Archive for November, 2013

This week I have a book signing at a local book store.  It is the first time I have worked a book signing and I’m looking forward to it.

CHAPTER  TWENTY-SEVEN

 “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery.  Today is a gift and that is why they call it the present.”

 Mike Ditka

 Over the next few weeks things returned to normal, at least as defined under the Chinese occupation.  Unfortunately the mosquitoes were thriving under the Chinese rule.  Benefitting from abandoned water features and hot tubs scattered throughout town, the new habitat was adding millions to their numbers and making life miserable.

The garden was providing fresh greens and raspberries and Kate and Dustin’s relationship was blooming right along with the new crops.  They gladly volunteered for the garden chores because it usually meant time they could spend alone together.

The work on Thomas’s cabin was also progressing nicely.  They’d stripped the Crank house of siding, two by sixes, windows, doors, hardware and some of the cabinets.  All that was left to complete the Jefferson’s cabin was the roof and needing experienced hands for the job, they garnered the help of Gary West.

With Gary busy framing the roof, Cliffson drove the pickup they’d inherited from Hank to a local hardware store in hopes of finding someone to trade with.  He knew the big box stores were obvious targets and would long ago have been ransacked.  No reason for their managers to stick around and risk their necks for something they didn’t own.  It would be the little guy who’d invested his life in a business that would fight to protect what he had.

When Cliffson arrived at the downtown store he found the windows smashed. Not a surprise really, but once inside he found obvious signs of a gun fight, but the place was not as torn up as it could have been.  Still, it made him sad.  Many of the shelves stood empty, the cash register had long ago departed from the counter and all the hunting gear and clothing was gone except for a lone child’s jacket hanging on the rack.   Making his way toward the back of the store, Cliffson’s hopes of finding the owner dimmed and he hoped the ol’ boy was still alive.

In the back of the store where the roofing materials were kept, he realized that although a lot of stuff was gone, no one had been particularly interested in roofing.  Cliffson found tar paper, shingles, roofing nails and one last tube of caulking, which he didn’t need but thought would be good to have.

After backing the truck up to a broken window at the front of the store, Cliffson was headed back inside for the last few items when he heard the characteristic sound of a shotgun shell being chambered.

“Get your hands up and turn around.”

Cliffson did as he was told and upon turning around, found an elderly man dressed in overalls, shotgun held waist high.  He tried to tell the man he’d done business there many times before and asked if the man recognized him.   Maybe it was the shock of all that had happened but the man said no and refused to lower the gun.

Cliffson attempted to convince him he had come prepared to pay, but the man would have none of it.  Finally allowed to reach in his pocket, Cliffson showed him the silver he’d brought.  After seeing the silver rounds being offered for payment, they quickly came to a deal.  The fellow was so excited about getting the silver he ran to find a couple roofing hammers and threw them in as part of the agreement.

“I apologize for pulling the gun on you Cliffson, but after everything we’ve been through I just couldn’t believe anyone would be willing to pay for what they were taking.”

“It’s all right, I probably would have done the same, but let me ask you something.”

“Shoot”

“It’s still wrong to steal.  Right?”

“Right.”

“And we’re both still Americans?”

“Certainly.” The fellow nodded.

“Well, then the way I see it, if we’re gonna somehow get through this and get our country back, we can’t be at each other’s throats.”

“I’m with ya.  Gonna have to stand together.”

“By the way, I didn’t catch your name.”  Cliffson asked.

“Sam, Sam Keller.  The men shook hands and when they looked each other in the eye Cliffson knew this was a man he could trust.

“I live just across the street at the top of that two story brick building.  My little store don’t have much in the way of tools right now, but if you need something, please come back and I’ll see what I can do for ya.”

“I certainly will Sam.  Now how are you set for supplies, I mean how have you gotten by all this time?”  Cliffson asked.

“Been here most my life.  I’ve got friends and we’ve been planning for something like this for quite some time.  Wasn’t hard to see it comin’ if you was payin’ attention, ya know.  Course the city folk never saw it comin’; poor suckers, all wrapped up in their meaningless fluff, with not a clue about where the basics of life come from.”

“You mean how those grocery store shelves don’t just poop out that fresh loaf of bread each morning?”  Cliffson added.

Sam chuckled.  “Yep, no different than electricity comin’ from the wall, or gas coming from a pump at the station.”

“Don’t get me started, Sam.  We could go on and on.  It’s just good to know we’re in agreement.”

Cliffson wrote down his address for Sam and told him to come by if he ever needed something.

“Cliffson, you’re a good man and I don’t say that lightly.  This old world hasn’t had a place for good men for some time and it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Pleasure’s been all mine, Sam.”

“Thank you, friend.   It’s good to know there’s someone else I can count on.  The Chinese won’t be around forever and I reckon on being here long after their gone.  Gonna be a lot of rebuilding then and that’s when my little business will get back on its feet.  You be sure and come back.”

“I certainly will.  Be careful now and remember, if you ever need anything you know where to find me.”

It felt good to make an honest transaction—one without government interference—just one man making an arm’s length transaction with another.  It gave him hope these values still remained, even if it was from a couple of old salts the previous world would have readily discarded.

With the transaction complete Cliffson drove away.  The experience left him feeling good—a feeling that took him back to a time when America was a rural nation and self-reliance was the norm—a world where your word had better be as good as gold and a hand shake sealed the deal.  These values built the nation he had come to love; unfortunately, they’d become nearly as meaningless in the modern world as lying was the norm. Course the modern day world aint really around no more, is it?  he mused.

Over the next few days the Jefferson’s modest house was finished.  Diminutive and simple, it would do the job.  The wooden floors in the living space and entry way were furnished with warm rugs, a small wood stove and a table and chairs, including a rocking chair.   The tiny kitchen was in back on the right.  Without electricity or running water there was little need for it to be full-sized.  The bedroom was on the left side. A door in the back opened to a pit toilet pushed out the back wall of the bedroom.

Windows were strategically placed so Thomas could have a clear, 360 degree view of the property surrounding the cabin and the first four feet of the reinforced walls were filled with sand for protection in a gun fight.  It wasn’t anything like their old home, but it was just as cozy as their cabin in the woods and the Jefferson’s were thrilled to have it.

The Crank’s old house was salvaged for everything it had to offer and then burned to the ground to clear the field of fire.  Without siding, the fire was not as big as expected until the building came down.  Once the flames took to the shingles the place burned like a pitchy log in a mountain of tires.  The thick smoke rolled into the sky on angry orange and black clouds billowing like an oil gusher.

Cliffson was enjoying a sandwich and watching it all from his yard.  A train, likely loaded with timber, rumbled in the distance.  He wrestled with mixed emotions about the Cranks and the events leading up to burning their house, but was most thankful no one had been hurt when his family was attacked.  It was the first time in many weeks he could relax a bit and it felt good to put it all behind him.  The fire was the perfect exclamation point and he was enjoying a simple moment of tranquility.

Without warning four trucks roared into Cliffson’s driveway and disgorged at least 20 well armed men, dressed in fatigues similar to the U.S. military.  Before he could stand two men had weapons in his face, forcing him back into the chair.  Then he heard yelling coming from inside the house and tried to stand but was shoved back down.  A moment later, Jean, the Jeffersons, and Kate were marched from the house at gun point and forced to sit on the grass next to Cliffson.  Dustin and Monk were soon marched back from the burning Crank house at gun point.

After being gathered together on the lawn, a bear of a man ambled through the group of soldiers to face Cliffson.  He was dressed in fatigues like the rest of them and wore a .45 pistol on his hip.  Cliffson rose to face him and the two men sized each other up for moment before speaking.

“Cliffson, I presume?” the soldier asked.

“Who’s asking?”

A smile spread across the big man’s face before he spoke.  “I would have expected no less from you.  On the outside you appear soft, helping those around you with water and picking up strays like the Jefferson’s.  But there’s a reason you’ve lasted this long.  You’re alert and you don’t take any crap from anyone, not even that Chinese Commander.”

“And just how do you know all this?’  Cliffson glanced at Monk, but got no response.

“We’ve been watching the riffraff sort itself out for some time.  Quite honestly we didn’t expect you to survive.”  The big man chuckled.

“Why’s that?”

“Too many assets and not enough fire power.  You’d already be dead if Thomas hadn’t been lucky enough to overhear the conversation in the Crank’s driveway that night.  You need our help.”

Cliffson’s eyebrow rose.  “Somehow I’m not feelin’ the love.”

The man nodded to someone Cliffson assumed was second in command, who ordered the group to move back to the vehicles.

“We didn’t come to harm you.  Our show of force was meant to demonstrate what we can do and convince you to accept the deal we are about to offer.”

Cliffson squared his shoulders and looked the man dead in the eye.  “I’m not feeling like I have the option to decline.  Convince me otherwise and maybe we can talk.”

“Quite honestly, you don’t have that option.  We just took down your house and all of you would be dead if we wanted it that way, but that’s not how we operate.  I hope that fact alone persuades you to work with us.  We operate on the basis of principle, many of the same principles I’m sure you believe in Cliffson.”

