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For The Strength of Youth

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Submitted by Steven ODell on 9 July 2007 - 12:05am.

Chapter 22

The hike was one Ron had not taken for many years, but he recalled it vividly. It wound through the ravine past the falls. Further down were a second and a third falls, each succeeding one more spectacular than the last. The trek covered several miles and Ron was still a bit tired from the ordeal of the last several days. He knew that Denise would be hobbled somewhat by her aching feet and ribs. She needed time to rest and heal, but that would have to wait for another day or two.

“I promise you that I will just bite my tongue when I want to complain. I know this will be hard, but I also know it’s the safest way to be rid of him.”

“No one expects you to be a trooper, Denise. In your place I would complain and complain a lot!”

He was being gallant again, she knew, and she adored him for it. It made it easier not to feel guilty for what she considered the inconvenience she was to him. Ron would have scolded her had he known she was thinking that, so she kept it to herself for the time being. It was good just being together and she loved the outdoors. The going was tough, however. It may have been difficult if she was in good physical condition, but it was doubly hard now. Still, they were together and that was worth an immense amount to both of them.

Ron apologized to her for the necessity of leaving the car behind. “I’m afraid there is just no way by car to get close to where I need to take you. That is also an advantage, though. If Ted has to follow on foot, then he won’t find it easy, either. And from what you told me, he now has a handicap to deal with, too. It may be badly infected by now and the pain will be tremendous.”

“If it hasn’t healed from pure orneriness on his part. I’m not so sure any self-respecting germ could live in that man.” She was silent for a time and then changed the subject completely. “Ron, tell me how you became an officer over those guys.”

“To tell you the truth, I haven’t the slightest idea why I was considered for advancement. There were so many others I thought of as far more qualified to receive the honor. Call it fate, maybe dumb luck, but I was grateful that many of the assignments I received allowed me to choose my own team. Most of the time it was the three men in the cabin that I chose to do the job. They were the most qualified and they took the assignments most seriously.” He chuckled. “You would never know it to talk to them, I guess, but it’s true.”

“So you enjoyed what you did together? Tell me about it.”

“Enjoyed? Well, that’s not the word I would have chosen, but yes, if there were any enjoyment to be found in it all, I definitely preferred it be with those three. I trusted them more than any of the others. They always performed according to command and with precise attention to the details. That is important. It’s the details that may ‘save your bacon’ in a pinch. They proved themselves to be superior and I grew to respect them more than I can say.”

“I think the feeling is mutual, Ron. Just something I sense from them.”

“I hope so. Lately I’m not so sure I deserve it, though.”

“Self-pity? Coming from you? No more of that stuff, Mister. If a ‘cripple’ can make this trip, then a tough Army officer can make it, too. Got it?”

He saluted and gently barked, “Yes, sir!” They both had a welcome, though gentle, laugh over it.

“You still haven’t told me what you did.”

“Huh? Oh, with the guys…. We were assigned to do the difficult jobs that no one else wanted to do, but had to be done. Clean up problems; deal with people and situations that were distasteful. We were problem solvers, that’s all.” He gave her a short, nervous grin and again changed the subject. “Tell me about Paul, Barb’s husband. What does he do for a living and how did they meet?”

Denise was a bit surprised by his response to her question. Here was a man that had told her that what bothered him most was how he had treated a girl in grade school-fairly tame stuff. Now he was obviously sidestepping something that made him very uncomfortable. It was not the time to discuss it, though. She could see that clearly.

“Paul is…Paul! He is what he appears to be-a great person and a good friend. Genuine, like Barb. He represents a company that manufactures computer equipment. He’s not a salesman, really, but he trains them and directs them in the field. He was a very good salesman at one time, but like you, he moved up. Actually, that is how I met Ted. He’s a salesman for the same company….”

“Not for much longer, I’d wager.”

“Yeah. Well, who wants to discuss him, anyway? Uh…Barb and Paul met in the diner you and I met at. Wow, I hadn’t thought of that before. Kinda strange, huh?”

“Ironic, to be sure.”

“Maybe there is something to this fate stuff after all. So, Barb was between jobs and Paul went in there to kill some time while waiting for his advancement interview. When Paul walked in she introduced herself to him. You have to know Barb.”

Ron found this very amusing and he smiled brightly. “Oh, I’ve seen a bit of that characteristic in her already. I can believe it without any hesitation, I assure you.”
“Okay, then you can also believe that she sold him on herself and soon had a job as his assistant. The truth was that he had no need of an assistant and she wasn’t cut out for that line of work, but she was such a good saleswoman herself that he never figured it out until later. Trouble was he couldn’t bring himself to fire her. He was hooked on her by then, so he married her and had her ‘retire’ to something else. And they’ve lived happily together ever since.”

“So, what does she do now?”

“She works in the license bureau—still meets the public, though it’s not as much to her liking. She’s found a niche, though—and her beau. They are very much in love. Dreams do come true. It’s weird, but he is so much like the man she described wanting to marry when we were just kids. Who would have thought…?”

“And what type of man did you dream of then, young lady?”

She snickered and pushed her hair back from her face. It was in need of a good brushing by now. So many things had been neglected in the past week. Ron reached for her and lifted her carefully down from a large rock that made up part of their path. She winced lightly at the pressure on her rib cage, though he tried to be as gentle as he could.

