Where Your Road Leads...
by sarAdora
~~~~~~~

"Where your road leads I will follow
When your heart bleeds
I'll be there for you"

Vietnam
There was no doubt in his mind that the gods were angry - that is, if you believed in that kind of thing. He was used to the rain, a light rain that lasted most of the afternoon and evening this time of year - in the jungle. Have I been here, in this lushly beautiful and deadly place so long that I know the weather patterns? God! I'm tired of this. It's time to go home... or to die.

The dense foliage made good cover. Water dripped off of it and down his back, adding just a little bit of frosting to the giant piece of misery cake he had been forced to consume that night. It had rained all afternoon, the treacherous paths made even more obscure by occasional bursts of torrential downpours. Mentally, he noted that the sheets of rain falling from the sky raised the stench of death to a new level.

It filled the man's nostrils - he had lain most of the night - in mud among corpses - bodies so disfigured by missile fire and mortar blasts that only God's angels knew who they were. Their loved ones certainly wouldn't. Did I know you? he wondered, looking at the ruins of human flesh. Is there anything familiar about you besides your uniforms and U.S. insignias? He reached out to finger a bit of burnt camouflage and thought better of it, not wanting to trespass on a passing soul.

They're already dead, Joseph.

He nodded. I know. But they're still wandering overhead looking down at what they were.

Maudlin and introspective tonight, old man?

Who are you?  he whispered in his head to the remains of war and bits of blood stained detritus lying on the ground. Who were you? You who were killed without discretion, without regard for man or country, without thought to kith and kin? Did you leave a wife and child behind? Will your mother weep? What color was your hair? Were your eyes open when it happened? Did the hell fires catch you in mid-prayer? Will your congressman pray for your soul, thank you for dying for a just and rightful cause? Did God see your limbs falter as the bullets cut you down? DID HE? DID HE?

He blinked back tears, a moment of sanity returning. Why are we fighting this war? Sometimes, I forget. Sighing heavily, he wondered when a Huey would swoop down and spot the carnage, and evacuate him and the dead.

~~~~~~~

Two years earlier -

Joseph Altman had just passed the BAR. His father would have been proud; his mother overjoyed. His only sibling, a brother, had sent a telegram congratulating him. It had arrived only hours before a Navy chaplain had informed him of his brother's death in Vietnam. Jessica had hugged her fiancÚ joyously to congratulate him on passing the BAR. Now she hugged him tighter because the news of his brother's death had taken the light out of his eyes.

"You know I'm going to be called up, don't you?"

"Do you have to go?"

"Yes," he answered simply. "When they call me, I'll go."

"You could go to Canada. A lot of..."

"No, I can't. If called, I will serve my country."

"But Joe," she pleaded. "You've said many times that you don't agree..."

"Doesn't matter whether I agree or disagree with this war," he said, offering a sad smile with his words. "I am a man of honor. If my country calls me, I will go."

"I don't want you to go," she wept. "I want you here and..." She stopped in mid breath at the look on his face. He *was* a man of honor and it was unfair of her to give him this added burden.

