Novel: the Western Front [Book 1]

The Western Front, Part 1 of 3
by Archer Garrett

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Synopsis

Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.  -Habakkuk 1:4

     Darkness has descended upon the world; the fabric of society has been torn asunder, sovereign nations collapse under their own burdens, once stable governments are ushered into revolution and allies of old are thrust into war. The tentacles of darkness have inevitably traveled across the Atlantic and are now tightening their grip on the American republic.
     Now, faced with a collapsing economy, a failing currency and a society that is swiftly casting its humanity aside, the United States stands at the precipice of a bedlam and malevolence not witnessed since the fall of Rome.
     Part 1 follows several characters who strive to navigate the chaos, including:
Jake, his wife and brother are forced to flee the maelstorm of violence as it spills from the cities and into their small town enclave.
     A Texas State Guardsmen deep behind enemy lines on South Padre Island, stands with his compatriots against a wave of unspeakable atrocities committed by a ruthless cartel alliance committed to seizing the spoils of the American southwest.
     An outlaw and his Catahoula cur companion, learn to survive and even thrive in their river swamp domain as they seek a redoubt from the troubles that plague the world beyond.
     A radical revolutionary intent on plunging the wounded nation into revolution as he stokes the flames of hatred and destruction.



Prologue

Barrett

South Texas


The south Texas sun had long since been replaced by the dull light of the harvest moon, but the day’s arid temperatures still lingered.  The bright 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, only serving to amplify the heat.  Despite the miserable conditions, they were relieved.  This would be their final patrol before they returned to their redoubt on the tip of South Padre Island for a much-needed respite.  The members of the Texas State Guard’s First Regiment were indeed soldiers, but few 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 removed their name tapes early in the operation after reports surfaced that some of the soldiers’ families had received death threats.  Now, they communicated strictly with code names.

The three-story adobe-style mansion rested on two acres just north of Lasara.  It had served as their forward operating base for the past week.  The estate 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, 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 be a time when he could return.  Pictures still hung on the wall:  group shots while on vacation, during holidays and other important moments in the life of the now displaced family that once dwelled there.

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 south Texas heat, and fierce gun battles with men known for their vicious treatment of prisoners.  The Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel had formed an uneasy alliance to push the gringos north.  Once the Americans were sufficiently broken, the cartels would divide the spoils and territory amongst themselves.  The Z-G, as they were commonly referred to as now, had developed a brutal reputation for flaying prisoners alive.  This infamy had resulted in a mass exodus of locals.

The unit’s squad leader, now referred to simply as Barrett, leaned over the billiards table in the salon.  He examined several aerial, topographic and road maps spread out haphazardly in front of him.  Several of his officers stood on either side of him and discussed the specifics of their final patrol. 

“…Our scouts’ve observed several hostile vehicles around Raymondville not long ago.  The Z-G rarely practice light discipline, so they should be easy enough to locate.  We leave out in two hours; be ready.  We’ll locate, identify and engage the targets, if they’re in fact Z-G.  Remember, all radio chatter is to be in coded Spanish.  If our communication is being monitored by them, or anyone else, hopefully it’ll sound like just another narco squabble over the airwaves.  We’re more likely to avoid a third party encounter or reinforcements that a’way.  I want redundant 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’m particularly partial to this one.” 



***

At 2100 hours, the sixteen guardsmen quietly pulled out of their lavish forward operating base and into the disputed borderlands 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.  Barrett had even taken his namesake from a kindred soul that had fought and died in that same mission.  Their plight was not much different from their ancestors’ either.  
The redoubt they had established on South Padre Island had been wildly successful in combating the cartels, but it was not going unnoticed.  With every ambush, their outpost grew more desirable as a narco target. 
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.  Cartel operators on the water had only two options if they meant to reach the mainland.  They could travel north a hundred miles and battle Port Aransas, or bring the fight to South Padre Island.  They had decided on the latter. 
The guardsmen had repelled several assaults from the causeway and the pass, but the attacks were growing fiercer and more unpredictable.  The 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 searching, they located their quarry.  The Humvees’ were silent specters in the night.  The drivers guided the vehicles solely by way of their night vision equipment.  Ahead of them, four pickups cruised east on Highway 186 towards Raymondville. 
The harvest moon illuminated all, taking favor with neither side.  An observant narco would soon detect the soldiers if they did not move quickly.
“Ahora,” Barrett ordered.
A guardsman opened the top hatch of the front Humvee and braced his elbows on the roof.  He peered through the darkness by the aid of his night vision.  The truck beds were filled with the silhouettes of riders and their easily recognizable Kalashnikov rifles.  He dropped back into the Humvee and said, “Scouts were right.  They ain’t cowboys.”
Barrett keyed his radio and tapped his finger against the microphone twice slowly and twice quickly – the confirmation for hostiles.  The four Humvees lurched forward, accelerating as one.  Their engines roared like chupacabras. 
By the time the cartels realized they were being pursued, the three-ton monsters were on top of them.   The men in the back of the pickups never considered returning fire.  They were too preoccupied with either bracing for impact or yelling, “Go, go!” in thick Spanish.
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 the amigos in front of them. 
The driver of one of the rear pickups aimed for a dusty farm road.  He suddenly jerked the wheel hard to the left.  The high-speed transition from asphalt to gravel spun the light rear-end of the truck around.  One of the narcos in the bed was flung from his perch and was engulfed by the shadows.  His long wail was suddenly and forebodingly cut short. 
The remaining rear truck was no match for the two Humvees that slammed into it.  An explosion of screams and wrinkling of sheet metal pierced the night as the pickup lurched forward.  Again the pair connected with the truck and pushed it along the highway like some strange, landside barge and tugboat.  Two soldiers emerged from the top hatches of the Humvees and engaged the rear pickup with the top-mounted Miniguns.  They each let a long burst of 7.62 NATO loose and utterly annihilated the target.
The two front pickups were now well aware of the fate that awaited them.  Their engines roared with desperation as they struggled to pull away.  Meanwhile, the two outside Humvees surged forward. 
As Humvees neared their top speed, the trucks began to pull away.  The narcos in the back had all watched as the Miniguns eviscerated their friends.  They had no desire to elicit a similar response.  They suddenly disappeared below the walls of the trucks’ beds.  Barrett keyed up his radio and spoke to his squad in coded Spanish.
“It’s okay, let ‘em pull off some.  Let’s see if they lead us somewhere.  It’s not like they can get away.”
The pickups swerved in opposite directions at an intersecting dirt road.  The Humvees split up and began to gain back the lost ground.  The drivers realized the flaw in their maneuver, and within a mile were back on the straight asphalt drag of 186.  As they approached the city, they blew past a sign that read: 
Raymondville City Limit
Pop. 9733
Welcome to God’s Country
A mile into town, the Barrett’s radio squawked to life, “We’ve got company at our twelve up on the overpass.  Looks like friendlies.  What’re they doing here?” 
“Yeah, I see ‘em.  They’re a long way from home. I haven’t seen outside forces south of Corpus in months.  Lead pair; get some men on your Mk 19s.  As soon as the narcos are under the pass, hit ‘em.  If a couple grenades under the feet of our boys up top don’t scare ‘em back to Corpus, then maybe they’re worth having around.”
The lighter and faster pickups had a ten second lead on the Humvees as they approached the overpass.  They would occasionally slalom in the highway, as if the drivers anticipated another hailstorm from the Miniguns at any moment.  Their unease helped the Humvees maintain a closer tail than they otherwise could have.  Barrett gripped the radio fiercely in anticipation.  He preferred to use the old-style microphone while on patrol.  It reminded him of a different time when wars were fought in distant lands, rather than Texas farm towns. 
Twenty seconds until the fireworks.
Barrett leaned forward.   As he peered through the front windshield with his night vision goggles, a smirk crept across his face.  He keyed the mic, “Everybody ready up top?” 
Two affirmatives echoed back at him. 
“Hold for my order.”  He craned his head and studied the unexpected spectators atop the overpass.
Fifteen seconds.
The driver of the lead pickup was sweating and swearing 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 and hop the highway’s edge curb.  From there, if he could manage to retain some semblance of control, he would guide the truck around the sharp onramp that would lead them south to Highway 77 – and survival.  All at about 80 MPH.  He knew the Humvees could never follow him.  If he was lucky, they would turn their attention to the other truck, while he made his way to Avondale and beyond. 
Ten seconds.
  Barrett studied what he could now clearly identify as MRAP M-ATVs with their armaments pointed ominously downward. 
Eight seconds.
Barrett’s mind had been trying to process why they would allow friendlies to sweep under their barrels – unless, no – impossible.  He could plainly see the markings on the vehicles from this distance. 
Seven seconds.
They were obviously U.S. military.  Weren’t they?  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 77 south was fast approaching.  His palms were sweaty on the wheel. He steadied his resolve and focused on the desperate plan.  He never even bothered to look up at the overpass.
Five seconds.
Barrett’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!  Now!” 
The two men slid back into the 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.  The trucks seemed to buckle from the hail of bullets.  Before they could react, a lead firestorm erupted all around them.  It seemed as if every square inch of their armored roof was clanging in unison.  At any moment, the Humvees would surely be torn apart.
The lead pickup 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 forcefully to the other shoulder.  The drivers of the rear Humvees had forecasted the maneuver and braked abruptly to avoid a collision, while their team in the front blazed a path.  With the road ahead clear, they accelerated ferociously.
Barrett quickly transitioned from shock to rage.  He keyed the mic up in English for the first time. 
“Shee-yit!  We’re on the same team!”
No response.
“This is the unit commander for Alpha Squad, Texas State Guards, First Regiment, Padre Island.  Identify yourselves immediately or we will return fire.”
Finally, a man responded, “Oh my God.  Sir, do you have any casualties?”  The voice of the squad leader was strained and audibly distraught.  All protocol had been forgotten. 
The other Humvees had been following the exchange and responded to Barrett in code, “All clear, Sir.” 
Barrett engaged the man atop the overpass again, “Negative on the casualties.  We’re taking up a defensive position.  I want you and your squad off that damn bridge and down here with me, on foot.  Now.  We’ve a lot to talk about.”
“Affirmative, sir; we’re coming down.”
Chapter 1
Jake
West Mississippi

