Stray Thoughts

Written by Gallagater
Comments? Write to us at 7j4him@prodigy.net

Though he had destroyed the entire world; and whoever
rescues a single life earns as much merit as though he
had rescued the entire world.
Talmud

"Get the hell ought out of here you thieving, hairy bastard."

The distant shout was punctuated by a crash of metal, a high-pitched yelp, and more undecipherable sounds featuring at least two languages.

"Sounds like your girlfriend’s in trouble again, Jack." Warner smirked, tossing a wink to the group of men as he waited for the anticipated ‘kiss-my-ass’ reaction.

Jack ignored the dig, as well as the disappointment flooding his antagonist’s face, much to the amusement of his companions.

"Hell, I could have sworn the cook fed that mangy dog to us in last night’s chow," drawled Forbes, the lanky kid from Louisiana. Although the youngest member of the team, the kid had proven to be a fast learner, surviving not only what the enemy had thrown at him, but his teammates, as well.

"Geesh, Forbes, that’d only be an improvement over that shit they’ve been passing off on us since we got here. I haven’t had grub this bad since Basic."

"Bet your mama has some mighty fine recipes for Stray Dog Stew, don’t she, Warner?"

A grin broke through three days growth of beard as the burly soldier answered. "Damn straight, kid. You want me to have her send them to that new wife of yours?" Forbes had married his high school sweetheart bare weeks before the team had shipped out for the Gulf. He’d quickly become used to the teasing of the veteran members of his team.

"Man, I haven’t had any really good dog since I was stationed in Nam," Warner complained. "Now, let me tell you, boy, they know how to wok a dog."

General groans and snorts of laughter followed an obligatory backhand. "God, Warner, that was bad. Where the hell do you come up with that crap?"

A smug, triumphant look on his florid face, Warner answered. "It’s a gift, Cromwell, a rare and pure gift of the finest kind."

The good-natured banter continued as the men sauntered towards their quarters The morning meeting with Colonel Stewart was finished, their next mission briefed. Although only midmorning, it was already hot and sand snaked through the camp around their boots. They paid scant attention to the daily discomforts that went hand-in-hand with being stationed in this part of the world. Even in their verbal banter there was a wariness surrounding these men that set them apart.

They’d been here, in this Saudi camp, just over three months as a team under Colonel Stewart’s command. The 139th Special Operative team had met for the first time at Travis before deploying for the Gulf. Their success ratio had quickly earned them a reputation as a tough, reliable team: Stewart, Cromwell, O’Neill, Warner, and Forbes, men who got the job done. The camaraderie of trust honed itself quickly in battle conditions, but within the team, closer friendships were as rare and precious as shade in these desert surroundings.

Many men shunned the familiarity of friendship, choosing the anonymity of solitude easily found in a special operative team. But the same military ground that created an easy place to breed solitariness and isolation proved the most fertile soil for some friendships. Thus had been the case for Jack O’Neill and Frank Cromwell.

Even now Frank sensed waves of tension and restlessness emanating off his friend like heat off the dunes. They’d met the first day of Ops training where both Cromwell and the instructors had immediately spotted O’Neill for the trouble magnet he seemed determined to prove himself. But much to Frank’s chagrin, it seemed he was destined by fate, or the luck of the draw, to be teamed with O’Neill. Thrown together in training exercises, Frank quickly discovered there was more to this smart-ass screw-up than met the eye. Although neither would ever be quite sure when or how, sometime during those exhausting, body-, mind- and soul-stretching days, their mutual dislike and antagonism slowly eroded into a solid bedrock of friendship.

Somehow, some way, Frank wasn’t quite sure how, they both had managed to squeak through to graduation and had earned the red beret. Now their lives were intertwined with missions and promotions, and they were enmeshed with the good and bad; they’d saved each other’s lives so many times neither bothered to keep track and watching out for each other had become second nature. They stood together as a team and as the best of friends.

Lengthening his strides, Frank drew next to Jack. "Buy you a cup of coffee, Jack?"

Glancing over, Jack squinted in the harsh sun. "Yeah, sounds good."

Breaking away from their team with a wave, they headed towards the mess tent. "Go find us some shade and I’ll grab the coffee." Without waiting for an answer, Frank walked into the heat of the mess hall. Wiping away the worst of the film of dust with the corner of his shirt, he quickly topped off a couple of cups from the ever-present urn with a nod towards one of the enlisted men stacking dirty dishes in a tub. As he exited the stifling heat of the tent, Frank spotted Jack sitting under the quasi-shade of an awning. He couldn’t help the brief snort of amusement as he watched his friend lean forward, speaking earnestly into the shadow of a nearby tank. Few people knew Jack O’Neill, smart-ass extraordinaire, bane of commanding officers ad idem, for the tenderhearted sap he was when it came to kids and dogs.

Even now Frank could see the scrawny, over-grown pup his friend was coaxing out of hiding. The dog, having overcome its fear, was watching Frank’s approach with wary eyes as she sat panting softly, allowing Jack to scratch gently behind her ears as he crooned soft words of reassurance to her.

Setting the coffee down, Frank pulled up a seat, watching with amusement the mutual contentment pouring from the pair. "You’re gonna get fleas."

"Nah." Jack’s eyes twinkled as the dog shoved her head under his hand. "Sorry, girl, I’ll pay attention." He stroked the long neck, his finger tracing around a dirty patch of white fur, inconsistent with the mottled shades of browns and black which made up the rest of her coat. He watched as the dust loosened by his finger-grooming hung in the air before settling once again in a slightly different location. "She’s a good girl. She doesn’t have fleas, do you?" Liquid adoration answered him as the dog gazed up at him.

"I wasn’t talking to you. I was warning the dog." Frank quickly lifted his mug to his mouth, hiding the grin.

"When you get out of the Air Force, Frank, you really ought to think about a career as a comedian."

Silently watching the big dog, Frank finally decided she must be some sort of a Shepherd cross, what with the long narrow snout and the pointy ears. As little as he knew about dogs, he figured it was a pretty safe bet she wasn’t a poodle. "She got a name?" Frank gestured with his mug towards the dog that had flopped down at Jack’s feet in a contented heap.

