Posted: 1/9/2022 9:13:45 PM EDT
[Last Edit: sharkman6]
Here's a story I started writing and posting here in 2014. It was inspired by current events at the time, namely Isis's undoing of everything that was done in Iraq over the previous decade, and the US government's response.
This story got some pretty good responses here when it first came out. Unfortunately, I had to travel abroad, and my writing just fizzled out.
I've rebooted it for 2022 and will start posting every week. There will be about eight more installments after what is posted below.
In the meantime, I've set up a Patreon account under JG Elliott.
Sharkman's Patreon Link
Thanks for reading.
Across the Scimitar
Evil men came across the Scimitar River to spread their god’s terror, and the kid watched his whole world burn before his very eyes. He sat cross-legged, watching the flames gyrate when the old man came up from behind. Other men moved along with the old man, but they seemed unreal somehow, like ghosts, or just the rumors of men. The old man stood behind the boy without speaking. The two just watched the house burn. Other houses burned too. Every structure is sight burned, even the sheds and outbuildings. They dumped fuel on the nearby spinach fields and tried to set them alight, but they didn’t take flame and only a few rows smoldered. One of the ghost men coughed to clear his lungs of the smoke. He carried a rifle and wore sunglasses and a sun-faded baseball hat. Another toed at one of the bodies that littered the street. He carried a rifle too. Finally, the old man spoke.
"They hit pretty hard this time, didn’t they?"
The boy didn’t speak.
"You got anybody in there," the old man said. He used his chin to point into the blazing house.
"Everybody I had was in there."
The old made an animalistic grunt. It conveyed sympathy better than any words could. The kid looked up. His eyes were red, but he did not cry. The kid was old enough to drive, but not old enough to vote. He didn't look old enough to do either. But there was a hardness to him. Maybe it was because the house and all in it burned. Maybe it had always been there. Either way, the old man liked it.
"The Irishman is putting together a militia. He’s down in King’s City. We’re joining up. You got a rifle?"
"Ain’t got nothing no more."
"That’s okay. We’ll get you one."
"The Irishman? The one who sells tractors?"
"He ain't selling tractors today. The Irishman's got plenty of guns and is handing them out. He used to be a M'Reen. He was a general. Or maybe a sergeant. Either way, he was pretty high up there. And he ain't messing around."
A wild dog, lean and yellow, sauntered up to one of the bodies lying in the street. One of the men with rifles shooed it away. The dog skittered off a few paces, then crept back to a severed head lying loose from a pile of severed heads. The dog lapped at it. The second man shot the dog.
"Once they get the taste of blood, they're broken and can't be fixed," The shooter explained. He had a beard and a beaten-down baseball hat with the flag on it in subdued colors.
"Gaw-damn," The old man lamented.
They all climbed into a crew cab pickup. Both the bed and the interior were littered with guns. Loose shotgun shells rolled across the floorboards. Red plastic gleamed.
"Gaw-damn," The old man repeated. They all drove off to King’s City, and the fires burned in the rearview mirror.
The old man's name was Nash. The man in the battered hat was Greywald. If the third man had a name, the kid didn't catch it. King City was beaten down, one of the many interior agriculture hubs that just barely hung on. They drove down the main street which looked like the main street of a ghost town. Aged brick buildings sported advertising murals for soft drinks that no longer existed. Some storefronts were boarded up. Others were empty save for the sun-bleached For Sale signs that hung in their windows. For Sale, but nobody was buying. They stopped in front of a prefabricated building of corrugated metal. A red and white checkered sign on top of this building proclaimed, "Feed." Another sign, hand-painted on plywood red:
They'd erected a card table and some folding chairs on a loading dock. Before the card table ran a line of men. Some old, some young. Most carried weapons of types, varieties, and conditions so eclectic as to be haphazard. Behind the card table sat the Adjutant. Behind the Adjutant stood the Irishman. The men filed up one at a time and signed their name in a ledger the Adjutant kept. The old man, the kid, and the others piled out of the pickup.
The kid stole a glance to the other side of the street. A middle-aged man, frail and dressed in feminine garb of billowing pink, waved a sign and shouted at the armed men signing their names.
"This won’t solve anything," The sign wielder shouted. "We must exercise restraint!"
"Shit, the spilled blood is still warm. They get here earlier every time," Nash said. Greywald spat into the street.
"Fuckers get tipped off. That way they get a head start."
"You think so?"
"I know so. Not that it matters. He’s here and people are dead just the same. C’mon. Let’s put our names on the roster."
They joined the line. The kid moved as if in a daze, his young mind still trying to put together everything that had happened, everything that was happening now. The smell of burnt spinach and burnt humans still filled his nostrils and added to the surreal nature of this world. He caught snippets of the conversations around him. He snatched individual words and bits of the conversation out of the air like they were crane flies gliding slowly through the autumn air. Across the street, the protesting man used words like diversity and tolerance. Men in line in front of them with shotguns and rifles slung over their shoulders used words like beheading, sex slaves, mass executions, rape. The kid's head cleared like fog burning off in the morning. His mind put the words together into sentences.
"They attacked the junior high down in Creston. Took the girls and murdered the rest."
"Took about fifty kids with them back across the river. They’ll sell them if we don’t do something."
"Parkfield always paid the head tax, but they attacked that town first. Anything they couldn’t kill they burned down."
"Cut off both his kids’ heads right in front of him. Then they cut off his head."
"The governor ain’t said a word about it.”
"Even the twelve-year-olds. Lined ‘em all up in a ditch and shot them. The boys anyways."
"The Irishman aims to go across the Scimitar."
The Scimitar River had another name, given to it by white explorers who found it long ago. That name had stood for centuries. Now it was called the Scimitar, renamed by the government officials who established the refuge on the other side. The administrators who renamed the river arrested people like the kid and the men signing their names in the ledger when they crossed the river. The savages on the other side crossed at will on their errands of rape and murder, plunder, and slavery. The men who renamed the river did nothing to stop them. The armed and angry men kept talking.
"If he crosses the Scimitar, I’m going with him."
"What the hell do I pay these taxes for?"
They waited in line. The kid got a good look at the Adjutant. He was short and squat, bookish with sleepy eyes. At his feet were wooden crates full of rifles and metal boxes full of ammunition. Big red letters on the rifle crates read, ‘Not Authorized For Sale In California.’ The kid got a look at the Irishman too.
The Irishman was tall, all arms and legs and a head bald except for an even growth of white fuzz. He could have been balding, or he could have just shaved his head. He was stoop-shouldered. From the chest up he leaned in and always craned his head forward as if he were trying to hear a conversation more clearly. He looked Lincoln-esque in stature and gate, all he needed was a hat, coattails, and the beard. But he kept his face clean-shaven, and he never wore a hat, no matter the condition of the weather or the intensity of the sun, a fact the kid would find peculiar. The Irishman carried no gun the kid could see. But he had a knife sheathed at his belt, and he carried a long blackthorn stick topped with a sphere of polished metal.
Greywald and Nash signed their names in the Adjutant’s book.
"We ain’t providing no rifles if you got your own," The Adjutant said.
"I'm handy enough with the one I got," Greywald said.
The Irishman pointed to Greywald’s forearm with the end of his stick. There, at the end of a partially rolled shirt sleeve, a stain of blue poked out.
"Let’s have a look at that ink."
Greywald rolled up the rest of his sleeve. An intricate tattoo was revealed. A scuba diver swam before a background of an open parachute. A bowie knife, a boat paddle, and a flaming torch were thrown in for good measure. The tattoo seemed busy to the kid.
"This isn’t going to be like it was back on the mew," The Irishman said.
"I know that, sir."
"You wanna be a sergeant on this lashup?"
"I’d rather stay a trooper this time if it’s all the same, sir."
Next, the Irishman pointed at the kid.
"How old is that one? I don’t cotton to child soldiers."
The old man spoke up.
"Kid got burned out. His people are gone."
The Irishman looked at the kid. "That right?"
The kid nodded.
"Family is gone?"
The kid nodded again.
"You want revenge?"
The kid nodded a third time, his face an angry stone.
"Me too," the Irishman said. He planted his stick down on the cement loading dock. He leaned on it and seemed to stretch forward a mile. "You don’t waste your words. I like that. Don’t forget how angry you are kid. People get comfortable, they forget how to get angry. Angry gets stuff done. You ever shot a gun.
One last nod to the affirmative.
He pointed to the Adjutant. Put this one on the roster and get him outfitted. The Adjutant nodded. After the kid signed his name, the Adjutant handed over a rifle, ammunition, and other gear and did so without a sound. He didn't waste words either.
The kid collected up his kit. Before he went away, he said to the Irishman, "My pa had a calendar with your face on it in the barn."
"That a fact."
"Well son, I won’t be selling any tractors today."
Next, the Irishman pointed at the sign with his stick.
"Fix that. Either spell that sign correctly or tear it down. What kinda outfit do you think we're running here?"
Some men tore down the sign.
"Gaw-damn," Nash said.
"He’s got a golden bear frame around his license plate. Guess that explains his behavior."
The kid watched the Pink Protestor continue his solitary protest. He’d grown louder and angrier in his denunciations of violence and the militia, shouting furiously at every passerby, regardless of whether or not they showed any interest. The kid suspected the protestor's vitriol stemmed from the fact he was largely ignored. A new recruit standing next to the kid called himself Chin. Chin was in his mid-twenties. He had a rifle and pistol and was outfitted with the kind of gear that made young men envious and made more experienced men roll their eyes.
"My name ain’t really Chin. I’m using an alias. They got spies and fifth columnists everywhere. Take that one…" Chin pointed at the Pink Protestor with his own chin.
"He’s talking peace and non-violence, but he’ll sell your name and the name of your family to the head counters across the Scimitar for a few pieces of silver. You’ll wake up with your head off and your family murdered. Them or the government."
"I guess he’s gotta pay for them fancy duds somehow."
"And if ain’t the head counters it’s their apologists in the cities." Chin checked over his gear. Then he said without warning, "I go by Chin ‘cuz I look Chinese."
"I’m from Pasadena." The kid considered that fact for a while before responding.
They’d all signed the book and been outfitted and organized into two companies. Now they milled about the loading dock waiting for the Irishman to speak. The Irishman came out of the feed building. His long legs stretched out in a manner that seemed to be a caricature of normal human motion.
Some of the men were drinking beer. The smell of the beer hit the kid. Then his nose caught more whiffs of the burnt spinach leaves from the morning. His stomach turned. He thought of his family and the emotions flooded in and the stink and the velocity of his life made everything confused and overwhelming. Colors melted into each other, a psychedelic melting of different realities. The Irishman stepped forward and said things the kid could not hear. The armed men around him shouted but he could not hear their words either. He only saw lips move. He saw bits and pieces of the world as if through a telescope. Bits and pieces of the world came into sharp relief but the rest was obscure to the point of non-existence. He saw whiskers above sneering lips. He saw unclean teeth. He saw specks of dust on the Irishman's fine leather boots and saw numbers engraved into the receiver on Chin's rifle. He saw the tab of a beer can on the ground and it reminded him of his father and he wanted to scream and to cry and to rip his own skin off. He wanted to hide in a corner and stand on top of a mountain. He wanted to hold the mother he would never see again. The Irishman was still speaking and used words like Poitiers and Lepanto and the kid didn’t know what they meant, and he wanted to go back to school but he didn’t know if there was a school anymore and he wanted to find that out. But most of all, he wanted to go to the other side of the Scimitar River.
Through the hazed lens of his life, he saw the Pink Protestor come across the street. His pink garments ballooned in the wind. He looked like a pink cog sailing on the trade winds. His sign read:
And it was written in all those crazy characters, like the ones you see on the bumpers of Subaru station wagons that drive down from the city. The armed men in the crowd who'd been shouting settled down. Seeing the Pink Protestor's approach, the Irishman stopped his stump speech. His eyes narrowed down to flinty gunfighter slits. He planted his stick down and leaned forward on it, waiting.
The Pink Protestor didn't wait for an invitation. He climbed up on the loading dock. Still waving his sign around, he unleashed upon the armed crowd of armed vigilantes. He called them crazed Christians and hyper-racists and neo-colonialists. He called them xenophobic, Islamophobic, homophobic. He called them capitalists and flyovers, intolerant and ignorant. He called them all words the kid did not know but recognized only for their ugliness.
"He wouldn’t say all those things if he thought we might shoot him," Chin said in a whisper, not wanting to get the protestor's attention and then wrath.
Nash, who came up behind the younger two, agreed. "His kind have been handled with kid gloves for far too long."
People around the town had come out to listen to the Irishman speak. Now they listened to the Pink Protester. A rare few nodded silent encouragement to the speaker they favored. Most just stood and watched, not daring to favor either party, disinterested in any outcome, spectators in the life and world that went on all around them.
"Folks'll go any way the wind blows them," Chin said. Later the kid would realize how true that was.
The Pink Protestor stopped his rant, panting. He'd spent his entire tank of gas and needed a brief respite to refill. He turned to the patiently waiting Irishman, who, smiling, leaned forward on his stick. Guessing this was his opportunity to offer his counter-narrative, he pushed up on his stick, straightening, and then he spoke.
"If you talk like that, if you think like that, you’re more dangerous than the head counters across the river. You done speaking your peace then?"
The Pink Protestor was not done speaking his peace. He didn’t even listen to the Irishman. Instead, he used the moment to catch his breath and then begin another tirade. Ignoring the lanky Irishman, he directed his words and energy directly onto the armed assembly. The Irishman handed over his stick to the Adjutant. His eyes never left the Pink Protestor. Without another word he drew a five-shot revolver out of nowhere and shot the pacifist once right through the back of his head. The protestor collapsed onto the deck of the loading dock like a giant pink bag of feed. One leather sandal came loose and flopped down from the dock.
The men in the audience were shocked, but shock quickly turned to approval.
"Guess it just got real," Chin said.
"It’s been real since sunrise. I think the Irishman’s right. He won’t be selling any tractors today."
They left the Pink Protestor where he fell. One of the men put the Coexist sign over his pale dead face and with that as his shroud, the Pink Protestor was forgotten. The Irishman did some further consultation with the Adjutant and a few of the older men. Greywald was brought into this inner circle, but the kid and Chin were not. After these latest details were attended to the order was given.
"We’ll cross up at old Camp Roberts. Now let’s skedaddle."
The men mounted up in their trucks. Older ones shed bits of hay from their beds and tailgates like dandruff as they sped out of town. The kid was back in the truck with Nash and Greywald. Chin joined them. Despite all his fancy gear, the young man from Pasadena looked green.
"I expect the shooting will start soon," Chin said.
"I expect your right," the Kid said. Greywald sat in the passenger seat while Nash piloted. The veteran turned back and looked at the two younger men with his experienced eyes. His countenance said, "Don’t be hasty. When you get out there, be slow and smooth. Be calm and careful. Watch me and do what I do," but his lips never moved.
The administrators gave all the land west of the Scimitar to the headcounters. That included the old highway and so a new one had to be laid on the eastern side of the river. It was done the way all things were done at this point in human history, in a manner that was equal parts corruption and incompetence. The asphalt had been laid too thin, and so the road was broken and potholed all along the drive. The drainage wasn't cut, and so the young road was already washed out in places. In other places there was no asphalt at all and so the road would unexpectedly transitioned from blacktop to compacted gravel. The convoy, with many drivers already in their cups, moved in jerks and starts as all these transitions were negotiated. Curses and empty beer cans flew.
"Hellfire," Nash shouted after slamming on his breaks just in time to avoid plowing into the back of an SUV that slammed to a stop after bouncing off the ground when it hit a pothole at speed.
"Hellfire," he shouted again. The convoy got moving. Nash rubbed at his whiskers.
"Back in my grandfather's day, when you built something in this country you built it to last. Didn't matter what it was; roads, bridges, buildings. They built the Hoover Dam in a time without computers. They were still using mule power when they built the aqueducts and reservoirs around here. Now nothing lasts. Buildings are all prefab steel, meant to last ten years but kept for forty. The roads crumble before they're even finished. And all the big projects get started but they're never finished." Nash took one hand off the steering wheel and waved it at a series of lonely concrete pylons, meant to hold a train trestle but standing lonely and un-topped.
"We don't even have the force of will to build our own damn roads."
"Somewhere out there, a bunch of Roman Centurions are rolling in their graves," Greywald agreed.
"No wonder the head counters find us easy pickings," Nash said.
"They won’t think we’re so easy when the sun rises," Greywald said. Nash disagreed.
"Nothing will change. Ninety percent of the folks in this country are asleep at the switch. Half of the ones left over are working for the other side."
"The ones asleep at the switch don’t matter. We do."
The sun hung low in the Western sky. It began its descent behind the mountains. From there it would go down into the Pacific Ocean and then rise again in the east. They stopped short of the crossing at old Camp Roberts and dismounted. The Irishman spoke with the Adjutant again.
"You keep the bulk of ‘em here with you. I’ll take the hotshots with me and go around."
"I saw some folks playing with their phones when we left town."
"Yes, I expected that to happen. It’ll be fine."
"How many are you taking, boss?"
The Irishman looked around. Men were drinking again, reaching into ice chests staged in the back of their trucks next to stacks of bird guns and deer rifles. He didn’t like what he saw and spat on the ground.
"Most of these folks should have stayed on the couch, watched some of those shows where famous people dress up like idiots and try to dance."
"At least they got off their asses this time," The Adjutant said hopefully.
The Irishman shrugged and let out a long sigh. His eyes took on a look of bittersweet nostalgia. "We’ll see how long it lasts." The Irishman looked to the west. There lay old camp Roberts, a bridge, and the Scimitar River as yet uncrossed. "I’ll take twenty fire breathers with me. Keep the rest here. Don’t let them get too drunk less the headcounters come across and attack. And keep the negligent discharges to a minimum."
The Adjutant looked warily into the reservation beyond the river. "They can see us from over there."
"They're probably watching us already, tipped off by fifth columnists in town. I'm counting on that. Hang tight. I'll send you a text when it is time."
The Adjutant indicated his comprehension with a nod.
The Irishman picked out twenty men from the hundred or so militia volunteers. This group of selectees began with Greywald and Nash. The Irishman was careful to select older men or veterans like Greywald. When the Irishman spotted Chin, he asked, "Can you use all that fancy gear, or do you just stand in front of a mirror and eyeball yourself?"
"I can use it. I spent a hitch in the Army."
"You fight anywhere."
"Army don't fight no more. I just handed out boxes of stuff to people who didn't deserve it, and sure as shit didn't appreciate it."
The kid was the last to be picked, but he was picked all the same. They mounted back up in their trucks and backtracked several miles, then dismounted again. The sun had set by this time and the sky was aglow, blue midnight and gleaming white stars. An owl hooted, and in the distance, a coyote made a lonesome howl.
With his Praetorians of Americana following, the Irishman went across the Scimitar.
The Scimitar was only the notion of a river. It was a line in the earth marked by rocks and gravel and sand. Trickles of water tinkled along. They crossed on foot, weapons in hand and moving under a cloudless sky of indigo. The Irishman led them. He consulted neither map nor compass. He carried no rifle, only his metal-tipped shillelagh.
They moved into the preserve of the headcounters without incident. The land here was wild, and nature cared not about the world of men. On the other side, the ground took elevation. The flat arid farmland surrendered to foothills that fed into the coastal range. Great trees, thick trunked with reaching branches, rose out of the earth. Dry leaves crunched softly under work boots and hiking boots, and the flora whispered when it was brushed aside with rifle barrels.
The Irishman took them to the top of a foothill and stopped. They circled about him like school children, waiting for their next command. Greywald was the first to take a knee. One by one the other veterans remembered their old skills and followed suit. The others, those who'd never served until tonight, quickly picked up on it and knelt too. Senses were heightened by the night sky and nature and the energy of violence was barely restrained. The Irishman motioned Greywald over with his cane.
"You still don’t want to be a sergeant?"
"How about ‘Chief of Scouts?’"
"Can I still shoot bad guys?"
The Irishman pointed his stick like a laser. "Should be over that next set of high ground. Take one man with you, scout it out and come back here."
Greywald nodded and grabbed the kid by the collar.
"Time to earn a dollar."
They set out together. A chill set in, but not from fear. The kid moved quietly behind Greywald, moving as the elder moved, stepping as he stepped. The confusion and daze that plagued him since the morning were gone. He felt alert, alive, sharp, and predatory. Fallen leaves and light brush crunched softly beneath their feet. Greywald moved like a shadow, an image that kind of floated along. A ghost. Owls hooted. Coyotes howled. This was the natural world of God’s creation, and they hunted through it. They crested the next set of high ground and heard the noises of men coming from down below. Metallic sounds. Electronic sounds. Grumbles and whispers. Clicks and clacks and coughing.
Nearby stood a charred wooden obelisk that was a tree before it was struck by lightning. Greywald led the kid to it.
"Wait here. I’m going on alone. I’ll scout it out and come back. You got that smoke wagon on safe?"
The kid checked it. "It’s on safe."
"Good. Keep it there. You see somebody comin’ at you in the dark, don’t shoot ‘cuz it’ll be me."
"What if it’s the headcounters? What if they get the jump on ya?"
"The headcounters ain’t got the jump on me yet, and they ain’t starting tonight. Now stay here and keep that finger off the trigger."
Greywald set off, alone, into the dark and mysterious sounds that could only be the slaughtering and slaving headcounters. The kid plopped down next to the tree and leaned his body against it, using it to break up the outline of his form, the way his father taught him in the life he lived before his reincarnation manifested in flames and smoke and blood. He was alone, but he did not feel afraid. He felt like a hunter, which was a much better feeling than that of being the hunted, or even worse, of being a victim, as he'd been a few hours ago. In this world, some people relished in being victims, equated victimhood to sainthood. He didn't understand that then and understood it less so even now, here, in the dark with a rifle in his hand and nature all around, certain that soon he would be killing headcounters and comfortable with the impending violence all around him.
