Wes Boyd's
Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online

The Homestanders
Book Four of the Bradford Exiles
Wes Boyd
2005, 2011

Chapter 23

Sunday, August 8, 1999

Although she’d spent a lot of time with Duane when he had been a kid, Vicky really hadn’t seen much of him in recent years, and barely had time to say hello to him the last time she’d seen him back at the end of April. Now, it was hard to realize that the bronzed, bearded hiker sitting on the steps of the Appalachian Trail Conference headquarters in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia late that afternoon was really him at all.

He’d always been a pretty fit kid, but now he seemed so lean and ruggedly handsome it was almost unbelievable!

Vicky had been present several times when he’d called home, and she’d talked with him a few times; Jason also usually let her read his letters, so she was aware that he was having a successful trip. He was running just a touch behind schedule – at one point this meeting had been planned for Shenandoah National Park. He’d been slowed by rough going in the rock fields of eastern Pennsylvania, so was a couple days over his planned schedule when he hit the halfway point of the trail a few days earlier. By then, Harper’s Ferry, slightly more than halfway but the psychological center point, was such a convenient place for the meeting that he’d dawdled a little, arriving only a couple hours ahead of them. He was still hiking alone, and there were several easy days supposedly ahead of him so he expected to catch back up to his schedule sooner or later.

In spite of its allure for thru-hikers, Harper’s Ferry isn’t much of a motel town. They drove briefly through the old section, past the historic engine house where John Brown, one of the firebrands who touched off the Civil War, had made his last stand, and then the trio got out on the highway and drove to Charles Town a few miles away.

There was some administrative overhead to deal with; Jason and Vicky had brought a mail drop package with them, and Duane had to find a supermarket and get groceries. They found a motel; Duane immediately appropriated the shower to wash off a week’s accumulation of trail dirt. Then, with him feeling almost human, they found a decent chain restaurant for dinner; Vicky was awed to see him eat several days’ worth of her diet allowance as he spouted off trail stories one after another. The kid was having a serious adventure, and there were stories there he could draw on for the rest of his life.

Eventually they headed back to the motel, and since it had a pool, they decided to use it. Vicky pulled on a multicolored bikini – not the red-hot thong job – and the three of them splashed around for a while, then sat in lounge chairs around the edge of the pool as they listened to Duane continue with trail talk.

The awkward part came when they headed in to sleep – they’d gotten a double, but no matter how much Vicky would have liked to spend the night in the same bed with Jason, sex or no sex, it was unthinkable with Duane present. Duane saved propriety, however; he said he was so used to sleeping on rocks, hard shelter bunks and floors that his sleeping pad on top of a carpet seemed almost luxurious.

The next morning they were up early. Duane packed a huge breakfast away like he was using a shovel, but hiking burned a lot of calories, and he had to feed the furnace. It was still early, so they drove back to Harper’s Ferry and spent a little time walking around “below the hill” in the old part of town. Just for the sake of doing it, the three of them walked back up the trail for a moment, across the bridge over the Potomac River into Maryland, and then came back. Duane suggested his dad might like to walk with him for a bit, and if they did it in the next couple miles he could walk across an entire state with him. Vicky drove the Stratus back through town and across the Shenandoah River Bridge into Virginia, and waited for a while until the two of them showed up, walking across the bridge behind her. She gave him a hug and wished him good luck on the rest of the hike, and then got out of the way and let father and son have a few private moments and a strong hug. Then Duane turned, walked past the trail marker, and headed up the trail towards Georgia.

“Shit,” Jason shook his head as they watched him disappear. “I sure as hell wish I was twenty-two again and I could go with him.”

“You’re not that old,” she told him. “People a lot older than you do it every year.”

“Yeah, I know,” he sighed. “At one time, back when this idea was first cooked up, I thought I might take an extended leave and go with them. I mean, it was Duane and Cory back then. But I thought no, it’s their adventure, they don’t need me watching over them. And then, this spring I’ve been reading his letters and reading the trail guides about the stuff he’s been passing, and the itch has been going again. Hell, I’m not that far from retiring, after all. But,” he said, with a glance at her that she didn’t think he knew she saw, “I realize there are other priorities, too. I’ve got time to think about it and things could happen.”

Whether or not he was pointing that statement at her, she could feel it hitting her, but she thought it was best to not explore it at the moment. “It’s hard to watch him go, isn’t it?” she asked softly.

