Sergeant Thomas John Bullen had never felt more terrified by the prospect of what lie ahead of him, nor more alive. Not Iraq or Somalia, nothing in the last twenty years could compare to what he was about to face with the U.S. Army.
Forget the last ten months and six thousand miles, dude. It's time to focus. Inky's counting on you.
He glanced quickly up to the observation tower where the retired Ranger in charge of the competition stood, then over to his partner, Sergeant Gary Calhoun, who, like he, stood dressed in fresh BDUs - camouflage pants, button-down long sleeved shirt over a gray T-shirt and dog tags, boots. Both men proudly displayed the Ranger Patch they'd earned for the competition across the chest of their uniforms.
A few years his junior, Inky Calhoun - nicknamed after the prominent tattoos on both arms - tipped his eyes respectfully in anticipation of the countdown. Knowing the next sixty hours were likely to turn their feet to hamburger and their bodies inside-out, Bull winked back. He couldn't ask for a better buddy or partner in Inky Calhoun, and he wasn't about to let him down.
Bull had entered - and lost - five Best Ranger Competitions before today, but this one had the feel of something special to it, starting with the qualifier, the brutal Ranger Training Course. The same event that had already trashed a team of Navy Seals, some Green Berets, and many of the Army guys had seemed to pass by effortlessly.
As the seconds ticked closer to six in the morning and the official start to what he knew would prove to be a hellish and painful weekend, Bull sucked in a deep hit of the crisp Autumn air, held it, then exhaled the bottled breath. One more glance in Inky's direction filled his vision with an image of handsome perfection and rugged good looks: Inky's dark blond hair, buzz-clipped almost to the scalp, his dark blue eyes and smile of clean white teeth, big hands, the right bearing the gold band on its ring finger. While something deep inside him ignited at the image of his old Army buddy, Bull felt his insides go cold. His muscles tensed. This was the closest thing to combat a soldier could experience on home soil. It was going to be war.
He faced the edge of the event zone, where pull-up bars formed a wall against the firing range. A thunder-crack sounded from the top deck of the observation tower, drawing his eyes back up. Brandishing a bullhorn in one hand, the Ranger in charge bellowed, 'Commence!'
With the firing of the pistol, Bull went on automatic. He dropped to the pavement beside Inky, quickly assumed the position, and performed eighty-two pushups in two minutes. Ninety-two sit-ups, eight pull-ups on the metal bars at the edge of the event area, and a two mile run with full gear in under twelve minutes followed, the standard Army Physical Fitness Test.
He'd broken a healthy sweat by the time he and Inky completed the first leg of the competition. Though exhausting, the kick-off was only the beginning. With no time to spare, he and Inky hustled straight over to the firing range, where they moved, positioned, and shot M16s. From there, they hopped a waiting Blackhawk helicopter. Bull pulled on his parachute, checked everything, and then followed Inky out the open hatch. The rush of air, for a brief and overwhelming instant, seemed to freeze time. The world below stretched out, beautiful and bountiful - mountains, forests, rivers. Bull stared, transfixed, as the earth came rushing steadily closer. The explosion of the opening chute sent things back into a speeded-up tailspin.
Their jump couldn't have been more on target. Bull hit the ground a step behind Inky, freed himself of the parachute, and raced on to the next event - the water navigation course. For the next twelve miles, they paddled their canoe down the river's twisting course. At some points, when the water ran too shallow, they dragged it on their shoulders.
Gear packs were waiting for them at the end of the water course, a full sixty-five pounds of equipment and supplies they'd have to carry with them for twenty-five miles in under six hours. Sweating profusely, a wicked smile on his face, Inky said, 'So much for the easy shit.'
With no break, the grueling foot march over rough terrain began.
Focus, Bull told himself.
For a week, he'd hardly thought of anything except the competition. Few memories of his cross-country trip in search of an estranged son or the sex he'd encountered along the way to getting there had crept into his mind. Now, those days seemed part of another existence, some different world he'd visited briefly and exited back to the safety of his life in the United States Army.