Time passed and the moon and stars moved across the sky. True to his word, Greywald returned alone. The whisper of crunching leaves heralded his return.
"They’re right where the Irishman said they’d be. C’mon. Let’s report back."
They found the others where they left them. The Irishman sat on the ground, cleaning his nails by the light of the moon with an ornate knife with a long and narrow blade and a handle made of antler. The edge caught moonlight and glinted. Greywald informed the Irishman as to the disposition of the enemy.
"They were right where you said they’d be. They’re waiting alongside the road."
"They’re waiting for the Adjutant and the others to come down the road so they can bushwhack them. But the Adjutant ain’t coming down the road, not till I tell him to."
"You think they were tipped off?"
"I expect they were, and I aim to find out for sure, and who did the tipping off. But that’s for later. How many were there?"
"Enough to make it worth our while. What are your orders?"
The Irishman sheathed his knife. He looked up at the sky. His dark eyes took in the bright stars, each element in contrast to the other. He closed his eyes and leaned back onto the grass, folding his hands behind his head.
"We'll wait for a spell. Waiting is never easy in a situation like this, but, waiting to attack is a lot easier than waiting to be attacked. The longer they wait, the weaker they get, complacent. So, we're gonna make them wait. Now let's sit a spell and soak up some of this moonlight."
The Irishman relaxed, and in less than a minute, he slept. The lanky chieftain slept the sleep of babes, not the least bit disconcerted by the impending violence. The kid watched, amazed at the old man's ease with the whole affair. The world turned and all the others stirred uneasily, but the Irishman slept. When the time for sleeping ended, he woke up naturally and without the aid of an alarm. One moment his eyes were closed, seeing only the secrets of his dreams, the next moment they were open, and he was awake.
The Irishman stood. As he rose, his movements seemed more mechanical than organic. When he rose to his full length, he stretched out his arms and legs and seemed to fill the world. He was armed now. He carried a semiautomatic shotgun. All the furniture was polished hardwood, expertly checked along the pistol grip. The receiver was covered with intricate scrollwork and etchings. In gold, there were inlays of birds in flight, a Scottish stag with a rack that stretched high and wide. The shortened barrel was topped with mother of pearl beads. The Irishman's cane was gone. He might have turned the stick into the shotgun by magic, and if the Irishman was a wizard the kid would not have been surprised. The Irishman looked east where a faint glow had just begun to suggest a sunrise. The warriors flocked around their warrior-king, and he spoke.
"This is Indian country, and in Indian country, you attack at dawn. C'mon. Let's go."
They moved across the landscape, hushed, but eager. At the crest of the last rise, they stopped. In the low ground below, they heard more sounds. Men stirring in the trees along the road. They were the sounds of cold men, hungry men, and tired men. Men demoralized from waiting all night to execute an ambush that never took place. The Irishman and his band of freebooters spread into a skirmish line. Somehow the stick was back in the Irishman's hand. He wielded it like a British officer on Flander's Field, directing his men across the battlefield. When all was set, one-handed he waved it forward like a saber and set loose his dogs of war. What ensued was not a battle, but a massacre. There was no other word for it.
They fell upon the head counters while they were still at rest in their encampment. They descended upon their enemy in a long line and all the while mist rose up from the trees and hills to meet the morning. The Irishman posted himself at the center of the line, and he was the first to fire, as was his right. He came upon a head counter awake and making tea at a fire beneath the reaching branches of an oak tree. The young man looked up from his brass kettle and a perfected arrangement of small glass cups. A thin and manicured beard framed his shocked countenance. The Irishman leveled his shotgun and fired from the hip. Lead spray pierced. The kettle rattled and the glass teacups shattered, and the man fell dead, face first into his fire.
After that, the whole line erupted with gunfire. It was less a gunfight than a melee with guns. Head counters came awake, groggy, confused, and slow with shock and sleep and they were killed unprepared by the Irishman's dogs of war. Head counters were shot under their blankets and shot in states of dazed semi-consciousness. They were shot reaching for weapons and they were shot tossing weapons away in efforts to offer surrender.
The kid came upon one who tried simultaneously to unwrap himself from a womb of blankets and grab an assault rifle that hung from a nearby tree branch by its canvas strap. The headcounter’s dual efforts were confused and clumsy and in vain. The kid fired at close range. Red mist rose and the body descended back into the blankets, the face disappearing as if it belonged to a drowned man in the sea. The kid fired again and again for good measure, each rifle shot throwing up puffs of cheap white stuffing.
Similar scenes unfolded all around. A head counter held forward a captive child and both he and his offering were shot dead. Another headcounter ran to a vehicle to escape. He got halfway inside before two men armed with pistols yanked him out. They pistol-whipped him until he fell to the ground. Then they stomped and kicked him and together they killed their quarry without firing a shot.
The headcounters who could flee ran out of the wood line and into the road, and from up the road came the Adjutant's column, called into action by the Irishman. In moments the fleeing bandits were trapped between the two forces. Hands went up and weapons were cast aside and the killing paused as the armed vigilantes ponder what to do next.
"Round them all up," The Adjutant called. And they were rounded up and huddled together. Weapons were stripped away from those who still had them. The bloodletting, which had begun with such fury, ended with awkward abruptness. Men lowered their weapons and held them at their hips, forming a corral of riflemen, each guardian uncertain as to what to do next.
"Where is the Irishman," a man called. But the Irishman was nowhere to be found, at least not at first. The kid studied the faces of the detained, and he did not like what he saw.
The enemy surrendered without any sense of shame humiliation. They remained defiant to the point of smugness. The kid scanned the headcounters’ faces and saw men comfortable in their capitulation, comfortable in the knowledge that to forfeit the day would mean only a brief hiatus before returning to the battlefield, and most likely returning in a position of greater advantage. They had been caught and captured, but the kid could see mockery in the face of each headcounter. This battle was but a jape, and the kid and his companions were the fools.
Or so one would have thought until the Irishman emerged from the tree line.
He came out into their midst, loping along in his peculiar way. He slung his shotgun. In both arms, he carried the limp body of a girl. She was limp from death, limp from death by rape. Trailing behind the Irishman was a second girl, naked save for her own blood. She moved barefoot, silent as a mute. She and the dead girl may have been sisters. Maybe not. Nash came out of the tree line too. He led some freed captive children, each one wrapped in a blanket. Nash took one look at the Irishman and then hurriedly shooed his charges back into the trees. The Irishman walked up to the guards and captives and gently laid the fallen girl to rest upon the earth. Then he stretched erect, his hard, dark eyes took in the scene. Those eyes burned.
"What’s all this then," The Irishman asked.
"They've given up," a man said, pointing to the discarded weapons. "They surrendered." The Irishman spat.
"Our forefathers took no prisoners at Lepanto. Took none at Iwo Jima neither. This ain't no Western Army manned by belligerents who fear God and love Christ. The normal rules of jus ad bello do not apply. Not tonight.
"They worship death. Let them have their god."
The Irishman unslung his shotgun. It twirled off his shoulder like a baton and came up into its proper place in his shoulder. He strode up to the most defiant looking headcounter in the bunch. His hips made a gun fighter's sway as the lanky frame propelled itself to the target. The selected headcounter was an older man whose grayling beard has been badly dyed black, and whose eyes radiated hate and contempt. This one must not have understood the Irishman's words, or at least did not believe them. The kid knew that this headcounter believed he faced only the same old game of catch and release. He still did not believe, right up to the moment the Irishman placed the muzzle of the shotgun against his forehead and fired.
That was all it took to start the slaughter. The other men fell upon the head counters and sent each one to their heathen paradise, or to hell, or to some unknown black void. They shot them. They clubbed them. They ran knives across throats. They strangled them barehanded, until their faces went purple, and their tongues wagged out lifeless.
One among the captives was a brown-skinned man named Miguel. He wore an attempt at a beard that was nothing more than scraggly hairs that came out of his neck. He wore no mustache and must have been forty. He claimed he was from Oaxaca and had been born and baptized Catholic. He said that he too had been captured in a raid by the headcounters. He renounced Islam and the Prophet Mohammed and everything else save the Holy Trinity. He recited the Our Father in Spanish and then again in English. When he finished those, he began to recite it a third time in Latin. The Irishman came up from behind and while the Latin words hung in mid-air, stabbed the man in the throat. Miguel crumpled into the dust and as he bled out the captain of the troop said this:
"We got two people here, the terrorists and the captives they took, and they didn’t take no forty-year-old Mexican as a sex slave."
Another man rushed forward and planted a foot on Miguel’s back. While Miguel still bled and tried to hold back the gurgling flow from his neck, this new rifleman drew out a bowie knife. He ran the blade out in an arc across Miguel’s forehead and with a rip of his free hand, took the dying prisoner’s scalp.
"Their way is to collect the heads of our people. We’ll take the scalps of theirs."
Up rose a roar of excitement. The assorted militia men approved of this new practice and the small, forested valley erupted with the bloodlust. One man with blonde hair and pale skin spoke in French, so fast the words ran together like blurring streaks of light. The man held up a passport indicating his nationality and claiming exemption. A man with a gray and brown beard forced the Frenchman to his knees and made him cover his face with the passport. Then, placing his heavy chrome barrel of a revolver against the cover, the militiaman shot through the booklet and its owner. The Frenchman fell over, and he was promptly scalped.
The killing continued all around. It was all hacking and slashing and clubbing. The dead were not safe, each one scalped and mutilated further. The kid watched Chin take a scalp and do a poor job of it.
"It's butchery," Chin said gleefully. "But it's our butchery this time."
The kid wandered away from the scalping, back into the tree line. He found the nameless third man from the following morning there, the one who, along with Nash and Greywald, found him alone. This nameless man lay face down in the dirt, his arms flat at his side, like a board of dead human being. The kid passed him and found the body he had shot, still entombed in its blankets.
He flicked out a pocketknife and went to work on the scalp. It was harder than he thought, messier. When he finished, he held in his hand an ugly, fleshy hairy bit of carnage that was unsatisfying. He threw the botched work into the weeds. Then he fished around the corpse and found a cord inside a pocket. Threaded through the cord were perhaps a dozen rings. Simple wedding bands and elegant engagement rings. The gems sparkled, and the precious metal reflected hues of rising orange sun and the crimson of bloodletting. Chin walked up and admired the find with a whistle.
"You got yourself a nice set of souvenirs there."
"These belonged to somebody," The kid said gloomily. He stuffed the lace of rings into a pocket.
The Irishman strutted by, issuing out orders even now amongst the mayhem, the Adjutant following dutifully alongside.
"Collect up anything of value," the Irishman ordered. "And gather up their phones, Adjutant, especially the phone off that old fella I sent to hell. We'll take them to the Nerd for exploitation."
"You want to push ahead after this?"
"Negative," the Irishman answered. "This punitive expedition was ad hoc at best. We ain’t got the legs to push any further. We'll return to civilization once things calm down here. But mind yourself Adj, this ain't over."
The Adjutant trotted off to execute his orders. The Irishmen squatted down where he stood, there amongst the mutilated dead and the living, ravenous with their bloodlust. He picked at the grass and the weeds, insulated by his own thoughts from the carnage all around. And the kid forgot the violence too. He just watched the Irishman who also existed in his own world, and each one was at peace in that time and place. And after a time The Irishman noticed the kid staring at him. He flung aside the bits of grass.
"It ain't like the old times, kid, but it'll have to do." Then he rose to his full length and walked over to the kid. Looking down into the younger man’s eyes he said with words that were lonely and sweet in their sorrow.
"This will be the last war I get to have."
Then he ruffled the young man’s hair as if he were a boy on a ball field, and strode off into the wood line and was gone.
"This will be the last war he gets," the kid said aloud to nobody and nothing. And all around the acts of slaughter continued, abated by neither shame nor regret.
To Serve and Protect
The Irishman took his breakfast al fresco, at a wrought iron table on a brick patio that faced the street. He dined like a gentleman. Before him lay a pair of hot croissants. An ornate French press held dark, rich coffee. With a newspaper in one hand, he reached over and worked the press. The headline on the newspaper screamed the words, "Massacre," "Intolerance," and "Phobia."
"It doesn’t say anything about the headcounters coming across the river and killing us until you get to the back page of section D, and even then, it’s only half a paragraph," The Irishman said disapprovingly. He tossed the paper onto the table and poured his coffee.
"What’d ya expect from the Bee," Greywald said. He leaned against a timber post that had gone gray from the weather. He sipped coffee with one hand. The other held the pistol grip of the assault rifle that hung tight against its sling. "Anything about it in the Rustler?"
"The Rustler is nothing but pool stories from writers in New York City now," The Irishman said with disgust. "Every damn newspaper in the country now is run from either New York or D.C." The Irishman sipped his coffee and watched the street.
In the days following the raid into the headcounters' territory, most of the men drifted off, returning to their farms and families and lives. Only the most hardcore remained, or the ones who had nowhere else to go. Now, they stood around their chieftain, in the open, armed and unashamed.
The kid stayed too, of course. He had looted a pistol off one of the dead. It was mostly black plastic but still of decent quality. Its previous owner had no holster, so the kid wedged it inside his belt. The checkered plastic grip poked out above his jeans.
The Irishman took another sip of coffee. He had neither his shotgun nor his stick today, and if he carried the small revolver the kid did not see it. He did wear a leather belt loaded with shotgun shells. It was of fine brown saddle leather, as was the sheath that held his bowie knife. Belt and sheath matched the Irishman’s high leather boots. The rest of his outfit was of dark tones of English wool, and a starched shirt of white cotton. If he was a killer, he was a well-dressed killer.
"Boss, take a look up the street," Greywald said. He took another sip of his coffee and set it down, freeing up that hand for deadlier work. The other stayed on the rifle. The other men made similar stirrings. The Irishman only smiled.
Rolling slowly down the street was an enormous black sport utility vehicle. A host of lights and bumpers and antennae adorned the vehicle, as did a variety of blue and yellow decals that read;
Chief of Police
The car stopped in front of the patio and a tinted window went down with an electronic buzz.
"Good morning, Chief," The Irishman called out.
"I think we need to talk," a voice squeaked out meekly from inside the vehicle.
Chief Kathleen James had a Bachelor's degree in criminal justice from one Ivy League School, a Master's in Community Policing from another Ivy League School, and a Ph.D. in Law Enforcement and Social Justice from a third. To go with the diplomas, she had a chest full of ribbons and a collar full of gold stars. When the administrators combined the sheriff's office and all the municipal police departments in the county into one unified police force, she was their unanimous choice to manage the agency. Despite those credentials, she was completely unqualified for any position in law enforcement or leadership.
"Fine. What shall we talk about chief?" The Irishman asked. He made no move from his wrought-iron chair. The chief looked warily over the armed men. She wore thick glasses. They magnified her eyes and made them look like two giant black saucers. She made no move to get out of the passenger side of the vehicle. Her driver, a short, squat thing who looked more like a swine herder's daughter than a police officer, made eye contact with no one. She stared straight out over the steering wheel. The kid saw her knuckles turn white.
Chief James’ eyes darted over the weapons.
"Some people crossed over the Scimitar River the other day."
"You are right, chief," The Irishman said. His words were not negative, but they filled the air with a sarcastic boisterousness. "Some people did cross the Scimitar River. They came on errands of loot, rape, and murder. Why, this young man's spinach fields were burnt. The burning spinach caused an awful smell. But the smell of the raped and murdered and burnt Americans was even worse."
"That’s not what I meant," The chief said. She pushed her thick glasses up her nose. "I meant, some people crossed the river. They raided across the river. That is a federal sanctuary, a reservation."
"It is indeed," The Irishman answered. "I’ve seen the signs along the highway myself."
"It’s a crime to go onto their reservation. I could have you arrested for that."
The Irishman smiled brightly and nodded, but, was unmoved and unafraid. The chief, still not moving out of her vehicle, looked over the armed men again. They were all lean, hard men, with flinty and hungry eyes. The weapons did not stir, but they were there; rifles and shotguns slung across chests, pistols slung low, the hilts of long sharp knives poked out above belt lines. The clips of other knives held them against pockets for easy access. One man had what looked like a grenade.
"You can’t have those weapons out on the street. You can’t have them at all," The Chief said with a pout.
"Ohhhh," The Irishman said with a long and slow deliberateness. "Chief, these things aren’t hurting anybody. And if they were, why I’m sure you and your fellow officers would come by and collect them up." He smiled. His smile was an invitation, a challenge, and one the chief did not accept.
"If you cross the Scimitar River, I can’t protect you."
"Chief, you ain’t protecting us now."
The chief had her fill. The window went up and the car drove off, as effectual as she had ever been. As the fancy vehicle faded away down the street, the Adjutant approached, a handful of papers in his hand.
"I don’t think that went the way she hoped."
"I wouldn’t give a Tuppenny-fuck for her hopes. What do you have for us Adj?"
"Just came back from the Nerd. He hacked into those phones we took off the dead headcounters. He gave us two certainties. The first one I gave to Juan. This other fella is just up the road."
The Adjutant handed the Irishman a sheet of paper. Lines of information on it were highlighted in yellow. He took the Adjutant's offering with one hand and resumed drinking coffee with the other.
"That's a lot of phone calls. What's this fella do?"
"He teaches at the local junior high school."
"The one that was attacked?"
"No. The one that wasn’t."
"A teacher? Hmmm. An unfortunate business that." The Irishman finished his coffee. He set down the cup and looked over at the kid, seeming to notice him and his pistol for the first time.
"Well, ain’t you a real desperado kid," the Irishman said. "What's your name anyways?"
"Angus huh? That's a quality handle if I ever heard one."
"Thank you, sir."
"Don’t mention it. Alright boys, we got some dirty business to attend to. Might as well get it done."
The posse gathered up their weapons and headed to school.
The first thing they saw when they got to the school was the brand new police cruiser. It was new and expensive, and like the chief's SUV was adorned with all manner of accouterments which were also new, and expensive. Decals along the side of the cruiser read:
Unified Police Force: Public Schools Division
When the armed posse piled out of their trucks, the two officers pretended not to see them. Ever passive, they started their car and drove away.
"For all their fancy gear they didn't have much gumption, did they?" Nash said.
The Irishman watched the taillights fade away with disapproval.
"Always a shame when men swear an oath to defend, get paid to defend, and then don't defend. It is even worse when the society they make the bargain with allows them to get off without a hitch. You can bet your last dollar them two will still be wearing their badges next month. C'mon."
The business was ugly. They all knew it would be, but they did not know just how ugly it would get. They entered the school without opposition. The policemen were gone and there were no other armed defenders at the school, despite the recent attacks by the villainous headcounters. There were no armed guards inside the school. The administrators felt that armed guards would scare the students in a way the murdering, raping, and enslaving head counters would not. So, the Irishman and the kid and the others entered the school and without much difficulty found their target before his students, lecturing. Greywald held up the incriminating phone records, for they were the arrest warrant.
"You’ve been working with the headcounters. Now you are coming with us."
The apologist's name was Jones. He had to be drug bodily from the classroom. He screamed and cried and wailed before his students. He abandoned his dignity, and he would never get it back. In the end, he was taken by the legs and drug out, his hands scrabbling at his students' feet for salvation. While the other men pulled, the kid looked at the classroom of students. He recognized some of them and they recognized him, and he guessed that was okay. He had nothing to go back to and he supposed that also meant he had nothing to hide from. They finally got Jones out of the classroom, his fingernails leaving claw marks on the doorframe. The kid nodded at the students and was the last to leave.
When they got him into the parking lot the police had not returned and everybody knew they wouldn’t. They bound Jones and threw him in the back of a pickup. Along the face of the school, blinds cracked open and eyes peered out to observe the grotesquery. Jones wailed like a wounded animal.
"Damn, but this is unpleasant," Nash said.
A white station wagon in the school parking lot had a bumper sticker. It depicted a black cross with a red ‘no’ line through it. The sticker read:
KEEP YOUR IMAGINARY FRIEND OUT OF MY SCHOOL
Greywald jerked a thumb at the sticker. "You think that applies equally to the headcounters?"
"Of course not. The person parading that sticker around wouldn’t say boo to a headcounter. Nowadays, most folks only want to fight people they know won’t fight back. That’s the whole damn problem."
"It's amazing what happens when people go and stand up for themselves," Nash said.
"That’s a fact," Greywald agreed.
Trussed up hand and foot, the traitor was loaded into the back of a truck. The air had a sharp, mean chill to it. The wind blew with a cruelty. The kid climbed into the cab of a truck, as much to be away from the elements as the screaming captive. It was no glorious business, executing a man. It was a sobering thing. It was a pitiful thing. It contrasted sharply from the beer and bloodlust fueled massacre before. As the trucks drove out of town and Jones made pleas for his life, and the business grew even more pitiful. On the bench seat next to the kid, Chin turned green. The wind and the road noise weren’t enough. The kid’s ears picked up the curses and the insults, the pleas, the offers of contrition and the bribes. They all fell on lifeless ears. The whole crew looked like dead men, all emotionless in their solemnity. The event took on a life of its own, and perhaps the gravity of it beat the men down to a point they had no will left to stop it.
The convoy stopped at the spot. Beneath a leaden sky stood a lone oak tree. It was without leaf or bark and looked a perfect fit for the business of execution. A field of long yellow grass and grey dust, and a rusty barbed wire cattle fence separated this Golgotha from the highway. They piled out. One man had the foresight to bring a wooden stepladder. Another brought a rope. A clean-shaven cowboy named Dale fashioned the noose while all, including Jones, watched. Hemp twisted around hemp, and the condemned man set to cursing and pleading and begging for his life. And with each turn of the rope, and with each word from the dead man’s lips, the mood grew greyer.
