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by Ernie Whiting
The Stagger On Inn was one of those small, unkempt and out-of-the-way taverns that catered mostly to truck drivers, bikers, and out-of-work cowboys. It was a land version of a longshoreman's tavern, with songs of the road, instead of the sea, coming from an ancient jukebox that had been shoved into one corner. The walls were festooned not with harpoons, anchors, fishing nets, abalone shells and dead sea stars, but with posters of Harley Davidsons, Peterbilt trucks, rodeos, and bare-breasted women dressed in jungle-camouflage bikini bottoms and clutching assault rifles. An assortment of eighteen-wheelers, pick-ups, vans, four-by-fours and motorcycles was parked haphazardly in the gravel parking lot, decorated with mud and debris from the road, while their drivers were inside, taking a much needed rest from their long journeys.
The atmosphere of the inn was dim and choked with hazy white tobacco and marijuana fumes. It took a few minutes for Keller's eyes to adjust to the lack of light before he could cautiously wind his way between pool shooters and tables to the bar and order a beer. He picked up a brown long-neck, left a couple of dollars on the bar, and politely wove his way around a number of men you didn't want to mess with, and found an empty corner booth where he could easily keep an eye on the door. He eased himself down, took a sip from the bottle, then lit a cigarette and settled back to wait. Man, he thought as he surveyed the room while some country western record with a nasal singer screeched across his eardrums like fingernails on a chalkboard. Man, the shit I have to go through sometimes...
He breathed a sigh of relief when the record ended, and for a while he eavesdropped on the various conversations that buzzed around him.
"...confiscated his hog just 'cause he was carryin' a lousy joint..."
"...got shot by the soldiers just for mouthin' off to 'em..."
"...when I was jailed for punchin' out a Holy Guard...it was worth it, too."
"...just hangin' there, man, in mid-air and with blood all over his face..."
"...flashin' her tits like that at the concert; I seen 'em myself!"
How many places like this had he been in over the years? It didn't seem to matter whether he was in northern California or Nicaragua, Morocco or Australia, or even Afghanistan or Singapore--there always seemed to be at least one place in each of those countries just like this one, and he had always managed to find it. It was a hell of a place for conducting business, but it sure beat the hell out of being in jail, didn't it? Or did it? There was that time in Mexico, for example, in that little cantina in Baja, when jail would have been considerably more desirable...
He'd had a cache of guns hidden in the hills, brand new and slick with cosmoline, waiting comfortably in their crates. A man known only as Arturo had come to take delivery. "Let's see the cash first," Keller had told him.
Arturo reached into his sweat-stained shirt and withdrew an envelope, and dropped it on the rough wooden table with a plop. Keller opened it and began counting the bills. They were damp with Arturo's sweat.
"Half of it is there," Arturo said with a thick Spanish accent. "You get the other half when I see the goods."
Keller folded the envelope closed. "Fair enough," he said, wanting to wipe his hands off on his jeans. "I have a jeep parked right outside."
"No," Arturo said. "We take my trock."
Something besides Arturo had smelled really, really bad. "What's the matter?" Keller asked. "You don't trust me or something?"
Arturo grinned, and revealed a wide black gap of decay between two of his upper teeth, the remainders of which were stained yellow with years of unfiltered tobacco. "Don't you trost me?" he'd asked.
Keller couldn't afford to blow this deal. "Sure," he said with a forced grin. "Sure, I trust you."
"Good! Bueno! We are amigos, si? Amigos trost each other, si?"
"Sure," Keller said again, only this time his voice had been laced with muted sarcasm.
The old, rusty Ford pickup was in desperate need of new springs and shocks, but at least it got them to the cave where the guns were hidden. Arturo had been drinking steadily from a bottle of tequila, wiping his arm against his thick lips, and Keller could hear the thick black stubble on his face as it rasped against his arm. He didn't want to accept the bottle that was offered to him, but what could he do? Some people were known to cancel their deals just on the refusal of a sociable drink between two businessmen. He reluctantly accepted the bottle as he hoped Arturo wasn't carrying any communicable diseases, and then had something else to worry about as he saw something floating in the bottle. Oh, God, he'd thought in dismay, please, don't let me get the worm.
"Ah, muy bien," Arturo said as he looked over the rifles in their now open crates. He reached in and took out one of the M-16s. "Yes, these will do very nicely."
