[I'm back at last with a new chapter of "Guns of the Border Region." New readers can scroll down for previous installments. In this chapter, some new characters are introduced, and there is some more exposition giving details about my fictional world of the future. Actually, this is not a bad place for newcomers to start, since it gives the flavor of "Guns of the Border Region" and "Twilight's Last Gleaming."]
CHAPTER FOUR -- TROUBLE IN THE ALLEGHENIES
As they passed ever deeper into the wooded hill country, it seemed to Christian as though they had entered a haunted world of fog and ghosts. It had been only a few days, but sunny skies seemed like a vague, distant memory that required an effort to grasp. Indian summer had fled like a thief in the night, leaving no trace of its passing. Fall had come at last. Leaves drifted down from half-bare trees to carpet the forest floor. Dark walls of lofty solemn pines surrounded them, eclipsing further view. Upon reaching a summit, Christian was finally able to discern the lay of the land. The Alleghenies were wholly unlike the Rocky Mountains of the far west. There were no jagged peaks or bare cliffs. He saw only tree-covered slope beyond tree-covered slope, stretching from horizon to horizon. Over all arched the ominous grey sky.
Christian was walking his bike along a narrow woodland path. Shadow rode on ahead in silent gloomy majesty. He made no attempt at banter or small talk. The setting killed any such notion, and he knew that her keen ears were alert for any sound that hinted danger. He was seeing a different side of her. No longer did she seem the lively, vivacious girl who had swaggered through the boom towns. Here she was quiet and reserved, with a touch of sadness about her. Yet Christian knew that this, too, was the real Shadow. All along he had sensed the somber core within her. Christian was the child of a warm, breezy, tolerant land. Shadow was the child of a grim one.
Although Christian was cheerful and optimistic by nature, the eternal twilight gloom of the forest was beginning to depress him. The eerie wind that sighed through the black boughs, the fog that hung in the ravines and gullies, the tiny streams that trickled silently over the rocks; all were taking their toll on his spirits and causing him to grow uncharacteristically moody. It would only get worse after dark.
Last night they had camped in these woods. Shadow had used some rat traps from her saddle bags to catch some squirrels. She had deftly skinned and cleaned them with her bowie, then roasted them over a campfire. “A little whiskey would make this an old-time Westsylvania supper,” she had told Christian.
After they had eaten, they had rolled out their sleeping bags. Christian had volunteered to take first watch. He wanted to do his part even though he knew that Shadow was a light sleeper, and any unusual sound would instantly rouse her and Incitatus. Christian sat alone by the fire while she slept. The overcast sky shut out the light of the moon and stars. Beyond the glare of the campfire, all was utter blackness. The silence of the night woods was relieved only by the far-off hooting of owls.
Sitting there by the fire, Christian had felt himself growing nervous and actually fearful of the dark. He began to understand the mindset of the ancient Celts and other such people who had imagined the black forests around them to be the haunt of werewolves, witches and wandering spirits. How easy to scoff at such things within the security of one’s cozy home, where one controlled light and warmth with the flick of a switch, and where food and all manner of comforts were within easy reach. But alone in the darkness of the night woods, the old atavistic fears were astonishingly quick to return.
Shadow had relieved Christian around midnight. After turning in he had fallen asleep quickly, only to be troubled by disturbing dreams he could not recall upon awakening. Then he had felt Shadow’s booted foot nudging him awake shortly after the chill grey dawn began to lighten the forest. Soon they were on their way again, moving ever further into the woods.
Christian was relieved when Shadow informed him that they were almost within reach of their destination, and would not be spending another night outdoors. “Pops’ cabin isn’t too far from here,” she said.
“Pops? Who’s Pops? Your father?”
Shadow actually grinned upon hearing the question. “Nah,” she replied with a hint of a laugh, “Just some lovable old coot I know.”
The news that Shadow had one or more friends nearby did much to lift Christian’s spirits. He looked forward to being among people again. The shades of early evening were already closing about them. He was eager to get a move on.
They had not proceeded much further when Shadow abruptly halted the pinto. She raised a hand as a signal for Christian to stop and remain still. A few seconds passed before he too heard the sounds that had roused her attention. Some large animal was moving through the brush, very near by.
A tense moment passed. Then the beast emerged from the forest to stand before them in the middle of the trail mere yards away, barring their path. Christian’s eyes widened as though it were an actual monster that confronted them. It was an enormous dog. The huge black canine shape was short-haired and not unlike a Great Dane, but with the heavier, more massive build of a mastiff. It looked to weigh a good two hundred pounds. Its fangs were bared in a snarl, but it did not bark. The beast’s eyes seemed to glow redly. Surely such a hound as this guarded the gates of Hell!
Christian began to fumble for the gun in his pocket when Shadow snapped, “Stand down, Church-boy. That’ll only get you killed.”
Christian obeyed, freezing stock-still to avoid provoking the beast. Shadow swung down from Incitatus, tossing Christian the reins to hold. “Besides,” she told him, “This is a friend.”
The appearance of the monster dog in the road had been startling enough. Now Christian was astonished to hear Shadow call out to the great hound; “Pain! Come to Mommy!”