“What B.S. Those days are gone.  Everyone’s just out for themselves.”

“That’s not true.  May I have a seat so we can talk?”  The commander asked.

Cliffson hesitated, then nodded to Jean, “Would you mind getting that chair from the back porch, hun.”

Yes, Herr Commandant, Jean thought to herself.

Jean hurried back with the chair and presented it to the man-bear.  “Thank you, mam.”  As the over-size man settled into the chair, Cliffson was thinking he’d never fit.  The fella was simply huge.

“Cliffson, my name is Gunner.  I’m the commander of a group of about 60 men, most of whom have military experience.  Our offer is simple.  You have things we need, fresh fruit, garden veggies, fresh eggs and water to name a few.  We offer you protection in exchange for a portion of what you produce.”

“Protection?”  Cliffson said flatly. “Protection from whom, you?”

“Come on Cliffson, there’s no need to play games.  Even you know the smaller groups are rapidly disappearing.  Soon, only the stronger gangs and organized forces will remain.  There’s simply no way you can protect yourself from them without our help, yet you hold assets that literally everyone is willing to kill for.”

“And just how will you go about protecting us?”

Gunner smiled, as if he was about to play his strong suit.  “Two ways.  First, we have an established network throughout this community that keeps us informed of the various groups’ activities.  It’s how we knew about you and Hank.”

“Go on.”

“Secondly, we’ll set you and Monk up with solar powered radios so you can contact us at any time in the event you need help.  We’ll also help make your place more defensible and will station men across the street in the cul-de-sac.  Afterall, if you agree to share what you have, we wouldn’t want to see those resources lost to someone else.”

“And I’m just supposed to trust you because you’re such a sweetheart of a guy?”

“No, you trust me because you need me and I’ve demonstrated that I can back up my word.”  Gunner extended his hand.

“Not so fast.”  Cliffson forced the issue.  “This whole thing has a bad feel to it.  I want to see your base of operations.”  Now Monk was nodding his head.

“Sorry, can’t do that.  To begin with we’re spread out, and secondly we don’t share the location of our headquarters with anyone.”

“Well I guess we don’t have a deal then.”

Gunner rose to his full height and stuck out his chest.  Cliffson noted the massive shoulders.  The man was a mountain of power.

“Cliffson, I admire your spunk, but it’s a fine line between bravery and foolishness.  Tell you what I’ll do and maybe this will convince you.  There are three local groups who are organized and well armed.  Our intelligence tells us they’re well aware of your little place here. It’s only a matter of time before they come and take you down.

We’re in negotiations with one of those groups and there’s an agreement to cooperate at least to the extent of not attacking one another, with hopes of coordinating our efforts in the future.  One word from us and they’ll leave you alone.  The other two groups are made up of animals the likes of which you don’t ever want to meet.  They’d think nothing of ripping you and this place apart to get what they want.  You need to think of your women Cliffson.”

That was a low blow, but it struck home.

“I’m going to give you the location of both gang’s base of operations.  You do your own scouting and see if I’m not telling the truth.  I’ll be back in two days and we’ll talk again.”

Gunner tipped his hat to the ladies and marched back to his truck where the rest of his troops were waiting.

Cliffson turned to Monk.  “What do you think?

“Makes sense on the surface, but I don’t rightly know how I can trust someone I’ve never met before today.”  Monk removed his ball cap and scratched the pale moon on top of his head before continuing.  “I don’t question what he says about protection.  It’s been a concern of my own.  The day is gonna come when we have to face one of these groups and we just don’t have the fire power.”

Cliffson shoved his hands deep into his pockets and shrugged.  “Best we can do is check out the places he told us about I guess.”


Monk and Cliffson spent the next two evenings scouting the gangs’ bases.   The first night was quiet and after four hours of hiding in a hedge of prickly shrubs they’d spotted just two look-outs—that is until the fight broke out.  About one in the morning the front door of the house flew open and two men flung each other out the door onto the ground.

Soon a group of fifteen highly intoxicated men gathered round to cheer for their favorite.   The fight continued and the group grew louder and louder until one man stepped from the house and strode to the middle of the group.  Without hesitation he raised a sawed off shotgun, fired it twice and both fighters lay dead.  The gunman grumbled some kind of command and the group broke up.

On the second night Monk and Cliffson had no more than settled into watch from behind the remains of a broken down wooden fence, when two pickup trucks roared to a stop in front of the house.  About twenty men poured from the run down dwelling to greet the men in the trucks and threw open the doors of the king cabs to grab their cargo.  Screams and shrieks for help rent the still night air.  Three young women were thrown over the men’s shoulders and carried into the house amidst riotous shouts of laughter from the surrounding men.

The scene left Monk and Cliffson shaken, but there was little they could do.  Well, yes there was.  They could make sure it didn’t happen to their women.


Like clockwork, Gunner and his lieutenant showed up the next day at the strike of noon.  He was fully aware of the previous night’s events and just nodded when Monk and Cliffson began to tell him about it.

“So do we have a deal, Cliffson?”  Gunner stood with his arms folded across his chest exuding full confidence.

Cliffson looked down at the ground searching amongst the rocks in the gravel for a solution he’d not yet found.  He knew he had no choice but still didn’t like it.

“You know we do Gunner,” he said begrudgingly, “but that doesn’t mean you can take advantage of us.”

“You’ll find we are honorable men Cliffson.  Well, mostly.”  He laughed.  “I want this to be a long term arrangement.”

The rest of the afternoon was spent working out the details of their agreement.  After much discussion and a little frustration when both sides laid out their demands, an understanding was reached.  Gunner’s men would get all the water they needed as long as they weren’t trying to fill a tanker truck or something similar.  They would also receive 25 percent of the garden produce, fresh fruit, eggs and honey.  Gunner had asked for a third, but knowing that no good negotiator starts out asking for what he wants to end up with, Cliffson had refused.

In return, Gunner would station ten men in two of the vacant houses at the end of the cul-de-sac across from Cliffson’s house.  Cliffson had to admit that was comforting.  The rest of the homes that remained standing were empty now, except for Randy and Linda on the corner.

It had been a tense couple of days and Cliffson was relieved when the two men finally shook hands in agreement and Gunner left, promising his men would be moved in the next day.  It seemed too good to be true and Cliffson remained suspicious.  He and Monk agreed they wouldn’t let their guard down.

It’s the time of year when my outside hobbies have been put to bed and I turn to indoor hobbies.  That includes writing and I have recently been working on the sequel to Truth’s Blood. 

CHAPTER   TWENTY-SIX

  “You can avoid reality.  But you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.”

 Ann Rand

 

The day had flown by.  After searching the Crank house for furniture to replace that which was shot up in the attack, Monk and Cliffson began removing siding for repairs on the Lang’s home and to side the cabin Thomas was building.

 Monk was just leaving for home and Cliffson was eating from a can of pork and beans when Dustin and Kate ushered in the Cranks.  Mona and Hank were worn and dirty and demanding something to eat.  Jean gave them a can of beans and a plastic spoon.

 While they ate, Cliffson pried for more information.  When Hank refused, Cliffson took Mona outside on the back porch and put his pistol to her head.

 “Honestly Hank, I’ve got no use for either of you.”  Cliffson worked the action on his Glock and shouted.   “Give me the information now or I shoot!”

 “All right, all right.  Jeez, just relax a little,” Hank pleaded.

 Cliffson dropped the hammer on his gun.

 Mona flinched and a wet stain crept down the legs of her jeans after Cliffson discharged the gun next to her ear.  Hank sank to his knees and began babbling his cooperation.

 “Don’t tell me to relax Hank!   You’re going to answer my questions and if everything goes as planned you both leave here alive.  If not,…well, I’ll just let you use your imagination.  Deal?”  Cliffson demanded.

 “Deal,”  Hank muttered.

 Later that evening, Thomas, Monk and Dustin set out for the other side of the dry canyon in the pickup the attackers left behind.  They parked a few blocks away from the address Hank had provided and cautiously approached the house.  Many of the surrounding homes were burned out wrecks and the charred smell filled the air.

 Monk set them up in a triangle shaped perimeter around the house where a single candle burned in the front window.   He was getting uneasy.  The blackened remains of the nearby homes provided little cover.  There was only supposed to be three people in the house, but he feared there could be more.

 Dustin had settled in behind a charred truck.  A dog barked a few blocks away.  Was someone coming?  In the same instant the front door to the house opened and a man with a rifle stepped out onto the porch.  He was wary and allowed his eyes adjust to the dark before checking the immediate vicinity for trouble.  Soon a match blazed and the red-orange radiance of a cigarette glowed.

 Cliffson was riding in the passenger seat of Hank’s pickup and told Hank to stop a few blocks short of the house.  Before getting out he left Hank with a final warning.

 “Remember Hank, it’s up to you to make it happen.  There’s no alternative.”  The tension caused him to chuckle. “Mona’s counting on you.”

 Hank swore under his breath.

 Weariness from the last couple days set hard on Cliffson and his patience was fading fast.  “Sell the plan Hank,”  Cliffson hissed.

