Copyright © 2017 by Richard S.
All rights reserved
Bristlecone, Late November
HORACE KEARNS, DIRECTOR OF THE SURPRISE VALLEY Senior Center, called the emergency
meeting to order at precisely twelve o’clock noon. This
was an unusual time for them all, since most of those in attendance
worked day jobs, and the seniors met in the evening. But not today.
With the new travel restrictions severing Cedarville from the
rest of Modoc County, everyone seemed to be in town, available,
and in a surly mood.
a lot of familiar faces here today,” Director Kearns croaked.
He was recovering from the surgical removal of a polyp on his
larynx. He was a tall, flinty, stoop-shouldered farmer in his
late fifties with a freckled face and a ruddy complexion, except
for the white band across his forehead where he usually wore his
hat. “Plenty of ya from Cedarville. An’ I see Teddy
Tollitson and his crew up from Eagleville. An’ Tom Ramirez
down from Ft. Bidwell way. An’ some a’ya I don’t
know yer names, but I seen ya before. Well . . . yer
all welcome here today.”
among the restless citizens who filled the folding chairs or watched
standing from the back of the senior center conference room. Kearns
waved to the clusters of townsfolk who stood beyond hearing on
the sidewalk outside, gazing in through the latticed panes like
children at a Christmas department store window. They were the
perpetually uncommited, whose curiosity was alloyed by the fear
of getting involved with something that might someday come back
to bite them on the ass.
know,” Kearns continued to those who could hear him inside,
“Cedarville ain’t got no City Council to take care
of this mess for us, since the town ain’t incorporated.
The only incorporated city in the entire county is Alturas, and
that’s now behind the Khaki Curtain, as my wife calls it.”
Smiles and a
murmur of appreciation ran through the room.
the State of California seems to of dried up an’ blown away
on us. She’s gone. Done disappeared.” He paused for
effect. “Which leaves us with a bona fide dire emergency
that this here community’s gotta take care of. By ourselves,
looks like. There’s decisions we gotta make. An’ work
to be done. So let’s us git right down to business.”
again. A few grunted assent.
“Now . . .
I had me a talk on the telephone this mornin’ with the county
attorney over in Alturas. Pearworth is ’is name. Deputy
County Counsel. Anyhow, even he don’t have much of
a notion about just what’s a’goin’ on here or
what our legal status is just yet. A’course, he can’t
get through the blockade himself t’talk with ya here directly,
man ta man.”
he say?” Honus Cribs called impatiently from the back. “What’s
this Pear . . . Blossom say?”
crowed a heavy lump of a woman in the second row. “Are we
still in California, er ain’t we?”
A number of
others shuffled to be heard, but Kearns raised his hands for silence.
“Listen up!” he croaked. “Now y’all
jus’ listen up. Y’all gonna get your chance to talk.
Ever’body. But we got to do it in an orderly manner, or
nobdy’ll get heard. I’ll make a quick presentation
to get the discussion goin’. Then I’ll open her up
to y’all’s comments an’ questions as soon as
we get our feet here on solid groun’. Is ’at okay
about us in Eagleville?” called one of Tollitson’s
hands. “We in this here too?”
Fort Bidwell?” asked Tom Ramirez.
gonna get heard,” Kearns replied hoarsely. “We’re
all in this together, fer better er worst.”
There was some
cross-talk and grumbling before the folks settled down to hear
what Director Kearns had to say. He started by explaining that
nobody but commercial truckers could get through Cedar Pass without
a Pacific Coast Nation visa. The semblance of order broke down into
angry comments and shouted questions. Kearns quieted them with
raised arms and pressed on. The problem was, he slowly made it
clear, that the State of California had ceased to exist. The new
border for the Pacific Coast Nation stopped at the militarily defensible
position of Cedar Pass, leaving them all on a sliver of no-man’s
land caught between the high peaks of the Warner Mountains on
the west and the western boundary of the State of Nevada some
twenty miles to the east, where the paved, striped two-lane highway
degenerated, as if randomly, into a badly-graded gravel Nevada
road. That sliver ran from below Eagleville all the way up the
Surprise Valley, through Ft. Bidwell, to Oregon in the north.
None of it was any longer a part of the State of California. Nor
any other state of the union.
we done seceded?” someone shouted from the back. “Why’d
we do that?”
Kearns grunted, the pain in his throat worsening, “it’s
more like they done seceded from us’n. An’
for the time being, we’re on our own. An independent sovereign
realm with a whole lotta work to do.”
reality quieted down the crowd. No one could figure out who to
blame, which was what many of them had come here for in the first
place. Not to do any work.
“Now . . .
one of the first things we’re gonna need is a Minister of
Finance to figure out whether we got any money,” Kearns
rumbled. He was staring straight at Elan Groves, who sat in the
front row beside his daughter Katie. “How ’bout you,
on–” Elan began.
listen up, Elan. You’re about the only one of us can read
a spreadsheet proper. And you know all them folks over in the
tax collector’s office, don’t ya? We’re gonna
need money to run this place. This realm. This sovereign nation.
Whatever it is. Now how much of our money do ya think California’s
holdin’?” He was betting Elan couldn’t resist
showing off his expertise in government fund accounting.
Elan took the
bait. “Well . . . there’s . . .
the real property taxes . . . then there’s sales
tax . . . both of those are general funds . . .
and the gas tax, for roads . . . and the transient occupancy
tax they collect for us . . . that’s general funds
too . . . and they collect the Fire District’s
bond tax money . . . and the Health Care District tax
. . . and the School District’s money, some of
which is local taxes and some state money . . . and–”
take the job, Mr. Finance Minister?” Kearns lifted his hands
like a preacher to draw acclimation from the assembly.
a minute!” Elan rose. “Finance Minister of what?”
He gazed around at the mostly familiar faces. “Who do you
think we’re supposed to be here, anyway?”
need a name for ourselves,” Kearns conceded. He turned to
the assembly. “Any ideas?”
piped up Moray Willits, owner of the Cedarville general store.
“Why’n’t we jus’ call the country ‘Cedarville’.”
hold on,” Ted Tollitson rejoined. “How’s about
callin’ it ‘Eagleville’?”
interjected Tom Ramirez. “That leaves Ft. Bidwell out in
the cold. And all the ranches up north.”
called somebody from the back, “you tractor guys’re
all thinkin’ too parochial . . . how about jus’
callin’ ourselves the ‘Surprise Valley Nation’?”
about ‘East California’–”
The volume rose
as everyone advocated for his own regional preference, while a
single slim arm waved to be recognized.
a fist on the table. He couldn’t remember ever having to
do that before. “Order!,” he bleated.
“Let’s do this orderly. One at a time. Katie, you
got your hand up.”
The group fell
silent as slender Katie Groves rose to face them. “Well
. . . I’ve got an idea. How about . . .
‘Bristlecone’,” she said.
to blink, as if they hadn’t heard right.
was that?” Scooter Thompson asked from the back.
she repeated with more force.
pines are the oldest living trees on earth. They’re strong
. . . and they’re proud . . . and they
endure with majesty right where they are, while the whole world
changes all around them. The bristlecone stands as a symbol for
the kind of nation we need to build right here. Together. Right
you know so much about ’em, young lady?” asked Peachy
Watkins, who cooked for one of the three café owners in
. . . I’m doing my term paper on bristlecone pines.
