RAMBO: COMING HOME / FULL CIRCLE
'You have family back home?'
'Father, maybe, I dunno.'
'Aren't you curious to see how things might have changed back home'
'Gotta have a reason for that.'
CHAPTER ONE – COMING HOME
John Rambo was long accustomed to walking but was not opposed to hitchhiking. Truckers were about the only ones who'd pick up a long-haired stranger these days. They were lonely spending days on the road and soon tired of a steady diet of cigarettes and country-western on the radio. They wanted real, live conversation and they'd chew the ears off anyone they decided to pick up. John figured he looked less like a long-haired ex-soldier now, more like just an ordinary, middle-aged man. A lot of men wore their hair long now; it wasn't like during the 60s. And Bowie wasn't like Hope, Washington, where civilian life had taken such a nasty turn. It was his hometown.
He got lucky this time and caught a ride on I-10 with a Valero tanker, all the way from Tucson Airport to downtown Bowie. The ranch was seven miles north on a winding, blacktopped farm road that went back into the hills. The trucker clapped him on the back, wishing him luck as he climbed from the cab and set out for home. The smooth surface of the blacktop and the rubber-soled boots made walking smooth and easy, if hot. It was mid-spring and the Arizona sun already permeated the asphalt. In just a few weeks it would melt his soles. A freshening breeze made his jacket a comfort; before long he'd be stripped to the skin and bronzed from the sun. The steamy jungle he had called home for so many years was far removed from this desert town, in a climate dry enough to wick away the moisture before a man could break a sweat.
A local, driving a pickup, stopped and asked if he wanted a ride. He shook his head, thanked the man and waved him on. He needed this walk to prepare himself for the first visit home in over forty years. The old green, welded gates stood open; the dented, paint-chipped mailbox was still there, marking the end of a long, weary journey, all the way from the Salween River on the Thai-Myanmar border. The duffel bag, although slung over his uninjured right shoulder, still pulled painfully against the left one, where he had taken a round only six weeks ago - a thru&thru, as they called it in 'Nam. It was an unwanted souvenir from a skirmish in Burma's long civil war, and he hoped it was the last battle he'd ever have to fight; the last battle wound he'd ever have to bear.
His father's name was still on the mailbox in faded white letters. He stared at it a long time. What a strange word - home. Something I haven't known since I left for the service. In Vietnam, home was Baker Team. I had eleven rowdy brothers; our father was Colonel Samuel Trautman. The U.S. Army was our mother, in a way, because she sweated and groaned and screamed at each of us as she spit us out as her soldiers. She made us men. Now here I am, back in the States, back in the World. Hell, the last time I even visited anyone was 1982. Came to see DelMar, only to find out he was dead. All my brothers are dead; Colonel died back in '03 – I think it was January. So this is my last chance for family - for home. I guess Colonel would call this coming full circle again. How many full circles have I completed, anyway? How many circles constitute a life?
The ranch looked very much as it did the last time he saw it. The pastures were well-kept, the fences straight and neat. The dry air carried scents of mown grass, hay and sage; of horses and cattle; fresh country scents once so familiar to him and now pleasantly strange after living in Thailand for so long. Here and there wafted the sweet smell of honeysuckle. It was pleasantly quiet except for the occasional vehicle passing by.
After so many years, I'd forgotten how high that mountain range is behind the house and how far the house is from the road. Is Dad still alive? Christ, he must be pushing 90 by now. Mom's been gone nearly 40 years. I never wrote Dad that I was coming home. Actually, I haven't written anyone since I got deployed to 'Nam. How many years ago was that, anyway? Maybe Dad thinks I'm dead. Maybe he even hopes I am. I gotta be honest, we were never that close. He was a cold bastard.
God, I miss Colonel. He recruited me into the Special Forces. Hell, I was a draftee. Special Forces don't take draftees. Guess they saw something in me they could use. So Colonel trained me. He was tough as nails - hard on me; on all of us. I've survived only because of what he taught me. I don't know if I came out of the womb a warrior, like they used to say, but that's what I've been my whole life. Old habits are hard to break. I'm so fucking tired of war but I've never been able to get it out of my blood for long. I tried. Goddamn, how I tried. Always got embroiled in somebody else's war. I got too damned tired to care; fuck the world; I got so burned out. Somebody gets in over their heads, what do they do? They come get me. And, like a fool, I went. Well – that's all finished.
So here I am. Can I live in peace now? Finally? Should I? Do I have the right? Haven't I finally earned it? What else is there for me, anyway? How long can I last? Hell, I'm pushing 61. Everything hurts.
John turned and looked back toward the blacktop highway. He looked ahead to the ranch house, nearly a half mile away. It was symbolic. Left behind was war. Ahead was the hope for peace. Sarah Miller, the missionary woman he rescued in Burma – although they were calling it Myanmar now - had planted a seed: You must still care about something! Aren't you curious to see how things might have changed back home? And he had told her he had to have a reason to go back. He had given it a lot of thought after their final farewell, once he got her and Michael Burnett safely on the plane back to the USA. He'd given her back the little wooden cross he'd worn tied to his wrist during the rescue, just as he'd given Co's little green Buddha to the Afghani boy. He'd burned the moth-eaten remains of his old uniform. Earlier, while still in prison, he'd thrown his medals and war decorations down the toilet. He'd wanted no keepsakes; no reminders of any of it.
The Burma skirmish – only two survivors out of the six he took in, and that wasn't even counting the mercenaries. He wondered if they'd learned anything. He doubted it. You can't tell Jesus Freaks anything. Although Michael did get him a set of ears, even if he didn't keep 'em. Maybe at least he knows now what I was talkin' about. 'You bringin' in any weapons?' I asked him. 'Of course not!' he'd snapped. 'You're not changin' anything,' I told him. He didn't listen, and now they're all dead but him and Sarah. You can't change what is. Tried to tell Sarah that as I wrapped her cut foot. Fightin's what changes things, not words. It's what is.
Sarah was right about one thing, though. He'd found a reason to go back. Boat was blown all to hell, anyway. That S.A.S. (1) bastard was right, too; he was tired of looking at the ass end of a snake.
He was used up. His body ached with wounds of war; he knew he couldn't keep going. He'd have to find a different path to follow. He'd have to learn to adjust to a life where a hammer took the place of an AK-47, where a truck took the place of a tank. Hunting or fishing would be pastimes, not necessities. Survival would be a hell of a lot more comfortable, with a roof, three squares and a warm bed each night. War had been a way of life, one which he never questioned; one at which he excelled; the weapons he used like extensions of his own arms. Peace, because it was the unknown, would take all his courage. There had been times when he had lived in peace – in a Buddhist monastery, on a Thai riverboat. But nothing like he hoped was here. Home.
The long gravel driveway was coarse and uneven; he had to slow his pace. Odd that the last half mile should be so uncomfortable after this journey of so many thousands. The house had been painted white over the light green he remembered, but otherwise was much the same, nestled among trees that shaded it against the Arizona sun.
Several outbuildings were new; a metal barn had replaced the old wooden structure where he used to play. There were two windmills instead of one, evidence that the irrigation system had been enlarged. The ranch looked a bit shabby upon closer examination, but nonetheless seemed to be doing well.
John Rambo's soliloquy ended all too soon as he arrived at the door. He dropped his duffel, opened the screen and knocked softly.
(1) The Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) is a special forces unit of the British Army.
CHAPTER TWO – EXPECTATIONS
'Yes! Coming! I'll be there in a minute!' A woman's voice with a raspy, irritable Irish-tinged accent came from within. The door squeaked open. The middle-aged woman at the door wiped her hands on her apron and stared coldly at the man on the other side of the screen. What was this, another drifter? Some bum looking for a handout? She looked him up and down. Dusty, hadn't shaved lately, some damned long-haired hippie; looked like he'd slept in his clothes… Her scowl was anything but inviting.
'Ma'am,' John acknowledged, respectfully. 'Can you tell me if Richard Rambo still lives here?'
'Aye, so he does. What would you be wanting with him?'
'I'm his son.'
The woman stared at him for a moment. 'You're telling me you're Johnny Rambo,' she said, skeptically.
She was unconvinced. 'Let's see some ID,' she demanded.
John dug into his jacket pocket and extracted his well-worn military identification card, the only ID he had. The woman peered at it at length. The photo was of a much younger, clean-cut man, fresh out of boot camp. This hulking, gray-haired stranger bore little resemblance to it. Still, it was a valid card with the right name; and as she peered at him, the eyes were his father's and no mistake.
Without another word, the woman grudgingly stepped aside and motioned him in. John picked up his duffel and entered, uncertainly. He ventured no further into the house until she shut the door and beckoned him into the kitchen through the old-fashioned oval-topped doorway. The house was familiar, yet not familiar. Too many things had been moved or changed over the years. It didn't look the same. It didn't smell the same, either. And his mother wasn't there, Mother, with the warmth of her German heritage tempering his father's cold indifference.
'So – what is it you're wanting?' she asked suspiciously.
'I came to see Dad. It's been a long time.'
The woman smirked. 'Well, now, ain't that nice. Well, I was just pouring me self a cup of coffee. Care for some?'
'Hope you like instant. Go ahead, you can sit,' she said impatiently. 'What are you doing back here after so long?'
'Visiting, but I was thinking of staying a while.'
John leaned the duffel against his chair and sat down, feeling about as at home as he would have in a stranger's house. There were new appliances and the kitchen had been redone in wallpaper and wainscoting. His grandmother's little German figurines were gone from above the cabinets. The narrow shelf that once held them now featured only a layer of dust. As a very small boy he had often looked up at them, wondering if they came alive at night and how they kept from falling off. Looking into the living room from the oval door, he could see no family portraits adorning the walls as his mother had once hung them; one wall for the Rambos and one for the Brandts; his parents' wedding picture and himself as an infant. He wondered idly where they all went.
The woman busied herself with making coffee, never glancing his way. 'As to that – your staying, that is - it's up to your father, to be sure,' she said, 'but you'll also have to get my approval. And I'm not sure if I'm up to cooking for another man around here. Got me hands full as 'tis. 'Course, I'll do it if he tells me to,' she added, ungraciously.
'Are you Dad's –'
'Wife? Not hardly. I'm his housekeeper. Name's Riona Sloane.' She laughed shortly, and he noticed she didn't offer to shake his hand. 'I think he hired me because of me name. Sloane means warrior in Gaelic. Fits, I guess, since he's a World War II vet and you were in 'Nam, eh? Been working for him over 30 years.'
Riona set two steaming cups on the table, cream and sugar. John waved away the latter. He lifted his cup and tasted; the coffee was rich and strong.
'Your dad's napping right now. Nothing will be disturbing him 'til he wakes,' she declared.
'How is Dad?' John asked.
'He's 86 years old next month. How do you think he is?' Riona snapped as she stirred three spoons of sugar in her coffee. 'Doctor says he might not make it to 87, but as mean as the old bastard is, I wouldn't be surprised if he outlived me.'
John sighed. 'I didn't know if he was alive or dead. We've never written. He probably doesn't even know I'm here.'
'Oh, I wouldn't be betting on that. He's followed your doings all along. I've seen the scrapbook he kept from when you went in the Army. He probably doesn't know you're here now, but he knows you're in the States. The papers were full of the Burma incident, said you'd left the country. He kept all the clippings.' Riona's accusing expression spoke volumes.
John stared at the wall, sipping his coffee. Coming home. Not exactly how he'd imagined it. Coming Home. Wasn't there a fucking movie by that name? Yeah – and nothing went right for those guys, either…
Riona interrupted his thoughts. 'Christ, I turn on the news for him and you're saving some do-gooders from their own stupidity for sure, but Mother of God, the way you went about it – ' She crossed herself. 'So there's a son he hasn't seen in decades. A son with stripes of shame.'
John's dark face became like stone.
'And ye needn't be eyein' me that way, me boy. I'm only repeatin' what your own father said about you,' Riona snapped. 'He lost his wife to cancer and his son to the Army, one right after t'other. It wasn't easy for him and hasn't been easy since. He was all alone here until I came, not long after. There's one hired hand left and between him and me, we have our hands full with this place.'
'I'm sure you've been compensated,' John remarked, sagely. He glanced out the big kitchen window. 'What does the ranch do now? I saw horses out front. Does Dad still raise sheep?' How he used to hate herding those damn sheep, slaughtering the spring lambs. How odd he should remember that when killing had become almost second nature.
'Nope – horses, but nowadays cattle's where the profit is. Forty acres in corn. Richard's an old man, can't do hardly nothing any more. Won't admit it, though - tough as nails, he is. He still runs the ranch – from a desk. He'd be out there now working alongside Frank if I allowed it.'
John wasn't really listening; as he gazed out the big window, his mind was replaying the past when he lived here as a young man. When life was football and homework and the girl down the road. Before he learned to be a soldier. Before he forgot how to be anything else. 'Lotta years,' he muttered aloud.
'Damn right about that, and you could have been here helping out, but no, you stayed overseas doing God-knows-what. 'Lotta years,' to be sure! And they haven't been good to you, have they, Johnny Rambo?' She cast an unsympathetic glance over the grim face on which battle scars were faded but still visible. 'Well, they haven't been kind to Richard, either. No word from you except bad news and too much work to be done. He's bitter. You won't be getting a hero's welcome, I can assure you.'
John didn't say what he was thinking. I've been used to that for quite some time.
Riona lit a cigarette. 'Your service in Vietnam,' she continued, 'Medal of Honor! He bragged about it all over town; said his boy was coming home a hero. But then he didn't hear from you and the first thing he sees is a newspaper telling him you were arrested and sent to prison for going crazy and shooting up an entire town. What was it, four or five men you killed?'
He met her eyes resolutely through a cloud of cigarette smoke. 'I didn't kill anyone. What I did, I paid for – with five years.'
Riona stubbed her cigarette and lit another. 'Trautman kept us informed, why I don't know. I heard he passed away a few years back.'
'Yeah.' John didn't like Colonel's name in this old woman's mouth. Tainted it somehow.
'So now you're planning to move back in like nothing happened, is that it?'
Infuriated, John got to his feet. 'If you're the housekeeper then tend to your business. I came to see my father. Anything between him and me is our business. I'd like to see him - now.'
'All right, if you insist,' Riona snapped. 'He won't like you waking him up.' She took one last hard drag on the cigarette and exhaled forcefully. 'Come with me.' She led the way into the old man's bedroom, thick with the odors of old age and medicines. Richard Rambo was not asleep, nor was he in bed. He was sitting in a rocker nearby, having heard almost the entire conversation in the kitchen. Old he might be, but his hearing was still sharp.
CHAPTER THREE - THE WELCOME
Riona entered the old man's bedroom first. John followed her. An awkward moment ensued during which the elder Rambo glanced coldly at his son and curtly dismissed Riona. At least the old man and I seem to be on the same page about her. Riona hesitated for a moment, but left the two of them alone. John closed the door after her, never taking his eyes off his father.
Richard Rambo, wizened and frail, leaned back in the rocker to meet the guarded eyes of his 60-year-old son. His brown skin looked like old, wrinkled wrapping paper. Large veins snaked down his hands, now dotted with age spots. He who had once been as muscular and vigorous as his son was now shrunken and feeble, but nothing about those eyes indicated weakness. They looked like hawk's eyes, sharp and ruthless, ready to pounce. He looked John son up and down with something akin to loathing.
'Home from the war, at last, are you? You built yourself quite a reputation over the years.'
A simple hello would have sufficed… 'It's been a long time since I've been home,' John replied simply.
The old man didn't issue an invitation for John to sit, although another chair stood by. 'What's this I hear? You planning on staying?'
'I've been away a long time. I'd like to think I can come home now.'
'Been over forty years since you joined the Army. Forty years! I look back and wonder what in hell happened to you. I was proud of you when you mustered out. Honorable discharge. War hero. Next thing I know, you –'
'I got drafted, Dad, and I didn't come here to dredge up the past.' If I did, old man, I could recount all the times you got tanked up and beat my mother, he was thinking.
'What did you come here for, then?'
John sighed in frustration. The old man wasn't as feeble as he'd been led to believe. 'I've earned the right to live in peace, and that's what I want. I'm not a soldier any more.'
'You never were a soldier! You were a goddamn killing machine that went berserk, that's all! Not any way to honor the uniform, now is it? In 1945 when I was mustered out, we were proud of our country and proud of what we'd done. We came home and held our heads high! We didn't go nuts and destroy a part of our own country, kill our own people!'
'You weren't treated like we were, either!' John shouted, patience worn thin.
'Goddamn it, John, change the record. I'm so goddamn tired of hearing you Vietnam veterans endlessly whining. Post Traumatic Syndrome! What a crock! Nothing wrong with you little boys except you weren't tough enough. All whining for your mothers.'
The old man's words called to mind the still-raw memories of landing at the airport after the long, painful flight from Saigon. The bus to Bragg was loaded with jaded, exhausted, disillusioned soldiers. As they passed the gate, the bus slowed to work its way past a mass of protesters, most holding signs, all screaming and yelling. Here they were, safe at home, and the guys on the bus had paid the price, doing only what they were told; following orders. These maggots had no clue what the soldiers had been through. Most of the men on that bus had healed wounds that would ache in cold weather, mental conditions they would carry the rest of their lives. These people with jobs, nothing to fear, three-hots-and-a-cot had nothing else to do but scream babykiller; rapist, and spit at them. The windows of the bus were streaked and slimy by the time it pulled out onto the freeway.
