CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

August 20, 1975

4 Years, 6 Months, 18 Days

He sat nervously, watching some kind of grainery. He didn't think anyone would spot the car, and most likely they wouldn't pay attention if they did. He kept telling himself that.

He wondered why he was doing this. If he had any brains, he would've taken this car as far away from here as he could and dumped it. Especially this car.

He hadn't intended to stop here at all. He'd been offered a ride on the back of a flatbed truck several miles from here, and this was just where he'd been dropped off. Where he was going depended only on what road he ended up on, who else happened to offer a ride and where they were going.

He'd kept his head down as he walked down the street, knowing, and ignoring, the looks he got. He didn't like those looks, didn't like people staring at him like they knew what he was, where he'd been. What had happened. So he brushed off the looks, and ignored the people. They didn't exist any more than he did.

A nobody passing through a town of nobodies.

It had been that cafe that was his undoing. He'd almost walked past it, a farm town version of a drive up, but he hadn't eaten since...well, a while. He pulled the change out of his pocket, counting carefully. That doctor, Cleary, had said something about him having money coming each month from the Army, but that was Kyle's, not his. He'd been given some 'spending money' before he left the hospital, and between that and stealing, he'd been able to manage. But looking at the lone dollar bill and the five quarters, he knew he'd have to move into the countryside soon. Back to...

He shoved those thoughts aside, looked at the order window. He'd have to place his order. Talk to the waitress. The smell of cooking floated toward him; he could do it. He would do it. He had to clear his throat, and even then it came out a hoarse whisper. Another moment of panic when he saw the stove. Talk, if he had to. Eat cooked...flesh...no. Not yet.

He noted her reaction, the way she slid the raw burger across the counter toward him, like she thought he was vermin. He sat down on the curb, his back to the crowd, concentrated on the task at hand. A big pickup pulled beside him. He stiffened when the driver got out, stared down at him as he passed. Another ex-soldier, one who didn't necessarily want to be.

One of the locals yelled out to the man. Called him Sarge.

"That dude sittin on the curb over there...he outta your old outfit?"

Sarge snorted. "Hell, that dude ain't never been in no outfit! Probably bought that coat at the Army surplus."

He pretended not to hear. Wanted to tell them it was his by right. His. Even if it had Kyle's name on it. His. But he didn't.

"Thought he mighta been one of the guys you trained, Sarge."

"Well, if you got downwind of him, he'd probably smell more like a pig farmer! Whaddya think of that?"

Let it pass; it was nothing he hadn't experienced before.

A big white Caddy pulled up. A young woman got out, gave him a quick glance. Heard Sarge at the table behind him.

"The bossman. Got Jenny with him, too, huh?"

Figured. Small town, big Caddy. Big man. Big ego.

He winced when the first plastic cup hit his back. At least it was empty. Task at hand. Eat slow. Make it last. Keep the hunger down a little longer. Then move on. That's what he should've done. Would've done, if it weren't for 'the bossman'.

The man got out of the Caddy, stepped up next to him, wanting to know if Face had been in the service. Face ignored him. Ignore people, they go away. But he didn't. Stepped right in front of him, and just asked again. Face had felt the tension building inside. He'd known then what a mistake it had been, stopping here. Too many people, too many eyes. Expecting him to act like them.

He wasn't like them. Never would be.

So he'd done the only thing he could do. Got up and left. And that had been his second mistake. That guy was someone used to getting things done his way. Face had almost made it out of town when four of the cowboys from the cafe showed up. Drove past him on the bridge, and then walked back. He heard them coming. Took his hands out of his pockets.

Ready.

Sometimes it was only words. Maybe a push or a shove. That he could handle. Once they'd proved they were 'real men' and he wasn't, they'd leave him alone, let him move on.

Not these guys. Flashed a picture at him, got loud. Then the big guy grabbed him.

The two he left on the bridge wouldn't be coming after anyone for a while, and neither would the one in the river. The fourth one, the short whiny one, got away. And Face knew he had to make tracks, get away from that place.

Harry'd taught him what happened when you made fools out of bullies.

He'd gotten a couple miles when he heard the siren in the distance. He looked back, saw the sheriff's car, and made a beeline for the woods. When the sheriff pulled up he stopped, knelt down, and waited to see what would happen.

The sheriff was older, young deputy. And they had the little guy from the bridge with them. That's when he heard the name. Bellows. Sending the sheriff to bring him in.

He didn't respond to the bullhorn, even though the sheriff sounded...reasonable. But go up and tell his side of the story? He knew what would happen then. He moved further into the woods. Heard the deputy coming after him.