They’re magnificent. Stately. Enduring. Like we can be,
if we all stop arguing with each other and start pulling together.”
A bemused silence
settled over them until Leonard Kline, owner of the new Gas Mart,
broke it with, “We’re gonna need ourselves a bank,
too. T’put all that money Elan’s gonna bring in.”
t’run the bank, Leonard?” Ted Tollitson gibed.
do worse, Teddy.”
Bank,” someone else called out. “Now I like the sound
we gonna hafta hold some kinda election t’let the people
vote on this?” asked Moray Willits.
to Director Kearns, who threw up his hands. “I sure don’t
have a clue what we gotta do. This ain’t never happened
before. At least as far as I know. Maybe Sherry at the library
can look it up fer us. Or Michael over at the bookstore. They
could serve as our historians to figure out what we gotta do.
But in the meantime, we gotta get started . . . today
. . . right here an’ now. We got no funds, an’
plowed on as Kearns loosened the reins and allowed people to talk
about whatever they felt was important. Most issues found little
resolution. Kearns simply jotted them down on a yellow pad and
for the most part kept quiet. This was just as he had intended.
This was the prelude. The warm up. The symphony would come tomorrow.
Or the next day. Or next month. But he wanted those assembled
to feel free to discuss anything that troubled them. To let the
cream of the ideas rise to the top. He wanted everyone to feel
a buy-in. Feel a part of a team effort.
Hour after hour,
like the roll of great waves, the discussion surged and ebbed
between heated oratory and tepid ignorance. The congregation agreed
they needed a police force, but haggled over who the chief should
be. Or the minister of defense. Or the public works director.
They were all in agreement to retain the current fire chief and
the department hierarchy. And the school board, too. Without objection
they appointed Willy Baxter, the only lawyer in town, as Chief
Justice of the Supreme Court. Someone wanted a new dog catcher
and an enforceable leash law. Others wanted their dogs to run
free. They argued over that for half an hour. Issues of parking
and downtown development and water quality and sewer leach field
permits fluttered in the breeze and were forgotten or steamrollered
by a louder voice. As the afternoon wore on folks began to drift
away. Few reinforcements came through the doors to replace them.
The metal folding chairs were now half empty. A few stood or paced
slowly in the back of the room. November shadows lengthened outside,
and the clock hands approached four.
sit still any longer. Her butt was sore from the brutal metal
chair. The stuffy room cloyed with a locker-room odor of stale
sweat and tobacco breath. She stood and stretched her legs at
the refreshment table and discovered the delicate little home-baked
pfeffernusse cookies Mrs. Banke had baked and brought in to share.
Katie closed her eyes and slowly savored one of the sugar-dusted
confections, then stepped away from the table. But she returned
to taste another, and then another, swearing that each one would
be her last. By her fourth cookie, her stomach began to feel heavy
and unsettled. She decided to step outside and maybe take a walk
around the block to wake up.
Director Kearns was croaking as Katie closed the door, “that’s
probably just about enough for our first day. But there is one
last thing I’d like you all to be thinking about. We’ll
be needin’ a head of state for this new . . .
empire. Anyone interested in running for president?”
you gonna do it?” Moray Willits asked.
his head. “Not with this here throat a’ mine. An’
I don’t want the responsibility. I’m too old. Now
. . . who wants to volunteer?”
minister then. Any nominations.”
diff’rence ’tween a prime min’ster an’
a pres’dent?” Willits wanted to know.
laugh became a barking cough. “Darn if I know, Moray. You
wanna try it out an’ let us all know?”
really lookin’ for is a figurehead, t’stand up an’
take it on the chin for our country. Am I right?” Willits
Ted Tollitson grinned. “An’ t’take all the blame
when the Homeland Security agents show up an’ haul him off
Hiram Atwater piped in. “I heard stories’d turn yer
already white, Hiram–“
but who’d be fool enough to take on a job like that?”
A swell of mumbling
and quipping rose and fell and ended again in dead silence.
No nominations? Elan, you been mighty quiet.” Kearns voice
was no more than a raspy whisper. “You a’hankerin’
for the job, maybe?”
Katie’s father shook his head vehemently. “Finance
is the limit of my skills. And, you know what, the more I think
about it, I’m not so comfortable with this ‘Minister’
business. I believe‘Financial Consultant’ would suit
me just fine.”
got that look on your face,” Kearns persisted. “Y’must
have yourself an idea of who might serve as our head of state.
Am I right?”
“I . . .
I just might have.” He turned and his eyes flicked across
the room looking for his daughter. He had last seen her on the
sidewalk outside the windows. Elan turned back to Kearns. “Yes,
sir. I just might have a candidate in mind. He’s a long-time
resident. A fine, upstanding citizen. Most of you know him. Anyway,
he’s a landowner here in the valley. Owns a farm on the
way down to Eagleville. But . . . he happens to be gone
right now. And . . . he’s not planning on
coming back in the near future. Which may be his greatest recommendation.”
his hands. “But if he’s gone . . .
how can he accept the nomination?”
. . . that’s just it,” Elan grinned. “I
happen to hold a general power of attorney over his affairs. As
his agent in fact, I guess I could accept on his behalf.”
Kearns rasped, playing to the crowd. “‘Jus’
who you got in mind, Elan?”
Elan rose and
faced the audience just as Katie was reentering the front door.
“I hereby nominate . . . Shadrack Smithers
. . . to be Emperor of the Bristlecone Empire.”
Tildie’s husban’, ain’t it?”
Ain’t seen ’im about much lately. Since she passed–
really know the fella–”
save us all a lotta grief–”
no!” Katie was trying to find her way back to the front,
but curious onlookers blocked her path. No one paid her any attention.
Elan still held
the floor. “And . . . because he’s not here
. . . and probably won’t be coming back . . .
as his agent in fact . . . I hereby accept the
nomination on behalf of Shadrack Smithers.”
enthusiasm fired the noisy crowd.
for a vote,” someone shouted.
his hands. “Any other nominations?”
vote on ’this’un!”
this Smithers sounds like the man–”
he’s coming back!” Katie shouted fecklessly.
croaked Kearns, “I move that we appoint Shadrack Smithers
by acclamation to be . . . what was it?”
of Bristlecone,” Elan said.
The crowd, on
its feet now, confirmed the appointment with its boisterous assent
and considerable relief.
BY THE TIME BESS SET THE SERVING BOWL of chicken stew on the
dining table, Katie had still not come home. “Where is she?”
she asked her husband.
that Katie had been with him for most of the meeting at the senior
center, but after he finished helping put away the folding chairs,
she was nowhere to be found. He assumed she had decided to walk
home by herself. “Or,” he smiled, “more likely,
telling you? Well then, where is she? Have you tried to call her?”
phones are still not working.”
Bess shook her
head. “This is not like her.”
Elan agreed. “She’s been acting kind of peculiar lately.”
about it. “Did something happen at the meeting to upset
spooning stew into the first of three bowls beside him, then reached
it over to his wife. “Hard to tell anymore. She seems to
be getting more headstrong every day. Haven’t you noticed?”