"You helped the headcounters," The Irishman announced when the trussed up Jones was finally perched atop the stepstool. The wind gusted and man and ladder wobbled. When the wind ceased the man kept wobbling.
"The headcounters come here to kill us. To rape and enslave our children, to take away our lives and our legacies and you helped them. You’re a conspirator, a fifth columnist in this war. Traitors are hung. Now, we’re going to hang you."
"I had no choice," Jones said pleading. "What could I have done? What could I have done?"
"You could have been a man," The Irishman answered with a snap. "This is yours. This world. This civilization, built for centuries by sweat and blood. That school. Your cushy little job. You could have fought for it. Instead, you gave it all away, and for what?"
"You can’t fight them," Jones continued. "We can’t just go on fighting each other. We killed them and now they kill us. We can’t go on like that. If we fight, we’re just as bad as they are. We all have to live together. We’re all here. All of us, together. You can’t kill me. We’re all here. We’re all the same. You can’t kill me. You can’t. You can’t."
"You got people killed."
"No," Jones protested. "No, no." He blubbered tears rolled down his eyes. His skin was red in places and pale in others.
"I saved lives. I did. I talked to the headcounters. Yes, yes. But they promised not to attack my school. Those were my children too. All of them. You see? Don't you see? I gave them information to protect the children. My children. You see that, don't you? You can't kill me. You see what I did? You can't kill me. You can't. Please. Please."
The kid stepped forward. The begging stopped.
"My sister used to go to your school," the kid said. Before anybody could say anything else he kicked out the ladder. Jones dropped, something cracked but it was not enough, and the teacher hung from his rope and strangled, kicking and spinning the whole time.
"Let him hang," a man said.
"No," The Irishman said. "We ain’t doing this for pleasure. That’s their way. It ain’t our way. Things got out of hand the other night. I ain’t letting it happen again. Two of you grab a leg and give him a yank."
The kid was the first to step forward. Chin joined him. They each took a leg and yanked downward until they heard and felt a crunch. The strangling and the kicking stopped. Now the hanged body just spun lazily. And when the rope twisted around enough times in one direction, it would slowly reverse course and spin in the other.
"An ugly business," The Irishman said. "But one way or t’other, it’ll only get uglier."
They hung the man, but they hung him without relish. Only a sad sense of duty surrounded the scene, and when it was over the men left without speaking much. Each retreated into their own thoughts.
Before they left, a sign was hung around the condemned man’s neck. It outlined his crime.
He was weak
The raid and the hanging sparked an outcry across the land. Local political leaders moved quickly to capitalize on the political potential of the events. At the state capital, the legislators passed a bipartisan bill that was immediately signed by the governor. The new law simply stated that the state "strongly condemned vigilantism." Around the nation, similar symbolic laws were passed, by city councils and county councils, by members of school boards and library boards. In Palo Alto, a man ran for county Water Commissioner on the platform that he would, "End The Hate." That platform would deliver him to his desired office.
Leaders in the field of education joined in. In a university back east, the dean scheduled a second commencement so she could weigh in and prove her commitment to coexistence. She said that although the University had Catholic roots, and was named after a Saint, it was really the headcounters' religion which brought the institution into being. She went on to list in creative detail the headcounter's contribution to dance, literature, drama, Computer Science, Microbiology, Marine Biology, and various other subjects. As she spoke, invited headcounters of standing sat beside her and nodded pleasantly, each one smiling with approval.
Civil rights leaders turned out to speak against the attacks on the headcounters and sought to link that struggle to their own. A woman who claimed to be the head of the gay rights group, "Homosexual Action Now Homosexual Action Always" claimed that an attack against the headcounters was an attack against Queers everywhere, for they faced a common foe in the white, heterosexual patriarchy. "The LGBT community has no greater friend," she said of the headcounters. "And together we have no greater foe than those who hate us for our religion, race, or orientation. We stand together in a community of love, warmth, coexistence, mutual acceptance, and our common queerness."
"Their Lives Matter," read the waving signs on the city streets and the electronic messages that bounced back and forth across the internet. Nobody asked if the lives taken by the headcounters mattered. If the lives of the children taken captive mattered, if the lives of the men killed and women raped mattered, nobody said so. Those departed got no catchphrase to call their own.
As the outcries swelled, the highest officials in government were inspired to make symbolic gestures, platitudes, and rhetoric. In the U.S. Senate, one of the caucuses were so moved that they arrived on the floor wearing the headcounters' traditional garb. Masked and veiled and swaddled, each took their turn at the podium listing the outrages they had suffered since the nation's founding, and some trying, but not quite making, the case that their peoples' past travails were somehow linked to the Irishman's revenge attacks. Members of the party in power claimed that more vigilantism would occur if they were not reelected. The party not in power claimed that such vigilantism would continue until they held the majority. Grandees for both parties spoke out, all competing for the headcounters' sympathies.
The Attorney General of the United States made a circuit of all the usual talk shows. He made outrageous claims, chief among them was that while religion had everything to do with the reprisals against the headcounters, it had nothing to do with the headcounters' initial forays. "Religion is at work here," he said. "The same religion that commands its followers to blow up abortion clinics or hate on elected officials based on the color of their skin. The same religion that commands people to not pay their fair share of taxes, or to cling to their guns. The same religion that frustrates uneducated every time they are faced with a nuanced situation that they don't have the tools comprehend." At the end of each interview, he whined, "Somebody needs to investigate these events," as if he as the attorney general had no power to do so.
None of this noise was complimented by any action. The administrators seemed as unwilling to move against the Irishman’s renegades as they were to move against the headcounters. The law was reserved for the law obeying. Motorists who committed traffic infractions were handed tickets. Farmers who committed environmental infractions were issued fines. But armed parties in defiance of the law, be they headcounters or renegades seeking vengeance, were granted de facto amnesty. Platitudes were easy. Meaningful action was difficult.
"A whole lotta nothing," Nash remarked. "A whole lot of nothing."
The kid spat into the dust. He had a holster now. It was a new one and he wore it low on his hip. The plastic still had a shine to it. They all had lots of new gear. The world's noisemakers made noise, and the bulk of the world remained motionless, but quietly, in small numbers, some people lent their support to the raiders. Equipment flowed in. More importantly, money flowed in. It came in trickles, but every little bit helped.
In the days that followed the hanging, they moved around a lot. They went from farm to farm, staying at one or two different places each day, hoping to stay a step ahead of any who might seek them out. Soon that precaution was abandoned. The chief was not chosen for her role because of her inclination to action. She was not going to do anything. Everybody knew who they were. They made no attempts to hide it. But in the few times she made public appearances the chief announced that she and her officers were launching investigations to identify the culprits. As far as the kid could tell, the investigations involved handing out traffic tickets and sitting at the police station, and turning the other way whenever the posse passed by.
"This inertness has a gravity to it," Chin said. "It possesses a force all its own. Like that saying, ‘an object at rest tends to stay at rest.’ It seems to me everybody else is at rest, just watching the world go on around them. Like they’re standing in front of a mirror watching their dicks get smaller."
"The headcounters ain’t at rest," The kid said. "I ain’t either."
The kid and Chin watched as a few flatbed tow trucks unloaded their contents. The Irishman set up his militia on an old ranch that had been burned out by headcounters months before. That morning the trucks arrived, brand new SUVs and pickups, gifts given quietly to support their efforts.
"The man giving them over, his name is Winton or Winston or something like that. He may be Jewish, but I also heard he owns a dealership out by Stockton, so maybe he ain’t Jewish after all."
"What’s being Jewish got to do with trucks?" the kid asked.
"You know any Jews that own pickup trucks?" Chin asked in return.
Angus frowned at his friend. "There's a lot of people I don't know who drive pickup trucks. But I spot an asshole when he's sitting next to me. And if he’s kitting us out and sparing us from lectures about coexistence, he’s alright in my book."
"I heard we’re going back over tonight."
Angus looked up at the sky. It was dark, a slate gray that promised wind and rain come nightfall.
"It’ll be good weather for raiding."
"It’ll rain," Chin said. "I hope it don’t rain if we go. I don’t have a proper coat for that kind of weather."
The kid looked Chin up and down. "You brought everything else. You didn’t bring a coat."
"Didn’t think I’d need it."
"You ain’t got no sense," The kid said. He spat into the dust again.
"I got night vision."
"That night vision gonna keep you dry tonight?"
"Maybe we won’t go."
"The Irishman ain’t gonna waste this weather sitting on his ass. You ain’t got no sense."
Chin fiddled around with the pouches on his chest. He wore less gear now than he did when he first arrived.
"How many do you think we are now?"
"Greywald said forty this morning."
Men had come in to join up. Some were veterans of prior wars with the headcounters, wars which had gotten bloody but went nowhere. Some were people whose families had suffered from headcounter attacks. Many were ordinary people, ordinary people who were tired of having to endure headcounter attacks and then further endure the endless condescending lectures from various leaders for their lack of empathy to the headcounters’ plight.
"Every time the headcounters blow up a school or shoot up their co-workers," one volunteer was heard to say, "I got to hear about how it is somehow all my fault. I figure if it is all going to be my fault, then it is all going to be my fault."
They all came to get a satisfaction they could not find anywhere else. Forty was not many, but in a world which prized inaction, forty could be a legion.
Chin and the kid supervised the unloading of the vehicles. Nearby, around a pile of old steel irrigation pipes, abandoned farm equipment creaked and groaned as the wind picked up.
"It’ll rain tonight for sure," Nash said. Chin grumbled.
By the new trucks, the Irishman and Greywald conversed. The kid could not hear them. He didn't need to. He knew what it was all about. When they finished, the Irishman stalked off. He held his silver-tipped stick in his hand.
Greywald came forward, a scoped carbine in hand, pistol and bowie knife hanging from his belt. The most casual glance at his face could discern that he had orders to deliver. Despite his earlier protests, he had gravitated into the role of sergeant for the outfit. Now he delivered the Irishman’s orders.
"Gather up your kit boys. We’re heading back across that river."
"Do you think it is real," Chin asked.
Their truck struck a rut and bounced violently. Sheets of rain beat washed over the windows thickly, obstructing any view they might have offered.
"I don’t think it is real. Even the priest here said it wasn’t likely to be real. But real ain’t the damn point," Nash answered. The trucks moved at a snail's pace, bobbing up and down the old dirt and hunting trails that led through the wildlands and into the headcounter's reservation.
"If the priests don’t think it was real, then what is the damn point?" Chin asked.
The priests came to the Irishman a few days earlier. Father Gerard spoke English with a thick French accent, and he had the darkest skin Angus ever saw. Father Marcelino was a Philipino by blood, but a Californian by birth. They came to the Irishman for the barb.
"It is a simple thing. An iron barb set in glass. The barb was taken in one of their raids. It is said the barb came from the flail used to scourge the body of Jesus Christ."
The Irishman asked the same thing Chin asked.
"Do you think it is real?"
Father Gerard smiled softly. "Who can say but God? Often controversy surrounds such relics. How many grails have been presented over the years? And yet..."
"And yet," The Irishman finished, "it doesn’t necessarily matter that the relic is real or not real. What matters is they took it, and that cannot be allowed."
Father Gerard smiled softly but said nothing.
"Where is it?"
"There was a chapel built on the reservation, long before the administrators handed the land over as a gift. We hear that many such stolen artifacts are held there."
"They display them like trophies," Father Marcelino said.
"They are trophies," The Irishman said. "They are trophies of war. That hook may not have ever torn the flesh of Jesus Christ, but the headcounters draw power from it all the same. They draw power from the fact they took it, and they draw power from the fact that they get to keep it and nobody comes to take it back. Symbolism counts for everything in this war. To them, the hook is symbolic of their own strength and the weakness of the west. It symbolizes that they were men enough to take it, and we don't have enough self-respect to stand up for ourselves try and take it back.
"I expect you want us to reclaim this barb?"
Another soft smile, which was answer enough.
"Well, Fathers, it just so happens my boys and I still have unfinished business over there. We’ll head that way and if we find your relic, or somebody else’s relic, or anything else the headcounters have they ain’t supposed to, we’ll take it back.
"But we’d like you to come with us."
And so it went. When the rain fell from the sky, the armed men went back into the land of the headcounters. The kid and Chin rode in the back of one of the new trucks with Father Marcelino squeezed in between them. Nash drove, Greywald sat shotgun, and together they made up the point element in the attacking column. Greywald jumped out into the rain from time to time, and walk, guiding the truck along, past the fallen trees and the washouts and the places where mud spilled onto the road. The old fighter wore no coat to stave off the rain, only his gear, which was loaded with pouches full of magazines for his rifle.
"He’s just spoiling for a fight," Chin commented. The priest made the sign of the cross.
"The rain’s made him ornery," Nash said. The kid kept his mouth shut and his eyes open. More trucks stretched behind them. They only had their parking lights on, and those were hard to see the rain was so hard.
"We’ll be lucky if we don’t lose the road to a mudslide or a washout."
Father Marcelino made another sign.
"You think that’ll help," Chin asked.
"It will not hurt," Marcelino answered.
Greywald came back to the truck. He flung open the passenger side door and torrents of water came in. Everything inside was wet. Even the air was wet.
"How much further," Nash asked.
"We hit the gravel road in another half mile, after a mile of that it is hardball to the old main side and the chapel."
From up the side of the vehicle came the Irishman. The wind and the rain picked up, whipping and howling and heralding his approach. Streams of water cascaded down his bald head. He held his stick. Greywald repeated his report.
"You check that against a map?"
"Don’t need no map. I spent a lot of time out in this land, back before we gave it away. Your plan is to just go and roll up on them?" Greywald asked. Despite the rain, he had his sleeves cuffed just below the elbow and his tattoo showed. The Irishman pointed at the ink with the head of his cane.
"Took you six months to learn to do a raid properly. We don’t have six months. And I expect with the weather such as it is, we’ll catch them by surprise."
"Well," Greywald paused to look up into the downpour and get a good look. "It is good raidin’ weather. Perfect raiding weather." He grinned like some demonic thing the priests would rather not see.
"Let’s get moving."
The convoy got moving again. Forty men. Less than a dozen trucks. They bounced and jostled. They got moving only to come to a screeching halt again, jumbling upon each other in the mud and the rain and the misery. Stretching open and closing again like an accordion. If the weather was an annoyance, the movement was unbearable.
"The longest half-mile in history," Angus said to himself.
"Goddamn," Chin said when they came to another halt, oblivious to the priest between him and the kid. It took over an hour to make the next half mile, but when they got to the gravel track it was a blessing. When they got to the paved road that ran through the reservation, it was like a miracle.
"We’ll be there in three minutes," Greywald told the Irishman by means of a cell phone.
"Go," The Irishman responded. "Go. Get there. Get there."
The engine revved angrily. Nash flashed the headlights on. Pale light, pale as death washed out against the downpour. Beyond the truck lights there existed only blackness containing shadows and forms. The kid saw no humans, just night and rain and apocalyptic darkness. He checked his watch. It was 3am. 0300 to men like the tattooed Greywald. He worked the action on his rifle.
"Up ahead," Greywald called. Out of the darkness loomed the chapel, white against the black, with a roof of red tile. The cross long since cast down.
"Time to go to work," Greywald shouted. Nash slammed on the breaks. The truck skidded to a stop. A second truck behind them skidded too, brakes screaming. Men shouted.
They went to work.
Greywald was the first out of the truck. He moved in a flash, and before anyone else could get out he was through the rain and at the chapel. After two kicks to its locked front doors, the chapel abandoned any resistance and let him in.
"Stay here with me," Nash ordered Father Marcelino. Another truck skidded to a stop as Chin and the kid followed Greywald into the chapel. The white beams of weapon-lights played through the interior's darkness. Thunder boomed. Men shouted.
The kid entered and was stopped in his tracks by a wall of stench so overpowering as to be physically solid. Chin came up behind him and gagged.
"Fucking… smells… dead," Chin choked out.
The inside of the chapel did smell like death. The kid coughed and pushed into the thick, sickly sweet stink. The interior was a disaster. Half the pews were stacked against a wall. The other half were turned over. All the trappings of the Christian faith were knocked down and ripped asunder. Garbage was everywhere. Greywald was already across the small chapel, at the old alter and sweeping his weapon back and forth for threats the whole way.
"Search in here," Greywald called back. Ahead of him was a door leading deeper into the building.
"Don’t go in there alone," Chin called back, but Greywald was already gone. More men came in, both with floodlights. The switches on the wall did not work and so white and yellow light from flashlights and floodlights and weapon-lights danced across the interior. The kid looked about. He saw heaps of uneaten food left to rot. He saw an open 5 gallon tin of cooking oil gone rancid. He saw piles of human feces fuzzy with mold, and piles of old papers covered in scribbles he could not decipher. In one corner he saw the desiccated body of a dead dog and lumps that must have been her puppies. The chapel once had had a series of stained glass windows. Those had been smashed out and now black mold ran thick across the stills. He saw all this ruin and desecration, but he saw no relics.
Outside the chapel, two shots rang out in quick succession. The men inside froze. After a long pause, no further gunfire erupted and so they went back to searching.
"Dry hole," somebody said. "Ain’t nothing here but junk."
"Search anyway, you fucking shitbirds," Greywald yelled back from deeper inside the chapel.
The kid tossed about the junk and trash, the filth and the mold, and at each disturbance new pungent stenches filled his mouth and nose. He could taste the filth. A man gagged. Outside came another gunshot and then more yelling. The Irishman strode through the entryway. An electric blue slash of lightning backlit his lank form.
"You want us to search those buildings over there," The Adjutant asked. He was at his master's heels like a puppy. He pointed to what looked like old administrative buildings. They were white with red-tiled roofs, they looked as abandoned as the church.
"Burn them," The Irishman replied. He hefted his stick and moved through the masses toiling through the waste. Both men and filth seemed to part before him as if he were divine.
Greywald’s voice came again from deeper inside the chapel’s interior.
"I got something here."
Angus and Chin sprang up and went towards the voice, happy for any excuse to run away from the filth. More men tried to break but the Irishman snapped at them and they returned to searching.
They found Greywald in a small room that must have once served as the chaplain’s office. In the center of the room were several long black duffle bags. When the Irishman came in, Greywald unzipped one and revealed its contents.
"Is it the barb?" Father Marcelino asked. He stood behind the Irishman with a cloth pressed to his face, and he bobbed his head to see past the tall chieftain.
"Something better," The Irishman answered.
Inside the bag were weapons. There were carbines and shotguns, all listed as property of the United States Government. There were pistols marked as property of the state’s highway patrol. There were dark baseball-like orbs topped with fuses and spoons and pull rings. There were magazines for everything, and optics and pieces of night vision equipment, their accessories scattered throughout the enormous duffle bags. And in the center of all these instruments of death sat the prize, the Holy Grail of this expedition. This treasure was a convex rectangle of green plastic. Raised letters on its face read this:
FRONT TOWARDS ENEMY
"That’s mine," Greywald yelled.
"The hell you say," The Irishman called back. Before anybody could protest or claim it for themselves the Irishman snatched up the green plastic trophy and tucked it into his coat.
"Prisoners," Came the next yell. "I’ve got prisoners down here." The voice came from further in the chapel, and what sounded like down.
"You’ve taken prisoners or you found some prisoners," Greywald asked.
"I’ve got prisoners! I’ve got prisoners!"
Greywald’s face twisted with frustration. He yelled again. "Did you capture some prisoners, or did you find a prisoner?" There was a long pause. The Irishman and Greywald, Chin and the kid, the priests and the others waited breathlessly for the reply. After an eternity it finally came.
"I’ve got prisoners! I’ve got prisoners!"
"Fucking clown show," Greywald cursed. "Jesus," Chin blasphemed, oblivious to the priests standing next to him.
"Go unfuck that," The Irishman asked Greywald with a smirk. The kid noticed the empathy in the chieftain’s voice, as if he’d dealt with such frustrations many times before. Outside the office windows, a dull orange light rose against the dark grey sheets of rain. Buildings outside were being put to the torch.
"You two come with me," Greywald said to Chin and the kid. They moved deeper into the chapel. Behind them, men snatched up the duffels and took them out to the parked trucks. After shouts and searches, they found a set of stairs leading down to the basement. There, a half dozen men stood around the "prisoners." The "prisoners," was really just one, "prisoner," and he wasn’t really a prisoner at all.
"He ain’t no prisoner. He’s fucking retarded," Chin announced.
The others had found a man chained to the wall in the basement. He was clothed in rags and his face covered with drool and slobber. His dark eyes had a joyful brightness to them. He smiled at the armed men and made a series of low moans that conveyed happiness. At his feet were two stainless steel bowls. One held water. The other held a stinking brown paste dotted with grains of white rice. The kid could not tell if it was food or offal. The room smelled of urine.
"He ain’t no prisoner," Greywald drawled.
"But he’s all chained up," someone protested.
"He’s chained up ‘cause he's feeble-minded."
"Why would they chain him up here for that?"
"Because they’re headcounters, and that’s what headcounters do."
"He’s fucking retarded," Chin declared again. Greywald spun around and looked at the young Chin sourly.
"Was that really necessary?"
"Sorry," Chin said, cowed into submission by the older, bearded warrior. As the armed men stood around in their most successful enactment of a cluster-fuck, the moron grinned a wet slobbery grin. He was happy just to have human company. His bright, dark eyes fell on the kid. The eyes windowed a soul both loving and vapid. The moron smiled brighter and let out a loud, idiot guffaw.
"What do we do?"