Jack gave a non-committal shrug as he stared into the depths of his coffee past the film of foreign matter that graced the surface. "I’ve been calling her Star," he admitted, his reluctance evident. Swirling the coffee mug, Jack created a whirlpool, dragging the film beneath the surface, before sipping the hot liquid.

"What, like a general’s star, since she’s the closest thing a screw-up like you will ever get to one?"

"No, smart-ass, as in Sirius, the dog star. Guiding the way, finding home, shit like that."

"Too deep for me, Jack. Think I’ll just call her Mutt." They sat for a while in comfortable silence, sipping their coffee.

Jack took a deep breath, his eyes firmly on the panting flanks of the animal resting beside him. "I’ve been thinking about trying to get her a place as one of the patrol dogs. I heard Moreno might need a couple of new dogs."

A truck backfired nearby and both men ducked, simultaneously reaching for their sidearms. The dog sprang to her feet, alarmed by their reaction. The men shared a rueful look and after a long minute the dog slowly relaxed under Jack’s hand.

"Why would you want to give her to Moreno? If she’s a patrol dog, you won’t even be able to play with her, will you? Don’t they keep those dogs isolated when they’re not on duty? I don’t know, but it seems like you wouldn’t want to see a friendly dog like this turned into a guard dog, Jack."

Frank was surprised at the uncomfortable look of embarrassment that flashed across Jack’s face. There was a long pause before Jack finally answered. "We’re gone on missions, gone pretty long sometimes. I worry about her. I slipped one of the native kids in the Mess a few bucks to make sure she has something to eat, but who’s gonna stop some asshole from using her for target practice, or what happens if she gets hit by a jeep? I can’t protect her if I’m not here."

The smart aleck comment died away as Frank realized just how serious Jack was. "That’s the way it is for strays in a military camp. You know that." He laughed. "Remember that ugly little mother that took a liking to you in Nicaragua? She ended up having her litter in your bunk." He laughed again remembering the uproar that ensued when Jack had requisitioned the bunk belonging to Mark, the CIA agent in charge of the operation. The laugh died away as memories of the outcome for that particular mission surfaced. The look on Jack’s face told him that he, too, was revisiting those dark days in the jungle world of the Contras and Sandinistas. "Yeah, well, it’s like that in every camp we’ve ever been in. Hell, there’s a dozen strays in this camp alone. You can’t take care of all of them."

Jack nodded, acquiescing the truth of the words reluctantly. Refusing to make eye contact, he watched a small lizard scamper up the awning pole and disappear in the folds of canvas. "But, maybe I can save one."

***

The chopper landed, sending a fountain of sand spraying in all directions. Before the dust settled, the side door slid open and Jack stepped out, ducking habitually in deference to the spinning blades, his kit thrown carelessly over one shoulder. He tossed the bag towards Frank, who snagged it midair. Yelling, he used a liberal amount of hand signals to compensate for the roar of the rotors above them. "Gonna go see Moreno. I want to see how she’s doing."

Frank waved him on. "Figured as much. I’m surprised you waited until we got back to base before calling home, Mom. Shit, I don’t think you were as nervous the first time you left Charlie as you have been about leaving this dog."

Jack grinned and shrugged, unable to deny it. "Yeah, well, Sara was better at distracting me than you are, Buddy."

Frank snorted. "Get out of here and go check on her, you idiot. I’ll stow your gear. Tell her Uncle Frank sends his love.’ He watched as Jack waved his thanks and moved away in an easy jog, then grabbed the gear and walked towards their quarters.

A chorus of barking greeted Jack as he crossed the camp to the K-9 sector. He cocked his head trying futilely to pick out a solo bark in the choir. He and his team been gone ten days - ten long days. Before they’d shipped out, Moreno has promised he’d take care of the dog as if she were his own sainted mother. There was little doubt that this was true according to scuttlebutt around camp. The sergeant had the reputation of a pitbull where his men where concerned, but was a well-known pussy cat when dealing with his dogs. Woe be to the handler who struck or otherwise abused his dog when Moreno found out. The sergeant saw no inconsistency in bawling out an errant handler, but allowing his four legged charges to be spoken to only in firm, calm voices on or off duty.

Jack quickly walked down the row of fenced enclosures housing the off duty dogs. The runs were clean and shaded. At the second from the end he found her, front paws planted firmly on the fence, tongue lolling happily as she awaited him. The padlocked gate provided a barrier to a physical greeting, but the reunion was heartfelt nonetheless as Jack’s long fingers worked through the fence to ruffle and caress the muscular neck and muzzle.

"Hey, girl, did you miss me? The words were murmured, nearly lost in the warm breeze that shifted the sand around them. The dog whimpered her answer and licked his fingers through the wire, temporarily lifting the weariness from Jack’s face. "Yeah, me, too."

The reunion was disrupted by the shout of a stout, barrel-chested man who strode towards them. "Get the hell away from that dog, flyboy, or your ass is mine. These dogs are soldiers in the United States Army, not some damn pet back on the farm for you shitkickers to play with. You’re lucky that animal didn’t tear your arm off, mister. But just because she didn’t, doesn’t mean I won’t, and then feed it to you for breakfast."

Hiding his amusement, Jack turned and not for the first time wondered how the sergeant, at barely five foot three, could strike such fear into the hearts of those in his path. "She looks good, Lou."

His feet planted firmly, Moreno looked up at the tall man smiling at him before turning his gaze to the dog sitting calmly in front of them. "No sir, Major. She looks great."

Jack nodded in agreement. "You’re right, Lou, she does. She’s put on some weight. Haven’t you, girl?" The dog nuzzled against the fence. "I don’t think I could find a speck of dirt on her coat."

A glare that had nothing to do with the beating rays of the sun was his answer. "You damn well better not. These dogs are kept cleaner than that fancy rifle of yours, or I’ll have someone’s ass in a sling."

Jack couldn’t stifle the snorting laugh at the man’s indignation. "She looks good," he repeated softly as he tickled the dog’s ears.