Into the second bowl he dipped out his own portion and tasted
it. The third bowl sat as empty as a memorial urn.
it?” Bess prompted.
spread butter on his roll. “Well, she did seem a little
upset when the convention appointed someone to . . .
to lead this . . . this new empire we’re trying
to get organized–”
He raised the
spoon to his lips. “Shadrack Smithers.”
Tildie’s husband? He’s back in town?”
Elan held up
a hand until he finished chewing. “Not that I know of.”
“But . . .
how could they appoint him if he’s not here?”
. . . it’s kind of a . . . it’s
a technical deal. No one else wanted the job, actually.”
understand why not,” Bess clucked. “But why on earth
did they pick old Mr. Smithers? Why–”
They heard the
back door whisk open and click shut.
Bess was on her feet. “Is that you? Come and have supper.”
not hungry,” came a muffled reply.
into the dining room, honey. We’d like to talk to you.”
teenager appeared in the doorway. Her gray hoodie was damp and
disheveled from a passing evening shower. The liner beneath her
dark eyes was smudged. “What?”
home in the rain? In the dark? Why didn’t you wait for your
father to give you a ride?”
at him, then turned back to her mother. “I wanted to be alone.”
wrong?” Bess moved over to help her take off the damp sweatshirt,
but Katie stepped back. “What is it, honey?”
knows.” She glared at her father. “Why don’t
you ask him.”
on there–” Elan rose.
coming back!” Katie snapped. “Didn’t you know
coming back?” Bess asked.
makes you think he’s coming back?” Elan wore a false
I talked to that farmer he was staying with. Diesler. That’s
how I know.”
coming back?” Bess repeated.
You called Kieferville again? What’d this Diesler say?”
in Elan’s eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
we weren’t, like, talking that much, were we, Dad?”
in earth is going on here?” Bess demanded, glancing from
one to the other. “What does Mr. Smithers have to do–”
Mother. He likes to be called ‘Shadrack’.” Katie
faced her father. “And you were making fun of him.
I saw you!”
wasn’t. You weren’t even there to hear my whole presentation–”
I heard enough of it. You were making a big joke out of Shadrack.
And putting him in harms way. Just for a laugh.”
of Bristlecone! Oh my god! What kind of a joke is that
supposed to be? Like, give me a break!”
He reached to
take his daughter by the shoulders. “Now you listen to me,
free and pushed her hands against his chest. “Leave me alone.”
She took a step toward her room, then pivoted, snatched a key
off the peg by the back door, and fled out into the dewy darkness.
going on between the two of you?”
to turn away, “I’ll go talk to her–”
Bess caught his wrist. “What the hell is going on
here? Talk to me, Elan. This has been going on ever since
I got back from Portland. But now it’s getting worse. Don’t
you see? We’re losing our daughter? You’ve got to
talk to me. What happened while I was away? Tell me! And
this time I want the truth!”
They both heard
the car start.
my car,” Bess yelped. “She’s not supposed to
be driving by herself.” Bess hurried through the laundry
room and pulled open the back door in time to see the taillights
disappearing up the driveway. “Especially not at night.
Her provisional permit doesn’t allow–”
“Her instruction permit was issued by the State of California.
Guess she doesn’t figure she needs a permit to drive here
CRISSY WOLSKI STARTLED AWAKE and sat up in bed. Had she heard
the sound of a car door slam? She thought maybe she had. She glanced
at the red numerals of the bedside clock. It was 2:32 in the morning
and all was quiet except for Michal’s husky breathing. Maybe
she had dreamed the sound. But she had to pee anyway, so it wouldn’t
hurt to go downstairs and check it out. As she swung her feet
onto the cold wooden floor, Michal stirred and rolled onto his
back, but continued snoring lightly beneath the down comforter.
Crissy wiggled her feet into wooly moccasins, wrapped herself
in her heavy robe, and padded over to the window. In the moonlit
yard outside everything appeared still and peaceful. And perfectly
She slid her
hand down the thick banister as she descended the stairs toward
the hallway. Halfway down, a shadow moved across the pebbled glass
window of the front door. She froze between steps. A key tick-ticked
against the front door lock, then rattled inside. She held her
breath, her heart suddenly hammering. The lock clicked and the
door swung open to silhouette the shape of a man against the pale
glow of moonlight. The form was bent and featureless and moved
in slow jerks like the elderly. He lurched into the house.
The man in the
doorway jerked upright and squealed something incoherent.
and pounded her way back up the stairs, but she tripped on the
last riser and ended up crawling into the bedroom. “Turn
on the light,” she panted as she slammed the door shut with
her feet. “There’s a man in our house!”
on the lamp and stood befuddled beside the bed, blinking between
dream and wakefulness. His mussed dirty-blond hair stood out on
his scalp as if in confusion. “A man . . . wha
. . .?”
Yes. And I don’t know who the hell he is.” She dumped
his clothes from the straight-back chair and tried to wrestle
it beneath the doorknob.
you . . . that scream?”
it was me. Call 911!”
Michal fumbled up the phone and held it to his ear. “Still
dead,” he pronounced. “Ever since the roadblock. Remember?”
your cell phone?”
He pointed to his pants which she had dumped onto the floor.
She dug the
phone out of a pocket and flipped it open and punched in the three
numbers. There was a long silence before a pattern of beeps dissolved
into a mechanical voice that said, “I’m sorry, but
the number you have dialed is no longer in service. If you feel
you have reached this message in–”
it shut and moaned, “What’re we gonna do?”
the foyer the Emperor of Bristlecone, uncoronated and unadvised,
fumbled for the light switch, but his fingers didn’t recognize
the rotary knob which had replaced the old-fashion toggle switch
they were feeling for. Finally he managed to punch on the hall
light, but everything looked different in the multiple glows of
a candelabra fixture where a bare 40-watt bulb used to hang. The
walls had been papered over with of a dull cream-and-yellow pattern
of repeating haystacks. And the floor . . . new speckled
linoleum now covered the bare boards beneath his feet. His nose
wrinkled at the sweet, flowery aroma of clothes-drier sheets which
perfumed the air. Fatigued and irritated from the long drive,
he was sorely perplexed and annoyed. Who’re these folks
in m’ house? Shadrack wanted to know. An’ whut’ve
door upstairs creaked open and a man’s faux-bold voice demanded,
“Who are you?”
I? Who’m I? That ain’t the real question now,
is it? Who’re you?”
is our house. Go away before I call the police.”
“Go’wan an’ call ’em. This here’s
my house, an’ you’s a’trespassin’
on my prop’ty.”
The voice upstairs
was silent for a moment, then asked, “Smithers?”
. . . ah . . . we rented your farm,”
Michal Wolski announced sheepishly. He stepped out onto the landing
in his red flannel pajamas. “Didn’t you know?”
. . . it was . . . we leased it from that
accountant fella in town. Graves, I think, is his name.”
came an angry female voice behind Michal. “Elan Groves.”
Crissy squeezed her husband aside. Her dark brown tresses flowed
down the shoulders of her robe, and her striking green eyes blazed
angrily. “Don’t you even know when your own farm’s
been rented out? And we been payin’ our good money for rent.
