Standing ankle deep in black, slimy swamp muck, Sgt. William “Billy” Franks paused to catch his breath and to look over his shoulder, for the umpteenth time.
Nothing moving, not even a leaf. Good.
The humid jungle was also silent. Even better.
They were still a ways behind him, he hoped. But they were coming. He knew so because every hair on the back of his neck was standing at attention, and the neck-hair test had never been wrong before. Not ever.
Unfortunately, he was confident it wouldn’t be wrong this time, either.
Sgt. Franks was parched. His lips and throat as dry as desert sand, a reminder of the last time he’d been in a serious battle, fighting to survive. Hard to believe that conflict beneath a blazing Iraqi sun had been only a week ago.
He just couldn’t seem to steer clear of trouble, no matter how hard he tried.
No time to think about it, though.
The setting sun had already begun to paint the surrounding landscape in various shades of gray and black. Giant shadows crept slowly across the forest floor, feeding on splotches of light along the way.
Night was coming as fast as they were.
Finding clean water to drink would have to wait.
It was time to move on.
He’d fought the enemy—the entire outfit—all afternoon, before finally escaping into the jungle where he’d been running for hours.
The sergeant’s hair was caked with mud and his camouflaged BDU’s were wet and filthy. His rifle, thankfully, was dry. He was exhausted and unsure how much longer he could continue.
They were relentless in their pursuit, and he was sure they were closing in.
He had to find the strength to keep moving.
Suddenly he heard a voice from beyond the vines and thick, lush plants to his left. He dove for cover behind a moss-covered log. Something large and long slithered away through the undergrowth covering the forest floor.
He heard it again. This time the voice seemed closer.
The sergeant, knowing his options were now few, took a quick peek over the rotting tree. He saw someone standing in a clearing just beyond the treeline.
They called out again.
“Billy, it’s time to wash up for dinner!”
Sgt. Billy Franks, knowing it would not be in his best interest to dilly-dally, stood and used his hands to brush the dirt from his knees. Then he stepped from the small patch of woods into his backyard where his mother stood waiting. He whispered to himself, “Maybe tomorrow I’ll be a cowboy.”
Glancing back over his shoulder he saw a tall Native American man standing in the shadows—his face painted for battle.
The warrior locked eyes with Billy for a second and then faded into the forest. A drumbeat began to thump from a place deep in the woods.
“Tomorrow, Chief, right after I’ve had my Fruit Loops and orange juice, it’s you and me. Because those woods aren’t big enough for both of us.”
Shouldering the stick he used as a pretend rifle, Billy marched toward his mother, wishing he were five again because being six was really hard work.