 Cliffson got out and Hank drove the last few blocks to the house.   Concealed behind a scorched evergreen tree, Cliffson watched Hank park the truck and walk to the front door.  The street was empty and quiet when Hank knocked on the door.  A face appeared between parted curtains, glanced outside and then opened the door for Hank to come in.

 Keeping a close eye on the front of the house, Cliffson moved to the passenger side of the truck and quietly slide inside.  It seemed to take forever, long enough for the evenings chill to make him uncomfortable and he thought of Monk.  The old boy’s bones registered cold better than any thermometer and he knew Monk would be feeling the chill.

 Eventually the front door of the house opened and Hank returned to the truck.  Inside the cab Cliffson told him to keep his hands on the wheel where he could see them.  Fearing his friends may have slipped Hank a weapon, Cliffson frisked him before continuing home.

 When Monk, Dustin and Thomas returned, Monk was complaining about the cold.  “Warm up by the stove Monk.  Jean has some hot tea ready for you and it’s got my honey in it.”

 “Thank’s Cliffson.  My bones is a achin’.  It ain’t freezin’ yet but it might be by mornin’.”

 “Thomas,”  Cliffson said. “Why don’t you stay inside tonight.  Tie these two hoodlums up and stay in where it’s warm.”

 Thomas chuckled.  “Gladly.  Beats spending the night out in that cold breeze.”

  


 

The plan was made and the following day Monk went about putting it in motion.  Fearful Cliffson’s encounters with the Chinese commander would complicate things, Monk went to meet with Chen alone.  He took the attacker’s pickup and after a couple stops in town, located a soldier who knew where to find the commander.

 Arriving at a guard station on the north end of town, Monk extended his hand and greeted Chen with a smile.

 “Mista Monk, to what do I owe dis great honor?”

“I have information I think you’ll find valuable.”

“I see.  And what would this information be?”

 Monk proceeded to inform the commander Hank was going to steal food, fuel and ammunition from a storage warehouse.

 “How you know this?”

 “I overheard a conversation.”

 The commander remained doubtful.  “I am no fool Mista Monk.”

 “What if I told you the warehouse was one Crank and his men truck supplies to regularly?  The guards are familiar with him and won’t question his presence.”  Now he had the commander’s attention.

 “Mista Monk, if you lie to me, I hang you from dry canyon bridge.”

 “Of that I have no doubt sir, but I am not lying to you.”  Monk gave him as stern a gaze as possible with one eye.

 Chen dug in his ear and checked his fingernail before wiping it on his pants.  “Why you tell me this?”

 “It appears you are going to be here for awhile and we don’t want trouble.”  Monk turned up the bullshit meter.

 “Wise man Mista Monk, but this Cliffson, he not so wise.  You can control him?”

 “Funny you should ask.  I’ve just recently been put in charge of our group and we’ve come to an understanding.  He will no longer trouble you.”  Monk stated firmly before extending his hand.  “I’ve come to you with this information as proof we can work together.”

 The commander remained suspicious, but gripped his hand.  “It is agreed then.  I bring men to warehouse tonight to seize Crank.  We will see then if you tell truth.  If you do not, then you see how I too, am man of my word.”  Chen turned his back and strode away.

 Monk returned to the attackers’ pickup and maneuvered the truck onto the highway.  Mission accomplished, he relaxed a little and turned on the CD player to see what might be playing.  John Haitt was singing “The Tiki Bar is Open,” and that sounded good to Monk.  It was time for a little of Cliffson’s beer.

 When he rolled into the driveway, Cliffson came out to greet him.

 “How’d it go?”  Cliffson asked.

 “We’re set to go, but you’re gonna see me swing if the Cranks don’t do as they’re told.”

 “Don’t worry Monk, I’ve told them as soon as they deliver the goods from the warehouse they’ll be free to go and they can have some of the fuel they steal so they can beat it out of town.

 “And they believe all this?”  Monk was looking for a little reassurance.  They’ve bought in?”

 “Hook line and sinker.”  Cliffson grinned.

“Bein’s I’m the bait fish, I sure enough hope so.”

“They’re inside right now, planning their escape route with the three men remaining from the squad that attacked us.”

 It was then Cliffson realized just how nervous Monk was.

 “Monk, you look like you could use a drink.”

 Monk’s eye lit up in that unique way that always tickled Cliffson.  “My thoughts exactly.”

  


 That evening Monk, Dustin and Cliffson drove Mona and the rest of Crank’s crew to the yard where his trucks were kept.  Monk released Hank so he could unlock the gate and followed close behind, shotgun in hand.  Hank crunched across the gravel lot to his office, unlocked the door and selected a set of keys.  Then the group followed through the darkened yard to the truck he’d chosen for the job.

 The night sky was clear and the cover capping the heavens appeared to have suffered a million pinpricks, allowing light to shine through from the other side.  At that odd moment, in the middle of pulling off their hi-jinks, Cliffson’s mind flashed to Zach and Welfare.  Were they looking out at the same sky?  Were they even alive?  He shuddered with another chill.

 Hank fired the diesel engine and made a quick check of the truck and its equipment.  Before they left, Cliffson went over the plan with him one more time.

 “…and we’ll be watching every move Hank, so stick to business.”

 “Yes, yes, so you’ve said.”

 Cliffson could have decked him.  “No more crap Hank.  Just get the goods and return to the house.”  Cliffson spun on his heel and marched back to the pickup.  He overheard Monk saying something to Hank and wondered what he could be up to.  I just want this to be over and Hank gone.

 Dustin and Monk escorted the semi across the yard while Cliffson trained his rifle on the truck’s cab.  Hank slowed at the gate before swinging wide onto the pavement.  Monk moved to the gate while Dustin got in the pickup.

 “What’s Monk doin’, Dust?”

“He’s gonna lock up.”

“What?”

 Dustin chuckled.  “Monk got Hank’s keys so we can come back and look for supplies.”

 Cliffson shook his head.  “What would I do without him?  It just never dawned on me.”

 “You got a lot on your mind Dad.  You can’t think of everything.”

 Cliffson grabbed hold of his son’s shoulder.  “I sure can’t and I don’t know what I would’ve done if you hadn’t made it back to us.  It’s tough enough with your brother gone.”

 Cliffson fired up the truck, stopped for Monk and then followed Hank towards the edge of town.  About a quarter mile from the warehouse he pulled the pick-up to the side of the road where they could observe Hank’s semi, stopped at the guardhouse.  Chinese voices floated in the tranquil night air, asking Hank routine questions before sending him through.  Then the truck roared to life and exhaled a dark breath before moving into the ware yard.

 Three warehouses, surrounded by a ten foot metal fence topped with concertina wire were lit with high powered lights and Cliffson could hear a generator chugging in the distance.  When Hank’s truck approached, the gate was opened and he maneuvered the semi up to the loading dock.  The men got out and began loading immediately.

 Nearly an hour later there was still no sign of the Chinese commander and Cliffson was getting nervous.

 Monk was in the back of the pickup leaning over the top of the cab, watching the warehouse through a pair of binoculars.  Dustin was standing beside him.

“See any whales there matey”?  Cliffson asked from his seat on the tailgate.

 “Aye,” Monk grunted.

 “I’m thinkin’ a telescope might work a little better for you capt’n,” Cliffson joked.

 “I sees just fine and my nose is in perfect workin’ order too.”  He turned to look at Dustin. “Since when do they let the bait boys up in the crows nest?”  Monk laughed good naturedly.  Dustin laughed too, which caused him to fart again with each burst of laughter.

 Monk looked back at Dustin and changed his assault.  “And this here cabin boy, whoever let him up here?”

 Leave it to Monk to lighten the mood, Cliffson thought.  He enjoyed the banter but was beginning to think he may have been the one who was outsmarted.  If the Cranks figured out the trap and brought their loaded semi-truck back to the Lang’s house, Hank would be in the position to turn the tables on him.

 Cliffson was just about to move up to the cab and discuss the possibility of being ensnared in their own ambush when the lights of a dozen military vehicles appeared from over the hill half a mile down the road.

 In no time, the Chinese were on top Hank and his gang.  Hank was dumbfounded and tried to explain, but he’d been caught red-handed and no one was listening.  Under armed guard Hank, Mona and the rest of the crew were loaded into the back of a personnel carrier and taken away.

 Cliffson breathed a sigh of relief.  “Problem solved guys, let’s go home.”

  


 The next morning Cliffson watched as a jeep and two military trucks pulled up in front of Monk’s house.  Hastening to pull on boots, he grabbed a jacket and ran next door.

 “Monk, is everything all right, allright?”

“Everything’s fine Cliffson, the Commander here was just thanking me for last night.”

 The Commanders steely gaze fell upon Cliffson and the old hatred he harbored rose up from deep inside.

 “You rook for trouble, Mr. Chin?”

 Monk immediately intervened and positioned himself between the two men to insulate against the sparks that were fast igniting.

 “He’s fine, sir.” Monk looked at Cliffson and fired a warning shot from his good eye that could have sunk a ship.  “He just hasn’t had his morning coffee yet.”

