It was our once-a-year ritual.
Pick a mountain, and hike over it. The harder the trail, the better it was.
There were five from the original group of eight, from thirty years ago, brought together by the first Gulf War, and kept together as support for each other as we tried, and sometimes failed, to reintegrate into civilian life.
It had saved me.
It had not for Benny, Jack, and Roland, and as hard as they tried, and as hard as we tried to save them, it was as sad as it was tragic, not only for us but for those they left behind.
Over the years we added, and lost, new recruits.
This year there would be six, the original five, and a new recruit, a woman that Wally had recommended, and though there were no rules barring women, it just never seemed to be a potential candidate.
Until now. Josephine or Jo had seen service in Iraq and was known to Justin, who worked off and on in a veteran’s hospital as a counselor. He could see the signs of a deteriorating soul and asked her if she would like to join a bunch of fools tackling a trail sensible people would leave alone.
A girl joining five guys in the forest, I could see how that might look, especially when he told me. Both of us were surprised when she agreed to come along. The only hitch, she would be coming with me to base camp.
I just hoped it was not another pathetic attempt on his part to matchmake. In all that time, since returning, I had not had a successful, or long-term relationship, simply because I didn’t want to share the burden.
The others were more successful in varying degrees, but rarely mentioned it when we got together. I was happy for them, but it was not for me.
Josephine arrived, precisely at the time she said she would, in a vintage Mustang that sounded like it had a V8. Josephine was once a mechanic, and according to Justin, had rebuilt the car from the ground up after finding it in a hayloft.
It looked brand new,
I was out front tossing stuff into an SUV when she pulled into the drive. From there I watched her extricate herself from the driver’s seat, a tall thin girl with long blonde hair, and that Scandinavian look about her.
Nothing about what I saw in front of me screamed battle veteran.
“Ken, I presume?”
I was not sure whether we should shake hands, hug, or what. Instead, I just stood back and nodded.
“Josephine, or Jo?”
“My real name is Betty, but I hate it, so either will do.”
How do you break the ice with what appeared to be an ice maiden?
“Justin said you were looking for some excitement. I’d hardly call our little group exciting, but you never know. There might be a few bears to wrestle.
“I hope not.”
“Don’t worry. These bears are not all that dangerous if you leave them alone. Have you heard of the expression, ‘don’t poke the bear’. Very apt in this case. Want to toss your kit in the back? I’ll get off the driveway and you can park your car in the garage. Nice car, by the way. Always wanted one, could never afford it. Still, a man can have dreams.”
She smiled, but I think my prattling was a sign of being nervous in her presence, a common complaint of mine. I just never did understand how to talk to women about normal stuff.
I wondered, for a moment, if the bears were all we would have to worry about, because as we were going inside, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a large black SUV parked just down from the front of my house, window down and a man, smoking a cigar, looking directly into my yard.
It was not the first time, I’d been in a few scrapes and on the end of some surveillance, but this felt different.
I guess I’d soon find out.
It was a two-day trip and we would be stopping in Iowa City on the way. There was a light conversation for the first half-hour, as we both realized, we were not conversationalists. Perhaps if we had more in common.
But the silence that fell over the cabin was not an uneasy one. She closed her eyes and appeared to sleep. I drew the straw to drive the first leg, she the second.
I’d not noticed the black SUV, but that didn’t mean it was not somewhere behind us. I deliberately parked around the back of the diner, then told her I needed to look at the engine to check if we were leaking oil, which it did sometimes, and watched her go inside.
I knew surveillance tactics. Put a tracker on the car, and then you can follow at leisure.
I felt around all the spots a tracker could be hidden, and after almost believing there wasn’t one, I found it, tucked under the driver’s side door in a slot meant for the car jack, then attached it to another car.
Black SUV would be out there somewhere. It was moot whether he would fall for the trick.
Jo was sitting in a booth with two cups of coffee.
“I hope you like fried chicken.”
“My favorite, but then, anything fried is my favorite.”
She smiled, but I could see the sadness. I wonder what had happened to her, but I was sensible enough to know not to tug at that string.
“Up for the next leg?”
“Yep, but it’s going to be a little more sedate than I’m used to. Unless, of course, you want to get there early.”
“No, slow and steady is fine with me.”
How do you keep an eye on what’s behind you without looking like you’re keeping an eye on what’s behind you?