When she stood firmly beside him she responded. “I knew he would be handsome, strong and chivalrous.” She turned her face upward and looked directly into his eyes, unwavering in her gaze and with meaning plainly written in her expression. “I just didn’t know your name at the time.”

Ron’s heart nearly melted then and there. What chance of fate had delivered the love of such a woman to him? Thank God for the cause, whatever it may have been. He reached a hand to her cheek and touched it lovingly, then raised his eyes to look at her hair. It was still disheveled, but he took no notice of it. It was all lovely locks to him. He rested her chin in the palm of his hand now and closed his eyes as he leaned forward to kiss her. The kiss was on a par with their first one-perfect in every respect. The sun and moon stood just as still and the world as a whole disappeared just as effectively. Time ceased when their lips met. She would have it no other way. He was the man she had dreamed about as a child and as a woman. The face did not matter. He was still the man.

Ron set up the camp in a small clearing that night and promised that they would be at the third falls by the next noon. They had made very good time, he assured her. Denise was quite surprised how quickly and easily the time and distance had gone. It must be the company I’m keeping, she thought to herself and smiled.

They sat by the water during the remaining light and fished the river pools for their dinner. At night they sat by the fire and fried the same fish they had caught during the day. Ron thought how nothing could be better. Nothing, except for one thing only. He turned to Denise and cleared his throat with a low cough.

“Denise, I want to ask you a question. I think I know the answer already, but I am nonetheless more nervous than I can remember being in years.”

“Ron, what is it? You can ask me anything!”

He turned to place himself in front of her and took both of her hands in his. He held them like they were the fragile flowers of the upper meadow they had visited so recently. Lifting them one by one to his lips, he kissed them ever so softly.

“Denise, will you marry me and be my wife?”

She was thoroughly stunned—the time and the place were totally unexpected, but the question was right and she knew the answer by heart. There was no need to think this one over. The answer was a barely whispered “Yes.” She kissed him hard and hugged his neck for the longest time, afraid this moment would end too soon.

“Yes, Ron, yes. A thousand times, yes.” Her lips were next to his ear and he relished the words as though they were the sweetest of desserts.

“Thank you,” was all he could say before he, too, was overcome with the joy of the moment.

“My pleasure, Sir Knight.” And she, too, settled into comfortable tears.

One tent and one room to share that night. He kept his vow that he would not leave her alone. Always the gentleman, he would do no more than kiss and gently hug her before bed. As they lay side by side, Ron asked her, “Have you ever been to Hawaii?”

“No, I have wanted to see it forever, though. It seems that something else always comes first, though.”

“Well, this time nothing else will come first. I had good insurance on my house and now that it is gone, maybe we should use some of the money for a very special honeymoon. It would take so long to build a new house, anyway. Why not be living it up instead of waiting?”

“Did you say living it up or was it loving it up?” It was the final question of the day. They kissed again for a very long time and then nodded off to sleep in one another’s arms.

Denise awoke the next morning to find Ron leaning on one elbow and staring adoringly at her. He had been studying her intently while she slept. “Good morning. How did you sleep?”

She stretched a bit and smiled. “Mmm…I had a wonderful dream that someone proposed marriage to me and whisked me off to Hawaii for a honeymoon. You don’t think that those kinds of dreams can come true, do you?”

“It wouldn’t surprise me in the least. And if it happened to such a fine lady as yourself, it would surprise me even less.” His eyes never left her for a moment. They moved about her face as if he were admiring a great master’s sculpting or painting. She began to be self-conscious, but loved the adoration at the same time. She laughed nervously and dropped her gaze to stare at the floor of the tent, suddenly conscious of how disheveled she must look.

“What do you have to be embarrassed by, Denise? You’ll have to get used to me admiring you, if you’re to be my wife. Do you think you can do that?”

Teasingly she replied, “It looks as if I have little choice. No one else has made me such a fine offer as you, kind Sir Knight.”

“There you go again. I hardly think I deserve such a title. If I had been more diligent all this might have never escalated to the degree that it has.” Now he stared at the floor, ashamed of himself.

“Listen to me, you did everything you should have done and more. That is what I love about you. You owed me nothing, but you went the extra mile from the very start and now more than ever, we are in this together—the tragedy is nearly over and the healing can begin. Okay?” She waited for him to return her smile, but he hesitated too long and she knew it would not be okay with him.

“I can’t afford to pretend that this is the last of our troubles, Denise-not until Ted is actually behind bars. And maybe not even then. Look at what he’s done already. We underestimated him at every turn and you’ve seen the results of it. We expected him to react as a normal human. He has been anything but normal. Too bad you aren’t trained in abnormal psychology. Maybe you could help me with this problem.”

She began to laugh and couldn’t control it. Ron looked at her questioningly as she struggled to regain her composure against the protesting ribs. “Just what is so funny about that?”

“Sorry, but that could be taken two ways, you know.”

He reflected on it a moment and then he, too, started to laugh. “I see what you mean. Do you think there is any hope, Doctor?” He was grinning now.

“Where there is life, there is hope.” She grabbed him on both sides of his face and kissed him tenderly.

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