Copyright© 2013 by Refusenik
State Highway 18 South took Scott into Pecos County. He drove on autopilot. The flat land of the Permian Basin changed to the low hills and miniature mesas common to the area. Occasional clusters of bobbing pumpjacks, extracting West Texas crude with each nod, were the only company on the empty road while a cloudless blue sky stretched overhead.
Scott had tried, but failed to understand how people lived in large metropolises. Living like animals packed one on top of the other was no way to exist. Levall was as crowded as he could stand.
North of Fort Stockton, single-story houses and trailers began to appear. He turned off the two-lane highway to a side road. The sprawling ranch house he parked in front of had no neighbors for a good half mile on either side. Green trees and landscaping stood out amid the surrounding dry scrub.
He was halfway to the front door when a Belgian Malinois, an eighty-pound fawn colored shepherd with a black face and ears, tore around the side of the house and charged him. The dog knocked him to the ground, licking and nuzzling his prey as they rolled. Scott flopped on his back, giving up, and the beast's tongue licked him from chin to forehead.
"Mom!" A child yelled. "Jobe's playing with a strange man!"
Jobe sprawled over him, panting as Scott rubbed the big shepherd's ears. "I've missed you too, crazy dog."
The shepherd licked its chops and looked pleased.
"Honey, that's not a strange man," a familiar voice said. "Jobe, let him up."
Jobe scrambled free and Scott got to his feet. She hadn't changed much from the first time he'd seen her, Honour Black was still one of the most exotic women he'd ever known. If anything, two children had added to her beauty and grace.
"I'd give you a kiss," he said, "but I'm covered in slobber."
She shook her head and smiled, "You can wash inside."
The five-year-old hid behind her mother and peered at Scott.
"Cathy, do you remember Scott?" Honour asked.
The little girl didn't say anything.
"He gave us Jobe when you were a baby."
The girl motioned to the dog, and Jobe obediently padded to her. She grabbed his collar and the dog pulled her toward the house.
"Cathy's in a shy stage," Honour said as they walked to the door. She grabbed his arm, "At least you haven't grown another couple of inches this time."
He'd joined the Marines at seventeen and grew two and half inches before his nineteenth birthday.
"Somebody finally fed me," he said.
Honour shook her finger at him.
"I'm finished growing."
"Good," she said, looking up at him.
Honour's house looked considerably more domestic than on his first visit. Toys cluttered the living room and children's artwork covered the refrigerator door.
In the living room, Cathy was explaining something to Jobe that required a doll as visual aid.
Scott washed in the kitchen sink and dried his face.
Honour took his hand. "You haven't met the newest addition to the household."
He'd seen pictures, but they walked down a hallway to peek in on two-year-old Joseph Junior, aka Joey, napping in his room. The child was contorted in a position that only the very young could achieve peacefully.
"Where's his namesake?" Scott asked.
"In court," Honour said. "Will you have dinner with us?"
He looked at his watch. "I want to make a few more stops, but I'd love to."
Honour put an arm around his waist. "I'm glad to have you home, even if it's only for a few weeks."
He hugged her shoulder, "Glad to be here. Do you think Cathy would let me borrow Jobe? I'd like to go out to the old house."
"They've grown awfully attached."
"He has a good home here. I'm not going to take him away from that. I want to pay my respects and thought he might enjoy the trip."
Honour touched his arm, "I understand. Maybe you can talk to him about his adventuring? A friend spotted him near the VFW hall last week."
"I'll see what I can do."
Jobe followed Scott to the Jeep. He folded the rear seats so Jobe would have extra room. "This thing's new, so try not to tear it up," he said as Jobe scrambled inside.
He drove around the outskirts of town, not quite ready to see anybody else he knew.
Jobe stuck his head over the driver's side seat and licked Scott's ear.
Scott reached back and rubbed the shepherd's snout.
"We're going to the old house and we'll stop by the cemetery on our way back."
Jobe woofed in Scott's ear.
Scott started to explain about NTSU and Levall, and what his plans where. "I won't have a yard or place for you to run, so no surprise visits. You hear me?"
Scott looked in the rearview mirror. Jobe was panting, tongue out, listening carefully.
"I was in San Bernardino, California, and went to see my parents."
Jobe had no comment.
The drive out of town was one he could have made with his eyes closed. He knew every inch of the thirty-mile stretch.
Meritt's Corner was unchanged as he drove by. Jobe looked longingly at the combination gas stop, restaurant, and post office.