 Cliffson got the hint.  “Ah, no sir, no trouble here, just hoping everything went well for you last night.”

 The Commander puffed his chest, “It went well indeed.  In fact I was just about to offer Monk invitation to execution, but I change mind.   I make offer to both of you.

 Monk quickly declined the offer as politely as he could.

 “But this be special Chinese hanging.  We no snap necks.  Just hang from rope until nearly dead, then let them back down and disembowel them just as they regain consciousness.”

 This time Cliffson and Monk both made it clear they were not interested in attending.

 “You sure now?” the commander asked.  “Is end to your problem. You no watch?”

 Monk and Cliffson shook their heads.

“Agh, you squeamish Americans, this why Chinese rule world.  Americans weak, but never mind.  You will know Chinese keep word when you see bodies, no?”  Chen turned away and strutted to his jeep.

 After he left, Monk turned to Cliffson.  “That was not so much an invitation as it was a threat.”

 “I think I caught it pretty clearly.”  Cliffson answered.  “It’s meant to keep us in line, meaning he has the same thing in store for us if we ever cross him.”

 Monk rubbed his neck, “You’re so very right and my, how my own neck is feeling better all of a sudden.”

 Days later, when Monk and Cliffson headed out to search more distant houses for building supplies, they passed through the intersection where the church and old farm house were located.  Hanging from light poles on opposite corners of the intersection were Hank and Mona.

 The ravens had left the eye sockets vacantly gazing across the street at one another, but had yet to clean up blackened bowels spilling from the bloated bodies.  It left no doubt the other three men would be hanging from the bridge over the dry canyon.  Monk and Cliffson chose not to go look.

I particularly like this quote by Cliffson and also the “White Rabbit” scene.  Additionally, there is a scene in this chapter that is one of the most intense in the entire book.

CHAPTER  TWENTY-FIVE

 “True science has long since fled the nation, to be replaced by political science; that is, the counterfeit, contrived science conceived by politicians, for the deception of the masses and empowerment of political elites.”

 Cliffson

 With the regularity of a Monsoon rain the deadly raids continued.  At the close of each day, with the sun spreading a new water color painting in the western sky, gunfire would erupt, homes would burn and the screams of the helpless filled the night.  At times the fighting was far off and only the plumes of angry black clouds could be seen rising into the air.  Other times it was nearby and fires would illuminate the nighttime sky in oranges and reds.

Thomas was enjoying a tranquil evening until 3:00 a.m. when an attack on neighbors at the end of the cul-de-sac forced him to wake Cliffson with a call on his radio.  Cliffson jumped from bed, threw on some clothes and rushed to meet with Monk and Thomas on the front lawn.

Monk was adamant they not get drawn in.  “Not gonna risk our lives in that fight mates.  Those folks refused to join with us in preparing a coordinated a defense.  There’s nothing to be gained.”

It seemed so cold-blooded, but Cliffson knew Monk was right.  After taking up positions of cover in case the thugs moved their direction, they watched the neighbors flee their homes.  A few were gunned down in their own yards, but most escaped.

The next morning Monk and Cliffson made an inspection of the two homes and found them ransacked but intact.  One way or the other people were being thinned out and empty or burned out homes were beginning to outnumber those housing families.

Day after day, the level of violence grew and desperation mounted.  Most of the fighting was against small groups of starving, desperate people and the sight of starving children tugged at everyone’s hearts. Occasionally the Langs shared with families passing through, but it was impossible to help all of them.

During his nightly watch, it was Thomas’ custom to call out a warning for people to turn back.  But fewer and fewer people were heeding his call and more often than not, shot into the darkness where they thought his voice had come from.  When his concern for others nearly cost him his life Thomas’ entire demeanor changed.

It was the typical small group.  Four young men were prowling the neighborhood late at night hoping to catch an unsuspecting family asleep.  After ignoring his warning and pinning him down, Thomas was engaged in a fight for his life.  In the heat of the battle his gun jammed and he’d run out of ammunition for his pistol by the time Cliffson and Monk arrived at the last second to rescue him.

Thomas now knew what it was like to stare down the barrel of a rifle and await the slug.  In that moment something inside him snapped.  A translucent switch connecting a long dormant synapse was thrown and he was no longer the mild mannered anti-gun professor just trying to get along.  From that point forward, Thomas used the benefit of surprise to quickly dispatch groups of two or three. “It’s just how it is,”  he would say.   His only exception was for children.

When encountering larger groups, he would awaken Monk and Cliffson with his radio and then proceed to do whatever was required until help arrived.  Drawing the enemy’s attention meant Monk and Cliffson often went unnoticed, slipping out of their houses and into the dark to ambush unexpectedly from behind.  In a very short period of time Thomas had killed many men and he grew cold and more distant with each one.

Thomas quickly became a loyal and trusted member who was greatly respected. He was a good man and Cliffson had grown fond of him—thankful he had come their way.  Though the steady fighting and killing was draining the humanity out of all of them, Cliffson was particularly concerned for Thomas.  There was an icy hardness to the man and a steel glint in his eye that was unnerving.

Thomas knew he had changed in a way he’d never thought possible.   Some nights, while manning one of his secluded sentry posts, he would think about the person he had become and contrast himself with the professor he had once been. It seemed like a life time ago and it shocked him to realize he’d become the very person he once demeaned and called uncivilized.

For Thomas, this new reality was seen in the people who had their hands in the soil, striving to be free and self-reliant.  They were the ones who knew truth and understood life.  No longer did he see them as the poor unsophisticated souls needing to be educated in the enlightened ways of the “Ivory Tower” class.  These people didn’t need to be shown culture, they were the culture.

He saw things so differently now, but it was too late.  People who worked for a living had been outnumbered by those who voted for a living, and the end had come.  It shocked him to see how blind he’d been and he found himself thinking he should have paid more attention to the things his son had been trying to tell him.

His son.  The thought would bring a lump to his throat and his tears would glisten in the moon light while sitting alone at his post in the dark.  How was he doing?  Was he even still alive?  Oh, just to see him again.

The weeks passed, and the fighting continued.   Jean was forced to shoot two men holding Cliffson at gun point in the garden.  They’d knocked him to the ground and were yelling their demands when Jean braced herself in the frame of the garage door and shot them with her rifle.  The emotional toll was grinding and the constant state of alertness drained them all.

Cliffson still offered water to people in need, but there was no longer a line, and daily he noticed fewer people showing up.  It wasn’t hard to know what was happening to them and it saddened him to think of the slaughter taking place all around.

He hated it all.  Monk did too, but reminded Cliffson these were the same people who’d bought into the governments promises and brought all this down upon themselves in the first place.  “Besides,” Monk added, “It’s kill or be killed.  You really have no other choice.”

In time, the attacks diminished, but Monk believed they were now entering an even more dangerous period.  The unorganized unfortunates were quickly being eliminated.  Soon they would be faced with organized militias and well armed gangs looking to establish territories.  It would be a treacherous time for their little family.

“So Monk, I like your idea, but just where are we gonna find all the sand we need for this project?” Cliffson asked.  “We’ve pretty much used up what we could find to fortify our own homes.”

“Not sure yet matey.  Now just keep on a movin’, this wood ain’t a gettin’ no lighter ya know.”

Carrying lumber from a couple blocks away wasn’t a pleasant task for these sixty-somethings, but it had to be done and they were making the best of it.  To preserve fuel, the lumber was scavenged a few sticks at a time from nearby homes.

“At our ages Monk, we aren’t rolling joints, were rubbing them,”  Cliffson joked.

“You’re not just a whislin Dixie mate, but we’re getting there.  Then you can rest and curl up with your Surrealistic Pillow,”  Monk added.

“And the White Wabbit?” Cliffson asked.

Monk, “One pill makes you larger.”

Cliffson, “One pill makes you small.”

Both together, “And the one your mother gives you, don’t do anything all.”

Both were laughing out loud now.

Monk, “Go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall.”

Cliffson was nearly falling down he was laughing so hard, “You can’t sing Monk.”

“Neither can you, but get on with it if you know the words.”

Cliffson, “Know the words?  Course I know em, something burned them in my mind.”

Monk, “Yeah, I can just imagine.”

Cliffson, “so if you go, chasing rabbits, and you know you’re going to fall,”

Monk, “tell ‘em a hookah smoking caterpillar, has given you the call.”

They were howling now. “Hookah smoking caterpillar always cracked me up.”  Monk choked out between laughs.

Laughing and singing their way back to the house, they finished the song together.  Standing in the driveway the two bellowed the last lines while everyone looked at them like they were crazy.

“And the White Knight is talking backwards,

And the Red Queen’s off with her head,

Remember, what the dormouse said,”

They dropped the lumber down and standing with their arms around one another finished the song in full throttle.

“Feed your head, Feed your head,

Monk, “One more time.”

“Feed your head.”

Finished, they bowed to a hearty applause.  Monk, hat in hand, bald spot gleaming in the sun, Cliffson in his straw hat and overalls.  It was the first real laugh the group had enjoyed in a while and it was a much needed tonic.