"We could just shoot him," somebody offered. Greywald looked at that man, his look even sourer than the one he just gave Chin.
"We’re not shooting him."
"Then what do we do?"
"Unchain him. Do it and quit fucking around. We’re here for raiding, not for standing around with our peckers in our hands."
They shot the moron's chains. The simpleton cringed at the cracks of gunfire, and once he realized he was free, he ran to a corner and cowered there, screaming in fear. His shrieks were so loud they were painful.
"What do we do now?"
"We get back to work," Greywald answered.
"What about him?"
"What about him? He’ll figure it out."
"But he’s just… He’s just there in the corner."
"For fuck’s sake," Greywald shouted. "You wanted to shoot him a minute ago. You fuckers are worse than boots. We ain’t got time for this shit. Get upstairs. Get back to work. Fucking fucktarded fuckers!"
Greywald reverted back to his NCO roots, and, with a series of profanities, each louder and more imaginative than the last, he broke up the gaggle of men and got them focused back on their mission. Chin, the kid, and Greywald were the last out of the basement. They left the moron behind. At the top of the stairs Greywald stopped in his tracks.
"Shit," the old man cursed.
"What? What is it," Chin asked. But the kid already knew.
"It’s stopped raining."
The kid came up out of the basement and into the chapel. The rain had stopped, and its noise was replaced with a loud and ominous silence. There was something more. Light poured in through the smashed chapel windows. It was disorienting. Some of the light was swirling and orange. Other light was soft and yellow. The kid had to pause to get his bearings, all the while his nostrils protested against the stink of garbage and mildew and decay. His mind wrapped around the situation, and he could see that the wavering orange light came not from the sun, but from buildings outside, buildings the other men had put to the torch.
Greywald cursed. Then he cursed again when the dreadful silence was pierced.
The call came out over a public address system. It came out warbly, distorted. There was a tinny sound to it, but that tinny sound did nothing to mask the hatred in the call. The headcounters were using the public address system they used to call worshippers to prayer. But this was not a call to prayer. It was a call to arms.
"Shit," Greywald cursed again. The kid listened to the angry syllables flooding into his ears. He could not understand the words, but he caught the speaker’s meaning. Invaders had entered the land of the headcounters, and the headcounters wanted them dead.
"Shit," Greywald cursed one more time for good measure. Father Marcelino appeared at his arm.
"Did you find the relic, captain?" the Priest asked.
"Not at all," Greywald spat. He ran out of the chapel, carbine in hand. Chin looked at the kid and shrugged. Then came gunfire and the screams of rockets.
A barrage hit the east-facing wall of the chapel. It was only a scattering of bullets and a pair of rockets. The first rocket thudded against the wall but did not detonate. The second missed the building entirely. That meager fusillade was enough. The men inside dropped. A man threw himself flat into a slimy pile of oozing rot. Chin and the kid ducked and when the incoming paused, Chin took the kid by the arm and ran outside.
"We stayed on the X too long," Chin said. They left the chapel and things outside were just as confused as they were inside. Greywald shouted at one group of men who stood idle, gaping at the gunfire coming from the east. The Adjutant shouted at another group of men clustered around a bonfire that once was a building. Father Marcelino shouted at Father Gerard who stood smiling and looking as pleasant as if he were strolling through a rose garden. The voice on the PA shouted at the headcounters to defend the faith, and another rocket-propelled grenade screamed in from the east, thudded against an oak tree, and dropped unexploded to the ground.
"They ain’t pulling their arming pins," Greywald explained. "Looks like it is amateur hour all-around."
A burst of automatic weapons fire crackled the air above their heads. Chin and the kid ducked instinctively and scrambled to a nearby truck. When the firing paused they popped their head up again. A man sat in the truck's driver seat, trying to get the engine to turn over.
"I left the lights on when we stopped," The driver explained with a grin. "Battery’s dead."
"You’ll be dead if you don’t get it started," The Chin replied. The driver maintained his bright grin. Greywald reappeared.
"C’mon you two. Headcounters are coming down the road. We need to get some security. I need your rifles."
Chin and the kid both nodded. Greywald looked at the truck and the struggling driver.
"He left his lights on. Battery’s dead."
Greywald’s face went red. His jaw clenched. Veins on the side of his neck and across his forehead grew and pulsed, but the man said nothing. He only looked at the driver with burning disapproval. He had less foolish people to yell at.
Chin and the kid found a depression in the ground near an east-west running road that connected the chapel with what must have been the headcounter’s center maybe 500 meters distant. As the sun rose, squat, cement buildings emerged out of the darkness. Armed headcounters buzzed about the buildings like bees at a kicked hived.
“Wait here, and don’t let them come down the road,” Greywald ordered. Then he disappeared.
"You think we can hold them off?" Chin asked, his tone more pleasant than their situation suggested.
"I think we’re riding point on a fuck-up," The kid said.
Behind them came a roar. They both turned and saw a burning building list to one side and then collapse. Orange cinders jumped into the air. One man cheered. Others followed suit. Greywald cursed, trying to move men away from torching buildings and towards the threat massing down the road. Without a sound, the Irishman appeared behind Chin and the kid.
"What'd y'all think?"
The kid took a quick look down the road before answering. He guessed there were maybe fifty armed headcounters there, milling about for now. Shooting, and shooting wild, but not daring to advance, at least not yet.
"I think we best high tail it before we get smoked."
"Yes," The Irishman agreed. "We’ve stayed a bit longer than is prudent. But I’d like to kill a few before we leave."
"You think they’ll attack up the road, boss?"
"On a long enough timeline, I have no doubt."
A new howl rose up from behind them. It was an animalistic sound that made them all turn. The freed idiot had come up from his basement cell and now stood in the sunlight. His newfound freedom was a delight. He celebrated it with wild shouts of moronic delight, oblivious to the chaos that swirled all about him.
"At least he’s happy," Greywald grumbled as he approached. His mood had soured further as the tactical situation deteriorated. "This raid is a goat-fuck boss."
"It’s not been without its flaws. You miss your time on the mew yet?"
"Never knew how good I had it."
"Gimme a skirmish line up here. I want to kill a few before we go."
“I’m working on it. I’m about to give that moron a carbine. He’s probably got more commonsense than half this militia.”
Greywald faced the headcounters about half a kilometer away. He raised his rifle, aimed, and fired once. A half-second later he fired again and a fraction of a second after that a headcounter collapsed. The other headcounters scattered into the underbrush that lined the road.
"That good enough?" Greywald asked.
"Can you kill maybe a dozen more?" the Irishman asked.
"Sure, if it’ll get us the fuck out of here."
The Adjutant appeared next. More people drifted to the kid and Chin’s position, hoping to hold court with the Irishman. As often seemed the case, the Adjutant did not speak but was spoken to.
"Burn everything you can. We’re getting out of here." In the background, Greywald’s rifle cracked. In response, a headcounter ran out across the road. He’d removed the stock from his rifle and fired it as he ran as if it were a great pistol. A burst of automatic fire tore up the turf 100 yards short of their position. Chin and the kid fired back. They caught him just before he made it across, and the man spun around once and disappeared into the brush. The Adjutant ran off to burn more things. The two priests were next.
"Did you find the relic?" Father Marcelino asked again, still hopeful.
"Nope," The Irishman answered.
Greywald shot a headcounter with an RPG. The rocket shot from its tube and skidded down the blacktop road before veering off into the bushes and leaving a trail of blue-gray smoke.
"You ordered your man to burn everything. You don’t mean to burn the chapel too?"
"I mean to burn everything."
Father Marcelino gasped and gestured to the small chapel. "But it is a house of God."
"Not if the headcounters get to keep it, it won’t be. And we can’t take it with us."
Father Gerard stepped forward and in front of his younger companion, cutting him off.
"There is a cross inside. Let us take the cross," Father Gerard asked.
"You can take whatever you can fit into the back of a truck, but anything that ain’t coming with us gets the torch."
Father Gerard nodded and then both priests ran back into the chapel. A rifle shot snapped overhead. Then another. Then a burst of automatic fire that went on for an uncomfortable amount of time but did no damage the kid could see. Down the long road, in the vicinity of the gray cement buildings, the kid saw more headcounters buzzing about. The Irishman's men buzzed too. They tried to set the buildings alight, but the wet weather, the buildings' tile roofs, and cement construction, and the lack of any fuel for the fire frustrated them. The only solution they could find was to use the spare fuel cans in the trucks. They first tried to use their gas sparingly. When that didn't work, they doused everything with all the spare fuel they had and threw the empty cans in after. Soon anything that could burn, burned. The wetness from the rain caused everything to smoke heavily and soon great gray clouds of it whirled about, kept low to the ground by the moist air, and it swirled and roiled with the heat of the fires. With nothing left to put to the torch, the Irishman’s men lined up along the road and fired towards the massed headcounters.
Chin jumped up, a smile on his face, momentarily oblivious to the bullets zipping and snapping past his head. "I need to get a picture of that," He declared, and he rooted through one of the many pouches that made up his gear. The kid turned. Behind him, the two priests carried the chapel’s cross out to one of the waiting trucks. Marcelino held the long end of the cross and Father Gerard carried the top end. Because Father Gerard was so much taller, it looked as if they were about to plant the end of the cross into the ground and raise it up. It reminded the kid of that famous picture of Marines raising the American flag during World War II. Behind and all around the two priests and their cross, fires raged, so that their background was nothing but flames and it looked as if the two holy men were planting the cross in hell itself. It was a fine picture, and the kid paused to admire it until an RPG landed not far in front of him. This time it exploded.
"The motherfuckers learned to pull their pins," Greywald cursed. "We need to get the hell out of here."
"How many did you shoot?" The Irishman asked.
"Enough that we can go now."
"Ok." the Irishman smiled. "Collapse this perimeter and let’s get going."
A man let out a whoop of delight and the kid saw they got the dead truck running again. Another man struggled to disconnect the jumper cables. He ran with them a few steps, then the cables tangled around his legs and he tumbled to the ground. All around this mess, the fires churned and eddied, and the idiot still ran about, prancing and laughing
The Adjutant shouted and men ran back to their trucks. Greywald shouted and cursed and the men ran faster. Even Nash leaned out of the driver’s window and shouted. Chin snapped pictures and the cross made it into the back of a truck. Flames danced and another RPG exploded. The freed idiot ran wild and rifle bullets snapped overhead, and the kid looked up at the Irishman who stood calmly admiring his handiwork.
"Did we ever find the relic," the kid asked. The Irishman turned and looked down. He arched a hairy white eyebrow. Over the din of the chaos he had not heard the question, so the kid shouted it again over the roar of another inbound RPG. The Irishman heard it this time. He smiled and knelt down next to the kid.
"I came here for no other reason than to just raid and punish these fellas. I wanted to walk in here and burn their stuff and break their things. I wanted to dance in here, kill a few of them and dance back out, as pretty as you please, and leave these bastards knowing that I can do it again and there is nothing they can do to stop me.
"The raid is a language these headcounters understand. It is their preferred form of warfare, and they are good at it too. Especially when their enemy is unarmed and can't fight back. They can attack by surprise, kill some unarmed defenders, and run off with the women and children like the desert bandits that sired them. But put them against an armed defense, put them up against folks who can fight back, and they die in place every time. Then their raids become suicide missions. And that's really all they can do. It's one or the other. They can fight against the helpless and win, or they can fight against real fighters and die. That is all they got. That's all they can do.
"We can do more. We can come in here, go toe-to-toe with them as long as we want, kill them, leave when we want, and they can’t do a thing to stop us. We don’t do suicide missions because we don’t have to do suicide missions. We can fight and survive. We can fight and win. When it comes to fighting, for all their bluster about loving death, we are better at killing than they are. We’re better at war than they are. We are, and it seems like every 500 years or so we have to remind them of that fact."
The Irishman's lips twisted a little. He thought and then spoke a final thought. "We don't have to give in to them. We can defeat them. We just need to believe we can."
“Yes,” Angus said, still looking up at the Irishman. “But did we find the hook?”
The Irishman smiled and tussled the kid’s hair. “No. We didn’t.”
Greywald and the Adjutant had collapsed the perimeter. All the men were back in their trucks and most of the trucks were leaving. Smoke swirled. The giant wooden cross poked out of a truck bed. Greywald leaned out of the passenger window and yelled.
"We’re all loaded up. C’mon."
The Irishman clapped the kid on the shoulder.
"The next time I come here, the next time I don’t want it to be a raid. The next time I come here I want to clean them out for good. No more pissing around. Next time we drive them into the sea. C’mon desperado. Let’s go."
He and the kid climbed into their trucks. The kid hadn’t even closed his door before Nash spun the truck around and sped to the dirt roads that would take them back across the Scimitar River and to safety. They were the last truck in the convoy. The kid turned around and saw what they’d left behind.
Smoke filled the sky, and the flames devoured everything the Irishman's company had captured. The chapel, blazing now, leaned to one side before imploding and casting a bee swarm of embers into the smoke-blackened sky. Rifle bullets snapped and cracked, and RPG rounds screamed in before exploding. The enemy's loudspeakers broadcast blathering angry rants. Amid this cacophony of fire and violence, the idiot they’d freed ran wild. He ran in crazed circuits, waving his arms, drooling, smiling and laughing, screaming in joyous and undecipherable babbles. His dark, glossy eyes shined against the smoke, reveling in his freedom and oblivious to all else in the universe.
And so, the kid left the land of the Headcounters.
He knew full well he’d return again.
[Last Edit: sharkman6]
After the Irishman's latest excursion into the land of the headcounters, the usual grandees responded in their usual fashion. All their narratives were quickly dashed, however, due in large parts to the picture, and the girls' school.
Before the picture, and before the girls’ school, the media came alive with the same faces brightening the same shows and saying the same things they always said. The violence occurring in this small corner of California had nothing to do with religion and culture on the part of the headcounters, but everything to with the religion and culture of those from "The West." Past acts of violence committed by the headcounters, while seemingly widespread, were actually peculiarities, exceptions to the larger rule of a culture of peace. The acts of violence committed against the headcounters were representative of the racism and intolerance of Western Culture as a whole. And while these attacks seemed fewer in number to the average, and ignorant, westerner, atrocities committed against headcounters were underreported. The underreporting could be attributed to the headcounters' fear of Western intolerance, lack of sensitivity, and a fear of repercussions. Thus, a single attack by Westerners against headcounters in "truth" represented hundreds of attacks that had gone unreported. But the hundreds of reported attacks by the headcounters were simply random acts, connectable only in that they were noble and understandable responses to the intolerance of the same Western audiences the media grandees lectured to.
Then the Chin’s picture of the cross went viral.
Chin claimed to have never posted the photo online, but every time he spoke this the kid and the others looked upon him with no small amount of doubt. Regardless, the picture went out for the whole world to see. The lack of context worked in favor of the Irishman and those partial to his cause. The image showed two priests pulling a cross out of a chapel, a burning chapel, a burning chapel that most viewers assumed had been torched by the headcounters. And why wouldn’t they assume that? At this point most media consumers could remember the stories of headcounters burning churches elsewhere; across Africa, the Middle East, in the Balkans, in the chaotic region of the ‘Stans, across Western Europe where the twin religions of multiculturalism and tolerance demanded human sacrifices upon their alters.
Decades of received wisdom was no longer being received. The grandees (who knew no more about the incident than those they lectured to) claimed the burning of the chapel was an aberration. But how could it be an aberration if the headcounters were destroying churches everywhere from Afghanistan to Zanzibar? They claimed these events had nothing to do with religion. But how could they have nothing to do with religion if holy grounds were being put to the torch? In the picture, there were clearly two priests holding a cross. How could this have nothing to do with religion when priests were wading through hellish flames to rescue the symbol of their faith?
Media Grandees then tried to parry these obvious questions with counteraccusations. "We, the collective west attack their places of worship all the time," they said. Americans were not only unconvinced but they were also insulted. "Where are all these holy places I'm supposed to have attacked?" they asked. "We've been sitting on our couches, too busy being hectored by you for our intolerance to engage in arson." One network ran a multi-hour special report detailing that special phobia of the Western world. The talking head flashed her puppy-dog eyes and shot sympathetic looks to a host of leaders amongst America's headcounter community. They in turn described with great emotion how peaceful their vibrant and noble culture was. Then they wailed about the insults they had to endure since immigrating to the West. They wept and agonized about all the microaggressions thrust upon them. The slights and rude behaviors most Westerners saw as simply the cost of getting out of bed in the morning were portrayed by the headcounter scholars as proof positive that it was open season on the headcounters. All the while, in the background the same half dozen images of spray paint epitaphs on headcounter schools were recycled; equating the vandal’s graffiti to the raider’s torch.
The public remained unconvinced. The same network that showed daily atrocities committed by the headcounters seemed to be saying that the headcounters weren’t committing atrocities, that if they were committing atrocities it was justified because some headcounters felt offended by the culture of the Western World, a world the headcounters immigrated into while simultaneously rejecting. The incongruities were obvious and when ordinary people pointed them out the same tired old epitaphs were thrown out. But those barbs landed with less and less sting. The public was asking what they felt were simple and legitimate questions, and they wanted more from the grandstanding media masters than, "It’s all your fault."
Then there was the attack on the girls’ school.
Armed men in America attacked headcounters in America. Naturally, the headcounters responded to this aggression by attacking a school for little girls in the Philippines. A band of some 50 headcounters stormed into a remote school in the Philippines for Christian girls. The staff and faculty were killed outright. Some girls, the lucky ones perhaps, had their throats slit after enduring brutal gang rapes by men wearing black masks and swaddled in black robes. The others were paraded out of the school and taken into the headcounters' underground sex slave markets. As always, all of this was captured on video and broadcast proudly for the whole world to see. "Submit to our will or die," a masked spokesman wielding a crude knife said at the end. The blood of innocent girls stained his curved blade and loose clothes.
Perhaps more sickening than the actual atrocities was the response from the 'leaders' of the Western World. Their response was predictable, juvenile, and ineffectual. It started when the First Lady held up a hand-drawn sign on an old paper bag. The crudely written letters read, "Stop the Rape." It was further adorned with symbols linking it to the latest social media fad. It did not say, "Stop the rapes committed by the headcounters in the name of their religion." Nor did it say, "Stop the headcounters' underground sex slave rings." It just said, "Stop the Rape," as if an armed and organized band of headcounters sacking and raping a Christian school for girls was no different than an individual committing rape on the streets of any town USA. Politicians and celebrities followed the First Lady's lead, holding up hand-drawn signs of their own and flashing peace signs or sticking out their tongues or making goofy faces. The goal seemed far less about ending rape and far more about posting a picture of oneself online to satiate the narcissistic gods of social media. The headcounters were waging war to spread their culture and religion. The western world's leadership took selfies to satisfy their own egos. And so it went.
And of course, the narratives from the apologists were as swift and as predictable as all the times before. If bigoted men in America attacked the headcounters, it was both logical and completely understandable that headcounters halfway around the world should rape and murder innocent girls. The rape, murder, and enslavement of innocent girls was unfortunate, but the real tragedy would be if the Western World flinched in its unending quest for multiculturalism, diversity, and tolerance. While heinous acts such as these occurred almost daily, and while it was no secret that many headcounters approved of such acts, and furthermore, while it was no secret that the headcounters still practiced slavery in general and sex slavery in particular, it still could not be denied that the headcounters were peaceful in nature and the attack on the school did not accurately represent the nobility of that culture. And had not Western religions committed heinous acts in the past? If the West had been brutal in the past, then it was only logical and fair that they should quietly and passively accept the headcounters’ brutality now. Right? Not right, not as far as public opinion was concerned.
The polling companies in the United States conducted their polls, and what they found was something more shocking than the rapes and murders and mutilations of the young girls. What they found was that people were getting tired. They were tired of seeing the headcounters commit atrocities and get away with it. They were tired of being lectured at by grandees who told them that the headcounters weren’t committing any violence and even if they were, their victims, and by extension the whole western world, probably deserved it anyway. The results were kept hidden, never publicized, but they were there. The winds of public opinion shifted. Men who were perceptive enough and ambitious enough could harness this wind and ride it to glory.
That’s when the bagman arrived.
The grass grew wild between the rundown buildings and around the derelict farm equipment. The grass grew tall and yellow, and it wavered in the wind which also cast about gray dust, like a clergyman with his censer. The place was once a farm. That was before the water went away.
Once the water flowed into this area, bringing life to crops and food to people. But the administrators took the water away. First, they took water to go to the cities. Then they took water to give back to nature. They then took water and gave it to other parts of the state so they could sell it back and forth to each other in a scheme so byzantine it could only be corrupt. Finally, the administrators took the last of the water and gave it to the headcounters, as if they had not given them enough already. Without water, this farm died, like so many other farms in the region. Now the farm served as the cantonment area of the Irishman's company. It was here that the bagman found them.
The bagman came in a convoy of black SUVs. He also came with money, cases of it. He was tall, with dark, slicked-back hair and the face of a movie star. The bodyguards who flanked him were equally good-looking, with chiseled features and slick-looking clothes to match their slick-looking submachine guns.
"They look like a bunch of G-men, just with better suits and sunglasses," Nash said.
"I wouldn’t mind having one of those submachine guns," Chin said.
"You don’t need no more gear."
¬"Who’s he working for anyway," The kid asked.
"He’s working for the Stockman," Greywald answered. "And everybody knows who the Stockman is."
Chin whistled with appreciation. Nash sucked at his teeth.
"Who’s the Stockman," the Kid asked.
Somebody produced a magazine. On its cover, with its trademark red border, was a picture of the Stockman. White teeth gleamed between a snow-white cowboy hat and a gold belt buckle.
"There’s a dude if I ever saw one."