He drifted in and out of that state of consciousness that was not quite asleep, but not quite awake.  The sun was beginning to crest the loblolly and slash pine tops and kiss the pasture beyond with its warmth.  As twilight fled once again, he was gently tugged away from his lull by the morning’s light.  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.  He stretched his arms high overhead, before sauntering 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 to be expected, and he relished that.
His stroll back outside was more purposeful as he began to feel the coffee’s effects.  Jake withdrew the revolver and slid it back onto the table.   He sipped the coffee 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 a distant pond. 
Several wood ducks quacked argumentatively amongst themselves as they meandered aimlessly across the water.  Occasionally they would dip beneath the surface for a hapless minnow, or perhaps some spongy bit of 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 brew and stepped off the deck to scan the rest of the property, and reflect.
He thought to himself, how did we ever get so far off the right path?  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 them.  The swings of society’s pendulum were almost always met with a near-equal and opposite force, but the culture’s rudder never got quite back on the true course. 
It was the nudges in the wrong direction: the values of a wiser generation that never connected with their sons and daughters, or the lessons of history that were lost or rewritten.  He paused for a moment as he plucked a mandarin and rubbed his thumb across the leathery skin before continuing.  One day, a point of singularity is inevitably reached.  The nudges soon enough become shoves, and the worlds seems to change in a matter of days and weeks, rather than generations.  A paradigm shift occurs before one’s very eyes, if they so 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.  The old man’s worldview was molded by the time spent in reflection of wars fought long ago, wars that he was too young to understand at the time. 
Frank wore faded brown overalls with a dusty, western hat.  His right arm cradled an ancient, lever-action carbine, and his left hand pinched a hand-rolled cigarette.  The old man was standing over a heap in his pasture.  He motioned Jake his way.
Sasha, Jake’s German shepherd, was already with the old man.   She looked to be contently occupied with something firmly held in her mouth.  Frank 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.  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 heel of his boot.
“Jake, what’re we going to do?  This is the second time this month.”
Jake examined what was left of the calf.  By the looks of it, he reasoned, it had been field dressed sometime the night before.  The object he had seen in Sasha’s mouth was a bone 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 bring them 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 six of them.  The gunfire woke the neighbors.  After they realized what was going on they rushed over and fought them off.  They hit one of them.  He ran off a ways, but 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.”
“Yeah, I heard about that.  The sheriff showed up and took the body, but they didn’t even investigate.  Son, they’re trying 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 mused about the farm, and how fortunate they were to actually have neighbors close enough to come to their aid.  Jake and Frank realized, without mention, the similarities between the farm and their own.
Jake had bought twenty acres from Frank nearly a decade earlier.  The two had met through a realtor friend of Frank’s.  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 under the aging 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.  The next day they began the process of transferring the property.  It took another week to formalize the purchase, but to both men the handshake after that first evening was the true point of sale. 
Relative to the other homesteads and farmhouses, Jake’s house was unusually close to Frank’s, 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, let out a high pitched whine 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 was the first sign of autumn’s arrival.  The gentle breeze would soon rustle the pecans from their perches amongst the long rows of trees.  He looked forward to trading them for some of Mrs. Thames’ locally renowned pecan pies. 
Jake’s pleasant thoughts wavered as he returned to the realities of his situation.  It had been peaceful enough for longer than any of them expected, but the problems of the cities and suburbs had finally reached their sleepy community. 
Besides the price of everything rising by a factor of five and the mass unemployment, the first sign of the approaching storm had been the blackouts.  Originally, it seemed innocent enough; a sub-station failure during a thunderstorm that probably just needed a quick repair.  When the utility crew had arrived onsite, however, they were beaten and robbed.  By the second or third ambush, a worker was kidnapped and ransomed. 
The crews eventually refused to perform any repairs without a police escort.  In the beginning this prolonged the blackouts by several hours.  As cities spiraled further into chaos, however, the delays became much longer.  This only seemed to escalate the cycle of violence and unrest, fueled by the deterioration of an expected quality of life. 
Jake’s mind continued to wander as he approached the back of his house.  After several more steps, his wife’s silhouette appeared at the threshold of the back door.
“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 wooden grip of the .357.  Sasha poked her head between his legs, plopped down on her haunches and looked at Kate.  
“What’re you two trouble makers staring at?”  Kate struggled to hold back the smile that was creeping across her face.  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 continuing towards the house.  Her tail wagged in delight as she bounded along beside him. 
Katelyn planted a loud kiss on Jake’s lips and smiled as she handed him two plates.  He winked before turning and carrying them to the rectangular table in the dining nook.  He admired her figure as she grabbed her plate and a fresh pot of coffee and turned towards him.  She shot him a wink before pouring the coffee into several cups already waiting on the table.
Geram, Jake’s younger brother, was slowly dragging himself to the table with one eye still closed.  He stretched his arms to the ceiling, before slumping into the chair opposite of Jake.  “Bacon, eggs and home-grown blueberries, Kate you’re too good to this man.  Say, 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 blueberry in his mouth and took sip of his coffee. 
“You’ll have a plate here as long as you want,” Jake added.  He finished his first egg, before continuing, “Mr. Thames lost a calf last night to some poachers.  They field dressed it in the pasture and left what they couldn’t carry.  Did you see anything last night?”
“I had a dark SUV creep by us at about zero one hundred, but I never saw them come back.  I tried to get a number on the occupants with my binoculars, but it was too dark to see inside the vehicle, even with the full moon.” 
Jake nodded, “The only vehicle I saw on my watch had the same description.  They passed by around 4, but they weren’t creeping.”
“That would’ve given them enough time to get the calf.” 
Jake nodded in agreement as he stabbed several blueberries with his fork.  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.  He eyed Geram and said, “It’s been two days since you showed up.  They don’t let you just drop in on family while you’re in active duty.  You ready to talk yet, SEAL?”
Chapter 2
Clayton
Washington County, Alabama

The muddy waters of the Tombigbee and Alabama Rivers converged just north of Mt. Vernon.  The heavy rains upstate had caused the rivers to swell well past flood stage much earlier than normal.  They were set to crest in two days’ time.  Most of the logging roads that dutifully followed the ridges of the river swamp had several feet of water over them already.  The deer and hogs had long since retreated to higher and drier grounds.  Of all nights, this night deep in the backwaters should have been the domain of croaking bullfrogs and grunting alligators, but not tonight.
A hush rolled across the cutoff that meandered between the two rivers.  In the distance, the ascending groan of an outboard motor could be heard.  The low moan had little to do with the unnatural hush across the swamp.  It was the blood-curdling howl that emanated from somewhere seemingly 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 for the appearance of the 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.   The dog was already bounding to and fro in the custom-built, shallow-draft, aluminum boat.  Finally, Moses could abstain no longer.  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, before leaning forward and banging the dry well 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.
The swamp was his.
An onlooker would have been 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 night.  He roared forward at full-throttle by the light of a full moon, which was all but hidden by the thick canopy of willows and Spanish moss just above.  Clayton was no fool, though.  His homemade apparatus of a motorcycle helmet and night vision goggles transformed him from a mere mortal into a backwater demigod, and he reveled in it.
The night was his.
After emerging from the darkened cutoff, they ducked low and cut a diagonal path across the moonlit river to a small tributary, commonly called a slough, on the other side.  In less than half a minute, they were back in the welcoming confines of the heavy canopy.
After they braved one final bend, Clay 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.  The pair drifted into a clearing a couple hundred feet beyond.  A shy alligator snapping turtle on a nearby log dove into the murky depths as they passed. 
Clayton crawled to the front of the boat, grasped the 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 sausage.  He tossed one of the biscuits to the cur and he caught it mid-air.  Clay flicked his folding knife open and split the sausage into two even portions.  Moses appreciated the gesture of equality; he licked Clayton’s hand before taking the salty meat.  While 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. 
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 a 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.   He quietly admired the wonder of his artificially green-hued surroundings.
Clumps of Spanish moss and thick, gnarled vines hung from the cypress and white oaks that surrounded their hidden enclave.  Clayton counted six fox-squirrel nests that dotted the nearby oaks.  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 the boat.  Their presence did not bother Clayton or Moses, as long as they were safe in the boat and the alligators remained 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 winter.  They desperately needed a sharp frost to stunt the plague of insects.  Their boat was swarmed by mosquitos and gnats as soon as it drifted to a stop.
They waited a half hour and failed to detect any indication of human life in the swamp.  Satisfied that they were indeed alone, Clayton tugged the knot loose from the cypress and eased the boat to an idle.  Slowly, they continued on their way.
They idled along the slough for another half hour and then killed the motor again.  Clayton grabbed a long wooden pole and plunged it into the water.  He 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 across the empty lake to the shore beyond.
Sodium-vapor and halogen lamps pierced the darkness on the opposite shore.  They reflected off the lake’s surface, and were a poor celestial substitute for the starless sky.  Dozens of small camps supported by weathered, timber piling towered over the surrounding cypress knots.  Their roofs extended 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 was surprised to see the small community so well-illuminated; they had not had power for at least two weeks.  The small fishing communities were filled with survivors, however.  Perhaps they had a supply of natural gas to supplement their solar panels.  
Clayton scanned the shore near the landing for any signs of movement, but found none.  He scratched Moses’ head and whispered “What about you, see anyone?” 
Moses stood up on the bow and sniffed the sweet night air, before turning back and climbing over the dry well. 
Clayton sighed and replied, “Me neither; maybe next week.  Let’s head home.” 
***