By the second hour of the march, Bull's Size Twelves were feeling the strain. Aching arches and blisters, he knew, were only the beginning. By late Sunday afternoon if they survived that long, his feet would bleed.
The long, brutal trek didn't provide much opportunity to reflect upon the journey he'd started in January, or that it had canvassed Pennsylvania to Seaside, Massachusetts, to New York State, Ohio to Arizona, San Diego to Texas and finally Georgia, where it would end. The fact he hadn't seen his home in North Carolina in ten months kept the edge of anticipation at completing the weekend and returning there fresh. So, with his feet aching and the raw stink of pure masculine sweat soaking his skin, he trudged quickly on up a rocky cliff, metering his breaths.
Never more than a few feet from Inky's service-toughened ass, he realized this weekend was going to destroy him, both in body and spirit. Being ripped apart and put back together before getting home to North Carolina was just the sort of new beginning he needed to forget everything that had happened since Becky's letter arrived, informing him he had a son.
Yes, this weekend would be a rebirth, a purging. He'd emerge broken and bleeding, stripped of all baggage, all lust, regret, need -
Inky suddenly stumbled. The slide of rocks underfoot sent the thirty-five-year-old sergeant and his heavy equipment pack staggering backwards, right into Bull's waiting arms.
'Whoa, big guy,' Bull grunted. The simple act of halting in place after the nonstop press of the last dozen miles sent sharp pains up his calves.
'Thanks,' he said, swiping the sweat from his forehead. It was the first time either man had talked in hours. 'Sure glad your ugly ass is here to back me up, buddy.'
'Ugly, nothing,' Bull growled under his breath. He flashed the other man a good-natured smile. 'You love this ass.'
'We win this fuckin' thing, I'll kiss it.' He blew a few fake smooches for effect, which earned him a face full of Bull's middle finger. ''Course, you probably don't need nothing from me. Bet you fucked every hole from here to San Diego on that little bike ride a'yours.'
Through the walls he'd steadily built around his thoughts, Bull caught flashes of their faces - Alex, a Seaside hockey jock, Chris Holt, Jake Samuelson, a trio of Army sandlot baseball players whose names he barely remembered, Oscar, some Texas wrangler named Jamey - all the men he'd met and enjoyed over the course of the last ten months.
Focus, the voice in his head shouted. Bull looked away and settled for, 'No one special.'
'Fuck you,' Inky laughed. 'You tall, mean, lying piece of shit. Big fuckin' stud like you - bet you left a trail of broken hearts and dripping cunts from one coast to the other.'
Bull sucked in a breath of the hot, sweaty air and crossed over from sedge to the footpath waiting beyond the rock ledge. 'Maybe I'll tell you about it some time.'
'Tell me now,' Inky prodded. 'You got my balls churning just thinking about it.'
Bull closed his eyes, only for a moment. He imagined a young man's mouth slobbering on his sweaty toes and a breathless kiss in San Diego that tasted of his own jism. Focus, damn it! 'We win this fuckin' thing, you got a deal,' he said before the reality of such a promise could sink in fully. He knew this particular event routinely knocked out more than half of the teams in the Best Ranger Competition and could easily disqualify them before the day was done.
But through a combination of jogging down hills and across level planes and hard-marching uphill, they finished in less than five hours.
Day Two would prove to be even more brutal.
The unmistakable odor of their meals-ready-to-eat burned in Bull's nose, mixing with the crisp smell of morning woodland air. The watery pasta and vegetables in tomato sauce went down quick enough to spare him thinking too long about the slimy mix. MREs weren't too bad when you ate them fast, and when two a day were a soldier's only source of food, he learned to appreciate them with the same respect he showed an expensive steak.