Then everyone made their way to the construction site of the Jefferson’s new cabin.  The foundation was constructed of cinder block on which the floor was just now being framed.  Monk’s plan was to fill the walls with sand, up to about four feet or so.  It would provide an extra measure of home defense.

After a few more trips for lumber they called it a day and retired inside for one of Jeans exceptional dinners.  The evening was quiet; an unsettling kind of quiet.  After completing a double check of the radios, Thomas took up his post and the rest of them turned in for the night.

Goosebumps ran the length of Thomas arms and it wasn’t the cool evening air.  A sixth sense told him something was up and he chose to position himself inside the post with the greatest concealment.

In front of him the quince and ninebark were tall and thick with leaves.  To his left, just a few feet away was a large landscape berm, rising up nearly five feet and covered with currents and lavender.  To his right a split rail fence bordered the Crank’s property.  Draped over much of the area was a huge weeping willow where Thomas was secreted inside.

He rarely gave much thought to being located next to the Crank’s driveway, for they were never out after dark, but tonight it would be key.

The sound of a car door woke Thomas from a half sleep.  Angry with himself for dozing off, he wondered what he’d missed.  After getting his bearings he began tuning in on a conversation taking place in the Crank’s driveway.

Adjusting his position to hear better, the conversation abruptly stopped.  Footsteps approached and Thomas froze.  In the darkness he knew he couldn’t be seen, but if they got suspicious and decided to look through the sweeping branches of the willow, he would certainly be found.  The two men stepped from the driveway and gravel crunched just feet from where Thomas hid.  He held his breath, but feared his pounding heart would give him away.

A sudden burst of red and orange sparks showered the ground, quickly followed by the rub of a heavy boot.  The smell of cigarette tobacco filled Thomas’ nostrils and the two men took up their conversation just a few feet away.

What he heard prickled the hair on the back of his neck.  A force was being organized to take down the Lang household, but he couldn’t warn the others without giving himself away.  Did he stand up and shoot the men in cold blood?  No.  He was not a cold-blooded killer, but he had to do something.  He thought about clicking the transmitter on his radio in a pre-arranged signal, but that would was likely to draw people out into the trap being set.  The wrong decision could get people killed.

Again the tension filled Thomas with the desire to explode upon the men and drop them dead.  No, be patient, he told himself.  Quietly he released the safety on his gun and prepared to charge the two unsuspecting men.

A moment later a white pickup rounded the corner and approached the driveway.  In the headlights of the pickup Thomas saw Hank Crank close the lid on a brief case full of money and hand it to the other man.

Thomas could see it wasn’t the worthless American currency and heard Hank promise some gold coins upon successful completion of the mission.  The two men shook hands and Hank slapped the man on the back before going back inside.

After the pickup pulled away, Thomas called a warning on his radio and rushed for the house.  Cliffson met him at the door.

“We don’t have much time.” Thomas exclaimed.  “Get everyone up and out of the house.”

“Thomas take a breath,” Cliffson told him.

“Ok, Ok.”

“Now what’s going on?”

“I overheard a conversation in the Crank’s driveway.  He’s paid a large group to attack the house with automatic weapons.  They’re going to create a diversion out in front before the main group attacks from the field behind.  You’ve got to get everyone out of the
house.”  Thomas was nearly yelling again.

“Damn.  Get Monk and set up in the bunker across the street.”  Cliffson ordered.  He then rushed to arm everyone and evacuate the house for the field behind.  Stepping out the back door he paused for a moment and glanced at the crossbow leaning against the wall.  He didn’t know how he would use it, but knew he should take it.

“Dad, you coming?”  It was Dustin.

“Be right there, Dust.”

Cliffson doused his lantern, slid the door closed and dashed for the field to join the others.

Initially they gathered in the equipment shed, but fearing they could be trapped inside, Cliffson moved them further away to the banks of a dry livestock pond.  From there the house, gravel drive accessing the shed and the low rock wall stretched out before them.

Mary was whimpering and Cliffson sternly hushed her.  He knew Jean was scared too, but she remained in control of herself.  Hell, they were all scared.

The clear, starlit night and fingernail moon shed a frail light, but it was enough to cast a dark outline.  The damp night air was beginning to chill when Cliffson shared his plan.  If the group was too large they wouldn’t show themselves and would remain hidden or retreat to the West’s house a mile away.

“But what about Thomas and Monk”?   Mary asked.

“Monk and I agreed sometime ago we are not to risk lives unnecessarily for the sake of his own.”  Cliffson whispered.

“But my husband is with him.”

“He’s in good hands Mary.  Monk will take care of him.”

Gravel popped and Cliffson looked up in time to see the lights being doused on a pickup turning off of the county road.  The dark silhouette of the truck rolled deliberately towards the shed and stopped to disgorge the men inside.  Cliffson thought there were seven of them, Dustin whispered eight.  A radio crackled, and the men moved to positions at the rock wall.  Cliffson keyed his own radio to alert Monk and all hell broke loose.

A second pickup roared to the front of the Lang’s home and two men in the back of the truck rained down automatic weapons fire on the Lang household.  A third man fired on the bunker containing Monk and Thomas.

Without rising up Thomas fired back with a rifle Monk had laid across on top of the bunker.  Monk told him he was firing high and to shoot lower.  When Thomas cut loose with the next few rounds Monk rose up and threw a Molotov cocktail towards the bed of the truck.  He missed, but the bottle broke against the door and the cab of the truck burst into flames.

Cliffson saw the flames and knew Monk had struck.  When the burning pickup sped off, the men in front of Cliffson climbed over the wall and rushed the house, leaving one man behind to guard the truck.  Cliffson could see from the muzzle flashes there were six of them.

Dustin startled him with a tap on the shoulder.

“Dad, I’m gonna take out the man at the truck with the crossbow.”

“No it’s too dangerous, you just stay………”, before he could finish Dustin cloaked himself in darkness and slid away on his belly.  The gunfire continued and the sound of shattering glass burst loose the anger burning deep in Cliffson’s gut.  Hank had set this up with the expectation of killing them all.

Abruptly the gunfire stopped and silence rushed to fill the vacuum.  Cliffson watched the men shining flashlights about the house.  Then in a hushed voice Dustin called for them.

Crouching low to the ground, the group hurried to join him.  Dustin was pointing to the guard lying in the grass with an arrow buried in his chest when Cliffson’s radio chirped.

“Cliffson, you all right?”  came Monk’s whispered voice.

“We’re fine, but there are six men in the house.  I plan on dispatching them when they leave.  Keep an eye on the front door.”

“Will do, now be careful.”

Cliffson moved everyone to the rock wall and told them to wait until the men came back outside.

“No one shoots until I do,” he ordered.

Taught nerves twitched the muscles in Cliffson’s right hand as he fingered the trigger of his shotgun.  Flashlights continued moving about the house and it seemed to take forever before one man finally stepped outside and to look about the yard.

“Let’s get out of here.”  Four men soon joined him.

“Where’s Jason?  Jason you asshole, get out here.”  The man stepped out of the house with a bottle in his hand.

“Bet that’s my rum,”  Cliffson muttered.

The men began marching towards the rock wall and the leader yelled for their man stationed at the pickup.

“Mac, fire up the truck and let’s go.”

The men took a few more steps before realizing something was wrong, but Cliffson was already over the rock wall and charging the group, firing his shotgun as he went.  Thinking his Dad must be crazy Dustin jumped the wall and chased after him.

Stunned and surprised, the men froze in their tracks when the darkness exploded around them.  It would be their last move.  Cliffson shot the first two men before they knew what hit them.  A third man was bringing his weapon to bear when Cliffson’s shotgun blast removed his face.  The remaining three men in the group barely had time to raise their weapons before Dustin cut them down with his mini-14.  Then he grabbed his father by the shoulder and spun him around.  “Are you crazy!”

“I just might be.”  Cliffson spun away, leaving his son in a pool of rage.

He approached the bodies on the ground and picked up one of the dead men’s flashlights.  Reaching behind his back Cliffson pulled a 40 cal. Glock from his waistband and shot each man in the head before storming to the house.  His fury exploded upon taking in the damage.  Glass was everywhere, and the walls were shot through in so many places he didn’t see how they could ever be repaired.  Tears welled up and burned a molten path down each cheek.

He stormed through the house and threw open the door to the garage. Searching with the flashlight he found the trunk he was looking for safely hidden in a corner of the garage. Throwing back the lid he pulled out a blanket and unrolled it on the floor.  About that time he heard Monk and Thomas greet the rest of the group before joining him in the garage.

“Slow down there matey and let me see whatcha got?” Monk soothed.

“Feel like dancing?”  Cliffson glared red eyed at the two Taser’s he held.

“Never cared much for dancing my friend, so what, may I ask, do you have in mind?”

“Thomas, you told me you overheard Hank’s conversation.  He ordered the attack and you witnessed the payment.  Am I right?”

“That is correct.”

“And you also heard that we were all to be killed, is this correct?”

“Yes sir, I heard those exact words,”  Thomas replied.

“Then as much as my soul has already been rent, I cannot in good conscience stand by and wait for this to happen again.  Hank’s intent to kill us is clear and I aim to put an end to this one way or the other.”