Clayton’s demeanor was much more reserved on their way home.  He reflected on a past life in another world.  He had once been a successful contractor and entrepreneur.  His first million was hard-fought through long days, sleepless nights and relentless ambition.  He tried anything that he thought would turn a profit:  residential developments, industrial shutdowns, offshore – anything.  He particularly loved demolition work because he could get paid to remove the structure, crush the brick and concrete, and resell it as base material for roadways and parking lots.  Besides, slamming a four-ton wrecking ball into a building was about as much fun as a man could have without going to jail. 
He soon realized the real money was in being a developer.  He would research an area, purchase the raw land, develop a shopping center, sell a few outlying parcels to help recoup his investment and lease the shops.  He had successfully repeated his formula multiple times. 
The next several million were earned much easier than the first.  A new way of doing 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 breaking even. 
Of course, there was another way, a way to make all of the troubles disappear.  It started innocent enough and could almost be justified, if you remembered to check your morals at the door.  Before long, it was easier for him to count the people he was not paying off.  It seemed everyone wanted to stick their hands into his pockets.  Clayton Sellers grew to despise the realities of the ‘easy’ life he had sought for so long.
It’s 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 when cash out of the game, greed will slowly begin to creep in.  He will forsake everything, and everyone, in his pursuits.  The man with a number knows wealth to be a means; the man without knows it only as an end.
Three years ago, Clayton reached his number.   He dumped it all:  the businesses, the swank properties in town, stocks, bonds and all the racketeers that had made a living off of his hard work.  They could keep their broken system.  He would fade away into his gulch, and he was not the only one that was leaving.  A groundswell of principled men were breaking away from the clutches of the leviathan that was crushing them.
He bought two thousand acres in the middle of the river swamp for a song.  Even he was surprised that the timber company had accepted his lowball offer.  Apparently, they had been more desperate for cash than he thought.  It wasn’t prime land by any definition.  Most of the property flooded when the surrounding rivers swelled beyond their banks.  Clayton did not mind the inconvenience, however.
In a typical year the property would flood just enough to foil the poachers.  The water was still shallow enough to limit 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 an uneventful ride back, they finally were within sight of home.  Home was a one-room camp on timber piles.  It was nestled in a grove of swamp oaks.  Their gnarled branches help to conceal the brown, metal roof from any prying eyes overhead.  Soon enough, winter would be here and he would be lying in his bed, listening to acorns clatter on the roof like errant golf balls.
Clayton had to float in all of the building materials, which was a daunting task in its own right.  The work was made harder by the remoteness of the site and his determination to keep its 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 wasn’t certain he could trust a man with his life, they were just acquaintances to him.  The brothers Greene and Teddy Lawson he could trust, he was certain of that.
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 last step.  He killed the motor and drifted towards the camp.  Moses, who had been napping, awoke and bounded to the bow of the boat. 
Clayton guided the vessel alongside the stairs with expert skill.  The boat gently came to a stop as he looped the stern rope around one of the rail posts.  He crawled to the bow and did the same, before climbing over the rails and onto solid footing. 
Moses whined as he struggled to squeeze between two posts.  Clayton laughed at his friend’s expense and patted him on the side of his ever growing belly.  With Moses finally free, they turned and started up the stairs. 
The smell of fresh cornbread wafted to Moses’ nose first.  He suddenly pushed off with his back paws and bounded to the top.  Clayton laughed as he caught a whiff.
Son, if you eat any more I’ll have to leave you here next time.” 
Moses turned and whined, before spinning back around and nudging the screened door with his wet nose.
As Claire pushed the door open, the aroma from within was almost too much for Moses.  He burst into the camp and paced impatiently in front of the wood-burning stove.  Clayton greeted her with a weak smile and a kiss on the cheek.   By the look on her face, she shared his worry. 
“No sign of them yet?”
“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 bad day on a good note.”  He dropped a filet in Moses’ open mouth and it disappeared with one gulp.
Clayton grabbed three filets and two wedges cornbread, before sitting at the table across from Claire.  Moses had already devoured another filet and far too much cornbread.  Content, he plopped down in front of the door.  Clayton smiled; Moses knew his post.  Claire was reading her Bible by the blue hue of an 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 scraggly 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.  If you believe in the Lord, you don’t go around 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 do it without knowing you’re screwing up the balance of ought and ought not.  So in that respect, I guess it was bound to happen.  We just lucked up and got to live through it.” 
“Maybe we’re supposed to live through it.   You and I.  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.  I love you.”
Chapter 3
Jake
West Mississippi

Geram took his time with his coffee, while he searched for the proper way to start.  He finally let out a deep sigh and began.
“Tell me what you know about Texas and the border.”
“Texas,” Jake thought for several moments, before continuing, “All we really get is what they want us to, since most of the internet’s been shut down.  There’re some pretty wild rumors floating around, but you can’t verify anything. 
The news says the border is hot, but the local state guards are supporting the military and Border Patrol in hopes of containing it.  The ranchers are in big trouble, but everywhere else is basically the same as here:  the cities are full of rioters, the suburbs are getting dangerous and it’s starting to spill into rural areas.  Martial law and curfews abound.”
Geram reared back in his chair and balanced on its back two back legs.  He closed his eyes and said, “It’s much worse bro, I’ve seen it myself.  The border isn’t hot, it’s on fire.  We’ve lost ground a hundred miles deep in most places.  San Antonio and Corpus Christi are on the front lines of the war, fighting in the streets for their southern suburbs.  Fort Bliss is an island, all but cut off from new supplies.  Tucson is behind enemy lines and Phoenix is split in half.  People are fleeing north like refugees to Houston, Dallas and Albuquerque.
Many who’ve seen the worst aren’t even stopping there.  They’re leaving the Southwest altogether.  The folks down there are convinced the Feds are willing to cede their states, like some sort of pacification.  Besides, they say, we can’t afford or aren’t willing to push back hard enough for the cartels to fear us.”
“War?  Like a real war?”
“Yep, like a real war except it’s on our own soil; but wait, it gets worse.”  Geram’s eyes were wide open and he was leaning forward intensely.  “We were told that six Humvees had been stolen by the cartels from a National Guard armory, and it was our mission to search and destroy.  Their last known whereabouts was in Raymondville, that’s northwest of Brownsville, not far from the border.
We headed south on 77 from Corpus in four MRAPs on a night run.  There were twelve of us.  It was eerie.  The northbound shoulder of 77 was lined with cars that’d broken down or just run out of fuel.  
Some cars never made it to the shoulder.  People just left them in the highway.  Like I said, it was a real foreboding feeling.  It looked like I-10 after Katrina, except much worse.  The fact that our trucks were completely blacked out and we were viewing these scenes through night vision only added to the unease.
Southbound 77 was wide open, so we made good time to Raymondville.  Jake, I swear this is the truth, the sign at the city limits was spray-painted with the words, ‘Gringo, turn back or die,’ and had a pike on each side of it.”
Geram paused for a moment as if to collect his thoughts, and continued. “There were heads on the pikes, human heads – Americans’ heads.   We slowed down to a more reserved speed and each put a man up top.  I was one of the four.  You could say we had the best, or maybe the worst, view.  I had an M2 Browning, and the rest of the guys had M240s. 
Mission briefing said to be alert for signs of disputes between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, but that was an understatement.  It looked like a war zone: burned cars, buildings destroyed and piles of rubble – in America.
But here’s where it didn’t make sense to us – we were ordered to stay on a secure frequency.  Command said several squads had been ambushed after being contacted by English-speaking hostiles posing as locals or friendly state patrols.  Under no circumstance were we to monitor outside communications.  The idea was ridiculous to our squad leader, to say the least.   His thought was we might as well have been blindfolded.  It wasn’t in his squad’s best interest, so it wasn’t in his playbook, and we weren’t about to argue with that. 
Raymondville isn’t that big, so it didn’t take long to locate our targets.  We stopped on top of the overpass on the east side of town.  The view was commanding; I could see for miles.  We aimed three of the guns west, straight down 186. The fourth gun was covering our rear.
The place was like a ghost town, so it was easy to detect movement.  The drive south had put us all on edge, and we were ready for a pound of flesh for what we’d seen.  From my vantage point I could see churches, restaurants and all sorts of stores and shops.  It was your typical small town.  My chest was burning with anger.  After about an hour, we saw them.
It couldn’t’ve been any more perfect:  we heard their gunfire before we could even see ‘em.  After several moments, headlights appeared.  Two trucks were screaming east on 186, straight towards us.  They were approximately three miles out when we first had a good view.  Behind them were four of our Humvees in hot pursuit, but losing ground. 
From that distance, we had a little over two minutes before they’d reach us.  The two cartels, or what we thought were two cartels, were focused on each other and never saw us.
We were ordered by our squad leader to hold our fire until the last moment.  We would then send a wall of lead down at a sharp angle and let their momentum push them through it.  Any surviving vehicles could be picked off at our leisure on the other side by the fourth gun.
We scanned the radio frequencies and heard what sounded like an exchange between the two groups.  It was fast-paced, heated Spanish peppered with expletives that even our translator couldn’t make sense of.  As they approached, we set our sights as ordered.   It seemed like we waited a lifetime. 
Finally, we were given the order to fire.  I took a deep breath and engaged the butterfly trigger on the back of the weapon.  The world erupted around me in gunfire and explosions, but it took me a second or two to realize that it wasn’t coming from me.  I’d forgotten to remove the spent brass I had wedged behind the trigger as a safety!  By then it was too late, the vehicles were careening under the bridge.  The scene was one of bellowing smoke, dancing flames and screeching tires.
One of the pickups veered off and slid sideways along the right shoulder of the highway.  The truck continued down into the ditch, then up and out as it performed a magnificent, flaming barrel roll, aided by a drain pipe’s headwall.  The second truck spun and almost managed to come to a complete stop in the middle of the highway, but was punted to the left shoulder as two of the Humvees slammed into its side.
To our surprise the four Humvees accelerated out from underneath us two-wide, straddling the center of 186.  Our rear guard opened fire on them, but we never could’ve imagined what happened next.  A booming voice came across their radio.
‘Sheee-yit!  We’re on the same team!’
The booming voice was in that undeniable west Texas cowboy drawl.  I immediately felt sick.  There was no doubt in my mind that we had American blood on our hands.
Chapter 4
William
Washington, D.C.

