Friday, June 29, 2012

Novel Entry - Compiled Through Chapter 2

 I have compiled the novel entries through Chapter 2 (and added the final half of Chapter 2 as well) into a single post so that it is easier to navigate, rather than multiple links.  

The remainder of Part 1 can be found here:


Take Care.


THE WESTERN FRONT
an introduction to part 1 of a multipart series
~
Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.

-Habakkuk 1:4
 ~
Prologue
The south Texas sun had long since been replaced by the full harvest moon, but the day’s arid temperatures had not fully retreated.  The huge orange disk in the night sky appeared so close that one might reach out and touch it.  The wind had refused to blow for days, amplifying the heat from earlier.  Despite the miserable conditions, they were relieved; this would be their final patrol before heading back to their redoubt on the tip of South Padre Island for a much needed break.  The members of the Texas State Guard’s First Regiment were indeed soldiers, but none of them had real combat experience prior to this.  The Alamo Guards were mostly known for their work in the aftermath of hurricanes and occasional support on the border.  They took their new role in stride, as best they could, but none of the men in the squad had signed up for action like this.  They had all removed their name tapes early in the operation after reports surfaced that some of the soldiers’ families had started receiving death threats; they now communicated strictly by code names.
The three-story adobe-style mansion sitting on two acres just north of Lasara had served as their forward operating base for the past week.  It was surrounded by fallow fields on three sides and the small southwestern town to the south; the view atop the high flat roof was better than anywhere else for miles.  The home’s cast-in-place concrete walls provided excellent protection from small arms fire and the surrounding eight foot high perimeter brick wall afforded them additional cover and security; in short, it was as perfect a location as was available.  They wondered who the previous owner was, and if there would ever come a day when he could return.  Pictures still hung on the wall: group shots while on vacation, during holidays and other memorable moments in the life of the now displaced family that once dwelled here.  The owner’s decision to install an indoor swimming pool was now a welcome reprieve for the weary soldiers and a boost to morale in between patrols; it helped wash away the memories of the brutal south Texas heat and fierce gun battles with men known for their vicious treatment of prisoners.  The Zetas and the Gulf Cartel had formed an uneasy alliance to push the gringos north; once the gringos were sufficiently broken, they would divide the spoils and territory amongst themselves.  The Z-G, as they were commonly referred to now, had developed a brutal reputation for flaying prisoners alive; this reputation had resulted in a mass exodus of locals.
The unit’s squad leader, now referred to simply as Barret, leaned over several aerial, topographic and road maps spread out haphazardly on the billiards table in the salon as he discussed the specifics of their final patrol with six of his men.  “Our scouts have observed several suspected hostile vehicles in and around Raymondville earlier this evening.  The Z-G never practice light discipline, so they should be fairly simple to locate.  We leave out in two hours; be ready.  We will locate, identify and engage the targets if they are in fact Z-G.  Remember, all radio communication is to be in coded Spanish; if our communication is being monitored by them, or anyone else, hopefully it will sound like just another Z-G squabble over the airwaves.  We are more likely to avoid a third party encounter or Z-G reinforcements that way.  I want redundant functionality checks on all equipment, especially the infrared lighting on the Humvees; this is our last night on vacation and we don’t need any surprises.  We’ve lost too many squads already, and I am particularly partial to this one.” 
~
