“By the Hitman”
Sergeant Thomas John Bullen had never felt more terrified by the prospect of what lie ahead of him, nor more alive. Not Iraq or Somalia, nothing in the last twenty years could compare to what he was about to face with the U.S. Army.
Forget the last ten months and six thousand miles, dude. It’s time to focus. Inky’s counting on you.
He glanced quickly up to the observation tower where the retired Ranger in charge of the competition stood, then over to his partner, Sergeant Gary Calhoun, who, like he, stood dressed in fresh BDUs – camouflage pants, button-down long sleeved shirt over a gray T-shirt and dog tags, boots. Both men proudly displayed the Ranger Patch they’d earned for the competition across the chest of their uniforms.
A few years his junior, Inky Calhoun – nicknamed after the prominent tattoos on both arms – tipped his eyes respectfully in anticipation of the countdown. Knowing the next sixty hours were likely to turn their feet to hamburger and their bodies inside-out, Bull winked back. He couldn’t ask for a better buddy or partner in Inky Calhoun, and he wasn’t about to let him down.
Bull had entered – and lost – five Best Ranger Competitions before today, but this one had the feel of something special to it, starting with the qualifier, the brutal Ranger Training Course. The same event that had already trashed a team of Navy Seals, some Green Berets, and many of the Army guys had seemed to pass by effortlessly.
As the seconds ticked closer to six in the morning and the official start to what he knew would prove to be a hellish and painful weekend, Bull sucked in a deep hit of the crisp Autumn air, held it, then exhaled the bottled breath. One more glance in Inky’s direction filled his vision with an image of handsome perfection and rugged good looks: Inky’s dark blond hair, buzz-clipped almost to the scalp, his dark blue eyes and smile of clean white teeth, big hands, the right bearing the gold band on its ring finger. While something deep inside him ignited at the image of his old Army buddy, Bull felt his insides go cold. His muscles tensed. This was the closest thing to combat a soldier could experience on home soil. It was going to be war.
He faced the edge of the event zone, where pull-up bars formed a wall against the firing range. A thunder-crack sounded from the top deck of the observation tower, drawing his eyes back up. Brandishing a bullhorn in one hand, the Ranger in charge bellowed, “Commence!”
With the firing of the pistol, Bull went on automatic. He dropped to the pavement beside Inky, quickly assumed the position, and performed eighty-two pushups in two minutes. Ninety-two sit-ups, eight pull-ups on the metal bars at the edge of the event area, and a two mile run with full gear in under twelve minutes followed, the standard Army Physical Fitness Test.
He’d broken a healthy sweat by the time he and Inky completed the first leg of the competition. Though exhausting, the kick-off was only the beginning. With no time to spare, he and Inky hustled straight over to the firing range, where they moved, positioned, and shot M16s. From there, they hopped a waiting Blackhawk helicopter. Bull pulled on his parachute, checked everything, and then followed Inky out the open hatch. The rush of air, for a brief and overwhelming instant, seemed to freeze time. The world below stretched out, beautiful and bountiful – mountains, forests, rivers. Bull stared, transfixed, as the earth came rushing steadily closer. The explosion of the opening chute sent things back into a speeded-up tailspin.
Their jump couldn’t have been more on target. Bull hit the ground a step behind Inky, freed himself of the parachute, and raced on to the next event – the water navigation course. For the next twelve miles, they paddled their canoe down the river’s twisting course. At some points, when the water ran too shallow, they dragged it on their shoulders.
Gear packs were waiting for them at the end of the water course, a full sixty-five pounds of equipment and supplies they’d have to carry with them for twenty-five miles in under six hours. Sweating profusely, a wicked smile on his face, Inky said, “So much for the easy shit.”
With no break, the grueling foot march over rough terrain began.
Focus, Bull told himself.
