Chapter 3

            Moonlight outlined the one-story house.  The old truck wasn’t out front, but a back bedroom light burned yellow against the blue-black night.  Murmuring voices drifted down from the porch like a rough thread, punctuated by snaps and buzzes from the glowing bug light.  The voices quieted as I drew closer.

“Evening, Travis.”  That was Buck.

“Evening, Mr. Ketterly.”  I mounted the steps and stood before the porch swing.

Mrs. Ketterly jumped up and smoothed her apron, squinting at my face in the bug light’s blue sheen. Her eyes grew wide.  “You’re going to need some ice on that, Travis.”

I shrugged.  “It don’t hurt.”

“Buster!” Mr. Ketterly shouted.  A bustle erupted from beyond the screen door, then thumping footsteps worked their way closer.

“How long’s he gonna be in town, Travis?” Mr. Ketterly asked quietly.

I shrugged again, fighting the urge to run a finger along my cheekbone to see what caused Mrs. Ketterly to gape so.  A fist won’t normally break the skin over a cheekbone the way a bottle will, but still, I couldn’t feel anything leaking there.  “He said something to Art about a load in Tulsa tomorrow.  I reckon he just came back for Ray’s funeral.  He’ll be moving on in the morning.”

Buster threw open the screen door.  “C’mon in, Travis.”

The porch swing creaked then swung free as Mr. Ketterly stood.  He towered over me, hitching up his jeans, thumbs in the loops that carried the thick leather belt, clasped by a large metal oval decorated with a rearing stallion.  Big as a house, even bigger than Bo, he had a slightly bowlegged walk, left over from when he’d been rodeo.  He nodded.  “Saw the rig in town.  Figured as much.”  He held the door open.  “Sorry about your Uncle Ray, Travis.”

I knew he wasn’t, but I was grateful he said it, if only for me.  Most people in Conroy probably breathed a sigh of relief last week when they heard the news.  Though Ray hadn’t been bad in the same way as his brother, how could they know?

Mrs. Ketterly waved her hands, shooing me through the door.  “The bugs, boys, the bugs.”

“Yes’m.”  I edged past her and followed Buster down the hall.

“There’s rhubarb pie, Travis,” Mrs. Ketterly called after us.

I paused, facing the wall covered with carefully framed awards and pictures.  Surrounded by the entire Westland football team, Bo grinned out of a black and white photo, holding the 1968 Region Two Championship trophy.  My stomach growled.  “Thank you, Ma’am.  Maybe in a bit.”

Buster waved me into his room and closed the door.  He looked me up and down.

I blinked back.  “Is it that bad?”  I walked over to the mirror above the dresser.

“It’ll be a shiner,” Buster promised.  I fingered the half-moon shaped welt, studying it in the mirror.  My heart skipped as I saw the bottle fly, bottom first, then the starburst and the pain.  My shoulders tensed and started to tremble.  I chewed my lip.

“Don’t let him get to you now, Travis.  It’s okay here,” Buster’s voice drifted from a million miles behind me.  I ran my hand gingerly over the growing knot on the back of my head from the doorjamb.  Those jagged brown teeth, the tequila spray and the hard eyes.  I’d sooner burn in hell…

A worn paperback fluttered over my shoulder and bounced off the mirror.  “What would the Doc do, Travis?  Think; what would he do?”

Fighting to cap the gusher of rage rumbling and swelling, ready to blow, I focused on the smooth book cover.  The bronze man, shirt ripped and muscles bulging, grinned back.  In charge of the world, topping all evil, punishing the guilty: The Doc.

We’d handled it this way before, putting things right, although Buster never cared much for his part.  I turned to him, setting my feet apart like The Doc always did, at least on book covers.  A husky voice snarled, “That’s it, Kang.  You done throwed your last tequila bottle.”

Headlights pierced the half open blinds and fanned Buster with falling slats of white.  He eyed me warily but said nothing.  A motor died and a door slammed.

“Say it, Buster!” I shouted, louder than I meant to.

“Travis, I—“

Say it!

Buster turned his head to the wall and mumbled, “The Kang’s gonna fuck the bottom outta your Momma.”