"The Stockman is from up north," Nash started. "He made his money the same way his daddy did, writing programs for computers and cell phones and such. The cowboy getup came later, so don’t let the hat and boots fool you."
"They didn’t," Angus said dryly. Not hearing, Nash continued.
"He’s a rich guy, so he married a rich girl, some Mexican heiress whose family is into horses and ranches and such. After him and the senorita got hitched, he started wearing them duds and calling himself ‘The Stockman.’ His real name’s Gary. If he’s a cowboy, it’s only of the Rhinestone variety."
"He’s rich though," Chin added. There was a degree of hopefulness in his voice. Greywald, who sat on a stack of moldering hay bales, chewed a piece of grass. His hands cleaned a pistol. His motions were precise and thoughtless. He could have been a robot built for the task. His eyes squinted against the sun, never leaving the bagman.
"Damn straight he’s rich," Nash said with gusto. You know that east-west running valley by Banos? The one where they grew tomatoes before they took all the water away. Well, him and his wife were riding horses out there one day and word is she said something about how it reminded her of back home in Mexico, so next thing you know he up and buys the whole damn valley. Just buys a whole valley, on a whim. Farms and everything, bought ‘em all out. Just so his wife could ride her horses there when she gets the fancy. Damn if that ain’t rich."
Greywald spat out into the dust, his disapproval apparent. "He ain't rich. Rich people buy mansions and fancy-ass cars. He's more than rich. He's buying himself his own war. People like that are more than just rich. They're ambitious."
"What’s he giving us money for?" The kid asked.
"Why d’ya think," Chin asked. "He wants us to take down the headcounters."
"Don’t believe it," Greywald said. His tone was gravelly and ominous. "He don’t give a hoot about the headcounters and he sure as hell don’t give a hoot about you or me or folks like us.
"The only reason he’s giving us money is cuz he’s running for state senate. The only reason he’s running for state senate is cuz he wants to be governor. And the only reason he wants to be governor is cuz he really wants to be president."
Greywald spat again. "That money comes with a price."
"If that’s the case then what are we taking it for? The Irishman’s got money."
Greywald didn’t look at Chin, but he shook his head.
"He ain’t got that kinda money. He sold his business, took out another mortgage on his house, all to keep this operation viable."
Chin’s eyes went wide. Greywald nodded solemnly, affirming both his previous statement and the Irishman’s commitment.
"You think all that food we put into your mouth, the fuel we put in the trucks and the ammo we put into your rifle comes for free. No sir. There’s more to fighting a war than just guns and warm bodies to pull the triggers. You need ideas. You need plans and strategies. You need stuff of all types and more stuff to fix that stuff and even more stuff to move that stuff all around. You need the people to move and fix the stuff, and those people need their own stuff. And of course, you need the gunfighters and their guns and everything else that goes with that. But most of all, more than anything else, you need money."
"And if it is blood money?" The kid asked.
Greywald glared at the farmhouse, his mood apocalyptic. He spat.
"You want to win a war, you're going to have to break an egg or two."
"I think you're mixing metaphors," Chin said with a smile.
"Fuck off," Greywald said.
The Irishman came out of the house with the bagman and his entourage. The kid and his companions watched as a few words were exchanged on the sagging porch. Without much fanfare, the bagman and his men climbed back into their SUVs and drove off, leaving their capital and a cloud of dust.
The kid could not help but notice that when the Irishman and the bagman parted company, they did not shake hands.
With the money came better food and a new pair of boots. For a young soldier like Angus, that was wealth beyond any ambitions and a level of comfort just this side of the divine.
After the bagman left, two men named Pratt and something Polish that inevitably degenerated down to ‘Ski,’ took off. They returned that evening with a panel truck full of food. Somebody produced a giant smoker made out of a repurposed tank as long as a man was tall. Men set to work, cooking chow under the open sky, hot heaping amounts of it. These were working men, men tied to an agrarian sector. Their food reflected it. Meats. Beans. Bread. All brown and hot and plenty of it. They gobbled it up, plate after plate of it. The men and the meal represented a corner of California seldom seen and less appreciated. They didn't hail from the Golden State metropolises. They came from the dry plains. The foothills. The uninspired interior. No glitz or glamour here. These people didn't produce daytime talk shows. They didn't compose code. They didn't write articles with titles that included phrases like, "Top Ten Ways," or "One Weird Trick." These men worried about things like the price of gas, the price of lumber, when the next rain might come, how they were going to meet payroll. They didn't have the twin luxuries of affluence and leisure. They didn't agonize over who wore whom to a gala they'd never be invited to, or what some person they'd never meet posted about another person they'd never meet. They were Californians not so much forgotten as ignored. They represented not just a state that ignored them, but a country that ignored them. But they kept the whole thing running. They paid the taxes and enlisted in the services. They fought the wars and grew the food. They harvested and mined, pumped oil, and drove trucks, and fixed whatever broke. And they were hated for it.
The kid sat cross-legged in the dirt with a paper plate in his lap and another at his side. Both were piled high with chicken, brisket, baked beans, coleslaw, bread drowned in garlic butter. A fire-team of unopened soda cans guarded his flank, ready to be called into action. The kid set upon the food with the ravenous appetite of a young man, devouring thousands of calories that would seem to go nowhere.
Greywald approached while the kid had a mouth full of beans and brisket sauce decorating his chin.
"What size boot you wear?"
The kid swallowed.
"Why do you want to know?"
"Maybe I'll get you a new pair. Or maybe I’ll get you a roll of duct tape to stretch a few more miles out of those. Your attitude. Your choice."
The kid looked down at his boots. They were cracked, sporting holes, and looked like they might just disintegrate at any moment, leaving behind only the stocking feet of a young man left with nothing. Angus gave a number. Greywald stalked off to complete his latest mission, a scowl on his face, his whole being driven by anger converted to purposeful energy that all great non-commissioned officers were able to tap into.
The next morning the new boots arrived. Angus put them on his feet and sacrificed the old pair in a bonfire some hands set as they waited for the coffee to brew. They watched the highway. They saw a police rig drive slowly past the farm. The chief was watching them, not that she would do anything. An armed raid on the encampment would result in gunplay and death, for both parties. There was no denying that outcome. No law enforcement officer was keen on enforcing the law, not when the stakes were so high as to be mortal. Besides, there were plenty of law-abiding citizens to cite and fine, an endeavor more profitable and less hazardous than confronting the armed, organized, and self-confident.
By midday, an old ambulance rolled into the camp. A peeling decal on its side bore the letters, "A.M.R." in fading vinyl.
"The Irishman is going to have it converted into a chuck wagon," Nash announced proudly. The kid nodded, appreciating what that meant.
Not long after a pickup arrived. New sleeping bags filled the bed. Most of the men had their own bedrolls, but those were meager pieces of kit compared to what lay in the truck. Chin of course came with the latest and greatest sleeping bag but was quick to grab a new one. He was a crow. New bits of kit were his shiny bits of junk.
Another feast took place that night; pulled pork, venison chili, fried chicken, and on. The kid ate two plates and then ate two more. A coat of talcum-fine dust settled over one plate and slowed his appetite not a bit. Along with the food he knocked down a half-dozen sodas.
After the food went away and the moon came out, he and chin sat on bales of hay and watched the stars. The celestial bodies made their transverse across the blue-black sky, heedless of the tiny world of men.
Greywald approached soundlessly. When he got to the haybales he stopped and looked up at the stars too. The starlight brought out the gray in the old warrior's beard. He wore old military boots, worn jeans, and an old t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. Perched on his head was a baseball cap, and perched on that a pair of sunglasses. Greywald chewed, but he wasn't eating. He wasn't using tobacco either. It was a tic, a physical act to go with whatever mental labors his mind was at. The kid watched Greywald, and Greywald watched the stars. Greywald had something to say. The kid wasn't in any hurry. He could be patient. He could be patient. His father had taught him that. When the time was right and the words were ready, Greywald spoke.
"We've been lucky. Both raids across the Scimitar were luck, luck that we came back across. We can't afford to be lucky. Men gotta know what they're doing in this game. A man doesn't know what he's about out there, fucks up, he gets the men next to him killed. That's the way it works.
"Won't be long before that Irishman takes us back across the Scimitar, but hard this time. People gotta know what they're doing. You younger guys need to know."
Greywald's eyes flashed down to Angus's and fixed there for what seemed a long while.
"You young guys need to know. Cuz' I ain't gonna be around forever."
Greywald looked back up at the stars, took them in for another moment, then stalked off into the darkness. Over his shoulder, he called, "We start training tomorrow."
Overhead the stars continued in their brilliance, heedless of all human beings whose lives were so finite that they might never have existed at all.
"How many football fields you figure are between you and the target?" Greywald asked. The older fighter knew the answer. He said up the shooting range himself. Angus was aimed in on a plate of scrap steel painted bright blue. Angus gave his answer.
"Uh-huh," Greywald answered. It was neither an affirmative nor a negative, just an acknowledgment he heard the kid. "How much of the front sight post does the target take up?"
The kid gave another answer and got another "Uh-huh," in reply.
"What do you figure on the wind?"
"Ain't none," the kid answered.
"Well, fire whenever you're ready."
The kid fired. A fraction of a second later the steel range.
"Nice shot," Chin said. And it was. The training Greywald set up over the past few days had been long and taxing, enough that Chin admitted his real name was Gary.
"Too late to change it. You're still Chin," Greywald said, and that was that.
The bearded fighter had them out every morning. It was like school, but longer hours and Angus found the classes more interesting. Greywald taught them how to shoot. He taught them how to stop the bleeding from bullet wounds. He taught them how to talk on the radio without making a mess of it. He taught them how to talk using only their hands and arms. He taught them how to shut up. Angus considered himself already an expert in that field, but he thought a lot of the other men could use some more lessons. After the sunset, Greywald taught them how to walk around in the dark as a group. He called that patrolling. It was largely walking around and shutting up.
Not everybody appreciated the lessons.
"What the hell do I got to do all this for?" A lot of the older men would ask. "I already know how to shoot, and I came here to kill headcounters."
"Cause you shoot poorly and you make too much noise," Greywald answered.
"I shoot good enough to take a buck every year."
"We ain't hunting deer."
Angus didn't mind the lessons and the training, but he also recognized he had nowhere else to go. Not everybody had the level of freedom. One evening, after they got done walking around and not talking, he overheard Greywald talking to the Irishman.
"The training's turning some of the recruits off. A bunch left this morning. They didn't take to your drills."
"The training's necessary," Greywald answered. "Last trips across were too fly-by-night for my tastes."
"Recruits are necessary. Without militiamen, we got no militia. These men joined up to fight. They didn't join up to drill."
"We're one fuckup away from getting massacred ourselves."
"And we're finally getting backed with real money."
"That ain't gonna matter if we don't know what we're doing."
"I told you this wasn't going to be like back on Pendleton. We ain't gonna get them to that level. These ain't young kids. Most of the men out here are looking at their prime years through the rearview mirror. They got families and mortgages, some of 'em anyway. They volunteered in and they can volunteer out." The Irishman poked at the ground with his stick a bit and said, "Holding this outfit together is a dicey thing. And time ain't on our side. We got enemies from here to DC and back again. The longer we're out here, the more likely it is we fall apart."
Greywald chewed on nothing. He asked, "How much longer before we can go in for good?"
"I got a few more things cooking," The Irishman said. "A few weeks maybe."
The Irishman poked at the ground with his stick again. "What I need is a better idea of what's across that river. Who? How many? Whose bringing in what? Their reservation goes all the way to the coast. How far back do the roads go? Clearing 'em out for good, that's going to be a lot of work."
"You want I should slip in there?"
"You still got it in you?" The Irishman asked.
"I do. Might take somebody with me."
"Three or four. One or two. More like one. We stick to the high country, up in the timber."
"Just one? You sure? That ain’t many."
“Two’s enough. No headcounters ain’t worth a shit in that high timber anyway.”
The Irishman snorted. “You never heard of Dagestan then.”
The Irishman snorted again. “Dagestan is like Afghanistan, only worse.”
“Nowhere is worse than Afghanistan.”
“Like I said, you never heard of Dagestan then.”
Greywald chewed. "I'm sure. I’d rather go in with one man who knows what he’s doing than three or four who don’t. And you said it. Time ain't on our side. The sooner we get to it, the better."
The next morning, Greywald approached the kid while the coffee was still brewing.
"Can you sit a horse?" he asked the kid.
"Gather up your kit. We’re heading out."
"To make a reconnaissance."
"What’s that mean?"
"We’re going to scout out the headcounters."
The kid nodded once and said no more. Chin beamed.
"Can I come too?"
"No. I need you to stay here with Nash and teach these people how to soldier."
"Nash was never a soldier."
"Neither were most of our recruits, so you two figure it out. You're in charge of training now." Chin smiled. Greywald didn't. Greywald added, "Next time we go in, we're going in for keeps."
Greywald turned to Angus. "C'mon."
Angus stood up and followed.
"One thing I’ve come to appreciate over my many years as governor of this state is the cultural contributions of our most marginalized communities. Despite the sufferings, they've endured at the hands of racism, and sexism, and patriarchy, and colonialism, and religious intolerance, and Judeo-Christian coercion, and hetero-normativism, and neo-hyper-capitalism, these communities have shined the brightest and sung the loudest. Their inclusion models our way. Their diversity swells our hearts.
“But now we stand on a precipice. Now we face what is the greatest threat our democracy has ever faced, ever. We must now join hand-in-hand, arm-in-arm with our neighbors who are the most preyed upon, most hated upon, most vulnerable group in our society, and we all know who it is I am talking about. And who I’m talking about is, ‘hashtag: How Great They Are.’”
"Take the current water crisis for example.
"Now, you know, things may be bad, but they would be far worse were it not for canals and aqueducts and dams built long ago to store and move water for the citizens of this state. And where did those come from? Some might say the Romans. But the Romans didn't build that. Those ideas of water management and aqueduct construction were stolen, as is so often the case, stolen by that most peaceful and accepting of all the religions. Just as all math and science and engineering were stolen. Stolen by the West from the East.
"Theirs is not just a religion of peace, it is a religion of life, and no reasonable person can argue against that.
"We need these people now more than ever. We need their enlightened culture to fix our roads, to enhance our schools. We need their expertise in the fields of math and science, the disciplines they created, to complete the high-speed rail project that will finally allow the citizens of our state to travel the way Californians were meant to travel.”
Greywald reached over and switched off the truck’s radio, just as the front tires hit a pothole and the whole rig swayed, the towed horse trailer listing before righting itself.
“The governor ain’t afraid of using big words,” the kid said. “I’m not sure what he’s saying, though.”
"He’s saying he likes the headcounters and he don’t like us. He’s also saying he feels bad about things but he ain’t gonna do anything about it. That’s what politicians like him always say. The headcounters ain’t the real enemy," Greywald grumbled. "The real enemy is our own weakness."
“I keep hearing that,” the kid said.
Ahead, besides the broken and potholed road, stood a brand-new billboard. Its face was a collage of smiles. Nothing at or above the nose. Nothing at or below the chin. Just as a collection of smiles running the full human spectrum of skin tones. Bold letters in the center of the collage proclaimed the government's newest catchphrase/diktat, "#How Great They Are."
“Wonder how much the governor paid for that sloganeering,” the kid said.
“Jokes on you,” Greywald replied. “He didn’t pay for that. Your tax dollars did.”
They stopped a few miles north of the headcounters' reservation, unloaded their horses, and rode in. Others drove the truck and horse trailer back to the Irishman's cantonment. It was just Greywald and the kid for the next several days.
“We need to see how deep their reservation goes, how far west the roads go. Do they go all the way to the ocean, or do they stop in the coastal range? That's the question we need to answer."
The kid grunted acknowledgment. He wouldn’t speak another word until breakfast this morning. They rode into the reservation of the headcounters.
The land they rode through was another part of the “Other California.” No beaches. No cities. No movie sets or studio stages. Foothills ascended into a coastal range, decorated with stands of timber that thickened the higher they climbed and the further west they rode. This was old government land. State land, Federal land. Military grounds and national forests. Now it was a gift to the headcounters, freely given by a government who never asked for consent from those it ostensibly governed. Neither the headcounters nor the ordinary people appreciated the gift. Still, the government sat smug and self-satisfied with its generosity.
They rode around the headcounters' towns and villages. They circled around to the north, cutting downhill from time to time to get a look into the long valleys where their enemies pitched their proverbial tents. The headcounters made their homes in the old government buildings constructed of slab concrete or faux-mission designs. “Temporary” prefabricated steel FEMA buildings comprised the newer settlements. All sat tucked in the major east-west running valley or its spurs. How the communities were organized was anybody’s guess. Greywald didn’t care and so the kid didn’t care either. Together they mapped out what they saw and continued their ride.
The further west they rode, the more spares the settlements became. Greywald led, moving slowly and carefully. Angus followed the older man’s lead. Watching. Rarely talking. A few days into it they found themselves on their bellies, at the edge of a treeline facing a lake that stretched south for miles.
"You won’t take that shot," Greywald said. To emphasize his point he set down his rifle and in its place he produced a bowie knife. He shaved a piece off a plug of tobacco and popped it into his mouth. Down below, the head counter women and children went about their business, moving along the beach in a shuffle.
"You don’t think I can put a bullet in them from here," The kid asked. From their perch to the beach it was easily 500 meters. Their cover was so thick it made them invisible. There was a breeze, but a soft one.
"Didn’t say you couldn’t, I said you wouldn’t." Greywald spat. "You ain’t going to shoot down women and kids. Not today."
Down below them on the beach, the huddle of women and children shuffled along. The women wore veils and scarves of black and dark blue. The children wore all manner of western clothing. Tennis shirts with athletic logos, the faces of rappers adorned t-shirts, the older boys wore smaller versions of the tracksuits their fathers wore when raiding. They all gathered and carried bundles of driftwood for some purpose unknown and unknowable.
Greywald shaved another piece off the tobacco plug and passed it to his young companion. Angus took it, chewed it thoughtfully, and then spat his own stream of brown into the forest duff.
"If you think I won't shoot, you don't know me half as well as you think you do."
"This is reconnaissance, not an assault. And you ain’t going to snipe women and kids."
"Headcounter women and children."
"My mother and sister were women and children too.”
“Well, ain’t you a desperado.”
“I ain’t old enough to see the world in shades of gray. I ain’t trying to, neither. Every day that seems less like a virtue.”
“Killing women and children is their policy. It ain’t ours.”
“Then what is our policy?” the kid asked.
There wasn't any answer to that, so Greywald didn't try and give one. He wiped his knife clean and then put it away. He wanted to say something to the younger man, the kid. His mind called up a memory. He spoke.
“I got a medal in the war for saving a headcounter’s life.”
“Was he on our side?”
“No. He was trying to kill us.”
“And they gave you a medal for that?”
Greywald spat out tobacco juice. “We were watching a road. Youngblood was behind the sniper rifle. I was spotting. The Headcounters were putting bombs on the road, hitting our convoys as they were leaving the base.
"Our convoy was leaving the base and this black Opal sedan pull out ahead of it. There were only about eight different cars over there. These blue trucks they call bongos. White Nissans. Black Opals… Anyway, this Opal is in front of our convoy. It slows down. We see it toss something out onto the road, then it speeds up again. We couldn't see what it was but we had a pretty good idea.
"So Youngblood's got the driver in his crosshairs and I'm on the radio trying to stop the convoy. Then boom. The bomb on the side of the road goes off and a second later Youngblood shoots the driver. The car just kinda drifts off the road and comes to a stop, like it ran out of gas.
"We get down to the car and find the driver's still alive. He's sitting straight up, rigid as a post and he's been shot right in the neck. He's gasping, trying to breathe, but the bullet didn't cut his jugular, didn’t rip out his windpipe. The windshield maybe deflected the bullet just enough, I guess. He's this big fat guy and his neck is all fat tissue, and you can hear the air coming in and out of the hole in his neck. But he's struggling to breathe. And he ain't moving. Not even his eyes. Probably too scared to move, that we might finish him off. Maybe scared that if he moves that hole in his neck he's breathing through will close and that'll be it for him.
"Well, he ain't dead. And now that we've shot him, we can't kill him. So, we bust out the medical gear and call a medevac for him. A few weeks later I get a medal for saving his life."
Angus thought about this a long while before asking, “Did they give a medal to the sniper too?”
“No. He got killed a few days later by an IED.”
"Seems like a helluva way to win a war."
“We didn’t win,” Greywald said.
"Maybe we should try it."
Greywald spat. “They say we can’t kill our way to victory.”
“We killed a lot of people in World War Two. Killed a lot of German women and children. Killed a lot of Japanese ones too.”
"That war was different."
"That's right, it was different,” the kid agreed. “Back then we weren’t afraid to win.”
Greywald fished the used-up tobacco out of his mouth and flicked it into the bushes. “They got a way of turning it all around on you, don’t they? Right and wrong. What’s just and what’s not. They turn it and twist it and confuse a man so he can’t tell good from evil, not even when it is looking him right in the face. They do it all by design.”
The kid spat and wiped his lip. “I ain’t looking to win no medals.”
“Neither was I. But here we are.”
“You think we’ll win this time?” The kid asked. Greywald nodded.
"We'll clean out these headcounters if the Irishman sets his mind to it. But I couldn't tell you what comes after." Greywald pointed down to the lake. “Looks like they got whatever they came for.” The women and children walked south along the lake, well out of range now.
"They’re gone now. I told you weren’t going to take that shot."
"You did. I guess that shows what talking gets me."
Greywald smiled kindly. "C’mon. Let’s mount up and ride."
"Where’re we going?"