Mercifully, the Sergeant gunned it, probably the first time a fully loaded troop bus had ever laid rubber, while in his mind, John had his old M-16 in his hands; his entire body was jerking with the motion of the gun; watching the flower children writhing and screaming in a hail of bullets. Mentally, he had blown them all apart. Judging by their faces, the rest of the guys were thinking the same thing. Not a word had been spoken on the long ride to Bragg.
John, standing before his father at parade rest, clenched his hands behind his back. Fuck welcome home. He's just an old man. A tired, bitter old man. Nothing he says matters. You know what you are. What you had to do to survive. Keep calm. Don't break.
'So now you want to come home again, is that it?' The old man stared at him. His coarse, dark features, inherited from a Navajo father and an Italian mother, betrayed no trace of filial affection. 'Didja ever read Thomas Wolfe (2), John?'
'No, sir.' Who the fuck was Thomas Wolfe?
'He wrote a book - about how once you've left home, you can't ever go back.'
He's telling me it's time to move on. And if fighters fight, then drifters drift. Guess I'll be leaving, Dad. You've grown bitter; too disappointed in life. And in me. And that woman out there contributes to the problem, not the solution. Fuck this shit.
John turned toward the door, the old man's repugnance palpable against his back.
John hesitated, his hand on the doorknob. He answered his father with respect, his insides seething in turmoil. 'Yeah, Dad.'
'You can stay - for the time being,' the old man conceded. 'But not here. In the barn.' His voice grew harsher. 'You'll be paid. Room and board; I pay minimum wage. The hired man's name is Frank Rylander. Too much work around here, he can't keep up. Need someone to work the horses. Ranch is going to hell. All the hands but him left; nobody around here wants to do an honest day's work any more; damn kids don't do anything but race up and down the highway and cause trouble.'
Bet I can tell you why they left, Dad. John's face became a blank mask. He'd been wounded too many times to let this sick old man add another hurt. He'd always been able to handle physical pain; Colonel had trained Baker Team relentlessly and well. This pain, however, went too deep to even leave a scar. And damned if he'd give the old man the satisfaction of seeing just how much this hurt.
'Thank you, Sir,' he said briefly, as if speaking to his C.O., not his own father. Still facing the door, he made motions to leave.
'One more thing,' croaked the old man.
John glanced back at his father.
'No one's to know who you are. Riona'll keep her mouth shut or she's fired. You tell Frank, you're out of here. After forty years, not many people in town are going to recognize you, and I don't want it known that I hired a criminal.'
This was fucking insane.
'You're gettin' up in years,' the old man continued. 'Drifting's a tough way to live at your age. Either accept my terms or go back where you came from. Blow a few more gooks back to Buddha; I don't give a goddamn.'
He should have known. It's what is. He hadn't heeded his own advice. Or maybe he'd been away from home for so long he'd forgotten. It had always been like this with his father and now it was even worse. It's what is. Still, quivering with anger, John opened the door. Ignoring Riona standing in the hallway - no doubt eavesdropping - John picked up his duffel in the kitchen and left the house of his birth. Slamming the door behind him, he resolutely headed to the barn.
(2) Novel by Thomas Wolfe: You Can't Go Home Again.
CHAPTER FOUR – HOME
The big barn had a sterile, cold, silent quality about it. The old wood frame structure had seemed warmer and more inviting, somehow. It had been his favorite place to play as a boy. He wondered if it burned or was just replaced. Damned if he'd ask, any more than he'd ask where his mother's pictures or figurines were. John's footsteps echoed on the polished concrete floor. The hired man was nowhere in sight; probably digging irrigation ditches this time of year, if he remembered correctly. A large, flat-roofed, unpainted plywood enclosure occupied the corner by the big front door. A combine stood ready in the back for the fall corn harvest. The top half of the barn consisted of a frame loft half-filled with last year's baled hay. A couple of saddles rested on half-cut barrels; rope and tools hung neatly from hooks.
John examined everything, passing his hands over the smooth leather of the saddles, breathing in the perfume of saddle soap. The faint aroma of horse manure pleased him, recalling days of riding through the mountains. This place was more to his liking. He stepped inside the enclosure, which turned out to be a bunkroom. It looked to be handmade; clumsily caulked, not finished; a few cheesy girlie pictures hung directly from wall studs. A small air conditioner was plugged into one of two outlets. A table and a few chairs; a small TV, two double-decker bunks; a small sink and refrigerator, a shower unit and toilet behind a partition – it made for a cozy, if rough setup; certainly better living quarters than he'd known in quite a while. His back was going to like that bunk; he'd spent the last twenty years sleeping in a hammock. He decided to wait for the other man to show up before settling in; meanwhile he owed himself a rest. He climbed to the loft, and using the duffel as a pillow, settled down with a groan onto the soft, sweet hay. After the unsettling confrontation with his father, he needed to clear his mind, get some sleep. Later he would decide whether to stay or go. Either one would be a hard choice.
The rugged sound of a tractor engine woke him toward dusk. He'd slept longer and harder than he'd intended. He felt as groggy as the morning after he first tried Nep Moi, the infamous Vietnamese liquor. Rising on one elbow, peering through the loft door, John caught sight of a light-haired man in a misshapen straw hat hosing down the tractor and scraping the plow blades after a day of digging irrigation ditches. He rubbed his face and shook himself awake. Running his fingers through the gray-flecked mop of hair, he tied it down with the headband he usually wore to keep his hair back and wick away moisture. Need to start earning my keep, he thought ruefully. Descending the loft steps, he grabbed a trowel and joined the man in scraping away the accumulated Arizona mud.
CHAPTER FIVE – FRANK
Frank, doubled over on the opposite side, didn't see John until he stood up. 'Well, howdy!' he said, surprised. 'Much obliged!'
John, diligently scraping, nodded. Working the rice paddies with the monks, who used water buffalo, never required him to scrape a tractor but he remembered doing it with his father, and enjoying it. Were they ever once actually friends? Or did it just seem that way to a boy largely ignored by his father?
'What'd the old man do, hire me some help - finally?' said Frank, grinning as he sprayed the hose on the muddy equipment. 'Or are you here to replace me?'
John shook his head, smiling. He instantly liked this man, half his age, half his size, but wiry and strong; except for the hair, he looked like Schoolboy, the crack sniper who'd been so much help to him in Burma. Like Schoolboy, Frank had an open, easy face that belied his mocking wit and concealed a sharp natural intelligence. His dirty blonde hair was shorter on top, the back tied in a braided pony tail that hung to his belt. There was a twang in his voice from somewhere other than Arizona. His nose looked as if it had been broken several times.
'He wouldn't replace me with you anyway,' Frank joked. 'You're too fucking old.'
'I'm stronger than I look,' John retorted. He pointed toward the horizon. 'The sun will be down soon; best we get this done before dark.'
'Giving orders, are you? That's what I figured. Old man done hired me a Boss-man.'
'I'm not sure I'm staying.'
'What? Aw, come on, man, that old jerk-off's killing me! He done run off ever'body else. What's he paying you?'
'Room and board, minimum wage.'
'Hell, I wish he'd give me a raise like that!' Frank joked. 'Old man's tighter than Dick's hatband, and I don't mean drunk, neither. Just plain goddamn stingy.'
John found himself relaxing with the easy banter; it reminded him of the early days with Baker Team. The work went quickly. After a few more chores in and around the barn, Frank said, 'Did the old bat show you the living quarters?
'I looked around. I didn't exactly get a tour.'
'Hah! Sounds about right. When I hired on, Riona just told me to sleep in the barn. Me, I built what you see there. Scrounged a pretty good setup over time.'
'Looks good,' said John. 'What do you do for something to eat around here?' The trucker he'd hitched a ride with had shared his lunch; he'd had a coke, and one cup of coffee in the kitchen – that was all in the last twenty-four hours. His stomach was betraying him.
'Hungry, are ya? Plenty of cattle out back – grab you a knife and fork and go get you one, partner,' Frank teased. 'Naw, I'm kidding, didn't they tell you anything when you hired on? Riona brings meals to the barn. We don't get to eat in th' house.' Frank laughed. 'No matter, I got all the dining ambiance you'll ever need.' He pointed to the bunkhouse. 'Riona's – well – she's a real bitch if you ask me, but she's a pretty good cook. It's probably on the table by now. We're all done here,' he said, leaning a shovel against the wall. He clapped John on the back. 'Come on, partner.'
John looked forward to a warm meal outside of that cold, unfriendly house, in the company of a new friend. The aroma of fried chicken wafted on the night air. He looked forward to something different than fish and rice, which had been his staple diet for so many years. He could eat American again - cheeseburgers, greasy fries, fat pork chops, barbecue, hero sandwiches made with peppers, salami and eggs - get his arteries clogged as good as the next man. Hell, he might even take up smoking. Tonight, besides chicken, there was mashed-&-gravy, green beans cooked with bacon and apple pie. Frank had emergency snacks stacked on top of the fridge and plenty of cold beer within. It was starting to look like heaven. The men ate ravenously; a small TV filling the need for dinner conversation.
Afterward, while Frank washed the few dishes, John retrieved his duffel from the loft. He shook out the contents on his bunk, taking care to conceal the stenciled name on the side:
After folding the duffel, he placed his few things on the shelves behind the bunk. Frank watched him, picking at a battered guitar while he peppered John with questions.
'So - where you from, man?' He stuck his cigarette in the strings of the headstock and picked at playing Tom Dooley.
John shrugged. 'I've been moving around a lot,' was the enigmatic reply. Some of his personal effects and the little cash he had on hand went in the pillowcase and the big K-Bar style knife he'd made in Thailand and had been determined to keep, went beneath the mattress. The machete he'd fashioned in Burma had been thrown into the Salween River.
'Got a name?'
'That'll do for now.'
'Oh, mystery man, right? Cool. I can work with a mystery man. Except - you're not, like, on the lam, are you? Because the old man won't stand for that. I guess you'd know if you've spoken to him.'
'I've spoken to him.'
'Shouldn't say this about our boss, but that old man's a real bastard. He's run off every hand on this ranch. Nearly ran me off a few times, but I need the job, y'know what I mean? Got sick and tired of working gas stations. Dropped out of school in the ninth grade. Anyway, I like the work, if I don't have to see him. That's the only good thing, you never see him. Riona dishes out his orders along with dinner. He tells her what to tell me to do. Maybe not such a bad tradeoff. Speaking of tradeoffs, tomorrow night it's your turn with the dishes. Riona wants 'em back clean.'
John said nothing. He had stripped to his skivvies, keeping the black T-shirt on. Exposing the scarred flesh of his back and chest where the gooks sliced him would only bring more questions. As it was, he couldn't hide the thick scar on his right bicep nor the burn line on his face – nor the scarred hands that had killed over two hundred men. The kid was staring at him, probably wondering, but he didn't need any more questions right now.
But Frank was instead staring at John's massive frame. 'Hey, I take that back,' he said.
'Take what back?'
'About you being old. Goddamn, if I had a build like yours – you lift weights or something?'
'I was a blacksmith for a while.'
'What say we call it a night.'
'Suit yourself. You made up your mind about staying?'
'I'll think about it.'
'Y'don't say much, do you, man? You sure the law isn't looking for you?'
John turned to look at him. 'I just came here to work, Frank, and when I make enough, I'll leave. Fair enough?'
Frank shrugged. 'Fair enough, I reckon.' He slid the guitar pick between the strings and slid it under the bunk. 'We'll start in as soon as it's light enough to see, or seven AM, whichever comes first. There's a shitload of work to do tomorrow - a busted hayrack, chicken coop needs a new roof and the back fence is down somewhere – dunno where. All I know is we're missing a couple of bossies. You handy with a hammer?
…a hammer, taking the place of an AK-47… 'Yeah,' John said simply. He had decided to stay, for a while anyway. 'See you in the morning.'
Frank stubbed out his cigarette and laid the guitar aside. 'G'night, Boss-man.'
John crossed the room and flicked the lights off. In the darkness, he grinned.
CHAPTER SIX – WORK HEALS
Frank woke, groggy with sleep. He rubbed his face and stumbled out of bed. After blearily making instant coffee, he sat down to a cup and his first cigarette of the day. It was his usual fare this early; Riona didn't bring anything until break time at nine anyway. Lunch was two and dinner was seven and neither the routine nor the menu varied much. Damn place was run on a shoestring. What did the old bastard intend to do with all his money, live forever? He didn't have family that Frank knew of; probably the reason Riona hung around; figured she'd get in good with the old man and inherit. 'Bout as much chance as I have of that, he thought to himself. Hold on, something's different. Four bunks; one was his; rumpled and unmade. Two empty top bunks. Everything seemed the same except the tightly made bunk in the opposite corner. The shelves behind it held clothing, folded so precisely that they reminded Frank of department store displays. It slowly dawned on him that somebody else lived here now; that somebody was very neat; named John Something-or-Other, and John was already at work. This was confirmed by muted clangings of a hammer outside.
'Shit!' he exclaimed. Abandoning what was left of his coffee, he ran outside to the cow pen. At 6:30 the sun was making its way up the far side of the mountain tops; it was barely light enough to see. 'Hey,' Frank joked, 'talk about an early start! You trying to get my job, Boss-man?'
'Now why would I want to do that?' John scoffed. He tapped the hammer a few more times and shook the hayrack; it was solid and not likely to come apart again any time soon. 'Fence is next,' he said.
'Jesus, how long have you been up?'
'Hey, don't worry about trying to impress anybody. The old man don't care, long as it's done, and fuck what Riona thinks.'
John looked at him squarely. 'I'm not.'
'Not trying to impress anybody.'
'Well,' said Frank as he reluctantly started the tractor, 'I better impress the old bastard by finishing that irrigation system today. Catch you later, Boss-man.'
John watched Frank cup his hands around his cigarette, trying to light it against the wind and steer the tractor at the same time. Looking around, he saw plenty of work to do; just what he needed to take his mind off things. He made quick work of several small tasks in and around the barn. After a quick coffee break, he strapped on a belt that contained hammer, nails and wire, picked up an axe and began his solitary walk to find the gap in the fence and repair it.
CHAPTER SEVEN – FLASHBACK
He liked walking the perimeter, good old American soil with oak and juniper trees familiar from his childhood rooted into it; wide fields with the red-tailed hawk and peregrine falcon gliding overhead. It was wonderfully strange to be back here; and in a way, so satisfying. He soon located the break in the fence near the creek bottom.
It was a wide creek, the size of a small river, narrowing where it meandered north, twisting and churning around boulders on its way through the mountains. This time of year it ran a bit shallow, rippling over rocks and sparkling in the evening sun. It made for a nice view as he repaired the fence. He cut two small trees for cross bars to reinforce it and stretched wire across the gap. He tested the tension of it, fingering the barbs from which a bit of coarse hair dangled. Hoof prints in the mud on the far side confirmed a cow or two loose out there, but they carried brands and it would be an interesting job to round them up later. He brushed his hair back with his fingers and vaulted the fence. Climbing out onto an overhanging rock cliff, he paused a moment to rest.
Below, the creek cut through the back of his father's land to the south, flowing toward Big Sand Wash. A memory stirred. When he was 12 years old he had followed it all the way to the wash, stayed out camping all night and got a hell of a whipping from the old man the next day for ducking his chores. The fun had been worth it, he thought.
In the distance, the mountains were cloaked in muted earth tones of tan and brown. Not much was green in Arizona; what existed was solely due to irrigation - a sharp contrast to the lush vegetation of Thailand. The setting sun peeked over the mountains and pierced his eyes, making them water. He blinked the moisture away and his vision cleared. A feeling of déjà vu suddenly clutched him; for to the north, from this vantage point, the river looked oddly familiar. He had been here before. Not here, but somewhere else. Somewhere half a world away. Trees; many large rocks; that small whirlpool where the creek made an S-curve past a boulder… and suddenly, he was half a world away.
The water is clear and swiftly flowing, except for a spreading stain of blood seeping from her body. The machine gun has nearly cut her in half, but she breathes still, jerking in his arms with the effort to say what she knows are her last words. Rambo? You …not …forget …me? And he answers, No …no… and despite all his skill and strength he is powerless to save her; she relaxes and gives her being to the Greater Power that doesn't seem to give a damn, one way or another. She has led him through the jungle; she has saved his life. Now this little warrior, so brave and beautiful, lies dead in his arms. He sobs. Co Bao! Co Bao! Tiếc… Tiếc như vậy! (3)
'Boss-man! Hey, Boss-man! You don't show up for dinner, Riona don't give a shit if it gets cold! What are you doing out there?' Frank yelled.
Frank's timely intrusion broke the spell of one of the many flashbacks that still plagued John. After a moment to reorient himself, he replied, 'Nothing. Nothing.' He had been sitting on the rocks, now he got up slowly.
'What's Kobough?' asked Frank.