At 2100 hours, sixteen men quietly pulled out of their lavish forward operating base into the disputed territory that was once south Texas.  The mood of the men was probably not unlike the mood of a different group of Texans in a small Spanish mission nearly two hundred years prior.  Barret had even taken his namesake from a kindred soul that had fought and died in that same mission.  Their situation was not much different from their ancestors’ situation either; the redoubt they had established on South Padre Island had been hugely successful in combating the cartels, but they had begun to gain the attention of the cartels as well.  The Alamo Guards had planted moored mines in the Port Mansfield Cut nearly forty miles north, effectively blocking the only safe passage into the waters beyond the barrier island.  The cartels had only two options on the water:  travel north one hundred miles and battle Port Aransas, or bring the fight to South Padre Island; they had decided on the island.  The state guardsmen had repelled several combined land and sea assaults from the causeway and the pass, but the assaults were getting fiercer.  The Alamo Guards of South Padre Island knew it was only a matter of time before they would all die, if reinforcements and supplies did not arrive soon.
After several minutes of driving, they located their quarry.  With all of the vehicles’ lights off, except for the imperceptible infrared lighting that increased the effectiveness of their night vision equipment, they closed to within five hundred feet of four small pickups slowly cruising east towards Raymondville on Highway 186.  The big harvest moon was their enemy tonight as well because it illuminated the plains, and everything in it.  An observant occupant in one of the pickup trucks would soon detect the four Humvees slowly approaching from behind.  One of the guardsmen popped open the top hatch on the front Humvee and braced his elbows on the roof as he peered through his night vision binoculars; the trucks’ beds were filled with silhouettes of riders and their easily recognizable AK-47 rifles.  He climbed back down into the Humvee as he said, “Our scouts were right Barret; they ain’t cowboys.”
Barret keyed his radio and tapped his finger against the microphone twice slowly and twice quickly – their confirmation code for hostiles.  The four Humvees accelerated in unison, lurching forward with their diesel engines roaring like chupacabras.  By the time the cartels realized they were being pursued, the angry three ton monsters were nearly on top of them; the men in the back of the pickups were too preoccupied with bracing for impact and yelling, “Go, go!” in thick Spanish that they never considered returning fire. 
The Humvees were four wide and nearing 70 MPH as they reached the two rear pickups; the trucks’ drivers were trying to accelerate but were hopelessly blocked by the slower reactions of their amigos in front of them.  One of the rear pickups jerked hard to the left and off the highway onto a dusty farm road; the high speed transition from asphalt to sand and gravel spun the light rear end of the truck around and flung a man from the bed of the truck thirty feet before a sudden thud and a final bounce.  The remaining rear truck was no match for the two Humvees that slammed their massive winches and steel brush guards into the tailgate; an explosion of screams and wrinkling sheet metal pierced the night’s silence as the pickup lurched forward and was then pushed along the highway like some strange, landside Texan barge and tugboat.  As the two outside Humvees launched forward as if propelled from a slingshot, two men popped the top hatches of the center Humvees and engaged their M134 Miniguns on the rear pickup; they each let nearly thirty rounds of 7.62 NATO loose and annihilated the truck in less than a second.
The two front pickups were now well aware of what fate awaited them, and roared forward with speeds that were unexpected from their rusted and dented exteriors.  The two Humvees were nearing their top speed and closing quickly, but the trucks began to slowly pull away.  The riders in the back had all witnessed the two Miniguns eviscerate the other pickup, and had no desire to elicit a similar response directed towards them; they suddenly disappeared below the walls of the trucks’ beds.  Barret keyed up his radio again and spoke to his squad in coded Spanish, “It’s okay, let them pull off some; I’d rather not have AK rounds flying at us.  Let’s see if they lead us somewhere; if they get too far ahead, we’ll just use the Miniguns.”
The pickups swerved in opposite directions at an intersecting dirt road; The Humvees split up in pairs and began to gain back lost ground.  The drivers realized the flaw in their evasive maneuver and within a mile were back on the straight asphalt drag of 186 as they blew past the green sign city limit sign that read:  “Raymondville City Limit Pop. 9733.”  A mile into town as they passed the boxy, two-story City Hall, the Humvees’ radio squawked to life, “Barret, we’ve got company at our twelve on the 77 overpass; they look like Humvees, but smaller.  Maybe MRAPS?” 