They rode west through the wild and timbered country. They rode to the setting sun. Each day brought fewer and fewer human signs than the last until there saw none at all, and they could have been mountain men from another era exploring a country that never knew their kind before. Their hard rations ran dry, but Greywald shot an elk and they loaded its meat on one of the pack horses and kept heading west. The fauna changed. The slope changed from an incline to a decline. And one day, in the evening, they reached the coast. A ribbon of abandoned blacktop snaked north-south along the coastal ridges and beyond that, the sun melted into the Pacific Ocean. The wind carried the roar of the waves to their ears.
"Ain’t that a sight," Greywald said. And the kid gave no affirmation as none was needed. And when the last of the golden light disappeared, they turned their horses around and rode back the way they came.
“We circled around to the north last time. This time we’ll circle around the south,” Greywald said. And that’s what they did.
They took the ridgelines back east. They switched mounts often. There was no feed left. The two men were gaunt, bearded, and dirty from the days in the bush. The horses had it just as rough, more so, since no horse can't match the grit of a hard man.
"These horses ain't got much giddyup left."
"I suppose not. How many more days?"
"Not many. But we need to ride past their citadel again. I don't want to be mounted on played-out horseflesh when we pass back by their citadel."
Greywald sniffed at the wind.
"We’re coming back on that lake. Water and good grass. We'll head there."
Greywald led through the hills. Through the places where men were unlikely to travel. They reached the lake and traveled along its southern edge. On the sandy shore of its bank, men picnicked. Angus saw an even dozen. Old men lounged on rugs, boiling water for sweet tea, the tea sets beside decorative tins full of sugar. Others, younger and more daring, frolicked and splashed in the cold water. Strewn about the beach were cheap plastic sandals, open soda cans, platters of food, a rifle here, a book there. Vehicles sat mutely at the end of an old logging road, far enough away that a quick dash would not be enough. A machine played music alien to the kid's ears.
The kid brought his mount up alongside Greywald. They watched the headcounters for a while, and the headcounters remained oblivious to their presence. After taking the time to absorb the scene, the kid shielded his eyes with his palm and turned in the saddle, checking for the position of the sun. It held the sky behind their backs. He dropped his hand and unlimbered his rifle.
"Ain’t no women and kids this time."
They came out of the woodline at an easy trot. Greywald veered his mount away and to the right, to get some distance from Angus and to get a better angle on their targets. An old man reclined on a rug turned to face them. He smiled beneath his bristly black beard. Then he realized the two wild-looking and emaciated men riding his way were not fellow believers. The frown turned to horror. The man reached for a nearby rifle, a Kalashnikov with its stock folded in. He never made it.
The kid fired twice. His horse screamed and the old man’s body gave a spasm with each bullet strike, and he sprawled dead across the rifle. The other men on the shore and in the lake froze. Men stood waist-deep in the water. Others spun around from their reclined positions on the bank. Not a man stirred. The kid’s horse spun, snorted, and tossed its head. Insects buzzed, and their buzzing was amplified over the surface of the lake, but no man spoke.
Finally, one of the headcounters, a young one, smiled. He raised his hand up out of the lake. It dripped with green water. The man opened his mouth to speak, but not a word came out.
Greywald raised his rifle and shot the young man through his hand and through the mouth. His body fell backward into the lake leaving behind a cloud of misted blood and shattered teeth. Then all became thunder. The kid raised his own rifle and fired, fired, cutting down one headcounter after another. A horse tossed its head and neighed in protest. She pranced back and the kid quickly controlled her and then fired some more. A pack horse stood stock still, uncaring about the affairs of men.
The headcounters on the shore tumbled into bloody piles. Some headcounters in the lake splashed for shore, and the kid shot them down. Others splashed out further into the lake. To go where? None could say. The kid shot them down too.
One crossed the beach and ran for the woods. Greywald fired, and the bullet passed through both thighs and the man spilled and tumbled like an avalanche. The kid fired next and took the man through the head.
Seated in the saddle, Greywald pivoted at the hips, like a shotgunner taking doves. He emptied his rifle into the parked vehicles nearby. Fluid gushed from the radiators like spilled blood. He withdrew the empty magazine and replaced it with a fresh one. There came the familiar sound of aluminum scraping against metal. One made it to a Kalashnikov and as he fumbled with it the kid hit him in the chest. He fell back, seated on his ass on the sandy bank and struggling to breathe with a punctured lung. And as he gasped the kid fired again and blew the top of his head up and away and still seated the man crumpled forward and died.
The kid changed his own rifle's magazine and when he got back on his sights again there was nothing save carnage, and a sole survivor, wounded and bleeding who drug himself along with one good arm, for the other hung limp and blasted. He grunted along, moving in spurts, his blood mixing with the wet sand.
The kid dismounted and walked to the lone survivor.
Greywald spun his horse about in one complete rotation, surveying the land in all directions. He saw nothing, nothing yet. But he was old enough and wise enough to know how quickly that could change.
“We should have watered these horses first,” he said to himself.
The kid stalked up to his enemy. This last man wasn’t much older than he was. One minute he’d been picnicking with his friends on the beach. The next minute he had come to face his own mortality. Angus didn’t waste any sentiment on that thought.
The survivor crawled a little further. Angus stopped, raised his rifle, then shot out the other shoulder. Screams and blood and the man collapsed.
“Finish it,” Greywald said, his eyes scanning the trees.
"I aim to," the kid said. He grabbed his opposite number by the collar and dragged him into the lake. The headcounter thrashed legs kicking and useless arms flailing. His broken body was no match for the kid's whole one. The kid dragged him out into the water until he stood waist-deep. He held the headcounter under until his physical protests stopped. Then he held him under a little longer.
Dripping, the kid came up out of the lake and took his saddle. “We should get going,” he said to Greywald.
“How long until it gets dark?”
Greywald eyed the country nervously. “Not soon enough. This was a dangerous indulgence. We ain’t stopping until we’re out.”
They rode east and didn't stop until they were safely back with their fellow militiamen.
Nash and Chin picked up Greywald and Angus. They drove a beat-up truck that pulled an even more beat-up horse trailer. As soon as the truck got moving, Greywald asked, “how’s the training coming?”
“It ain’t,” Chin said, a little dejected. He’d been tasked with leading the training while Greywald was out, and he felt more than a little ashamed that training had ceased.
“The Adjutant put an end to the training,” Nash said. The oldest man of the bunch, Nash maintained his optimism, or at least appeared to.
“If you all haven’t been training, what have you been doing?”
“The Adjutant had us stacking tires,” Chin said.
“Stacking tires?” Greywald asked.
“I don’t understand.”
“You’ll see when you get there,” Nash added.
“Got anything to eat?” the kid asked.
“They’re cooking a big meal,” Nash said happily. “The Stockman’s coming to talk to us tonight.”
“I hope he don’t talk long,” the kid said. “I’m hungry.”
When they finally bumped and bounced their way back into the militia encampment, the kid saw what Nash and Chin meant about the tires. Rows and rows of old pallets filled a flatbed semi-trailer, secured by cargo straps of various colors. Next to that trailer stood a second, a hydraulic dumper filled to overflowing with old tires of every size and condition. Mounds of old tires and pallets ran alongside the two trailers.
“We must have got every busted tire between here and Bakersfield. The Adjutant had us collect up old Styrofoam too. We’ve got a pole barn full of it.”
"What's he gonna do with all this junk?" The kid asked.
“I dunno,” Chin said.
“I do,” Greywald said. He had a distant look in his eye.
“C’mon,” Nash said, his face a pleasant contrast to Greywald’s. “The Stockman’s about to talk. Let’s hear what he has to say.”
It all had the air of a stump speech at a Midwest primary. There were hay bales everywhere. Floodlights lit the scene Their generators hummed. The Irishman’s fighters assembled loosely around the stage and waited. After waiting impatiently with a rumbling stomach, the kid finally saw the Stockman come up.
The Stockman looked like a politician. He was flanked by his own well-dressed security detail. The Stockman wore a cowboy hat and a button-down shirt. Both were clean, unused, and seemed too pristine to be authentic. They seemed to have a plastic-like sheen. The Stockman came along, smiling and glad-handing a bit before stepping up on the stage and approaching the podium. Someone had thoughtfully left a glass of water there. The Stockman took a drink, cleared his throat, and spoke. Before the first word came out, the kid decided he didn't like the Stockman. The man seemed uneasy, out of place, self-conscious around the farmers and working-class men of the Irishman's militia. He seemed like a high school teacher who was at heart afraid of his students. But Angus stood amongst the others and listened just the same, waiting to hear what their benefactor had to say, but mostly waiting for the dinner that would come after.
"Gentlemen," The Stockman began. "Our nation is in crisis. The federal government has failed to act. The state government has failed to act. But with your help, and with the help of God, I intend to act.
"The headcounters were placed here by the federal government. They came here pretending to be refugees, pretending to be downtrodden souls who only wanted to enjoy the freedoms we had to offer. They lied, and the fat cats in Washington D.C. and the fat cats in Sacramento were willing to believe the lies. They were willing to believe the lies because those fat cats care more about the headcounters than they do about you. They want your money through taxes, and they want your votes, but it is the headcounters they love. It is the headcounters they coddle. You go out and work all day so these politicians can steal your money away and give it to the headcounters. And after you come home after a hard day’s work and lay down to sleep, those very headcounters come in the dark of night and slit your throats.
"For years the headcounters have attacked us, and killed us. They have raped our women and enslaved our children. They come to us with their hands out for money and after we give them money, they cut off our heads and dance over our bodies. They burn down our embassies and crash our planes, and what do the fat cats do? They tell us to be reasonable. They tell us not to get upset. They tell us they will protect us next time, and next time, when they don't protect us, they tell us it is our fault. They tell you it is your fault. They tell you that you upset the headcounters because you were too proud. They tell you, you upset the headcounters because you were too strong and too powerful.
"Well, I say we should be proud of who we are. I say, we should be strong. I say, the time for talking is over and the time for fighting is here. I say, it is time to take the fight to our enemies and destroy them, destroy them once and for all.
"Now, I’m not a fighting man like all of you are, but I intend to fight these terrorists in my own way. I’m going to make sure you have the best of everything; the best weapons, the best food, the best vehicles. I’m going to make sure you have the best. I’ve got money and I’m going to make sure that money gets to you.
"And then I'm going to Sacramento. I'm going up to where those fat cats are and I'm going to kick them all out of office. I'm going to take this state over and make it safe again for hard-working men just like you. I'm going to make it safe for your families. I'm going to drive these headcounters out, just like I'm going to drive the Sacramento fat cats out and make our state the California we were all promised, and the California we all deserve."
The Stockman went on for a little while longer. When he finished, he was rewarded with applause, but it was far from a roaring reception. The men here were all warriors. The Stockman wasn't. There was a divide between the two, intangible and not easy to pinpoint, but it was there. An awkward uneasy gap. Had the Stockman been a warrior, maybe they would have connected better. If he grew up in a world of hard work and grease and dirty hands he might have connected. But the Stockman wasn't a warrior. He wasn't a man of the earth. He came from money. He was a techie-turned politician. Angus looked the stockman up and down. "He looks like a man who couldn't find a big enough lie to tell," the kid said softly to only himself.
After the speech, the Stockman lingered a little while to shake hands before being whisked away by his own security detail. When the last black SUV disappeared, Nash approached the kid.
"What did you think," The older man asked. The kid shrugged.
"That som’ bitch made me late for dinner."
"This one ain’t original, or more to say, this one ain’t a true Hellcat.”
The ancient mechanic took off his bifocals, cleaned them, then set them back on his nose. The kid, the Irishman and his Adjutant, and various others stood around the mechanic, waiting on his words. He’d provide plenty.
“Both these Hellcats have Christie suspensions, as you can clearly see. Now the Christie suspension was what the original requirement for the Hellcat called for. Ultimately they went with a torsion bar suspension and not the Christie suspension on account the US Army felt that the torsion bar suspension was easier to maintain, and I feel the army was right in that decision, only when I put these together I couldn’t find a working torsion bar suspension, so, I had to modify these Christie suspensions to suit the need, and these aren’t even old Army suspensions, as you can plainly see. I had to salvage these, and I won’t go into the details of where I got these. Only to say I got these from a friend who owns a salvage yard in Yuba City. I had to rent a truck to get these, as the one I had at the time had its own suspension problem, oddly enough.”
The old mechanic took his glasses off, cleaned them a second time, then perched them back on his nose.
“Once I got the suspension on and working, I painted them in olive green. Now, the original army green these would have been painted in, if in fact those were true Hellcats, which they aren’t, isn’t as easy to match as people might think. I had to make more than a few calls to General Motors asking about the proper color, but I got no satisfaction there. Luckily, I was able to laser scan an old piece of Army equipment from the period to get the color right. Now, it is true that that particular piece of army equipment was sun-faded, but Dale Whorsely who is a good friend of mine and runs one crackerjack of an autobody and paint shop over in Red Bluff, anyway, Dale tells me the computers he got can account for the sun fading and produce a true to original paint, as true to color as if you went back to 1943 yourself." The old mechanic paused with thought. He took off his glasses again. "Don't know what that original paint was based with. I'll have to look that up."
The kid looked up himself. Two tanks rested on flatbeds in front of the Irishman's house. They were olive green with white stars. Spare parts, tools, cargo racks, and canvas bags decorated each tank's side. Angus didn't know much about tanks, but he knew these were old. The old tank enthusiast continued.
“Anyways, I used to bring these out for the 4th of July parades, back when they had them. Up north the city council canceled the 4th of July Parade. Guess they had their reasons, but I don’t know what they were. That was almost ten years ago. I kept these two in the barn since then. Then the state of California sent me a letter. Said I couldn’t have these anymore. Said they were sending people out to my barn to take these and have them destroyed. They weren’t even going to pay me for them, just up and take them and melt them into scrap. Well, I put more than a fair amount of time into these two little pieces of history, and I’ll be damned if Sacramento was just going to take these from me. Then I heard about what you and your boys were doing down here and I told myself, why these boys might appreciate a pair of Hellcats. If I’m gonna lose them anyway why not just give them away to you boys.”
“That is all great information,” The Irishman said. “But can they fight?”
"They'll run, forward and backward and fast as you please. These were the fastest pieces of armor in the European theater, and that was with their Wright R975 engines governed. I've removed the governors of the engines, naturally. But those guns don't work, not that you'd want to shoot a 76mm cannon that old. The main guns might be disabled, but they are original. Now the ammo I got in there, I think I did a fair job with it. I got some spent 76mm shells at a surplus auction. Those were getting sold as scrap. But I snagged them off. Now to make them look complete I had to break out my wood lathe and what I did was…” The Irishman cut him off.
“How about the fifty calibers?”
“It’ll shoot, but only one round at a time, and it can only be loaded one round at a time. This is California after all.”
“Can we make that fifties work?” The Irishman asked the Adjutant. The Adjutant shrugged.
"We got enough machinists here we probably could. But why would we? Even if we could get enough ammo for it, we aren't going to find enough links to keep them fed."
“True,” The Irishman said. He mused. “Any ideas?”
“He’s over in Bonnie Claire. He might be able to help us out.”
“That is in Nevada,” The Irishman said. Then, "Ain't too many men out there that scare me. Donovan's one of 'em."
“I can be there and back in no time,” the Adjutant replied.
The Irishman looked the two olive drab Hellcats over, longingly.
"Without guns, they're just big trucks," the Adjutant said. The Irishman nodded. He agreed.
"Get these into a barn and then go. The sooner you get there, the sooner you get back."
The kid found himself back in a truck, bouncing and bumping his way across the neglected California highways and byways. Nash, an optimist despite all the violence and malaise around him, drove with a smile spread across his aged face the entire trip. The adjutant navigated. Chin rode in the backseat with the kid. Chin droned and jabbered non-stop the first half of the trip. When he finally ran out of verbal energy, he curled up against the window and slept. The radio played. The adjutant had it on the news which centered on the dual crisis in Norway and Poland.
Outside a school in Norway, a pair of headcounters hacked seven children to death with axes. In response, the Western World collectively shrugged and sighed and said, "Well, we probably deserved that."
The two murderers had recently immigrated to Norway from their failed state of a homeland. They’d come to the European Union seeking asylum, and they received it. They thanked the Europeans for their magnanimity by butchering seven of their daughters in broad daylight and afterward they showed not the slightest hint of shame. The two immigrants were arrested for murder. Several of the grieving parents were also arrested, for saying hateful things on social media.
Poland's actions started the liberal Western outrage that came next. Warsaw, tired of the murders and violence and overall unappreciation from the asylum seeker community closed its borders to any new refugees. They rounded up over two hundred questionable immigrants (who all arrived in Poland as unaccompanied military-aged males), loaded them into busses, and deposited them all in Brussels.
The liberal west went insane.
Protests erupted across Western Europe, decrying Poland's actions. In Brussels and Berlin, politicians made speeches and angrily slammed their fists on podiums. How dare the Poles do what they did? Social media exploded with hashtags. Hashtag: State-sponsored Islamophobia; Hashtag: Brexit Warsaw; Hashtag Refugee Genocide. In Amsterdam, students and teachers refused to go to school. In Denmark, protestors stopped and derailed several trains. In Paris, entire sections of the city were closed off and burned. Across the European Union, political leaders assuaged their guilt by demanding other countries take in more refugees. In Rome, they demanded Tallinn take in thousands of refugees, without screening of any kind. Members of the Bundestag insisted that Bulgaria and Romania open their borders. Politicians across the continent wailed and whined. The “other” was never doing enough. The "other" needed to do more.
The protests were not limited to Western Europe. A congresswoman from Los Angeles with a perpetually frowning face made an inflammatory speech about the Polish peoples’ strong historical ties to the Nazi Party and the KKK. The speech wasn’t critiqued for its historical inaccuracies, but praised for its, “vibrant bravery.” In New York City, young protestors burned Polish flags in the streets. When they ran out of flags, they burned the local businesses while policemen looked on, their hands in their pockets. “We need to give people the space they need to express their justified outrage over this international crime,” the mayor of New York said. Media grandees nodded solemnly at that received wisdom.
At a department store in San Jose, protestors staged a die-in. "People are being murdered. Why should we allow people to just… shop?" One protestor asked. The die-in escalated to wholesale looting and several shoppers were attacked. The San Jose city council voted unanimously to halt any city travel to Poland. In Berkeley California, protestors stopped passenger trains. In San Francisco, cyclists took to the streets, first blocking car traffic, and then pounding on doors and smashing windows, and generally terrorizing motorists. One driver, her grandchildren in the backseat, suffered a heart attack in the clogged traffic. At first, people were sorry. But on further reflection, it was decided that she and her grandchildren were privileged and thus deserved to suffer the way Poland was making those refugees suffer.
The truck climbed up out the Central Valley and into the mountains. The radio buzzed with static until the white noise eventually overpowered the outraged voices of the media personalities. When the radio offered nothing but electronic racket, the adjutant shut it off and they rode in silence.
Donovan's compound was a collection of vehicles parked on the western edge of Nevada, between nothing and nowhere. The vehicles were all in good working order and parked in a circle. The tailgates, lift-gates and rear doors all faced inward for easy access between vehicles. Tents and masts with radio antennas stood between the vehicles. Inside the vans and trailers, men were at their work, assembling weapons, manufacturing ammunition, soldering connections on radios, and building computers. All of Donovan's men were armed. They all looked like they knew what they were doing.
The man named Donovan was well over six feet tall. He had a full head of hair that was once jet black but had turned pewter grey. He wore a canvas duck work jacket that was too worn and faded to be merely a fashion statement. Donovan shook the adjutant's hand, but he didn't smile. The kid guessed this Donovan wasn't much for smiling.
"I've got some brand new Serbian RPKs I can give you. They come with plenty of ammo and a few crates of 40 round magazines and 75 round drums."
"I've got those too."
"Anything wrong with the guns?" The adjutant asked.
"They might have an extra hole or two drilled into the receivers. I don't think that'll bother you though."
"Let's go take a look."
The kid watched as the adjutant went into the back of a tent with this Donovan character. Chin and Nash followed. The kid waited outside, keeping one eye on their truck and another eye on a giant screen mounted inside another panel van. The news was on again. Some scandal had erupted in the US Navy, and in between coverage of Poland's atrocities, the media found time to interview one of the navy's senior admirals.
The admiral wore a chest full of medals, each one a laurel representing successful campaigns and stunning victories in places like Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Georgia, Ukraine, and Afghanistan.
"Admiral," the young interviewer began. Her smile was a little too bright and her manner just a little too pleasant for Angus to trust her. "I'd like to ask you about the tragedy of the barracks collapse. A navy barracks in San Diego, very old and some might suggest neglected… This barracks collapses, twenty-seven sailors are dead. As an admiral in the navy and the leader of those sailors and their families, how do you respond to that?"
"Thank you, Rebecca. Well, it is my job to think strategically about these things. That's what the American people pay me to do. Yes, the barracks mishap was a tragedy to my navy, especially to the families of those sailors. But in the emotional heat of minor accidents like these, men like me must keep our eyes on the bigger issues.
"A big thing to consider is how incidents like this impact recruiting. Particularly, how these incidents impact recruiting those from the most marginalized communities in our nation. I'm talking about the racially vulnerable, the religiously vulnerable, urbanite youth, people who are gender-embracing, and people who are sexually evolved. American families turn on the news and they see a building just collapsed, and they see the bodies of America's brave warfighters being pulled out of the rubble. Those images are going to affect Americans differently. A white, middle-class, hetero-sexually normed, and patriarchy-based family from, say, the American south might see this tragedy and say their children will still join the Navy. Well, that's fine, but we get plenty of those people anyways. Those people are always going to go to the recruiters' offices. We get more of them than we need and frankly, we can take their volunteerism for granted.
