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    A man named Buck and a dog named Jack by WCCWN Writers

    Marcus "Buck" Deere stopped his rental car at the fence along the dusty road. It'd been over two years since he'd seen the family farm. After his time in Afghanistan, and then in a hospital, the sight of it eased the tension in his back and filled him with warm memories.

    Fred Travers, a neighbor, met Buck at the farm gate. "Long time no see." His salt-and-pepper mustache wiggled like a caterpillar and his sky-blue eyes twinkled in greeting. He looked at the dog in the passenger seat. "You got yourself a friend."

    "Yup. Found him on the way home. Named him Jack. He's missing part of a leg, like me."

    "You'll be glad you got some company." Fred pulled away from the window and stepped toward his silver truck a few feet away.

    Buck called after him. "Thanks for helping my Rachel with the place. Don't think she would've managed without help from neighbors like you."

    Fred tilted his hat. Sadness clouded his gentle eyes. "No problem, Buck." He drove off with a belch of black smoke from his diesel pickup. Buck left the gate open and parked the car by the front door.

    Rachel's red SUV was not in the driveway. He shrugged off a gnawing worry. She must not have met him at the hospital because she was with a friend and watching the time. He grabbed his luggage from the back seat and let Jack out. The brown, three0legged mut glued itself to Buck's side while they clumsily navigated the three porch steps together.

    The welcome mat was gone - and so was the usual festive holiday wreath. Buck entered the unlocked door and saw the empty coat rack. Rachel's rose-red cowgirl hat with the white flower in the band was missing. Her favorite leather jacket and cowboy boots were gone, too. House keys sat in the ugly bowl on the entry table. Rachel had always despised that bowl, he thought, said it didn't go with their decor. No matter that, Buck's niece made it as a gift.

    Buck hung his Black Stetson on the coat rack and took a step. He froze, his face reflected in the mirror above the entry table. Shock and disgust twisted his insides again. Part of his left ear was missing and the rest melted into the flesh along the side of his head. Horrible scarring ran from the side of his face to his neck and under the collar of his button-up-shirt. His dark brown hair, longer now, covered some scars - but not enough to hide his trauma. The IED explosion would always be with him. Jack pressed his cold nose into Buck's hand. He began to understand why Rachel couldn't look at him during her few visits to the hospital.

    He continued through the house. Gone, Rachel's favorite blanket from the back of the couch; her purse, too, from its hook by the fridge; and the house empty of any plants. Wedding photos and a note sat in the middle of the cherry wood coffee table.

    Buck read Rachel's familiar curly-cue handwriting. She couldn't handle the changes after his injury and discharge from the service; never really loved him in the first place. She'd left to be with someone else, someone not broken. The note floated to the oak floor. Buck heaved a sigh. Jack sensed his master needed a friend and licked his hand for a scratch.

    "You're a dirty dog. Guess it's time to give you a bath."

    Later, finding no food in the house, Buck and a now-clean Jack ventured to Ally Mae's General Store and Diner in town. A few people were around. As they headed to grab dog food and select some other groceries, a voice thick with drink and a stashed chaw of tobacco echoed through the back of the store. "Well, wouldn't ya know it? Ol' Sarge Deere is back in town. Hard ta believe since his woman ran off; all the military did for his ugly mug was give him a purple heart and a little ol' star for valor."

    Buck's fingers curled into fists. He remembered his anger when this bully got him in trouble with the law by lying.

    "Willy Olson. Been a while since we had ta cross paths around here." The 6-foot-2 former high school jock leaned against a wall. His brown eyes narrowed sharply even if the rest of him was loose. "Yup."

    Jack growled, his ears laid back as he looked between Buck and the drunk. Buck uncurled his fist and rubbed the top of Jack's head. Willy tensed. "Ya got yourself a dog to match yer own predicament."

    Buck's eyes narrowed. "And I heard all you got to show for yourself is dishonorable discharge and a big mouth."

    Willy sneered. "Better some green papers than an empty bed."

    Ally Mae, a middle-aged woman with graying blonde curls, stepped around some tall shelves and cleared her throat. Buck stiffened. It was at her store he had been unfairly blamed for theft. She stumbled a bit and fiddled with her apron. "Buck, uh, gossip had it you was comin' back."

    She glared daggers at Wily. "And I already told you to skedaddle - so git." Willy narrowed his dirt-dark eyes and slouched out the door with an I-won't-forget-this-either look.

    The house still seemed cold and lonely as the long night slowly opened to sunshine and clear blue sky. Buck had slept fitfully - Rachel's face and memories of their good times invaded his dreams. The dog lay at the foot of the bed; its snore soft in the early silence. Buck forced himself out of bed to deal with the farm chores. Like everything else, they weren't easy. His new limb was harder to work with than he wanted to admit or think about. Jack helped - although scaring the feathers off the chickens with a well-timed bark wasn't the help Buck needed.

    As he put away the last of the tools, Jack barked and raced out of the barn. A big red horse ran by the fence, neighing like crazy with its reigns flapping. Buck could see the rider lying on the ground between the fence and road. The feminine voice whipped the wind with a few unladylike words. Jack dashed around and around the ebony-haired woman.

    The cowgirl rose from her bum, smacked her backside and retrieved her stone-gray Stetson. "Sprocket!" Her voice carried full and clear. "You dang colt! Afraid of a little garden snake." The horse kept running. The feisty woman angrily picked up her hat, her sky-blue eyes flashing.