“Yea, I see them.  Those boys have come a long way from home; I’ve seen Federales a few times, but no U.S. military south of Corpus Christi in months.  Let’s welcome them to the great state of Texas.  Front two Humvees, get a man ready up top; as soon as the pickup trucks are under the overpass, hit them with the Mk 19.  If a couple 40 mm grenades under the feet of our boys up top don’t scare them back to Corpus, then maybe they will be worth having around.”
The lighter and faster pickup trucks had a ten second lead on the Humvees as they approached the overpass.  They would occasionally perform a slalom maneuver in the highway, as if the drivers anticipated another hailstorm from the M134 Miniguns at any moment; their unease helped the Humvees maintain a closer tail than they otherwise would have.  Barret gripped the radio’s microphone fiercely in anticipation with his gloved hand; he preferred to use the old style radio microphone while in the vehicle, it reminded him of a different time when wars were fought in distant lands rather than American farm towns.  Twenty seconds until the fireworks. 
Barret leaned forward, squinting through the front windshield with his night vision goggles as a smirk crept across his face; he keyed the mic, “Everybody ready up top?”  Two affirmatives echoed back at him almost in unison.  “Hold for my order.”  He craned his neck up and noticed the guns on top of the three MRAPs.  Fifteen seconds. 
The driver of the lead pickup was sweating and cursing profusely; at this point, he had no promise of a next breath.  Their only hope, in his mind, was to make it to the overpass, swerve across two lanes to jump the highway’s edge curb and pray he could manage to retain some semblance of control of the truck at 80 mph to guide it around the sharp curve under the bridge that would take them south on to highway 77 – and survival.  He knew the Humvees could never negotiate the turn in time, so just maybe they would turn their attention to the other truck and engage them while he made his way to Avondale and beyond.  Ten seconds. 
  Barret studied what he could now identify as MRAP M-ATVs with their armaments pointed ominously downward.  Eight seconds.  His mind had been trying to process why they would allow friendlies to sweep under their barrels – unless; no – impossible, he could see the markings on the vehicles from this distance.  Seven seconds.  They were obviously U.S. military.  And yet, something was wrong.  Six seconds. 
The driver of the lead pickup had maneuvered himself to the far right lane of the highway.  The onramp for Highway 77 south was fast approaching; his palms were sweaty on the wheel as he prepared for the suicide maneuver; he never looked up at the overpass.  Five seconds.   
Barret’s stomach was floating in his chest by the time he keyed the mic again; he couldn’t risk the chance and the time was now.  “Up top, back in the Humvee, now!  Order!  Now!”  The two men slid back in their cabins and slammed the top hatches shut.  They were confused and more than a little irritated; they were looking forward to rocking the world of the boys up top.  As they finished the thought, they saw the first of the tracers hit the pickups in front of them and watched as the trucks seemingly buckled in pain from the hail of bullets.  Then a lead fire storm erupted on top of them.  It seemed as if every square inch of their armored roof was clanging in unison; at any moment, Barret knew the roof would surely relent and be torn apart. 
The lead pickup truck careened off the road, into the ditch and then sailed through the air.  Limp bodies were flung haphazardly from the bed of the flaming projectile.  The other truck had spun several times and looked as if it would stop in the middle of the highway until the front two Humvees slammed it to the other shoulder.  The drivers of the rear Humvees had forecasted this maneuver and braked abruptly to avoid contact as their team in the front cleared the way.  With the road ahead clear, they accelerated ferociously.
Barret quickly transitioned from shock to rage and keyed the mic up in English for the first time, “Sheee-yit!  We’re on the same team!”  No response.  “This is the unit commander for Alpha Squad, Texas State Guards, First Regiment out of South Padre Island.  Identify yourselves immediately or we will return fire.”  No response.
“Oh my God; Sir, do you have any casualties?”  The voice of the squad leader was strained and audibly distraught.  All protocol had been dropped. 
The other Humvees had been following the exchange and responded to Barret almost in unison in their code, “all clear, Sir.” 
Barret engaged the squad leader again, “Negative.  We are taking up a defensive position; I want you and your squad off that damn bridge and down here with me, on foot.  We have a lot to talk about.”
“Affirmative, Sir; we’re coming down.”