For a week, he’d hardly thought of anything except the competition. Few memories of his cross-country trip in search of an estranged son or the sex he’d encountered along the way to getting there had crept into his mind. Now, those days seemed part of another existence, some different world he’d visited briefly and exited back to the safety of his life in the United States Army.
By the second hour of the march, Bull’s Size Twelves were feeling the strain. Aching arches and blisters, he knew, were only the beginning. By late Sunday afternoon if they survived that long, his feet would bleed.
The long, brutal trek didn’t provide much opportunity to reflect upon the journey he’d started in January, or that it had canvassed Pennsylvania to Seaside, Massachusetts, to New York State, Ohio to Arizona, San Diego to Texas and finally Georgia, where it would end. The fact he hadn’t seen his home in North Carolina in ten months kept the edge of anticipation at completing the weekend and returning there fresh. So, with his feet aching and the raw stink of pure masculine sweat soaking his skin, he trudged quickly on up a rocky cliff, metering his breaths.
Never more than a few feet from Inky’s service-toughened ass, he realized this weekend was going to destroy him, both in body and spirit. Being ripped apart and put back together before getting home to North Carolina was just the sort of new beginning he needed to forget everything that had happened since Becky’s letter arrived, informing him he had a son.
Yes, this weekend would be a rebirth, a purging. He’d emerge broken and bleeding, stripped of all baggage, all lust, regret, need –
Inky suddenly stumbled. The slide of rocks underfoot sent the thirty-five-year-old sergeant and his heavy equipment pack staggering backwards, right into Bull’s waiting arms.
“Whoa, big guy,” Bull grunted. The simple act of halting in place after the nonstop press of the last dozen miles sent sharp pains up his calves.
“Thanks,” he said, swiping the sweat from his forehead. It was the first time either man had talked in hours. “Sure glad your ugly ass is here to back me up, buddy.”
“Ugly, nothing,” Bull growled under his breath. He flashed the other man a good-natured smile. “You love this ass.’
“We win this fuckin’ thing, I’ll kiss it.” He blew a few fake smooches for effect, which earned him a face full of Bull’s middle finger. “‘Course, you probably don’t need nothing from me. Bet you fucked every hole from here to San Diego on that little bike ride a’yours.”
Through the walls he’d steadily built around his thoughts, Bull caught flashes of their faces – Alex, a Seaside hockey jock, Chris Holt, Jake Samuelson, a trio of Army sandlot baseball players whose names he barely remembered, Oscar, some Texas wrangler named Jamey – all the men he’d met and enjoyed over the course of the last ten months.
Focus, the voice in his head shouted. Bull looked away and settled for, “No one special.”
“Fuck you,” Inky laughed. “You tall, mean, lying piece of shit. Big fuckin’ stud like you – bet you left a trail of broken hearts and dripping cunts from one coast to the other.”
Bull sucked in a breath of the hot, sweaty air and crossed over from sedge to the footpath waiting beyond the rock ledge. “Maybe I’ll tell you about it some time.”
“Tell me now,” Inky prodded. “You got my balls churning just thinking about it.”
Bull closed his eyes, only for a moment. He imagined a young man’s mouth slobbering on his sweaty toes and a breathless kiss in San Diego that tasted of his own jism. Focus, damn it! “We win this fuckin’ thing, you got a deal,” he said before the reality of such a promise could sink in fully. He knew this particular event routinely knocked out more than half of the teams in the Best Ranger Competition and could easily disqualify them before the day was done.
But through a combination of jogging down hills and across level planes and hard-marching uphill, they finished in less than five hours.
Day Two would prove to be even more brutal.
The unmistakable odor of their meals-ready-to-eat burned in Bull’s nose, mixing with the crisp smell of morning woodland air. The watery pasta and vegetables in tomato sauce went down quick enough to spare him thinking too long about the slimy mix. MREs weren’t too bad when you ate them fast, and when two a day were a soldier’s only source of food, he learned to appreciate them with the same respect he showed an expensive steak.