You near scared me to death jus’ now. Now you get outta
here and leave us be before we call the police.”
stunned in the foyer. He seemed to deflate, to collapse in upon
himself, mumbling, “He rented it out? Elan done rented out
m’farm? Now what’m I ’sposed t’do?”
himself halfway down the steps. “Have you come far?”
he asked gently.
a’drivin’ . . . two days . . .
me’be more like three . . . an’ I ain’t
slept much a’tall.” He began to tremble. “He
rented it to ya, y’say?”
sir. Where do you plan to stay tonight?”
shook his head.
Crissy snapped. “What are you doing? This man frightened
on, Chrissy. Lighten up. He didn’t know we were here.”
He descended the rest of the stairway.
y’got it rented fur?” Shadrack asked.
is for one year,” Michal replied.
first to August first.”
Groves led us to believe that we’d be able to renew it from
year to year. He said you weren’t planning on coming back.”
you care for something to eat, Mr. Smithers?”
a bowl of oatmeal, Shadrack . . . or maybe some toast
He nearly scared me to death!”
and asked softly, “Do you remember what we were reading
about last week? In that little Zen book of yours? Do you?”
He nodded and
seemed to relax. “Now come along, Shadrack. I’ll show
you how we’ve fixed up the kitchen and find you something
to eat.” He took the old man gently by the arm. “We
can set you up for tonight in the guest room. It’s still
being remodeled, but it’s clean, and Crissy can put sheets
on the bed.” He nodded to his wife, then turned back to
the old man. “I know we’ve got us a bit of a problem
here . . . but I think we’ll work it out. Don’t
As Michal was
putting water on to boil, the doorbell chimed.
Shadrack wanted to know.
Michal told him.
got no doorbell.”
now. Crissy and I put one in.”
into the kitchen. “Who’d be ringing our doorbell at
this time of night?”
his head. “Let’s go and find out.”
On the front
stoop Katie Groves stood abashed, bedraggled, and shivering. “I’m
sorry to bother you . . . but I saw that pickup truck
pull in and park outside . . . and I saw your lights
come on . . . and . . . and I was wondering–”
past the somber couple confronting her. “Shadrack!”
as I live and breathe,” the old man marveled. “What’er
you a’doin’ here?”
her way past the doorkeepers and threw her arms around the old
man. “I came to see you. You made it back! Thank God for
Groves, if I’m not mistaken,” said Michal, extending
his hand. “We met once at your father’s place.”
Yes. I remember. How are you and your wife making out, Mr. Wolski?”
you here?” Crissy demanded.
I . . . ah . . . need to talk to Shadrack.
I was waiting for him out by your mailbox. It’s important.”
“Shadrack was about to have a bowl of oatmeal. And he’s
tired from his long drive. It might be better if you came back
in the morning.”
Katie hung her
head. “I’ve . . . got nowhere to go tonight.”
you just go back home?” Crissy snorted. “Come back
in the morning?”
her bent head. “I have a sleeping bag in the car. I guess
I can finish the night out there–”
up her hands in exasperation. “Michal? Are there no limits
to this compassion thing?”
“You read it yourself. True compassion is limitless.”
He turned to Katie. “The sofa downstairs is available. You
look like you could use a bite to eat too, young lady. Guess I
could mix up a batch of pancakes. Whadda ya think, Crissy?”
NOT NEARLY AS MANY TOWNSFOLK showed up for the second noon meeting
the following day. So they decided to set up folding tables in
a rectangular configuration for those who wanted to participate
eye to eye, with chairs behind for the spectators and kibitzers.
A group of farm workers from the valley, many of them undocumented,
asked for and received a seat at the table. They selected Raul
Gutierrez to represent them.
Kearns called the adjourned meeting to order. “Now,”
he croaked, coughed, cleared his throat, and spat into a wad of
tissue. “Now . . . let’s see here. We got
ourselves a number a’things on the agenda. Let’s see.
Ted Tollitson wants t’talk about settin’ up a farmer’s
co-op t’grow what we can for the folks in this valley. Mr.
Gutierrez will prob’ly want t’be a part a’ that
discussion.” He shuffled his notes. “An’ we’re
gonna need some kinda board t’regulate prices on near-abouts
everythin’ folks need, with authority t’enforce price
regulations.” He glanced up and found Moray Willits’
face in the audience. “But I think the first item of business
has got to be all the complaints we’ve been getting about
the prices at the grocery store. Seems like they been going way
up the last few days. Elan, I’m gonna let you take over
this inquiry as Finance Minister. Before my voice gives out for
you, Mr. Director,” Elan replied. “Moray, you might
want to join us up here at the table to explain exactly what’s
called from the chairs in back, “He’s been jackin’
up his prices ’cause we got no place else t’shop,
is what’s a’goin’ on.”
getting pretty steep,” Mrs. Banke agreed.
chimed in with grunts and nods.
Moray Willits found an empty chair across from Director Kearns.
He was a plump man in his late forties with shiny skin and a bald
head. He was still wearing his dark blue grocer’s apron
over Levi’s and a gray sweater. “It’s a supply
problem,” he mumbled. “Not really your business, I
“We’ll be the one’s t’decide if it’s
any a our business, Moray–” but he froze in mid-sentence,
staring the length of the room.
to follow his gaze. Through the front door stepped Bess Groves,
who most everyone knew from teaching their children, followed
by her daughter Katie. Katie was holding the door for a skinny
old ghost of a man in an oversize pair of clean overalls, bewhiskered
and limping behind her.
I’ll be . . .” Kearns croaked. He turned
a questioning eye toward Elan, who was staring at his hands in
his lap. Kearns managed a twisted smile as he stood. “Shadrack!
Welcome back. Good t’see ya made it home.”
Horace.” Shadrack minced his way up the aisle toward the
front table, with Katie in his wake. Bess hung back and found
I guess you heard about yer being appointed yeste’day, have
ya?” Kearns asked.
sir. Katie tol’ me all ’bout it jus’ this mornin’.
An’ ya kin jus’ fancy my surprise.”
I guess so.” Kearns forced a hoarse laugh as he steadied
himself against the table. “Now . . . I imagine
. . . now that yer back . . . an’ with
all that farm work ya gotta catch up on . . . well . . .
I imagine yer prob’ly gonna tell us . . . yer
gonna have to . . . well . . . refuse the
appointment . . . am I right? But we’ll all un’erstan’
. . . under the circumstances . . . a’course
Shadrack announced proudly as he reached the table. “I’s
mighty proud a you all bestowin’ this honor on me. An’
I accept it. I got the time. An’ I got the spirit. An’
I got an advisor.” He nodded at Katie. “So I’s
a’gonna take it on. Now, where do I sit?”
Kearns offered Shadrack his seat and took another one further
down the side.
obliged, Horace. An’ kin one a‘ya make a space fer
Miss Katie Groves t’sit b’side me. Thank ya. Now y’all
go on where y’was a’fore I come in. I’ll jus’
follow along ’til I catch the drift.” Katie whispered
something in Shadrack’s ear. Sheepishly he grinned his gap-toothed
smile when he asked, “Say, Horace, what’s this here
job a’payin’ me?”