"I'll be here for you," she said and ended the discussion.

~~~~~~~

"When your night grows dark
And you can't find your tomorrow"

Vietnam
He was exhausted. Separated from his Seal team, he lost count of the hours he had spent running, hiding, taking cover, his eyes wide and blood shot, his body totally drained. His backpack was heavy, laden with extra socks, a few 30-round clips for the M16, and by last count, not too many rations. And he was soaked.

He knew he couldn't make it any further. He needed sleep. Backing into the hollow of a gnarly tree trunk, he covered himself with fronds, debris, branches, whatever he could find. Don't need to sleep too long. Just a couple hours. He pulled the pot off his head and held it in his lap, the steel helmet suddenly hot and heavy, and pulled out his last bit of jerky. Gnawing on the spicy tidbit, he wondered if he'd make it through the night.

Don't let me die alone. Please don't let me die alone,  he prayed. Let me get through this. I love you, Jessi girl!

"It's just another night, Joseph. You can do this," the mysterious voice inside his head reprimanded him. "It's not like you're a green recruit."

One more night without music,  Joe mused. One more night without my sweet lover. One more night without any guarantees, not even the certainty of tomorrow. Christ! Will I make it through the night?

He pushed further back into the tree, grateful for the mortar blast that caused the hollow, hoping against hope the MiG-21's wouldn't be returning to strafe the area again before dawn.

What the hell am I doing here?

"Doing your duty, Joseph. You're bound by your honor, your oath. You'll die for God and country. You'll die an honorable man," the voice whispered, its words chilling him. Was it foretelling a death knell?

He didn't want to die. Will it be me who went down on this black night? Will it be me who failed to return from a mission? Will it be me who will be reported missing in the morning report? Am I among the dead already? Have they already written me off? Am I MIA, never to be found?

Peering through the jungle cover, he couldn't help wondering if he closed his eyes, would he fade from the world, blend in with the tree, die a quiet death?

God! It's a black and endless night. I need another look before I die. Is there time for one last prayer? No salvation in sight, no redemption... Jessi, I love you! No time... no goodbye to friends or foe, not even a friggin drink.  He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Wishing for the dawn to hurry up wouldn't make it come any faster.

~~~~~~~

"I believe in miracles
I believe in signs
And I believe that mountains move
One prayer at a time"

Two years earlier -

They had been the all-American dream couple - college sweethearts - he on the football team, she the head cheerleader. Loving families, Sunday church socials, picnics in the park, cuddling on the beach at night and in his old Pontiac Firebird at the local drive-in theater. She studied to be a teacher; he worked nights and weekends to put himself through law school and they snatched hours each week to spend time together until they could afford to wed.

"I love you, Jessi girl," he told her every day. "We'll marry when I pass the BAR."

"I'll write you every day," she told her husband of a year when he received orders to report to Norfolk. "I'll pray that you come back to me," she added, tears beginning to form.

"If I make it back," Joe said gravely, "I might be missing a part or two."

"Just come back to me. I'll love whatever parts you have."

"You be good," he told her as he kissed her again, the duffel bag at his feet, looking handsome in his crisp and freshly pressed uniform.

"I will," she gave him a tremulous smile.

"Gonna spank you good and hard when I get back if you're not," he grinned and winked.

"Can't wait," she replied, her brave front fading fast.