John glanced back at the river. 'Nothing,' he repeated.
Frank checked the repair to the fence. 'Damn good job,' he commented, staring curiously at John, who was scaling the fence.
'Hey, man, you looked like you were out of it for a minute there. You sure you're ok?'
John made no reply; he simply climbed into the jeep, staring out at the mountains. Frank shrugged, started up the jeep and began the bumpy ride back to the ranch.
(3) Sorry, Co Bao, so sorry (Vietnamese)
CHAPTER EIGHT – R & R
It was June, season of the corn harvest. John mentally marked the fact that he'd been on the farm since April, over two months. Although he hadn't planned on staying even two weeks, the days and nights had melded together in one long unbroken interval of work, making it seem as if no time at all had passed. He caught a glimpse of his father now and then; sometimes the old man would be ensconced in a rocker on the porch or sitting by his window, but he never looked John's way or even acknowledged him. Riona had little to say either, on the infrequent times he saw her. She merely did her job and stayed out of his way. As long as she did that and didn't bother him, he didn't really give a damn. For now, he was content simply to have a place to stay and something to do. Upon reflection, just being occupied beat stick fighting in a Bangkok warehouse all to hell, although sport such as that might have provided him an outlet. As it was, nothing existed here by which he might fight his demons, and steady work wasn't enough to banish them. Perhaps that was the reason his nightmares were back – in full force. He compensated by pushing himself. Sarah had asked him if he still cared about anything; if he was still faithful to anything; yes, perhaps he was. It was the place of his birth, after all, and in the next month he would pass his 61st birthday.
By July the corn crop was done and the ranch was in good repair. The old man had actually expressed satisfaction, for Frank never could have accomplished that much on his own. Riona told Frank, who relayed this information to John, who only nodded impassively and turned away to yet another task. Frank was puzzled, but not enough to question; something about his companion discouraged questions. John was a good hand; agreeable to work with; pulled over half the load; and Frank considered him a friend. There was a lot Frank didn't know about John, but there were three things he did know: it was Friday. It was payday. And John had earned a little R&R.
John was sharpening the axe when he heard the jeep pull up to the barn. He turned off the grinder.
'Hey, John!' called Frank, screeching the vehicle to a halt. A cloud of dust swirled into the barn. John emerged, swinging the axe in his hand.
'What's up?' he asked, wiping his face with the back of his hand.
'Old man wants me to take the jeep in to get the oil changed. Good, you're not too dirty. Hop in!'
'No need to do that,' said John. 'Bring it in here.'
'Hey, that'd knock me out of a chance to go to town, know what I mean? Get in!'
John set the ax inside the barn. He brushed himself off and vaulted into the jeep. 'Hey, that's more like it!' Frank yelled as he headed down the long gravel driveway.
'More like what?'
Frank set his straw hat securely on his head against the strong, hot wind that threatened to take it off. 'You – acting normal!'
'Go to hell,' said John, affably.
CHAPTER NINE – THE BIKER GANG
The man known as White Werewolf gunned his Harley out of a gas station in Lordsburg, New Mexico, forty miles from the Arizona border. Following in tight formation were the members of his motorcycle gang. Known only to their families by their real names, they preferred their tough biker aliases. They turned westward, roaring in unison. Werewolf, formerly known as Chris Baker held the lead; he had pressing business in Arizona and intended to get there before nightfall.
Following Werewolf was Samson. Beneath his black doo-rag was a bald head on which tattoos were laid out in four upright lines with a slash through each four. There were five sets and a single line representing twenty-one years of his 49 spent in prison. Behind him rode Chain Gang, a hulking giant of a man, coal black, 38 years of age. His signature weapon, a length of 3/8' towing chain, hung coiled from his bike. Lifer had managed to beat a murder rap with a crooked lawyer; his life sentence had lasted only 30 years. Sarge was a former U.S. Army soldier who had indeed achieved the rank of Sergeant in the Gulf War but was dishonorably discharged and spent ten years in Leavenworth for striking an officer. Trainwreck had done time in Folsom for manslaughter. Beneath his black jacket, he carried a live grenade slung around his neck. Demon, although the youngest and smallest member of the group, was a karate expert; most of his youth had been spent in Juvenile Hall. Satan's Barber was once just that – a barber. He had done 20 years, also in Folsom, for slicing a customer. The fact that the customer was seeing his wife on the side didn't matter to the jury. He still carried an old-fashioned straight razor, although he preferred an old K-Bar knife he'd picked up in a hock shop. Through the narrow world of outlaw bikers, these eight had met and joined together to make up the Austin division of the Texas Brimstone Riders, a statewide gang of outlaws second only to California's Hell's Angels.
White Werewolf had fought each man in an initiation to become the leader of this gang. He was short but powerfully built; enhancing his strength with weight lifting and a steady diet of steroids. He also supplied the group with their drug of choice, be it cocaine, methamphetamines or marijuana. He had enlisted the gang's help in this particular quest.
Just 40 miles from the Arizona border; two hours at most and Werewolf would be in Bowie. The hot desert air sent his ragged blonde hair streaming behind him. His brothers followed in tight formation, engines roaring. He would not be thwarted in this quest. Nobody had the power to defy the Brimstone Riders. Nobody.
CHAPTER TEN – THE BAR
As soon as the jeep hit the blacktop, Frank gunned it, laying a long line of rubber. He let go a war whoop as he did so; glancing over at John, he couldn't believe his eyes. The old boy was actually grinning. John leaned back, enjoying the wind whipping through his hair as the jeep barreled toward Bowie. Having a little money in his pocket and a new friend worked wonders, and if he was longer young, at least for the moment he felt carefree. In that small way, at least, it was good to be home.
After getting the jeep serviced, Frank cruised through town, trading comments with John about the changes since he had last been home. The town was larger, but not by much. A drugstore had been built, another grocery and a couple of gas stations had been added. As they approached the red brick building that housed what was still the only bar in town, Frank commented, 'Must be a damned biker's convention coming through town – I never saw that many hogs in one place before, and I been here a while.' Frank pulled into the parking lot. Several Harleys were lined up in front of it. The loud music vibrations thrummed through John's chest. Was he ready for this? He felt too old.
'This is Rix's Tavern. Only watering hole for miles. Just a few beers, my man, before we have to go back to the plantation,' Frank said jokingly.
A few ice-cold beers sounded good. Music blared, a hundred scents wafted beneath his nose, layers of smoke filled the air and peanut hulls crunched under his feet as John followed Frank in. As he figured, most of the crowd was Frank's age or younger. The dance floor was packed. As was to be expected, several young women lined the bar, waiting for a dance, a drink, perhaps some quick money. Somehow they all looked the same, no matter which country it was.
Several people whom Frank knew turned to stare at the man accompanying him. Some of the nicer looking women, perhaps with a penchant for older men, eyed him admiringly; but he felt so out of his element he barely acknowledged anyone. Frank raised his hand to those he knew best. 'Let me introduce you around, my friend..' He laid a friendly hand on John's shoulder and leaned in to whisper, 'You know, my man, I'm gonna need something more than just John to make a proper introduction to the ladies,' he said. 'You never told me your last name.'
John nodded. There was only one last name for him now. 'The name's Trautman. John Trautman.'
'All right then! Now we're getting somewhere. I was beginning to think you were in the Witness Protection Program or a member of the Mafia,' Frank kidded, taking a bar stool.
John shook his head. He disdained a barstool, listening with half his attention as Frank introduced him around. Meeting these loud and laughing children wasn't half as appealing as the beer in his hand and real rock-and-roll blasting from an old style jukebox. His ears had grown accustomed to the twangy, off-key saw dwang tunes of Thailand and had been almost ruined for good home style music. He hadn't heard some of those songs in over 30 years. Mixed in with newer tunes was Elvis and Buddy Holly; Chuck Berry; Jerry Lee Lewis. Iron Butterfly, the Stones; Jim Morrison, Creedence Clearwater. Many of these same songs had blared from loudspeakers in 'Nam base camps, although he'd spent too much time in-country to enjoy much of them. They stirred his memories, evoked his emotions. He sipped the beer, making the necessary small talk, while saying relatively nothing.
One of the regular girls leaned against the bar, a little too close for comfort. She boldly invited John to dance. He glanced down at the big hair, the overdone makeup, the dress barely covering exposed flesh and shook his head. Swiftly downing his beer, he excused himself. Turning to Frank, he said, 'I'm going to get some air.'
Frank was incredulous. 'Hey, buddy,' he whispered, 'you're missing an opportunity here - Kate puts out. Boy, does she!'
'Some other time,' he said abruptly. It was coming at him too fast. He had to get out of there before he exploded. Someone had punched up The Stones' Paint It Black. That same song had been blaring out of a Saigon bar the day Joey Danforth got blown all to hell.
The music was starting to associate too many memories – bad ones – and the crowd was making him uneasy. Too many years spent with only a couple of hired men on a boat in a Thai jungle was telling on him. Too many years in solitude. Too many years out of touch with his own kind. He headed for the door.
Frank stared after him, shaking his head. Kate was going to be pissed; she wasn't used to being turned down. 'Hey, beautiful,' he said to her. 'Forget about my friend, he had a headache. Buy you another drink?' He moved in, hoping he could pick up where John left off.
CHAPTER ELEVEN – JESSIE
Once outside in the fresh air, alone, John drew a deep breath, relaxing a little. He took a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from the jeep and leaned against it. A smoke would calm his nerves. He flicked the lighter closed and put it in his pocket, drawing deeply on the cigarette. He'd smoked enough by now that it felt good going down; for a while there, he'd coughed like an amateur. He flicked ashes, looking around and enjoying the night air. He debated whether to go back in, wait outside or just walk home. He knew Frank meant well but the evening hadn't turned out as he'd expected. Story of my life, he thought.
A voice rang out from a short distance away; a distinct, feminine expletive: 'Goddamn it!' Following the sound, John spotted a battered, late model truck a block away, sitting tilted at the curb. Intrigued, he flicked his cigarette away and walked across the vacant street to where the truck was parked. No one was in the driver's seat. Curious, he circled the truck, peering beneath it. The squeak of a jack being operated was punctuated by labored breathing; just as he rounded the tailgate, a young woman stood up from her crouch; she had been trying to change a very flat tire. At that moment, the truck suddenly fell off the jack and lurched toward her. In her efforts to avoid being hit, she fell backwards to the sidewalk. The lugwrench she had been holding clanged beneath the truck. John's dark form, backlit as it was against the streetlight, cast a shadow and startled her. John moved out of the streetlight's glare so she could see him. He extended a hand to help her up, and she got to her feet, rubbing her hip.
'Thank you,' she said uncertainly.
John nodded. He surveyed the situation. The woman had regained her composure and now seemed to be sizing him up. 'Mister, I don't know who you are, but I got twenty dollars for you if you can fix this damn thing.'
Amused, he assessed the damage. The flimsy jack which most American automakers included in their standard equipment had collapsed in upon itself. He jerked the bent piece of equipment out from under the truck and held it up for her to see.
'You won't get anywhere with this,' he said shortly. 'Wait here.'
She complied, breathing a sigh of relief. Meanwhile John took the jack from the jeep, a good hydraulic that, once locked into place, lifted the truck easily. John retrieved the lug wrench and set to work.
As he changed the tire for her, John furtively studied the woman. Taller than Sarah but dark hair like Co's, only longer. He actually preferred blondes but it didn't really matter. Not young but not old. Slender but not bone-thin like these new American models. He liked her silver earrings; they glinted in the light of the streetlamp. She nearly caught him watching her and he swiftly turned his attention back to the tire.
'Truck looks like it's seen a lot of miles,' he said, conversationally. The tire had practically no tread, as if driven over rough rock which would wear a tire down fast. The fender was battered; signs of bondo and a second class paint job were evident. The truck was at least ten years old.
'Well, yeah, in my work you don't want to be driving anything but a truck. Rough terrain.'
'Jeeps are good.'
'They don't carry a lot of payload.'
As economical with words as he, what little she said intrigued him. Indicating the bent jack, he remarked, 'American manufacturers make shoddy equipment, don't they? Flimsy jacks. Donuts for spares.'
'They sure do,' she agreed.
'You should get a hydraulic. They're not that expensive.'
'Maybe I will.' She in turn was surreptitiously observing him. She had never seen him before. Of course, that meant nothing; a lot of strangers passed through Bowie; she didn't get into town all that often and her work kept her away much of the time. He was a much older man but looked to be in good shape. He worked quickly; his strong hands soon had the lug nuts wrenched tight. There was some gray in his long hair. She wondered what had caused the thick scar running across his cheekbone.
John handed her the wrench and threw the useless, shredded tire and the bent jack into the back of the truck. He lowered the hydraulic and slid it out.
'Thank you,' she said, handing him the twenty. 'What's your name?'
'John. You don't owe me anything.' He passed the bill back to her.
She shrugged, pushing the bill back into her pocket. 'Do you live around here?'
'I work on a ranch about seven miles out of town,' he said, wiping his hands on his jeans.
John pointed to the north.
'Want a ride home?'
He hesitated, then nodded. It sounded better than staying in town getting wasted, which was what Frank was probably doing.
'Great - I have a place out that way. Come on. It's the least I can do to repay you. How did you get into town, anyway?'
'Came with a friend,' he said simply. 'I was glad to help, but I'll take you up on the ride - something tells me my buddy's gonna be staying in town.' John dipped his head in the direction of the bar. Sure enough, Frank, very drunk with an arm over the shoulders of two girls, was stumbling off down the street. John walked to the jeep and dumped the jack in. Frank wouldn't likely make it home tonight, but he'd be there in the morning to cover for him; return a favor.
He climbed into the truck and leaned his elbow out the window as she started the motor. 'You know, I didn't catch your name,' he said.
'I never gave it.' They rode in silence for a moment. 'It's Jessie.'
'Hello, Jessie. I'm John.' He offered his hand and she shook it – her grip was firm for a woman, surprising him. She smiled at him. Handshakes and smiles from attractive women were rare in his world. Sarah had smiled at him; so had Co. 'How long have you lived around here?' he asked.
'Only about a year.' The road was deserted, the night calm and peaceful, inviting talk. She drove rather slowly, as if to prolong the ride. 'I was born in Texas, so I know heat, but it's not like here. Christ, I'm still not used to this climate. What I do here pays good though, or at least it will, time I complete my studies.'
'Studies?' he asked curiously.
'I'm studying to be a geologist. I'm doing research through the University of Texas on some formations just south of Big Sand Wash.'
Not far from the ranch. She's beautiful – and smart. Good combination. John was frankly intrigued. 'Sounds interesting.'
'Do you know anything about geology?'
'Not a thing.'
'If you're interested, you could come look at the site some time. I'll show you some fossils.'
He glanced at her. He would never have told her how beautiful he thought she was, even in the dim glow of the dashboard. 'I'd like that.'
The truck's headlights illuminated the ranch gates all too soon. Jessie pulled over and let him out. He came around to the driver's side. Jessie offered her hand again and he shook it gently. 'It was nice to meet you, Jessie.'
'Thanks for your help, John – hope to see you again.'
He stepped back and watched the truck tail lights dip down out of sight along the twisting mountain road. He ran his hand through his hair. His spirits lifted, a little. The long walk back to the barn wasn't so long, after all.
CHAPTER TWELVE – AT ODDS
'All right, where's Frank? The tractor's in the shed.'
It was 8:00 in the morning. John, who had learned blacksmithing as a youth from a Navajo tribal elder, was pounding horseshoes into shape on an old-fashioned anvil. He resented the intrusion upon his time, his craft and his privacy.
Riona was standing belligerently in the doorway. Her tone suggested that John had better have a damned good explanation for Frank's absence and Frank better have a damned good reason. John hated this obnoxious woman more each passing day. She grated on his nerves like a piece of shrapnel he couldn't dig out.
'I know he's not here, John, now where the hell is he?'
'He stayed in town last night,' John said, straightening. He mopped sweat off his brow with his forearm. Despite the dryness of the July heat, working indoors over hot metal was guaranteed to trickle sweat into his eyes. He was hot and irritable, not in any mood to take any crap off this old woman.
'What the hell for? He was just supposed to get the oil changed!'
'The shop wanted to keep the jeep overnight. Needed points and plugs,' John lied. The shoe was beginning to cool and warp. Ignoring her, he reheated and tapped it back into shape.
'So what you're saying is, he stayed in town. With one of his girlfriends, no doubt. How did you get home?'
'Walked.' He finished the shoe and tonged another piece of hot metal onto the anvil. Hitting it harder and harder with his hammer, loudly clanging metal against metal, he hoped the noise would drown out her voice.
'If he doesn't show up in an hour he's fired!' she shouted.
John ceased his pounding. He turned, giving her a hard stare. 'Fired? For doing his job?'
'You can't fool me, John Rambo. I know what he's up to.'
He faced her, menacingly swinging his hammer. 'Careful, now. You don't want to be using my name, do you? Frank keeps this place going. Not you. If you fire him, fire me. Dad said he couldn't get anyone to work for him and I see why. If we both walk out of here, how in hell are you going to manage this ranch?'
