John Brannigan sank the bit of the double-bladed ax into the log round he was using as a chopping block and lowered himself painfully to sit on a bigger log nearby.
His breath was steaming in the cold air, and looking down at his bared forearms, he could see steam rising from the graying hairs there, as well. It was well below freezing, but he was sweating and stripped down to his shirt.
He gulped air, wincing slightly at the stitch in his side, as he critically looked at the woodpile. He might have gotten a quarter of a cord split. It wasn’t bad, given how long he’d been working, but it wasn’t up to snuff in his mind, either.
Stretching, he felt the scar tissue on his side pull. It had been months since he’d been shot out on the Gulf of Mexico, and the wounds were healed, but it felt like it was taking forever to get his conditioning back. His leg and his side were tight, and his leg especially didn’t seem to want to work quite right.
Getting old, John. He was further reminded of the fact as the cabin door swung open and Hank walked out.
“You okay, Dad?” the young Marine Lieutenant asked. Hank had decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a Marine officer. Brannigan hadn’t approved of the young man’s decision to pursue a commission right off the bat; he’d been a mustang, and just about every other officer he’d known and served with who’d been worth a damn had been, as well. There were exceptions, but he had always felt that an officer needed to spend time in the dirt as an enlisted man before he could really have the insight and the experience to lead them effectively.
“I’m fine,” he grunted, as he heaved himself off the log. He wanted to rest a bit longer, but his pride wouldn’t let his son see him getting feeble. “Just taking a bit of a breather.”
Hank eyed him skeptically. The young man took after his mother, with thick dark hair and dark eyes, and a fineness to his facial features that always reminded Brannigan of Rebecca. He had his father’s build, though, tall and rangy, broad-shouldered and given to lean muscle. The Marine Corps had only honed what Brannigan had already trained.
“You sure?” he asked. “I’ve seen men shot up a lot less than you were who took longer to get back on their feet.”
Hank had a deployment under his belt, now. His unit hadn’t done a lot in Syria, but they’d seen some action, and Brannigan knew that his son’s platoon had taken a couple of casualties.
He still shot his boy a hard glance. “Listen to the hardened combat veteran,” he said. Hank flushed and looked away for a moment. He didn’t know everything his old man had been through, but he knew that there was a lot worse in his father’s past than he’d ever seen yet. “I’m fine, Hank.”
Stiffer and slower than I’d like, and I’m definitely not bouncing back like I used to, but what do you want for fifty years old?
Hank shrugged out of his sheepskin coat and hung it over a low-hanging tree branch, then grabbed the ax. “Sit down and take a breather, Dad,” he said. “I need to get some work in, too.” He shot his father a sly glance. “Can’t have you grumbling about the younger generation getting soft, can I?”
Brannigan snorted, even as he struggled to keep back a grateful sigh as he sat back down. His thigh ached where the .300 Blackout round had torn a ragged hole through the muscle, and he straightened the leg out to try to ease it.
Hank put a log round down and hefted the ax, bringing it down with a practiced swing that sank the bit deeply into the wood.
The son of John Brannigan had been raised to hard work. Brannigan had been away for most of the boy’s upbringing, but he and Rebecca had always seen eye-to-eye on most things, and if anything, she’d been less forgiving with Hank than he had. She expected the boy to grow into a man, and she set him to the chores that would make that happen. They hadn’t had a woodstove for most of the time they’d been moving back and forth between Camp Pendleton, Camp Lejeune, and Okinawa, but there had always been other work to have him do, and he’d done it, or faced his mother’s wrath.
He handled the ax well, though he wasn’t quite as practiced as Brannigan had gotten over the years since he’d moved up into the woods following Rebecca’s death. He wasn’t as smooth as Brannigan could be at his best, though at the moment he was about equal, given his father’s recovering wounds.
Hank hadn’t known exactly what had happened. He’d suspected that his father was involved in “The Business” again, ever since he’d put Hector Chavez back in touch with him, but he’d never known the details, and had never asked. He probably suspected; the blowup on Khadarkh had happened too soon after Chavez had gone looking for Brannigan. And there was no mistaking the coincidence of his father showing up in the hospital with three bullet wounds in him shortly after the worst terrorist incident since September 11th.
But Hank knew better than to ask, and he’d never even hinted at suspicions. As Brannigan watched his son work, he thought he knew why.
Hank wasn’t happy as a Marine officer. Brannigan had known it would be the case; he hadn’t been particularly happy by the time he’d been forced to retire, either. The bureaucracy that ran the Marine Corps was rapacious, and eager to crush anyone who didn’t color inside the lines. To some extent, that was necessary in a military organization; mavericks often got men killed. But when the lines were all about garrison discipline and paperwork, and less and less about combat effectiveness, it wore on men.
It was wearing on Hank, and he was nearing the end of his first contract. He might pick up Captain within the next year, but that was often the breaking point, in Brannigan’s experience. He’d been fortunate in his superiors and his subordinates. He’d never have made it to Colonel otherwise. By all rights, he should have been forced out long before he was. He’d been a fighter, not a politician.
Something caught his ear, and he turned, his thoughts coming to a halt as he listened. There wasn’t a lot of noise up there; just the wind in the trees, the occasional bird, and the ringing notes of the ax striking the wood. The snow muted most sounds, too, and Brannigan’s hearing had taken a beating over the thirty years he’d been in the profession of arms. But he’d definitely heard something.
Hank must have heard it too, because he stopped, hefting the ax in both hands, and listened, his chest heaving a little. “That’s a vehicle,” he said. He looked at his father. “You expecting somebody else?”
Under normal circumstances, that question could have been taken innocently, or even as a faint ribbing. Brannigan hadn’t shown any particular interest in women since Rebecca had died. Hank had always left it alone; he knew that his father wouldn’t have taken kindly to his son playing matchmaker. Or anyone else, for that matter.
But there was an underlying tension in Hank Brannigan’s voice that had nothing to do with normality. He might not know everything about what his old man was up to, but he knew bullet wounds, and he knew that Chavez hadn’t been looking for Brannigan just to share a few beers.
Brannigan stood, stretching his back, and shook his head. He wasn’t expecting anyone. Hank had a few more days of leave left, and then he’d be alone again. And contact for the little mercenary crew known amongst themselves as “Brannigan’s Blackhearts” wasn’t handled up there at his cabin.
He didn’t ask if Hank was armed. While his son had showed up empty-handed, he’d quickly borrowed Brannigan’s Beretta 92FS, and was even then carrying it on his hip. It wasn’t Brannigan’s favorite gun; he’d never really liked the Beretta. But it had been a gift, so he’d kept it. He would have preferred something that hit a little harder, especially given the big cat tracks he’d seen out back, but he only had the one Redhawk. And that was currently resting in a well-worn leather holster on his own hip.
He looked through the trees toward the road. His “driveway” was about five miles long, and it went over a small ridgeline before it got anywhere near his cabin. There weren’t any other houses within about ten miles, either; he’d made sure of that. There wasn’t much call for anyone to go up there unless they were there to see him.
Or coming after him. Continue reading “Frozen Conflict Chapter 2”