"You like, eh?"
"Oh, si. I like very moch."
"Good. So where's the rest of the money?"
"Under the seat in the trock," Arturo replied. "Help yourself, amigo."
Don't mind if I do, Keller thought as he hoped that the keys were there, too. He didn't want to be around when Arturo found out that all of the firing pins had been removed. The money with which he was paying Keller had been stolen from a small, run-down clinic in southern Baja, and the doctor who ran it was a good friend of Keller's. Keller had gone to a lot of trouble to set up this scam to get his friend's money back, and the sooner he got out of here the better.
"And here's your final payoff," he heard Arturo saying, and he heard the click of a pistol's hammer being drawn back. He turned and saw the barrel of a Colt King Cobra .357 Magnum pointed at his face. "You won't need no focking money where you're going..."
No, Keller thought, it can't end like this. Not out here, alone. No, dammit, no... He tried to bolt and run, but his legs had turned to lead. In favor of a much larger target, the barrel dropped from his head to fix on his chest, and everything that happened next happened in painfully slow motion; the fall of the hammer, the explosion of the gunshot, and the hollow point bullet coming slowly toward him, closer and closer, and slamming into his chest--
He awoke with a jarring start. He glanced around quickly with a racing heart, and he realized he was sweating. He was no longer in a Mexican desert, but back in the Stagger On Inn, and he couldn't believe how glad he was to be back in this beautiful, beautiful dump. Compared to that Mexican cave, this place was paradise.
And in His spare time, he thought dryly as he sighed in relief and ran a hand through his hair, God created Kevlar.
Someone dropped a quarter into the jukebox, punched some buttons, and more nasal country music twanged from the speakers. It never sounded so good in all of Keller's life. Laughter roared and billiard balls clicked, and with these reassuring sounds he knew that everything was okay again. He reached for the ashtray and found that his cigarette was dead and cold. Unlike himself. Still trying to shake off the feelings of the dream, he reached for the beer and took a sip, then lit up another smoke.
There was another click from a nearby table, more laughter, and then anger. "...hit my elbow..."
"Aw, bullshit. It was just a lousy shot."
"Bullshit yourself, man, the guy hit my elbow, and I want the shot over."
"Fuck you, man, you blew it."
"Oh, yeah? Well, fuck you!" And then there was the whoosh of a cue stick, another shouted obscenity, and the next thing Keller knew was he was being entertained by a good old barroom brawl. He had been in enough of these over the years, and he was quite content to just sit back and watch someone else collect some bruises for a change. The sudden activity pushed the memory of Mexico from his mind, and he grinned like a spectator at a ball game as he sipped his beer again. A fist swung, smacked against a face, and with a wince Keller thought, Yeowch! Good shot! The two men knocked each other back and forth, smashing rickety tables and chairs to splinters, and the other players and drinkers quickly backed away to give them room as they rolled against pool tables and knocked over other people's beers and screwed up their games. No one seemed to mind, though, as money continued to change hands; only now the bets were shifted from the games to the fight.
The two men cursed and grunted as they threw and received punches, and slowly made their way toward the door and outside where there was more room. But before they got outside, a large man with long gray-blond hair and beard came in through the door, and nearly caught a stray fist in his face. With a glare of surprise and sudden rage, he grabbed the hand, twisted it behind its owner's back, and shoved the man into a table to scatter multi-colored ivory balls across the green felt in a wild chain reaction. He then grabbed the other man by his denim jacket and belt, lifted him over his head, and threw him across the bar to smash into the mirror behind it. "All bets are off!" a voice shouted. "All bets are off!" A few others complained about the fight being interrupted, but no one was going to take on the new arrival; he was pretty big, and no one felt that lucky.
Ignoring the rest of the crowd, he went over to the jukebox, dropped in a couple of quarters, and punched some buttons. "Let's have a little peace and quiet in here, shall we?" he asked softly. "Didn't your mothers ever teach you it isn't nice to fight in bars?" There were a few chuckles and soft laughs, and conversations rekindled as people went back to their games. "Back Door Stranger," by .38 Special, came blasting from the stereo speakers. The big man left some bills on the bar and said in a loud voice, "Next round's on me!" This was greeted with a round of cheers and thanks, and he added another hundred to the pile already on the bar. "And that's for the mirror," he told the bartender. "Sorry."