He grabbed her into his arms one last time... "I love you, Jessi girl!"

~~~~~~~~~

"Where your road leads I will follow
When your heart bleeds
I'll be there for you"

Vietnam
They almost killed each other. Joe was on his belly, binoculars focused on two VC junks floating on the river below him. The old and traditional Chinese vessel was very much in use in this war. The VC found it to be a perfect craft for shipping supplies through the country's long and twisting rivers. Joe watched the activity on the river, his mind deep in thought when the hair stood up on the back of his neck.

What looked like a log covered in debris, was inching its way toward him. It moved so slowly that Joe thought it would take close to an hour for it to reach him. He unsnapped his handgun and took aim.

The young marine was certain he saw miniscule movement on the upper bank, but he wasn't positive. He could shoot whatever it was, but that would only alarm any VC to his presence. He chose to get a little closer, his camouflaged M16 clutched in one hand.

Joe leaned on his elbows, his handgun back in its holster, and his rifle pointed at the moving log. He adjusted the scope, his finger on the trigger, and took aim. And then, he jerked back. The forward part of the log had risen slightly off the ground and he could have sworn it was pointing an M16 in his direction. Damnation! It's gotta be one of ours! He sunk back to the ground, retreating, letting the jungle cover him, and waited for the "log" to come closer.

It took Will Stanton over an hour to cover the distance between them. He was certain he had recognized the barrel of an M16 rifle, but he couldn't be sure. He had to get closer. The last thing he needed was a VC renegade on his trail.

When he felt the nylon mesh fabric under his hand, Will knew the "renegade" was one of the good guys. Only U.S. forces wore the specially designed nylon jungle boots, the Vietnamese wore sandals or went barefoot on their native turf.

Joe's other foot came down hard on Will's hand as he pointed his handgun between his eyes. "Now's your chance to pledge allegiance or die, boy. What's it gonna' be?"

"I pledge allegiance to the flag..."

"Can you sing our national anthem, bozo?"

"Yeah," Will gasped, the pain in his hand making him see stars. "But you want to cover your ears when I get to the part about the "rocket's red glare."

Joe smirked, trying hard not to show his relief at finding another U.S. fighter in the jungle. "Let go of the rifle. Get up slow and easy. Let me see your ugly puss."

Will released the weapon, sat up, and then slowly stood, some of the camouflage dropping off his body.

Joe pulled the rest of the crap off of him. "Humph," he snorted. "Should have known. A friggin jarhead."

"Corporal William Stanton, United States Marine Corps."

"Sir!" Joe snapped.

Will looked at the man in front of him, wondering if conditions really warranted that kind of courtesy. "Sir," he added. "And you are...?"

Lieutenant Joseph Altman, United States Navy, Seal Team 4." Joe said proudly, his chin high.

When they thought they found safe haven, they stopped for the night and swapped stories. Both had been separated from their buddies. Will had lost most of his unit to mortar fire; Joe was part of the special forces sent in to clean up particular hot spots. Both were weary, very lonely and hoped to make it through another night.

"We could die before sun up, boy."

Will grunted. He was hoping to make it through the next hour. If he saw the dawn, he'd consider it a miracle.

They made it through the night and the next day, and the day after that. Slowly, they wound their way through the VC's jungle, hoping against hope for signs of friendly fighting units. They were exhausted from the strain of belly walking their way to safer ground, and the constant scurry to hide when the enemy unexpectedly showed its face.

"Are we going to make it through the night, Lieutenant?" Will asked one more time.

"Don't know, boy. We'll see."

"Don't call me boy, Lieutenant. Call me Corporal or call me Will. I'm not a boy." He spoke softly, his calm voice hiding the fear and the rage festering just below the surface of his sanity.

"You think my calling you Corporal is gonna' make you die any easier? You think it's gonna' make you die with dignity?" Joe snorted.

Will grabbed him by the throat. "Yeah, I do."

Joe knew the jarhead had been through Parris Island. That meant the boy had some decent training, but he wasn't a match for the Seal, a graduate of the finest trained fighting force in the world. When the jarhead's hands went around his neck, he leaned his own head back against a tree and without a hint of his intention, kneed the marine.

Will gasped at the sudden pain in his groin and dropped his hands from Joe's throat.

Joe shook his head, turned his back on the other man and snapped at him. "Get some sleep, boy. It's gonna' be a short night."

~~~~~~~

Present Time
Knotting his tie, he thought about the cocktail party. Jessi had been excited about going and they hadn't attended any social functions in a long time. He'd just been too busy; he had more work than he could handle and maybe his wife was right. He needed to enlarge his law firm and delegate some of his responsibilities. He'd start interviewing prospective law associates this week.

Looking at his wife as he handed their coats to the maid, he marveled again at how lucky he was. Jessi had stood by his side through the lean times, the hard times, the long separation when he went off to war...

~~~~~~~

"Oh we can be each other's guiding light
Through this long and winding life
Where you road leads I will follow"

Vietnam
The VC swarmed everywhere. The young Seal and the even younger Marine had inadvertently crawled into hundreds of them on maneuvers, deadly men honing their killing skills. They had to stay hidden another day and night, the squid and the jarhead against the enemy. It took their combined energy just to remain still, secreted in bush and dirt. They kept themselves covered and cramped into a space so small, they could feel each other's chest heave with every breath. Joe lay behind Will, his arms around the younger man's chest, squeezed into a hole he hoped wouldn't be their mutual grave.

By nightfall, they were exhausted from the strain of remaining motionless, and from the stress of trying to stay alive. The jungle sounds faded, but the adrenaline continued to course through their bodies. They had been in the same position for too many hours and Will was so cramped for space, he wasn't sure he'd be able to stand again. He was at the edge of his sanity and the man behind him grated on his nerves, telling him what to do, how to crawl, how to breathe, and how to die. He was ready to strangle the squid. Finally, he managed to stretch his legs, and turned over to face Joe. They couldn't move without disturbing their cover and they were desperate to find some relief from the stains of war left on their souls.

"Too many dead and wounded in this war," Joe commented.

"Too many missing and maimed," Will reflected.

"We're fighting a war that was fuckin' legislated!" Joe grumbled.

"I keep forgetting why we're here," Will commented softly.

They finally slept, their bodies inadvertently held in each other's embrace, the hole they hid in barely big enough for one, their arms having nowhere else to go. Joe wished he was holding his sweet Jessi; Will didn't know what he wished but was silently thankful for the embrace of a friendly body. It was mutual need and mutual loneliness, one of the many costs of war, the price of freedom escalating on a daily basis. They slept like the dead, fighting their demons and their nightmares. They were two men among thousands fighting a war they found baffling and tedious, a war that was ungodly and deadly and unforgettable.