William Galleani smashed his first cigarette of the morning in the ashtray and rolled out of bed.  He crawled along the wall to the blinds and gingerly peaked through.  He had absolutely no desire to become a martyr for the cause.  He crawled a several feet from the window, before standing and walking the remaining distance to the bathroom.  
He took a long look in the mirror to size himself up.  He was an unlikely leader.  William was short and diminutive, with the slightest bit of stubble beginning to show on his face and neck.  His short black hair was all but hidden beneath the fleece skullcap as he pulled it snugly onto his head.  The dark hair was such a stark contrast to his pale skin.  It exaggerated his look of etherealness.  His dark brown eyes were deeply set in his skull in a manner that made him look eternally exhausted.  After brushing his teeth, he stumbled into the meager kitchen and started a pot of coffee.   
William had started SPARC (Socialists, Political Anarchists, Radicals and Communists) only five short years ago, and now he was a major player in the new political scene.  He had the ear of politicians, labor leaders and even several foreign diplomats that represented various countries from banana republics, to former cold-war superpowers, to modern-day players. 
To be honest, which he seldom was, more of his organization’s financial support came from outside of the country than within.  His group had exploded on the scene a mere six months ago when the unrest first started in D.C.  While other groups’ leadership was apprehensive at first to openly challenge the police, SPARC would employ tactics to antagonize them into responding with force.  William would then flood social media with videos of their agents being beaten while they innocently bleated like lambs.
 The videos were soon picked up by the media establishment and delivered into the living rooms of Americans, and across the world.  These successful tactics led to the cannibalization of other organizations’ members.  SPARC’s ranks quickly swelled with young radicals of all stripes that were demoralized by the endless marching and shouting they had grown nauseatingly accustomed to.
SPARC had branches in major cities all across the country, and they were adding to their ranks with each new clash with police.  William’s army of revolutionaries was potentially much larger, since copycat groups had popped up in the smaller cities where he did not yet have a presence.  He had plans for them as well.  If they did not assimilate under his wide umbrella of chaos when he came to town, he would use his powerful contacts to destroy them.
He credited his charisma and powerful rhetoric as the source of his magnetism.  In a world of revolutionaries and activists as varied as the colors in the spectrum, he had managed to bring them together and focus their energy towards his goals.
Apparently, his allies in congress were much more powerful than even he had anticipated.  He had expected a climactic, highly publicized exchange with the federal government, but they had largely ignored him.  A handful of the more radical politicians praised him and were sometimes even spotted at his rallies.  Or, perhaps America had truly become a paper tiger, shackled by political correctness.  If that was so, it would make things much simpler for him.  The local and state governments alone were no match for his agents of chaos.  Their budgets were already broken, and their pensions were already drained.  All they could do was make idle threats at press conferences while SPARC gleefully burned their cities to the ground.  And if the city leaders or police decided to get too heavy handed, SPARC would make a house call and terrorize their families.  William did not want complete submission, however.  Violence begot more violence, and having an enemy worked to his benefit.
The coffeemaker hissed and gurgled as it finished brewing.  William grabbed a day-old styrofoam cup and filled it to the top.  Today was an important day for him; today he would up the ante.  The riots had been successful in that they had brought him respect and power, but they had also provided him a platform to leverage so that he could transition to phase two. 
There were two types of people in the streets, revolutionaries and opportunists.  The opportunists used the riots as an excuse to loot.  The revolutionaries of course looted as well, of course, but that was not their goal.  A paradigm shift was their end-game, a fundamental transformation to whatever radical ideology that they held dear to their hearts.  William needed a third type of person in the street, though.  He needed the opposition; the sons and daughters of ‘liberty’. 
William simply called them the ‘opposition’.  There were dozens of derogatory terms out there he could have used, but he preferred to anesthetize them.  Therefore, if you have an opposition, a mere obstacle, you simply eradicate it.  Besides, euphemisms worked better around his more sophisticated supporters, so it was a matter of etiquette to settle on the term.
For the most part, the opposition was nowhere to be seen, actually.  They mostly resided in suburban and rural settings and avoided the cities at all costs.  Those outlying areas were where SPARC was the weakest.  As long as their property was respected and their families were safe, they stayed home.  He had expected so much more out of these people.  They had been so vocal about rights and liberties; freedom and restoration.
Even now, facing anarchy in the streets and the tightening grip of martial law, they pulled their curtains tight and barred their doors like cowards.  Ever the optimists, they hoped to weather the storm, wait for order to be restored, and maybe rebuild their country.  William was not going anywhere, anytime soon, though.  He needed something to strike fear into their hearts, a fear of losing what they held dear; the kind of fear that motivated men to act.
The pre-paid cell phone vibrated on the counter, rudely interrupting his musings.  He strolled to the kitchen and topped off his cup as he checked the incoming number. 
“Yes?”
“Hey, how are things there?”
The pleasantries only seemed to annoy William.  The man should know by now. 
“Fine; how is the procurement process?”
There was a long pause, and then, “It’s… taking longer than we anticipated.  Everyone is paranoid.  This is serious, Will.”
William rattled a cigarette from his soft pack and withdrew it with his lips.  His tone grew sarcastic and abrasive, “I know exactly how serious this is, I wouldn’t have called in my favor to you if it wasn’t.  I’m on a timeline and I need you to deliver me some results.  No more delays.  Now, tell me the status.”
“Well, the secondary objective is complete and awaiting approval to proceed.  The primary is still being negotiated.  The talks are productive, but like I said, everybody is scared.  I think I can have the terms nailed down by the end of this week and delivery by the end of the following.”
William lit the cigarette and took a long drag, allowing the realities of the conversation to sink in. 
“That sounds acceptable.  Two weeks, not three, not five.  Two, got it?”
He could hear the relief in the man’s voice, “Yes, got it.  Perfect.  Now, what about the secondary objective, should we execute?”
Absolutely not.  If everyone’s paranoid, then that might push them away from the table altogether.  Just keep pushing, but don’t push them away.  Call me in a week.  I’ll send you my new number.” 
William smiled as he ended the call and took another long drag of the tobacco.  He strolled to the closet and rummaged for a minute before retrieving a dark hoodie and some jeans.  News like this called for a celebration. 
After he pulled on the jeans he checked his watch, it was 6 AM.  He grabbed the land line and dialed.  The phone rang five or six times before a man’s voice groaned on the other end.
“What?”
“Great news, get up.  Meet me at the spot.”
“What time is it?  I went to bed like four hours ago, I think.  I was torching storefronts and drinking J├Ągermeister all night.  I don’t even want to think about drinks.”
“Yeah you do, now get up.  Meet me there in twenty minutes.” 
Click. 
Days like this were what it was all about.  He adjusted the Kevlar vest under the hoodie, before grabbing his Walther PPS and dashing out the door.  
Chapter 5
Barrett
South Padre Island, Texas

