CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

August 24, 1975

4 Years, 6 Months, 22 Days

He heard the voices, getting louder. Couldn't make out the words. Didn't matter. He knew the tone. Lots of voices. Sounded familiar. Not friends. Stay still. Stay very still.

Then they wouldn't strike.

Heard chains. Yanked to his feet, the cuffs removed.

Stay still. Stay very still. Do what they say. Always do what they say. If he did what they said, it wasn't as bad.

He felt the pokes, the pushes. Moving him out of the cage. Out into the room with the voices.

American voices.

Americans.

He started focusing on them. More pushes, pokes.

He was out of the cage.

He was out. Focus. Come back...

His hands were free.

See the room. See the voices.

Americans.

He saw the swing coming from the side, ducked instinctively. Looked up at the man. He knew this man. Ben. Big Ben.

Focus. All the way back now.

All the way.

Wide, hard swings. Face backed out of them. Ducked and turned. Ben fell against the wall. Getting angry.

Good.

Ben feinted with a left, came back with a right. Face ducked, swept under his outstretched arm, came back with two swift hard chops against the bull neck. Hurt him, didn't stop him. Didn't matter. Face felt a surge of energy, coming from deep down, somewhere. His mouth turned up, ever so slightly.

Two more swings, Face grabbed him around the waist with one arm, swinging hard into his kidneys, once, twice, heard the grunts of pain, kept swinging until Ben slung him away. Ben tried to fake him out, telling him to hit harder, grimacing with pain.

Two more swings. Getting too close to the crowd behind him. No room to move. Ben caught him, hard, in the stomach. He fell back against them, sliding to the floor.

It took only seconds. Seconds to find the anger, let it come, let it out.

He came up with a primal scream, knocking the man kneeling over him reeling, using the momentum to leap up, kicking another man, the man with a knife, splitting his face. And then Ben. A quick half step and Face's boot was slamming into Ben's nose and forehead, spinning him to the floor. Face ran, using Ben's body for a springboard, and leaped through the window.

His body turned, ever so slowly, through the air, sailing downward toward the river. He tried to force his body around, trying to dive, but taking the impact full-force on his shoulder and upper back. Brightly colored lights filled his vision, fading slowly to black.

He inhaled water, and instinct took over. He fought to the surface, coughing and hacking. It took a moment for his brain to kick in, and he immediately dove under the water, heading for the dock beside the granary. He surfaced more slowly this time, ignoring the pain in his back. He would deal with that later; escape was the only priority now.

Breathing hard, he looked up at the window he'd just jumped through. No one there. He looked at the dock, grabbed a length of hose and swam awkwardly under the tall pilings closer to the building. One end of the hose in his mouth, he waited until he heard some of the men climbing down the wooden ladder to the dock, then slowly sank under the surface, listening to the muffled sounds coming from the surface.

He heard the voices fade away, heard the thudding as they climbed back up the ladder. Only then did he surface. He'd noticed several boats tied to the other side of the dock. His ticket out. To his island.

He would face them on his turf now.

He swam up to the closest boat, pulling his knife from his boot. He was lucky he was dealing with idiots in that respect. But stupid men with guns were more dangerous than smart ones. He carefully cut the rope mooring the boat, and pushed it away from the dock, and floated it down the river before climbing aboard. The motor didn't want to start at first, and he could hear other boats in the distance. One more jerk on the rope and the engine finally caught. He'd lost time, but once he got to the island, it wouldn't matter.

It took only a couple of minutes before he heard them yelling behind him, shooting. He didn't think they had much chance of hitting him, but he increased his speed as much as he could, just the same. Then he noticed the box of half-empty beer bottles, rags, and gasoline can sitting in the bottom of the boat.

Grinned.

He pulled up next to the ferry, shoving the box of bottles, rags and gas tank up on the ferry before sending the boat on down the river, full throttle. He poured most of the gas over the ferry platform, then grabbed the box and ran up onto the island. He found his spot, a bluff looking over the river.

Down on the boats coming toward the ferry.

He checked his lighter. Good ol' Army issue. And yeah, Sarge - that he got from Army surplus.

The first boat appeared. He stood, lighting the rag stuffed into the beer bottle, filled with gasoline. He gauged the distance, and threw. It landed perfectly, right in the middle of the boat filled with men. A sudden flash of flame, men leaping into the river, the explosion as the gas tank caught. The second boat was coming too fast to turn; he tossed the next bottle, catching the front of the boat this time. A second, very satisfactory explosion. He stood for a moment, smiling slyly.

He watched as the men swam toward shore, taking shelter behind the boulders there. Running his tongue over his lower lip, he smiled as he lit a third rag, and threw it with all his might toward the ferry. It landed with a crash, immediately igniting the gas spilled over the surface.

And then the gas tank, left half-full on the deck, exploded. The ferry blasted into the air, debris flying over the river.

Face stood on the bluff, watching the flames, grinning, practically laughing out loud.

Come into my parlor...

He disappeared from the bluff, allowing the soaking men to climb out of the river, up the bank. He knew where they would go - an old surveyor's shelter at the top of the first hill. He knew it well.

He watched as the men staggered past him, never realizing he was within arm's reach as they hurried up the path. Two of the pack were missing yet. He had time, then, before Dave and the one they called Bubba showed up.

And then Dave would see what 'a piece of cake' really tasted like.

He moved quickly back to the river. Gathered the rich mud from the water's edge, smearing it over his face, chest, and hair. Remembered the rice paddy. How he'd been seen...not this time. They'd never know he was coming. Or from where. He hadn't survived that long in the jungle without knowing a few things, learning a few more. He moved back up the hill, to keep an eye on his guests.