"She’s a good dog, Jack. Smart, too. She’s a whiz at taking commands. Hell, it’s only been a few weeks and I’ve already got her on patrol. And she’s got a damn sight better personality than you and me both."

"Well that’s not saying a hell of a lot."

"You’re telling me." The men shared a laugh. Star cocked her head causing them to laugh again.

"Who you got handling her?"

Moreno patted his uniform down for a cigarette, scowling when his search came up empty.

Reaching in his pocket, Jack pulled out a half a pack of Camels and offered the sergeant one before helping himself. After lighting both, he took a deep draw and sighed.

"Thought you’d quit," Moreno commented, his eyes on the dog panting quietly at their feet.

"Did." Jack never blinked. "Started again. Today. Who’d you say you had handling her?"

"Paltroy. He’s a new kid out of Lackland. You probably don’t know him, but he’s good. He’s got what it takes. Not like some of these bozos HQ sends me."

Jack nodded. Finishing his cigarette, he ground the butt under his heel and squatted down next to the cage, allowing Star to tickle his fingertips with her tongue.

Lou Moreno watched silently as he finished his smoke, enjoying the moment. "God, I’m gonna hate putting her down when this war is over. It’s never easy with any of them, but this one’s special."

For a brief moment there was no reaction and then long fingers tightened around the chain link. Seemingly in slow motion, Jack pulled himself to his feet. "What the hell, are you talking about?" His jaw was clenched and his eyes steel pikes driving into Moreno.

Forced not only to stare up at the man towering over him, but into the harsh rays of the sun because of Jack’s position, Lou squinted against the hostility enveloping him. "Just what I said, Jack. It’s the part of my job that I hate the most, but it’s got to be done." When the other man didn’t respond he continued. "Our guys pull out. What the hell did you think we did with these dogs? Let them go? Come on, O’Neill, use your head for something other than that cap of yours. Wake up, for God’s sake. These animals are trained to attack. What happens to the civilian population when we’re gone? No food, so what, we leave a pack of potential killers to ravage their flocks or worse? You want to be responsible for some native kid getting mauled to death and eaten because we don’t have the balls to face an ugly reality and do what has to be done?" His voice softened as he saw some of the anger drain out of Jack’s taut features. "You really didn’t know?"

The silence hung between them, answering the question. Star whined softly, sensing she had his attention again. "What about finding them homes?"

Lou’s snort was humorless. "Hell, O’Neill, the locals can barely feed themselves. You know as well as I do these dogs eat better than half the population of Lawqah."

"So I saved her so she could die?"

The words were so soft that had it not been for their bitter edge Lou would have missed them altogether. "You gave her a better life for a while. I guess that’s the best any of us can hope to do." He paused and looked into the distance. "Ah hell, Jack, I’m no good at this shit. I don’t know what to tell you. Sometimes life sucks even when you’re one of the good guys."

***

"Hey, what’s the matter, O’Neill? Your girlfriend turn you down?" Warner smirked, nudging Forbes with his elbow and nodding towards Jack, who lay stretched out in his bunk. "You’ve been in a pissy mood for days."

"Maybe she told him he’s gonna be a daddy."

"That could be it, kid. That what’s got your panties in a wad, Jack? That little gal of yours gonna have a litter?"

A firm voice interrupted the pair’s guffawing. "That’s enough. Warner. You and Forbes, shut the hell up, and get out of here for a while." When the two men didn’t immediately comply, Frank’s face hardened and he added with quiet conviction, "Haul ass now, boys, or I’ll make it an order."

"And I’ll beat the crap out of both of you if you don’t do exactly what Frank just said." Jack’s words were muffled beneath his arm draped across his face, but the threat, hanging like a cloud, was unmistakable.

Forbes had the good grace to look abashed more than half believing that Jack would do exactly as he promised, even though the man hadn’t moved from where he rested in his top bunk. But Warner laughed, nudging the younger man again. "Come on Junior, I’ll buy you some lunch. Then maybe we can go scare up a poker game with those jarheads in the motor pool."

The door slammed, temporarily blocking out the world and creating a peaceful oasis. Long ago they had both learned to enjoy what moments of tranquility they could, even if it was only a brief illusion in the middle of a war zone. Frank threw a glance at Jack before moving quietly to his own bunk. Jack hadn’t moved. That in itself was unusual and therefore worrisome. It wasn’t like him to remain still unless he was depressed, or plotting some scheme to get both their asses in hot water. Neither scenario boded well as far as Frank was concerned. Sitting down, he watched a small insect struggling across the rough surface of his blanket. Picking it up, he examined the tiny legs scrambling for purchase before crushing the hard shell between his fingers and flicking the body away. He rubbed his hands clean on his uniform pants.

With a sigh, Frank reached for his duffle, rifling through it until he clutched a stained envelope. He carefully unfolded the letter, his eyes skimming quickly through the words he had read several times already . "Mail came today." He waited to see if Jack would respond.

"Ah huh."

"Got a letter from Liz. You get anything from Sara?" He already knew the answer, but he was simply using the question to bait his hook. Everything he’d learned about fishing, he’d learned from Jack, who on their rare days off would drag him out of bed at some ungodly hour - an hour when common sense told normal people they should be sleeping or recovering from some training exercise. Well, there sure as hell wasn’t anything normal about Jack and no one would say he was an easy man to say no to. In fact, it was next to impossible when it came to catching the elusive ‘big one.’ And despite his bitching, despite his best attempts to ignore Jack’s mandatory fishing lessons, Frank had learned them and was now determined to put those ill-conceived lessons to work. Use the right bait, jiggle it just the right amount, be patient, wait for a nibble and then set the hook and reel in the catch.

"Nope."

Frank sighed again. Jack never made things easy. His eyes dragged over the letter again. "Liz said to tell you hi and that you were supposed to keep me out of trouble." He snorted his amusement. "Like that’s gonna happen. She said she’d been taking care of Charlie so Sara could take some evening classes at the junior college. Liz says he’s too cute and really smart. Guess he isn’t anything like his dad, huh? Must take after Sara." That at least elicited a chuckle. "Makes her want a kid of our own." He couldn’t stifle the unbidden sigh that escaped. He hoped Jack didn’t hear it. He was trying to cheer up his friend. He sure didn’t need Jack thinking about how much they both missed their wives. It was hard enough to keep himself from dwelling on how much he and Liz wanted to start their own family, or how hard it was to have a marriage, much less a baby, with a war and an ocean between them.