. . . we ain’t figgered that out yet.”
He looked to Elan for help.
But Elan just
shrugged. “All the phones are still dead, and I haven’t
received my travel visa yet, so I haven’t been able to talk
to anyone at the county or at the bank to see how much money we’ve
got. Or how much we’ve got coming. But I guess I’d
like to know the answer to Shadrack’s question myself.”
yer workin’ fer free fer now,” Kearns said to Shadrack.
“Y’wanna quit, maybe?”
Shadrack shook his head.
I guess we’ll work us up a budget later on. But ain’t
you gettin’ social security, anyhow?”
The old man
shrugged. “Don’ rightly know. Haven’t checked
m’bank account o’er’n Alturas fer all the months
I been gone.”
The long silence
that followed was broken by Elan Groves. “Anyway, it’s
nice to see you, Shadrack. I look forward to hearing about your
trip.” He glanced down at a sheet of paper. “In my
capacity of Finance Minister, I was about to ask Mr. Willits some
questions about the sharp rise in prices at his grocery store.”
Shadrack,” Willits grinned. “Good t’see ya back.
I was jus’ a’tellin’ Horace here I got a supply
problem, an’ it’s not really anybody’s business
but my own.”
Elan spoke to
Shadrack. “May I continue?”
his head, embarrassed by the formality. “Go on. Don’
to Willits. “Maybe it is our business, Mr. Willits.
Now, a number of folks saw you unloading crates of food from that
General Services trailer truck this morning. The big semi, I understand.
Didn’t that come outta Alturas?”
of. But there’s still a lotta other stuff I still gotta
buy and bring in . . .” Willits’ voice trailed
wholesalers charging you higher prices now, compared to what they
were charging before the blockade?” Elan asked.
“Some of ’em might be. I’d have ta check the
invoices, I guess.”
know right offhand?”
not exactly . . .”
know enough to substantially increase your own retail prices.
Is that right?”
unnerstan’. It’s complicated–”
Kearns broke in, “If I was you I’d stop talkin’
right now before y’make a whole lotta other good folks in
this room mad. We can have our Finance Minister look over your
jus’ hold on,” Willits protested. “You got no
right t’look at my books. I got rights.”
“Under what law, Moray?”
Willits sputtered. “I got a fundamental right t’make
me a livin’–”
living, Moray. Now just stop talkin’ an’ listen up
a minute. We ain’t disputin’ yer right t’make
a livin’ for yourself. We all want that, don’t we
There were a
few ambiguous grunts from the assemblage.
gotta eat in this strange situation we fin’ ourselves in.
An’ we gotta be fair to everybody. Ya unnerstan’?”
He coughed and spat into his tissue before nodding to Elan to
take back the reins.
Elan said, “no one’s disputing your right to enjoy
a fair return on your business investment and labor. It benefits
the community as well as yourself. But we need to assure the community
that your return is a fair one, and to do that we will
need to examine your ledger of costs and expenses–”
my dead body!”
Katie felt Shadrack
shudder at the image.
the grocer silently for a moment. “You understand that if
you don’t cooperate, our first option would be to open a
community store to compete with yours. Selling the same commodities,
and probably more, with open books and fair prices. I understand
the Cressler & Bonner building might be available.”
do that! An’ steal my good customers? That’s communism!”
we can’t,” growled Director Kearns. “There ain’t
no law around here no more, ’cept what this convention says
there is. Bristlecone law.”
customers will shop where the values are best for them,”
Elan continued. “Now, we want to work with you, Mr.
Willits, and we want you to have a reasonable profit to
live on. We would prefer to continue using your suppliers and
wholesalers, as long as their charges are fair. They’ve
already got free passage through the checkpoints. But if we can’t
work this out with you, with full and open disclosure to my department
and the public, then we, as a community, will have to arrange
to supply the public with what they need and demand. That’s
what government does.”
of applause rose from the audience.
Willits pleaded, sweating. “They can’t do this!
You’re the man they put in charge here. An’ you’re
a businessman. A farmer. Tell ’em they gotta stop interferein’
with m’private business right here an’ now!”
All eyes turned
to the grizzled old man with the wild bushy salt-and-pepper beard
and unkempt hair. The man whom they had bizarrely appointed emperor.
Whatever that meant. Shadrack glanced at Katie beside him. She
smiled and nodded encouragement. He wrestled over the situation
in his mind for so long that a few people began to wonder if he
had even heard. Finally he drew himself up, took a breath, pursed
his lips, and turned toward Moray Willits. “I seen enough
dead bodies in my time, Moray,” he said. “An’
you sure don’t want t’be one of ’em.”
People exchanged puzzled looks. Shadrack continued, “I been
a’doin’ business with ya fer a long time . . .
an’ I can bear witness ta yer bein’ a good man at
heart.” He paused to let the words sink in. “But I
think you oughta go on an’ roll back yer prices t’what
they was last week. Right now. All by y’self.” He
nodded finality. “An’ if y’be needin’
t’up any of ’em . . . well . . .
you just talk ta Elan Groves here, an’ show ’im why
y’gotta do it.”
what if he don’t agree?” Willits demanded.
. . . ,” Shadrack considered the problem seriously,
“well . . . the two of ya can bring it t’me,
an’ I’ll take a look.” Again he nodded, then
thought some more. “Things’s gonna be a’changin’
perty fast, I reckon.” He looked Willits in the eye. “Right
now you’s one a’us. But ever’body gotta eat,
like Horace says. An’ you sure don’t wanna be on the
wrong side a’ this if’n she gets worse.” He
sat back in his chair, finished.
A ripple of
applause rose again, this time joined by those seated around the
ELAN HAD GOTTEN THERE EARLY and was waiting on the front steps
of Willy Baxter’s office when the lawyer arrived the next
morning. Elan wanted to go over some things before the others
showed up. “Morning, Willy.”
“Oh . . .
Elan. You startled me.”
mean to. You know, don’t you, that you’ve been appointed
Chief Justice of the Bristlecone Court.”
his head. He was a stocky fireplug of a man, energetic, shorter
than Elan, gray at the temples, but not as pale as his nearing-retirement
years deserved. He looked to have a lot of career left in him
“That’s what old Horace Kearns told me when he stopped
by the other day.”
did you say to it?”
him I’druther serve as Attorney General.”
General? Huh . . . well . . . who’d
take the job of Chief Justice then?”
Marty Hoover’s name to him. He’s been retired up on
his ranch for years. Up near Fort Bidwell. Put in fifty years
before the bar, he did, and he was a damn good lawyer in his day.”
met him, but . . . isn’t he kind of old now?”
eighties, I guess, but he’s still sharp as a razor. I drove
up and talked to him day before yesterday.” Baxter nodded
gravely. “Said he’d do it, of course. Didn’t
really want to, but he’s been following the situation, and,
I can say this for him, he’s still got a strong sense of
civic duty. Doesn’t expect many cases to come before him
“So . . .
you’re going to be Attorney General?”
says he’ll bring it up before the convention next time.
And you’re Finance Minister, I hear.”