“Jean, I’d like you and the other women to open up the crawl space and then clean up some of the glass so we can safely walk through the house.  Dustin, reload my shotgun.  I want you to slip over the Crank’s fence and position yourself so you can cover Monk and me from the back door.”  Cliffson said.

“Dad, what are you going to do?”  Dustin asked.

“If Monk is willing, we’re going to go kick in the front door to the Crank house and have a little dance party.”

“I’m with ya mate,”  Monk responded.

“We’ll Taser them both and bring em back here.  Failing that, I am prepared to finish this once and for all.”  Cliffson patted his sidearm.  “Are we ready?”

They both answered in the affirmative.

“Then let’s get it done.”

Jean grabbed his arm.  “Honey, don’t do this.  Someone’s going to get hurt.”

“Damn right they are.  Now please get that crawl space opened and be ready for us when we get back.”  Cliffson pecked her on the cheek and the three men stepped out into the dark.

Dustin pulled himself over the fence while Monk and Cliffson provided cover.  On the other side he knelt down and listened while observing the house for movement.

“The house is dark, no candles no lanterns,”  Dustin whispered.

“All right Dust, we’re off then.  Be careful.”

Cliffson and Monk hurried to the front of the Crank’s house and without hesitation Monk effortlessly kicked in the front door.  He swept to the left and Cliffson followed to the right.  The sound of a shotgun chambering a shell rang out in the dark and both men froze.  A flashlight came on.  To their left sat Hank with his shotgun.  Mona stood beside him holding the flashlight and a pistol.

“I’ve been expecting you,”  Hank sneered.  “Don’t know how you were tipped off, but I guess that doesn’t matter much now.  I’d invite you to have a seat but I think our business here will soon be finished.”

Hank raised the shotgun and an explosion filled the room.  The sliding glass door exploded and glass flew through the building.  The Cranks went down and Monk and Cliffson dove for the floor.

Dustin stepped into the room and advanced towards the flashlight lying on the floor.  Hank was reaching for his shotgun when Cliffson drilled him with the Taser.  Hank danced.   Then Mona dove for the shotgun and Monk fired his Taser.  Mona danced.  It wasn’t the two-step and they weren’t really in time, but as Monk would comment later, “they both had some pretty fancy moves.”

Before Hank could recover, Cliffson put a foot on the back of his neck to hold him down.  “First question Hank.  Where can I find the rest of the men who attacked us tonight?”

“Go to hell.”

It was slurred but clear enough.  Cliffson stepped back and touched off the Taser one more time.  It wasn’t really break-dancing, but that Hank, he sure had the moves.

Mona shrieked at the site of Hank dancing again.  Dustin tore the sleeve off her shirt and gagged her.

Hank was coming around again and they pulled him to his feet.  “You haven’t answered my question yet Hank.”  Cliffson was in his face.

“You can’t make me talk.”

“I’m betting I can.”

Using the wires from the Taser they tied Hank and Mona’s hands behind their backs and marched them out of the house.  Cliffson sent Dustin to get the pickup the attackers had left behind in the field.

When they got back to the house Cliffson questioned Hank one more time.  He refused to cooperate and it was time to ratchet up the pressure.  After binding their feet and hands with duct tape, Cliffson forced both of them into the crawl space.

“Last chance.”

Hank glared.

“Have it your way.”

“Monk.”  Cliffson’s stare bore straight into his good eye.  “We need to dispose of the bodies laying out there in the yard, will you give me a hand?”

“Can’t it wait until morning?” Monk asked.

“No, I expect to have answers by morning.”

“Cliffson, I know what you’re thinking. You are one mean sonofabitch.”

“I am not being vengeful if that is what you’re thinking.”

“Then, just what do you call it mate.”

“Monk, if I was being vengeful, they’d already be dead.”

“Sure looks like revenge to me,” Monk answered.

Tersely Cliffson turned on Monk.  “Dammit Monk!  These people ordered the execution of my family.  We’d all be lying here dead if not for Thomas’ warning.  They give me no choice.  I have a plan and I need information.  They’re going to spend the rest of the night, or however long it might take, in close company with the men they sent to kill us.”  That ended the discussion.

Five of the seven bodies were then dragged into the house and dropped into the crawl space to sleep with the Cranks.  Mona was attempting to scream through her gag and only his last remaining shred of humanity kept Cliffson from enjoying the terror he saw in her eyes.

“Nighty night, assholes!”  Cliffson glowered and dropped the hatch on the crawl space.

With Thomas on watch, they worked through the night cleaning up and assessing the damage.  Every window in the house was shattered.  When the first rays of dawn penetrated the walls to send golden shafts of light dancing on the floor, Cliffson and Jean were overcome with grief.  Excusing themselves, the two weary souls stepped outside to the comfort of their garden.

“Where does one find the strength to keep pushing on?”  The adrenalin was fading and Cliffson faded with it.

“We’re just tired,”  Jean said.

“You’re probably right, but I feel so overwhelmed.”

“Honey, consider what we’ve just been through.  You were so brave last night,”  Jean said.

“Well……”

Raising a finger to his lips Jean continued.

“Hush,” she said sternly.  “You were also incredibly stupid and I’m angry with you.  Did you stop to think for a moment what would happen to the rest of us if you had gotten yourself killed?”

“I just…..”

Jean hushed him again.  “I don’t know what crazy place you went to last night, but it’s time you came back and joined the rest of us.”  She wasn’t done yet and he knew it.  “And you will promise me right here and now that you’ll never do anything like that again.”

More than three decades of marriage told Cliffson not to argue, but he had to be honest.  “I can’t promise you that.  There are certain things I have to do and there’s just so much a man can take.”

“Don’t give me that old man’s world crap now.”  Her trembling hands went to the corner of each eye to wipe away the tears.

Cliffson took her hands and knelt in front of her before gazing into the emerald green pools that had always captivated him.  “Hon, I promise to be careful, but I will not back away from what is required of me.  I know you understand that.  If you lose me, then it was meant to be, and be happy for me.  This world has long been a burden I’ve wanted to shed.  It’s no longer a place where men of integrity walk or are even valued.  You know our nation rejected honesty and uprightness long ago.  I don’t belong here.  There’s no place for me.”  Cliffson kissed her on the forehead and stood on creaky knees.

Jean was crying softly into her hands.  “I can’t do this alone.  I’ve lost my son and I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you.”

Cliffson reached down and pulled her into his arms to whisper in her ear,  “I’m not planning on going anywhere until I get Zachary back.  That I promise.”

He released her and flashed a grin that made his blues eyes sparkle. “There’s a lot I need to tend to.  Stay here for awhile if you like.”

Jean watched her husband walk away.  The heels of his shoes were kicking up diamonds of early morning dew.  “Lord cover him and protect him please.”

Cliffson found Monk in the kitchen chewing on a crusty piece of bread.  Monk’s good eye grinned and Cliffson smiled back.

“Mornin’, Monk.”

“Mornin’,” he mumbled.

“Monk, I want you to know just how much I appreciate having you here.  Don’t know if I could deal with this without you.”

“Goin’ soft on me are ya.”  Monk winked.  Knowing it always cracked Cliffson up.

“Guess I am, guess I am.”  Cliffson’s voice trailed off.  “But I betcha that’s not what the Cranks will be thinking when we haul them out of that crawl space.”

“We goin’ dancing’?”  Monk said while eyeing the Taser in Cliffson’s right hand.

“I hope not Monk.  Hank’s not my type.”

“Ah, now that’s more like the Cliffson I know.  Let’s go see how they’re doing.”

Cliffson raised the hatch and shined his flashlight down on the Cranks.  Mona looked nearly comatose and the pleading look in Hank’s eyes made it clear they’d had enough.  When Cliffson asked if Hank would cooperate, Hank nodded.

Digging them out from under the bodies wasn’t an easy chore, but eventually the Cranks were moved to the living room and bound to wooden chairs.  Taser in hand Cliffson removed their gags and made it clear what would happen if they didn’t oblige him.  Both asked for water and were given full glasses.

The first question was for the location of the remaining group of men Hank had hired for the hit.  Hank reluctantly told them.  Then Cliffson asked where the Chinese stored their food and fuel.  Hank was plainly surprised at this request and hesitated, but when threatened with the Taser, hung his head and gave them the information.  When Cliffson insisted he had access to it, Hank was resolute he didn’t.

Cliffson refilled their glasses and continued.

“There’s only one way you get out of this alive.  If you do all I ask, you’ll be freed, if not, then it’s over for both of you.  Are we clear?”

Hank was getting surly again.  “You can’t do this.  You can’t get away with…”

“Shut up Hank.  I’m out of patience.”  Cliffson put his pistol against Hanks head.  “Full cooperation or it won’t be worth my time to bother with you.  ARE WE CLEAR?”  Both of them nodded.

“We’ll soon find out.”  Cliffson turned to Dustin.  “Have them dig a grave in the field near the barn.  If they so much as move the wrong way, shoot them and put them in it.   You can find shovels leaning against the shed.”