Deliberately laying aside the gloomy thoughts that were attempting to sidetrack him from his mission, Frank went back to Liz’s letter. "The girls went to some movie called ‘Rocky.’ Said it was about a down and out boxer fighting for the title and getting the crap beat out of him. Get this one, in the middle of it all he falls in love. The girls liked that part, but Liz said all the fighting made her sick. It figures they’d go and ruin a good fight movie with a bunch of hearts and flowers and shit like that, doesn’t it?"

There was no response from the upper bunk.

Frank’s fingers tightened on the letter, wrinkling it slightly, before he laid it on the bunk and carefully pressed it out before folding it and returning it to the envelope. "Jack, you sleeping?" He poked the thin mattress above him and was rewarded with a distracted sigh.

"Nope, just thinking."

"That’s dangerous." It wasn’t like Jack to forego a comeback when tossed an opportunity like that. Something was definitely up. Frank lit a cigarette, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, trying to decide the best way to handle the situation. "So, you want to go grab some chow?"

"Nah, I don’t have a death wish."

Frank felt a flicker of encouragement. It was a start. "Wanna talk about it?" When all else failed - dive in and swim like crazy, and pray that Jack wasn’t in piranha mode. Because God knew that friend or foe, Jack was perfectly capable of stripping a person to bare bones in a matter of seconds.

But the situation called for blind faith so Frank dove in and began to tread water while he waited impatiently to see if Jack would share. Neither of them was good with words. More times than not they didn’t need them, hiding behind smart-ass comments to express feelings and emotions they couldn’t share. Over the years they’d been together, they both had honed their non-verbal skills to an art: An art which played havoc when you finally got leave and your wife needed assurance of your love, and you lay there sweating like some damn teenager because you were unable to spit out the things in your heart. But an art which worked to perfection in the middle of a mission when your best friend was counting on you to cover his six and get you both home.

"Moreno’s going to kill her - Star. After we go home. He told me it’s SOP."

Frank hadn’t expected this. A letter from Sara that had depressed him, a reprimand from the CO -although God only knew that didn’t usually cause this reaction - even the heads up on an upcoming mission, but not this. Jack was sharing. That in itself was as rare as hen’s teeth, but sharing the fact that he was hurting, even if he didn’t say the words . . . Dammit, why couldn’t it be something easy to deal with like a gunshot wound to the gut? They’d danced to that tune in Czechoslovakia on a mission gone sour. At least then he’d known what to do, how to help. This was way out of his field. And he was too much of a pragmatic realist to offer creative solutions. It made him a damn good soldier, but sucked in situations like this.

"Ah hell, Jack, I’m sorry." Silence swallowed his lame ass comment. Now was not the time for the old ‘orders are orders so buck up and take it like a man’ spiel they’d both grown up on.

"I’ve got an idea, but I might need your help."

For a brief moment, the thought of kidnaping the dog and spiriting her away in the dead of night to safety crossed Frank’s mind and he wondered briefly what the penalty was for stealing a US Army K-9. How many years could they lock you up for dog napping? Probably a very long time, he thought morosely. He pushed away thoughts of the brig, his commission, his career, and years away from Liz. "Fill me in, buddy. I’m in."

***

"I got an answer."

Frank strained to hear Jack even though they were seated next to each other in the belly of the helicopter. He shook his head, figuring it was easier than shouting an answer.

Apparently not the least dissuaded by his friend’s lack of comprehension, Jack grinned and continued the one-sided shouting match. "They said, yes. After the war ends, I can take Star home. She’ll have to go through channels and quarantine, de-programing, and shit like that, but HQ said she’s mine. Can you believe it?" He didn’t wait for an answer, but carried on without a pause, rattling on with all the eagerness of a ten year old who has just made the game winning home run. "Charlie’s gonna love her. Sara loves dogs, too, so that won’t be a problem. Wait’ll I tell them I’m bringing home a dog." Jack’s eyes were lit with excitement and much to Frank’s amusement, his friend was practically bouncing with enthusiasm, the mirror image of the tough guy portrait so often donned by operatives in the force. "I just got word right before we left, so I didn’t even get to tell Moreno. Oh man, Frank, he’s not gonna believe it. I can’t wait to see his face when I break the news."

For weeks Frank had watched as Jack bombarded the-powers-that-be with phone calls and letters, launching a full scale assault on the red-tape barricade they hid behind. Not dissuaded in the least by the barrage of negative responses he received, Jack planned his battle strategies with a thoroughness that would have successfully overthrown a small country. Come to think of it, they’d both participated in a few governmental overthrows definitely involving less planning.

Jack had called in favors, stretched truths, made subtle blackmail threats, and blatantly lied when he deemed it necessary. And through it all, he had dragged Frank along. Over the years they’d made a lot of contacts between the two of them, contacts who owed them - big time. Though God knew he could Jack had never been one to drop names, but this time he had, insisting Frank do the same, much to Frank’s chagrin.

Why not allow the dogs serving the United States of America the opportunity to live out their lives in a safe, loving environment after laying their lives on the line like any other soldier? Didn’t our country owe these veterans, these war dogs, at least a chance at a new life? These animals had given their all, and in some cases their very lives. Why should they be the ones to be left behind, be it through abandonment or a bullet?

Frank had to admit it was a stirring argument, one they had hashed and rehashed in between missions and into the wee hours of the night. Jack’s mood had fluctuated like the desert climate they fought in, the heights of ecstasy one moment, plummeting into depression and despair the next. But he had persevered until he got his results, chewing and worrying the problem, like the ill-gotten bone he smuggled Star.