Margaret.” Baxter stepped aside to let his secretary unlock
the front door.
can come on inside, you know. Looks like we might be getting some
snow pretty soon.”
lowered his voice to Elan after the door shut behind her. “Are
any of us going to get paid?”
so. I just got my Pacific Coast visa in the mail, so I was planning
to drive over to Alturas when we get finished with this meeting.
Try and find out whether we’ve got any money.” Baxter
reached for the door handle, but Elan caught his arm. “About
this meeting . . . I just wanted to give you a heads-up
before everyone shows up–”
car swung around the corner and whisked up to the curb. Katie
was in the driver’s seat, and Shadrack rode shotgun. The
Wolskis were in back. Molly was not aboard.
early,” Elan grumbled as they climbed out.
just play’er by ear when they get inside.” Baxter
slapped Elan on the shoulder and turned to greet the new arrivals.
“Howdy Katie,” he waved. He held open his office door
and one by one welcomed his clients inside.
room was small and windowless. It had room for only four at the
narrow trestle table, so Shadrack, Michal and Crissy Wolski, and
the lawyer sat, while Katie and her father remained standing on
opposite sides of the doorway. After they had settled in and orders
for coffee were tallied by Margaret, Crissy Wolski seized the
initiative. She explained that the existing lease, as written
and executed, was not going to work out. She and Michal had put
a lot of work and money into remodeling the farmhouse and installing
a new irrigation system and planting fruit trees and grape vines
on the agent’s representation and their good-faith belief
that they would be able to stay there for a lot longer than one
lousy year. And then Shadrack had showed up out of the blue, needing
a place to stay.
The lawyer put
down the copy of the lease he had been perusing. “So, what
do you have in mind?”
to buy the farm,” Crissy told him.
Michal lay his
hand on her arm. “Actually, it’s a little more complicated
than that. You see, we want to live there . . . and
to work the farm . . . and at the same time provide
Shadrack with a place to stay.”
farm, you mean?”
sir. For as long as he wants to. And we want to work the land
together. All of us. And share the fruits of our labors.”
over at Elan. “You signed the original lease as Shadrack’s
attorney-in-fact. Do you approve of this? ”
is the first I’ve heard of it.” Elan took his time.
“Sounds a lot to me like one of those old hippie commune
about what I thought you’d say,” Katie scolded from
across the empty doorway.
been helping them figure out this . . . this goofy . . .
this scam?” Elan’s voice was rising.
intervened between the two. “Let’s just see what the
clients want to do, okay? If you two want to fight a personal
battle, you can take it outside. We’ll wait.”
Father and daughter
hung their heads. “Sorry,” Elan said. “Go ahead.”
himself back down in his chair. He picked up his pen and turned
to Shadrack. “Now . . . how much do you plan on
selling the place for?”
Shadrack fidgeted. “Ain’t really thought ’bout
How would you value the lodging you will be receiving?”
Don’ guess I know. Reckon we’ll figger somethin’
about board? Will you all be eating together?”
much thought ’bout it.”
. . . how about working the farm? How do you plan to
divide the profits?”
uncomfortably towards Elan, who offered no help. “Unh. Don’
rightly know. They’s got ’emselves these . . .
on their computer . . . some kinda sheets –”
“Arr . . .
showed me a couple of ’em . . . tells ’em
what to plant an’ jus’ when. Now, I’s jus’
a ordinary ol’ time dirt farmer . . . but I knows
the soil out thar . . . an’ I reckon if’n
they got somethin’ they want planted . . . well
. . . I kin make it grow.”
never been much a’that.”
his pen and exhaled. With a wry smile he turned to Michal and
Crissy. “How about just adopting this old fella as a surrogate
grandfather? Might save us all a whole lotta paperwork.”
do that?” Crissy asked.
joking,” Michal explained.
the whole morning long. The lawyer asked questions, offered suggestions,
and made notes on his yellow pad. Katie and her father, without
making eye contact with the other, would occasionally make a comment
or ask a question. But Shadrack and the Wolskis did their own
bargaining. At Baxter’s prompting, they considered a lease-option,
an enhanced power of attorney, a conditional sale contract, a
grant deed with reservation of a life estate, limited liability
partnerships, a mutual operating agreement, living trusts, and
a simple irrevocable will. Elan grew restless from all the legalize.
He wanted to be on his way to Alturas and resolve what he considered
more important issues, but he stayed on until a preliminary understanding
was reached and the next meeting was scheduled to review the documents
the lawyer would draft.
probably going to want to draft a revocation of my power of attorney,
too,” Elan told the lawyer as he pulled on his overcoat.
Shadrack objected. “Who’s gonna look after my side
a’things fer me if’n ya quit on me now?”
like you already got another advisor.” Elan tilted his head
toward his daughter.
I do,” Shadrack said. “But I’m a’gonna
need both a’ya, So’s we kin work like a team
silence passed before Katie said, “I’d like that.”
then,” Elan agreed. “But I’ve got to get over
to Alturas right now. Got a lot to do there.”
THEY CAME TO TAKE HIM AWAY five days before Christmas. Two inches
of snow had fallen on the long driveway leading down to Shadrack’s
farmhouse, but recent muddy tire tracks marked the way. The two
men climbed out of an SUV, which was unmarked except for the faint
shadow of Border Patrol lettering bleeding through the new paint
job. Both wore gray uniforms under heavy brown open parkas with
Homeland Security patches on the shoulders and pistols in holsters
on their service belts. A third man, in back behind the security
screen, did not attempt to join them.
On the way to
the front door Agent Vince Blaylock, the shorter, stouter, and
older of the two, pulled from an inside coat pocket the booking
photographs of their quarry and handed it to his lanky junior
partner. “Butch,” he said, “keep your eyes open.
He shouldn’t be too tough to spot. Now you step over there
and give me cover.”
until his partner was in place, then rang the doorbell and waited
some more. After a while the door opened and he was confronted
by an attractive, brown-haired, green-eyed young woman in navy
blue warmups and a dirty apron. “Yes?” she asked,
ma’am. We’re looking for Shadrack Smithers,”
he at?” Vince pressed.
the two men for a moment. Registered their shoulder patches and
holstered firearms. Pursed her lips. Turned to call her husband,
then remembered he was out with the cows. She grimaced. “He
might be over at the Senior Center.”
that, Ma’am? In Cedarville?”
in Cedarville? Downtown?”
Again she nodded,
if we have a look around inside?”
of fact, I do.” She slammed the door in his face.
we gonna do now, Vince? Y’think she’s telling us the
and stepped down off the porch. “Probably. Don’t matter
all that much. We already bagged our main target. This guy’s
just a TWP.”
Without Permit’?” Butch asked as they crossed the
ripples of drifted snow.
it. You’re picking up the lingo, kid. Just takes time. Don’t
worry about it.”
