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Eye Of The Beholder
By Merline Lovelace
MIRACopyright © 2005 Merline Lovelace
All right reserved.
Seven rifles thudded against uniformed shoulders. Steel barrels glinted in the bright October sun.
USAF Captain Miranda Morgan laid a hand on her son's shoulder, bracing the boy. Bracing herself.
The shots ripped through the somber stillness of the afternoon. Randi felt her son's small body jerk in shock. She drew him closer against her thigh, preparing him for the volleys yet to come.
The riflemen whipped up their weapons.
The barrels pointed at the cloudless sky.
Cordite from the second volley added to the first, stinging nostrils and burning eyes. A small arm circled Randi's pants leg and squeezed tight.
Shoulders square, chest aching, Randi stood at rigid attention amid a phalanx of blue. The officers and enlisted personnel of the 137th Airlift Wing of the Oklahoma Air National Guard had gathered at Fort Gibson National Cemetery to say farewell to one of their own.
Or what was left of him, Randi thought with a sharp, slicing pain. It was only by chance that an army patrol had stumbled on his dog tags in a remote village high in the mountains of Afghanistan and forced the villagers to dig up a few charred bones. Now, four months after he'd been listed as missing in action and presumed dead, Captain Tyler Keane had come home to the rolling hills of southeastern Oklahoma.
Randi gripped her son's shoulder as the squad leader rapped out the command for the third and final volley.
"Ready. Aim. Fire!"
With the shots still echoing through the hills, the commander of the Oklahoma Air National Guard rose from her seat and stepped forward. General Sanders's whitegloved hands held a flat case. The first female commander of an air guard unit, Sanders epitomized energy, efficiency and smarts. She'd also served as a role model and mentor since the day Randi transferred from the active duty air force to the 137th Airlift Wing and moved back to Oklahoma.
Petite and ramrodstraight, Sanders approached the gaunt, hollowedeyed man seated between the governor and the twostar Adjutant General of the State of Oklahoma. Opening the flat blue case, she displayed a wreathed gold cross dangling from a blue ribbon edged in bloodred.
"On behalf of a grateful nation, I present the Air Force Cross awarded to your son, Captain Tyler Keane, for extraordinary gallantry against an enemy of the United States."
Stonyeyed, Sam Keane accepted the award, second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor in order of precedence. He didn't utter a word, didn't blink away a tear as General Sanders saluted and then stepped back.
A single drummer tapped his sticks against the rim of his instrument and beat out a solemn cadence. In lock step, the honor guard marched forward. Randi's chest cramped as the six airmen positioned themselves on either side of the flagdraped casket. Taking the edges of the flag, they snapped it taut and began the timehonored ritual of folding it into a triangle that revealed only white stars showing on a field of blue. The lieutenant in charge of the honor guard accepted the flag and carried it to the man Randi had always thought of as a surrogate father.
Sam Keane's eyes burned in their sunken sockets as he took the proffered flag. With the stars against his chest he sat stiff and silent while the lieutenant saluted, executed a precise aboutface and left the father staring at his son's coffin.
A faint drone rumbled in the distance. Nothing moved, no one stirred as the rumble gathered sound and fury. Moments later the oaks shading the cemetery shook to the thunder of four C130s flying low and slow.
Randi squinted into the sky. There they were, the multiengine cargo aircraft that had come into the air force inventory before she was born. Indispensible to the state and federal governments, the fourengine transports had more than proved their worth both stateside and overseas since the early days of the Vietnam war.
The silhouettes grew larger, the details clearer. Suddenly, Randi's stomach tensed. She could just make out the tail number on the lead aircraft. It was her bird. The same C130 Hercules she'd flown into that murderous crossfire in Afghanistan all those months ago.
Swallowing hard, she fought the images that screamed inside her head. When the 130s banked left and disappeared beyond the trees, the air rushed from her lungs and a cold sweat trickled down her temples.
The drone of the transports' engines died. In the distance a bugler sounded "Taps." The silvery notes echoed through the rows of crosses, a last, lonely call that cut into the heart of every military man and woman present.
With the notes pouring out like liquid tears, Randi turned her head and met Sam Keane's eyes. His fierce stare stabbed across his son's casket like an unsheathed sword.
She absorbed the shock of it, forcing herself to stand tall, refusing to look away. Then his gaze dropped to the boy at her side.
His stony facade cracked for a moment, only a moment. Randi glimpsed the desolation and knew what he was thinking. Tyler Keane would have no son to carry on his family name. Sam would have no grandson to mold and shape and bequeath his billions to.
The whisper was accompanied by an urgent wiggle. Realizing she'd tightened her hold on her son's shoulder, Randi murmured an apology.
The minister said a final prayer. The dignitaries rose, and led by the governor and his wife, they offered their condolences.
Family members came next. Aunts, uncles, cousins. Row after row, they left their chairs to file past the man who sat unmoving beside his son's coffin.
Excerpted from Eye Of The Beholder by Merline Lovelace Copyright © 2005 by Merline Lovelace. Excerpted by permission.
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