Riona stared at him a long moment. 'Richard wants the stray cattle found today,' she said without further comment. Turning on her heel, she stalked back to the house.
The old bat had unknowingly handed him a prize; a solitary ride. Getting out of here for a while sounded good. Not only that, it gave him an idea. He dipped the completed horseshoe into the slake tub to cool, then hung it up after closing the lid over the hot coals. Peeling off the grimy shirt, he quickly washed up. He looped a coil of rope over his shoulder and went to the corral.
The grulla (4) was at the fence, nickering. At sixteen hands, he was a magnificent animal, spirited and strong. John had befriended him, feeding him apples and carrots, riding him when time allowed. He talked softly to the big horse as he slipped a bridle over his head. Disdaining a saddle, he vaulted onto the broad back and headed south.
(4) International Buckskin Horse Assn: Grulla (pronounced grew-yah) is an intense color; mouse, blue, dove or slate colored, with dark sepia to black points.
CHAPTER THIRTEEN – ENCOUNTER
Three cows were roaming free, having broken through another weak section of fence, but had not strayed far. Very domesticated, they grazed contentedly together in a small box canyon. It had been an easy job to find them and it was even easier to herd them back out and through the nearest gate. He blocked off the gap temporarily with limbs and brush; he'd return in the cool of the evening to repair it. With that out of the way, he glanced at the sun. Plenty of time. He'd follow the river south to Big Sand Wash. Maybe he'd find her there.
It was a pleasant ride, rare cloud formations rolling in, the sun not so hot on his shoulders. The creek was little more than a stream up this far; the horse splashed down the center of it which was easier than trying to follow the rising bank. Soon the landscape gave way to the wash, which was a plane of smooth rock, pitted and scarred from volcanic activity and millions of years of wind and water erosion. There was a natural rock basin which spilled over in flash floods to raise the creek level. John urged the horse up the slope to skirt this basin, as he scanned the horizon.
He was in luck. Near a deep, wide, water-carved gully was a familiar, battered, blue Chevy truck. The grulla stepped nervously; he guided the animal past the truck, following a path along the swiftly flowing gully. Jessie sat with her back to him, making notes and taking photos. A long, curious type of hammer with a small head leaned against a rucksack which lay close by.
The sound of hoofs on rock alerted her; she turned toward him. As soon as she recognized him she encouraged him on with a friendly wave. He dismounted and led the horse forward.
'Look at that!' she exclaimed excitedly, grabbing his sleeve and pointing down. John looked – and saw scrub brush, rock and trickling water. Nothing else. He looked at her questioningly.
She laughed. 'No, here. Look closer. This area was once an ancient seabed,' she said, gesturing widely. 'In the Paleozoic period – oh, about 500 million years ago. Can you imagine? Ancient sea life crawling on the ocean floor, maybe right where we're standing. They left their signatures behind. Here's a trilobite; there's another. And I found brachiopods over there,' she said pointing. 'Tectonic activity has raised and lowered this whole area several times. Another few million years, we might be swimming again. You just never know.'
'Can you swim?' asked John with a straight face. She laughed at that, a light, pleasant, musical sound. He liked her laugh.
'You didn't waste any time, did you?'
'Coming out here.'
'Wanted to make sure the tire held.'
'Sure,' she teased. 'It's holding up fine, thanks.'
They crouched down together, sitting on the warm rock. The horse nickered softly; nudging John's back. Jessie stroked his nose.
'So,' said John, 'when will you get your degree?'
'Two more years, I hope, she replied. 'Later than most, as you can see. I was one of the oldest students; just turned thirty. I managed to complete college on schedule and started my first year of graduate school but then it all got – ' She looked away suddenly.
She looked up at him. 'Interrupted.'
His face fell. Damn. John, you're one lucky son of a bitch, aren't you? He thought to himself.
'Didn't last long,' she commented shortly, correctly reading his features.
'Sorry to hear it,' he said, casting a sidelong glance at her. Actually, he wasn't sorry at all.
'Don't be sorry, believe me, it wasn't worth the effort. So now, I'm making up for lost time.'
John bent down and picked up a small pebble, examined it thoroughly and tossed it a few feet. 'Doesn't sound as if you were very happy.'
Jessie met his eyes; he met hers just as steadily. In them she saw great strength; many deeply-hidden secrets – and a great weariness, as if he were a candle nearly used up. In the strong features and sad eyes could be read clues as easily as she read fossils in stone, yet so ironically inscrutable. Who was this man? What stories were in the scars on his face and arms?
She looked away. 'No, I wasn't happy, not at all. Quite the opposite. My ex-husband turned out to be a walking nightmare. Worse than a nightmare. And I was young and stupid; nobody around to tell me different. I had no family. I had friends, but - well, they bail, you know, when there's trouble.'
John regarded her with compassion in his eyes. She should have had friends like mine. You watch my back, I'll watch yours.
She smiled to ease the mood. 'You know, you just changed the course of history.'
'When you threw that pebble. An ancient legend.'
He gave her an enigmatic smile. 'Is that all it takes?' If that's all it took, maybe Burma wouldn't be the hellhole it is now. I didn't change a goddamn thing, did I? They're still fighting over there. I didn't change anything. Nothing I've ever done has changed a fucking thing. The sun was sinking; time to go. He would see her again; he knew that now. He vaulted onto the horse.
Jessie watched him ride away. Before the horse followed the creek down out of sight, John turned to raise his hand in farewell. She returned the wave. Reluctantly, she sat down to review her notes. She'd take a few more samples to the truck to test back home, get a few pictures, then call it a day. She'd start fresh tomorrow. The afternoon wasn't wasted, not in spending time with a new friend. She needed friends, especially now, and with this man, the attraction seemed to go both ways. She packed up and loaded the truck. As she started the engine, it occurred to her that they had something in common. She had secrets, too.
CHAPTER FOURTEEN – DEATH
John had been on the ranch six months when a loud pounding on the door of the bunkhouse started him from sleep. Frank jerked awake simultaneously, grumbling. He cast a glance at the clock. 'Christ, it's three in the morning.' he muttered. 'Whoever the fuck that is, they better have a damned good reason, or…' He left the threat unfinished as he opened the door.
It was Riona.
'Goddamnit, Riona! What the hell do you want at this hour?'
'I'll be needing to speak to John. Right now,' she said, loudly.
John made his way to the door, raking his hair back with his fingers. 'What's wrong?'
John stepped outside the door into the barn, leaving the door open. Frank, not wanting to eavesdrop, but curious nonetheless, made himself scarce but remained within earshot.
'It's your father,' she said briefly.
'Dad?' He looked at her quizzically. 'What -'
'He's dead.' she said flatly, cutting him off. 'Nothing you can do, it's too late; nothing anyone can do. Must have happened about ten minutes ago. I've already called an ambulance.'
Frank heard the exchange clearly and he stepped back, stunned. John glanced back at him, standing just inside the door.
John said nothing to either one of them. He pushed past Riona and vanished into the dark toward the house.
Frank emerged from the bunkhouse. 'Riona - did I hear you right?' he said, rubbing his face with his hands to wake up.
Riona started back toward the house, ignoring him. He grabbed her arm.
'Tell me!' yelled Frank. 'Just what the hell's been going on around here? Is the old man really John's father? Why didn't anyone tell me?'
'I'll tell you about it inside,' she muttered, grudgingly.
She sat at the small table, nervously smoking and talking. Frank grew angrier as he listened. Before she stopped speaking and got up to leave, Frank had tossed his old battered suitcase on the bunk and began throwing his few possessions into it. Riona sighed and walked back to the house.
She flung open the door to the old man's bedroom, dimly lit by only a bedside lamp. John was standing over his father, staring at him. He looked up. Something almost inhuman in his face made her back away, softly closing the door.
John's face softened; he leaned down and brushed his father's sunken cheek with the back of his hand. He stared at the old man for many minutes, trying to take in the fact that his last living relative was really dead. The muscles of his face twitched; he clenched his eyes shut. When he opened them again, it was five years earlier and he was in a Tokyo hospital room. The face before him had morphed into that of Colonel Samuel Trautman:
The Doctor had said it was hopeless. A few hours, a day at most. An ignoble end for a soldier, to die in bed from cancer. Just like DelMar; shrunk to nothing. What a piss-poor way to go. He knew damned well the Colonel would have preferred a gut-wrenching end on the battlefield with the team he had trained and commanded so well. If there was a special God for soldiers like he'd always heard, why in hell wasn't the Man listening?
An old and grizzled Sergeant had sent John a message. 'He's ready to go. He's waiting for you. Hurry.' John had wasted no time. From the Sergeant he'd learned that Trautman had only recently been assigned as the C.O. to a Green Beret unit at Camp Zama in Japan. Trautman, getting up in years, had refused to retire, the old lifer said, until the day he collapsed in his office. By the time they got him to the hospital, nothing could be done for the cancer in his lungs except keep him comfortable. He was on morphine; drifting in and out of consciousness; but in a few lucid moments, he managed to send a message to John, who then living in Thailand.
John thanked the old Sergeant for his help for without it, he would never have made it to the Colonel's bedside in time.
He picked up Colonel's hand and held it. It was late afternoon when Trautman awoke. Grimacing, he realized that the strong hand holding his, as if to will strength into the failing body, was one of his own. The last surviving member of Baker Team: John J. Rambo, the best of all of them. John made to call the nurse for another shot, but Trautman stopped him.
'No, Johnny,' he whispered. 'I'll be damned if I'll let them medicate me out of a chance to talk to you. How have you been?'
And he had said, 'Fine, Colonel.'
'Still livin' day by day?'
'I'm makin' it ok. No need to worry. You need to rest.'
Trautman took a deep breath, grimacing with the pain it caused. 'Too late for that, son. Too many goddamned cigarettes, waiting for you boys to complete your missions,' he'd joked by way of explanation.
'We'd rather have been there with you, sharing your pack, Sir.'
'Best goddamn outfit I ever trained.' He coughed, deeply. 'It's so damned hard to say goodbye, Johnny.'
'Give Baker Team my regards,' John had said with difficulty, his throat constricting. A rare tear was working its way down his face. Colonel Trautman used the last of his strength to lift his other hand and brush it from John's cheek. Then he was gone.
As John slowly returned to the present, he realized he was holding his father's cold hand just the way he had held the Colonel's. Only now, there was no closure, no goodbye - and no love. He released his father's hand and laid it respectfully on the blanket.
Riona was right outside the door as he opened it.
'Did he say anything before he died?' he asked her. 'Anything I need to know?' He felt ridiculous asking such questions of a stranger.
'No,' she said unsympathetically. 'I heard him make a noise and went to check on him. He was dead time I got to him.'
'All right. Take care of everything when the ambulance gets here. I'm sure you can handle it.'
'Isn't this your responsibility?'
'What, you want to hand off to me now? No – you deal with it,' he said with finality before he walked out.
He paused in the yard before heading out to the barn. The clear sky above was studded with tiny bright lights. Anywhere two were close together, his Grandmother had said, were the joined spirits of people who'd spent their lives together on earth. He knew better, but just then that old legend held a certain comfort. He sincerely hoped his father was with his mother and happier than in his previous life.
He was past the initial shock now. Grief might set in later, but he'd seen too much death to let the cold body of his father bother him; after the last six months, he didn't really feel anything and didn't think he ever would. Maybe later, when memories of his childhood surfaced, he might feel something; grief or loss. But for now, there was nothing.
An ambulance siren could be heard in the distance. It heralded the end of one life and the beginning of another, for John had retrieved a copy of his father's will at the courthouse in recent weeks. Whatever else happened, he felt vindicated, for no one else could lay claim to what he now knew was his.
CHAPTER FIFTEEN – CHANGES
John walked back to the barn and opened the door to the bunkhouse. Frank was closing his battered suitcase and cramming the last of his belongings into a ragged and stained laundry bag.
'Frank – ' John began.
'No need to say a word, old buddy, old pal, old friend – Boss-man. You like living a lie?'
'Not my intention.'
'I had to twist that fucking bitch's arm to get at the truth.'
'It was Dad's doing. He didn't want it known who I was.'
'Boy,' Frank said with an ironic laugh, 'that old man takes the cake. Why in fuck would he do that?'
'Because of me.'
'You were on the lam, weren't you?'
'No. I earned my freedom. Dad just wasn't too proud of the way I earned it.'
'Prison. Five years.'
'And after that?'
John shrugged. 'Stayed busy.' he said cryptically
'So your name isn't John Trautman. It's John Rambo. Frank stared at him. 'Wait a minute. John Rambo! Oh, yeah I've heard about you, some story about Washington State.' He let out a short, cynical laugh. 'I get it the picture now – sort of. Okay - that's everything I brought with me. It was nice working with you.' He tried to push past John, who blocked his way.
'Frank - this doesn't mean you have to leave.'
'What in hell else does it mean?'
'It means Dad's dead and things are gonna change. It means you stay on. I'm offering you a job. If you want it.'
'I had a job – a bastard for a boss, but a job – and a friend, or so I thought. You're not even who I thought you were.'
'Slave labor's not a job, Frank. You and I both know that's all it was. I stayed because I didn't have anywhere else to go. Apparently, you did the same damn thing. We got a lot in common there. Yes - I'm John Rambo and I'm gonna be living here now. I'm owed that much. And I'll be hiring more people. I want you to be my foreman - at a fucking decent living wage.'
Frank set down the battered suitcase and stared at John. He seemed to be on the level.
'No bullshit this time.' John held out his hand.
Frank met John's steady gaze. He took the proffered hand, grinning. 'All right Mr. Rambo, you got yourself a foreman!'
'I liked Boss-man better,' quipped John, gripping the hand of his friend.
'Go to hell.'
'Already been there,' said John.
CHAPTER SIXTEEN – THE FUNERAL
John looked upon his father's face one last time. The old man was laid out in an inexpensive casket at the local funeral home. John's last gesture was to place a folded American flag beneath his father's hands before closing the lid. This he did without lingering, with regret in his heart that his relationship with his father had been so void of all feeling.
The old man had requested no service in his last wishes so despite his status as a veteran, he was unceremoniously laid to rest beside John's mother. Very few people were in attendance. John, glancing around, thought it sad that his father had apparently become so disliked by the community that only a few from the Rancher's Association had showed up. He had outlived most of his friends and alienated everyone else.
Riona took charge of the proceedings as usual; John simply ignored her. It didn't matter. Soon she would be gone, and good riddance. The funeral director said a few brief words, hit the switch to lower the casket, and that was that. Only a couple of Indians hired to fill in the grave remained behind after everyone had gone.
The ranch lay mostly quiet for the next few days. Frank did what was necessary then lazed on his bunk, smoking one cigarette after another. John kept busy. It was a time of transition; everyone knew it, everyone felt it, but no one ventured a move to change anything except for Riona, now unsure of her status.
She knocked on the bunkhouse door two days after the funeral, inquiring of the whereabouts of John; Frank told her he was in the corral, shoeing a horse. She stepped outside and opened the gate.
John glanced up briefly, then resumed his work filing and shaping the hoof.
'My condolences on the loss of your father, John,' she began.
John nodded but said nothing. He carefully fitted a new shoe to the hoof.
'I guess you know he left you this ranch in his will.'
John tapped the last nail into the shoe and dropped the hoof. The horse snorted and switched its tail. Typical of her to say something like this, as if to show him she had access to the family's most personal documents. John straightened and looked Riona in the eye. 'I've seen the will, Riona. It's dated the year I made Green Beret. 1967.'
'You see? He wanted you to have this place all along. He never changed the will in all these years,' she pointed out.
'He forgot to change it. He would have if he'd thought of it, and I'm sure you would have reminded him had you thought of it. You're good at interfering in matters that don't concern you.'
Riona glared at him. 'So now the ranch is yours, or will be, time the dust settles. You're gonna be in charge. Fine. What happens now?'
He took a deep breath and faced her squarely. It was time for change and the first damned change would be to rid himself of this irritating thorn in his side.
'What happens now? I'm letting you go.'
'Time for you to leave.'
'Now don't be hasty, John. I can help you the same way I helped your father. You're going to be needing me around here.'
'I don't think so. I don't need help,' he said with finality. 'You seem to be of an age to retire.' He dug in his pocket and handed her a very generous wad of bills; worth every dime. 'Here - severance pay until social security kicks in. Unless it already has. Pack what you need tonight and get out. Send word where you'll be and I'll send your things.'
'You son of a bitch!'
John, impassive in the face of her raging histrionics, picked up another hoof and began cleaning it. Riona spun on her heel and stalked off, slamming the gate behind her.
It's what is, he had told Sarah Miller. War is natural, peace is an accident. But somehow or other, he was making the pattern of his life change, toward peace. Or was he himself changing? He didn't know. He wasn't much for ruminating or dwelling on any given situation. He was used to dealing with it as it came. Shrugging, he picked up a pair of nippers and cut back the excess hoof, then ran the rasp around the edge.
Frank came out of the barn just as Riona stormed into the house. A coffee cup or plate could be heard crashing against something; the remnants tinkling to the floor. Curses could be heard from within. Frank's eyebrows climbed to his hairline and he ducked, instinctively, though unnecessarily. 'Shit!' he exclaimed, opening the gate to the corral. John was tapping a shoe onto the last neatly cleaned and trimmed hoof.