Cliffson began to untie the Cranks.  “When they’re done digging, bring them back here to haul those bodies out of the crawl space.”

Dustin racked a shell in his shotgun.  “You heard the man, let’s go.”

Kate joined Dustin and took up a shotgun of her own.

Cliffson couldn’t help thinking about the things Dustin and Kate had been through in the last few months.  The fear he’d always seen in Kate’s eyes had given way to a laser gaze that looked as if it could cut through a steal beam.  He almost felt bad for the Crank’s.  Well, not really.

With Dustin and Kate off to the field with the Cranks, Cliffson turned to Monk.  “Got any plans for today?”

Monk rolled his eye.  For some reason it always reminded Cliffson of Marty Feldman.

“What’re we doin’ matey?”

“Time to rifle the Crank’s house for anything we can use.”

“Now that sounds like fun,”  Monk said through a giant smile.

The rest of the morning was spent ransacking the Crank house.  In addition to their pickup with nearly a full tank of gas, they found tools and more gasoline stored in the garage.  To their amazement, they also found fresh fruit and vegetables in the kitchen, along with an assortment of cheese, milk, eggs and meat, confirming Cliffson’s suspicion they were being supplied by the Chinese.  Cliffson made a mental note to find out why.

Monk brought a wheel barrow from the backyard to haul the food home.  Jean and Mary, tired of cleaning the shot up house, thrilled at the treat of fresh food.  While the women ate lunch, Monk and Cliffson took plates of food out to Dustin and Kate.

When the Cranks realized their house had been raided they were furious.  Cliffson held up a bunch of grapes.  “Want some Hank?” he smiled.

“You have no right.”

“And neither did you.  Now I’m perfectly willing to share, but first I need a little more information.”

Hank looked up from the hole he was digging.  “And what would that be.”

“What is it you are doing for the Chinese that warrants the food they supply you with?”

“I provide them with information.”

“What kind of information?”

Hank looked down and mumbled, “Information about armed groups who could be a threat to them.”

“And how do you do that?”

“I’ve lived in Central Oregon all my life and made a lot of contacts.  They make a good network for keeping up on things.”

Cliffson fingered his pistol.  “You bring the Chinese down on your own countrymen!”

Hank just shrugged.  “Sometimes, but not always, you see, it can be dangerous trucking supplies through the countryside and the Chinese are obvious targets.  They’ve found more supplies get through if it looks like the truck is being run by an American.  Course they don’t always get through either and so I use my contacts to assist the Chinese in rounding up more drivers.  It’s just business.”

“You’re a sick man Hank,”  Cliffson spat.

Hank just looked away.

“Monk, let’s go.”

“Ahem.”

Cliffson looked down at Hank.

“What about the food?  You said if I answered your questions you’d feed us.”

“Finish the hole and there’ll be a plate of food waiting for you in the house when you come to get the first body.”

I have just  begun book two.  Any thoughts or comments on the first book would be welcome.

CHAPTER  TWENTY-FOUR

 “By giving the government unlimited powers, the most arbitrary rule can be made legal; and in this way a democracy may set up the most complete despotism imaginable.”

 Friedrich von Hayek

 Monk immediately rushed home for his gear, but when Cliffson began putting his equipment together, Jean got upset.

“Your arm’s in a sling.  You can’t possibly go.”  Jean was adamant.

Cliffson tore off the sling and threw it to the floor.  “Not any longer.”

“Cliffson this is foolishness, you cannot go!”

“And I cannot stay.  These are our friends and they’re counting on us.”

Dustin turned to her. “Mom, it’ll be all right.  I’ll keep him out of trouble.”

“You’re going too? No!”  Jean slumped on the couch with her face in her hands.

Monk returned with his gear.  “What’s the matter with Jean?”

Cliffson sat down beside her.  “She’s doesn’t want us to go.”

Monk knelt in front of Jean.  “Look me in the eye.”  Cliffson would have laughed if it wasn’t so serious.  Monk continued.

“I’m promising you right here and now I’ll bring them back.  I give you my word Jean.”

“But it could be a trap and you don’t know how big this group is.”

“I’m not about to let them walk into any trap.  It’ll be all right.”

Monk stood and looked towards Cliffson.  “Time to go, mate.  Got your rain gear?”

Cliffson kissed Jean on the cheek and turned to Thomas.  “You may have been called to duty sooner than you anticipated Thomas, but I’m counting on you to guard the house while were gone.”

“I won’t let you down.”

“Jean will fix you up with weapons and don’t forget, she’s not a bad shot herself.”  Cliffson turned to go, then stopped in mid stride and turned back.  Taking Jean in his arms he looked into her emerald eyes.  “We’ll be alright.  I promise,” he whispered, and kissed her again before turning to leave.

The trio took up their gear and headed out the back door to the fields behind Cliffson’s house.  Driving would draw attention and Monk wanted the full benefit of surprise.  A fearful Jean stood in the doorway and watched them disappear over the rock wall into the rain darkened night.

The men stuck to a low swale that would take them through the fields to the West’s.  Cliffson feared the worst with each passing minute. Jogging when they could, they were slowed only by the numerous barb wire fences.  The darkness clung to them tightly against the howling wind and the rain struck like blunt darts, soaking their jean clad legs and wool caps.

The storm was in full raging crescendo when they crossed the county road and climbed the last fence to a horse pasture adjacent to the West’s property.

Juniper limbs dancing in the windy gusts, deflected shafts of lantern light radiating from the West’s house.  From the shelter of a massive blackberry bramble Monk led them through the pasture to lofty sagebrush growing against the fence at the back of the West’s property.  Next to invisible inside the gales rainy cloak, they watched the house from only sixty feet away.

Through the sliding glass door in back of the house, Gary could be seen tied to a chair next to a rectangular wooden table.  A man in a blue ball cap and an orange down vest stood over him with a pistol.  A second person stood at the other end of the table partially out of sight.  Barb appeared in the kitchen window to the left of the sliding door.

Then under the watchful eye of her captors, Barb stepped outside onto the patio and raised the lid to a propane barbeque positioned under a protective awning.  There she collected baked chicken and brought it back inside.

Soon the man in the ball cap stuck his head out the door and yelled into the dark,  “Johnny, dinner’s on.”  From their right, a third man appeared out of the dark and ran through the rain to the back door of the house.

Monk turned to Cliffson.  “Lookouts.  We need to know how many.  Stay here while I circle the property.”  Monk dropped back and disappeared into night before moving off to their right.  The lookout returned with his meal, pulled up his hood and ran for the protection of a shed scarcely visible in the dark.  Cliffson knew the shed stood adjacent to Barbs chicken coop.

With the next blast of wind driven fury Cliffson shivered and noted the drop in air temperature, though Dustin still seemed warm enough.  While the two of them huddled together in the storm awaiting Monks return, his thoughts turned to how this would all play out.  Cliffson knew Monk would be thorough and take his time.  Hopefully it also meant he would return with some kind of plan.

A short while later a dove cooed from their left and Cliffson knew Monk was returning.  Rain ran from a darkened cap and off his nose as he delivered his report.  In addition to the lookout posted in the shed near the chicken coop there were two additional sentries; one was sitting inside a lime green van watching the driveway and the other was south of the house, taking cover under the awning of an equipment shed.

“Here’s the deal.  They form a kind of triangle.  The first one we saw here at the chicken coop shed is in the middle, within line of site of the other two.”

“How come we can’t see the one to our left, Monk?”  Dustin asked.

“The junipers block your view from here.  Follow me.”  Monk led the way and the three of them moved south about ten yards.  “Look right about there,”  Monk pointed.  At first they didn’t see anything, then an orange dot glowed in the dark.  “That’s him right there, smoking a cigarette.  The guards have to be taken out before we can move inside and it’s gotta be done quietly.  Dustin, you’ve been practicing with the crossbow and I know you’re pretty good.  Can you hit the orange dot?”

“Would be better if I can get closer.”

“Follow this fence.  Just ahead it turns to the right.  Follow it until it turns back to the left and from there you will have a clear shot.

Cliffson, I’m going to circle around the other way and take out the guard in the van.  That leaves the guard near the chicken coop for you.”  Monk reached into his pocket and handed Cliffson something like piano wire.  “Remember, I said quietly.”  Cliffson grimaced but in the dark Monk didn’t see it.  “You need to get over the barbed wire fence and I’ll show you a place where the wire sags and you can step right over.”

Monk paused in thought for a moment.  “Dustin, give me five minutes to get in position, then shoot.  That’s when we all move.”  Cliffson nodded agreement.  “With the guards gone, I’ll move to the front door while the two of you go to the back.  From there we’re gonna have to play it by ear because we don’t know how many are inside.  Be ready to react to any distraction, or create one yourself if you can.”  Monk looked to each of them. “We can do this, now let’s go.”

An ear splitting scream tore the air with the force of a lightning strike and froze them in their tracks.  The sliding door had been thrown wide open and the man at the table was forcing Barb outside.  “Give me the combination to the safe.”  He demanded.  Barb ignored him and struggled even more.  Then holding her arm over the hot grill, he growled, “Last chance lady.”  Barb screamed an unholy scream of the damned, causing even the wind to catch its breath.

