The fight began just before dinner.
Pitcher and Pappy could be heard throughout the small settlement. Never one to take things sitting down, Pappy escalated what Pitcher had hoped would be a relatively peaceful conversation into an all-out verbal mêlée.
Pappy wasn’t bull-headed enough … or angry enough to turn the confrontation into a physical altercation, but he let Pitcher have it with words that would hurt forever. Although the two men had been close for decades – like grandfather and grandson – Pappy saw Pitcher’s decision to leave as a treasonous desertion and Pitcher saw Pappy’s greedy grasp for a “whirlybird” as an idiotic lark that got two very good men killed.
Neither man could forgive the other or pause long enough to even give a moment’s consideration to the opposite side of the coin.
The clash ended badly with Pappy throwing a pot full of hot coffee at Pitcher and Pitcher ducking, turning and kicking the cabin’s door off its hinges all in one fluid movement.
As he watched Pitcher’s back disappear through his door, Pappy’s shoulders slumped under the weight of the reality of the situation and he began to weep.
Pitcher, meanwhile, tucked his chin into his chest, strode across the small settlement to his mother’s cabin and informed her that the time had come. Although Pitcher’s mother had known this moment was coming, she broke down in tears. Pitcher had to support her as she collapsed in his farewell embrace.
“You’ll be fine, Ma,” Pitcher reassured her as he helped her into the chair that he had built for her during his time of rehabilitation.
The chair was inexpertly crafted, but sturdy nonetheless. The legs were made of twisted, wrist-sized branches. Somewhat amazingly, the chair sat level on the dirt floor of the cabin as Pitcher gently assisted his mother as she settled into the woven seat.
“Son, I ain’t worried about me,” the woman slipped out between sobs. “It’s you and your boys I’m worried about.”
“We’ve been fine all over the world, Ma,” Pitcher gently reminded his mother.
“That’s you, son. Always fine.” Pitcher’s mother collected herself and stood once more to give him a final hug and a tear-stained kiss on the cheek. “You take care, boy.”
“You too, Ma.” Pitcher hugged the frail woman as tightly as he thought she could stand and then turned to quietly walk out the door.
Both mother and son realized that this was most likely their final goodbye. Given the miles that Pitcher was about to travel and the difficulty of such travel in the times in which they now found themselves … there was little doubt that they would never see one another again.
As Pitcher stepped onto the small porch of the cabin, he looked up with tear-filled eyes and allowed the sparkling April sun to dry them away. After a moment, he inhaled sharply and stepped off the porch walking toward the location outside the settlement where his fellow Rangers were waiting.
“Fellas,” Pitcher began as he took a knee in the ring of men, “we got a long way to go and it’s going to be a tough time getting there.”
A couple of the men grinned, recognizing Pitcher’s paraphrase of the famous line from Jerry Reed’s theme song for the Smokey and the Bandit movies.
“Northbound and down,” one of the men responded. “We’re gonna do what they say shouldn’t be done.”
The entire group of eight men chuckled and then the remaining seven dropped to one knee to join Pitcher in a moment of prayer.
Most of the men in the group had been on multiple missions with Pitcher. This was their routine. Protestant or Catholic, atheist or evangelical, they all dropped to a knee while Pitcher offered up a prayer requesting guidance, blessing and bravery for each man during the mission ahead.
This mission was no different – no less dangerous. There was no reason to vary the routine.
They were about to cover hundreds of miles in vehicles of questionable reliability over potentially hostile territory in a country without the rule of law.
“So, pretty much like Afghanistan or Iraq?” one of the men had quipped when Pitcher had proposed the idea.
“Pretty much,” Pitcher had agreed.
Nearly 1000 miles to the northwest of the Chattahoochee, Pitcher knew, was a small gathering of former MARSOC Marines and other soldiers, sailors and airmen who had all seen action with one Gunnery Sergeant Johnathan Hood.
Over the years, Hood had selectively invited individuals with whom he had served to visit him at his farm in southeastern Nebraska. Hood had turned the farm into a retreat and training ground – a safe harbor for battle weary men and women. The simple message at the end of each visit was that the welcome mat was always out. If any of the visitors ever needed a place to drop their ruck, seek refuge or just grab a little R & R, the Hood Ranch was always available.
Pitcher could think of no better place on the face of the earth for himself and his men.
Keeping to the back roads and staying out of sight, the journey could well take weeks and risk the lives of his men, but every man-Jack was aware of the time, distance and risks and every single one of them was 100% on board.
“Northbound and down,” Pitcher said quietly at the end of his prayer.