'Hey, man, did I hear you just say what I think you just said?'
John glanced up at him.
'You heard right,' said John, dropping the hoof and stroking the horse's flank.
'Hot damn, John Rambo!,' exclaimed Frank. 'You're the man!'
It was going to be a damned good day.
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN – BOWIE
Bowie, Arizona rarely got to see the likes of a motorcycle gang roaring into town. A small community of 750, it lay in peaceful repose about 240 miles east of Tucson. Along the main highway were the usual accoutrements of a small town, including a local sheriff and deputy, a mom-and-pop grocery store, a small motel and one or two restaurants. Rix's Tavern was the only bar and hangout for the locals. Anyone who needed anything more usually continued on into Tucson.
The Texas Brimstone Riders, as proclaimed on their leather jackets, parked their massive bikes in front of Rix's and trooped in for an afternoon of beer and pool.
A local barber who fancied himself a lookout since his shop stood across the street from the tavern, left an irritable customer to report their presence to the town sheriff. However, Sheriff Baxter, an aging lawman on the cusp of retirement, downplayed the barber's concern.
'As long as they just play a few games of pool and mind their own business,' he drawled, 'I don't see any need in bothering with them. They'll move on, nothing here to interest them. They're just using us as a watering hole before they hit Tucson.' He dismissed the issue with a wave of his hand. His mind was on medication for his indigestion, lowering the thermostat and perhaps grabbing a nap this afternoon. His deputy could handle anything else that might come up. If something went sour, he'd call in the state boys.
'I hope you're right, Sheriff,' said the barber. Shaking his head, he returned to his abandoned customer, who was still complaining about his left sideburn.
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN – BITTER INHERITANCE
The house was peaceful and quiet, blissfully so since the departure of Riona. John had not set foot in his childhood home since the day he arrived. Now he had the house to himself and wandered from room to room, re-familiarizing himself with what should have already been familiar. He had not slept in this house since the night before he left for basic training, but he would sleep here now, in his old room. This place was his now, by rightful inheritance. In weeks to come there would be plenty to do; taking care of the mountain of red tape that accompanies a death in the civilized world. In the world of war he had left, the dead were lucky if they got a proper burial. He had ensured that Co rested in a good grave, but there had been no casket for her; no time nor tools to make one. Nothing followed her death but his own grief and anger. There had been no insurance forms to fill out, no red tape of any kind. She was gone, and the only thing to follow was the jungle orchids that would feed off her body. They would be her only tombstone as she returned to Mother Earth. Here, papers had to be dealt with, lawyers had to be consulted, bills had to be paid. How strange was civilization.
He'd have Frank move into the house – there was plenty of room and the bunkhouse would be needed for the Indians he intended to hire. He'd pack up, clean up and burn anything he didn't want. He'd traveled light over the years, never possessing much more than his weapons, his boat and what he could carry on his back. Now, as a man of property, his remaining years would be comfortable. Now, at long last, he might find peace. Its time was come.
His father had amassed quite a library, all good books. He hadn't given the old man credit for having the level of intelligence for such pursuits. He idly scanned the titles, thinking he might enjoy this one or that one…and he suddenly grew curious about the scrapbook Riona had mentioned when he first arrived. He sought it out among the photo albums on the bottom shelf. It was not dusty like the rest; someone had recently had it out.
Now November with winter coming on, the desert climate grew cooler at night. He lit a fire. Seating himself at the big oak desk nearby, he opened the large, worn book. Just as Riona described, it began mainly with his graduation from Rangeford High. His engraved high school card with John James Rambo and the year 1965 was taped next to his diploma. There was his football letter from his senior year. There was a photo of him and his date for the senior prom. He couldn't recall the girl's name; he was drafted not long after that night and her memory had faded. He had taken a few shots in boot camp and sent them home.
He remembered that, at the time, he had thought it was the toughest six weeks he would ever have to endure. He gave a wry chuckle at the memory. In the faded Polaroid photos he looked haggard, worn out, discouraged. But, somewhere along the way, he'd pulled himself up by his bootstraps and become a soldier. He'd racked up an excellent camp record. Promotions had come his way.
There were the photos he'd sent back home of his first tour of duty in Vietnam in 1966. About a third of the trainees had been sent to Germany, he could never be that lucky. As a draftee, he would never have been considered for the Special Forces but his extraordinary abilities apparently got him noticed, although he didn't know it at the time.
He came back stateside and was immediately recruited by Colonel Trautman for training in the Special Forces - Green Berets, the best the army had – at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina. After that, boot camp seemed a pleasant vacation by comparison. He learned guerilla warfare, how to operate, fire and assemble weapons of every kind, sometimes using components of one to fit in another. There were language classes in Vietnamese and Thai. There were field exercises. Dropped into unfamiliar territory with only a compass and a knife, he learned to survive, to ignore weather, to ignore pain. He ate slugs and roots when no other food was available. He eventually achieved the rank of Lieutenant.
The mementoes were all here, in one form or another. Here was a newspaper clipping of his second tour of duty, during which he was captured by the Viet Cong. A few faded letters from Colonel Trautman to his parents, telling them their son was missing in action, offering them what hope he could.
Those long-suppressed memories nearly overwhelmed him. He clenched his teeth and by force of will, got past it. He continued to turn the pages. Newspaper articles, letters, more photos. Colonel Trautman, posing with Baker Team. Another, a duplicate of the one he had left with DelMar's wife. There they were: Trautman on the left, Messner, Ortega, Coletta in front, Krakauer, Danforth and himself in the middle, Jurgensen, and big Barry relegated to the rear. These eight were the last surviving members of the original twelve-man unit.
He flipped more pages. The book was in perfect chronological order. 1982's headlines jumped out at him:
WAR IN HOPE, WASHINGTON
A small town was badly devastated yesterday when -
MOH WINNER MURDERS 4, WOUNDS 5
Prosecutors seeking the death penalty
That case had gone all the way to the Supreme Court. As a civilian, he couldn't be tried in a court martial which was good, because democracy didn't exist in the Army. He would have ended up in Leavenworth. However, Colonel Trautman brought pressure on the Supreme Court, citing John's long, hard service in Vietnam. Got him sprung.
Another headline read:
MOH WINNER GETS 5 YEARS
John Rambo was sentenced to five years hard labor today -
He heard Colonel Trautman's voice in his head. 'Don't ever let anyone say you won that medal, Johnny. You don't win those things. Hell, they make it sound like a goddamned stuffed animal you won on the midway. You were awarded that medal. And if any soldier ever deserved one, you did. Sorry they sent you to such a hell-hole.'
More newspaper articles, some with handwritten notes. Derogatory, hurtful things that his own father had written in the margins. And there was more.
AMERICAN COLONEL HELD IN AFGHANISTAN
Colonel John Trautman, on assignment with Mujahedeen rebels fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan, has been taken captive by hostile forces. While not official, reports are that the former Green Beret John Rambo, once under Colonel Trautman's command, has been sent on a covert rescue mission. It is feared that unofficial tactics to rescue those aiding the Afghan rebels will bring the Soviets to bear arms against the United States.
The bastards made it sound like he alone could start World War III. He turned to the last articles; after that, the last ten pages of the book were blank:
COLORADO MISSIONARIES MISSING IN MYANMAR – FEARED DEAD
NEW KILLING FIELDS IN MYANMAR, FORMERLY BURMA
Two survivors of a group of Colorado missionaries earlier reported as missing in Myanmar, formerly Burma, were found alive today, rescued by mercenaries hired by the Christ Church of PanAsian Ministry in Colorado. It was feared the 60 year-old civil war had claimed the entire group of volunteers as it has so many Karen Christians. It was rumored that a former convict, John Rambo, who has lived in the area for many years after scorning his own country, was responsible for -
He put down the book without finishing the article. It was good thing the rest of the pages were blank. He couldn't read any more. He knew the media skewered everything it reported but that knowledge didn't ease the pain. No wonder Dad had hated his guts. While nothing he had ever done had truly mattered in a global sense – nothing would ever stop war, ever - he'd done his best, followed orders, tried to do the right thing, to save people and those he loved: the POWs, Co, the Colonel, and yes, Sarah. He had to admit to himself that he loved Sarah as much as he had loved Co. For that reason and that reason only did he risk life and limb to get her out of Burma; only to see her go to Michael. The hurt swelled in his heart. And now, to see those valiant efforts raked over the coals by the media was the last straw.
The fire popped and hissed as water splashed down the chimney; a rare rainstorm was pouring down outside, the kind that produced flash floods in the area. Lightning lit up the sky, knocking the power out. Thunder followed, sounding like the far-off rumblings of fifty-caliber machine guns. He sat in the dark for a long time, not moving. Many voices, including his own, whispered in his mind; images danced behind his eyes, as if he were in Hell's Theater, strapped down and helpless to stop the horror show:
I wanna go home! I wanna go home, Johnny! I wanna drive my Chevy! ~ Babykiller! Babykiller! ~ You fucking rapists, you goddamn Army butchers! Hell no, we won't go! ~ Covey leader, calling Raven! Talk to me, Johnny ~ They're all gone Sir. Not Barry, he made it. Barry's gone too Sir. I'm the last one…~ Why you pushing me? I haven't done anything to you ~ When you're pushed…killing's as easy as breathing. ~ Sometimes I wake up and I don't know where I am, I don't talk to anybody. I can't put it out of my mind. ~ Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don't turn it off! ~ You know, sometimes you get so mad you think you're going crazy… ~ You trained me. You made me. You kill me. I won't, John. You're the last of an elite group. Don't end it like this! ~ It's so damned hard to say goodbye, Johnny…
With an agonized scream, he hurled the big book into the fireplace, heedless of the sparks flying about the room. Crazed by a thousand demons playing in a lightshow he couldn't turn off, he threw the chair across the room, splintering it. Dead faces swam before his eyes. Coletta, cut in half by machine gun fire. Ortega, in pieces after stepping on a land mine. Ignited napalm coating Messner. And the most horrific of all, Joey Danforth's blood and tissue splattering him. All his friends, dead at the hands of the Viet Cong; images of himself as a prisoner of war; being tortured to the point of insanity.
Much later, he had fought the Russians and their inhumanity - the Burmese and their genocide. For this he had been hounded and blamed, punished and ostracized. Suppressed hatred exploded; if he'd had a grenade, he'd have blown up the house over his own head. As it was, he screamed his agony to the four walls, cursing wars and the need for wars, for making him a war machine, for letting him taste it – and like it. He didn't want this any more! 'Hãy cho nó đi một con chó cái! Hãy cho nó đi!' (5)
(5) Let it go, you son of a bitch, let it go! (Vietnamese)
CHAPTER NINETEEN – A FRIEND
Frank, drenched from head to foot by the downpour, came bursting into the room, having heard the commotion all the way out to the barn. 'JOHN!' he shouted, warily approaching his friend. 'JOHN!'
John slowly turned his head, trying to still his ragged breathing. Sweat poured down his face. For a moment he didn't recognize Frank. When he did, he dropped the chair leg he had used to smash everything in sight. Frank glanced around. The room was a disaster.
'Jesus H. Christ, John! What fucking language was that? What's the matter with you, man?'
John sank to his knees. He shook his head, trying to clear it. 'Flashbacks,' he gasped. 'Nightmares. Can't shake 'em.'
Frank cautiously came closer, still not sure John wouldn't take his head off with whatever was within reach. John slowed his breathing by force of will. With great effort, his shaking ceased. Frank gripped his friend's shoulder. 'Holy shit, dude. Was this what it was like for you up there at Hope?'
'Jesus, didn't they get you any psychotherapy?'
'No,' said John, holding his head in his hands. 'Breakin' rocks took precedence.' He took a deep breath, feeling somewhat calmer.
'Total bummer, man. Jesus!' Frank knelt beside him for a few minutes. He surveyed the damage. It would take days to clean all this up, if not weeks. 'Good thing Riona's gone,' he commented. 'She'd have our asses.'
'Not in a good way, either.'
Frank laughed. 'You're sounding more like yourself now, Boss-man. Come on,' Frank said, pulling him up. 'I know a place open this time of night, next town over – they got steak and eggs that'll make you a new man. Let's get the fuck out of here.'
John nodded. Becoming a new man sounded good to him.
CHAPTER TWENTY – THE WAY OF THE ARROW
It was late November; 72 degrees, cool breezes and a sunny, clear sky, normally a day to make a man feel energized, but John was still working through a lassitude he couldn't explain, not even to himself. He tried self-therapy in testing his new hand-made bow. The string was much harder to pull than that of the compound model he'd been given back in Vietnam in 1985 - on his fourth tour of duty. How many soldiers could boast that? Or wanted to? Temporarily reinstated in the Special Forces, he had brought home five sick and emaciated prisoners of war. More than the USA had rescued in ten years. That bow had been his finest weapon. Silent but deadly, carrying with its arrow C4 explosives powerful enough to take out a convoy or blow a man to bits so small even the fish would disregard them.
He wondered how the POWs he rescued were faring since being returned home. Probably still in VA hospitals, he thought inconsolably, getting substandard care from a government not even willing to go after them. He was almost sorry that he had rescued them. They wouldn't have lived much longer anyway, and they'd be out of it by now. He shook himself free of such morbid thoughts and sought the target: a beer can tab tacked to a tree over thirty yards away, clearly visible to eyes that were still sharp after sixty-one years. The world and its sounds faded into stillness as he became one with the bow, the arrow and the target. As he gently released it, the arrow met its destination, clean and true. The Burma wound in his shoulder flared; he rubbed it, absently.
'Didn't shoot yourself, did you?'
He started in spite of himself. Civilian life was making him soft; he hadn't even heard her approach. Damn she looked good, with her tight jeans, white halter top and her long dark hair pulled back into a ponytail. A silver necklace glinted at her throat. In her hand was a large basket.
Jessie set the basket on the ground and took the bow from his hand. Testing its tension, she looked up at him. 'May I?'
Silently, he handed her an arrow. These were target arrows, with a tip that was smooth metal for easy removal. She skillfully set the arrow and took a good stance. He watched, fascinated, as she expertly pulled the string. Unable to match John's powerful draw, she sighted the target and aimed slightly higher to compensate for her lack of strength. Her arrow struck at a downward slant only three inches above his.
'I'll feel that tomorrow,' she grinned. 'I took my last archery class way back in high school.'
'You haven't forgotten the technique,' he said, impressed.
'Once I learn something, I don't forget it. Hungry?'
She scooped up her basket and, boldly taking his hand, sought the shade of a nearby tree. A fallen trunk lay nearby and the grass was thick. It was a good spot for a picnic.
'All you need to do now is learn to change a tire.' he observed dryly.
'Well…yeah.' Her pleasant laughter flowed freely.
The feel of her hand taking his had been exhilarating, blocking out the morbid musings of nightmares that were following him into the daylight. If he could only have left them in Thailand like old, worn-out baggage. He sighed audibly.
'Hey, I'm not showing up at a bad time, am I?' she questioned.
'No,' he reassured her, shaking his head. 'No.'
She spread a light canvas ground cover while he unpacked the basket for her. Fried chicken, potato salad, rolls, the works. Apples, plums, strawberries. His stomach betrayed him.
She grinned at him. 'Sounds like I came just in time.'
He nodded, the closest thing to a smile she had yet seen on his somber features. She prepared a paper plate for him. He relaxed against the fallen trunk and picked up the quarter of chicken. It was still warm. He bit into it appreciatively. Holding her plate, she knelt beside him.
They ate in silence for a brief while. She said, 'You never told me your name, I mean, your whole name.'
'Rambo. John Rambo.'
'This is your ranch, isn't it?'
'It is now.'
'Been here long?'
'Since last April.'
'You've been living overseas, haven't you?'
'Who told you that?'
'Frank. He told me you were up here. I, um, asked him a little about you.'
'He say anything else?'
'No – just said you'd been away from home for a long while, overseas.' She took a bite of chicken. 'Where? The South Pacific?'
She shrugged and handed him a paper napkin. 'Can't be anything else. Nothing European about you. It's almost like you've been sequestered in a Buddhist monastery or something.' She offered him another roll. 'You're also very quiet. An observer rather than a talker.'
'So are you.'
'It's what you do – reading rocks.'
'That's true.' She smiled.
He shifted position; her company and a full belly had worked wonders; he felt better; relaxed and more talkative. He never felt like this with anyone else, not even Frank, but then getting a word in edgewise with Frank was a challenge. 'I read people,' he said. 'The expression in their eyes, the way they move…'
'Because you've had to.'
'You were a soldier, weren't you, John?'
'Not for a long time.'
'It still shows. You're disciplined. Not soft at all. Hard, like diamond in granite.'
'Diamonds don't form in granite.'
'Just my way of expressing it. Thought you didn't know anything about geology.'
He smiled. 'Well, maybe a little.'
She studied him, considering how old he might be. 'Vietnam?'
She put a light hand on his arm. One of many scars ran along it; her fingers followed it. There were tears in her eyes when she looked up at him.
'You never got your welcome home, I'll warrant.'
Solemnly, he shook his head.