Barrett and Governor Baker pulled out of the heliport and turned north onto Channel View Loop in the four-wheel-drive buggy.  The area contained by the loop had been cleared of RVs to make room for the state guards’ equipment.
The sky was cloudy but still beautiful.  The warm, salty air beckoned to everyone within its domain.  Padre Island’s wide beaches lay just beyond the edge of the pavement.  The waves were larger than normal.
In another time, the island would have been saturated with tourists taking surfing lessons, snorkeling, fishing the jetty or simply basking in the south Texas sun.  Perhaps a beachfront wedding would be taking place behind one of the condos.  The bride and groom would be whisked away after the ceremony, leaving the guests to occupy their evening with fried oysters and draft beer at Louie’s.  Instead, the only visitors were the gulls and black skimmers that patrolled the waters for unsuspecting fish. 
Governor Baker surveyed the six Amphibious Assault Vehicles and Strykers that he had begged from the Marines and Army a month ago.  The Army had loaned Texas ten Strykers and the Marines had offered up six AAVs.  The governor had sent three of each to the island after they were operable.  They were in miserable condition when Texas took delivery, obviously pulled from some repair queue.  It took nearly three weeks of working around the clock to get them serviceable.  Two of the “amtracks”, as the AAVs were also known, were still having mechanical issues.  Fortunately, there were several, experienced mechanics among the ranks of the guardsmen. 
The AAVs were equipped with Bushmaster 25mm auto cannons, and the Strykers were equipped with 40mm automatic grenade launchers.  The arrival of the vehicles provided a much needed boost to the morale of the men on the island.  Before their arrival, all that the guardsmen had were their Humvees, and more recently, four MRAPs.  The official reason for the governor’s visit was to deliver the vehicles to the island, but Barrett knew better.   
Barrett and the governor had simply shook hands after being introduced, and had not said more than two words since.  He knew the governor had not come into a war zone to shoot the breeze with a tired soldier.  He shifted in his seat uncomfortably as he waited for the governor to break the silence.  Finally, Governor Baker cleared his throat and casually motioned his hand towards the new vehicles.
“Those ought to make a difference down here Sergeant… ah, I didn’t catch your last name.”
“No sir, we don’t use our names down here.  It’s too dangerous for our families.  You’re welcome to call me Sergeant or Barrett, and yes sir, they’ll make a world of difference; thank you.”
“My pleasure, Barrett.  I’m just sorry it didn’t happen sooner.”
“I understand.  There’s more red tape than usual, I imagine.”
The governor snorted in disgust, “I seem to be surrounded by it and at the top of everyone’s blacklist.  Texas can’t seem to catch a break.  If it ain’t trouble down here, it’s the wildfires, or the drought, or the riots, or the Feds,” he sighed and said, “I just don’t know anymore.”
Barrett nodded in agreement as he followed the loop north.  They had almost made it back around to the heliport.  Governor Baker looked out over the crashing waves and motioned once again.
“Turn off here.”
They eased off the pavement and onto the beach.  The buggy easily managed the sandy terrain.  They navigated around the exposed pipeline that audaciously blocked the path.  Barrett drove out to the water’s edge to give them a smoother ride.  An occasional rogue wave would crash into the side of the buggy and splash the governor’s well-worn boots. 
Baker smiled as he gazed out across the horizon, before he said, “I used to come here in the off season with my wife.  I’ve always loved this place.  As you’re coming over the causeway you feel like you’re leaving Texas.  Then you see the pipeline on the beach and you know you’re still at home.”
Barrett grinned.
“This is far enough,” Baker said, “stop here.”
They had traveled nearly a mile north from where they turned on the beach.  They were parked in front of several large dunes nestled between two vacant resorts.  Barrett turned off the engine so that he could hear the waves crashing on the shore.  He listened to the calming sound and waited for the governor to speak. 
“Barrett, I’m sure you know why I’m really here.”
“Yes sir, but you probably should debrief them, or our commanding officer.  I don’t know how much I can help.”
“That’ll come soon enough.  I wanted to talk to you first.”  Governor Baker stepped onto the beach and casually strolled to the water.  “So they’ve been locked up for about ten days?”
“They’ve been on watch for eleven days, sir.  They’ve had free reign of one of the barracks.  They eat what we eat and have a deck of cards and some other things to keep them occupied.  We even gave them a radio so they can listen to Lonestar.”
Radio Lonestar was an initiative by the governor to get the truth out to Texans, as well as the citizens of the surrounding states.  The Federal government had effectively nationalized all media outlets and severely limited internet communications.  They had complete control over what information was disseminated.  Talking heads stiffly read from prompters and bantered back and forth in orchestrated displays like wooden marionettes.  Radio stations played loops of their respective genres without interruption from an on-air personality.  Talk radio had disappeared except for a few closely-monitored outlets.
Radio Lonestar had been the first shot across the Fed’s bow.  Immediately after it began airing, the Federal government began to pull funding and military support from Texas.  All Federal air support had been withdrawn from the state.  Most of the ground forces had been removed, with the exception of a few strategic locations, such as Corpus Christi.  The Feds acted independently and refused to share intelligence with Texas.  Except for the support of a few neighboring states, mainly Oklahoma and Arkansas, Texas was on its own.  New Mexico and Arizona were sharing intelligence with their neighbor, but could offer no logistical or financial support because of their own problems.  The states that were helping were mostly doing so to prevent the border disaster from spilling into their own territory.
The governor stood in silence for several moments.  Finally, he spoke. “There’re only six of them.  I was told there were originally twelve.  Where’re the rest?”
Barrett expected the question and had been considering the best way to respond.  He had decided that the whole truth would be his best route.
“We let six soldiers leave on a supply boat headed back to Pascagoula.”
“That’s an awful brazen decision on the part of this facility, son.  I wasn’t informed of this prior to my arrival.  Tell me one good reason why I shouldn’t discharge every officer on base, or worse.”
“Sir, with all due respect, we tried for three days straight to contact command control at Camp Mabry.  We didn’t get a response until day five.   By then, they were gone.  I know Austin is under a lot of pressure right now, but we’re not getting any support.  It’s like we’ve been forgotten.  Some of the boys have taken to calling this place Alamo Island, for more than one reason.  Our situation is extremely dynamic.  We don’t have a week or so to make decisions down here.”
The whole damn state’s situation is ‘dynamic’ sergeant!  I’ve cities on fire and refugees on the roads.  Good people’re looting to keep from starving.  Petro is twenty dollars a gallon.  Trucks’ve quit their routes, shelves are empty and now I hear that the Feds may’ve tried to assassinate soldiers under my command and y’all let half of ‘em go!” 
Governor Baker cursed furiously and kicked at the beach.  After a few moments of the uncharacteristic display, he carefully removed his aviator’s sunglasses and gently wiped the lenses on his buttoned shirt.  He closed his eyes and gathered his thoughts, before placing them back over his eyes. 
“Look, I know it is tough down here.  We’re asking a lot from y’all.  I know support from Austin is abhorrent, but please tell me you’ve got a better excuse.”
Barrett squared up with the governor in a respectful, but forceful stance.
“Sir, I was a SEAL; those men are my brothers.  I’ve spent a lot of time in places that this government will deny that I ever visited.  I’ve captured and interrogated targets that are still officially wanted.  I lived for the extraction jobs, but interrogation was what I did best.  It wasn’t the kind of interrogation you’re thinking though.  I just sat and talked with them, usually before the advanced techniques started.  It’s the subtle tells that give us away; the words that make our eyes dart away or twitch, the questions that make our breathing change or our pulse quicken.  Places, names, dates – I could dissect someone without ever picking up a scalpel.  If you don’t believe it, ask anyone here to saddle up to a poker table with me.  Those men had no idea what they were being ordered to do.  I stake my honor on that.”
“That’s a little better excuse.”  Governor Baker thought for a moment while examining the man beside him.  “So, you’re sure they’d no idea your men were in those Hummers?”
“Yes sir, as far as they knew the Humvees were stolen by cartels.  They also couldn’t have known that we’d up-armored much of our fleet.  Had they known that, they would’ve showed up with heavier armaments.”
“Why were they sent?  Why not just call in an air strike?”
“Well, you did sign Amy’s Law after the incidents in Dallas.  Plus, the Feds know the border is flush with our own drones.  Even if they used jets, the Air Force has been gone so long they probably reasoned it’d raise a flag.  The Feds likely figured that some friendly fire casualties by ground troops could be explained away much easier than a calculated attack from above.  That’s my speculation, at least.”
The incidents in Dallas three months back were three Federal drone crashes in one week.  The Federal government accused Texans of shooting them out of the sky, further escalating tensions.  The third crash killed a three year old girl named Amy Montenago and her mother in their loft apartment.  The state legislature drafted a bill overnight that banned all Federal drones in Texas airspace.  The local media took to calling the measure ‘Amy’s Law’.  The Feds threatened lawsuits and the withdrawal of transportation funding, but the damage was done; the public was outraged.  The Feds eventually relented because their problems were widespread already, and they did not want to risk a confrontation with the popular governor.  Baker was well known for his fiery speeches on states’ rights and individual liberties.  
“Sounds like you’ve thought this through.”  Governor Baker turned and stared aimlessly down the beach, as if he was searching for guidance.  “I swear, if this holds up to scrutiny…” his voice trailed off until it was lost in the sounds of the waves.  “We have so much trouble coming our way.  I don’t even know where to begin.”  
Barrett took a few steps back without saying a word and sunk into the seat of the buggy.  He let out a sigh and struggled to find the rights words, but nothing came.  The governor turned and slowly walked over.  As he reclaimed his seat, he said, “Let’s go.”
Barrett cranked the engine and spun the wheels for a moment.  Finally, they gained traction. 
As they rode down the beach, the governor looked at Barrett and asked, “But why let the six go? I don’t understand.”
“Those men forfeited their lives when they refused to execute those orders, and they knew that.  They could’ve killed us all out there, but they chose a more honorable route. They’ll surely suffer for it.  All those men have left in this world are their families, and we couldn’t keep them from that.  And the men that stayed, all they’ve got is us.”
Baker nodded.  “Fair enough.  Now, take me to the men that may’ve put the Republic back in Texas.”
Chapter 6
Jake
West Mississippi

Service started at dusk, but the next date would not be set until the end of the meeting.  The church council randomly selected their meeting times; Tuesday morning, Friday night, Wednesday evening.  Sometimes they would just convene at a church member’s house instead.  Wherever they met, they parked their vehicles out of site of the highway.  They were afraid their homes would be targeted while they were gone, so they tried to keep the outsiders guessing.
Church was more important than ever, but it wasn’t just the service they came for.  After song and worship, Reverend Lenton would preach a short sermon.  Then, the after-service meeting would begin.   The after-service meetings usually lasted about an hour, and mostly consisted of local word of mouth news. 
Several in the congregations were HAM radio operators, so they were able to bring news from across the country and around the world.  The collection and distribution of information had truly become a vitally important service.  Communication items as basic as a scanner and a CB radio could be used to spread alerts through the community.  Given enough time, neighbors could be rallied, threats could be repelled and lives could be saved.  
Jake and Geram had their rifles slung across their backs as they made the final preparations for the short trip.  The evening had brought with it unusually cool winds from the west.  The breeze stirred the oaks and maples in front of the house and whispered of the storm clouds that were gathering on the horizon.  Jake crossed the short distance between his home and Frank’s.  Kate cranked the Bronco and Geram hopped in the back seat.
Jake knocked on the door and yelled, “Frank, it’s Jake.  You ready?”
Several moments later, the old man opened the door and asked, “Ready for what?”
“Church is in twenty minutes.  Are you and Mrs. Thames riding with us?”
Oh, I forgot all about it.  I’m not used to the times always changing yet.  I guess I’m getting old.  I’m sorry, son; I already have dinner on the stove.  You go ahead and come back by here after you’re done.  Y’all can eat with us tonight and catch me up on the news.  Besides,” Frank said with a wink, “that’ll give me an excuse to eat twice.” 
Jake chuckled and replied, “If the Misses knew of your plans, she’d send you with us and finish dinner herself.”
“That’s why we’re not going to tell the Misses, Jake.” 
They laughed.
“Okay, okay; we’ll be back in about two hours.  See y’all then.”
As Jake turned and walked off, Frank leaned outside and said, “Looks like a storm’s coming tonight.”
“Yeah, I think we might get some rain, but the storm’s already here, Frank.”
“I s’pose you’re right.”
Jake stopped for a moment and considered his next words as he had a dozen times over the past few weeks.  He decided now was as good a time as any.
“Frank, I don’t mean to offend you with what I’m trying to say.  You’ve weathered some tough things in your life and I know that, but why don’t you and Mrs. Thames move in with us for a while?  We’ve plenty of room.  Geram and I can put up some more fencing and move all the livestock closer in.  Our house is much more defensible, and you know Kate just adores you both.” Jake shrugged and looked down, “I guess what I’m mean to say is we’re worried about you.”
Frank struggled for a moment to maintain his composure, before speaking, “I’d like that, Jake.  Let’s talk about it more tonight.”
Jake smiled and nodded, before turning and walking towards the Bronco. 
Frank stepped out on the covered front porch and spoke once again.  “Jake, thank you.  You’re more of a son than my own blood.  I’m glad you’re here.” 
Jake looked back one last time and said, “That’s what we do, Frank; take care of our own.  We’ll see you in a couple hours.”