"God, Jack, that’s good news. I’m real glad for you, buddy." As usual there was a lot more Frank realized he could have said, but hadn’t. But apparently it was enough from the look on Jack’s face. Come to think of it, they were the same words verbatim that he’d used when Jack had told him Sara was pregnant.

It was too loud to carry on much of a conversation. Both men leaned their heads back, relaxing while they could, mentally preparing themselves for the mission.

Frank jumped when Jack whacked his shoulder. Crap, he’d actually dozed off. Across the aisle, Stewart was on his feet, geared up, and talking to the pilot. Warner and Forbes were checking and double checking their gear, prepping to jump.

"Come on, Sleeping Beauty, you’ve just got time to do your final check."

Nodding, Frank twisted his neck, trying to work out the stubborn kink from his impromptu nap wondering, not for the first time, what kind of masochist chose to do this for a living.

Colonel Stewart made his way back to his team, grasping the safety poles to help maintain his balance. "Okay, guys, here’s the drill. Descent’s gonna be a bit tricky because of medium high to high grade winds. Not anything you haven’t handled plenty of times, but something to be aware of before you jump. O’Neill, you’re on point; Cromwell, you follow. Forbes, you’re in the rocking chair with Warner, and I’ve got our six. Now, you all know the plan. Rendezvous is at zero-three-thirty, pick up ten minutes after that. Don’t be late, the bird won’t wait. I want to be back at base camp in time for my morning cup of coffee."

Jack thumped the side of Frank’s helmet and giving him a cheeky grin, he moved towards the doors awaiting the order to jump. "Catch you on the flip side, good buddy. This is the Rubber Duck and I got my ears on. Looks like there’s no bear in the air so we’re clean and green all the way to that Iraqi-town."

Frank couldn’t help smirking at the insane times his friend chose to prove to the world he was a world class idiot. A HALO night jump with high winds over an enemy munitions site? Geesh, only Jack would figure it was time to practice his CB jargon.

"Get some new material, Jack. That shit’s twenty years old. Nobody talks like that anymore. Next you’ll want to streak naked through the enemy camp."

Jack laughed. "Frank, they’d take one look at this magnificent body of mine and surrender on the spot out of pure unadulterated envy."

The snort of laughter only made his smile widen.

"You two screwballs knock it off and get off those radios," Stewart snapped, clearly wondering what he’d ever done to deserve these morons. "We’re on radio silence the minute we pull the cords. That clear, O’Neill?"

"Roger that, sir." Jack looked back at Frank, shook his head in mock sorrow. The gleam in his eye, visible even in the muted interior lights, betrayed him. "A classic never goes out of date, Frank, my boy. Never. Remember that." And he was gone, swallowed by the night.

They made their way, silent deadly shadows, through the boxes and barrels covered with desert camo. Avoiding the guards proved easy enough, almost too easy, Frank thought as he melted into the pitch, watching as Jack did the same. Off to the far right Forbes was setting a charge. Between the dozen or so packages they’d left tonight, in less than an hour the sky should be red from more than the rising sun.

‘Red sky in the morning, Iraqis take warning; red sky at night, Air Force delight.’

The insane little verse popped into Frank’s head. He could almost hear Jack singing the words in his god-awful off-key crooning. Frank grinned. Jack was the best friend a man could ask for and there wasn’t anyone else he’d trust to watch his back like he trusted Jack, but the man couldn’t sing for shit. And this, of course, only encouraged the moron to do it all the more.

Frank squinted through the night goggles. Jack was moving, fast and to the left. Suddenly there was a second body in his view finder. Shit, a soldier had moved in too close to Forbes and Warner. Before Frank could make a move, Jack was already in position, dropping the guard with practiced ease. There was the muffled pop of the silencer and Frank watched a rose blossom on the Iraqi’s forehead, crumpling the man with a soft thud. Jack moved forward to check the body and looking back, signaled an all clear to Frank. They moved forward, inchworming their way through the camp. As the most experienced men, Stewart had assigned them the area furthest from pick up. They’d done it dozens of times. Routine. No sweat.

That is, until everything went to hell.

Looking back, Frank remembered seeing it all in slow motion, like one of those old fashioned movies where you put in a nickle and crank the handle, making the actors slow down or speed up at will. The only difference was, in this flick there was no tinny piano playing catchy accel - and decelerendos in order to sway the audience’s emotion. In this movie there was were plenty of sounds and smells, plenty of emotion-swaying feelings - heat as the barrels of chemicals began exploding around them - blood splattering hot and wet across his face as he watched Colonel Stewart spin in a macabre dance of death, a jagged piece of metal buried deep in his throat - cold shock when he realized that it was up to he and Jack to get the rest of the team home.

Forbes was standing in the open, blood pooling in the sand at his feet, his face a pale target, his right arm hanging uselessly. Frank heard machine gunfire rattling nearby and Jack shouted something, signaling frantically towards Forbes when he realized his words were being swallowed by the explosions. Frank nodded and ran towards the kid, praying that he would get to him in time. There were more shouts. More weapons fired, alerting the world of this pre-dawn disaster of a mission. ‘Amrikan Sassanid!’ American Sabotage. Shit, could this get any worse? Talk about a royal screw up.

He nearly tripped over Warner just as he got to Forbes. The big man was down, groaning, hidden in the smoke. Yanking Forbes down none too gently, Frank quickly checked Warner’s condition. The man had a bleeding gash on his forehead that was probably superficial and a chest wound which wasn’t. Shrugging out of his field jacket, Frank wadded it and pressed it hard against the pulsing wound. Warner moaned and fought weakly to escape. "Hold still and quit fighting me, dammit. I’m trying to save your ugly hide, Warner." Looking over at Forbes, Frank snarled, "Snap out of it, kid, or none of us are gonna get out of this in one piece. Use your good hand and put some steady pressure on this. I’ve got to radio for pick up."

He spun, still squatting low, searching for Jack through the thickening smoke. He could hear Warner coughing, a wet, choking sound. He couldn’t spot Jack in this firestorm. No surprise there. With the smoke thickening by the minute, he could barely see Forbes bent over Warner a few feet away. "We’ve got to get out of here, kid. This smoke’ll kill us faster than a bullet."