“Damn hard,” he shook his head. “Yeah, I’d like to be out there with him, that’s one thing. But, Vicky, I realized back when I hiked up Katahdin with him last spring that he’s all grown up now, he’s got a life of his own to lead, and the best thing I can do is get the hell out of the way and let him lead it. There comes a time when I have to let him go, after all. That doesn’t mean I won’t be there if he needs me, but he has to follow his own trail.” As Duane disappeared from sight without looking back, he sighed and continued, “Hell, you know that, your parents went through it.”

“I suppose,” she said, realizing he’d laid a statement no less profound on her, another one requiring thought and discussion that she didn’t want to have intrude on the moment right now. “You want to get moving?” she suggested.

“Might as well,” he shrugged, turning away from the empty trail toward the car. “Nothing more to do here. You want to drive?”

“I might as well.”

“Tell you what,” he said. “It’s still early. The Antietam battlefield isn’t far from here. Duane bitches about possibly getting assigned to a cannonball park, but I’ve always heard it’s a pretty good one. Let’s head up the back roads and spend an hour there.”

“Talked me into it,” she smiled.

The route up to the battlefield was a quiet, scenic two-lane road, with interesting views, but Vicky couldn’t help but wish she was riding it on the Street Hawk – a bike made for a road like that. The battlefield was interesting; they stopped at the visitor center for a self-guiding tour map and drove around checking it out. They stopped at the Wheat Field, near the north end of the park. It was quiet, except for aged monuments standing in many places around the field, denoting this event or that. “You know,” he said slowly at one point, “We’ve seen Bert fire his Napoleons, we’ve seen Civil War muskets fired, and it’s fun to watch, but it’s still not easy to imagine what a killing field hundreds of those cannon, thousands of those muskets made in this place.” He let out a sigh. “I’ve never been to Gettysburg either, but I’m told that to stand at the Bloody Angle and look out at that field of fire is one of the most sobering sights you can think of, to imagine thousands of men walking across that huge field into those guns.”

“A long time ago,” she said.

“A lot of young men who should have had good, productive lives died here and there,” he said philosophically. “Men Duane’s age. I can barely imagine how devastated a father or mother who raised a son to that point would be to have their kid’s life pissed away like happened in a place like this. And by the thousands.”

“Heartbreaking would barely cover it,” she shook her head.

“Wouldn’t come close,” he said. “Shit, I can imagine it happening all too damn easily. After all, I’ve got a son the age of a lot of the men who died here. You put all that work, all that love, all that hope, all that sacrifice into trying to raise the best young man you can. Then some idiot yells ‘charge’ and it’s all gone in an instant, just pissed away to no good end. My parents got lucky. I worked in a blacksmith shop in Vietnam. A couple times I heard artillery in the distance, but mostly the banging I heard was a hammer on steel on an anvil. Even watching Bert fire a cannon doesn’t help me imagine it much better. I’m just goddamn glad Duane’s big adventure is a walk down a trail, not a year walking around with a rifle in some goddamn hellhole like Vietnam.”

“The Park Service seems like a lot better deal to me,” she smiled. “If you have to come to a place like this, at least let it be a cannonball park rather than an active battlefield.”

“You got that right,” he grinned.

They still had a long way to go, almost ten hours if they leaned on it, so they didn’t hang around much longer. Vicky drove up to the four lane and pointed the Stratus toward Bradford while the thoughts were heavy in both seats of the car.

Yes, it was hard for Jason to watch Duane walk up the trail, and she knew it. She knew he’d put over twenty years and a lot of work and heartache into raising his son. The son, she knew, who had started out as an unwanted child but had been carefully loved and raised in spite of a birth mother who apparently hadn’t given a shit, and then a second, loving mother who had gone away all too soon through no fault of her own.

Vicky knew that she and Jason had been coming together for months, just becoming closer friends, companions – and after Wednesday night, lovers. That seemed to open doors that hadn’t been there before. Over the past several months she’d been hoping there was some way those sorts of doors could be opened for them. Now, they were, and she was wondering if she ought to work toward walking through them.

If Jason had been a little younger, if he still had small children, the decision would have been easier. But if she’d had any central, driving dream since she’d been a little girl, it had been to have a family of her own. She’d realized since yesterday that Christine had the dream no less, and though she couldn’t have children of her own, she’d done the next best thing and it had worked out for all.