Before breakfast had a chance to settle, he and Inky moved on to the next event, the Ranger Stakes. Over the better part of the second day, they focused solely on combat skills - priming demolition charges and setting them off, building communications antennas, firing anti-tank weapons that took out dummy targets across the valley with deafening explosions. With the detonations still ringing in his ears, Bull raced over to the next obstacle in their path: a sixty-foot wall.
The moment he began the rope climb, Bull had his first serious doubts about being able to continue on. A wave of exhaustion overcame his body, head to toe. It would have been easy to give up and drop, exhausted, at his partner's big booted feet. Looking over, he caught sight of Inky's perspiration-soaked handsomeness as the other man matched him on their scale up the wall. That glance deep into his old buddy's shocking blue eyes would not permit it.
Come on, Bull - push it up a notch!
Just when he thought he wasn't going to make it, he found some reserves and pulled, knowing the climb could only take forty seconds, no more. Somehow, he made it. They reached the top of the wall, maneuvered their way over, and rappelled down to the ground below and the next leg of the competition waiting on the other side, a twelve-hour cross-country march.
* * *
With the sun setting and only a few teams left standing on ruined feet, they set off in search of the first navigation point. They'd located two more by the time darkness fully settled over the woods.
'You gotta give me something,' Inky persisted as they trudged through a field of thick marsh grass. 'I need details, dude!'
For the better part of a pain-soaked day that had required most of his concentration, Bull hadn't thought much about the journey west to San Diego. 'Ate at a few good restaurants, drank some beer,' he growled, facing the tall shadow flanking his left.
Inky halted in place, shined his pocket light on the compass in his hand, and adjusted course. 'Fuck the beer and chow stories, big guy. I want to hear about all that hot pussy you licked while you were out in California.'
Bull chuckled under his breath. 'Shit, Inky, you never share none of your fuck stories with me.'
'I'm married, bro. I don't got any stories beyond the honeymoon. Why you think I'm always so horny to hear yours?'
Focusing on the dark woods ahead of them, Bull quickly changed the subject. It was better not to give in to reliving his memories of the last ten months, even if he changed some of the facts around for convenience in discussing them. He couldn't tell Inky the truth, not all of it. 'Come on. I think we're getting close.'
'You owe me,' Inky said.
Bull sighed, 'We ain't won this yet.'
'Fuck, Bull. You gotta give me something - anything!' the other man pleaded. 'My dick's eating a fuckin' hole in my pants just thinking about it. At least tell me you got some!'
Bull pondered the question. 'Yeah,' he eventually admitted. 'I got some choice hole, and even better head.'
'Aw shit,' Inky sighed. 'You got your dick hummed on?' Bull nodded. 'Blow jobs. Been a long time, but I remember those.'
'Serves you right for getting so pussy-whipped.'
Inky shined the light on his wedding ring. 'Hey, it wasn't my idea. I woke up next to her one morning and quickly realized it was either marry her or risk losing my dick.'
Both men laughed as the next navigation point loomed up.
One of only two teams to find all twelve objectives on the night march, Bull and Inky finished in eleven and a half hours, which was good enough to put them in first place. They were given the option of a twenty minute rest until the second team could catch up, but Bull knew their feet were so bad by then that if they sat down, neither man was likely to stand up again.
'I can't believe we got this far,' he said when the officials were out of earshot and only Inky could hear.
The other sergeant leaned closer, and through obvious pain, he smiled. 'I can.'
In spite of everything, Bull smiled, too. He'd never been so sore or exhausted, yet he also felt stoked to be nearing the last leg of the competition on both feet. 'You want to skip that break or take twenty?'
Inky reached down and groped the meaty fullness between his legs. 'I don't need twenty. Maybe ten,' he growled under his breath.
Bull knew what the other man meant and winked. 'You got it. I'll be here when you're done.'
Inky snapped, 'No, you're coming with me.'
The comment cut through Bull's pain and snapped his tired eyes wide open. 'What-?'
Inky's wicked grin persisted. 'You're gonna tell me about one of those hot faces you fucked. Come on.'
The other man started toward a wall of tall oaks. Bull hesitated. ''Scuse me?'