"Hey, no sweat," said the bartender as he eyed the money. The mirror had originally cost him only twenty, and the rest of the money could help replace some of the shattered furniture.
I don't believe it, Keller thought as he grinned in surprise. He raised his beer in a salute and called out, "Yo, Dutch! Over here, man!"
Dutch Jackson turned with a look of mild surprise on his face at the sound of the familiar voice, and then returned the salute with a wave and a grin of his own. He sauntered over to Keller's table as a couple of men went to help the bartender clear out the two unconscious bodies, and he shook his friend's hand with a firm grip. "When I heard about a call from Mendocino for a sending unit on a Charger with a split 327," he said loudly over the music as he sat, "I knew it had to be you." He sipped at Keller's beer. "So what did you do to my baby?"
"I had a run-in with the soldiers out in the desert," Keller told him, and then went through the entire story. "By the time we got out here the sending unit gave out, and the radiator cracked. Thank God it didn't blow out in the desert, or Valerie and I would be dead meat right now."
"Yeah, that's the last damn time I'm relying on a cooling-on-demand system," he said. "I had a fuck-up with it once before, but I thought it was just a fluke. Hey, how is Valerie, anyway?"
"She's fine, just...great..." Something began to nag at the back of his mind. It was a familiar feeling; it reminded him of the time he went rushing back to the Ryan ranch with Oscar and Rob, when he felt as though he had been receiving some kind of signal... It's nothing, he told himself. Nothing at all...
The song was just fading to an end when the springs of the wooden screen door squealed faintly over the buzz of talk, and then the door banged shut again. A few pairs of eyes went toward the door to see who had come in, and a moment later people nudged each other with elbows or tapped shoulders, and more people turned toward the door as nods of heads and thumbs pointed that way. The buzz of conversations fell silent and pool games stopped in mid-shot.
Standing at the door were two FLM soldiers, dressed in black fatigues and black Kevlar vests. Their cold, hard features surveyed the tavern and its occupants disdainfully, and a soft voice could be heard asking, "What do these fuckers want?"
With an air of supreme authority, the two troopers approached the bar. "Bartender," one of them said as he took a pair of photographs from a breast pocket, "have you seen either of these two people?"
The bartender fixed the soldiers with a stony expression. He then took a quick glance at the pictures. The woman was a complete stranger, someone he'd never seen except in some wanted posters. The man's picture was a composite drawing, the descriptions having been supplied by Matthew Gordon and the owner of the Clyde's Mini Mart. The bartender flicked his eyes toward the dark-haired man sitting in a corner booth, then roamed around the bar. He had no idea of what his customer had done, nor did he really care. He might be a killer, a burglar, or a drug dealer, but at least he wasn't some fascist mercenary. The bartender didn't like FLM mercenaries. "Nope."
"Are you certain?"
"I said I ain't seen 'em." His voice was low with a hint of menace.
The merc watched him a moment longer, then turned and approached three men at a nearby table. "What about you men?" he asked, showing them the pictures.
The three men ignored him.
Growing more frustrated and angry by the moment, the soldier went over to one of the pool tables where a man was lining up for a double bank-shot. The stick drew back smoothly, and the soldier snatched the white ball from the blue felt-covered table. "What about you?" he demanded, thrusting the pictures under the man's face.
The pool player straightened slowly and deliberately, and fixed him with a chilling, silent stare. Eyes of a falcon focused on an unsuspecting field mouse.
"Damn it, I want some cooperation!" the soldier shouted. "If I don't start getting some answers, I'm going to have this place shut down and you'll all be imprisoned for obstruction of justice and for refusing to cooperate in a legal investigation!"
The pool player continued to watch the soldier with cold eyes. "How'd you like to have this cue stick shoved up your ass?" he growled.
"He'd probably like it," said another voice. "A lot."
The sound of low, threatening laughter rumbled throughout the tavern like the growing thunder of an approaching storm.
The soldier reached for his baton while his partner started for his pistol. Then they froze when they heard the scraping sounds of chair legs against the wooden floor. They looked quickly around the large room, and for the first time they had the impression that they just might be a little bit out of their depth. They had grown too accustomed to getting away with harassing and intimidating innocent people, and they had enjoyed the power they exercised when they dealt with kids, speeders and protesters, or with people who feared the power of an authoritarian State that could incarcerate citizens without reason other than that of simply wanting to make an example of them.