1
He drifted in and out of that state of consciousness that was not quite asleep, not quite awake.  The sun was beginning to crest the loblolly and slash pine tops to his right and kiss the pasture beyond with its warmth.  As twilight fled once again, he was gently tugged away from his lull by the morning rays.  Jake was not sure how long it had been since he had last heard the coffee perking, but even a bitter cup would be satisfying enough.  He grabbed the long barreled revolver from the table beside him and slid it into the worn leather holster as he sauntered into the kitchen.  A smile crept across his face as he poured the cup and stirred in the smallest amount of creamer.  The percolator was just another small trespass against what was expected, and he enjoyed that.
His stroll back outside was more purposeful as he began to feel the coffee’s effects.  Jake gripped the revolver and slid it back onto the table as he surveyed the back of his property and the adjoining pastures.  It was peaceful and inviting, everything the world had ceased to be.  The spring fog acted like a thick blanket over the distant pond in front of him.  Several wood ducks quacked argumentatively amongst themselves as they meandered aimlessly across the water, occasionally dipping beneath the surface for a hapless minnow or maybe some pond weed.  He could faintly see a few white oaks beyond the fog and the pines, as the fields eventually gave way to the stands of timber and finally the hardwood swamp beyond.  Satisfied with the serenity, he downed the last of his coffee and stepped off the deck to scan the rest of the property, and reflect.
“How did we ever get so far off the path?” he thought to himself.  He knew the answer, even as he asked himself.  It was incremental; the seemingly small and unrelated choices a people make are what ultimately destroy it.  The swings of society’s pendulum were almost always met with an equal and opposite force, but the culture’s rudder never got quite back on the true course.  It was the nudges, the values of a wiser generation that never connected with their sons and daughters; the lessons of history that were lost or rewritten.  He paused for a moment as he plucked a cold hardy mandarin and rubbed his thumb across the leathery and pitted skin as he continued on.  One day, a point of singularity is inevitably reached:  the nudges soon enough become shoves and reality seems to change in days and weeks rather than generations.  A paradigm shift occurs before a society’s eyes, if they choose to see it.    
In one motion he lobbed the unripe citrus and lifted his hand to wave to Franklin Thames, his neighbor.  Frank easily had three long and hard decades on Jake.  His skin was weathered by years of working the land and his world view was molded by the time spent in reflection of wars fought long ago that he was too young to understand in his youth.  He wore faded brown overalls with a dusty, half-breed, western hat.  Frank’s right arm cradled his ancient lever-action carbine and his left hand pinched a hand-rolled cigarette.  Frank was standing over a heap in his pasture as he motioned Jake his way.  Sasha, Jake’s German shepherd, was already with Frank, contently occupied with something firmly held in her mouth; he was the only other man Sasha would tolerate.  Jake had tried to break her from leaving, but if Frank was tending to the cattle, she would split time between the two men.  Jake eventually relented, partly because he knew Frank appreciated her keeping watch for him while he worked.
Jake spread the barbed wire wide enough to duck through and approached the two; the heap on the ground was now obvious to him.  Frank took one last drag of the tobacco before stamping it out with the Cuban heel of his boot.  “Jake, what are we going to do?  This is the second one this month.  I guess it’s finally made it here.”
Jake examined the partially field dressed calf, its most prized cuts crudely removed sometime the night before.  The object in Sasha’s mouth Jake had noticed from a distance was a bone of some sort that she had retrieved from the remains.  “Frank, I’m sorry; we never heard a thing.  How many calves does that leave you with?”
“Ten, but I expect them to be gone before much longer if I don’t make provisions to bring them in closer to the house.  I don’t have the manpower to watch the livestock and defend the house.”
“I heard from Mr. Gaston that a farm not far from here was attacked two nights ago; there were about six of them.  The gunfire woke the neighbors; they started returning fire after they realized what was going on.  They hit one of them; he bled out after his friends left him.  The family didn’t even realize he was there until the next morning; everyone was too afraid to go outside.”
“Yea, I heard about that.  The sheriff showed up and took the body, but they didn’t even collect shell casings nor do a proper investigation.  Son, they’re trying damn hard to stem the tide and losing ground every day, we’re on our own out here.”