Pipes burst, rage flashed and something deep inside exploded as my legs sprung.  I flew across the small room and Buster let go a dull “Oof” as I buried my head in his stomach.  We tumbled across one twin bed, flailing, grappling, Buster grunting, “I ain’t him, Travis!” as I pinned him.

With my eyes pressed shut, I dragged the head atop the “X” marked neck clean off of the bed, grinding it into the throw rug on the floor.  Breathing hard, pulse racing, I pictured the tobacco stained sausage lips curling back from the brown teeth, grimacing, strangling, sorry as hell and ready to beg and—

Two strong hands clamped under my arms and lifted me, still struggling, off of Buster then pinned me down.  Buster scooted away, rubbing his neck.  I stopped fighting and the hands let go.  I sat up, panting, and studied the shiny combat boots and the starched uniform.  A beret perched at a jaunty angle above the familiar face and winning smile.  “Damnation, Travis.  You’re like a wild tiger.”

“Not a tiger, Bo,” I said, standing up, heart thumping as it tried to shrink back into my chest.  Facing Bo, my rage evaporated like a spent thunderhead.  “Anything but a wild tiger.” I tried to collect my breath.  “When did you get back?”

He sat on the bed and flipped the beret onto the dresser.  “This morning.  Why the hell you wearing a string tie with a T-shirt?”

My breath still came in gasps.  “It was Ray’s.”  I slipped the tie off and stuffed it in my back pocket.

“I’m sorry about your Uncle, Travis.”

“How long you gonna be staying?” I asked, needing to change the subject, studying the silver and blue marksman’s badge over his breast pocket.

“Couple days.  I ship out on Thursday, so I gotta be at Fort Ord by Wednesday.”

Buster threw the paperback into the bulging pile of like books heaped under the life-sized poster of The Doc on his closet door.  “Tell him ‘bout the bivouac, Bo.”

Bo leaned back on his elbows and grinned the smile that had loosened cheerleaders’ britches in three counties.  “Naw, he don’t wanna hear ‘bout no bivouac.”

I tucked my T-shirt back in and sat on the other twin bed with Buster.  “Yeah, I do, Bo.”

Bo stood and walked to the window, his eyes serious.  A calf bawled in the distance.

“We’d been in the field for three days.  Field packs, full combat gear, the works.”

“C-rations and all?” Buster asked, eyes wide.

“Yessir, we ate C-rats.  And that day, my squad had the point, see, because we were honor squad and all.”  He stared out the window, letting that sink in.  Heat-lightning danced at the edge of the plains and the wind teased the white linen curtains.

Bo put an oversized forefinger on his chiseled chin cleft.  “We knew there was Cong out there everywhere, and we were supposed to find them.”

I scrunched my nose and narrowed one eye, the wrong eye, and it hurt doing it.  “Cong?  There’s Viet Cong in Killeen?”  After I’d said it, I’d wished I hadn’t, but too late.  Buster laughed.

Bo turned around and sat.  The bedsprings groaned.  “Not real Cong.  Newbies.  They made the basic training guys—the newbies—play the Cong role for the exercise.  Most of ‘em, in the group we were hunting, were fresh from cities up north.”

The image of towering Bo in full field gear, rifle in hand, hunting newbies or even worse, Cong, sent a chill up my spine.  “Go on.”

“Well, since I knew none of ‘em had ever hunted in their lives, I figured what the hell.  We treat ‘em just like quail,” Bo said, flashing that smile again.  “We wait for them near where they roost, flush ‘em out, then pop ‘em when they fly.”

Buster leaned forward, elbows planted on his knees, chin resting on his hands.  “Like quail,” he echoed.  “The Doc would have done just that.”

“So we dug in behind a stand of mesquite on a small rise,” Bo continued.  “The only shade for miles.  Sure enough, within an hour, those straggly Cong come up to rest.”

Bo stood and aimed an imaginary rifle out the window.  “Boom!  Boom!  Picked ‘em off, neat as you please.  We won.”  He glared at the empty sky with the same fiery look that had terrorized defenses from Muleshoe to El Paso and back.