"We can stop on the way back to town," Scott said. "Maybe get a couple burgers."
A few minutes later, he pulled into the gravel driveway and parked. He let Jobe out and they looked at the house. The paint had held up, though the yard needed attention. The house looked empty, especially without a flag flying from the front porch.
The house belonged to the state now. A planning document he had seen indicated they wanted to use the house as an office for the future state park. The park was still a few years away from opening, with the government moving at its usual glacial pace.
Scott and Jobe walked to the back of the house. The long garage and storage building where he had sweated a summer away was gone. A white pickup truck with a round state decal on the door was parked where the building had been.
Jobe sniffed the air.
"Think anybody would mind if we went for a hike?" Scott asked. "Maybe find our rock and sit for a while?"
The rear screen door opened and they turned to look, hoping for the briefest of moments to see an impossible sight.
Instead, a park ranger dressed in green slacks and a tan shirt with the Parks & Wildlife patch sewn on her sleeve started down the stairs. "Can I help you?"
"No, I stopped to look around. We didn't mean to disturb you.
He took a closer look at the ranger. "Rene Keebler?"
His old Fort Stockton High School cross-country running partner had her hair tied back, but he could still see the girl in the woman before him.
"It's Rene Miller now," she said. "Look at you. What did they feed you in the Army?"
"Marines," he said with smile. "I ate my Wheaties. How are you?"
"I'd heard you turned into a giant," she said, "but this is ridiculous. I'm a shrimp next to you. When did you get to town?"
"Are you home on leave?"
"No," Scott said, "got out last week. Thought I'd come by and see the old place."
"Do you want to go inside?"
"I don't think so, it wouldn't be the same."
Jobe was investigating the parking lot and the ranger's truck.
"When did you get married?"
"Remember Norm Miller?" she asked. "He was a year ahead of us?"
"We ran into each other in Austin."
Rene had always wanted to go to the University of Texas, he was glad she'd done it.
"We married and moved back here of all places. Norm's a systems engineer with the gas company."
"What about you?" Rene asked.
"Home for a bit, then moving to Levall," Scott said. "I'm starting at NTSU this summer."
Rene nodded her approval.
"Should I be addressing you as Ranger Miller?"
"This?" She plucked at her uniform. "I thought about getting my teaching certificate. When the park service listed a local opening, I applied and got it. The hours are perfect."
"What do you do here?"
"Is that a crack about our wonderful park service?" Rene asked with a smile.
By now, everybody knew that the state had purchased the land from the Piotrowski estate because of the dinosaur tracks found there. Unfortunately, after the initial academic and public excitement, not much had happened. Bureaucratic red tape, environmental impact studies, and budgetary realities meant progress proceeded with the usual government efficiency.
"I come to check the house during the week," Rene said. "This is the physical address for the park, so we get mail delivery here. I meet with the university folks at the dig site and make sure they're happy. Last quarter I watched a wonderful video presentation on the visitor's center they want to build. It's all 'go go go' with us Parks and Wildlife types."
Scott knew about how slow, or how fast, the government could move when motivated.
"Who have you been to see in town so far?" Rene asked as she tried to get Jobe to come to her.
"Stopped to get the mutt, but haven't had the chance to visit with anyone else."
"Not too many of the old gang around."
"I'm going to catch Ed after work."
Ed Mendoza was Scott's best friend and the Mendoza's were like a second family to him.
"Ed hasn't changed much," Rene said, "but he's seeing Amy again if you can believe it."
Scott tried to place the name.
"Amy Strickland," Rene said. "Homecoming, junior year?"
"Really?" Scott said. "That was a disaster."
"I don't get it either," Rene said.
"Ed didn't mention her the last time we traded e-mail."
"She's gained some weight," Rene snarked.
Scott looked at his old running partner. "Catty much?"
"Well," Rene said, "You know about Lilly right?"
Lilly was Ed's younger sister.
"Ed said she'd had a little boy."
"Stays in San Antonio and doesn't talk with her folks. She's still seeing that married car dealer."
"Where do you hear that from?"
"Around, and Janie and I talk."
He knew Janie, the youngest Mendoza, was enrolled at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "How's she doing?"
"Great," Rene replied. "You should call her. It'd be a lot easier to stay in touch if you were on Facebook."
"I'm not big on social media, Rene. Besides, been kind of busy the last few years."
"Baloney," Rene said. "I've got a cousin who's on an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean and I swear she's on Facebook more than I am, even posts a weekly photo."