The two men continued on with what might be considered the small talk of some strange new world.  Sasha playfully gnawed at her bone, occasionally looking up at the two and tilting her head to the side, as if to admit confusion at some bit of news or gossip.  The men praised the acts of the now famous neighbors and how lucky the unnamed farm was to have neighbors close enough to hear and respond to the violence.  The two men realized, without mention, the similarities between the unnamed farm and their own.  Jake had bought twenty acres from Frank nearly ten years earlier - a parcel right next to the Thames homestead, much to the chagrin of Frank’s children.  The two had met through a realtor friend of Frank’s; she knew his situation:  Frank needed the liquidity to continue running the farm, but didn’t want to openly list the property and deal with the numerous random potential buyers stalking through the tall ryegrass and among the pecan trees that dotted his winter pasture.  She told him that it was just part of the process, but he refused:  “You’ll know the right buyer when you meet him – and when you do, send him my way.”  And so she did, Franklin Thames and Jake Sellers had a longneck and a long talk befitting old friends in Frank’s hayloft overlooking the property that first evening, and began the process of transfer the next day.  It took another week to formalize the transfer, but to both men the handshake at the conclusion of the first evening was the true point of sale.  Relative to the other homesteads and farmhouses, Jake’s house was unusually close to Frank’s old ranch style home, but the two families from different eras enjoyed the friendship that blossomed from that closeness.
The men exchanged a few final words and nodded as they parted; Sasha stood to stretch and let out a high pitched whine as she yawned, and trotted off with Jake.  Jake and Sasha crossed the fence and continued to the back of the property to finish the morning outing.  The cool morning air began to betray the welcome arrival of autumn; the gentle breeze of the season would soon enough rustle the buttery, nut-like fruits from their perches high in the branches of the near perfectly aligned rows of pecan trees.  He looked forward to trading them for some of Mrs. Thames’ locally renowned pecan pies in return. 
Jake’s pleasant anticipation was soon reigned in as his mind focused back on the reality of his situation; it had been peaceful enough for longer than any of them expected, but now the problems of the urban, and subsequently suburban areas had finally reached their sleepy community.  Besides the price of everything multiplying by a factor of at least five and the mass unemployment, the first truly noticeable effect of the troubling storm cloud that had settled over them was the increasingly common blackouts. 
The first instance seemed innocent enough, a sub-station failure during a thunderstorm that probably just needed a quick repair by the utility company.  When the utility crew arrived onsite, they were violently ambushed, beaten and robbed.  By the second or third ambush, a worker was kidnapped and ransomed.  The workers eventually refused to perform any repairs without a police escort.  In the beginning this delayed the restoration of electricity by several hours, but as violence increased in the cities the delay would often be a day or longer.  This seemed to escalate the cycle of violence and unrest fueled the swift deterioration of the peoples’ expected quality of life. 
His mind continued to wander as he approached the back of his house.  His wife’s silhouette appeared at the threshold of the back French doors.  “Come on in hun, breakfast is almost ready.” 
Jake stopped for a moment and grinned at her, his right hand instinctively coming to rest on the worn wooden grip of the Ruger .357.  Sasha poked her head between his legs, plopped down on her haunches and looked at Kate.  
“What are you two trouble makers staring at?”  Kate struggled to mask the smile that was slowly creeping across her face as she playfully put her hands on her hips and feigned disdain.
“We just wanted to take you in for a moment; you look beautiful.”
“Oh hush!” she quipped, still smiling, “I look like a wreck; save your smooth talk for when you need it!”  She spun abruptly, hiding her blushing cheeks from him and marched back inside in an exaggerated manner.  Jake grinned and scratched Sasha behind her ears before starting towards the house.  Her tail wagged in delight as she bounded along beside him. 
Katelyn planted a loud kiss on Jake’s lips as she smiled and handed him two plates; he grinned as he spun and carried them to the rectangular oak table in the small dining nook.  He admired her figure as she grabbed her plate and a fresh pot of coffee and walked towards him; she shot him a wink and then poured the coffee into three cups already set on the table.  Jake’s brother Geram was slowly dragging himself to the table with one eye still closed.  He stretched his arms to the ceiling and slumped into the chair opposite of Jake.  “Kate you’re too good to this man; fried ham, eggs and home grown blueberries – you got a sister?”
She laughed, “Yes I am and you know she’s married, Geram.”
“That’s alright, as long as you make an extra plate when you cook for this guy, I can cope.”  Geram grinned as he popped a half frozen blueberry in his mouth and finished defrosting it with a sip of his coffee. 
“You’ll have a plate here as long as you want it,” Jake added.  He finished his first egg, then continued, “Mr. Thames lost a calf last night to some poachers; they field dressed it in the pasture and left what they couldn’t carry or perhaps fit in an ice chest.  Did you see anything last night on your watch?”
“I had a dark SUV creep by us and the Thames’ at about zero one hundred, but I never saw them come back by.  I tried to get a number on the occupants with the binoculars, but it was too dark to see inside the vehicle, even with the full moon.” 
Jake nodded, “The only vehicle that I saw on my watch had the same description; they came by around 4 o’clock, but they weren’t creeping.”
“That would have given them enough time to scout and get the calf.” 
Jake nodded in agreement as he stabbed several blueberries with his fork and lifted them to his mouth.  The light banter at the beginning of breakfast had faded and the three were more solemn now.  Kate topped off the boys’ cups and left them alone as she went to feed Sasha some scraps.      
Jake pushed his plate aside and leaned forward, eyeing Geram, “It’s been two days since you showed up.  They don’t let you just drop in on family for several days while you’re in active duty.  You ready to talk yet, SEAL?”