'Well – let's rectify that right now,' she said, meeting his eyes directly. 'Welcome home, John Rambo. You did a good job.'
He couldn't remember ever hearing those words from anyone, for any reason. One woman here and now somehow made up for all the protesters over thirty years before. In a much better frame of mind, he polished off his dinner. Jessie placed a generous wedge of pie on his plate.
'Tell me more about you,' he said, resettling himself.
She grew suddenly serious. 'There's something you should know about me. I didn't just come to Bowie to do research. The site is there, yes, but the town is small and unobtrusive. I came here to escape – to hide.'
She pushed back her long black hair and showed him the scar on her forehead where her former husband had once smashed her into a wall, and small round burn marks on the inside of her wrists where he had put out cigarettes. She told him of the beatings she had endured from him.
'Jesus, Jessie,' he said, examining her arm.
'That's not the worst of it. He's looking for me, John. He swore he'd hunt me down if I ever left. Anyone he finds with me is in danger.'
'Does he know where you are?'
'I don't think so - but I'm not sure. I just thought you should know.'
'He sounds like bad news.'
She nodded impassively. 'To put it mildly.'
'Jessie,' he said. She looked up at him. He saw in her eyes the same raw courage he'd seen in fellow soldiers in the field, in Co Bao, in Sarah Miller. All afraid, but determined to stay alive, to conquer the fear that threatened to consume them. Pure raw courage.
'It'll be ok.' It was a new sensation to feel he could bolster someone else. She smiled bravely, tossing her hair back.
Together they packed away lunch.
Picking up the bow, she challenged, 'Best two out of three?'
'After a few lessons.'
He explained his technique. She should keep some flex in her elbow so the bow arm is not completely extended, to help give clearance to the string on release. Encircling her with his arms, he took her hands in his to demonstrate. He drew back the string; together they released the arrow. It missed the target, flying unnoticed, for John's lips had met Jessie's in a tender kiss. Bow and arrow and technique were forgotten as John held Jessie close. Soft breezes ruffled the meadow grasses and cooled the sweat on his skin; the years seemed to melt away as he kissed her again and again.
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE – THE WEREWOLF
The Bandito gang set up camp several miles out of Bowie off a seldom-used dirt road. Avoiding the police was their main concern. They sent Demon, the least conspicuous of the lot, to a grocery for steaks and beans. While they waited, Werewolf, an unlit joint hanging from his lips, found a loose lug nut on the rear wheel of his bike. He was tightening it when big Samson, rubbing his shiny white bald head, ambled over. Bored, he struck up a conversation.
'So – we're ridin' to find your old lady, huh?'
'Yep. Man, I've tracked that bitch all the way from Austin,' Werewolf complained. 'She took off on me about a year ago - always said I knocked her around too much.'
'Well – did you?'
'No more than was needed to keep her in line.'
Samson let go a belly laugh. He knelt nearby, watching the Wolf work.
'Yeah, we got married after she graduated college. Hell, I dropped out after a year; I just couldn't see spending any more time with fucking geeks, killing my eyes with those damn books.'
Werewolf stowed his wrench and lit the tip of the joint. After a few seconds, he exhaled, passing the joint companionably to Samson, who took a long drag, burning it halfway down. Werewolf snatched out of his mouth. 'Easy, man, we can't get no more until we get to Tucson! These hick-town brushpoppers ain't got no weed!'
'So?' said Samson. 'Kids? Didja have any?'
'Naw. She did the birth control thing the whole time she was in school. Well, that was ok with me, who wants a bunch of wet-assed kids runnin' around, but I mean, here she is, nose buried in some damn book and I come home from the shop hungry enough to eat a horse and she won't cook. She's studying, she says. Wants me to spring for pizza. Well, I'll tell ya, that book went in the damn trash can and she got slapped around. After that she got her ass in there and cooked, and even made my lunch the next mornin'. Then I come home expecting my due and she ain't there. She didn't take no stuff so I figure she'll come back. Hell, she ain't got no family.'
'Yeah. So she never came back. Looked for weeks, man, asked around, no luck. Like I said, she didn't have nobody to run to. Then a bum I know hangs around downtown said he thought he saw somebody looked like her went into one of them shelters.' Werewolf took a last hit off the short joint, stubbed it out and put it in his pocket. 'But get this,' he said, exhaling, 'that ain't the worst of it. She makes off with my Goddamn stash! That was my fucking money, and there was better'n twenty grand!'
'No shit!' Samson shook his head sympathetically.
'I figure that's what she's been going to school on. Hell, that money was mine!' he repeated.
'Bitch deserves to die, man.'
Werewolf, short but powerfully built, was in Samson's face in an instant, grabbing a handful of dirty T-shirt and some chest hair beneath it. Samson winced. 'You so much as look at her, say hello to your grave, you son of a bitch. Nobody in this gang touches her. Hear me? She's mine.' He released the shirt. 'All you guys are supposed to do is back me up.'
Samson backed down, his hands raised. 'OK, man, I hear you - didn't realize you felt that way. So you do what you want with her. It's cool. It's cool.'
'Damn sure better be.' Werewolf shoved him away and resumed inspecting his Harley, grumbling to himself. Samson rejoined the others lazing by the fire. It was growing chilly; he squatted and warmed his hands over the flames. Chain Gang shook his head. 'Watch out for him, Dude. He'll kill you in your sleep for even dreaming about her. He rides the 'roids, you know.'
'And he don't mean hemorrhoids, neither – he means steroids, man!' Sarge laughed.
'What is he, nuts?' asked Samson.
Almost as one, the gang glanced up at Samson. 'Yeah,' said Chain Gang for all of them.
CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO – TRYST
This was going to be one of those difficult civilian experiences. He'd been a soldier too long. Combat tended to turn a guy away from consensual sex - which did not include the occasional visit to a gái điếm (6) - what just about all soldiers eventually did. After the horrors he had endured, sex had ceased to be an urge. He couldn't bear even the thought of getting that close to someone. Not just emotionally, but physically, for when you got that close to another person, you became vulnerable. You lost control. It was unthinkable. Not only that, there was a good chance you'd lose the person. So for many years, with only two exceptions, women had not been a part of his world. They hadn't belonged in his world for so many years. Except now, he figured things were different. He wanted Jessie in his world.
He knocked on the door of the small frame house. Presently, Jessie peeked cautiously through the drawn blinds to ensure it was him before unlocking the door. She'd told him eight o'clock; it was exactly that.
It was finally time, he thought, even if he was a little long in the tooth, to embark on a serious relationship with a woman. And Jessie was different. She, like Sarah and Co, was one of those rare women with a strength almost equaling his own, an inner strength, a woman of integrity and honor. He could also sense in her a longing need; perhaps she sensed the same in him. All he knew was that he'd been lonely for a long time. He greeted her with a kiss.
'Come in,' she said.
She had a nice place, if small. The house had once been the foreman's shack when old man Smith had owned this farm, years ago. He sold off all his land to pay debts; this small two-room structure was all that remained on just one acre. It was frequently rented out to people like Jessie, who came to study the many geological and paleontological features of the area. The walls were old-fashioned dark paneling, the floor was hardwood. A light braided rug and a few paintings brightened it considerably. A desk lamp and a bank of candles provided subtle light. She had decorated her small domain nicely. It was set up mainly for a student's needs, with a worktable on which were piled books and tools. He examined a small rock hammer and picked up a large, sealed vial.
'Careful – that's hydrochloric acid.'
'Why would you need acid?'
'To test carbonate materials. It's used by scientists and geologists. Breaks down the composition; helps us determine what's in the rock.
Nodding, he picked up several large mineral specimens. There was quartz, azurite, malachite and calcite. He listened, fascinated, as she identified each and explained their origin and age. To him a rock was simply something to walk or climb over. He picked up her GPS and studied it curiously.
'That's the best navigational tool anyone ever invented,' she said.
He smiled at her. 'Ever try just looking up at the stars? They tell you all you need to know. You get lost in the deepest jungle; you can find your way out.'
'Hey, I've got enough to study without adding astronomy,' she kidded. 'You learned all that in the service, in Vietnam?'
'We got specialized training.' He looked at her levelly. There was an awkward silence.
'Would you like some wine?' she asked, to ease the moment.
'Sure.' He replaced the GPS on the table and took a seat on the small sofa. She handed him a glass and took one for herself, sitting beside him. 'John - would you tell me more about your time in the military?'
'What branch were you in, for instance.'
'Army. Special Forces,' he said briefly.
'My God. I had no idea. You were a Green Beret?'
He nodded. 'And it was a long time ago.' He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, swirling the wine in the glass. 'It's not really something I like to remember, Jessie.'
'I understand. I'm sorry.'
'Don't be sorry.' He sighed. 'I'm reminded of it every day whether I want to remember or not.' She looked at him quizzically. 'I'll show you,' he said.
(6) Prostitute (Vietnamese)
He set the glass down. Slowly, he lifted his shirt over his head. In the dim light, her horrified eyes took in the network of scars that covered his chest and back, evidence of slashes left long ago by a Vietnamese Captain's sword. Crisscrossing his chest, extending down into his stomach, the raised scars, faded but still visible, screamed their story. An enormous, round burn mark on his right side, front and back; a fresh, deep indention near his left shoulder; other, smaller marks and blemishes; evidence of many wounds and countless incursions. Such was the stigmata of John Rambo. She passed gentle fingers over the scars. He shut his eyes; despite the tender touch, the memory of the sensations as knife or bullet or fire bit into him returned; the smell of his own blood, the nausea, the fear; the struggle to keep from simply slipping into oblivion; fighting to keep fighting. He was a warrior; he had a warrior's body. She understood now. They were both warriors in a way, both bearing scars, both survivors of battles. Neither lacking in courage. Both wanting to trust yet afraid to. Perhaps these common links was what drew him to her, and she to him. They understood this, even as they drew together.
The touch of her hands changed; a welcome distraction, for they were in his hair; on his shoulders; caressing, and suddenly her mouth was on his. More tender and gentle than he ever thought he was capable of being, he returned her caresses, hurriedly leaving behind old memories to lose himself in her warm embrace; her delicate scent; in her love. This was so very different in the arms of someone he actually dared care about. When dawn broke and each had expended all energy and lay in sweet exhaustion, she snuggled against his massive shoulder and slept. He studied her soft form in the early light; the softness of her hair which he twined around his fingers; the fullness of her lips. He sighed in deep contentment. He held her closer and soon joined her in the deepest, dreamless, most restful sleep he had ever known.
CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE – THE SEARCH
Werewolf disdained the pool table where his buddies were setting up the first game of the afternoon. He ordered a beer and leaned companionably against the bar, chatting with the bartender, who stared at him with disinterested eyes. 'Say, you wouldn't happen to know if there's a pretty little lady in town looks like this, would you?' he asked, showing him a photograph out of his wallet.
'Why?' asked the bartender.
'She's my wife.'
The bartender nodded. 'Yeah, sure, I've seen her in town. She don't ever come in here, though.'
'She's driving our car, said she'd meet me here. Car's seen better days, you know what I mean, and I was gonna give her a ride to Tucson to look at a new one – or at least, a later model.'
As disinterested as he was, the barkeep eyed this man suspiciously. Werewolf held out his left hand and wiggled the ring finger, encircled by a plain gold band. 'Not looking for trouble, mister, just lost the piece of paper she gave me with the directions on it. Trying to find her before she gets stranded.'
'I hear she spends a lot of time at Big Sandy. Don't know what she does up there – ain't nothing but rocks and scrub brush and snakes,' said the bartender.
Werewolf downed his beer. 'Thanks, mister! You're real helpful.'
He rejoined his buddies around the pool table. 'Ya'll stay here. Keep your goddamn noses clean. Last thing we need is a fucking cop nosing around. I think I know where she is; I wanna go talk to her alone. I'll meet you in two hours at the camp. Got it?'
'Got it, buddy.'
He left them to their game and went outside. The roar of a Harley could be heard, fading rapidly into the distance.
CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR – CONVERGENCE
It was all coming together. He was sixty-one now, and it was about damned time. Most guys had their shit together at half his age. What the hell - what went forward from now was all that mattered. And he intended to make up for lost time.
John hadn't felt this good in decades. A woman will do that to you. They'll have you all soft and bedded down in clover if you don't watch it, boys. They'll feed you and pamper you until they got you so fucking domesticated you don't know which end's up! If you just gotta, have yourself a Vietnamese mama-san now and then, but forget about keeping her around! I'm training soldiers - killers – not pansies! And take your condoms along, boys, because if you come back here with a case I'll shoot you myself!
He smiled to himself, remembering the lectures Colonel would yell at them while they stood at attention, waiting to be released on their rare weekend leaves. Well, that was then and this was now. He'd connected with a woman at last, in a normal way, not in the middle of somebody else's war. And by God, it just might last.
He looked around. It was quiet. Frank was in town, whooping it up with the crew. There was nothing to command his attention. Jessie would likely be at Big Sandy, working, but he didn't think she'd mind the interruption. He wanted to see her. Needed to see her; connect with her. He'd take his quiver for a little practice. The grulla was circling the corral; nickering. The big horse always seemed to read his mind.
CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE – ATTACK
This day would eventually come, she knew. He had finally tracked her here; she had only postponed the inevitable. There was no escaping him. Jessie steeled herself from the moment she heard the roar of the motorcycle echoing against the rocks.
She left her instruments and walked back to the truck. She debated on starting the engine; trying to run past him, but the uneven terrain would compromise her tires. The beating might be less if she didn't run, she figured. Maybe she could reason with him. Maybe this time he wasn't strung out on steroids; on cocaine.
He barreled up to the truck in a choking cloud of dust. His eyes never left hers as he booted the kickstand and leaned the bike. Dismounting, he sauntered over to her, grinning even as she shrank back against the truck seat.
'Well, what do you know. You run into the damndest people in the damndest places. Haven't seen you in a while, Jessie.'
She cursed herself for shaking so visibly. It was something a demon might feed on. She worked to control it so her voice would not betray her.
'The name's Werewolf, in case you've forgotten. White Werewolf!
'So - why did you take off on me?' It wasn't a question borne out of caring but an interrogation. His eyes were like those of a shark, poised to bite. She looked closely at his eyes. He was high.
Despite her determination to reason calmly with him, hatred spoke out of her. 'You should know why. Ever since you got on steroids and junk, you've changed. I loved the man I married but you're not him any more. I was afraid you would kill me. That's why I had to leave.'
'I could kill you now –' he looked around at the vast, empty landscape, 'and nobody'd know it. But I won't. Not if you come back with me - now.'
'I can't do that, Chris,' she said softly but firmly, knowing all hell was about to break loose and she was powerless to stop it.
'The hell you can't!' He jerked open the truck door and his hand clamped down on her arm. He dragged her from the vehicle and began slapping her, hard. She struggled, screaming; broke loose and ran down to the lower rock shelf. There were several more shallow ledges that graduated to the creek; perhaps she could get away if she reached it; there was enough water and a strong current to carry her swiftly away, but he tackled her. She slammed to the hard rock, splitting her cheek open and taking skin off her hands. He had her now, and with his knee in her back, began an all-out assault, punching her shoulders, spine, kidneys. She wrapped her arms around her head as he screamed epithets at her. She began begging for her life, but held no hope that her pleas would be heeded by this madman. This was the end. Maybe it was best. He would track her to the frozen ends of the earth to get his own way. She stopped struggling and went limp, letting him hit her. He grabbed a fistful of her hair and slammed her face against the rock. Let it end soon, she thought before she blacked out.
CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX – RESCUE
Even from a great distance, John saw something was wrong: a motorcycle was parked by Jessie's truck and the cab's driver's side door was open. He put the horse into a full gallop. As he drew nearer, her screams were carried to him on the wind, along with a man's loud curses. He was off the horse in an instant, racing toward the sound. Werewolf had Jessie down on the rocks, pummeling her. She lay ominously still.
'You're coming back with me whether you like it or not, you fucking wh-!' The Wolf's words choked off as some unseen force grabbed him from behind, around the neck. He hurtled through the air, landing painfully on his back. Stunned, he lay a moment, shutting his eyes to catch his breath. When he opened them again, he had difficulty focusing. Something sharp pressed painfully into his forehead at the bridge of his nose. As his vision cleared, Werewolf focused past the object digging into his skin to the man standing over him, holding a tightly stretched bow, sighting down an arrow, the tip of which pressed ever harder, drawing blood. What the hell is this, he thought, a fucking Western? Some freaking Indian attack? Am I tripping?
The thick fingers on the tightly pulled string never quivered. The big man's eyes were fierce. He seemed to be fighting the urge to release the arrow. A moment passed, then he straightened and backed away, keeping the weapon trained on him. Werewolf shakily got to his feet.
'Just who the fuck are you?' he demanded.
'A friend of Jessie's.'
Werewolf sized the man up. He wasn't going to release that arrow, Wolf knew that now. It was a warning – nothing more. He sensed the man wanted to kill him, was itching to kill him, but was holding back. Werewolf would let it go – for now. He'd have his gang with him next time. The bitch was going to lose her watchdog and Werewolf would take her.