Jo never looked in the rear vision mirror, except if she was changing lanes, or passing another vehicle. Other than that, she looked to me like she was pouring her whole soul into the job at hand.
It wasn’t until we were almost to Iowa city before I thought I saw the black SUV and then lost it as she turned to go into the motel. On the way, I changed the reservation for two adjoining rooms, and dinner to be brought in. I used the excuse that it would be better not to go out, that way we could get an early night, and start the next morning.
I wanted to be the first at the base camp so I could bring her up to speed on how things worked. And the quirks of the rest of the hikers.
Then, after dining in her room, I left her with a six-pack and some awful TV show.
Back in my room, I dug out my laptop and did a search on her name, on the off chance the internet might yield some answers.
There were a lot of Josephine Littleton’s oddly enough, and over 15,000 hits. I had to scroll six pages before a single line caught my attention. Local Deputy Sherriff has assault charges dropped.
A click on the URL led me to a newspaper article, the Rio Grande Sun, dated six months ago, with a photo of a man in a Deputy’s uniform, who looked something like the man in the SUV, and a woman that was definitely Jo.
Married before she went to the war when she came back, he found it difficult to handle her and like most spouses who have no understanding of the problem, react. Some leave, after trying to reconcile the spouse they now had versus the one before and failing, very few resort to more direct action. Deputy Grady reportedly assaulted her. Her word against his, and against the law in a small county where they would close ranks, she had only one option.
Drop the charges or leave. She left, no doubt hoping to get away from him, but he would have contacts, and no trouble tracing her. Did she know he was following her?
It might be a subject for conversation tomorrow.
I was woken by the sound of a thump, something hitting the wall between our rooms, and raised voices.
I got the adjoining rooms just in case I needed to get in to see her if she was having the nightmares we all had. I unlocked the door and stepped into the room.
There was a man on the floor, groaning, and Jo, in pajamas, sitting on the end of the bed, tears flowing down her face. There were also red welts on both cheeks, from being slapped.
The man looked up at me. “Walk away. This is none of your business.”
I glared down at him. “Too late, I’ve seen your face, Deputy Grady. Now it is my business.”
I looked at Jo. “Are you alright?”
She shook her head, no.
“What happened here?”
Grady rolled over and stood up, flexing his body as if to tease out the aches and pains. I assumed it was he who hit the wall.
“We were having a conversation, and she unaccountably shoved me into the wall.”
“Before or after you hit her.”
She raised her head and looked at me. “Leave, like he said. There’s nothing you can do for me.”
“Save yourself a whole world of pain, too,” Grady added, with the sort of gloating tone only a small-town cop could do so well. The big man in a small world.
“I’m not leaving until I get the truth, Grady. But I will give you a little information for free. Be thankful you can get up off the floor. I know something about the pain Jo is going through. You don’t, you could never understand. When you assaulted her, she could have retaliated, but instead, she cared enough about you to leave before she did. Right now, you just got the reprieve of your life. To be honest, I expected to see you slit from groin to throat and your heart tossed in the trash can, and she would have done that eyes closed and without a second thought.”
I was laying in on a bit thick, but this fool really didn’t know how lucky he was. When I lashed out, I hurt five people, badly, and I hadn’t realized what I was doing until Justin told me to stop.
Jo looked at him, the look of surprise on his face, then me, then back to Grady.
“You never understood, and you didn’t care. Get the fuck out of my life, and don’t come back, or I will kill you.”
He glared at her.
“What the hell is wrong with you? We were fine until you went away. I told you not to go. You didn’t have to go.”
“You were smothering me. You, your mother, and that awful sister. I thought a few months away would clear my head. It did far worse than that, and I need help, not you.”
“You were fucked in the head before you went away. God, to think I wasted my time trying to make something out of your pathetic life.”
He looked at me. “You’re welcome to her. I’m done.”
He picked up his cap off the floor and jammed it on his head, then headed for the door. I opened it for him. “Don’t let me see you again, or you will feel the full force of the US military machine rolling right over the top of you.”
“Fuck you too, asshole.”
I closed the door after him and leaned against it.
She looked at me. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I’ve been there and done a lot worse. But I think you just took the first step on a long road to recovery, you admitted you need help.”
“I did, and you have no idea how that feels.”
There were still two bottles of beer left so I opened them and handed one to her. “Here’s to the first day of the rest of your life.”
© Charles Heath 2022