He was up the tree in seconds. Trees, he had learned in Laos, were a place people seldom looked. Until it was too late. Like the deputy. One minute climbing through the brush, the next minute Face was behind him. Knocked the guy silly. Grabbed the shotgun, rammed the barrel between the tree limbs and put his full weight on it, bending the barrel. He left it hanging on a branch out of easy reach, and circled back toward the road. After the way that deputy had squealed, he knew the sheriff would be coming fast.

The sheriff had left the keys in the cruiser. Face knew he should've kept going. But if this Bellows wanted him that badly, he wouldn't have gotten far. He'd have every cop in the area looking for him. Face didn't want that.

Then he'd found the note on the dash, telling the sheriff where Face was to be brought.

So now here he was, sitting in the sheriff's stolen car watching the grainery, waiting for that big white Cadillac to leave. Finally he saw Bellows come out, talk to a couple of those same men, and drive off. He waited only a moment, then followed.

He parked the car a mile down the road from the big farmhouse Bellows went to. Waited until it was dark, then sneaked up quietly. He looked through one window, seeing a mantle full of trophies and pictures of a guy in uniform. An SF uniform.

He moved to the next set of windows, saw Bellows eating dinner with a young woman and a small boy. No young man from the photos. He watched for another moment, remembering another family, in another house, in another country.

He had his answer. Now Bellows would get his.


*****

August 21, 1975

4 Years, 6 Months, 19 Days

He woke up to the sound of voices. Straightening, he reached over and cautiously swung the hay door open. Bellows was just leaving in that white Cadillac. Face watched for only a moment, before quickly swinging the door closed again. He sat for a long time.

He hadn't meant to be here, in the barn, when Bellows left. He'd intended to catch him as he came out the door, tell him he didn't know his son, and then get the hell out of here. But he had overslept. A hay bale was by no means soft, but it was warm in the cool nights, and the barn was secure without closing in on him. And yesterday...it had taken more out of him than he'd been willing to admit.

So he sat, wondering what he should do next. He knew Bellows expected the sheriff - or one of the 'local militia', as that sheriff had called them - to find him. Until that happened, Face was not safe. So he had to talk to the man.

Or maybe not.

He could tell that woman. Jenny? Maybe his daughter, more likely the daughter-in-law. That didn't matter. She was here, and he had to leave soon. It wouldn't take that long for someone to spot that cruiser.

He walked slowly up to the house, every nerve tensing. The door wasn't locked, and he stepped quietly into the kitchen. He could hear a piano playing in another room; he listened for a moment before moving toward the music.

She had good instincts. It only took a moment for her to realize he was there. She turned with a quick hitch in her breath, then visibly calmed herself, although he could still see the anxiety in her eyes.

"Can I help you?"

He pointed to the picture on the wall, struggling a bit to get the words moving. "I didn't know your husband."

There it was out, done. He could go now. He could just leave...

"Can I get you something to drink?"

That startled him. He nodded, slowly. She walked toward the kitchen, and moving just as cautiously as she, he followed, not too close, but close enough. Just in case.

She gave him a glass of ice cold water from the refrigerator, setting it on the counter and moving away. So. Maybe not that different from the others. He drank deeply, always appreciating fresh water, versus that from streams or rivers or puddles. The little things to be grateful for.

He set the glass on the counter, and was surprised to see she had taken out a huge loaf of home-baked bread, and now was taking out eggs and...sausage. He looked at her, starting to feel that cord in his stomach. She gave him a small smile.

"I thought you might be hungry."

He nodded, feeling like it was someone else standing there. He could smell that bread from where he stood. And as she started frying the eggs, it smelled so good. Maybe he could just push the sausage aside, just eat the eggs. And the bread. With butter on it. Real butter. He watched as she took the sausage out, put it in the pan. For a moment, his stomach lurched. He looked around the kitchen, trying to distract himself. Just a normal, everyday kitchen. There was no chance that sausage could be anything but sausage. Not here. Not when she knew he was watching her. Not when she had offered it, out of the blue. No one offered him anything, other than a ride in the back of their truck.

He stepped back quickly as she moved toward the dining room with the plates. The dining room. He sat down awkwardly on the fancy chair as she backed away. She smiled at him again, that small, half-scared, half-friendly smile. He picked up the fork from the intricate lace tablecloth. Tablecloth. For a moment, he almost felt like bolting. He didn't belong here. He shouldn't be sitting here, a filthy, reeking bum. No wonder she backed off. He should just go. And then he looked at the plate, loaded with eggs, sausage, the fresh bread and butter...