But the question that kept running through Vicky’s mind was simple: was it fair to put him through it again? Not involuntarily, either; she’d meant what she’d said the morning before, that she would not allow herself to inflict another Jody experience on him. She’d made the statement a little casually, without totally exploring the implications of what she’d said at the time, but in the hours in the car yesterday she had. She had also realized she would do what she had to do to avoid it, even if it meant a repetition of the more enjoyable events of Wednesday had to be avoided as well. If it happened again, it couldn’t be a mad, insane passion, but careful enough to take all the necessary precautions and then some, even if it intruded on the wonderful spontaneity of the situation.

Beyond that, though, lay another question. Just suppose that with plenty of forethought they decided to have a child? Would it be fair to a man in his fifties – which he would be soon – to deal with a preschooler? A man in his sixties to deal with a teenager? It could be hard on him, just as hard in its own way as it had been for a much younger father to deal with a disappearing wife, a terminally ill one, and twice face being a single father. Though she could avoid being a Jody, that was no guarantee a Christine situation couldn’t arise – not necessarily leukemia, but lots of other things – a car accident, whatever. When you got down to it there was no control and the grim reaper comes when he will.

And, as far as that went, would it be fair to the kid? Jason had spent a lot of time doing all sorts of active outdoor stuff with Duane, or he wouldn’t be southbound on the Appalachian Trail as they sat there. Would he, could he, be that sort of a father again, at an age twenty years older than he’d been when he dealt with Duane? It seemed unlikely; some of the slack she might be able to take up, but some of it couldn’t be made up at all. Duane was a yardstick – another child would want to have the same sorts of opportunities, the same sort of raising he’d had. It wouldn’t – couldn’t – be the same, would have to be different, but have the same level of quality.

Was it fair for him to have to deal with a wife and lover so much younger than he? While they were good friends, their twenty years age difference made them see things differently, have different capabilities. For that matter, would it be fair to her to be a young wife to an aging husband?

On the other hand – while Jason might not have been the only fish in her pond, it had been a long time since she’d met a man she liked as well, who had such similar interests. No, check that; never. Realistically, Scott had come the closest, maybe back there in college and high school, and she’d blown the chance, blown it long before the weenie roast, the point when she’d realized there was no hope. There was no telling from the way Scott and Sonja were with each other today how it might have worked out between the two of them if it had worked out – different, certainly, but how different?

She could pursue that line of thought for a long time, but there was no point in doing it – it was a dead issue. Even if Sonja dropped dead this instant, she and Scott had moved a long way apart over the years – they had different interests, different experiences, different goals; it hadn’t worked then and there was no guarantee it would work now.

Ponder it all she wanted to, there was no escaping the fact that she and Jason shared more and liked each other more than any other man she’d ever met, and there seemed to be a good potential to get closer and share even more. Even with the age difference, she had little doubt she could be a better wife to him than Jody had been. She’d learned in the last couple days that he and Christine had been closer than she’d always thought. She thought she stood a fair chance of having the same sort of love, the same sort of closeness – while at the same time, liking and being able to share many of the things he liked; things that Christine had been unable to share whether she’d wanted to or not. She understood now that he’d recognized he’d had to change his interests to reflect her interests and her capabilities. In her own case, though, she shared a lot with Jason – in fact, shared many things because he’d taught her to like them and share them, started teaching her when she’d been a little girl, teaching things that seemed so natural she’d hardly thought about it. Did he realize he’d been molding her toward the possibility of making her his own? She doubted it.

So, yes, in that sense she could share a life with Jason, and do better than either Jody or Christine. She liked Jason a lot, loved him although she’d never told him that in quite that sense. It was nonetheless true; he was the closest to the man that she wanted that she’d ever found, was ever likely to find. But he seemed to carry with him the likelihood of having to give up her longest, closest-held dream, that of having a family of her own. Duane wouldn’t count in the slightest; although she’d done a part in helping to raise him, it was a small part; he was really Christine’s son, after all. More importantly, that job was done. She could possibly fill the role of step-grandparent, but parent? Never. It wasn’t worth consideration.

Boil it all down, it came down to this: much as it made sense, was it worth the price?

She put out her hand, and took Jason’s. She did not dare take her eyes off the road for more than a few seconds, but she glanced at him, noticed the thin smile on his lips at her touch, the warm look in his eyes. It wasn’t the time to bring up this series of thoughts – not now, when he was obviously feeling the pangs of watching his only child head out into the world on his own. But someday, most likely sooner than later, the question could very well become choosing between the man whose hand she held or the family that lay out in a dim, distant, possibly unpleasant, and perhaps unreachable bush?

“Oh, God, Jason,” she mouthed the words without letting them pass her lips. “Oh, God, I love you.”

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