Reaching for his radio, his eyes burning from the acrid fumes igniting in the sands around them, Frank coughed, trying to clear his throat enough to call for help. "Sierra Foxtrot 139er, I repeat, Sierra Foxtrot 139er, declaring an emergency. Immediate pick up requested."

"Hey, buddy, ready to blow this popsicle stand?"

Frank could have killed him. That is, if he didn’t have his own heart attack first, as Jack suddenly appeared, kneeling next to him as calmly as if they were on a picnic back home with the girls. "Where the hell have you been? I was just getting ready to come back and look for you."

"Had to finish laying the charges. Don’t want any of this mother standing in the morning, do we?"

Frank shook his head in frustration. Trust Jack to finish the job, even in the middle of all the chaos. Course, that was when Jack always seemed to pull his best tricks out of his hat."Stewart’s dead and Warner and Forbes are injured. I’ve already signaled for pick up, but we’ve got to get them to the clearing so the chopper can snag us. Forbes is ambulatory, but it’s going to take both of us to carry Warner."

Jack grinned despite the serious glint in his eyes. It was that same look he used to get back when they were just kids themselves, freshly recruited in Ops training, back when they thought they were indestructible. Back before they learned better. "Okay, Tonto, let’s move out before we buy the ranch." He crept forward through the smoke to Warner. "Hi ho Silver and away we go."

For one crazy second Frank thought about answering "Yes, Kemo Sabe," before common sense slapped him back in line. "Grab his feet. I’ll take his shoulders."

They moved as quickly as they could. It wasn’t easy. There was no way of telling if their cover would suddenly explode in their faces. More and more of the crated munitions seemed to be exploding, triggering counter-explosions. All around them they could hear the rattling of gunfire as the enemy soldiers fired into the smoky haze.

They were both panting hard, from nerves and the effort of carrying the heavy man while their lungs screamed for clean air. Jack heard it first. "Here comes the calvary."

Coming in fast and low, Frank could just make out the bulky form of the answer to their prayers. They were going to have to hustle. It was a damn safe bet the chopper wouldn’t be able to maintain a position for long once she’d landed. Not with all the gunfire and explosions. They’d have one chance to get aboard. Maybe.

"Where’s the kid?"

For a moment, Frank’s oxygen starved brain couldn’t process what Jack was asking. The kid? What kid? And then it hit him. Shit, Forbes. He was supposed to be following them out. "I don’t know. He was right behind you when we broke cover." He was shouting, not worried about blowing their cover at this point. Hell, what did it matter? His half blind, hard of hearing grandmother could have figured out they were making for the approaching helicopter.

"Take Warner," Jack shouted, "drag him if you have to, but get him on that bird. I’ll go find Forbes and meet you there." Without waiting for Frank’s answer, Jack trotted back into the maelstrom.

Grunting under the strain, somehow Frank managed to make it to the landing zone just as the Merlin touched down. The doors slid open and an airman grabbed Warner, hoisting him up and over the lip. Frank looked back, straining to see any sign of Jack and Forbes.

"Sir, we can’t maintain this position. We"re going to have to take off."

"Give them a minute. They’ll be here," Frank shouted. An explosion rocketed flames near them, shaking the Earth through the soles of Frank’s boots and bathing them in a red glow of sparks.

"Sorry, sir, no can do. The pilot says we go now, with or without them."

And then Frank saw Forbes stumbling towards them. Jack was holding the kid upright, forcing him on, his face a painting of focused determination against a background of Dante’s Hell. As if he were watching from far away, Frank saw the barrel of the Iraqi soldier’s gun point towards the pair. He tried to shout. "Jack, look out. . ." But even as the words tore from his throat, he knew it was useless. As he watched, Jack’s head snapped back and he crashed to the ground, pitching the kid forward.

Blood.

Stillness that had no part of who Jack O’Neill was.

Death.

Frank didn’t remember screaming. He didn’t remember Forbes stumbling to the chopper door, collapsing into the waiting airman’s arms. He could only stare at the still body that had been his best friend and feel the gut punch that wanted to take him down as well.

"Sir, with your permission."

Frank could only look blankly into the other man’s face, trying in vain to decipher what he was trying to tell him. Another explosion shook the chopper and Frank could see dark shadows moving rapidly through the haze towards them, towards the silent, motionless remains of Jack O’Neill. "Go," he ordered, "just go," Climbing in, he closed his eyes trying to block out the scene, but he knew it was useless. It would be seared into his brain until the day he died. The doors slid shut, locking with a clamp of finality. Frank flinched at the sound. And then they lifted off, leaving Jack’s body behind.

***

He wandered the camp, a team of one. There’s Cromwell, the only man to come back from the mission without a scratch. His C.O. bought it. Two teammates wounded and shipped out. He left his best friend to rot in the sand. The guilt was so overwhelming, Frank could feel the Scarlet Letter of shame burned into his forehead. Dammit, Jack, why you instead of me, you stupid bastard? You promised we’d never leave the other behind, so how come I’m here all alone? You had no right. You had no damn right.

It’d taken days before he’d been able to work up his nerve to call Sara. He waited until after he was sure she’d already received official notice and still his hands shook so badly he could barely hold onto the phone. They shook so badly that a casual observer would have pegged him for a drunken wreck of a man in need of detox. Well, the wreck of a man part was true and he could only wish booze would make him forget. If that were the case he’d have gladly climbed into a bottle and never come out.

Sara had tried to put on a brave face; she’d tried to be the one to comfort. "Frank, it was an accident. And even though I know you can’t tell me the details, I know Jack died doing what he loved." The tears dripped through phone wires thousands of miles away, like acid eating away his resolve. It was all Frank could do to not fling the phone away and flee from Sara’s raw grief, because it was a perfect mirror of his own - a mirror reflecting the cold reality of his failure; a mirror which, like his control, was ready to shatter.