But it didn't work with outlaw bikers.
Nearly every man in the place rose threateningly to his feet. There was the clinking sound of a length of chain, and across the room three men gently tapped cue sticks against their open palms. In another corner, two more men were menacingly tossing billiard balls up and down, while back across the room there was the stealthy snick of a switchblade. At the bar two men held beer bottles by their necks, ready to crash their bottoms against the edge of the bar...
The two soldiers glanced uncertainly at each other, and suddenly they felt the dreadful, chilling realization that they were in it up to their necks. They slowly backed toward the door with their hands resting on their side arms, yet not daring to draw them and possibly provoke an attack. They headed out the door and into the cooling air of the late afternoon. "Scum of the earth," one of them said. "That's what those people are, those...those heathens..."
They continued toward their car. They heard the tavern's screen door open with a squeaking of rusty springs, and when they turned toward the sound they saw that just about every man in the place was coming outside.
And they were carrying weapons.
One man threw a black eight ball at the soldiers and caught one of them on the shoulder. It was a well-placed shot; the pain was so intense and paralyzing that the soldier couldn't use that arm to draw his sidearm. The blue two-ball was next, thrown by another man, and it smashed into the police cruiser's windshield, leaving a round hole and a fractured spider web pattern in the glass. The soldiers ran for the car in a sudden torrent of billiard balls and beer bottles, closely followed by men in black leather and cowboy boots and worn, faded denim and battered brown leather, all shouting curses and waving cue sticks and a couple of chairs. One of the soldiers got behind the wheel while the other leaped in through the open window. The engine roared to life and the rear tires sprayed gravel as the car rapidly backed away from a row of motorcycles, then took off like a shot down the dirt and gravel road. The tavern's customers chased them on foot for a few moments, and then gave up. Laughter roared as people settled down on bumpers and hoods and open tailgates, and hoisted beer bottles to their lips.
Keller and Dutch stood at the porch of the Stagger On Inn and watched the tail end of the cruiser disappear as it rounded a bend in the road. They watched in stone silence for a moment, then looked at each other. Unable to think of anything to say, the two men looked down the road again, and then cracked up in laughter.
"Well, if you're so damned hungry, why don't you start diner yourself?" Maggie shouted back as she continued to take down the day's laundry from the clothesline. She dropped the last of the shirts into the straw basket that rested on the ground, then bent to lift it. Half way up, the right handle came off in her hand and tilted the basket, and dumped clean laundry onto the dusty ground. "Shit!" She wanted to kick the basket across the yard, but she controlled the urge. Why take it out on the basket when she really wanted to kick Scott? Instead, she glared back at the house where her husband stood. He wants his dinner, she thought angrily, and he wants his clothes washed, but will he fix the damn laundry basket?
"Hey, what's your problem?" Scott Preston shouted back across the yard. He stood at the back door and had to shout to be heard over the distance. "I was just asking if Lori's dinner was ready, that's all. Where is she, anyway?" He shouted a little louder. "Lori? Dinnertime! Come on in and get cleaned up!"
"Coming, Daddy!" the girl replied. A moment later the muffled hooves of two horses could be heard coming from the other side of the house. They came around the corner an few moments later, and each was being ridden by a black-clad FLM soldier. Lori was sitting astride the second horse, grinning happily and waving.
Scott slowly stepped down from the porch and started toward them while Maggie let the basket drop to the ground as she approached the soldiers from the opposite direction. Apprehension was growing inside of her as she called out, "Lori, you come down from there. These men have important work to do."
Lori began to slide from the saddle, but the soldier quickly slid an arm tightly around her waist to pull her back up. "Whoa there!" he said, looking at Maggie. He forced a smile that didn't look at all friendly or reassuring. "Don't slip and hurt yourself--it's quite a drop."
Scott's heart was racing. You bastards, he thought, what are you doing with my little girl? He tried not to show any fear as he remembered the stories he had heard; stories about how some of these soldiers treated people they were questioning. He tried to be calm as he asked, "What can I do for you?" His voice sounded nervous even to himself, and he was pretty sure the soldiers noticed it, too.