2
The muddy waters of the Tombigbee and Alabama Rivers converged just north of Mt. Vernon.  The recent heavy rains in upstate Alabama had caused the rivers to swell well past flood stage much earlier than normal this year.  The rivers were set to crest two days from now; most of the logging roads that dutifully followed the ridges of the river swamp had several feet of water over them already.  The deer, hogs and other wild game had long since retreated to higher and drier grounds.  Of all nights, this night deep in the backwoods of the river swamp should have been the domain of croaking bullfrogs and grunting alligators, but not tonight.
A hush rolled across the cutoff between the two rivers, interrupted by the ascending groan of a distant but approaching outboard motor.  The low groan had little to do with the unnatural hush across the swamp; it was the blood curdling howl that emanated from somewhere within it.  Immediately after, a second, more primal howl answered; finally, they cried out in unison.  This strange chorus of animal and mechanical baffled the lords and princes of this natural kingdom; they felt compelled to their silence as they waited in anticipation of this strange midnight wayfarer.    
Clayton threw his head back once again and let out a howl befitting some mythical beast, to the untrained ear at least.  He knew it drove Moses crazy; he was already bounding to and fro in the custom-built, shallow draft aluminum boat.  Moses could abstain no longer as he put his front paws on the bow and offered up his interpretation for any lycanthropes that may have been confused by Clayton’s less than perfect rendition.  Clayton let out a bellowing laugh at Moses and then leaned forward to bang the drywell in several quick successions; Moses instinctively crawled into the bottom of the boat just as it performed a perfectly timed “S” motion.  The two stumps were not visible even in the daylight hours, but Clayton knew exactly where they were; this swamp was his.
An onlooker would be convinced of his lunacy, if not because of the spectacle of his howls, then absolutely because of his choice to brave the unpredictable floodwaters at near-full throttle by only the light of a full moon that was all but hidden by the thick canopy of willows, maples and Spanish moss above.  Clayton was no fool though; his homemade apparatus of a motorcycle helmet and night vision goggles transformed him into a backwater demigod of sorts, and he reveled in it.  This night was his.
As they emerged from the darkness of the cutoff and into moonlit river, he twisted the throttle as far as it would go; they both ducked low as the boat cut a diagonal path across the 700’ wide river to the small tributary, commonly called a slough locally, on the other side.  In less than thirty seconds, they were back in the welcome confines of darkness and cover.
They braved one final bend and before he yanked kill switch from the “mud motor”; he leveraged the boat’s momentum to push it through the thick wall of vegetation and trees that grew along the submerged banks and drift into a clearing a couple hundred feet beyond.  An alligator snapping turtle on a nearby log dove into the murky depths to avoid their presence. 
Clayton crawled to the front of the boat, grasped the damp bow rope and tied a quick clove hitch to a nearby cypress tree.  As they waited and listened, he quietly opened the cooler and retrieved two biscuits and some rope sausage.  He tossed one of the biscuits to the Catahoula Cur dog and he caught it mid-air.  He flicked his folding knife open and split the sausage into two even portions; Moses appreciated the gesture of equality; he licked Clayton’ hand before taking the cold meat.  As they enjoyed their snacks and listened for the sounds of any would-be followers, Clayton grabbed a wooden paddle and shoved it down into the black water to determine a depth.  The depth check was more of an old habit than a necessity; his boat could take off from nine inches of muck without any problems.  Once on plane, he needed less than a half inch of water over soft mud to navigate the swamp.  Clayton finished his biscuit and leaned back in his seat to take in the wonder of his artificially green hued surroundings.
Spanish moss and thick, gnarled vines hung from the cypress and white oaks that surrounded his hidden enclave.  He counted six giant fox squirrel nests that dotted the nearby oak trees.  He noted several pairs of widely space eyes on the water, staring back at him.  The alligators’ curiosity was emboldened when Clayton made his night runs without lighting; often they would drift within several feet of his boat.  Their presence did not bother Clayton or Moses, as long as he was safe in the boat and they were in the water.  The cool night air was a welcome relief from the southern sun’s relentless barrage.  Clayton hoped the flood was a herald of an early frost that would usher in a short reprieve from the horde of insects that had started to swarm their enclave.
They waited a half hour and failed to detect any indication of human life.  Satisfied that they were indeed alone, Clayton tugged the knot loose from the cypress tree and eased the boat to an idle as they slowly continued on their way.  They idled down the slough for another half hour and then killed the motor again.  Clayton grabbed a long wooden pole and quietly pushed the boat through the thick vegetation at the slough’s edge until he could see through the cover on the other side.  He peered through the leaves and across the empty lake to the shore beyond. 
