Don knew how dangerous it was to pass through this place. There was always someone watching and entrapment could come quickly. Still, it was an area he had to get past if he was going to find his partner and so he waited quietly, watching, planning his route. He was hungry but resigned to that reality. The mission was everything and at this point it was only necessary that he consume enough to stay alive.
Don and his partner, Joe, had been in a few hot spots together and Joe was the bravest person Don knew. Always, always they had each other’s back. Now that Joe had been called up again, he hadn’t hesitated. Joe’s wife had been understandably upset and his kids had cried when he told them. But that was Joe. Always duty first. Brave. No other word for it.
When Joe talked about why he did what he did, there was a calmness that came over him and it seemed to calm everyone around him, including Don. He wasn’t quite matter of fact but quietly determined and never any drama. That was one of the things that made Joe so great to work with. Even when Don had his doubts about a mission, Joe was solid.
Because all of the discussions he had overheard were not in his first language, Don wasn’t too clear on what was happening. But he had grasped enough to know that his partner was going to need his help. That was sufficient. The two of them shared an unspoken but unbreakable promise and Don was determined to hold up his end.
He’d been travelling for six days and this was one of the last obstacles to overcome. It was dusk now and Don watched carefully, waiting for his opening. He edged out and then ran, skirting the edge of the road before suddenly dashing across. He heard people yelling and the sound of screeching brakes but no contact occurred and in a final leap he rolled down the embankment and made it to cover in the trees. He tried to quiet his gasping breaths and stopped to listen. He was a bit surprised at the effort that had taken him and he was worried someone might have seen the path he had escaped onto. He strained to hear but after a few moments he concluded that he had eluded any trackers. He set out again, walking now but no less determined. Perhaps it was the fog of war that had separated the two warriors, but Don knew that the error needed to be resolved. He jogged for a few steps but then returned to walking until the high fence of the compound came into view. He stayed well back.
As he crouched in the cool grass, the thought of Joe fighting and risking everything without any help was almost more than he could bear. He shook his head as though to remove the worry from his brain. Concentration. Concentration was the key. Worry was the lock. He began studying the lay of the land.
The fence was high and there had been a time that he could have scaled it without much effort. Now he was either going to have to find away around it, dig underneath it or most likely, make it through the gate.
Don heard footsteps coming from the compound. He sank lower in the tall grass as a flashlight passed over the area where he crouched. Overseas, Don had always prided himself on being the first to distinguish between friend and foe. But back here, he mostly counted on Joe. Under these circumstances, it just seemed better not to take any chances. Although the men with the flashlight were speaking, the words were difficult to comprehend. It only seemed clear they were unaware of his presence. He stayed close to the ground for a few moments, even after they had walked the other way.
Don rose stealthily and prowled around the fence. He knew where the gate was but he hoped that maybe there would be another way. He crept around the compound staying in the tall grass near the trees. After a few perimeter checks it was becoming increasingly obvious that the gate was his only chance. There was a sentry there and Don knew he would be seen if he tried to enter. Knowing Joe was in there was almost enough to make him run wildly towards the gate and take his chances but he checked that irrational thought and continued studying the entrance to the fenced building.
The sky was darkening and the air smelled like rain. It began, momentarily as a drizzle and then suddenly a down pour and Don watched as the sentry turned hastily to close the windows of his guardhouse. Don ran, threw himself to the ground and scrambled under the barrier and jumped as far as he could behind the car parked near the gate. He waited in the rain. The guard turned back to his watch and Don allowed an almost audible sigh to escape him as he realized he had not been seen. He crawled on his belly into the shallow ditch along the driveway and then with a last look at the guard, he ran towards the building.
He was unerring now and within moments he had arrived at the area where he could see the door. He lay down in the tall grass, keeping his profile as low as possible while he considered his next move.
It was the fourth call Kathy had made and she was sounding increasingly frantic. Joe tried to calm his wife but he knew there was little he could say that would be useful.
"You know I can’t come and help you, Hon. You and the kids? You’re going to have to try without me, okay? You guys have to keep looking, Kathy.
Joe could tell Kathy was crying, and her attempt at stoicism reminded him of why he loved her so much.
"We fly out Wednesday. Let me know, okay?"
Joe shook his head. Why now? Why now when he had to leave them and when Kathy needed as much help as she could get? Why now when no one was going to be there to offer it to her?
PFC Jackson knocked on Joe’s door. "Sir. Staff Sergeant Wilson thinks you need to come out here."
Joe grabbed his jacket and followed Jackson. Wilson watched him enter the room. He pointed to the window.
"Have a look, Corporal."
Joe looked out the window and froze.
"It’s impossible. How? At his age…?"
He ran to the door and out into the pouring rain.
Don saw him immediately and attempted to get up but the cold and the rain had troubled his joints and he struggled. Joe ran to him and fell to his knees in the wet grass. He took Don’s head in his hands and looked into the cloudy eyes that stared steadily back at him.
"You have to go home, Don. I need you to look after things there for me."
Joe was having trouble speaking.
"You can’t come with me, Don. I’ve got this job to do, but this time you have to stay behind. It’s our duty, Don. I’ll go over there and you stay here and keep them safe at home for me until I get back."
Joe was talking as though Don would understand every word, and although it wasn’t his first language Don was content just to listen to Joe’s voice. Solid, just like always. He found himself leaning a bit on his partner.
"I’ve got your wife on the phone, Joe. She says she’ll come and get him tomorrow."
Staff Sergeant Wilson looked at Joe.
"Bring him inside, Corporal. Retired warriors get special access."
Joe lifted his old dog into his arms and wept as he buried his head in Don’s fur.
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Jessup’s Contribution by Aaron Tallent
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