***

Jake thought Reverend Lenton was in perfect form.  His sermon had been on the dangers of idolatry.  The reverend identified idolatry as a good thing that becomes the ultimate thing.  Idolatry causes men to jump out of windows when stock markets crash.  It causes decent people to kick a chair out from underneath them when they lose their job or home.  The symptoms of idolatry were everywhere, and Jake reasoned they were likely the cause of much of the current suffering in the world.
After the service, the ladies prepared coffee while the men talked of community-wide defensives.  It was Geram’s first meeting, and the men were particularly interested in hearing the opinions of the young soldier.  He reared back in his chair as he typically did before speaking his thoughts.
“We’ve several choke points that the community should consider reinforcing so that we can keep ourselves safer.  We’ve got Miller’s Creek that crosses the road to the north and then hooks down to the east.  A few miles out to the west and south we have some bottoms that stay wet year-round. 
At the bridges over Miller’s Creek, we could take a tractor with a bucket and dig out the approaches.  A trench several feet deep would cut us off from anyone bent on trouble.
 We could do the same to the bottoms.  The more it rains, the more these cuts’ll erode and become even more difficult to cross.  People could still get by on foot of course, but not with vehicles. 
The raids by vehicles are getting out of control.  I think we’d be a lot safer if we cut ourselves off and got more organized.  Plus, if we put the determined intruders to walking to get to us, they’ll be tired before they make it to our checkpoints, and that’ll give us one more advantage.”
The ladies appeared with coffee for everyone as Geram finished his proposal.  Mr. Richardson interjected as the cups were being filled.
“I like your thoughts Geram, but that’d completely cut us off from the outside world.  We could construct some timber bridges to cross the ditches if we had to, but they would have to be set in place with a tractor.  There would be no quick way out of here.  I can accept that, but everyone needs to consider what that means for themselves and their families.”
A wiry old man with a long, white beard spoke up as Mr. Richardson trailed off.
That’s fine by me.  I’ve been talking with some folks on the HAM, and I can say it’s only getting worse out there.  The cities are hopeless.  People’ve run out of money and they ain’t got any means of earning more.  The emergency food centers are overwhelmed, and the military can barely keep them running smoothly when they do have food.  We’ve got plenty here to last us longer than most places.  I say we do it.”
A teary-eyed old lady added, “I agree with Ron; things’re only getting worse.  I got a call from my daughter-in-law in Arlington a few days ago.  It was horrible.  She just cried and cried about how they should’ve left when they could.  They haven’t had power or running water for weeks.  Their phones were restored for a few minutes so she was able to call out, but I guess they’ve lost it again.  She’s hearing talk of a dollar devaluation soon.  She said that everyone up there is afraid that the whole thing is going to collapse and then they won’t have any food.  She said the government is worried that some states will try to pull together and leave the union.  She doesn’t think they have the ability to stop something like that at this point.” 
Several nervous conversations erupted from within the group.  They discussed the rash of violent home invasions that had recently happened, and a string of house fires that could only be arson.   Of course, the old farmers settled on the topic of livestock thefts. 
An old man in a dusty ball cap and a leathery face, worn from years of working the fields, interrupted the cacophony with a booming voice.
“I believe it’s settled, then.  We’ll do our best to shut ourselves off from whatever’s out there.  If anyone within the sound of my voice disagrees, I give you the floor now.” 
Silence.
“Alright, we’ll start tomorrow.  I’ll offer up my tractor to help with the north bridge, is there anyone else willing to help with the others?” 
Several hands shot up from amongst the group.  Good.  Thank you.  We start work first thing tomorrow.  We’ll need all the help we can get.  If you’re able-bodied, we could use you.  Let’s end with a prayer, and plan on seeing everyone again in three days at noon.  Be careful; I want all of you back here with us next time.”
***

In the past, Kate thought the drive home from the church was peaceful and serene.  The countryside was mostly cotton, corn and soybean fields, depending on what stage the particular field was in its rotation.  When it wasn’t crops beyond the shoulder’s edge, it was open pastures with cattle dotting the rolling green sea of grass.  On any given day, the herds could be seen seeking relief from the heat in the shallow ponds, or clustering under the sparse stands of oaks and pecans. 
An occasional cedar-planked barn or brick farm house interrupted the scenery.  Barbed-wire fencing seemed to go on forever; along the road, across the fields and around the old farm houses.  Tonight’s drive was tense, however.  Any time spent away from the safety of one’s home was a risk that had to be carefully weighed. 
Kate captained Bronco while Jake leaned out the passenger window.  He scanned the shoulders with his spotlight for any signs of trouble.  They would slow down in front of the farmhouses and sweep the light across the front yards to check on their neighbors. 
Geram sat in the back seat with the scoped, FN FAL .308 rifle that he had borrowed from his brother.  The optic was a first generation night vision scope.  The moon was waning but was still bright enough to provide ample light to compensate for the optic’s outdated technology. 
Jake slowly scanned left and right, searching for inconsistences.  He looked for tire tracks in an abandoned driveway, an unfamiliar vehicle along the edge of the road, or anything that may warn of trouble up ahead.  He saw nothing of concern, though.  The only signs of bandits he could find were the occasional white eyes of a lone raccoon.
Kate turned onto their narrow, paved road that had more patches than original pavement.  Jake sighed with relief.  Soon they would be enjoying dinner at Frank’s house.  Afterwards, they could discuss moving arrangements over coffee and cake.
Kate had squealed with excitement as he broke the news during the ride to church.  Mrs. Thames had helped fill a void she had struggled with since the loss of her own mother.  Mrs. Thames was grandmotherly in nature, and a master of everything from canning to crocheting.  Kate was looking forward to spending more time with her ‘adopted mother’.  
As they drove under the final stretch of the live oak canopy that enveloped most of the road, Jake noticed a dark SUV parked in front of the Thames’ home.  Kate slammed hard on the brakes as Jake shouted to stop.  The front door was open and appeared to be sagging from the hinges. 
Jake switched the spotlight off and fumbled for the AR pistol that was at his feet.  Slowly, his eyes adjusted to the darkness.  Geram had already slipped out of the back seat and was in position in the ditch alongside the road. 
Kate turned off the headlights and look to Jake for guidance.  She began to tear up.  Jake leaned over and put his hand on hers.  He whispered in his most reassuring voice, “Baby, I’m going to get out now and go down to Geram.  We’ll watch the house for a moment and then decide what to do next.  I need you to turn around and go to the Richardson’s farm.  I need you to keep your headlights off if you can.  Okay?” 
Kate whispered, “Okay.”  Her voice cracked with emotion. 
“Good.  When you get to the Richardson’s, have him send his boys down here on horseback.  We might need their help.  Stay with Mr. Richardson until we come for you.”
Kate began to gently sob and grasped his hand.  Please be careful.”
“I always am.  Now go and tell them to please hurry back.”
***

Jake wanted to rush the house, but Geram kept urging him to wait for a little while longer.  The winds from earlier were growing fiercer.  Geram reasoned the temperature must have dropped five degrees from when they left the church.  The rain would be upon them soon.  Lightning was already illuminating the horizon. 
He scanned the front of the house slowly with the night-vision scope, searching for any signs of movement.  He panned to the right of the house and then to the left.  He turned his attention to Jake’s front yard.  There was no movement to be found. 
A single drop of rain landed on Geram’s forehead.  He turned and whispered to Jake, “I don’t see any movement in the windows or on either side of the house.  The right side of the place has only one window.  If you approach from that direction, you’ll have less chance of being spotted by someone inside. 
I want you to stay low and move slow until you reach the front corner.  Once there, climb over the porch rail and stay along the wall.  Make sure you move under the windows, not in front of them.  Stop just shy of the front door.
Once you’re in position I’ll come up behind you.  When I tap you on the shoulder, crouch low and push through the door.  At that point I want you to turn on your rifle light and swing right.  I’ll have to use my pistol at that point, so you’ll be our primary gun.  As I clear the door frame, I’ll turn on my light and swing left.  Got it?”
Jake nodded and replied, “Got it.” 
The rain intensified, while thunder rumbled in the distance. 
“One more thing; you know the house as good as anyone.  As soon as we clear the entrance, move us to the next door that’ll get us through the house the safest, without exposing our backs to gunfire.  We go room to room and we don’t stop until the whole house is clear, even if we find them, Jake.  We have to save ourselves before we can save anyone else.”
“Okay.”
“Remember, two shots center mass.  Not a double tap, we aim every shot.  No questions, no threats, just engage.”
“Understood.”
“Okay bro, now get moving.”
Chapter 7
Frank
West Mississippi

Franklin Thames waved to the Bronco as Kate drove off.  He shut the door and returned to the kitchen.  He took the remainder of the venison tenderloin out of the sink and began to slice it into thin steaks.  He dipped in a combination of yard eggs and fresh milk and then rolled them in flour.  Once they were thoroughly coated, he gently laid them in the cast-iron skillet.  The steaks crackled and popped in the hot oil.
Frank opened the oak cabinet and retrieved a tumbler.  He grabbed a bottle from atop the cabinet, poured some scotch into the glass and swooshed it around before finally taking a sip.  Frank peered out of his dirty kitchen window at the pastures behind his home as he took another sip of the single-malt.  He afforded himself only an occasional drink.  He would have loved to indulge more often, but in such times one preserved the finer vestiges of life as long as one could.
Frank flipped the steaks over in the skillet, before turning and rummaging through the pantry.  He searched among the various canned and dry goods for several moments before finally clutching the container of cane syrup.  The sweet solution was from a batch that was several years old.  It had been a gift from an old friend, an expert of the trade.  The half-empty jar was all that he had left from his friend.  Times had been hard on people.
The syrup would go perfectly with the steaks he was frying and the biscuits that his wife had warming in the oven.  He placed the jar on the kitchen table and produced an old brass lighter from his pocket.  With it, he lit three large candles that occupied the center of the table, before sitting down.
Mrs. Thames rested her hand on his shoulder to steady herself.  Slowly, she made her way to the stove.  She removed the last of the steaks from the skillet and placed them on a plate.
Are you cooking for an army, Franklin Thames?” she asked.
“Jake and Kate and his brother are coming by after church.  I’m sorry, I forgot to tell you.”
“It’s alright dear.  Things’ve been so different lately it’s easy to forget.  I’ll make some more biscuits.”  She placed the venison on the table in front them and sat down.  “What were you two talking about on the porch?”
“Jake asked us to move in with them.  One house is easier to keep watch over and he said they’d help safe up the livestock.  I think we should do it, at least until things get better.”
“I think it’s a wonderful idea, dear.”
Frank arose and grabbed a small bowl to pour the syrup in.  They ate the few biscuits she had prepared as well as several of the steaks, before contently retiring to their living room.  Frank reclined in his leather chair and pulled a hand-rolled cigarette out of his shirt pocket.
“I might let you get away with smoking in the house old man, but if I’ve known Kate Sellers a day, I know she certainly won’t.”
“Maybe so woman, but I’m not in Kate’s house yet.”  Frank smiled at her as he lit the cigarette and took the first drag. 
“You better watch your tone old man, or I’ll leave you here all by yourself.  Then who’ll listen to you bellyache?”
They laughed.  Frank climbed out of his chair and disappeared into the kitchen.  He emerged with two tumblers, one half full and one with just a splash of scotch.
“Here you go, my dear.”
“What’s this?  You know I can’t stand the taste of that mess.”
“I know, but this deserves a toast.”  He handed her the glass.  “To a house full of kids, again.”
“I suppose I can drink to that, just this once.”  She smiled as they clinked their tumblers.  She took the tiniest sip of the caramel colored liquid.  Please, tell me again how you drink this.”
“One sip at a time, my dear.  I’m going to finish this glass and take a nap.  Wake me up in an hour or so, please.”
“Alright, I’ll make some more biscuits and put up the steaks until they get here.”  She struggled to her feet, before slowly walking back into the kitchen.  Frank finished the scotch in two large gulps, smashed the cigarette in the ash tray and closed his eyes.
***