"But a sexually evolved and identified family from Seattle or San Francisco, or urbanites from Chicago might see this same tragedy and say, 'oh-no. My lil' boo ain't joining no navy. Uh-Uh.' Recruiting and retention among our targeted demographics declines. And so, as an admiral in the navy that must be my top concern. We can't just be a fighting navy. We need to be a navy that is socially and culturally evolved."
"Thank you, admiral. I have to follow up and ask, because there are some people who are asking these types of questions. But there are critics, detractors you might say, who say that the navy, and really the wider military, that you've drifted too far away from your wartime missions, and training and readiness, and that you've focused too much on diversity and inclusion. How do you respond to those critics?"
"I'd say this Rebecca, if America's admirals and generals take care of diversity and inclusion, then diversity and inclusion will take care of the mission. Now it is true that we have a military mission to defend this nation. But we have social and cultural responsibilities too, and those greater moral imperatives fall outside the scope of simple warfighting. The military is an instrument to defend the nation, but it can also be used as an instrument to effect positive social changes and really bring about meaningful progress. And I think that is something we have a moral and ethical responsibility to do.
“Rebecca, the question is, does America want armed forces that are focused solely on their military duties? Does America want a navy whose sailors aren't vulnerable? I certainly don't."
A man behind the kid drawled, "I served with him before. I never figured he’d turn out to be such an asshole."
The kid turned and saw an older man, tall and bearded, and missing an arm at the shoulder. His single forearm bore a faded tattoo. The kid thought it looked like the Budweiser Beer emblem with a hayfork thrown in for good measure. The man wore a pistol on each hip, the weak side pistol was holstered butt forward. He wore a third pistol in a shoulder rig. A fourth pistol hid in the small of his back.
Angus looked him up and down. "That's a lot of iron you're packing."
"At this point in my life, it is a lot easier to draw another pistol than change a magazine. You gonna ask about my arm?"
"Wasn't planning on it."
"Well, I will tell you about it." The man pointed at the TV. "I was working for that guy when I lost it. That put a lid on my career as a frogman. I went to the VA after I got outta the hospital. Filled out a lot of paperwork there. Hoping to get some compensation since starting a new profession is a little rough when you are short an arm. I’ve been back to the VA a few dozen times over the years to fill out more paperwork and answer more questions, and I still ain't got my money for the arm. I got some money for the bad earplugs you see on the internet. About enough to buy some coffee. Got some of that burn pit money too. I think the only reason they gave out that money is cause that old politician said the burn pits gave his kid cancer. I never saw any officers burning trash when I was over there, especially not any lawyers, but that old man knows how to squeeze the bucks out of the government. Anyway, I took that burn pit money since they were giving it out. I'm still waiting on my arm money."
"If they ain't paid you for that arm, they ain't gonna. They're shinning you on."
"You're right about that, kid," the one-armed man replied. "I'd like to say I'm not bitter about it, but that isn't true. I can deal with the missing arm. Not getting compensated for it as promised doesn't sit so easy with me. You gonna clear out that reservation of all the headcounters?"
"Well, don't go harder on them than you have too."
The kid's face twisted. "Didn't they take your arm?"
"They did," the man replied. "I ain't happy about that, but I can't blame them too much. They may have been assholes, but trying to kill me was their job. Trying to kill them was my job, and I sure did it before they finally got me. That, and I saw more headcounters killed by other headcounters than either of the other ways around. It was a shitshow, but there was an honesty about it. That was the game and that’s how the game was played. I can't stay too mad at a man for doing his job." The man pointed at the TV and the TV admiral with his chin. "Assholes that smile out their lies and bend truths and shirk their duties, that's another story altogether. You can shoot a man in the face, but you never stab them in the back. Betrayal and treachery are their own kinds of meanness. The ninth circle of hell is where the traitors lie. That’s what Dante said, anyways.”
“I don’t know nobody named Dante.”
“The road you’re on, you'll learn all about him.”
"Who are you guys?" the kid asked.
"Well, we're kinda like all the king's horses and all the king's men. We're just waiting for Humpty Dumpty to fall so we can collect up the pieces." The one-armed man smiled.
Donovan and the adjutant came out of the tent, their entourages in tow.
"Get those cases loaded up into their truck. And give them that SKS contraption too," Donovan said to one of his men. Then to the adjutant he said, "They've turned all the agriculture inspection stations into armed checkpoints, looking for drugs and weapons and vaccine cards. Don't take the highways back into California."
Donovan’s gaze fell on the kid. His face hardened. He said to the adjutant, "What’s this? Are we doing child soldiers now? We really have fallen far."
"His family all got murdered by the headcounters. What do you want us to do, turn him over to the State of California?"
"No. He's got better odds on the battlefield than with the state. How old are you kid?"
"Old enough," Angus answered.
"I thought you'd say that," Donovan said. He looked the kid up and down. His eyes fixed on the kid's pistol. "Where did you get that holster?"
"At the getting' place."
Donovan laughed. His laugh was more of a snort, or a reverse sigh, short and efficient, just enough to communicate humor. “The getting’ place. Been a long time since I heard anybody mention the getting' place,” he said with one corner of his lip curled into the slightest of smiles. That moment of levity no longer than necessary, then he returned to his air of unyielding seriousness.
"Yessir," the one-armed man answered.
"Get this kid a decent holster." Donovan's eyes ran up and down. "Get him a decent pistol to go in it too."
"Get him an optic for that rifle too. And a can for it too."
"You're being mighty generous."
"If I have to abide child soldiers, I'll at least see them well equipped."
“You made out like a bandit today,” Nash called into the back seat with a smile. The truck swayed and jostled, moving along the old ranch and service roads back into California. Nash reached over and turned on the radio. The adjutant in the passenger seat reached back over and turned it off.
“I’ve had about all the news I can take. Let’s give it a rest.”
They bounced their way back across the empty center of California. They drove down broken and pitiful roads, across flat and featureless plains, through dead and dying dustbowl towns. They passed farmhouses built by the Oklahoma diaspora, now abandoned, their yards strewn with roadside litter, the broken windowpanes thick with dust, the land bought out by corporate farms or left fallow by bureaucratic decrees and new-royal mandates, issued from the white towers in Sacramento and Washington DC.
They passed packs of feral and semi-feral dogs, who trotted along dusty farm roads, absent tags and collars. These canines snapped and barked at all passersby. They passed concrete pillars meant to support a railroad system that would never be built, hosting trains that would never run. The exposed ends of the rebar already rusted. The pillars already showing cracks and chips beneath the spray paint of graffiti.
They passed roadside caches of building materials meant for water projects that too would never start. Thick with dust, the plastic pipes and fittings had no scrap value and thus they were abandoned, just as so many people and so many places in the state had been abandoned for having “no value" to the elites who ran it.
They passed couches and washing machines and bags of trash, piled on the roadside like burial mounds. They passed abandoned vehicles, rusted farm equipment, disused vehicle weight stations, and highway rest stops, filthy and dangerous, with drug-addled perverts prowling about, and every surface everywhere scribbled over in gang graffiti.
“A man could look all this and be brought to despair,” the adjutant said. Nash kept smiling. The truck’s tires hummed along.
The kid reached into his pocket and pulled out the string of wedding and engagement rings he recovered from the headcounters. He played with it, tossing it up and catching it again. Chin rolled over and asked, “What are you planning on doing with those?” The kid responded with a shrugged ‘I don’t know.’
“I was gonna throw them away. Then I thought about trying to get them back to their families. No idea how I’d do that though.” He shrugged again. “I don’t know what I’ll do with them.”
“You’ll figure it out,” Chin said. He rolled back over against the window and went to sleep.
They arrived at the militia encampment after sunset. It buzzed with activity. Electric lights illuminated the work areas. Men stood around blue plastic barrels, crumbling Styrofoam into tiny bits.
"This doesn't look like training," the adjutant said to Greywald.
"Training got canceled. It's arts and crafts time now," Greywald replied and nodded to the styrofoam. He looked over the others faces and asked, "You didn't hear the news, did you?"
The adjutant shook his head. "I had all the news I could take on the trip out. We had the radio off for the trip back just to keep from going crazy. What happened?"
Greywald answered, "The headcounters set off a couple of nukes."
Greywald answered, "The headcounters set off a couple of nukes."
Excellent. I’m glad to see this still going. It is interesting to see the updates that include the last few years of nonsense.
The bombs weren’t nuclear. They were “dirty bombs,” explosive devices whose deadly effects were multiplied by the addition of radioactive materials. A Middle Eastern nation with a long history of state-sponsored terrorism constructed the bombs. They purchased the radioactive materials from several Western European nations, all of which had pledged and promised not to sell such radioactive materials to terrorist sponsors. But they did it anyway. They knew they wouldn’t be held accountable for breaking their treaty obligations, and they weren’t.
Once completed, the bombs traveled west through the hands of various intelligence agencies and non-state actors until they finally arrived at their targets.
The first dirty bomb went off in Quebec City, Canada. Ground zero was the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity which had stood watch over the St Lawrence River for more than two hundred years. The cathedral became rubble in a flash, and before the smoke cleared the suicide bomber’s final video message was released to the world, professionally produced, and dubbed over in twenty different languages. A chyron with religious verses passed along the bottom of the video while the bomber professed his faith and explained his motivations.
Before the Canadian authorities discovered the strontium, cobalt, and radium particles in the air, the second bombing took place in Tulsa Oklahoma. The bombers used a half dozen rental trucks to fake an accident and cause gridlock during the morning commute. Then, with commuters parked bumper to bumper on the interstate, the U-Haul trucks exploded and released their isotopes into the air. Hundreds were killed by the blast and the shrapnel of the explosion. Thousands would breathe in the radioactive poison. The Arkansas river carried the fallout into the Mississippi River and out to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Tulsa bombers’ final video messages were similarly released. They too were professionally crafted and dubbed over in a variety of languages to spread the terrorists’ message far and wide. Chyrons flashed and scrolled. Every font and color and shade was hand-selected by trained and educated media professionals. The bombings took place on May 29th to celebrate the fall of Constantinople. A third bombing was planned but never took place. It wasn’t thwarted by the intelligence community, or the law enforcement community, or any of the many government agencies with their broad powers and large budgets. When filling up the truck bomb in San Bernardino, the gas pump shut off at California's mandated ten-gallon gas limit. Unfamiliar with the rationing, the bomber panicked and abandoned his truck right there at the pump and disappeared.
The maimed and the dying and the poisoned were still waiting on ambulances when that same familiar narrative came out.
Law enforcement officials stated emphatically that they did not know the motivations of the bombers, and then stated conclusively that they knew the attack had nothing to do with religion.
Those with social, cultural, and political grievances tried to link the bombers' actions with their own agendas. The bombings weren’t an attack meant to further the bombers’ religious ideals. These were reactive events, victims lashing out after suffering for too long under the patriarchy, hyper colonialism, unfair voting practices, inadequately funded community colleges, too little foreign aid.
At first, the media attempted to paint the bombers sympathetically. When that failed to get traction, they erased the bombers entirely. The passive took primacy. Bombs were detonated. People were killed. The waterways were poisoned. Some things were done.
The Whitehouse issued what was essentially an order that no images would be broadcast of the carnage. The Big Tech companies happily enforced the government’s censorship edicts. Social media overlords issued strikes and suspended accounts. Algorithms were written and rewritten to protect people from harmful images and misinformation. Community standards were enforced.
When Big Tech couldn’t silence people digitally, they conspired with the Justice Department to do it physically. A sixty-year-old blogger was arrested by federal agents in Carmel Indiana. Agents transported the man all the way to Chicago Illinois and booked him into the county jail's general population on a Friday night. He never made it to his arraignment. He was stabbed to death over the weekend. The names of the federal agents who arrested and transported him were never released. Just like the motives of the bombers, they would never be known.
Rather than silence the outrage, the censorship amplified it. Insults intensified the injuries. The nation simmered with rage. Unable to ignore the crisis, politicians convened. The president announced he would address the nation.
“I don’t give a shit what he has to say. It's all bullshit,” Greywald spat angrily. The kid and his companions stood over a steel drum. They dumped Styrofoam bits and poured gasoline into the drum. A new recruit, even younger than the kid, used an electric drill with a paint mixer attachment to stir the concoction into what looked like glue. To the west and behind them, a storm rolled in off the coast. The night sky was solid darkness. No light. No moon. No stars. Nearby, more of the militiamen set about their tasks. Men pilled pallets and old tires into the backs of trailers. A man with a welding torch affixed a metal plate to a CAT dozer. Two men at a table made from plywood and sawhorses loaded magazines for the new RPKs.
“It may be bullshit, but I’m watching it anyway,” Nash said. “I may not like the guy, but he’s the president. I’ll at least hear him out.”
"What the hell for?" Greywald asked. "Anything he's gonna say tonight he's said already."
"Maybe he'll get serious this time."
"He wasn't elected to be serious."
Nash shrugged. "The Irishman wants us to watch. He's got it all set up in the barn. If he says watch, I expected it is worth watching."
"What do you think?" Chin asked the kid. The kid crushed a piece of Styrofoam in his hand. He let the tiny foam balls slowly run out of his hand and into the drum of gasoline where they yellowed and liquified.
"It’ll just be more empty talk. Nothing more needs to be said. We all know what needs to be done. Talking ain't going to do it."
An hour later they were all standing inside the barn. The stormwinds lashed against the sheet metal sides. Men drank coffee or beer and waited. A giant tv screen mounted on the wall glowed electronically. Talking heads jabbered and jabbered over a stock image of the Whitehouse. Nash checked his watch.
“He’s always late,” Greywald spat again. “Fucker’s been in office longer than I've been alive and he ain’t been on time once. Asshole.”
“Asshole or not, I’m listening to it anyway,” Nash repeated.
"Well, at this point that's obvious," Greywald said, and he drained his beer.
"Prepare to be disappointed," Chin said.
The kid watched the adjutant across the room. The man had a load of radios under one arm and a sober look on his face. He looked like a man with a million worries, and probably for good reason. This private little army had spent the days since the dirty bombs preparing for another campaign. The Hellcats, the RPKs, the new recruits, the stacks of tires and pallets, the infusions of the Stockman's cash. They'd made all the preparations they could. The kid looked around the room. To wait any longer would be detrimental to this outfit. And given what just happened, the kid saw no need to wait. What could anybody say to assuage what just happened? What would any politician say tonight that they had not said before? Some men in the room felt that the dirty bombs signified the crossing of some Rubicon. The kid didn't think so. Tulsa wasn't Washington D.C. or New York. The commuters weren't anybody that mattered, at least not to the grandees and elites who apologized for the headcounters at every turn. The kid felt the loop of rings in his pocket. Nobody had made a speech for them. The weight and the power of the government hadn't mustered to avenge any of them. They were on their own. He was on his own. And there was nothing the President of the United States or was going to say that would change that.
The wall-mounted screen flicked. The camera closed in on the president seated at his desk.
"Well," somebody said, "Let's hear what he has to say."
Originally Posted By zoe17:
Thanks for the update.
Thanks for reading.
Didn't get as far as I hoped this week. Got diagnosed with COVID and while I'm not feeling sick, I can't go into the office, which is where I get my writing done because there are less distractions there than at home.
Since I'm at home, I'll watch a few Whitehouse Press briefings and see if I can lock down the voice of the president in Across the Scimitar.
Well, if you didn't feel sick before, you will after.
Originally Posted By sharkman6:
Thanks for reading.
Didn't get as far as I hoped this week. Got diagnosed with COVID and while I'm not feeling sick, I can't go into the office, which is where I get my writing done because there are less distractions there than at home.
Since I'm at home, I'll watch a few Whitehouse Press briefings and see if I can lock down the voice of the president in Across the Scimitar.
[Last Edit: Aftermath_1]
I remember when this was first published, hard to believe it was 8 years ago.
I recall a chapter detailing The Kid's scouting trip across the Scimitar. Was it cut or did I miss it?
Get better soon!
Originally Posted By Frosty451:
I remember when this was first published, hard to believe it was 8 years ago.
I recall a chapter detailing The Kid's scouting trip across the Scimitar. Was it cut or did I miss it?
Get better soon!
Good catch. Somehow that chapter didn't get copied and pasted.
It is in there now. Scroll back up and look for the blue text.
The president stared blankly into the camera. His eyes were black and glossy, two obsidian pinpricks in unnaturally wide white pools. His face was surgically stretched skin pulled tight over the skull. Half of his scalp was bald and speckled with brown spots. Where hair did grow, it grew white, in shoulder-length, medically inserted plugs, slicked and whipped around in a mockery of a full head of hair. He looked less like a human than an alien reptile trying to disguise itself as a human.
The president blinked once, twice, thrice into the camera. The pause stretched into infinity. Finally, he spoke.
"My fellow Americans," he began with a robotic drone. He spoke with all the emotion of a machine. "I come to you tonight to talk about the unfortunate mishap that befell us as a nation. My heart goes out to all the families and loved ones of the accident victims in Tulsa.
"In times of tragedy, it’s typical for the base and deplorable among us to lash out. Far too often in our past, during accidents like this, the worst amongst us strike out against people who look different than them. Who talk differently than them. Who go to different churches and hold different points of view. But we're better than that… We're better than that. Rather than dwell on this tragedy and the heartache, my administration is going to use the Tulsa mishap as an opportunity to chart a new course forward for this country and to right some injustices that have gone on unaddressed for far too long. We are going to choose hope over anger. We are going to chose change over obstinance. We are going to choose progress over pain.
"People are upset about the Tulsa accident. That's understandable. But some Americans have culpability in this too, and our nation needs to recognize this. Before we assign blame for what happened in Tulsa, we need to look at ourselves in the mirror. Because the blame for what happened doesn't fall on some strange and far away place. It falls here at home. It falls on bitter, clinging Americans who have shirked their global duties. Yes, we are Americans, but we all have social responsibilities that go beyond our borders. I am an American president, yes. But I am wise enough to understand we all have moral obligations and responsibilities to the world community as well as our home. I understand that we are citizens of the world as well as citizens of the United States. Not all of our fellow citizens understand their global responsibilities. They don't do enough to give voice to the voiceless around the world. They don't humble themselves before their global equals and global superiors. They don't pay their fair share…"
The president paused and stared vapidly into the camera. He seemed to lose himself for a moment, to mentally drift out to another reality. He mumbled something, then his black eyes flashed and his lips curled into an angry sneer. Teeth bared. His thin hands curled into fists that trembled with rage. His beady black eyes burned. He scowled and spat at the camera. "Americans aren't paying their fair share. They aren't paying and I'm going to make them pay."
The fury subsided quickly. The president composed himself and continued.
"For far too long the average American has enjoyed a level of prosperity and standard of living that far exceed the most vulnerable of our global neighbors. They exploited their global neighbors. This lack of equity has caused anger and resentment for our American excesses. Why should American workers enjoy levels of prosperity that their fellow workers of the world do not? They shouldn't. If we believe all people are created equal, we need to treat them equally. All people, especially those who live outside our borders. These ideas of American exceptionalism are harmful. They lead to misunderstandings and unfortunate accidents, like what took place in Nebraska… I mean Oklahoma. It harms our image around the globe. It's high time some Americans start showing compassion. So, my administration is going to make two policy changes in response to the Oklahoma City bombing… I mean Tulsa. Tulsa City. I mean the Tulsa accident that happened in Tulsa…" The president stared into the camera blinked once, twice, then continued.
"My administration's first policy change is I'm going to massively, massively, increase the level of foreign aid to select countries around the world. By giving more money to some specific nations around the world, we can increase the self-esteem and self-respect of marginalized global citizens, thus diverting their negative energies into more positive outcomes. Chief among these nations is Iran. We have a very troubled history with Iran, and we haven't always treated them with the respect they are owed. Far too often we've backed Iran into situations where they had no choice but to act out to make their political voice heard. By infusing Iran with significant amounts of foreign aid on an annual basis, we can give that noble nation hope, and a voice, and self-esteem. With my foreign aid infusions, Iran and other countries like it won't have to commit acts of desperation just to get a fair shake and a seat at the table. Iranians and other global citizens can hold their heads high knowing that we Americans were willing to humble ourselves before them.
"Now let me be clear, I'm not asking for new taxes. I'm not asking to burden anybody's kids with new debts. I'm just saying we need to do our part to develop the rest of the world and pay our fair share. Pay your fair share, folks. That's all I'm asking. That's it. That's all I want. Some folks are going to complain. They're going to ask, 'How are you going to pay for this?' Well, let me tell you what. This program is going to pay for itself."
The president lips curled into a rictus of a smile. He leaned close into the camera and whispered for effect. "This is going to pay for itself. My program will pay for itself." The president leaned back and continued.
"I’ve talked to all the economists, folks. All of them and they all say the same thing. These payoffs to foreign governments won’t cost us a thing. Not. One. Dime.
“My administration also spoke to all our lawyers, and they agreed that as president I can do this without input from the senate. I can do this, and so I'm going to do this. That’s why I was elected, to do things. The hour is too late. We need to act. I'm going to… I'm going to act.
"There is a second step my administration is going to take. I have asked my attorney general to take a new look at how we define terrorism. The world has evolved, and we need to evolve with it. The time of clinging to old words and old definitions is over… it is over. Americans need to change. Our definition of terrorism needs to change. We need to draw a line between acts of political protest, perhaps violent, but acts which only seek to bring about political or social change, and true acts of terrorism which originate here… in our own borders… by fringe citizens who bitterly cling to old and extreme ideas. Make no mistake, the greatest threat to this country has never been foreign citizens and foreign governments who only want to advance their political ideas. The greatest threat to this country has always come from our own citizens. It comes from disgruntled veterans who are incapable of functioning in civil society. It comes from people who slavishly follow our founding documents instead of following their hearts. It comes from people that don't want to open our borders to their fellow man and people who wave the flag and wave guns around. Those people aren't patriots. They’re chumps. They’re dregs. They are irredeemable and we need to get rid of them.