Nothing more was said. John followed the man with the tip of the drawn arrow until he cranked the Harley and roared off. Only then did he sheath the arrow. He sought Jessie, who had come to and sat stunned, holding her head. She was bleeding. He helped her up. Together they watched the cloud of dust kicked up by the motorcycle rise and dissipate.
'He's found me,' she said, her voice quivering.
'That was him?'
'I see why you left him.' He helped her to her feet. 'Come on. Let's get you to a hospital.'
'No, John! I'm all right. They'll call it a domestic disturbance and call the cops and make things worse. I've been through this before.'
He couldn't disagree with her. He wasn't too fond of cops himself. 'All right – I'll take you home.'
'He's probably figured out where I live, John.'
'I meant my home,' he said firmly.
He released the grulla – the horse would find its way back. Sliding into the driver's seat, he drove carefully over the rocky surface until he got to the dirt path that led to a farm road and out to the highway. Jessie sat stoically; shaking beneath the hand John laid on her shoulder to steady her.
Arriving at the ranch at last, he helped her into the house. There was a first aid kit in the pantry. Examining her face, he found a large gash on her cheek. Cross-trained as a medic in Vietnam, he palpated her face and back with skilled fingers. No bones seemed to be broken. She would have a badly swollen face and blacked eyes; the bruises would heal and the swelling would go down, but this gash would need a stitch or two. He told her as much. 'I was a medic in the army,' he offered.
She nodded and sat in one of the kitchen chairs. Lacking anesthetic, he simply held ice to the wound. In about five minutes it was numb enough to stitch with a minimum of discomfort. She winced but bore it bravely, even joking that she had another trophy to add to her collection.
'Jessie, are you sure you don't want me to call the police? This is serious.'
'I've been through worse, believe me. Nobody's been able to help me in the past and they aren't going to help now. They'd only complicate things. Chris is a good actor. The few times I managed to escape, he had the cops out looking for me. He had them believing I was strung out on meth and they took me back to him. He played the loving husband until they left; then he showed me his other side, which isn't so charming, as you saw. He's on steroids and God knows what else. He isn't human.'
'OK, then, how about a Doctor?' You really need some x-rays. There may be minor fractures I can't detect.'
'No, John. He'll be checking the hospitals. You don't know him!'
'I've known people like him.' He got up from the table. 'People inhuman like him. People worse than him.'
'How is that possible?'
He didn't answer. There was a half-full bottle of whiskey in the cabinet. He set a shot glass before her and filled it.
She obeyed, grimacing.
He refilled it. 'Jessie, I'm sending Frank and my men over to get your things in the morning.'
'Because you're staying here.'
'John – you're putting yourself at risk. Please don't do that.'
'Jessie – there's no need to worry,' he said firmly.
The whiskey shots were helping; Jessie had stopped quivering. In a stupor, she leaned forward on the table.
'You need sleep now,' said John. He helped her to his bed and shut the door.
When he was sure she was settled, he retrieved his bow and arrow from her truck. The big knife was now in the gun cabinet along with a single shot rifle and a shotgun; tools necessary to every rancher. Boxes of ammunition lined the shelf. The guns were in well-oiled, working order but he examined them anyway. He was going to need them.
CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN – THE PLAN
Wolf's back ached. The vibration of the Harley exacerbated it, which fueled his rage; at Jessie, at that bastard with her, and at himself. He flexed his shoulders in an effort to ease the pain but something felt busted in there. What he figured to be a sure and easy thing was turning out the opposite from his plan.
Once he made up his mind to find Jessie, he hounded her U.T. professors; they called the law on him. He evaded the cops and watched and waited. He offered a twenty, a carton of cigarettes and a bottle of good whiskey to a homeless man who knew the city like the back of his hand to keep an eye out for her. He was rewarded with the news that she went into a battered women's shelter. After that, he couldn't get any more information about her, so he went back to the college. He knew a few of her classmates and picked out a skinny little dude to have a talk with. He grabbed him late one night, rode him out into the woods surrounding the campus and threatened to castrate him if he didn't tell where Jessie had gone. The gutless kid spilled it in a minute about her assignment in Arizona. The whole goddamn staff had been in on it. Jessie had real talent and they sent her where they thought she would be safe to do her field work. Wolf figured on tracking her down, straightening her out and taking her back. If she couldn't hold on after he beat the crap out of her for leaving, he'd tie her to the sissy bar. It was only a matter of time. Now he wasn't so sure; it was a damned good thing he'd brought along his gang. He roared into the camp where they were congregated, waiting, as ordered.
'What happened, man?' asked Chain Gang. 'Hey, you're bleedin',' he said, pointing.
Werewolf touched his palm to the back of his head. His back hurt so much he never even felt the scrape. The hair was sticky; blood was trickling down his neck.
'Jessie's got a fucking watchdog that needs killing.'
'She got a man, you moron. She's found herself a man!'
'So? Nothing you can't handle, right?'
Werewolf spat on the ground. The saliva was tinged with blood. He wasn't about to admit the guy Jessie was with had an advantage. Hell, he hadn't even heard bastard approach; next thing he knew he was laid out. The expression behind the fletch of that arrow had unnerved him but he wasn't about to admit it, not even to himself.
'I need back up - I want the bastard killed.'
'We came along to help find your old lady. Why should we risk our necks? You want her, you kill him!' Sarge shouted, shoving him. Werewolf and Sarge squared off. Samson stepped in. 'Cool it! The Wolf is paying us, man - we all agreed to do whatever it takes – let's just get his woman and get the fuck out of here!'
'I want that motherfucker dead!' Werewolf was pacing maniacally, beating one fist into his hand.
'Why are you risking so much for one woman?' Demon demanded to know. 'Hell, there's plenty of meat out there; you can do better, man!'
Werewolf turned from Sarge and grabbed the skinny Demon by the throat. 'I said we're going after her. All of us.'
Demon held a black belt in karate and Werewolf knew it. Demon thought he must be crazed to threaten him like this – but he backed off. Werewolf delivered too much cocaine to him to make an enemy out of him now.
'OK, OK. I'm with you man,' Demon said simply. 'Let's go kill the bastard.'
'First I need you to ask around. I've already been seen asking about her. You go – ask around. See where she's staying.'
Demon held his hand out.
'I ain't going until I get some snow.'
'Man, you never get enough, do you? All right, here! Now get going!'
Demon gunned his Harley and was soon out of sight. Sarge sat Werewolf down on a log and gave first aid of the sort employed by the toughest bikers: he slapped a square of duct tape over the wounds.
An hour later, Demon was back.
'What did you find out?' asked Werewolf.
'That freak you want dead? He works at the Rambo ranch. Funny freakin' name, ain't it? Rambo. Like the apple.'
'Who told you, asshole?'
'Some hooker at Rix's. Claims he spit on her after she asked him to dance. She and a friend have a threesome ever so often with a guy he works with. But that wad'n the wors' of it, man,' said Demon, slurring his words. He was cranked as high as he could go.
'Well?' yelled Werewolf. 'Spit!'
Demon looked at him blearily. 'Guess what I foun' out.'
'I'm not guessing - I'm cutting your fucking nose off if you don't spill it!'
'Ho-kay, ho-kay, cool out,' Demon replied unperturbed. 'Jessie lives with him. Thass' why you ain't been able to fin' her.'
'Fuck!' Werewolf paced back and forth, maniacally.
'So what do you want us to do, man? asked Sarge.
'I'll tell you what we'll do. We'll teach that bastard a lesson at the same time we get Jessie. Demon – here, man, focus! You know where this ranch is?'
'Sure do. Sure an' certain do.'
'What say we torch it – grab her – and head for home. Quick and simple.'
'Cops?' Chain Gang queried.
'Fuck, the damn cops in this town number exactly two; there ain't enough of them to cover nothing – they'd have to call the state boys. By the time they do that we'll be done and halfway home before the pigs know where the slop is.'
'Damn straight,' Train Wreck agreed.
'You guys with me? If not, head on outta here. But you better not go back to Austin. I'll catch up with you there and we'll settle up.'
'Aw, hell, Wolf, we're all itching for a fight anyway, aren't we, boys?' Train Wreck said. 'We're with ya, Wolf.'
CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT – NIGHTMARES
With Jessie now beside him each night, John's nightmares had become less chaotic. Still, memories played in his deepest dreams:
'Ten-HUT!' barked the sergeant as Rambo entered Trautman's small office. After saluting, he came immediately to rigid attention. It was 1970 in the middle of a steamy jungle outside Quang Tri, near the Demilitarized Zone. A small base camp had been hacked out of the undergrowth, the last line of defense in this northern part of South Vietnam. North Vietnam and the Viet Cong were uncomfortably close, but conveniently located for a game of attrition. In what turned out to be the last few years of a long, weary war, it was thought that this strategy might undermine a little of the Viet Cong's vicious offensive. They placed their best men in that location. One of the best of the 12-member units was Baker Team. The best of Baker Team was John Rambo.
Trautman returned the salute. 'Dismissed,' he said to the sergeant. He rose from his chair and poured two cups of coffee from a small pot resting on a hotplate. Sitting informally on his desk, he handed a cup to John.
'At ease, son.'
Rambo took the proffered cup, waiting expectantly. He knew his commanding officer would get to the point in his own good time. Trautman always started slowly and informally. The finish was always swift - and hard. It was no different this time.
After a round of small talk, he cleared his throat.
'This meeting isn't happening, John.'
'Understood, Sir.' John placed his cup on the desk. Time to get down to business.
'You already know your general order: dispose of enemy personnel. But I'm adding an addendum: any damn way you please. I'm giving you free rein. You have permission to vacate the base at any time to obey that order - no questions asked. Set your own hours. Just get the job done. As many of the bastards as you can.'
'Just one more thing, John. You're not gonna like it.'
John stared at his commanding officer. He had a good idea what was coming.
'You're going into North Vietnam. If you get killed - the army'll deny it. You weren't there; you don't exist. You get captured – it's gonna be a long fucking time before anybody'll come get you. Now, that didn't come from me. It comes from the brass upstairs.'
'I understand, sir.' Trautman had his orders just as John had his.
'They're trying to shorten this war – and aside from an atom bomb, covert operations are the only way we can do it. Fight fire with fire. Beat the bastards at their own game. If it was up to me, John,' he said, returning to his chair, 'I'd have all you boys home in time for Christmas and drop the goddamn bomb; wipe all of 'em out. But you know Nixon ain't gonna do that. He hasn't got the balls. So it's up to us. In a small way, up to you.'
'So - are you in?'
'All the way, Sir.'
'I knew I could count on you,' Trautman said. 'Give 'em hell, son.'
They shook. Trautman's grip was a solid as Rambo's own, and as steady.
After another exchange of salutes, John Rambo, as ordered, set out to do just one thing for his country: kill.
He snaked through the jungle as quietly as a bushmaster. Long lines of Viet Cong wore paths through thick jungle routes to the south. He would conceal himself in the brush or hang unseen overhead; as the column filed by he looped wire around the last man's neck, hanging him, or spear him with his M-7 bayonet. Most columns didn't know they'd been hit until the next-to-last gook noticed the caboose was missing. He wiped out small squads by silently knifing the guards from behind, slitting their throats and lowering them quietly to the jungle floor. Then he'd slit the throats of the sleeping men. Any Cong taking so much as a piss in the middle of the night would be found in the morning, stiff and covered with insects.
John would return to the base covered in crimson mud, slip into the communal shower and catch a few Zs before joining the rest of the team. Daytimes were somehow worse than his night excursions; the blackness of night hid his transgressions; daylight exposed them. The strange and true nature of the war was brought to light then. Like the time the squad passed a quiet little ville between Quang Tri and Hue. Everyone was on the alert despite the fact that there was nothing there to raise suspicion; just a small hamlet tucked away in a Vietnamese jungle; population under fifty. Still, no one knew where their sympathies lay. They could be ARVN or Cong. Paranoia had become a standard state of mind for the American soldier.
A young boy, perhaps 12 years old, had approached the squad that day and begged, in broken English, for help. His grandmother needed medicine. An argument ensued between John Rambo and DelMar Barry. DelMar, skilled Green Beret and giant that he was, had one failing: he was a sucker for kids. He wanted to go in. Rambo, suspicious, ordered the team to conceal themselves and wait while he accompanied DelMar into the ville. It wasn't far to the hut where the old woman lay. The boy hung back, escalating Rambo's suspicions. No one else was in the hut, just a very old woman who looked to be already dead, lying on the dirt floor beneath a blanket. Rambo held DelMar back while he very carefully, with the point of his knife, lifted the blanket a few inches. The old woman was wired to an explosive, set to go off the minute anyone touched her. Rambo yanked DelMar, ashen-faced, out of the hut. A few warning shots from his rifle sent the village scurrying for shelter. Rambo gave his friend a long, hard stare; DelMar never spoke to another Vietnamese child after that day.
Rambo gained a nickname in that base camp - Prince of Darkness - going out alone nearly every night, coming in with the usual souvenirs: ball chains strung with ears. John Rambo racked up 53 kills, singlehandedly, more than any other soldier in Baker Team.
Then he was captured and sent to the POW camp.
His last incursion was deep into North Vietnam. The Viet Cong had been infuriated by the tinh thần (7), as they called him; every unit had been ordered to be on the lookout for him.
So it was that they marshaled their forces to close in, surround and overwhelm him. In November 1971 they succeeded in capturing him. He fought like a berserker (8), severely wounding several of his captors before being overwhelmed. Bound head to foot with barbed wire, he was thrust into the back of a truck for the long trip to Hong Gai, a POW camp near the Chinese border.
Once there, he was stripped to the waist and flung into a ten-foot deep pit. The Cong tied him to a crossbar and left him standing in ankle deep mud from which emitted a powerful stench. High above his head were crosstied bamboo poles. At the end of each day the gooks dumped buckets of waste in on him. He was interrogated regularly, beaten every day. The most food he could count on was a bowl of rice every day or so, usually riddled with worms. While in solitary, unbound, he caught and ate roaches and slugs, pulled up bamboo shoots, whatever he could find to stay alive. The cages were the worst. Trapped in them for days, sometimes weeks, unable to sit or stand, he was still able to capture rats which ventured in to chew on him. He would skin and eat them raw for the protein.
(7) Ghost; spirit(Vietnamese)
(8) Berserkers were Norse warriors who wore coats of wolf or bear skin and who were commonly understood to have fought in an uncontrollable rage or trance of fury
The Viet Cong could not break him. He would jeer at their frequent interrogations. Enraged, they lashed him to a pole and strung him up. He refused to give even name, rank and serial number. Tay, the Viet Cong sergeant, threatened to flay him alive if he didn't inform them of the location of the U.S. Army camp he knew was near the border. John gathered a mouthful of blood and saliva and sent it unerringly into Tay's face.
Tay then held his sword to Rambo's chest and slowly drew it about a quarter inch deep, over and over, in all directions. Blood sheeted down his belly and dripped onto the dirt floor. John's only answers to the shouted questions were curses and screams of agony. When they couldn't break him, they finally cut him down.
He was given some rubber tree leaves and placed back in solitary. Rambo used the leaves to staunch the blood and wrapped himself in them for the long, painful night ahead. After a week or two when he had healed somewhat, they repeated the procedure, slicing his back. He never broke.
There were other American POWs in the camp; Rambo often heard their moans at night and their screams by day, but he never saw them. He bore most of his torture alone. He passed seven long months of punishment for a country that would welcome him home with curses and spitting. Mercifully, he was unaware of the future which awaited him and just as mercifully, he virtually shut down while in the camp, except for the constant surveillance he employed to try for escape. It was the only way to keep sane; the only way to survive. The memories would return later, to haunt him.
One day in May 1972 he was taken outside and scrubbed with a hose; perhaps his captors figured to keep him alive a few more weeks by removing the encrusted filth which was infecting the wounds on his body. After seven months, he was beginning to grow weaker despite his efforts to stay strong. He exaggerated this weakness to lull the gooks into thinking he was past fighting; though somewhat emaciated, he was far from it. Given only a rag for clothing, he wrapped it about himself and secured it, collapsing onto a bamboo mat. His watchful eyes saw his chance: the gooks, thinking he could not run, relaxed their guard. The new gái điếm (9), buzzing up to the gate on her Lambretta, was now the focus of their rapt attention. The soldiers at the gate greeted her, slapping her rear. She flashed her wares, soliciting their business for future visits while the soldiers at the gate seemed to be prolonging the encounter for their own gratification. Rambo's guards, avidly watching the erotic exchange, did not notice him as he stealthily and swiftly moved away.
Rambo silently thanked the little prostitute for her innocent role in his escape. He quickly took cover beneath the nearest hooch. Smearing himself with mud for camouflage, he darted from one hooch to the next, hiding beneath the small structures. He knew it was only a matter of a minute or two before he was discovered missing.
When the alarm sounded; shouts and curses could be heard and barking dogs told him he was being tracked. He hurried, working his way to the camp perimeter near the Thai Binh River, which ran south of the camp.