The headlights in the driveway awoke Frank from his nap.  He eased out of his leather recliner, walked to the window and peaked out of the blinds.  The vehicle’s silhouette was larger than what he had anticipated, but his mind was still foggy from his nap.  He stared out of the slit as he tried to process what he was seeing.
Four armed men quietly slipped out of the dark SUV and carefully moved towards the front door.  His heart jumped and his pulse quickened.  His muddled mind finally understood.  He turned and moved towards the kitchen as quickly as his stiff body would allow.  Frank yelled to his wife, “Margaret, hide!  We’ve got trouble!” 
There was no response.
He fumbled about in the dark kitchen, searching for the lever action carbine he kept loaded and ready.  Where was it?
Finally, he brushed against the walnut stock of the carbine.  Frank pulled it tightly to his shoulder as he heard something crash against the front door.  The reinforced frame held true and bought Frank a few extra moments to gather his thoughts and get in position behind the kitchen counter. 
He welded cheek to the stock and peered down the barrel.  He steadied his aim.  The front sight was blurry to his old eyes, but the door was clear as ever.  The living room windows welcomed in the illumination of the large moon that still hung in the sky.  He said a silent prayer and counted his blessings, however small.  An hour later and the moon would likely have been hidden by the storm clouds that were drifting his way.
Again, the intruder crashed into the door.  Frank fired two rounds through the door with brutal efficiency.  It sounded as if it had been a burst from a semi-automatic rifle.  The ancient carbine’s action was as smooth as butter.  Thames worked the lever forward, then back; forward, then back.  He heard a thud on the porch outside.  A man’s voice erupted with groans and curses as he writhed painfully on the wooden planks. 
Another man tried to lean in and fire into the house, but Frank hit him squarely in the forehead.  The intruder never made a sound as his knees buckled and he slid down the wall, not the Frank could have heard anything.  His ears perceived nothing, save the high-pitched ringing that plagued them.
He slid a counter drawer open and fumbled with the box of ammo that was inside. At the same time, he tried to maintain watch of the front door.  Frank had four rounds remaining in the carbine.
Suddenly, a blur leaped past the opening of the door.   Immediately afterwards a fourth intruder pushed his rifle into the opening and fired a dozen rounds indiscriminately.  Frank pressed himself tightly against the floor.  He had dropped the box of ammo as the rounds had begun to fly.  Cartridges were strewn all about him.  He grabbed several of them and stuffed them in his pocket.  Frank found several more and pushed them into the carbine.
He watched the drywall explode around him as the intruder’s rounds perforated his home.  Canning jars burst like bombs and debris flew through the air.  Dust and smoke filled the kitchen.  Frank tried to stand and return fire, but a second volley filled the air around him again.  He crawled out from behind the counter and along the wall until he reached the kitchen’s threshold.  From there, he could safely peer into the living room and beyond.
His body ached from the awkward movements that it was not accustomed to.  He alternated between trying to count the number of rounds that were fired at him and praying for at least Margaret’s life, if not his own.  He leaned around the threshold and steadied his sights at the wall beside the front door.  As the intruder’s rifle swung into view for a third volley, Frank unloaded all seven rounds into an area the size of a tombstone in the wall.  He sighed with relief as he watched the rifle clatter to the porch.
Thames rolled onto his side and coughed in pain.  Only then did he realize he had been shot in the legs and his shoulder.  Maybe he did not dive to the floor for cover, he thought to himself.  Perhaps he had collapsed.
He never saw the figure that was watching him through the kitchen window.  He struggled to sit up against the wall and catch his breath, but never accomplished that final task.  He never felt the high-powered rifle round as it pierced his skull and killed him instantly.
***

The stranger smashed the butt of his rifle through the glass pane in the door.  He reached in with a gloved hand and unlocked the dead bolt.  He stepped into the kitchen in his black western boots and swaggered over to the old man.  He patted his lifeless body and found the hand-rolled cigarettes in his pocket.  He retrieved one and rolled it between his fingers for a moment, before lighting it.  Satisfied, he stepped over Frank and strolled into the living room. 
He stepped out onto the front porch and looked at the mess that lay before him.  Two of his associates were lying on the porch dead and the third was spitting and coughing up blood.  He removed the Beretta from his shoulder holster and rested it against the dying man’s head.  The man began to sob and beg for his life, but it mattered not.  The man in the black boots squeezed the trigger as if he was putting down a lame dog.  The body slumped onto the porch.
The porch creaked noisily as he walked down to the corner and peered at Jake’s house.  No signs of anyone at home.  The assault had turned into a full-on disaster, no question about it.  He took one final drag of the cigarette and tossed it into the yard.  He reckoned it was time to find the old woman and force her to open the vault.  And if she refused, he would just have to kill her and open it himself.  Either way, it really didn’t matter.
He strolled back into the living room and down the hallway.  His footfalls were loud on the pine floor.  He let his fingernails scrape against the hallway wall as he walked.   The intruder pushed the doors open with the tip of his barrel of his rifle.  He casually swept the rooms, each in turn, before proceeding.  The man in the black boots smirked as he reached the final door of the long hallway.  He stepped inside.
She was sitting in a rocking-chair in the far corner of the room.  It had been her grandmother’s once, long ago.  The craftsmanship was apparent.  It was built to withstand the tests of time.  The walls around her were covered with hand-made crafts of her own and her foremothers.  In her lap rested a beautiful, half-finished quilt. 
She wore a baby-blue dress with a pattern of smiling, yellow chicks.  She had made two others just like it for her sisters.  Sometimes they would all wear their dresses while they were out together.  The complements they received about the outfits from strangers always made her smile.
The man in the black boots had forced himself into their home and killed the only man she had ever loved.  He was a man who could be hard and rough because his life had been, but he always tried to be gentle with her.  The intruder had taken the spiritual leader of their home.  For the first time since she could remember, she felt rage.  The man before her had destroyed her family, but she wasn’t dead yet.  This was her room.
They never exchanged words as she pulled the trigger of the snub-nosed revolver that she had concealed beneath her quilt.  The muzzle blast burned the fabric.  The hollow-point bullet punched through the quilt and violently tore through the man’s flesh.  It fragmenting as it collided with his pelvis.  He groaned in pain and took a short step back, shifting his weight to his other leg.  He raised the rifle to his shoulder. 
Her arthritic hands struggled painfully to re-cock the revolver, but she was too weak.  Finally, she gave up.  Mrs. Thames leaned defiantly toward him, as he leveled the barrel with her chest.  He fired three times. She groaned weakly, before slumping in the chair.  In her final breath she saw Frank waiting with an outstretched hand, and she smiled.
***

The man in the black boots cursed and coughed.  Nothing was going as planned.  The Thames were supposed to be at church.  He sat on a nearby bench and leaned against an old wooden piano.  He struggled to regain his composure.  His pelvis throbbed and his pants were beginning to stain crimson.  After several moments of rest, he stood and hobbled out into the hallway to try his luck with the vault. 
As he turned the corner and looked up, a giant, dark blur sailed through the air and collided against his chest.  He shrieked as the beats sunk its sharp fangs deep into his cheek and then his neck.  The impact sent him reeling backwards.  His croaked in pain as he crashed against the floor, back in the room.  His face throbbed with pain from the bites.  He flailed about, searching for is rifle, but he had dropped it in the hall. 
Sasha snarled and again to ripped at the man’s face.  He struggled to pry her off with his hands, but it only made her savage his gloves.  He wailed as she mangled his fingers. 
The man mustered all of his remaining strength and arched back.  He worked his boots under Sasha’s chest as best he could.  Suddenly, he pushed as hard as he could with his legs.  Sasha growled and clacked her fangs as she sailed backwards.  She landed with a thud in the hall. 
With a quick motion, he spun and grabbed the bottom of the door.  As he feverishly tried to push it shut, Sasha wedged her head between the door and the frame.  As he held the door with both hands, he spun and kicked Sasha in the center of her face.  She whimpered and stumbled backwards as the door slammed shut. 
The man in the black boots writhed on the floor in agony.  He breathed in deeply as he tried to gather his resolve.  He could hear the beast still in the hall, snarling and scratching at the door.  He touched his face and neck to gauge the damage and immediately recoiled in horror.  Bits of bloody meat hung in tatters from his cheek and throat.  He crawled to the corner and grabbed an old, wooden cane that was propped against the wall.  He steadied himself between the cane and the piano pulled himself to his feet.  He hobbled over to Mrs. Thames and flung the quilt on the floor.  He pried the revolver from her hand, before turning and making his way to the window. 
He climbed out and tumbled into the mud below.  He coughed and wheezed as the hard landing expelled the air from his lungs.  He weakly limped to the corner of the house to make his way back to the SUV.  When he peaked around to the front, he saw a figure slowly and purposefully moving towards the house.  He cursed under his breath and recoiled.  He was in no shape for another gun battle.  The man aimed for the deep swamp beyond the Thames’ pasture.
Chapter 8
Jake
West Mississippi