“So . . .
we’re going over to this Senior Center?”
as well, long as we’re here. If we can find it. Then we’ll
head on back, one way or the other. And even if we don’t
nab this Smithers,” Vince added with a nasty smirk, “word’ll
get out and put the fear of God into the sucker for the rest of
The Senior Center
was not hard to find. The low, square building had a sign and
stood on Main Street at the far corner of the first commercial
block. But parking appeared to be a challenge. They wanted the
SUV close at hand. So Vince double-parked until a pickup backed
out of one of the diagonal spaces in front of the market a half-block
farther down, then wheeled the SUV into the vacated space. Both
men glanced at each other, nodded, grunted, and climbed out.
man,” said the prisoner in back, “I gotta take a piss.
their doors without bothering to respond, then walked slowly back
up the sidewalk, getting their bearings, trying not to draw attention,
and stood outside the Senior Center searching the crowd inside
through the latticed windows. “See anything?” Vince
“No . . .
,” Butch replied. “. . . no . . .
wait . . . that’s him.”
Sitting at the big table. Right in the middle. That’s Smithers,
isn’t it? See him?”
It took Vince
a moment to spot him. “That’s him alright. Good job.”
we gonna get him outta there, Vince?”
for a while. “We go in together. I’ll wait inside
the door and cover you. You walk on up to Smithers, flash your
badge, and tell him we want to talk with him outside right now.
Right now. Don’t let him balk. Make it quick. Before these
rubes figure out what’s going on.”
the plan. Nodded. “You gonna draw your firearm?”
if I have to. Once we get him outside, we shouldn’t have
around. Faced each other again. Each drew a deep breath and exhaled.
“Let’s go get him,” Vince said.
not surprised. Not really. It was he who had started the ball
rolling, back there in Kieferville, and deep down inside he figured
they would come for him sooner or later. It was just the timing
of it all that unsettled him. He was of course prepared to go
with them. That was what he wanted all along. Or what he had
wanted anyway. At least before he had received absolution from
the good Reverend Martin Blythe. And before he had been vouchsafed
his commission and his charge from this Bristlecone convention
to perform the good deeds necessary to help save a foundering
community. So now he was suddenly conflicted. But he rose anyway
and went willingly with this stranger holding the Homeland Security
badge, in order to buy a little time to think things through.
Things that were happening so fast.
They made it
through the silent mob of stunned conventioneers without objection.
Vince led them out the front door. Onto the sidewalk. Vince’s
face shone with perspiration. “Turn around and put your
hands behind your back,” he ordered.
about it for a moment as onlookers began to file out behind them.
“Wha’chou plannin’ on arrestin’ me fur?”
his upper arm with a pincer grip and twisted his shoulder back.
“I told you to turn around.”
somebody hollered, “stop that!”
police brutality!” another growled.
back!” Vince warned, one hand on his holster and the other
on Shadrack’s arm. His eyes scanned the gawkers as if he
were taking names.
like the drift of this,” Horace Kearns croaked to Elan Groves
as they crossed the lawn together. “Look. Over by the market.
That must be their car.”
know he was coming back,” Elan said. “I honestly did
your fault. We all did this together–” Suddenly Kearns
spotted the snowplow coming up the highway. “Delbert!”
he shouted to his cousin and waved for him to stop. For years
his cousin had run the snowplow for the county, when there was
a county to run it for. It was just a big hydraulic-powered steel
plow blade bolted to the front of a county ten-ton dump truck
filled with cinders and salt. He was just bringing it down from
the county equipment barn in anticipation of the first big snow
of the season. Kearns stepped up on the running board and pointed
at the erstwhile Border Patrol SUV by the market. “They’re
tryin’ t’take Shadrack away. We’re prob’ly
gonna need your plow.”
have to ask why. He shifted gears and the rig growled around the
corner to circle the block and turn around.
In the meantime
Willy Baxter had pushed through to the front of the growing throng.
“Have you got a warrant to extradite this man?”
him, bending and strapping the plastic flex cuffs around Shadrack’s
crossed wrists. He angily jerked them secure.
Attorney General of this–”
the fuck up! You’re interfering with an arrest.” Vince
turned his back and began frog-marching his prisoner toward the
SUV, while keeping a wary eye on the surly, growing crowd.
got no authority here,” Baxter persisted, pressing close
behind him. “Zero. This is an independent nation and you
cannot . . . cannot . . . rendition
our President like this. Or anybody else. It’s a violation
of international law.” He raised his voice. “Do
you hear me? You’re violating our law!”
him. “Butch! Get the door open! An’ keep an eye on
your name, officer?” Baxter demanded. “And what authority
do you claim to have here?”
the rear door and waited until Vince pushed Shadrack roughly inside
with a mumbled “Watch you head.” Then Vince pulled
his pistol and spun on Baxter. “Does this look like
authority enough for you, buster?”
The crowd fell
silent. A few people edged back in fright. Others pressed defiantly
closer, filling the air with indignant epithets. But a few of
the farmers started for their pickups to get their shotguns. And
their rifles. And their handguns.
back!” Vince ordered, brandishing the pistol and squeezing
around the front to the driver-side door. “You’re
all interfering with a lawful arrest.” He pulled open the
driver’s door, climbed inside, and with trembling fingers
managed to start the engine.
folks behind you,” Butch cautioned. “Want me t’get
out and shoo’em away?”
where you are. I’ve got this.” In the rearview mirror
Vince saw people milling around behind the vehicle. He revved
the engine a few times in warning, then eased the shift into reverse.
The SUV began to inch backward at a slow crawl, nudging legs and
bodies away behind the bumper. Vince’s face glistened with
sweat. He sure as hell didn’t want to run anyone over. Way
too much paperwork in that. And an investigation. Probably loss
of pay. But he was making a slow progress. Suddenly the people
behind began to open a path. “They’re givin’
up,” he smirked.
flashed and bright high beams glared in his mirror. Vince couldn’t
see what it was. With a clunk the snowplow engaged the rear bumper,
lifting and pushing the SUV back to its original place against
the high concrete curb.
Vince barked and thumped the steering wheel. “They can’t
do that. We can have all their asses tossed in jail.”
A long silence
followed as their situation began to sink in.
I radio in for backup?” Butch asked his partner.
“Nobody’s gonna send backup way out here unless we’re
dead. And even then they might not.” He shook his head.
“No, we’re gonna have to get outta this jam on our
own. Any ideas?”
A jolt of relief
shot through Shadrack, who had not been able to keep his mind
from toying with the mechanics of escape. But escape from what?
From this ridiculous car? From the absurd conflict between the
things he felt obliged to do and the things he no longer wanted
to do? Something odd was going on in his mind. His hands had gone
numb and his wrists burned where the plastic ties bit the flesh.
He felt the pain, yes, but it no longer seemed to be his
pain. It haunted him from a distance. Far away, as if from tilted,
intersecting plains. A convergence of valley floors, where separate
rivers merged. A whole geography of vast intersecting plains of
intention and meaning. Shadrack began to chuckle. Slowly at first,
from deep in his belly, then higher in his chest, and finally
in his throat. Because he saw Tildie laughing. She was always
so quick to laugh and to bring sunlight and singing into his life.
She was laughing at him now, without a hint of malice, for the
ridiculous situation he had gotten himself into. They were laughing
together. It was such a beautiful laughter. In that moment he
no longer felt the grief nor the guilt nor the sadness of her
loss, but something joyful and enduring. And suddenly, after all
those years, he understood the meaning of her laughter.
beside him had drawn back warily into the corner. “Yo . . .