The soldier on the first horse didn't bother to dismount. It was much easier to intimidate a civilian by looking down on him or her from up here; and he enjoyed intimidating civilians. He pulled a photograph from his pocket and stretched his arm toward Preston. He wouldn't go out of his way to lean forward to reach down to him; he wanted to make this peasant come to him instead. "We're looking for this woman; we're checking with all the locals to see if anyone has seen her."
"Yeah?" he asked innocently as he reached for the picture. "What's she done?" And then he immediately wished he hadn't asked. He expected the soldier to tell him that it was none of his damned business. Or, worse yet, he could be accused of questioning the authority of a Holy Guard or of interfering with the performance of their duty or obstructing justice. FLM soldiers were very touchy about people questioning their authority.
"She's wanted for sedition, witchcraft and murder."
Scott looked at the picture as the Guard spoke. Yeah, he'd seen her a few days ago, over at Oscar Corey's place. He had taken Lori there because Kelly Corey was her best friend, and at the end of the day Lori had been filled with Kelly's stories about "the good witch lady." Of course, Scott didn't believe any of them--at least, not until he mentioned them to Oscar.
"No, I can't say that I have," he lied. He had spoken with Valerie himself, once, and he had taken an immediate liking to her. He had heard some of the other stories about her, too, but after having met and spoken with her he had found them difficult to believe. She had seemed like such a nice person...how could she have killed two soldiers?
He didn't believe it.
"Are you certain you haven't seen her?" the second soldier asked, still holding Lori close. "Think carefully." There was a hint of a threat in his voice.
Scott and Maggie, standing close together, both picked up on the thinly veiled threat. "Lori," Maggie said, trying hard to control her voice, "you come down from there right now."
The soldier's arm tightened around her waist again. "Oh, that's okay," he said, his voice falsely reassuring. "She's fine up here, just fine. I'll make sure she doesn't fall."
You mean escape, you bastard, Maggie thought in both fury and terror.
Even Lori was beginning to sense that something was wrong, and she was getting scared. The soldiers had told her that they were going to take her home where it was safe; it was dangerous for little girls to wander alone through the woods, no matter how well they knew them. But now that they were here, why wasn't he letting her down?
Scott watched him. Loathing for these fascists filled him, but what was he to do to get his little girl back? He pretended to study the photo again as his mind raced, and suddenly he thought of that old deserted place about nine or ten kilometers west of Oscar's place. Since Valerie was staying with the Coreys, he decided to send these two off on a wild goose chase. "Now that I think of it, she does look a little familiar. I think I once saw her out near the old Ryan place, about ten klicks or so off that way." He waved a hand in the general direction. Let's see these two go by themselves to a haunted house, he thought.
The first soldier glanced uncertainly at his partner, and the other watched Scott and Maggie; the expression in his eyes plainly told them that he knew how to find this small farm again, and would be back if they found out they had been lied to. "Okay, honey, pony ride's over." He finally let Lori slide to the ground. "We have to go back to work."
Maggie rushed forward to gather the girl in her arms. The first soldier took the picture back and slid it into his pocket. With a cold look he said, "It's amazing, what people can remember...with the proper motivation." He tugged at the reins and the two soldiers rode back the way they had come.
"Colonel? Sergeant Greene is reporting in, sir."
Warren straightened in the car seat and opened his bleary eyes. Heavens, he thought, did I sleep all day? The sun was rapidly dropping behind the mountains, and the tall trees cast their long shadows that increased the darkness. He didn't like being out here; there were too many unknowns. Too damn many trees, too much wilderness. It wasn't safe out here for a God-fearing Christian, and he firmly believed that some four hundred years ago the original Pilgrims had had the right idea when they first began clear-cutting all the trees in their war against Nature. Well, it can still be taken care of, he thought. One torch would certainly make this place safe and livable for decent people.
He pushed the door open and got out on tired, heavy legs, and went to the radio truck.
The convoy was stopped at the mouth of a narrow trail that wound its way through the thickly wooded forest, and Warren thought again that it had been a good thing that they had confiscated as many horses from the surrounding farms as they had. Government business, he had told the owners, we need the horses. We'll return them when we're through. He had invoked the Foundation's Imminent Domain clause which, he claimed, applied not only to land in these times of crises, but to all property.