Sodium-vapor and halogen lamps pierced the darkness on the opposite shore, reflecting off the lake’s water like a poor substitute for the starless sky.  Dozens of small camps supported by weathered timber piling towered over the surrounding cypress knots; their roofs extending increasingly higher into the night air as they continued up the gentle slopes.  Many of the closest camps already had several feet of water beneath them.  Clayton scanned the shore by the landing for any signs of movement, but found none.  He scratched Moses’ head and whispered “See anyone, boy?”  Moses turned around and climbed over the drywell.  “Me neither, maybe next week; let’s head home.” 
~
As they made their way back home, Clayton’s demeanor was much more reserved.  He reflected on a past life in another world; he had once been a very successful contractor and entrepreneur.  His first million was hard earned through long days, sleepless nights and relentless ambition.  He did anything that would turn a profit:  residential developments, industrial plant shutdowns, demolition, offshore and countless other types of work.  He particularly loved demolition work because he could get paid to remove the old structure, crush the brick and concrete, and resell it as base material for roadways and parking areas – plus it was unbridled fun to slam a wrecking ball into a building. 
He soon realized the real money was in being an owner/developer.  He would research undeveloped areas, purchase raw land, develop shopping centers, sell a few outlying parcels to help recoup his investment, and lease the shops.  He successfully repeated his formula multiple times; the next few million were earned much easier than the first.  A new way of business came with the territory however, and he despised it.  The permits, regulations and laws were countless and restrictive.  The government inspectors had an endless repertoire of building and environmental codes that they could deem a developer in violation of, regardless if he actually was or not, seemingly at their whim.  A single owl that was considered endangered could reduce a profitable endeavor to a crawl through red tape with the only light at the end of the tunnel a dim flicker of hopelessly breaking even.  Of course there was another way, a way to make all of your troubles disappear.  It started innocent enough and could almost be justified, if you remembered to check your morality at the door.  Before long, it was easier for him to count the people he was not bribing; it seemed everyone wanted to stick their hands deep into his pockets.  Clayton Sellers grew to despise the realities of the “easy” life he had long dreamed of.
It has been said that every man should know his number.  He should have an amount, however large it may be, so that if he ever reaches it then he can consider himself a success and politely back away from the table with his soul intact.  If he does not know his number, greed will surely devour him; he will forsake everything, and everyone, in his pursuits.  The man with a number knows wealth to be a means; the man without knows wealth only as an unobtainable end.  Three years ago, Clayton reached his number.   He dumped it all: the businesses, properties in town, stocks, bonds and all the racketeers that had made a living off of his talents.
He bought two thousand acres in the middle of the river swamp for a song; even he was blown away that the timber company had accepted his lowball offer.  It wasn’t prime land, most of the property flooded when the muddy waters of the surrounding rivers swelled beyond their banks.  Clayton did not mind the flooding; in a typical year the property would flood enough to foil most of the poachers, but the water was still shallow enough to restrict access to all but the most specialized of vessels – a vessel much like his of course.  He leased the surrounding twenty thousand acres from the same timber company as a buffer, beyond that was mostly state wildlife reserve.  Clayton’s theory of life was one of irony:  sometimes the only way to spit oneself out of the beast was to feign defeat and allow it to swallow you whole, so that one day you might have the leverage to go forth and never look back.
After a long, uneventful ride back, they finally were within sight of home.  Home was a one room cedar camp house on timber piles nestled in a grove of swamp oaks, their massive branches overhanging the brown metal roof.  Soon enough, he would be laying in his bed on cold winter nights listening to the huge swamp oak acorns clatter on the metal roof like errant golf balls.
Clayton had to float all of the building materials in to the site, which was a daunting feat in its own right.  The work was made harder by the remoteness of the site and his determination to keep the location a secret.  It took nearly six months to build the camp; three of Clayton’s closest friends helped him with most of the work.  Actually, they were probably his only friends, if you were to ask him.  Everybody that knew Clayton liked him, but if he was not certain he could trust someone with his life, they were just acquaintances to him. 
