laughter.
The pain grew, deep in his guts, but he could handle it the same way he'd handled Charlie's bullet to his hip for the last four decades.
In the New York airport on his way back, where, he didn't know as the farm that he'd worked most of his life was now the site of strip malls and condos, and a million dollars in his bank account, Charlie came back.
It wasn't the Charlie he remembered, not small, furtive men and girls armed with a pistol, a grenade, a knife, moving through the ground and the underbrush like ghosts in a deadly game of cat and mouse, but something… else.
But it was still Charlie, long head and insectile arms aside.
He knew what to do about Charlie; same as he knew what to do about the mass on his liver that was killing him.
He'd hid beneath the dead and the dying, a quiet old man with a limp and hands like catcher's mitts, memories of Napalm at dawn, of the jungle, of new turned earth, of, "I'm sorry Mr. Reinkmayer, the biopsy tells me it's terminal, but we could still try radiation…"
And for the first time in years, as he wandered the deserted dawn streets of New York, cradling in his catcher's mitt hands a newly loaded rifle he'd found spilled out of a shattered pawnshop window, he grinned, adjusting his battered feed cap.
Charlie was Charlie regardless of shape or size, or even species.
And hunting Charlie was one helluva cleaner death than pointless radiation or a mass on one's liver.