"God, Frank, that sounds so cliched. Jack would have hated it. You know how he’s always been about cliches." There was a long pause and then her voice crept back, soft and more than a little frightened, as if she were in confession and he was the priest waiting to judge her. Frank cringed as the weight of his own sins rained guilt down on his head like fire and brimstone. "I always knew it could happen. All soldiers’ wives do, even if we won’t admit it, even to ourselves. That when he left there was always a possibility something could happen. I guess I never really believed it. I didn’t want to believe it - couldn’t. I’d convinced myself that by not thinking about it, nothing could happen to him. So I shoved it into the back corner of my mind and locked it away. You know what I mean?"

He stood there mute, knowing exactly what she meant, but unable to tell her in fear that that one tiny confession might be the crack in the dam, the flood he was desperately holding back.

"But Frank, I’ve been thinking about it, can’t think of anything else since I got word and you know what?" Frank stood there, holding his breath, waiting for her to pronounce sentence and say aloud the words declaring his guilt, waiting for the executioner’s blade to fall. "Jack can’t," her voice caught, "couldn’t have been who he was and left that boy behind. We both know that. He was just being Jack O’Neill and doing what he had to do."

And God help him, he did know it - in his head - but his heart and soul were beating out a different message. He’d stood there with the phone clutched in his fist, unable to think of one damn thing to say to her. Not one. Never in his life had he wanted anything more than at that moment to have the right words for Sara and Charlie. To tell them the things that were in his heart. To make them understand how sorry he was and that even though he’d never forgive himself, he hoped someday they would be able to forgive him. He’d never wanted anything so badly, unless it was to wake up from this nightmare and find Jack lazing on the bunk above him, plotting some elaborate plot that was sure to get both their asses in hot water. But some dreams were never going to come true.

The words didn’t come, unable to find a path through the logjam of recalcitrant stoicism he‘d spent his life hiding behind.

And so he stood there, mute and trembling, listening to Sara because it hurt so much to do so and he deserved it. He deserved it for surviving when Jack didn’t. He deserved it for leaving Jack behind, even if it was only a blood-stained, broken body for Sara to stand before and then to bury in a flag-draped coffin. At least, in that, there would have been some semblance of closure.

But instead there were nightmares. Nightmares of Jack screaming his name as his body was mutilated and burned. Screaming as the soldiers beat and kicked his lifeless body, finally hanging it in an effigy to the country he had served. And then the laughter, always laughter, and that hurt most of all, because it was not directed at the dead man swaying in the desert breeze, but at the man who stood there and allowed it to happen.

"It’s just that I can’t imagine a life without him."

That hurt, because neither could he. They’d been too big a part of each other’s lives, been through too much together. It was as if a part of him had suddenly been amputated. And now he didn’t know how to go on. Didn’t know if he wanted to go on in a world that would never be the same again.

And so Frank wandered, hoping against hope that he’d finally exhaust himself to the point where he’d sleep without the nightmares. Without waking up screaming in a cold sweat. The nightmares of reality were almost more than he could bear, without his own mind betraying him at night.

He knew he should call Liz. She’d be hurting, too. They were all like family. Had been since the day Jack had given him a kick in the pants and Frank had finally untied his tongue, working up the nerve to ask Liz to marry him. Jack had stood beside him, cracking jokes to keep him calm until the service began and he saw his bride walking towards him. He remembered the shock of seeing unshed tears glassing Jack’s eyes as they watched her walking slowly down that aisle. Later Jack had claimed loudly that the sun had been in his eyes. Weeks passed before it finally dawned on Frank that the chapel had had no windows. But by then they were slogging their way through the slush and snow on a rocky pass deep in Afghanistan and somehow having seen the softer side of Jack hadn’t seemed so funny.

From the moment Frank and Liz had said, ‘I do’ and the parson declared them husband and wife, Jack had become Liz’s self-appointed big brother. He had teased her constantly and without mercy, complimented her elaborately as she practiced her slowly emerging cooking skills, had become the shoulder to cry on when her husband lay in a hospital bed fighting for his life because some bastard had shot faster than he could duck. Frank knew Liz was hurting too, Jack had been a big part of her life. But still he couldn’t make the call; he couldn’t share any part of his own hurt, even with his wife.

Frank figured he’d be shipping home soon. Any day he expected to receive his orders. It was just a matter of time before they were cut and he was rotated to a new assignment, even though he was a ranking special operatives officer and was needed here at the front lines. Protocol demanded he be assigned elsewhere while his mental state was examined. What a crock of shit. As if he’d spill his guts to some pencil pushing desk jockey head shrinker. But he’d been in the service too long not to know the drill. SOP said go, so he’d go. He’d listen. He’d ignore. Been there, bought that T-shirt before, Sigmund Freud.

Normally, just the thought of home, of seeing his wife and spending the night wrapped in her arms, would have set his blood pumping and his heart racing. Now nothing was normal and he honestly didn’t know if he had the strength to face her, to look into her pain-filled eyes and keep himself from crumbling. Apparently, bravery came in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and though he had a chest full of medals and commendations he’d earned over the years, he just didn’t know if he had it in him to face Liz’s tears.

Frank wasn’t sure how long he’d been standing in front of the cage. Hell, he didn’t remember getting there in the first place. The dog had long since lost interest in the man frozen there, lost in thought, staring at, and beyond her.

The afternoon sun reflected off the highlights of her spotless coat, the white patch gleaming like a patch of snow against the dark hair. It reminded Frank of that night in Chicago when a sudden snowstorm grounded all flights at O’Hara and stranded them during a layover on their way home. Jack had insisted they had plenty of time to take a cab and go into the city.

"Are you nuts?" Frank remembered arguing. "Cabs won’t be running in this storm."

But Jack was practically dancing at the thought of a chance to play tour guide in his hometown to his best friend, and wouldn’t be dissuaded. "Frank, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Lake Shore Drive at night. And snagging an abandoned magazine, Jack had rolled it up to serve as a make-shift microphone as he began singing: "‘And there ain’t no road just like it, anywhere I’ve found; running south on Lake Shore Drive, heading into town. Just slippin’ by on LSD, Friday night’s trouble bound.’" Jack had sung the lyrics to the Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah song in typical O’Neill fashion - loud and off key.