He had no knife with which to cut the razor wire so he hurriedly scratched out a shallow trench and wormed beneath it, getting considerably sliced in the process. His best shot at getting out with minimum effort and no equipment was taking the river, if he could reach it. The dogs couldn't track him there. The current flowed south. He figured his best chance would be the river delta at Haiphong Harbor; the Marines were patrolling that area. If he could stay in the swift-running river and avoid snakes and rocks, he figured he'd be out of danger within an hour. Then he could take to the jungle, alternating between it and the river until he reached the harbor. Perhaps he'd find an abandoned boat that some fisherman left behind – or wasn't watching.
He'd had to abandon that plan, however, in favor of heading south to the DMZ. Avoiding the Viet Cong, stealing clothes from corpses along the way, getting by on fruit and ground water which gave him a severe case of dysentery, it took six weeks of struggle for him to reach any sort of American base camp.
(9) Prostitute (Vietnamese)
And again, it was the Marines who came to his rescue. Half delirious, Rambo was crawling, unable to stand, and speaking Vietnamese to the guard at the compound gate. The guard, a Lance Corporal, suspiciously leveled his rifle at him. A grizzled Gunnery Sergeant patrolling the perimeter of the compound at that moment yanked the rifle up, yelling at the guard, 'Do you know what the fuck you're doing? Man your post Corporal!'
The Gunny looked closely at the thin, battered man on the ground, still speaking Vietnamese. He too tall to be a gook and his ragged black pajamas were far too small. Grabbing Rambo's arm, he pulled him up. Never had he seen a more bedraggled, sorry piece of humanity in his life, but the man was a round-eye, one of their own. Rambo came to himself for a moment, long enough to give name, rank and serial number. So he was Army - but still a brother-in-arms. The Gunny ordered a litter brought; Rambo was immediately taken to sickbay. Denied food at first, he'd had to subsist off an I.V. for a day or two when he could surely have eaten a two pound steak. Antibiotics helped heal his many wounds. He was tough as nails and soon pulled through, astonishing the Marine corpsman. Word was sent to Colonel Trautman of his escape and he sent Rambo a telegram with only five letters: K.A.J. – ST. Rambo grinned widely. It was Trautman's code for his boys: Kick Ass, John. Sam Trautman. He stayed with the Marines until he was well enough to travel then he was sent to Japan to spend another six weeks in a Japanese hospital before being transferred back to the United States.
After a stint back at Bragg, gaining strength and going through re-training, John Rambo was redeployed to Vietnam in October of 1972. His final tour of duty beneath the Green Beret lasted until September 1974. He racked up another 6 kills for a total of 59 reported. His honorable discharge with MOH commendation was September 17, 1974.
Rambo's civilian status rankled. Life after the military didn't go as expected. He didn't go back home. From Fort Ord in California he drifted south, taking odd jobs, finally shacking up with a girl in L.A. just to have a roof over his head. She supported him for eighteen months then, disgusted, kicked him out. He drifted again, this time north, sometimes getting a job, more often not. He lived off the land, slept where he could. Bridges, overpasses, picnic tables: such were accommodations for John Rambo.
He began lashing out at society. He lived by his wits; by his instincts. It was by those inborn skills that he escaped the jungle, certainly not by anything Trautman had taught him. His nightmares were constant. He drifted for six more years, up through the high elevations of North California, on into Oregon. He got a job parking cars at a Portland hotel but was fired after a patron threw the keys at him. 'Don't scratch it, creep,' said the corporate bastard, and Rambo had thrown the keys back, hitting him square in the forehead. 'Park it yourself, you son of a bitch!' he yelled, and was fired that evening by the manager. Once again he packed his worn duffel and set off. It was coming on December but he continued ever northward, into south central Washington. The first small town he came to was Hope. It was in that small town that he lost it - completely.
Five years breaking rocks, oddly cathartic to a man lost in the wilderness. At least he knew where he stood. He'd established his place in the pecking order and nobody bothered him. It was an oddly peaceful existence among the worst variety of murderers and thieves. He felt somehow one of them; and like some of them, he had no regrets. He'd been pushed to his limits. And when you're pushed that hard, he would think to himself, killing was as easy as breathing. Except he hadn't killed – this time. They really had never known what he was capable of because Trautman had talked him down.
Maybe the next veteran who stumbled upon Hope, Washington would get a better reception. And if he did, and John Rambo heard about it, he would be satisfied.
CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE – INFERNO
The eight bikers left their Harleys parked a quarter mile down the main road. Carrying unlit torches made from rags, several gas cans and Trainwreck's grenade, they walked up the long driveway. Werewolf had laid out the plan; they would splash the house first. Every window would get a torch. They'd fire the barn and equipment. In the confusion, Werewolf would locate Jessie. The grenade could be used if anybody gave them any shit. Trainwreck wasn't happy about that; he never knew when he could get another live one. They didn't grow on trees, he told Werewolf.
They quietly circled the house, checking the windows, swiftly breaking them, chucking in lit torches. Werewolf, not willing to wait until everyone came pouring out, went in, dodging flame, screaming for Jessie. Every room in the house was afire. The gang lit up the barn; the two Indian hired hands were asleep in their bunks and never had a chance; one of the bikers spread diesel from the combine all over, threw the torch up to the hayloft and ran out before the combine exploded.
Werewolf was still in the house, unable to find Jessie. He ran outside. 'I can't find her! She's not in the house!'
'Nobody's in there! Nobody came out!' yelled the Barber.
'What the fuck?' Werewolf screamed. Lifer, standing beside him, made an odd noise. He looked down in surprise at the arrow protruding from his stomach. A shotgun blast rang out; Samson jerked and fell on his face.
'They're close!,' yelled Werewolf. 'Get down! Sarge! Work your way around and get that bastard with the shotgun!'
Sarge snaked his way through the grass as the bikers huddled behind a clump of hedge. Samson was groaning in pain from pellets imbedded in his back.
Frank was situated on the opposite side of the house from John, barricaded behind a boulder. Sarge came up behind Frank. Raising a short club, he laid him out with a blow to the head. Jessie, crouched in terror, was with Frank; she began screaming.
Sarge raised his hand as if to slap her. 'Don't scream and bring your boyfriend down on us – he'll die,' he warned. Sarge took the shotgun and broke it over a fence post. He strapped Jessie's mouth with duct tape and taped her hands and feet. Hauling her over his shoulder, he set out unseen across the field to the road, where he shoved her down in a shallow ditch. He worked his way back to the gang.
'I have her, man,' he told Werewolf.
'You do? Where?'
'Got her taped like a hog on ice in a ditch just back there,' he pointed. 'All we gotta do is back outta here, get the bikes and we're home free.'
'Not until I take this bastard out! Trainwreck! Gimme that grenade!'
Werewolf, enraged at such blatant disobedience, roughly tore the chain loose from the man's neck, pulled the pin and counted to four. 'I saw that motherfucker behind that grove of trees. This should do the job.' He threw the grenade at the fifth second, not trusting the explosive past that. Some grenades went off at eight seconds; he wasn't gambling that far. The trees instantly exploded and fell, trapping John before he could move. He lay stunned under a mass of broken trunks and leaves. Confident their nemesis was finished, they headed out to get Jessie and the bikes.
Frank came to, his head an aching torment. He wiped blood running down his forehead with his sleeve. The house and barn, each completely consumed, lit up the night. Poor Indian bastards, he thought.
Disoriented, he looked around. Where was Jessie? As soon as he could walk without staggering, he circled the flaming wreck of the Rambo home, calling John. Near the front of the house he saw the exploded trees. A groan could be heard from within the network of destroyed limbs.
'I'm here! Under the fucking tree!'
Frank peered into the jumble. John was in a bad way. Frank set his shoulder and pushed with all his might but he couldn't budge even a branch. 'Hang on, buddy – I'll bring the jeep!'
John, gravely injured, meanwhile pushed with all his might but could not move the trunk that held him trapped. Frank ran to the jeep which had been cleverly concealed behind a small outbuilding. He roped the jeep to a log and carefully dragged it away.
'Damn, where's a fucking chainsaw when you need one,' he muttered.
'Just get this crap off me!' John yelled.
Another log was carefully moved, then another. Frank helped John out from beneath the jumble of branches. He was badly skinned; one leg was gashed and he wheezed with at least one broken rib. He straightened up very slowly.
Frank nervously rubbed his hands against his jeans. 'John, I'm sorry, man, they took her.'
'One of those bastards cracked my head open. Felt like it, anyway. Broke the shotgun. She was gone time I came to. They took her.'
John's face became like stone. 'Let's go.' He retrieved his bow, quiver and rifle from beneath the fallen trees. His knife was still in his belt. He handed the rifle and the few shells he was able to find to Frank. They would have to do. Vaulting into the jeep, they set out to find Jessie.
'They're probably going back to Austin tonight,' John said. 'Head east.'
Frank drove along the back road. Where it curved and dipped from town there were several shallow canyons. The glimmer of a headlight flickered in one.
'Wait, I see them,' said Frank.
White Werewolf had halted the gang in a shallow box canyon. Samson was getting first aid for several shotgun pellets. He hadn't been able to ride far with the agonizing pain in his back.
'Kill the engine,' John ordered. Taking his weapons, he crept stealthily to the rim of the canyon.
CHAPTER THIRTY – PRIVATE WAR
Frank left the jeep on the road and followed John, crawling on his belly to the canyon rim. John halted him at a rise overlooking the canyon floor below. They lay concealed, surveying the situation below. Jessie was tied to Werewolf's bike; he stood close by; apparently berating her. One of the bikers was bent over as another one dug out shot from his back and slapped duct tape over the wounds. The others milled about, impatiently waiting. They would take off again as soon as the first aid was attended to.
John did a weapons check. His quiver had been smashed when the tree fell; only two arrows were intact. He had the knife and rifle; but only three shells that could be salvaged from beneath the tree.
Suddenly, Trainwreck left the group. He ducked behind a large boulder to take a piss. John immediately knelt up and took him out with an arrow to the head; Trainwreck fell forward into the brush. Samson, duly patched, started his bike and revved the engine. They were all preparing to take off, when Demon noticed Trainwreck's vacant bike.
'Hey!' he yelled to Werewolf. 'Where's the Train?'
'Hell if I know. He'll catch up!'
'No, man. We can't leave him.' Demon went stumbling over the rocky floor of the canyon and tripped over Trainwreck's body. A black arrow protruded neatly from his forehead. Before he could raise the alarm, John took Demon out with his last arrow. The slight man was carried by the force of the arrow through his throat three feet from Trainwreck.
Frank fired the rifle. Sarge was hit, although only wounded. He along with the others scattered, taking what cover they could. Jessie tipped over the motorcycle to which she was tied in her struggle to free herself, narrowly missing being crushed. She lay on the ground, a helpless witness to the carnage.
'Save your ammo – I'm going down there; cover me!' said John. Pulling his knife clear of his belt, ignoring the pain in his side, he ran down the sloped side of the canyon.
CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE – PEACE
He had fought many a war since he was 18 years old. The Vietnam War, his own personal war within himself - which had probably taken more of a toll than all the others combined – then back to Vietnam to rescue POWs, to Afghanistan to rescue Colonel Trautman and to round it all off, Burma, saving the Christians. Colonel Trautman had called him a full-blooded combat veteran, the best he had ever trained. This war, on a much smaller scale and for a far different reason, would be different. No one could force him into this war, not by pushing; not with promises, medals, honor nor glory. He was going voluntarily into this on his own; for this war was for what he loved – cherished – wanted with his entire being. This war was his and his alone.
Jessie, lying on the ground, unable to scream because of the duct tape over her mouth, could only watch in horror as John fought hand-to-hand, already wounded and gravely outnumbered. Then a shot rang out.
Frank sighted down the rifle barrel, not believing what he was seeing. He'd been in many a fight himself and knew something of John's military background, but the strength and skill a man twice his age was now demonstrating – wounded on top of that – was not to be believed. It was mortal combat; John was keeping them busy; too busy to see Frank move in closer. He had 2 rounds left. He sighted carefully.
Werewolf crawled to his bike. Jessie had squirmed enough to free her legs before the bike fell; she worked at the duct tape over her mouth until her face was raw but succeeded in getting it lose. She now lay alongside the bike, struggling to free her arms. She succeeded in getting one hand loose before Werewolf pounced, screaming curses. Turning her head from his madness, she spotted Frank on the side of the canyon holding a rifle. John, several yards away, had Samson in a vice grip; the others hovered, jockeying for position; Frank was the only one who could help her now. Werewolf pulled his knife free and raised it above his head; intent on thrusting it into Jessie's chest when Frank fired. A large round hole appeared in the center of Werewolf's chest. Jessie watched, fascinated, as the man who was once her husband stared down at her in confusion. With her free hand, she dug in her pocket and drew out the vial of hydrochloric acid she'd stuffed in her jeans before John sent her to stay with Frank back at the ranch. Werewolf was still alive, but barely. He fell to the side, his legs still straddling her. With her free hand, Jessie opened and poured the vial over his face. 'So long, Chris,' she said with emphasis, watching him scream and squirm in agony as his face was eaten away. In seconds, he lay dead. His knife had fallen within reach; she tried to grasp it to cut herself loose, screaming John's name.
John heard Jessie, glimpsed her struggle out of the corner of his eye. 'Frank, get Jessie!' he yelled.
Frank ran with the rifle to comply. He had only one round left; he loaded it running. At Jessie's side he kicked the body of Werewolf away. Using the knife, he soon had Jessie free. He shoved her behind a boulder for safety and approached the melee, not sure how to use the last round. Though covered in blood, John seemed to have a handle on the three that were left. Samson had broken free of John's grip and was crouching for position. With a spectacular back kick, John cleanly dodged the Barber's knife; his heel struck Sarge square in the throat, collapsing the windpipe. Sarge, clutching his neck with both hands, his knife skittering away, fell backwards, choking. He was dead before he hit the ground. John landed, coming up from the crouching position and knifed Samson in the chest just as he lunged at him.
The knife hung up on a rib when John tried to pull it free. As Samson fell toward John, his hand still gripping the knife, he was pushed back off balance; he finally wrenched the knife free and Samson fell face down on the rocks. For a split instant, John stood vulnerable. Chain Gang saw his chance and whipped his signature weapon, coiling it around John. The heavy chain, weighted at the end by a small iron ball, acted like a whip, pinning John's legs and one arm, trapping him as in a vice. The ball smacked painfully between his shoulder blades. John still gripped his knife in his free right hand. The Barber had been crouching low, circling the two; now, like a snake, he struck, thrusting the knife up and into John's right side, twisting it. He didn't have much time to feel satisfaction, for John, ironically aided by the weight of the chain, leaned to the right and sliced the knife blade deep into the Barber's belly.
Astonished, Satan's Barber watched his own steamy entrails hit the rocky floor of the box canyon before falling backward. At that moment, Frank saw his chance and fired. The seven-foot giant, Chain Gang, staggered backward, clutching his chest. He recovered his stance but stood shakily, bent over, refusing to fall.
Frank ran forward, pulled something out of his belt loop and brought down on the giant's head, crushing his skull. It was a hammer.
'Thought I'd better bring some backup,' he told John, who was watching his friend's moves. …a hammer, taking the place of an AK-47…how ironic, thought John as he sank to his knees.
He vainly wrestled with the chain, trying to loosen it from his compressed lungs. Frank hurried to the aid of his friend.
'Hold on, partner, I'll get you loose.'
The battle ended, Jessie now ventured from behind the boulder, walking gingerly among the dead bodies, toward Frank and John.
Frank was hurriedly unwinding the chain from around John's battered body. As he did so, he noticed a steady stream of blackish blood oozing from John's right side. He tore his own shirt off and pressed it to the wound, trying to staunch the flow. John wheezed in pain.
'No good,' John said, straining to get his voice out. 'No good – liver cut.'
'I'll call an ambulance, man. Hang on.'
'Don't waste time,' John managed, shaking his head from side to side. 'Jessie….Get Jessie.'
Frank glanced up. Jessie was standing there, tears streaming down her face.
'She's here, John, she's ok. You should seen what she did! You gotta hang on. Hang on, buddy!' John fell to his side, groaning; Frank eased him to the ground. He got to his feet. 'Stupid son of a bitch wouldn't let me call the cops,' he muttered to Jessie, pulling his phone from his pocket.
Jessie sank to her knees beside the mortally wounded John Rambo. He had come up on one elbow and incredibly, was trying to get to his feet. 'What was it you did?' he rasped weakly.
'Acid. Chris's face. Think melted candle.'
'Damn…they need you in the Special Forces –'
John knelt up but fell again. Jessie restrained him as best she could. Frank was behind her, calling 911. All too soon, emergency personnel and police officers would be swarming around them. This was all the time they would ever have. She pulled John down onto her lap, cradling his head. He was fading fast. Taking his hand, she pressed his palm to her belly. The flutter he felt there revived him for a brief instant; he looked into her tear-filled eyes and she nodded. 'It's a boy, John.'
John's pain-twisted face relaxed into a soft, unlined expression of pure peace. With the last fading electrical pulses of his brain, he knew he had not lived for nothing; he had died for something. His face went slack. The eyes grew cloudy; the motion of his chest ceased. John Rambo had won his last war. He was free now, free to reunite with the Colonel and his brothers. They were waiting for him.