He stepped into the back of the large truck, donned a pair of headphones, and picked up the microphone. "Colonel Warren here. Report."
"Sergeant Greene, sir." Static burst and crackled in Warren's ears, interference caused by the poor range of the old-style walkie-talkie that Greene was using. "...may be at...ch about...les or so...here..."
"Say again, Sergeant, your signal is weak." A loud burst of static exploded in his ears, and he turned up the gain, trying to pull in the weak signal. "Say again, I'm not reading you well."
"We think we may have found the witch, sir," Greene said, almost shouting into his handset to be heard over the static. "We have good reason to believe that she's up at the old Ryan ranch."
Warren's face paled. "I knew it," he muttered to himself. He didn't like the idea of going back to that house; he had been hoping against hope that she wouldn't go there, but the Lord had seen fit to send her there to test Warren's faith. He, too, had recently heard the rumors about the ghosts and other unseen things that dwelled in that house of the damned. Demons had taken possession of it, he concluded, after that fateful day when it seemed that the shooting would never stop. The girl on the horse, escaping through the woods so many years ago, was the witch he now hunted! Demons or no, he had a God-given mission to perform--and no demon or spirit, or even the fucking Devil himself, was going to prevent him from carrying it out! God Himself had sent Colonel Warren, and Warren would not fail Him.
"Are you certain?" he asked Greene.
"Absolutely, sir. We have several eyewitnesses. A woman calling herself Valerie St. James, who matches the photos we have, has definitely been seen in the same vicinity as the Ryan ranch." He didn't tell Warren that Scott Preston had been the only witness with whom he had spoken. But that didn't matter, because good news to the Colonel always had its rewards.
"Excellent work, Sergeant. You stay where you are and remain out of sight; we don't want her running off. We'll be there as soon as possible."
"Oscar?" Scott's voice came over the citizen's band radio. "That St. James girl is in big trouble. A couple of soldiers have just been at my place looking for her. Tell her to stay clear of the Ryan ranch, 'cause I just sent them over there. I don't--"
"What?" He nearly shouted into the microphone.
"I told them she's hanging out at the old haunted Ryan place. What's wrong?"
"That's where she's living now!"
"I thought she was living at your place!"
"She was, but she said the old house belonged to her now, and she moved in!"
"Oh, Christ!" Scott said, realizing what he had done. His own microphone nearly fell from his fingers. "Oh, God, I didn't know! Can you get her on her C.B.? Warn her--"
"She hasn't got a radio!"
"Oh, God. Oh, Christ, what have I done?"
"Charlie? This is Ross in Delta sector. Two soldiers on horseback are just leaving the area. They look like they're headed for Alpha sector."
Charlie Bachman consulted his map. "According to our intelligence, there aren't any other soldiers in that area," he said. "We had a couple a few days ago, but it's been quiet since then."
"Charlie?" said another voice, this one inside the communications room with him. "Boone's got another update on the Feds' communications."
"Stand by, Ross." He hit a couple of buttons. "Go ahead, Boone."
"We've got a convoy of soldiers on their way to Alpha. Several people have gotten a look at it, and the reports are conflicting--but still, compared to the patrols we've seen so far, it sounds like it could be a fairly sizeable one."
"Some say there are only about fifteen men, and others say it could be a platoon--forty or fifty men. There may or may not be more on the way; so far, nothing indicates there are, but you never know. Several vehicles were seen left behind; they couldn't get them down the trail, so they've picked up some horses, no doubt confiscated from some surrounding homes... Stand by." He paused for another moment. "I've just received another update--that patrol is headed for us."
Bachman sighed, rested his forehead in his hand, and rested that elbow on the desk. He wearily shook his head. "Shit," he said. Great. A patrol of soldiers--no matter how large or how small--headed right for us. So much for the idea of hiding headquarters near a reputed haunted house. When they find us, the game's up. "See if you can get a chopper airborne to have a look around. Have you heard anything about them finding us? Are we going to have to bug out again?"
"Negative," Boone replied. "It sounds like they're looking for some girl."
Bachman couldn't help smiling. "Aren't we all?"
"Charlie, I don't think they know we're here."
"Good," said Charlie Bachman, the leader of this small Resistance group. "But they might stumble onto us. How long do you think it'll take to mobilize the rest of our people?"