"I think you’re tripping on something right now, Jack," Frank had said only half jesting as he eyed people walking by smiling at the ridiculous picture his friend made, A few even joining in the last lines.

"And the Hancock and Chinatown," Jack had continued, ignoring the interruption and tossing his microphone into an empty seat. "Frank, my boy, tonight I am going to introduce you to Greek Town. You haven’t lived until you‘ve tried the Parthenon’s Saganaki Cheese. The flames shoot up to the ceiling."

Frank couldn’t help laughing at Jack’s antics and so he’d gone, knowing the fix was in before he’d uttered his first word. No one had ever been able to win an argument with Jack O’Neill when he was on a roll.

Frank remembered, hours later, weaving their way back towards the airport with Jack shouting "Om Pah," every few feet as they staggered out of the cab. "Cromwell, you are drunk on Ouzo," he declared loudly.

Before Frank could force his Ouzo-laden brain to think of an appropriately snide reply, he’d found himself watching as a snowball flew out of the darkness and smacked him in the face. What his retaliatory snowball had lacked in trajectory, it made up for in force when he’d nailed Jack in the ear causing heads to turn from the yelp that ensued. They’d slept off the booze in the waiting room of the gate, waking with furry tongues and splitting heads.

And memories, Frank thought, looking down at that snowball of fur on the back of a desert dog. Lots of memories.

"She misses him."

He jumped, startled out of the past. God, Cromwell, letting someone sneak up on you like that. Maybe you do need to have your head examined.

"I think she knows he ain’t coming back." Lou Moreno stood quietly behind Frank, looking down at the dog. "She hasn’t been herself since it happened."

"How the hell would she know?" The intrusion made Frank angry and yet at the same time comforted him. He wasn’t used to these waves of conflicting feelings rocking through him. One part of him wanted to tell the little man to shove off, but to his surprise, a larger part welcomed the fellow soldier who might just have a chance of understanding what he was going through. What he was feeling. "She’s just a dog."

"Animals have a sixth sense about that kind of shit. Somehow they just know." Lou moved up next to Frank. Immediately Star leaped to her feet and pressed against the fence. The man stuck his fingers through the wire to scratch the soft fold behind her ears.

Frank watched, surprised by the overwhelming urge to reach out and touch the dog’s coat, but fearful he might lose a finger in the process. "Jack got permission to take her home. After the war."

"Yeah, I got word. Damn shame. I would have liked to see this one get a second chance. It might not have been much, but I could always have looked back and told myself at least I saved one."

Frank’s throat tightened. They were the same words Jack had said while they shared coffee and first discussed the dog’s fate. "At least I saved one."

"I’ll take her." Frank couldn’t believe what he’d just uttered. His mouth felt as dry as the dunes surrounding them. He swallowed, trying to make room for the words to clear his airway. "After the war. I’ll take her."

Lou was looking at him sharply, calculating and measuring his sincerity and motives. "You can’t take a dog out of guilt, Cromwell. Or because you feel sorry for her. You do that and I can guarantee a few months from now, when reality starts to outweigh the guilt, you’ll be the one having her put down. You’d be better off saving yourself and Uncle Sam the time, effort, and money and have the job done up front, here and now." The man’s tone demanded eye contact and soul searching truth. His voice softened. "Frank, you’ve got no reason to feel guilty. You did what you had to do. Nobody blames you, except yourself. You don’t owe Jack anything."

That’s where you’re wrong, Frank wanted to shout. That’s where you’re so fucking wrong. I owed him everything. I made a promise and I didn’t live up to it. I left him behind. Even if he was dead, I didn’t have a right to leave him back there.

"Jack wouldn’t blame you for not taking the dog home. It’s not gonna be easy, not like picking up a stray at a local pound. She’s a trained attack dog. She’d have to be de-programmed, retrained, if it’s even possible. I don’t know if it’s ever been done."

"I want to try." For Jack’s sake and my own, he added silently. "I don’t want to leave her behind."

***

Epilogue

*

Frank put the Jeep in park, but left the engine idling. He wouldn’t be here long. He watched as the front door opened and a parade marched out of the house led by a big Shepherd mix with a white spot of fur. The dog was followed closely by a tow-headed boy, who shrieked with delight as his father caught him up and tossed him over his shoulder. The dog barked madly, leaping in circles around the pair as a slender woman leaned against the door frame smiling at the circus in her front yard.

After a few minutes, Frank pulled away from the curb and drove slowly towards the airport. He was only in town for a few hours layover. He had commandeered a Jeep and was driving the familiar path to Jack’s and Sara’s house before he’d given himself time to think. It had been a year and a half. A year and a half since Jack had come home, broken after four months in an Iraqi prison and full of hate for the man who had been his best friend and left him behind. In the end, that hate had been the only thing that had kept Jack alive. A year and a half. It was the time it took Frank to learn to live hand-in-hand with a whole new meaning to the word guilt. Guilt that ate at him every hour of every day and became who he was.

And yet as he watched Jack and Charlie playing with the dog, Frank could say he’d helped that happen. If he never got another chance to make it up to Jack for what he had or hadn’t done, if Jack never forgave him, at least he could say he’d saved one.

***fin***

* This story is respectfully written and dedicated to the real war dog heroes and their handlers and especially to Fluffy, the German Shepherd who served courageously in the Gulf War. Through the efforts of his handler and others, Fluffy was not left behind, but was brought home to serve as an inspiration for this story.




Author's Notes: This story is dedicated to Jack, not the colonel with whom I have so enjoyed writing about in these pages, but my dear four legged best friend who rejoices with my triumphs, consoles me in my disappointments, and sees me for the person I'd like to be. Many thanks to Charli Booker for her wonderful beta skills. *Please note the comment at the end of this story.

© April 2004 They’re not mine, sigh, a girl can always dream. SG-1 and its characters are the property of Stargate (ll) Productions, Showtime/Viacom, MGM/UA, Double Secret Productions, and Gekko Productions. No Copyright infringement is intended. They don’t earn me a dime, just new friends, a few smiles and some time away from my laundry. That’s entertainment! The original characters, situations, and story are property of the author.


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