Jake didn’t notice the bodies on the front porch until he had already pressed himself against the wall of the house.  They were hidden from the view of the ditch and he had been focused on the windows.  He cursed himself for not noticing sooner.  He carefully climbed onto the porch and slowly moved along the wall, just like Geram had instructed.  He ducked under the windows and planned his steps purposefully to avoid making any errant noises.  Jake could feel his heart pounding in his chest and the adrenaline coursing through his veins.  He did not have the combat experience of his brother, so he had to focus very hard to remain calm.
As he reached a point on the wall several feet from the door, he pressed his back against it and listened for any sounds from within the house.  He heard nothing.  He wanted to rush in and search for Frank, but instead he waited for his brother.
He watched as Geram drifted like a ghost towards him.  Jake was amazed at how he moved within the shadows.  At times he would catch a glimpse, only for Geram to disappear.  Knowing his rear was covered, Jake rolled to face the door, and any trouble that may be coming their way.
Jake stared at the three bodies that lay at his feet.  Someone, most likely Frank, had done quite well.  He hoped against hope that Frank was still inside somewhere, perhaps tending to a superficial wound.  He knew the odds were against his old friend, but he refused to entertain any other thoughts.  He noted the military-style weaponry the men carried and thought of the old lever gun that Frank had likely used.  He was amazed at the damage the old man had managed to inflict. 
Jake was momentarily startled by the tap on his left shoulder before realizing it was his brother.  Geram leaned in close and whispered softly, “Swing right, whenever you’re ready.”
Jake crouched low.  He felt Geram lean in and steady his pistol over Jake’s left shoulder.  Geram had slung his rifle across his back.  The scope would be useless in the confined space of the house.  Jake counted to three, rolled around the door frame, into the living room.  He panned to the right, searching for threats.  Geram swung left immediately behind him.  They moved through the door as if they were but one. 
Jake stayed low as they moved through the living room, past the large stone fireplace and towards the kitchen.  Geram followed closely behind as he fixed his pistol on the hallway to their right.  They stopped for a moment along the interior wall that separated the living room and kitchen.  Jake noted the bullet holes that riddled the wall around them.  He tilted his head back and mouthed, “Frank”, and then motioned with his head towards the kitchen.
Geram nodded and considered the situation.  If they called out and revealed themselves, they would be compromised.  If they did not, and Frank was in the kitchen, either he or they could be shot.  Neither scenario was desirable.  Geram looked down at Jake and shook his head no.  They had to take their chances with the kitchen.
As they swept into the room, Jake’s heart sunk.  He saw Frank’s body surrounded by a crimson pool.  He dropped to one knee and placed his hand on Frank’s shoulder.  Jake knew from the head wound Frank had died immediately.  Geram grabbed Jake by the collar and pulled him back to his feet.  He shook his head no again and pointed to the rest of the house.  They had to ensure their own safety.  It was no time for mourning, not yet. 
Once they were back in the living room, they prepared to perform the same clearing maneuver into the hallway.  As they readied themselves for the motion, they heard a low growl coming from the hall.  It grew louder as the beast bounded towards them.  They could hear the echo of its claws scratching against the wood flooring.  Jake held up his fist to Geram as if to say, ‘Hold!.  He hoped it was indeed Sasha.  They slowly backed away from the threshold to give themselves some standoff room.  Jake crouched low.
As Sasha emerged from the hall, her fierce growl was replaced with a high-pitched whine.  She sprung at Jake and knocked him off balance.  He landed on his back with a gentle thud.  As she licked his face and neck, Jake forgot about Frank for a brief moment and smiled with relief.
Geram walked over and dropped to one knee to rub her head.  He whispered to Jake, “If she was in that hall, I doubt there’s anyone left in this house.  We should still be careful, though.  Can you make her stay here?”
“Yeah.” 
“Okay, let’s finish this.”
Jake whispered a command in Czech to Sasha and she plopped down on her haunches and stared at the front door, waiting patiently for her next order.  The men stood up and once again prepare to clear the remainder of the house.  In one fluid motion they cleared the hall. They continued to each room, until they were at the final door.  They noticed Sasha had clawed deep into the bottom of the door.
Jake grasped the knob as quietly as possible and turned it slowly.  He held it in position until they were ready to rush the room.  He shouldered into the door and pushed it open.  Again, he swung right and Geram left.  Immediately he saw her body.  His heart broke as his worst fears were realized.  He gently laid her body out on the floor and covered it with the quilt.    
Geram dropped down to one knee and whispered, “Bro, I’m so sorry for all of this; Frank and Mrs. Thames.  I can’t imagine the loss you’re feeling, but whoever did this is still alive.  Look at the window.”
He pointed his pistol at the window.  The flashlight illuminated the broken glass and streaks of blood.  Jake shouted another command in Czech and Sasha bounded into the room.  He spoke again and she bolted to the window and inhaled the scent.  She turned, rushed out of the room and down the hall.  The men readied their weapons and chased after her. 
As the three burst out of the house, they were met by Levi and Eli Richardson on horseback.  The twins had been nervously waiting in the heavy rain for Jake and Geram.  Levi called out to the brothers, “How bad is it?”
Jake order Sasha to stop and then responded, “They’re both gone, Levi.”
“God help us. What about the men that did this?”
“We think at least one of them is still alive, maybe more.  They went out the back window.  We’re going after them.”
“We’re right behind you, lead the way.”
Jake once again called out to Sasha, and she continued around to the back of the house.  As she reached the shattered back window, she planted her nose in the mud and blood where the intruder had fallen.  She growled menacingly and followed the trail towards the northern woods line.
Levi and Eli dismounted at the first barbed wire fence, leaving their horses to search for shelter from the storm as they continued onward.  Sasha was nearly twenty feet ahead of the men, her pace quickening as the blood became more abundant.  At the second fence, the men found a snub-nosed revolver lying in the mud.  Eli knelt and grabbed the small handgun, before burying it in the oversized pocket of his raincoat.  Levi stepped on the middle, barbed-wire strand with his boot and pushed down hard.  He grabbed the top strand and lifted up, allowing the other men to duck through the fence.
The rain was falling at a sharp angle as the winds swirled around the men.  Lightning struck somewhere behind them and the boom of thunder followed immediately after.  They could hear the horses’ nervous whinnies somewhere in the night.  The few trees in the field, leafless and bare, looked like gnarled claws in the flashes of lightning. 
The men’s boots sloshed against the saturated ground.  Their hair was matted to their foreheads and their clothing clung to their drenched bodies.  Suddenly, up ahead, Sasha stopped abruptly.  Her growl intensified as she circled a heap in the field just beyond.  Geram crouched and peered through the lens of the night-vision scope.  After a moment, he motioned the others ahead.
Jake made it to Sasha first.  He rubbed her head and whispered, “Good girl.  Good girl,” before stepping past her and standing over the man’s body. 
Eli was right behind Jake.  He dropped down in the mud and checked the man’s pulse.  He’s still alive,” he croaked.
“Good.”  Jake struck the man’s ribs with his boot with all of the strength he could muster.  The man groaned and coughed as he curled up to protect himself from a second blow.
“Jake!  You can’t do that!”
“Why not?  Isn’t this the least that he deserves?”  Jake struck the man as hard as he could again.
“Jake!  Enough!”  Levi wrapped his thick bicep around Jake’s throat and dragged him away from the man, “That’s not how we do it, Jake.  You know that.  We’re not like him.”
Eli rolled the man over on his back and exclaimed, “Damn, look at his face – what did that?”
Geram walked up behind the three men and offered, “Probably Sasha.  She was in the house when we got there.  Lord, she got him good.”
The man’s face was barely recognizable, but Eli leaned in close with his flashlight nonetheless.  He studied the features for a moment before whispering, “It can’t be.”
“What?  Who is it?” his brother replied. 
“This is Sam Coleman, from across the creek.  He has the orchard over on Smithtown Road.  He must have known that church was tonight and thought we would all be away.  He – he looks pretty bad.  He’s lost a lot of blood.  I’m not sure he’ll make it.”
Good,” Jake replied, “Let him die.”
***

Sam Coleman died not long after they found him.  The Richardson twins carried Sam out of the field and laid his body across the back of Eli’s horse.  They carried him to the Thames’ front porch and left him with the other bodies.  Mr. Richardson had already sent notice to the sheriff, and he had promised to be by in the next day or so.  He was on the other side of the county investigating yet another home invasion that had gone awry.
Jake and Geram shook hands and exchanged farewells with the twins before leaving for Jake’s house.  As they walked back home Jake finally broke the silence.
“I’m sorry about how I reacted back there.  It was out of my character.”
“You don’t owe me an apology.  I probably would’ve done much worse.”
“Maybe I don’t, but I still feel the need.”
“Look brother, I know this is new for you.  You’re doing a lot better than I did my first time.  I know the full weight of it hasn’t come to bear yet, but it will, and you’ll find some way to cope.  The important thing is you’ve realized your mistakes.  That man, Sam, he lost his direction.  A year ago, if you would’ve told him he’d be dead in a field because he attacked one his neighbors, he probably would’ve swung at you.”
“I thought it’d be different here.  I thought people would stand by each other.”
“I don’t know if anywhere is safe anymore.”
“We can’t stay, not anymore.  This is going to hit everyone hard.  Trust’ll be lost.  We might as well be on our own.”
“You’re right.”
“Three days.  For three days we’ll try and get some rest and gather as many supplies as we can.  We’ll pay our respects, have a service.  After that, we leave.”
“Where you want to go, Jake?”
“The only place I can think of that might be safe.”
Geram smiled weakly and nodded in agreement as he draped his arm around Jake’s neck.




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3 comments:

  1. Excellent! Very well written.
    thanks

    Fred
    MOLON LABE

    ReplyDelete
  2. Well concieved plot and beautifully written

    ReplyDelete