"Hard to say. Couple of hours, maybe three. Not many of us have radios, and we're spread out pretty thin."
"Yeah, I know. That's what I told my boss."
"Maybe we can talk a few locals into helping out; after all, nobody around here likes Feds."
"Maybe," Bachman said. "Stand by." He switched back to Ross. "How long before the soldiers get here?"
"I figure an hour at most."
Bachman sighed again. "Stand by." He switched back to Boone. "Okay, work as fast as you can. Work on some of the locals, and see if you can get some to help out--hell it's their fight, too."
Most of the people who lived in this area had pets. Dogs, cats, rabbits, you name it. There was one cat, though, that didn't seem to belong to anyone. It was medium-sized, mostly black with white paws, chest and belly, and with short hair and bright amber eyes. It was seen frequently in the area, but no one could ever get near it. It was believed to be just one more stray gone feral, one of the remainders of many litters that had been born and split up to either be taken in by a friendly family or left on its own to survive or die. It had begun to spend a lot of time around the Ryan ranch because there was always food out on the front porch, and because the human who lived there was not like the others; they shared a far less limited communication than was usual between humans and felines.
It sat in the shade beneath one of the many tall evergreens that lined the narrow dirt trail and watched curiously as the men and horses slowly made their way through the woods. As the column passed, the cat bounded off and ran ahead, then sat and watched some more, its eyes bright with curiosity, and listening to the men's voices, the jingling of equipment, and the slow, steady hoof beats. Then it took off once more when it recognized where the convoy was heading. It ran at full speed, dodging between trees and leaping over ferns and slipping quickly under shrubbery until it reached Valerie's home. Without hesitation, it leapt up on the porch and through an open window to land on the back of the sofa. It bounded from a cushion, landed on the slick wooden floor, and slid into her side, barely missing one of the burning candles that rested on the living room floor.
Valerie picked the cat up and scratched its ears. On her altar there was a small crystal ball into which she had been gazing. She looked into the cat's eyes. "I know, Sam," she said with a sigh of reluctant acceptance. She put the cat down and quickly banished the Circle, then dressed in white running shoes, faded jeans, and a black sweatshirt. Pulling the sleeves to her elbows, she went to the closet by the front door, and picked up her uncle's hunting rifle. She slung it over her shoulder and then began to make her rounds, making certain that the doors and all of the lower windows were securely shut and locked. She took a deep breath to steady her nerves and to slow her pounding heart, and said to the cat, "Well, Sam, I guess this is it." She headed back upstairs for the best vantage point, with Sam following closely at her heels.
The sun had dropped almost completely behind the mountains and into the cold Pacific by the time the convoy had quietly arrived at the Ryan ranch. In response to their commander's hand signals, the men fanned out; seven of them surrounded the house while eight more hid in the woods. The remaining twenty-five, on Warren's orders, had returned some time ago to the surrounding homes to round up as many witnesses as possible for the coming execution. And Warren wanted plenty of witnesses; he meant to set a proper example for those who thought about defying The Law.
Before the last man was in position, a shot rang out and a bullet spat dust on the booted foot of one of the soldiers. He dove and rolled, and lost his grip on his own weapon; it landed in the dust some ten feet away.
"Valerie St. James, this is Colonel Elias Warren of the Holy Guardians," he said, his amplified voice blaring from the bullhorn and echoing through the woods. "You are under arrest for sedition and witchcraft. We have you surrounded. Throw out your weapons and surrender."
Another shot came from the house, and the bullet tore the bullhorn from Warren's hand. He leaped to the ground and hid behind his horse.
"I know who you are, Warren," Valerie shouted. "Get off my land. Now!"
"You don't tell me what to do, witch!" Warren shouted back. "I am here on the Lord's authority, and I order you to surrender to the authority of the people of the United Christian States and to our Lord Jesus Christ!"
A third shot rang out in response, and the bullet tore a chunk out of a redwood a few inches from the face of another soldier. "I said get the fuck off my property! You don't have any authority here!"
Who does this bitch think she is, giving me orders? Warren thought. He raised his walkie-talkie to his lips and spoke to the leader of the team that surrounded the house. "Sergeant Greene, get ready to have your men storm the house on my signal. Corporal Willis's team will provide cover fire for you. And remember, I want her alive. If you pull this off, Sergeant, you may get a promotion out of it."