“I was elected in the biggest, most… best… election ever. I was elected and given a mandate to act, so I'm going to act. I was elected to heal this country and heal the world, and that is what I'm going to do. I wasn't elected the president of red states or blue states, I was elected president of the United States. I was elected president, not of some Americans, but all Americans, and I'm going to unify all Americans and give all Americans a political voice. And the stupid Americans who stand in my way or won't support my agenda don't have any place in my America.
"God bless me, I mean, God bless us and God bless the United States and the troops."
The camera on the president cut out. The inside of the barn was as silent as a tomb. Without making a sound the adjutant walked up in front of the assembled militia, turned off the television, and spoke.
"The boss wants to see us all outside."
Without a word, they all went outside.
The night sky boiled. Gray clouds rolled and churned. The wind whipped. There was no light from the stars. No light from the moon. Thunder and lightning rolled in from the west.
The Irishman stood brooding on a podium of hay bales; hands thrust deep into his pockets. His bald head was wrinkled with anger. The private little army gathered around. Thunder cracked somewhere to the west. Oblivious to the men, oblivious to the approaching storm, the Irishman brooded a while longer. When he finally spoke, his speech was short and direct. A stark contrast to the president's speech.
"Get ready. We're going back across the Scimitar. We're going, and we're not coming back until it is done. We’re not coming back until there is nothing left.
"We attack at dawn."
Well done, as usual.
I think the Irishman is about to crush his enemies, see them driven before him, and hear the lamentations of their women.
Curious if they get to win this time, since this time, it's up to them.
Cool! I just found this. I liked this story when you first posted it, and I'm glad to see it's getting updated/continued. Thanks for posting it here for us!
Bump for update status. Thanks again for posting. I should get the original.
Before them fire devours, behind them a flame blazes. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, behind them, a desert waste— nothing escapes them.
The kid’s world was smoke and fire, anger and noise. Most of all it was chaos. They’d been at it for three days now, but the kid had little sense of what was happening beyond what was immediately around him. He had no sense of time beyond the moment. The past did not matter. The future did not exist. The here and now was everything.
“Feed me,” Greywald shouted. He fired another burst from his RPK. The weapon spat out empty steel cases, hot enough to blister. Pulverized concrete puffed out with each impact. They were firing on the slab concrete buildings that served as barracks for soldiers once upon a time, before this land was turned over to the headcounters.
The kid handed up a forty-round magazine. Greywald swapped it out skillfully and handed the kid back the empty one. On the other side of the Hellcat, the man called Ski fired his RPK. Each weapon sat in its cradle, protected by a gun shield. An incoming round pinged off of the antique armor. Ski and Greywald opened fire again. To their right, the second Hellcat added its own machinegun fire to the fury. They used the old tank destroyers like mobile machinegun bunkers. They crept them forward, then, once the machineguns opened up, the dismounted riflemen could advance and maneuver.
The kid took the empty magazine and reloaded it from a box of ammunition in the bottom of the turret. The space was cramped, hot, and loud. Ski was stripped to the waist. His meaty pink flesh dripped sweat.
Somebody yelled up at the Hellcat, “They’re running out the back.”
Greywald yelled down. “Let them run. Where are they gonna run to?” Another pair of bursts ripped out of the machineguns.
Outside the Hellcat, rifle fire crackled. Greywald fired another burst and then yelled down at Angus.
“This place is almost done. Grab Chin and go find the boss. Tell him to bring up the truck and the bulldozer,” Greywald shouted down. The kid nodded, then swung himself out of the Hellcat’s open turret and dropped to the ground. The air was hot and smoky. The Irishman’s militia had attacked west into the headcounters’ reservation, burning everything in their path. To the east, dozens of buildings blazed. The Irishman spared nothing. Tool sheds, pump houses, pole barns; all got the torch. The militiamen would have burned a doghouse if they found one.
A ragged line of militiamen occupied a depression between the two tanks. Some leaned on the lip, firing into the buildings to their front. Others huddled deeper down, smoking or taking a break. The kid found Chin laying prone at the lip, sighting in with his rifle.
“Greywald wants us to bring up the dozer and the tires,” the kid said. Chin nodded. They both popped up out of the depression and trotted back to the east. They passed militiamen moving on foot or advancing slowly in vehicles. They passed a building that looked like it might have been a post office. Its stone walls remained intact, but thick, oily smoke poured out of the doors and windows. A bulldozer sat parked nearby. The Irishman’s welders had attached a mismatch of steel plates over the cab. One door was open, and the man inside smoked a cigarette. A shotgun rested in his lap.
“Bring the dozer up to the Hellcats,” Chin shouted up to the cab. A man inside waved down.
“Seen the fuel trucks?” Chin asked. The driver shook his head no and slammed the armored door. The bulldozer rumbled to life, spitting out choking black exhaust.
“Let’s keep heading east,” Chin suggested. “Maybe we can find that food truck.”
“I ain’t hungry.”
“Neither am I. But I am bored.” Chin set off and the kid followed him. The armored bulldozer lumbered in the opposite direction.
They found the fuel trucks parked at the Irishman’s headquarters. The Irishman, lank and stooped forward, shouted at a thickset man wielding a lever-action rifle with a long suppressor at the end. The thick man looked like he might strike the Irishman at any moment. The Irishman showed no fear and no patience.
“You’ll take your people and go up that canyon to the north like I told you, or I’ll send you home like a whipped child.”
“You ain’t the boss here.”
“I am the boss. You and your people came here. You joined us, which means I tell you what to do.”
“There ain’t nothing up that canyon.”
“There’s headcounters up that canyon and you’ll kill them and burn them out like I’ve ordered.”
“Or what?” The thick man asked with a shout.
“Or you’ll be gone,” the Irishman shouted back.
The adjutant stood near the Irishman and saw Chin and the kid. He motioned them over.
“What is it?” He asked in a whisper so as not to disturb the dispute.
“Greywald says the barracks is ready to go. He needs the fuel trucks up there.”
The adjutant nodded. “I’ll send the tires up there,” he said. The Irishman and the new man continued their argument.
“There ain’t nothing up there worth taking!”
“This is a punitive expedition, not piracy. If you just came for loot you can go back the way you came!”
Chin and the kid hoofed it back. They passed a dead headcounter in the middle of a blacktop road, scalped. A crow picked at the corpse, and when the two came close it took flight. They passed a group of men they’d never seen before. They lounged in the shade on the side of the road, weapons cradled at their sides or stacked against trees. Some drank beer. Across the road was a parking lot full of headcounter vehicles. Other men picked through the vehicles, stripping out anything of value.
“There’s a whole lot of new faces here,” Chin said.
“Everybody loves a party,” the kid replied. “We’ll see who sticks around to clean up.”
Chin stopped in his tracks and cursed.
“What is it?”
“We forgot to hit up the food truck.”
“C’mon,” the kid said. They continued back towards the gunfire.
The old barracks was the biggest building in the headcounter’s reservation. It was really four separate three-story buildings that were connected by single-story wings. The barracks had once been dormitories and squad bays for training soldiers. Then they became apartment complexes for resettled headcounters. When the kid and Chin got back, everybody was standing and shouting and pointing their guns. Some were pointing their guns at the old barracks. Greywald had his RPK out of its cradle and was pointing it at his fellow militiamen.
“You shoot them, and I’ll shoot you,” Greywald screamed. His face glowed beet red.
“You ain’t got the stomach for what needs to be done then get out of here old-timer," a young man shouted back up at Greywald on the Hellcat.
At the barracks, headcounters poured out waving white flags over their heads. The kid looked them over. These were the very old and the very young, and the women. The military-aged males fled west when the milia approached and left their families behind. Some men wanted to shoot the whole lot of them. Greywald had a different opinion.
“You ain’t shooting no kids you son of a bitch!”
“They kill our kids all the time, you damned coward.” The man shouting up at Greywald was so angry, strings of spit hung off his lips and chin. The kid flicked off his rifle’s safety and decided if Greywald didn’t shoot the man soon, he would. But the argument was soon interrupted.
Two headcounters ran out of the building. One was seventeen. The other was fifteen. These two boys were the remain behind element and they had pledged to martyr themselves to buy time for the older men to escape to the west.
The younger boy did just as he was trained. He ran into the largest group of surrendering refugees and detonated the suicide vest he was wearing. That cluster of surrendering people virtually disappeared. Many of the militiamen were knocked flat. Through the cloud of dust and smoke and liquified human beings, the second bomber ran. He ran straight for the Hellcat.
Greywald was ready. He’d danced this dance before.
The bomber emerged through the smoke, detonator in hand. Greywald leveled his RPK and opened fire in one steady stream of automatic fire that he walked onto the bomber. The bomber tumbled to the ground. Greywald paused to adjust his aim and then emptied the rest of the magazine into the bomber. The body jerked and puffs of blood and dust rose with each impact.
As Greywald shot the bomber, the other militiamen opened fire sympathetically. Only instead of firing into the bomber, they fired into any surrendering headcounters they could get into their sights. Young, old, women, it didn't matter. Fear and adrenaline and bloodlust seized the group. Only when the rifles went empty did the firing stop.
“Shit,” Greywald cursed when the smoke cleared. Over a hundred bodies lay between the militia lines and the barracks. Some were dead. Some weren’t.
The kid walked over to the Hellcat and called up to Greywald.
“Should we go in there and collect the wounded?”
“And do what with ‘em? We ain’t got no doctors.”
“We could finish them off.”
“Send for the priests. You don’t go. Send somebody else.”
“Why? They don’t want any priests.”
“Maybe I want a priest for them.”
The kid looked over at the writhing, moaning, dying mass of humanity and shrugged.
The bulldozer arrived, creaking mechanically. The driver opened his door and shouted over to Greywald. “What do you need?”
"Knockdown the wings connecting the buildings." Greywald pointed at the headcounter he’s shot. “Stay away from that one. He’s got a suicide vest on that we haven’t disarmed.”
The bulldozer driver didn’t seem worried. “Just shoot it with that main gun of yours.”
“The main guns don’t work. Just the machineguns.”
“Well, that’s no fun,” the bulldozer driver said. He pointed at the barracks. “Anybody still in there?”
Greywald looked over the bodies before answering. “Probably. Lock your doors. We’ll cover you with rifle fire.”
“Ain’t no basements in there… is there?”
Greywald shook his head no. The door slammed shut again and the armored bulldozer headed to its task.
The adjutant arrived next. He stood on the sideboard of a semi-truck pulling a trailer full of old tires. That truck pulled up right next to Greywald’s Hellcat. In the back of the trailer, the kid saw several drums of the gasoline and Styrofoam mixture.
“You got a plan?” The adjutant asked. Greywald nodded and the two talked for a bit. When they were done, Greywald scrambled down from the Hellcat and approached Chin and the kid.
“Clearing those barracks room by room would be the death of us. Even if there aren’t any more suicide bombers still inside, we’d probably lose half a dozen to friendly fire. So, we’re going to fill the ground floors of the taller buildings with tires. Then we’re going to light it all on fire.”
Originally Posted By sharkman6:
A common theme through all my works is the decay and collapse of the United States, but no, this is not in the same "universe" as any of my other stories.
Didn't know if this kid was going to "hammer" the enemy.
Really like the work, shame the big river is such a pain. I periodically re-read your earlier stuff.
Any thoughts on An alternate publisher/printable dead tree version?
Originally Posted By last_crusader:
Didn't know if this kid was going to "hammer" the enemy.
Really like the work, shame the big river is such a pain. I periodically re-read your earlier stuff.
Any thoughts on An alternate publisher/printable dead tree version?
This will be a stand alone story. Once it is over, it is over.
As for physical books, I have no plan. There seems to be some interest in physical books, but as long as I'm working regular jobs I just don't have the time to pursue that. Maybe when I retire, which can't be too mucb longer. I was planning on retiring in 2020 but COVID punched that plan in the face.
There does seem to be a lot of interest in the Hammer. I don't want to write about him, at least not a complete story. But I have a story in my head, Task Force Comanche , which would be a similar character in a similar setting. An exploration of a tragic hero.
I'd like to finish From the Sea after Across the Scimitar though.
Whether it was by design or by accident the arrival of the priests had a calming effect on the militiamen. The gunmen were less inclined to shoot surrendering noncombatants with men of the cloth looking over their shoulders. They now had a few hundred women, children, and old men corralled and under guard, but no clear idea of what to do with them.
“We’ll get some more when we light this on fire,” Greywald said. The kid looked up the staircase into the barracks-turned-apartment-building. He saw only darkness. To his right, a Lebanese Christian named Samir, or Sammy, called up the stairs in Arabic. He urged anybody still on the upper floors to come down and surrender. Sammy paused from his calls to surrender, turned to Greywald, and switched to English.
“They think if they come down we’re just going to shoot them,” Sammy said.
“Getting shot will be better than the alternative,” Greywald said, and the kid figured Greywald was right.
Instead of clearing out the multistory building room by room, Greywald had them fill the first-floor rooms with the old tires. They packed them into the big common rooms and the bottoms of the stairwells. Then they poured the gasoline and Styrofoam mixture inside of the tires. The mix was a sickly yellow color and had the sticky consistency of rubber cement.
“What is this?” the kid asked.
“Basically napalm,” Greywald said, and he poured out a bucket of the sticky stuff into the open well of an old truck tire whose rusting steel belts poked out
“The Styrofoam makes the gas thick and sticky and keeps it from spreading off the target. It’ll get the tires going from the inside out. Once all these tires start burning, they’re pretty much impossible to put out, not that I think any fire department is going to come out here now.” Greywald pointed at the stairwell.
"Smoke from this mix of gas, Styrofoam, and tires is pretty noxious. It'll rise into the upper floors. Nobody'll be able to stand that smoke.” Greywald made a sweeping motion with his hand, indicating the interior walls. “This construction is good for trapping heat. The materials can withstand heat, but only so much. Eventually, it will fail.”
“You can’t burn this building down with just a bunch of tires,” another man said. It wasn’t just a “bunch of tires” though. It was a whole truckload. Tires filled a nearby common room from wall to wall in stacks chest high, all slathered with homemade napalm. They’d spent the better part of an hour filling the building with tires.
“Sure I can’t,” Greywald said. His utter lack of enthusiasm was a dismissal of the man's doubts. The kid had the feeling Greywald had done this before.
“Sammy, last call. Tell whoever’s left up there to come out or they’re getting smoked out.”
Sammy nodded to Greywald and yelled up the stairs. Somebody, a male voice and angry, yelled back down. Sammy yelled back and an argument ensued. Back and forth it went and then a burst of rifle fire tore down the stairwell. Sammy scrambled away just in time.
“Fuck this, everybody out,” Greywald ordered. He pulled a road flare out of a pouch on his belt, struck it alight, and tossed it into a stack of tires that instantly came alive with fire. The heat hit the kid like it was a physical thing. He lit his own flare and then, running out the building, he tossed it into a corner and heard the satisfying sound of fire. Everybody raced away from the barracks.
Outside the air was clean, but to the east dozens of smoke funnels blemished the clear blue sky. The Irishman had come up with what passed as the logistics train. He and the adjutant conferred behind one of the two Hellcats. All around, militiamen milled about. Some watched the barracks come alive with fire. Some watched over the prisoners. The priests circulated through the groups. Off to the flank, the kid saw the armored bulldozer plow through the last of the single-story barracks wings, steering clear of the dead body that still wore a suicide vest. Greywald trotted over to the command group and the kid followed.
“We’ve used up our supply of tires and pallets,” the adjutant said, indicating the now burning barracks buildings. “We’ve got more back at the barn, but that’ll mean going back and getting them.”
“Some cops are watching the roads in and out now,” The Irishman replied.
“Right,” The adjutant replied. “If we send anybody, they’ll have to go in a force big enough to keep the police in their place.”
“We really need more tires?” the Irishman asked.
“You’d be surprised how quickly a truckload of tires gets used up when you’re using them to fill up buildings and burn them down. We’ve got a few more large buildings up ahead to deal with.”
The kid looked over at the barracks. The one he and Greywald put to the torch now started to pour out the thick and distinct smoke of burning tires. The adjutant continued.
“Wood will be fine for the lighter buildings, and the steel ones. There is plenty of forest around. We can gather wood and build fascines. Fill the buildings up that way. But that will take a lot of time and manpower.”
“We got plenty of manpower,” The Irishman said. “Once the word got out what we are doing here, people started flocking in. But I don’t think time is in our favor. In this kind of work, time is always against you.”
Shots rang out from one of the buildings. They all peaked around the side of the Hellcat. Rifle fire slashed out from the upper floor of a burning building. The assembled militia returned fire with an overwhelming fusillade. Unconcerned, everybody ducked back behind the Hellcat and continued their conversation.
“Okay, Adjutant. Take a convoy back and get more fuel for the fire. We’ll need it. If these buildings were made out of wood we’d be in a better position, but we’ve got to work with what we’ve got, and we’ve got to destroy this reservation. Destroy it. If we don’t, they’ll import twice as many headcounters to fill it up again and we’ll be right back where we started before the end of the year.”
Greywald spat into the dust. The adjutant nodded and said, “I’ll leave as soon as it gets dark, and I’ll take one of the range roads out.”
“What about the prisoners?” Greywald asked. He pointed to the corralled women and children and old men with his bearded chin. “What are we going to do with ‘em?”
The Irishman looked at the prisoners and his face twisted. He wasn’t comfortable with the question and the kid could tell he didn’t have an answer.
“Easy answer would be to kill them.”
“That would be the easy answer,” Greywald said. “And I bet there are plenty of boys here who would be happy to do it. But I don’t want no part of that.”
“Well, we can’t turn them loose. At least not now,” The Irishman said.
“We can take them with us,” Greywald said. "For now. We'll need to keep them under guard, as much to protect them from our boys as to keep them from escaping. But sooner or later we’ve got to figure out what to do with them.”
"Well, one thing at a time," The Irishman said. "I've got enough to worry about in the here and now. Contemplating the fate of the headcounters' left-behinds isn't a luxury I have at the moment. Which reminds me, I need to figure where all the fighting men have gone and what they’re up to.”
"All the roads head up and west to the lake. No routes out to the north and south unless a man is going to hoof it through the coastal range. The lake to the west is where they're going. As for what they're doing?" Greywlad shrugged.
“You up for another recon?”
Before Greywald could answer, a cheer went up. They peeked around the Hellcat again and surveyed the situation. Headcounters were jumping off the roof of one of the burning buildings. The height wasn’t tall enough to be lethal. Bodies crashed to the ground only to scream and writhe in pain. Militiamen fired into the bodies. The two priests gesticulated and tried to cool the burning fury. Greywald frowned.
“I’ll head out there and see what’s going on,” he said. He pointed with his bearded chin again, this time to the dead body with the suicide vest. “While I’m out, I’d like somebody to do something about that. Blow it up or drag it into a fire or something. It just needs to be taken care of before somebody gets hurt.”
The Irishman nodded solemnly. Amongst the militiamen, an argument broke out, distinct from the rest of the din. The kid saw Father Marcelino arguing with the beefy man with the lever-action rifle.
“Time ain’t on our side,” the kid whispered. But nobody heard him.
The Irishman bristled. “I told that son’ova bitch to clean out that valley back to the north and he’s damn here, where he ain’t damn s’pose to be.”
“Once word got out, every meathead from LA to Shasta with hot-blood and an itchy trigger finger came out here." He looked around conspiratorially and added. "I'll bet not everybody here is on our side neither. Infiltrators."
“I’ve no doubt you are correct,” the Irishman said.
“I’ll head out after dark,” Greywald said.
“I’ll go with you,” the kid volunteered. But Greywald shook his head.
“No. I’ll go alone this time,” Greywald said.
“I got a job for you and your buddy Chin,” the Irishman said. “You two find Nash and report back here. I’ll need you all to do the job that fat man wouldn’t.” He growled low and then added, “Command and control has been an issue.”
“I ain’t like back on the mew,” Greywald said. And the Irishman smiled.
“No. It ain’t like back on the mew.”
A new man trotted up to their little group. When he got closer, the kid could see he also had military-themed tattoos. They ran from his wrist all the way up his arm. He held a rifle in one hand and scraps of paper in another. He walked right up to the Irishman and presented the paper.
“Found these on the main road heading west. There was more out there. A lot more.”
Greywald answered the kid’s question before he could ask it.
“C-4 wrappings,” Greywald said. “Wonder what they’re going to do with that.”
“IEDs,” Chin offered.
“I suspect more vests like the one over there,” Greywald said, indicating the dead man in the suicide vest who was quickly becoming a landmark. “Better use of that particular explosive.”
“I wanna see what’s on the opposite side of these buildings,” the Irishman announced. He bounded up onto the deck of the Hellcat and the Adjutant struggled up after. The lanky tractor salesman rapped the armored turret with the head of his cane. “Move out.”
The others stepped back as the Hellcat sped off.
“Well,” Chin said. “I s’pose we better go grab Nash.”
“Hold up,” Greywald said. There was a tone in his voice. A discomfort. He shifted on his feet a bit without looking Chin or the kid in the eye. This was a display of nervousness the kid had never seen from the old veteran before. When he finally looked up, the kid saw sadness in those wise old eyes.
“You two are young. You got a lot of life left to live and nobody knows how this’ll play out. Long term, I don’t see how it works out anyway but bad. I’m going on this recon. If I come back and you two aren’t here, I won’t think any less of you.”
But the kid replied with the sad fact of it all. “There ain’t nowhere else for me to go. This is all I’ve got.”
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