~~~~~~~

Present time
With glasses of sparkling wine, they gravitated toward the couples they knew; couples like them... one foot on terra firma, the other on the upward mobile step ladder. Jessi's soft laughter made him look at what had caused it - her old college roommate - a sweet reunion when they embraced.

Turning toward her husband, she made the introductions. "Joe, this is Betsy Stanton and her husband, Will."

~~~~~~~

"When your night grows dark
And you can't find your tomorrow
When you've lost sight of your dreams
Then you can follow me"

Vietnam
They made it through one more day, crawling on their bellies, under cover, and around the VC. They slithered over the jungle's rot and corpses, a lot of corpses, some belonging to the enemy, some to the good guys. The stench of decay poisoned their breath, making them retch, and made them question the worthiness of war.

"Are we gonna' die, Joe?" Will asked with a weary sigh when they stopped for the night, the jungle closing in around them. "We're gonna die this time, aren't we?"

"No we're not!" Joe barked, as if ordering the Almighty to do his bidding. "But I'm gonna' tell you what we *are* gonna' do." He pushed Will against the trunk of a wide tree. "We're gonna remember what we have at home and fight like hell to get back to it." He punctuated his words with a fist in Will's gut, his breath hot and heavy in the other's man face, his rage alive and his will to live and return to Jessi a living breathing thing.

Will didn't hesitate to punch him back.

It felt good - this sudden pain in two bodies that had been numb, paralyzed by fear and loneliness and no promises for tomorrow. If they could feel pain, they knew they were alive and if they were alive, hope also lived.

The night was black. Not just dark, but black. The midnight blackness lingered as they talked quietly. They knew they were lucky to live one more day of war, survive one more day in a foreign land where no one wanted them. They lay facing each other, trying to stay as compressed as possible into another small space that wasn't big enough for two very tall and muscular men. Their lives were one long hellfire and the dawn was a long time coming.

~~~~~~~

Present Time
The prolonged silence was awkward, recognition complete and immediate, both Joe and Will grasping for words... a polite hello... something to fill the void.

They spoke at the same time.

"Corporal? I... you..." Joe sputtered, mentally slapping himself for his clumsy words.

"Lieutenant, you... you made it," Will stammered his thought aloud.

They both laughed.

"Yes, we both did," Joe confirmed the obvious. "Nice to see you alive and whole," he added quietly.

"Will's a lawyer," his wife remarked.

~~~~~~~

"Someday we'll look back and see
Our footprints in the sand
Sometimes you would carry me
And sometimes, you'd be in my hands"

Vietnam
Just when they thought they were alone in the jungle, they heard the faint sounds of fighters somewhere in the distance. MiG-21s were in the air, the Vietnamese and renegade Soviet pilots swooping low in the skies. Joe knew they generally fought the war at much higher altitudes but they had two reasons for flying lower. The first was to strafe the countryside and provide cover for their troops to move forward; the second was to avoid the F-4 Phantom fighters. The U.S. Phantoms dominated the skies of South Vietnam with their air power and were generally successful in suppressing the enemy's anti-aircraft fire. Joe could only hope they were avoiding the F-4s. He and Will wouldn't be able to survive one more strafing. Their hiding place was becoming more vulnerable by the minute.

They watched the skies from their covered site, both hoping it wasn't the last thing they saw before dying. The adrenaline level was high, their stomachs churning with it, making them swallow bile.

"Is this it, Joe?" Will asked quietly, almost resigned to die but knowing he would run, fight, maim, and kill till his dying breath.

"Not yet, Marine," he barked. "Not quite yet. Follow me! That's an order!"

Once more, they managed to hide deep in the forest. Once more, they shared what little rations and precious water they had left. Once more they dug into the jungle's undergrowth and hid in its foliage. Once more they tried to stay alive in a war that held them captive in another time and place.