Buster shook his head, smiling, his eyes wide, looking straight ahead but seeing elsewhere.  “Man, Bo.  You’re gonna kick some butt when you go over.  I bet the real Viet Cong don’t know nothing about quail hunting neither.”

Thrusting out his cinderblock jaw, Bo struck a somber, faraway look.  “Nope, I don’t reckon they do.  And we’re not firing birdshot, either.  We’re talking 7.62 millimeter, semi-automatic M-14.  You can cut a fence post in half with it.”

Buster turned to me.  “In another year, Travis and I’ll will be right there with you.”

I thought about Gram’s words about fighting and killing and sorrow.  “New President says he’s gonna end the war.  With honor,” I said quietly, feeling the tender bump on my cheekbone.

“Nixon don’t know from shit,” Buster scoffed.  “We’d be better off putting another Texan in the White House to run the show.  Nixon won’t end nuthin’.”

Bo studied the gleaming tips of his boots.  “Maybe he will and maybe he won’t.  But I’m going over to bag me a few Cong before he does.  Those with combat experience will be the NCO’s of the new Army.”

Fighting just begets more sorrow. What could an old woman know about that anyway? What did she ever really fight and if she had, maybe then she’d know about fighting and glory, which is where Bo was headed. I shoved her words out of my head.

“You gotta write us, Bo, and tell us how it is,” Buster said.  “That way, we’ll have a leg up when we get there.”

“We’ll see.  Don’t know if I’ll be able to, when we’re on maneuvers and all.”  Buster’s face dropped until Bo added, “But I’ll try.”

Bo unbuttoned his uniform jacket and slipped it off.  He shook it into shape, straightening the sleeves, then put a wooden hanger in the broad shoulders and hung it from a dresser drawer pull.  With a couple badges, the brass buttons and his unit insignia, the blouse hung on display like a perfect new flag with a background of green, still having plenty of space for the rows of ribbons we all knew would come from a combat tour, maybe two, if he liked the first one.  A stiff breeze, tinged with the scent of horses, rustled the window shade.  After a moment of silence, I turned to Bo.  “Cheryl Ann wants to know when you’re coming for her.”

“Who?”

“His Aunt,” Buster offered.  “The one that lives with them and cuts hair part time in Dix.”

“Oh, Shirl.”  Bo picked at the faded bedspread.

“Right.  She says she wrote you five times a week when you were in training,” I said.  “And she wouldn’t leave me alone till I told you.  So you tell her I did.”

He ran his fingers through his blonde brushcut.  “Well, she sure did.  And I will.  But probably not tonight.”  He flopped back on the bed.  “I’m beat.”

“You staying in on a Friday night, your last one home?” I asked.

Bo loosened his tie and undid his top button.  “Junior McCracken’s supposed to come by.  So if I do go out, it’ll be with him later on.”

At the mention of Junior McCracken, my hopes sagged.  Buster hopped up.  “I thought Junior was still in LaButtocks.”

“Tech got out this week.  He’s done till football camp this summer late,” Bo answered.

“He may be done at Tech for good,” I said quietly, picturing Mrs. McCracken blubbering away as Shirl blew-dry her hair in the cramped trailer.

Bo sat up.  “What are you talking about?”

The two of them had been a thundering herd, stampeding out of the backfield, Junior blocking and Bo running like the wind.  It wouldn’t do for me to tell him the truth about Junior.  “Just nothing.”  I patted my boot toe on the throw rug.

Buster grabbed his wallet and keys off the dresser.  “Then you won’t be needing the truck tonight, eh Bo?”

“No, I reckon I won’t,” Bo answered, leaning back, eyes closed again.

“Let’s go get us a quart, Travis.  Then we can cruise the Dixie Dog.  Maybe Kay will be there.”

I’d thought of that.  But my swollen cheek still felt hot to the touch.  It would be best if it was dark next time I saw her.  Maybe the next two times.  And I’d damn well better get there before Junior did.  “Okay, Buster.  Let’s go.”

“Y’all two be careful,” Bo ordered, still flat on his back.  Without answering, I followed Buster out of the room, quietly pulling the door closed.

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