'Hurry up, dude - we're on the clock!'
They'd gotten this far, and with the end in sight, Bull didn't have time to argue. He hustled after Inky before he could talk himself out of it, and soon the thick trunks of the trees and their branches provided a wall against the eyes of the other soldiers.
Inky pressed his back to the oak and braced himself upright. The effort made him moan in pain.
By the time Bull reached him, the other sergeant had already unzipped his fly. Bull looked down to see Inky fishing in the moist cotton of his gray boxer-briefs. Without shame or fear, he pulled out a long, half-hard tube of fat, hairy cock. Two meaty balls heavy with the raunchy sweat of the last forty-eight hours followed.
'Aw, shit,' Inky moaned. 'I think I'm too fuckin' tired to beat my meat.'
Fighting the urge to stare, Bull licked his lips. 'Buddy, I ain't so sure about this.'
But the pained look on Inky's face, Bull soon learned, had less to do with the competition and more with his need to get off.
'I don't pump off these rocks, I might as well end the weekend right here.' Hawking up a wad of spit into the callused palm of his trigger hand, Inky took hold of his bone and pumped it to its full stiffness. Through the death-hold of his fingers, Bull caught glimpses of Inky's round, straining head and the veiny, muscled shaft, big and strong like the rest of his old Army pal's body. 'Help me out, dude. Tell me about all those blowjobs you got traveling across America. Help me get off!'
Bull saw the desperation in Inky's deep blue eyes and knew he couldn't deny him. 'Okay,' he agreed, taking a heavy swallow to find his mouth had gone completely dry. A look of relief flooded Inky's face. 'What do you want to hear about?'
Inky half-closed his eyes again. 'Fuckin' head, dude. Tell me about getting your dick sucked on by some hot babe.'
A dozen faces materialized in the woods around him, all out of focus. Bull thought about all the mouths that licked him from the top of his buzzcut head down to his bare toes and everywhere in between. Of those many ghosts, only one refused to fade, Oscar.
'There was this Latin.. ' he hesitated. 'Chick.'
Inky moaned out a breathless, 'Fuck. I love Spanish women. Real pretty?'
'Dude, words can't describe how beautiful, how hot and giving. Sucked my dick like that mouth was made to fit it. I mean really fine.'
'Oh, shit!' Inky exclaimed, sighing out his approval.
Bull glanced down to see Inky jacking away on his hard cock. Its straining head glistened with a drop of precome. The image, coupled with the stress their bodies had endured, suddenly stole the strength from his legs. Bull leaned forward, reached for the tree trunk, but missed it and fell flat against Inky's shoulder. As had happened so often in the last forty-eight hours - and the previous years of their friendship - one held the other up. Bull felt Inky's cock stab him squarely between the legs, pinning their bones together. But to his surprise, neither of them took steps to separate their rods.
'Keep talking, dude,' Inky huffed in his ear. At such close range, the sourness of his breath and the stink of male sweat assailed Bull's senses with a strangely reassuring odor. It also toughened his own painfully stiff erection.
Bull remembered those long-ago nights in the San Diego beach house. 'There were mornings she woke me, humming up and down on my dong. I mean, the feel of those lips around my dickhead - and dude, she swallowed every load I didn't fire up her cunt.'
'Fuck-!' Inky moaned. 'She lick your bag?'
'Fuck yeah,' Bull admitted. 'Sucked on each of those horse nuts 'til she'd licked them clean.'
'I love having my sac chewed on,' Inky grunted.
The memory of Oscar's face between his legs proved too much to deny any longer. Balancing against Inky's shoulder, Bull reached down and fumbled in his fly. Inky's cock brushed against the back of his hand as he struggled to free his own dick and snapped Bull up to the limit of his full eight inches. He'd gotten so hard, it took all his concentration to free himself from his camouflage pants. Eventually, he managed to peel his bone out of the sweat-soaked skin of his briefs to find it so wet with perspiration and precome, he didn't need to lube it further.