The screened porch wrapped around the entirety of the camp; on the front, a wide staircase descended into the muddy waters below.  Clayton estimated the depth to be about two feet at the stairs.  He killed the motor and drifted towards the stairs.  Moses, who had been napping, awoke and bounded to the bow of the boat.  Clayton guided the vessel alongside the stairs with expert skill and looped a stern rope around one of the staircase’s rail posts.  He crawled to the bow and did the same before climbing over the rails and onto the stairs.  Moses whined as he struggled to squeeze between two rail posts; Clayton laughed at Moses’ expense and patted him on the side of his ever growing belly.  They turned and started up the stairs; the smell of fresh cornbread wafted to Moses’ nose first, as he suddenly pushed off with his back paws and bounded up to the top.  Clayton laughed as he caught a whiff, “Boy, if you eat any more, I’ll have to leave you here next time.”  Moses turned and whined, then spun back around and nudged the screened door with his snout.
Claire opened the front door and the aroma from within was almost too much for Moses;  he burst into the camp and stood next to the wood burning stove.  Clayton greeted her with a weak smile and a kiss on the cheek; she shared his worry.  “No sign of them yet, hun?”
“No ma’am.”
“They’ll turn up soon enough; come on in, I have fresh cornbread and catfish.”
“Mmm, you sure know how to end a day on a good note.”  He dropped a catfish filet in Moses’ open mouth and it disappeared instantly down his throat.
Clayton grabbed three filets and two wedges cornbread and sat down at the table across from Claire.  Moses had devoured another filet and far too much cornbread; he now rested contently in front of the door.  Clayton smiled; Moses knew his post.  Claire was reading her Bible by the bluish hue of a LED lamp.  She cleared her throat, looked up and said, “Listen to this:    
‘But when they said, ‘Give us a king to lead us,’ this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord.  And the Lord told him: ‘Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.  As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you.  Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.’
Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king.  He said, ‘This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots.  Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.  He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.  He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants.  He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants.  Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use.  He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves.  When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.   ‘But the people refused to listen to Samuel. ‘No!’ they said. ‘We want a king over us.  Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.’
When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord.  The Lord answered, ‘Listen to them and give them a king.’”
Clayton finished the last of his cornbread and sat in silence for a few minutes, considering the verses.  Claire watched him intensely.  Finally, she broke the silence, “Do you think we asked for this?”
“I know I didn’t.”
“That’s not what I meant, you know that.  We the people; society.  We.”
He rubbed his beard and thought for a while before finally answering.  The playful demeanor from earlier was gone, “I’m not sure; if we didn’t ask for it, we sure beat around the bush with Him, though.  If you believe in the Lord, you don’t go acting like we have for the last hundred years or so without knowing you’re pissing Him off.  If you don’t believe in Him, you still don’t go acting like we have without knowing you’re screwing up the balance of ought to and shouldn’t.  So in that respect, I guess it was bound to happen; we just lucked up and got to live through it.” 
“Maybe we are supposed to live through it.   You and I and the family.”
“Maybe so, babe.  I’ve always heard it said that you are where you are and when you are for a reason, even if it is a bit part.  Hey, did I tell you that dinner was perfect?”
“No, I don’t believe you did.”
“Well it was, perfect.  I love you; let’s get some rest.”       

7 comments:

  1. This great. I can't wait to read it all. I thank you.
    Papa Mike
    III

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    Replies
    1. Forgot to add:
      I don't have a Kindle and can't afford one, but I would love to have one....lol
      Just stuck on a limited income so I'll just have to wait till next posting to read more.
      I look forward to the next reading, thanks again.
      Papa Mike
      III

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  2. Yeah, this is a good 'un. Thanks for writing.

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  3. You can get a kindle app for free on your pc. It's just a ebook reader. So you don't need an actual kindle device, per say. Besides the book you can get tons of free ebooks thru the reader. Classics like bram stokers Dracula, machiavelli - the prince, art of war, etc. check it out.

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  4. Added link to free Kindle reader on blog sidebar.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Mike & Peter. Glad you enjoy my work.

      Delete
  5. Like I said before.....good stuff.

    Hope to see more, soon.

    Bob
    III

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