"Yes sir!" Greene replied, with visions of lieutenant's bars already dancing before his eyes.
"Alive, you understand. So we can put her to The Question." He turned to the others. "On my signal, open fire on those upper windows. Ready...now!"
Small arms fire shattered the silence. Bullets smashed the remaining glass in the windows, plucked at the curtains and tore into the wood of the house, ripping out chunks and scattering them on the ground. Bullets ricocheted from the stonework around the foundation as the soldiers fired indiscriminately, and two of them fell from being shot by their own poorly trained draftees; their deaths, of course, would later be blamed on the criminal inside. Five men made it to the porch where they were protected from overhead fire by the porch roof.
Valerie dropped the rifle to the floor and followed it almost immediately, covering her head. Her heart pounded in her chest as terror consumed her, setting her nerves on fire with adrenalin. Dear Goddess, I don't want to die, she thought. Please, don't let me die... Bullets tore through the window and wall above her, sprinkling her with shards of glass and wood, and she fully expected to be hit any moment by at least a dozen rounds. She remembered how easy it had been for her to tell Keller that she would be willing to die to protect her home; she remembered promising the Goddess that she would lay down her life to protect Mother Earth, and her sisters and brothers in the Craft. But now that Death stood outside her door, she was afraid and ashamed; afraid of being shot and afraid of dying before doing all the things she wanted to do with her life. It wasn't supposed to happen like this; she was supposed to fill them with fear, chase them off, and make certain they would never return because she was an armed citizen--and nothing frightened a government more than armed resistance against self-appointed authority. And she was ashamed for having talked so big before and for being so afraid now--she felt like a hypocrite. She didn't want to surrender, but she was hopelessly outnumbered, and she couldn't possibly fight all these soldiers. She just wanted this nightmare to end--but she knew it wouldn't.
Without hesitation, it was Sergeant Greene whose shoulder went to the door and crashed it in. The men went inside, sweeping their rifles back and forth, eager to shoot. Frustrated by the order to take the witch alive, they opened fire on the house itself. They blew away the altar and candles that rested on the floor, they shot up the wooden trunk that had once belonged to Valerie's mother, blasting it to splinters; they fired at the glass candle holders and sent razor-sharp, multi-colored shards flying in a mad frenzy, and the small crystal ball exploded into a thousand bits of gleaming shrapnel. Bullets flew in a deadly spray, smashing glass and pottery, tearing holes in the furniture and punching holes in the wood-paneled walls, and shredded the books of the small library into white snow, like feathers scattered from a pillow-fight. And if the bullets had not shattered the glass, the deafening roar of the gunfire surely would have. The firing finally stopped and silence returned once again, but only for a moment. Gun smoke hung in the air, its wisps drifting lazily on the air currents.
"Upstairs!" Greene shouted, and all five men headed for them at the same time. They bolted up the carpeted steps and fanned out once they reached the second floor landing. They made their way from one room to the next, kicking in doors and searching. All of the rooms were empty. One young private cast a glance toward a second, shorter flight of stairs. The attic. He headed up the stairs while the search continued in the other rooms, and crashed the door in with his shoulder. His rifle barrel snagged against the doorway. He pulled at it, but he was too late; Valerie had grabbed up her own rifle and swung its muzzle toward the Guard. If she was going to die, at least now she had a chance to take one of them with her. She sighted through the scope with her finger resting on the trigger, and then she saw the terror in the young man's eyes. He's just a kid, she thought, no older than eighteen.
In an instant, she thought about the chase from Denver, when she had been shooting at the police cars. She had fired blindly at them, hitting windshields and front grills. But upon seeing this man's young and terrified face, she found that she couldn't pull the trigger. Feeling sorry for him--perhaps unwisely--yet at the same time afraid for herself, she lowered the rifle. "Dear Goddess," she groaned softly to herself. "Dear Goddess, I can't do it."
Other soldiers came flooding into the room, and saw Valerie lowering her rifle while the young soldier was raising his with trembling hands. The terror in his eyes gave way to surprise, and he simply could not believe that the witch hadn't shot him. And then he wondered why she hadn't.
Greene raised his rifle and aimed at Valerie. "Valerie St. James, by the authority of the Foundation for Law and Morality, I place you under arrest."
To Be Continued
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