He heard the boat at the same time they did. Cece started down the path. Face picked up a rock. A big one. It hit Cece squarely in the middle of the back, knocking him flat. Heard Sarge say, "He wants us to stay put."

You're learning, Sarge. You're learning.

He had started back, paralleling the path toward the river when Cece started babbling, yelling about how the Commies had gotten to Kyle, had worked on his mind. Face stopped, looked back where Cece's voice was still screeching.

Worked on his mind? Face grinned viciously. You don't know the half of it.

He passed Dave partway up the hill. Running. He almost took him out right then and there. Knew better. Never get involved with somebody who had a pack waiting.

Take on the pack instead.

He heard the gun shot from above just as he came in sight of the shore. Ignored it. Maybe somebody had put Cece out of his misery. Didn't matter. He looked down at Bubba, standing guard by the boat. Bubba saw him at the same time, got a couple quick shots out of his pistol as Face flew off the bluff, landing on top of him. He crouched over him, saw the fear.

He wasn't worth it.

Face pointed to the river. One word.

"Swim!"

Face followed him to the river's edge, making sure he was well on his way across the river, before turning to the boat. His first plan had been to set it adrift, leaving the men without an easy escape. He didn't want it easy.

Then he saw the box of dynamite. He wasn't sure what Dave had planned for that, but Face had his own ideas. He grabbed the box, shoved the boat out into the river, and hurried back up the hill, into the woods.

He found a spot close to the bluff, hidden beneath the branches of a large bush, and started inserting the fuses. When he had a dozen or more ready to go, he stuffed them in his waistband, and moved through the woods. Those gunshots would've alerted Dave and the others; they would be down by the shore now.

Now he'd teach the hunters a lesson. About real hunting.

They were standing on the bluff, hollering at Bubba to go get help. Cece turned, saw Face through the branches. Started yelling. By the time Dave took aim, Face was gone. Poked his head up on the other side, catching Sarge's eye. He fired fast, not fast enough.

Face lit the first stick, tossed it behind the group. Moved. Tossed the next. Moved. They were so busy running from the blasts, they didn't have time to look for him, see where the next one was coming from.

Throw. Move. Throw. Move. Sending them scurrying in one direction, then another. Back and forth.

He remembered then. The rocks. The rope.

He stopped throwing the dynamite. Waited.

"All right, you win! You win!" Dave was waving his hands, trying to clear the smoke and dust away. "What do you want?"

"Throw the guns in the river!"

He watched through narrowed eyes as Sarge and the others threw their shotguns frantically into the water. All except Dave.

Dave saw him. Thought he did. Came up the path, bringing up his rifle.

Face threw the next stick. It exploded in front of Dave, knocking him back several feet. Face didn't know at first if he killed him or not, not until he started moving again. Sarge ran up, threw Dave's rifle into the river.

"Have some mercy, you!"

Mercy? The fury in him spilled over.

"Get off my island!"

"We gotta wait for the boat..."

"No boat! Swim!"

He crossed through the woods, coming to stand on the edge of the cliff above the shore, watching as they tore off their boots and clothes before getting into the water. Dave looked up at him, pointed.

"You better get out of this county..."

Face cooly lit a stick of dynamite. Stood there, holding it while the fuse smoldered. One look and the gaggle of men raced into the water. Once they were all in, swimming for their lives, he calmly pulled the fuse, tossing it and the dynamite to the ground.

He ran down the bank, up onto a log and dove far out into the river. He swam for some time under the cold water, letting it wash away the mud and the sweat before he surfaced near the shore. He swept the hair out of his eyes, looking quickly to see where the fleeing men were.

And then he saw her. Standing on the opposite bank. The sheriff was there, too, and Mr Bellows. She was watching him. He smiled, raised his hand just above the water.

Waited.

He could hear her soft laugh across the river as she returned his salute. He nodded slowly, and climbed out of the water, taking one last look at her before he disappeared again into the woods.

On his island.


*****

It was getting dark, the sun's glow moving beyond the horizon. The fire was crackling within the circle of rocks, just outside the surveyor's shelter. He stirred it slowly, watching the glowing cinders float up into the air, disappearing into black ash.

Jenny had not come to the island, and he had not left it. He'd felt bad, after he turned his back on her, taken off into the jungle...

He stirred the fire again. He'd felt bad, but he had to. Because it wasn't the jungle, but he'd felt like it was. It wasn't the war, either.

But it felt like it.

And he'd walked away, praying she didn't come, because he was still there, still...alive in it. Really alive.

He'd walked across the island. Possibly every inch of it. Ignoring the branches that slapped his body, the roots that grabbed for his feet.

An angry walk.

He'd gone on instinct and training at first. Until he threw that first Molotov. Watched it sail through the air, explode. Seen the men leaping from the boat.

He had the power then. And it made him feel giddy. Excited.

He'd enjoyed it.

He'd loved it.

He'd started coming down when those guns had gone flying into the river. Until Dave...challenged him. Challenged his power. He didn't have to throw that dynamite so close. He could've tossed it off to the side, just a reminder.

But he didn't.

He'd let the anger flood him. Take over. Almost.

And after they'd fled, and he'd seen Jenny, standing there...she'd come looking for him. And he'd been so grateful, and at the same time, so afraid she would turn away when she saw what he was, what he'd done.

When he felt the anger turn on those feelings - how dare she make him feel like that? - he knew he had to get away from her. He still felt the power, the strength, and they didn't want to let go. There was no one left to fight. No one left to conquer. No one left to prove he was still a man. If she had been there...

He wanted that feeling, that feeling of strength, and power. That...joy they brought. But not the overwhelming anger that always went with it. He wanted to feel like he had that day, with Jenny and the bikes, racing over the island...

He wanted to be free.

Finally free.