“Quickly now, let’s go.”  Monk moved out with Cliffson in tow.  Cliffson didn’t know how Monk found his way in the inky dark, but after about twenty yards he stopped at the sagging portion of fence.  Without saying a word, Monk squeezed Cliffson’s shoulder and moved on.

Cliffson knelt to size up the job that lay before him and didn’t like what he saw.  Upon crossing the fence he would be nearly in front of the lookout.  Tall vegetation a few steps away would allow him to circle around and come up from behind, but with only the rainy night for cover, he would be completely exposed immediately after crossing the fence.

After watching the man pull Barb back inside, he gathered his courage and moved to the fence.  It’s now or never.   Monk was right, his long legs allowed him to step over the fence without much trouble.  Placing his pistol in the pocket of his jacket to free his hands he cautiously stretched one leg over the fence.  Turning to swing the other leg over the fence his jacket snagged on a barb and yanked him to the ground.  The old fence wailed into the night like a boar hog at breeding time.

Dustin had found a comfortable, well braced position from which to take his shot.  The orange dot glowed and then disappeared.  He waited, knowing it would appear again and froze in position, locked on target.  It glowed again, but his aim was to the left, so he waited again.  Each time it glowed he had just one or two seconds to align his shot.

If he could just hold his position against the buffeting wind until the dot glowed again his shot would be true. Moments later the orange glow reappeared and he released the razor sharp bolt.  The orange dot gurgled and fell to the ground.  In the same instant a commotion arose to his right.

Cliffson yanked at the coat to free himself and then reached for his pistol.  Too late.

“Freeze.”  A rifle barrel jammed sharply into the middle of his back.

“Drop the gun.”

Cliffson obeyed.

“Inside.”  The gun barrel never left his back and the two men made their way to the back porch.

Cliffson opened the sliding door and stepped inside.  Gary glanced up through swollen eyes, but it was Barb’s gasps of pain coming from the kitchen floor that drew his attention.

“Well Johnny, what do we have here?”  It was a deep, guttural voice and it came from the man they had not been able to see from outside.

“Found him prowling around outside.  He was armed too.”

A bearded, giant of a man limped over and looked down at Cliffson.  A river of whiskey flowed from his breath when he spoke.

“I know you.”  The man bent, bringing his face within inches of Cliffson’s.   “You was part of that group who attacked me up in Washington.  Johnny, no way he’s alone. Go back outside and look for his friends.”

Then he turned back to Cliffson.  “What is it with you?” Anger contorted the man’s face, or was it the whiskey he’d just swallowed.

“Always showing up uninvited.  Do you know how much you cost me stealin that little girl away?  No of course you don’t.  Well never mind.  Nate, open that door.”

The man sitting at the table with Gary got up, opened the sliding door and returned to stand beside Cliffson.

“You and I are going for a walk,”  The big man ordered.

Gary began to protest through the gag in his mouth.  Nate turned around and slugged him.

“Stop it, you can’t do this,” Barb yelled from the kitchen.

“You think not little lady, well just you watch.  You have no idea what I’m capable of.”  The colossal man took another pull on his whiskey bottle and stuck the barrel of his sawed off shotgun against Cliffson’s chest.  “Move!”

Cliffson reacted instantly, driving his left hand hard up against the barrel, forcing it towards the ceiling.  The gun roared to life and Nate jumped to grab him from behind but not before Cliffson pulled the giants blade from his waist band.  Swiftly swinging the blade behind his back Cliffson drove it deep into Nate’s gut.  Then it was over.  The shotgun was wrenched from his hand and smashed into the back of his head.

Cliffson never heard the shots that laid the big man low.  Monk burst through the front door and fired as Dustin released his bolt through the open sliding door.  The big man’s head exploded when the leaden .45 bullet met the bolts razor tipped blade deep inside his skull.

When Cliffson came to he wasn’t sure where he was, but one thing he was sure of—the nine pound hammer beating incessantly on an anvil inside his head.  While attempting to focus his eyes, his ears took over and he began to recognize Monk’s voice, then Dustin’s.  Both were asking if he could hear them and if he was all right.

“Lime…….Green……..Van.” He whispered.

Monk laughed while Dustin stood there shaking his head.  “Dad you’re crazy.”

Gary helped him sit up.

Monk grabbed a towel to soak in the cool rain before applying it to Barb’s arm.

“Sure…. glad…. you guys… showed up.”  Cliffson struggled to get the words out.  “Thought I was a goner after snagging my coat on that fence.”

Monk explained how he was just getting into position when he heard the fence squeal.  Dustin said he heard it too and rushed back to see what was going on.  “I didn’t have to wait long before they sent that guy back out to look for us.  He didn’t get very far.”  Dustin raised his hands and pretended to shoot the crossbow.

Gary watched through two puffy black eyes.  He was going to hurt for some time to come, but Barb’s wound was the most serious and she was in a lot of pain.  While Monk searched for painkillers in the West’s bathroom, Gary suggested the group spend the night.  Needing to shake off the trauma, the suggestion was well received by all.

Then Cliffson remembered he’d better call Jean and Dustin brought him the radio.  Through a garbled conversation he managed to inform Jean everyone was all right but they were going to spend the night and he would see her in the morning.


The next day Gary’s eyes were nearly swollen shut, and the chain gang was still making little rocks out of big ones inside Cliffson’s head.  Monk offered to stay a few days while Barb recovered and Gary gladly accepted.

Monk dug a hole with Gary’s tractor and Dustin helped him drag the bodies into it.  When they searched the monster mans pockets Monk found the keys to the van.  “I seem to recall that you’re in need of a set of wheels Mr. Dustin.”  Monk’s wry smile lit up his good eye.

“Oh–ho Monk!  Have I got an idea,”  Dustin said.

“I’ve a feelin’ there’s mischief afoot?”  Monk replied.

“Just a little fun.  I’m sure you’ll get the full story later.  See you in a few days.”  Dustin turned to go.

“Son, come here.”  Dustin turned back to face Monk.   “A lot has been asked of you recently and yet each time you unflinchingly do what’s required.  I’m proud of you and I know your father is too.”  Monk reached out to take Dustin’s hand.

“Well thank you Monk,”  Dustin said in surprise.

“There’s more to it son.”  Monk put his arm around Dustin’s shoulder and they began to walk towards the house.  “I’m not sure if you understand what an important part you play in the survival of your family.  A lot more is going to be asked of you before this is over.  Times like this take their toll.  I want you to know I’m always here for you.  If you find these things haunting you, interfering with doing what needs to be done, then come talk to me.”

“I will Monk, and thank you.”

Monk slapped Dustin on the back.  “All right, I’ll see you in a few days.”

Dustin walked the rest of the way to the house thinking how good it felt to have Monk’s confidence.  He was unsure about what more might be required of him, but he’d think about that later.  Right now he was anxious to get home.

Cliffson met him at the front door and the two walked to the van while Dustin explained what he was up to.  Cliffson could only shake his head and then wished he hadn’t.

When they got in the van, Dustin found it creepy to think of all it represented, but Cliffson made an even more startling discovery.  In the back of the van was a 50 caliber rifle with a scope and cases of ammo.  Just what he needed for the plan he was formulating.

Dustin fired up the van and waved to Monk before heading out the long gravel drive.  Overnight the storm had abated and Dustin found the freshness of the new day exhilarating.   When they reached the pavement, he handed Cliffson one of the dark wool hats they had worn and asked him to put it on.  Cliffson grudgingly obliged.

With hats pulled down low Dustin guided the van home.  When he turned the corner and approached the Lang’s house he saw Kate in the garden, picking raspberries.  This would fit his plans even better.

Slamming the pedal to the floor, Dustin roared into the driveway, skidded across the lawn and stopped just short of the garden.  When Kate saw the lime green van racing towards her she screamed and ran for the house.  Dustin jumped from the van and ran to cut her off, catching up and grabbing her from behind just before she could reach the house.  Kate screamed, kicked her legs and beat on his back with both fists as he tossed her over his shoulder.

Cliffson could only sit and watch.  He knew there’d be a price to pay for this, but he couldn’t help chuckling to himself.  Finally, Dustin was laughing so hard he could no longer hold Kate up and collapsed to the ground.

Cliffson had known Jean to have a temper, but wasn’t sure he’d ever seen her as enraged as Kate was right now.  He couldn’t make out what she was saying, but the finger she pointed at Dustin and the look on her face told him all he needed to know.

Everyone was rushing from the house to see what the commotion was all about when Cliffson stepped from the van.  Then Kate’s anger turned to tears.  She leapt into Dustin’s arms and kissed his face.

“I was so worried.  How could you do this!  Are you all right?  Are you hurt anywhere?  I’ll never forgive you!”  The questions flew and she kissed him some more.

While Cliffson watched, Jean came along side of him for a hug and discovered a trail of blood trickling from the lump on the back of his head.

“Last night on the radio you told me everyone was all right.  Look at you.  You lied to me!”

Cliffson smiled and winked at his son, knowing they were both likely to be in the dog house for while.