    Buck neared as his jaw dropped. "Libby Travers?" She nodded. "What you doing here?" She met his stare without a flinch - so unlike everyone in town. "My pa told me you showed up last night and might need help to return the rental car to town.

    Buck nodded. "Thanks. That would be nice."

    "Also, I wondered if you'd come to the town barn dance in a couple weeks. We're having a welcome home of sorts for you." Jack sat and leaned against Buck. Libby continued, "You used to tear up the dance floor with Rachel." Buck fussed with his dog's half ear and struggled to answer.

    "Yeah, we used to."

    Libby crossed her arms. "You don't have to hid anything, Buck. I knew she left after sneaking around - but it's never been my way to stick my nose in the middle of other folks' business."

    Buck felt betrayed, again. Libby and who else were aware of Rachel's behavior. And the way Fred acted yesterday, he probably did, too. Why hadn't anyone told him about her unfaithfulness before the woman disappeared? Libby shifted her weight from one foot to the other. "Are you gonna come?"

    He tried not to meet her eyes. "Maybe."

    "You were always the best dancer in town and I bet you would still cut a pretty good figure."

    "I'll think on it, Libby."

    "Good." She turned to leave. "If you come, make sure to find me. I want to get a dance with you." She paused. "And, uh, when would you like to take the rental car back?"

    "This evening, I guess."

    She bobbed her head once. "...around five then. The lot closes at six."

    "Do you want..."

    She waved him off. "Sprocket's a home-body. I'll find him at our corral - and then chew him out for leaving me behind."

    Buck's attention stayed on the attractive medium built, sure-footed woman he grew up with as she walked away. He wondered what had brought her back to town. Later, as they returned the rental car, he wanted more time to find out. He still needed to tell her about his missing leg.

    An hour after the dance started, Buck decided to go. He brought Jack with him to help steady his jumpy nerves. Man and dog exited his midnight blue truck and approached the open barn doors. The shock wave of moving people, flashing lights and loud music sent his heart into a fevered beat. He backed away. He couldn't go in. Too much action, too many memories of another place.

    A shadow moved to his left. His Army nerves were on alert. The scent of chewing tobacco tickled his nose. Jack growled. In the flash of a lit match, Buck watched Willy toss it at the back of the barn. At first nothing happened - then the dry straw blazed into flame. Before Buck turned to go after Willy, the music stopped and panicked shouts filled the air.

    The flames spread over the historic barn and its decorations faster than a youngster can slurp ice cream in July. People poured from the building. The sheriff and his deputies quickly helped folks to safety. An ominous groan, the sound and fury of a hungry fire, lifted above the chaos. Buck and Jack backed away. Someone shouted, "Libby's still inside." Another cried out, "My boys are in there." And a third exclaimed, "Libby ran back to find them."

    Buck felt his heart beat hammed in his throat. Jack pushed on the back of Buck's leg. Time for action. Buck snagged a jug of water from his truck and soaked a bandanna. The heat and smoke were too much without something wet over his nose and mouth. While the sheriff hurried people away from danger, the fire department raced to gather their volunteers and trucks. Sirens signaled their approach.

    Buck, with the wet bandanna tied around his f ace, rushed into the barn. He bent as low as possible without jeopardizing his balance and hollered through the smoke.

    He turned his good ear toward the back area and clearly heard coughs and yells for help. Jack guided his master to the sound, but a large beam blocked their way. Beneath the beam, held at an angle by a table, was a scared boy. The dog wiggled past him. Buck didn't like his dog leaving him. Only larger problems kept him from calling the mutt back. He focused on the boy.

    "Kid, where's Libby? Your brother?"

    "Th-they're on the other side." "Who are you?"

    There was no way Buck could reach across. He silently cursed his new limb while he sent a desperate plea to God.

    "A friend." Buck hissed through the cloth. Then he gestured beyond the mess of fallen timber. "Can you find your brother and Libby?'

    "I can't move." Buck remembered those same words from Jackster - his pal in Afghanistan - the day the underground mine exploded. I told him, "It's going to be OK." Then he was gone.

    Something moved on the other side of the blockage. Coughs and a weak voice competed with the noises of the fire. The kid startled and looked around. "Ray? That you?"

    Jack, the collar of a shirt in his teeth, strained to pull Ray under the table as Libby's dirty face peered out of the smoke. She had torn pieces of cloth from her dress wrapped around her face and the face of the little boy. She turned to the kid. "You've gotta move now. We need to get out of here." Jack, still with a grip on Ray's shirt, dragged him to Buck to carry out. Buck turned to the kid. "And I need you to focus on my dog, Jack, and grip his collar. Can you do that?" The kid dipped his chin once. "Good."

    An unnerving grumble shook the building. The smoke grew worse. Buck knew they would be better off close to the ground, but if he got down that far, he wasn't sure if he could stand back up. Libby crawled from under the table. Together, Jack and four people fled the flames.

    A week later, the mayor, who'd been in office for 30 years, held a banquet honoring Buck and Jack. Buck was relieved the banquet was quieter and less fiery than the barn dance - a welcome home celebration for his service in Afghanistan. The boys' parents' effusive thanks for their sons' rescue left him with a full heart and a big smile. He found acceptance with these friends in this place.

    But the best part was getting to sit beside Libby, her hand in his.

     

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