Viejo . . . chou okay? ” he asked.
his gaze to his companion for the first time. The man was in his
late twenties or early thirties. Brown skin. Stubble of beard.
Tattoo on his wiry neck. Mexican probably. Shadrack was flashing
him one of his rare gap-toothed grins. When the laughter had subsided
enough for him to catch his breath, he replied, “Creo
bueno,” the man grinned back. “You laughin’
or cryin’, amigo?”
his head,. “Cain’t say, I reckon. Lo mismo.”
yer name?” Shadrack asked.
frowned, examining Shadrack up and down before his expression
they pick you up.”
The man showed
a span of white teeth. “Chou ask a lotta questions, Viejo.”
Shadrack said, still grinning.
bien. ’S’all right. They claim I sellin’
it down back there,” Vince snapped. “We’re tryin’
t’think.” He turned to his partner. “I think
we might be able to climb over that curb.”
out the window. “It’s pretty high.”
“What’ve we got to loose?” He switched the transmission
into four-wheel drive and downshifted to low low. “Hold
on, here we go.” The engine roared, the carriage strained,
and the right front wheel began to climb.
The SUV jumped and settled onto the rim of its shredded right
growled Vince. “Now we’re really fucked.” He
swung around and yelled at Shadrack. “Tell your pals to
stop damaging government property. Or they’re all gonna
be shot.” He buzzed down Shadrack’s window a few inches.
his eyes with the goofy grin still on his face. “Don’
see as how y’gonna manage t’shoot ’em all. Folks
out thar, they all got shotguns a’their own, y’know.
An’ huntin’ rifles. Matter a’fac’, Chamber
puts on a big squirrel roundup ever’ spring, so they got
a lotta practice usin’em.”
out on Vince’s jaw as he ground his teeth. “Well,
how about I just shoot you then.”
grin widened. “G’won ahead. An’ see whut happens.”
The other rear tire was gone.
his face to the window opening. “Hey! Stop a’shootin’
out them tires!” he yelled. “An’ somebody call
Gunter over at the tire shop. He’s gonna have t’change
lanky figure emerged from the cluster. “Y’mean ya
want us to replace the tires? Why would we do that?”
ya gonna send these fellas on their way, Horace?”
into a tissue and nodded. “Good point.”
’im change the tires soon’s they let me go.”
gonna let ya go?”
If they wanna drive away from here, they is.”
whose gonna pay for them tires?” Kearns asked.
Shadrack pronounced. “We’ll spend some’a that
money Elan’s ’bout t’bring in. Gunter’ll
take a IOU.”
down Butch’s window and leaned over. “Go ahead and
change the tires,” he called, “and back that plow
off . . . and we’ll consider letting Mr. Smithers
the front window. “Now you sure don’t seem to have
much respect for our intelligence, do ya? You go on an’
let him go first, and then we’ll consider changing
didn’t last long. The Homeland Security boys had no chips
left to play, and they knew it. The town folks could bide their
time all day long. All Vince and Butch could hope to win was their
vehicle back in operating condition. At least they would have
Rodriguez to show for their troubles. And, of course, their own
cracked the passenger door, eased himself out, and sidled along
the side of the SUV to unlatch the back door. Folks stepped back
to make room. He pulled the door open and reached inside to help
the wrist-bound Shadrack climb out. When Shadrack’s feet
were planted on solid ground, Butch bent to retrieve the bracelet
cutters from a cargo pocket of his pants. Rodriguez seized his
chance. With surprising agility and power he sprang forward, bolting
out and into Shadrack’s scrawny chest, caroming the old
man into the half-open door, which flew back into Butch’s
face, toppling him backwards. Rodriguez dove out, crashed into
the crowd and disappeared into the sea of onlookers.
that man!” Vince hollered, but without daring to open his
own door. “He’s a prisoner of the United States government.”
No one made
any effort to restrain Rodriguez or pursue him.
the poor guy do?” a ribald voice called from the crowd.
“Look a’chew th’wrong way?”
to enjoy the comment. Two bystanders helped Butch to his feet.
His nose was bloodied and possibly broken, but he was still trying
to fish the cutters out of his pocket. Ted Tollitson stepped up
and pressed his bandanna against the man’s bleeding nose.
“Somebody see if Emma’s still in back. She’s
got some medical training for the senior program. And help me
get this man over there on the bench where she can take a look
at him. I’ll cut off Shadrack’s cuffs.” He pulled
his lock-back knife from its scabbard on his belt and bent to
saw through the restraints.
crowd cleared the way and oversaw Gunter’s ballet of quick
tire change artistry. The citizens were riled and working themselves
up into a frenzy, feeding on their own outrage and indignity.
To them this was personal. When California had tossed them out
like so much garbage, they had pulled together and elected their
own leader. And now a couple of brazen armed thugs from who knows
where had been dispatched to interfere in their local affairs.
With their sacred right of self-determination. With their sovereignty.
In the streets outside the Senior Center they watched as an armada
of pickup trucks converged to escort their uninvited guests out
of town and across the playa, and then, squinting into the distance,
witnessed their banishment onto the rough gravel roads of western
Nevada. Cheers arose and a couple of shotguns were discharged
into the air.
Inside the Senior
Center the mood was somber and edgy. Shadrack’s wrists were
being slathered with an antibiotic cream and yerba buena by Emma
Hilt, the center’s self-proclaimed medical technician, nurse,
nothin,” he kept reassuring her as she fawned over him like
a baby and he squirmed to keep an eye on the crowd outside.
hol’ still,” she ordered. “Y’never did
know what fer yer own good. They should’a took more care
with ya. Imagine. And at your age–”
ain’t nothin’ wrong with my age–”
hol’ still. Think I better wrap some gauze around ’em–”
want no gauze,” Shadrack barked, jerking back both
wrists. “Thank ya, Emma, but I’s done here.”
He began to roll down the sleeves of his worn chambray work shirt.
wipe that off, y’ol’ coot, a’fore ya stain up
yer dang clothes.”
to the towel. “I surely do ’preciate what y’done
fer me here. But we gotta get this ’ere convention back
t’rush, Shadrack,” said Horace Kearns, who had been
hovering nearby. “Better to make sure you’re okay
fine, Horace. But we need t’talk this thing over . . .
all a’us . . . an’ perty quick, I reckon
. . . a’fore some a’ them young bucks ou’char
figure they kin take things inta their own hands. I know personal
well what mischief a young’n kin do with a shotgun . . .
an’ make things a whole lot worse.” He shook his head.
IT HAD BEEN A BAD DAY for the Homeland Security team. They had
managed to limp away without mortal damage and figured they could
make their way back to Winnemucca on two bald, unbalanced, previously-owned
rear tires, but without a single prisoner aboard. Butch’s
nose was not broken, at least by the primitive standards of the
Cedarville first aide volunteer, and the bleeding was finally
stopped by a roll of gauze protruding from each nostril. Oh well.
A bad day. It had happened before. Maybe not this bad,
but still . . . and now they had to cover their
sorry asses. Vince would spend most of the long drive concocting
the heroic fiction they would tell when they got back. “When
you got a lemon, ya better make lemonade,” he told his reluctant
partner. They had no intention of returning to Cedarville. Either
of them. Ever.