Tentatively, he took a bite of egg. Then another. He forgot everything then. Forgot about eating slow, forgot about the meat, forgot about the fancy surroundings, the woman standing by the door. This was real food, a lot of it, and his. He couldn't shovel it in fast enough.

And then the phone rang.

He stopped, the butter knife halfway to the bread, tensing. He listened only to the point where the woman said she hadn't seen anyone. He closed his eyes, let his breathing go back to normal, and looked at the bread in his hand. He would've hated to leave that.

He'd was working his way more slowly through the slice when she came back into the room. The call had been to warn her about him. He wasn't surprised. Someone had seen the cruiser; she was a single woman on the farm near it. Figured they would warn her.

Then she said some men were coming.

That they were calling him 'dangerous'.

That was all he heard. Dangerous around here meant shoot on sight. Time to leave. He stuffed the rest of the bread in his pocket, heading for the kitchen.

She tried to stop him, telling him not to run, that she would talk to Bellows. That wouldn't matter. Instead of shooting, they'd throw him in jail, send him back to Mobile. Or someplace worse. He didn't care that they were hunters.

He'd dealt with the best of them.

He walked quickly down the sidewalk by the house, breaking into a trot as he hit the yard. He stopped and looked at her before disappearing behind the barn. Stepping through the narrow door, he slid silently to the front, watching.

It only took a moment for that white Caddy to pull up, followed immediately by two pickups, full of men. All with shotguns. Bellows talked to the girl for a moment, then hollered for the others to start searching; Sarge and that skinny guy, 'Cece', headed for the barn.

He looked around, and hurried over to a small flatbed trailer. Two dirtbikes stood on it. He smiled softly, remembering Fort Bragg and that sergeant. The two had never paid attention to rank, and spent many a weekend riding around the base wilderness. He climbed up on the trailer, checking the bikes carefully.

Heard those two knocking the bar off the barn door. He climbed up on the first bike, settling on the seat.

The barn doors started swinging open. As soon as he had a clear view of the outside, he kick started the bike and tore out, using the height of the trailer to fly past the two men. He heard shots behind him, and a lot of yelling.

He tore down the long gravel drive, cutting the corner to avoid the sheriff, who was just then turning in to the farm. He took a quick glance back before roaring down the road.

He could hear the sirens behind him almost immediately. He tore down the blacktop, pushing the speed, the wind tearing past him. He saw the cutback, and slowed only enough to take the hairpin turn. He couldn't help himself then. He leaned forward, bouncing the forks and accelerating into a wheelie, grinning like a maniac.

He slowed as he drove past a deep woods, and maneuvered the bike down through the ditch and into the trees, the sheriff and 'posse' close behind.

Time to quit fooling around.

He dropped the bike gently on its side, and moved through the trees closer to the road. He could see the trucks lined up along the road. A lot of men, a lot of shotguns. He only half-listened as the sheriff called the posse together. He'd been in touch with the Army. Smart man. Thought that told him all he needed to know about 'Kyle'.

He moved back into the trees, and pulled out his knife, a nice one he'd taken from a guy near Hattiesburg. Another guy who thought he knew all about bums. He cut a long branch, and pulled the fishing line from his pocket. A precious commodity, that. He'd almost gotten caught taking that from a boat along some river. He cut another smaller branch just as he heard someone coming through the woods behind him. He grabbed the thick vine around the tree, used it to help pull himself up. He only gave 'Sarge' a momentary glance from above. The man was lucky he wasn't Face's target.

Letting the sergeant move past the tree, he looked out at the road. He had a good view from up here. The sheriff had stationed two men at either end of the road by the woods; the weasely one, Cece, was too far away, but the other one, a big slob of a man, was perfectly placed, lounging on the hood of the pickup.

Easy.

He placed the arrow against the fishing line, and slowly raised the bow, taking careful aim. It wouldn't go far, and wouldn't cause too much damage, but right now he was only after a diversion. He let the arrow fly.

The yelling from his target as the arrow zipped into his thigh was enough to wake the dead. Cece raced over, firing the shotgun into the air. Face dropped lightly to the ground as he heard the men in the woods clambering for the road. He pulled the fishing line off the bow and ran for the dirtbike.

He throttled up and raced through the trees and up the ditch. Flying through the air onto the road, he saw Cece take aim, firing wildly. Face turned and pointed at him, grinning when he saw the man drop down behind the truck.

The grin stayed as he roared down the road, leaving the 'posse' in chaos.