'That's it, dude,' Inky urged. 'Let's shoot some Army juice and win this fuckin' thing!'
Positioning himself to answer that same challenge almost dropped Bull to the ground. He lost balance, and again only Inky's grip prevented him from stumbling. Inky hauled him back to his feet, an action that slammed their cocks together. Both men groaned out a string of unintelligible swears at the unexpected, electric contact, and when Bull reached down to grip his cock, he found it wet with his Army buddy's come.
'Shit,' Inky growled. 'Feels good!'
It wasn't intentional, but there, so closely merged together, their hands relaxed just enough to rub hard, sweaty cocks against each other. Bull felt the world go spinning out of focus. Inky's grip stopped him from collapsing.
'Hang on, buddy,' the other sergeant moaned in his ear. 'We earned this little circle jerk.'
'I know, bro,' Bull sighed. 'I know...'
When he again took hold of his tool, his own cock wasn't alone in his hand. Inky pushed into his palm, fucking their dicks together. One sensitive underside rubbed painfully against the other.
'Yeah,' Inky begged. 'Do it!'
Bull pumped them both, stroking their shafts in an upward motion. Taking care of two dicks as thick as his and Inky's proved to be a two-handed job, and with precome pouring over their cocks as heavy as sweat had for the last two days, the other sergeant joined Bull in double-jacking them closer to unloading.
It could have been the exhaustion, the pain and stress of the competition, or the fact he hadn't shot for days, but at one point Bull's dick felt twice its thickness and length. He swore it wasn't two dicks joining them together in the woods, but one massive cock, stretching from the top of Inky's balls over to his own. That monster dong was so itchy to shoot, it soaked his palm with hot slime.
'We're gonna win this, buddy,' Bull groaned, a tired, happy grin on his face. He leaned down, set his rough stubbled cheek against Inky's, and muffled his grunts when the first volley of sperm blew between his fingers.
He wasn't sure who shot first, or the most. Geysers of foul-smelling come sprayed his arm and the front of his pants. Inky kept their cocks pushing together until spunk, like sweat, stained their uniforms.
'Fuck-!' Inky hooted, pulling away. As Bull watched, the other man looked around for something to wipe his hand on, and failing to find it, settled for licking clean the mixture of both their juices. 'We ain't got no time to enjoy this, dude,' Inky spat. 'We got us a competition to win!'
Bull thought about shaking the jizz off his fingers, but like Inky, licked up the powerful load. 'Why waste it,' he reasoned. Almost immediately after ingesting their nut-juice, Bull felt energized, as if sharing Inky's sperm was the secret to surviving the last leg of the competition.
On bloodied feet, he and Inky moved on to the final event. They negotiated a 2,000 meter course complete with twenty-five separate obstacles, did a free-fall drop out of a helicopter into a cold, deep pond, then used their gear as rafts to reach shore. Once there, they crawled across vertical beams and ropes forty feet above a canyon, and finished the competition with an exhaustive run in full gear, the first and only team to survive that year's Best Ranger Competition.
'We did it!' Inky howled. 'You and me, dude. We won!'
'Yeah,' Bull sighed. He fell exhausted to his knees. 'We won it, together.. '
Heart beating rapidly, Bull inserted the key into the lock. Turning it seemed to take forever, creating a moment like so many others he knew he would remember for the rest of his life. Time slipped into slow motion as the door opened.
Holding the Best Ranger trophy in one shaking hand, Bull entered the house. Winter, spring, summer, and most of the fall had come and passed in his absence. The house smelled of not having been lived in. Worse than that was the silence. No roar of the wind as he streaked down the highway or the noise of his Harley's engine filled his ears, just a glaring emptiness and the shrouded calm inside the house. Had it always been this quiet, or had he just never noticed?
Bull set down the trophy and slung the saddlebags off his shoulders. The cross-country adventure was over. He'd come home.
TO BE CONTINUED...