~~~~~~~

Present Time
They talked law; it was easier than remembering... Will was aware he was alive because Joe helped him survive through that terrible time. Joe knew meeting Will had helped him maintain his sanity in a world where only chaos reigned. Neither mentioned they lived like animals to survive; nor did they talk about their need to share that hell with another warm human being. They swapped mundane memories - working during the day, law school at night, passing the BAR, marriage, and...

"I've never forgotten a second of that hell," Will said quietly, touching Joe's arm.

"Me neither, jarhead," Joe replied.

~~~~~~~

"Where your road leads I will follow
When your heart bleeds
I'll be there for you"

Vietnam
They had slept fitfully, both with an eye open, and ears tuned for sounds of the enemy. Eventually, exhaustion and anxiety warred. One or the other would sleep for a few minutes, wake with a start, and listen to the sounds of the night. Both assessed each sound, trying to pinpoint the locations, wondering which belonged to the jungle and which to the enemy.

The odds of their dying before the sun rose were growing by the second. They were surrounded and had run out of hiding places. Their food was gone, and their ammunition almost depleted. Neither wanted to die. They needed a miracle.

Joe figured it was just wishful thinking when he heard the chopper's blades. The U.S. Hueys weren't supposed to fly this deep in-country unless friendly troops were in the area. But there it was, and it was almost on top of them. He leaped to his feet, dragging Will with him and ran toward the big chopper. Suddenly, salvation was in sight as they ran a zigzag pattern, trying to dodge enemy fire, hoping against hope to leap aboard the low flying aircraft. The pilot maneuvered the clumsy bird, covering their escape with gunfire until the chopper was finally in position to shield them and they were able to hurl their bodies on board.

"Permission to come aboard," Joe snapped a salute once they were airborne.

"Permission granted, sir," the marine gunnery sergeant smiled, handing canteens over to the men.

"Who did we save, Gunny?" the naval aviator asked as he flew away from the enemy's skies.

"Just a squid and a jarhead, sir."

~~~~~~~

Present Time
"Your wife says you're interested in expanding your law firm," Will remarked as he sipped his drink. "I'm looking to expand mine. Maybe, we can discuss this further, merge our client base, relocate into larger office space."

"My firm specializes in international law," Joe explained. "We've got more work than we can handle. I'd like to add a few associates."

"Let's talk further. Might be able to work something out."

~~~~~~~

"When your night grows dark
And you can't find your tomorrow
Then you can follow me"

Vietnam
The Huey brought them to safety, dropping them off at a waylay station where Will could reconnect with what was left of his unit, and Joe with his Seal team. They turned away from each other without a word. Will got about ten feet away before he paused, turned back and called Joe's name.

"Lieutenant Altman!"

Joe turned to look at the marine he had spent the last week with, the man he had felt compelled to bring out alive.

Will stood at attention and saluted the man who had saved his life. "Thanks for saving my sorry butt. Thanks for..."

Joe returned the salute with a curt nod. "Take care of yourself, jarhead."

~~~

Present Time
"You sure you want to hook up with me, Corporal?" Joe asked, yesteryear's memories resurfacing, the smell of the jungle filling his nostrils... the rot... the corpses... the living hell.

Will looked at the man who had badgered him to stay alive, the man who had saved his life. "Where your road leads, Lieutenant. I will follow. If things ever get tough, you can follow me."

~ End ~

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