At the sound of her voice the dog’s tail began to wag excitedly, whipping back and forth. The brute trotted over to the woman. Abruptly rising to its hind legs, the huge dog placed its forepaws on Shadow’s shoulders and began to lick her face. She grimaced as the big wet tongue lapped her nose and cheeks. Shadow shoved the dog’s massive head aside. “Enough, you big goof. I don’t need a bath.”
The dog shuffled forward on its hind legs, forcing Shadow back in a kind of dance-walk. Catching the playful spirit, Shadow wrestled the beast to the ground. The dog rolled over onto its back, tongue lolling between its jaws. Kneeling beside it, Shadow scratched and tickled its belly.
“Who’s a good boy?” she cooed, “Pain’s a good boy! Such a good little puppy! Yes you is! Yes you is!”
After finishing this sport, Shadow rose and walked back over to Christian with the dog at her side. Christian made a tentative gesture to pet the animal. The dog lifted its lip to bare its fangs, a low growl rumbling in its throat.
“Pain, be good,” Shadow admonished, “Churchy is our friend.”
Christian forced himself to remain motionless as the dog circled about him, sniffing here and there. When the dog sniffed his crotch, Christian clenched his teeth as he fought down the panic that arose at the thought of those massive steel-trap jaws closing about his privates. After agonizing minutes that seemed an eternity, the dog went away and seated itself beside Shadow.
“I think he’s accepted you,” she told Christian.
“Well, that’s a relief,” he replied, “I sure hope you’re right about that. How do you know this dog anyway?”
“Pain is Pops’ dog. I told you he lived close by.”
Christian nodded. He remained fretful of the beast, but thought it a good thing that an old man out here should have the dog for protection.
Shadow remounted Incitatus and they were on their way once more. The dog, still wary of the newcomer, kept close to Christian. Presently Shadow led them down a fork in the trail. Through gaps in the trees, Christian could discern a clearing and a large cabin within it. As they approached it, the dog broke from his side to race on ahead. They entered the clearing.
A tall man stood before them. He had been splitting wood and gripped a large axe with both powerful hands. At the sound of their approach, he had ceased his task. He awaited their coming motionless as a bronze statue, senses alert to identify friend or foe.
The man standing in front of the cabin was perhaps seventy years old, but age had neither stooped nor withered him. He stood erect, well over six feet in height, and was seemingly carved from solid oak. His physique was that of a titan. He wore black jeans supported by a wide leather belt drawn tight about his trim waist. His calves were sheathed by knee-high brown leather moccasins topped with six inches of fringe. The man had stripped to a grey tank top for his labors, exposing his broad shoulders, deep chest, bull neck, and corded sinewy arms. His pate was bald, but the hair on the sides and back of his head had grown long, flowing onto his heavily muscled back and shoulders. A thick walrus mustache masked his upper lip. Both hair and mustache were white as hoar-frost.
All this Christian took in at a glance as his party entered the clearing. As Pain gamboled in ahead of them without barking a warning, the man relaxed. When Shadow rode in on Incitatus, he dropped the axe and strode forward to greet her.
“Shadow-girl!” he called out in a deep booming voice.
“Hi, Pops,” Shadow said demurely as she dismounted.
Pops? Christian was taken aback. This was the “lovable old coot” Shadow had spoken of? Christian had pictured a kindly, doting elfin figure. This man looked to him more like Odin, the chief Viking god of ancient pagan mythology.
The old man and the girl grasped each other in warm embrace. Shadow rested her head on Pop’s deep chest as his massive arms enfolded her. Then, with a hearty laugh, he gripped her about the waist and lifted her high. Shadow was no light-weight, but Pops whirled her about as though she were a child.
By the warmth of this greeting, and just by the way they looked at each other, Christian could tell that the old man and the girl were extremely close. When they were all done with their hugs and kisses, Pops asked Shadow, “So who’s the new boyfriend?”
Shadow made the introductions. “Pops, this is Christian Foster. He’s from the Confederacy.”
“Confederacy?” asked Pops, addressing Christian, “Whereabouts?”
“Mighty pretty country.” The two men shook hands. “Name’s Connor O’Rourke. Shadow and some of the young folks get a kick out of calling me Pops.”
“I won’t,” Christian promised, “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. O’Rourke.”
“Likewise, son. Let me show you around a bit before we lose the light. Then we’ll head inside for some supper.”
While Shadow corralled Incitatus in a small barn and stowed her gear in the cabin, Pops gave Christian a tour of his property. Pops’ cabin was a fairly spacious log home. A smaller cabin it had presumably replaced was used as an outbuilding. There were fields for crops, now harvested, and areas for livestock. Christian was duly impressed when shown a bathhouse with its own water heater and a cold storage unit for perishables.
“I use solar panels to power these,” Pops explained, “Of course we get so few sunny days that I also have `em connected to a windmill over on that hill.”
The tour complete, they adjourned to the cabin where Shadow and Pain awaited them. The cabin was divided into a large front room that included areas for cooking and dining and a smaller bedroom in the rear. The main room was dominated by a large stone fireplace. The comfortable furnishings included a large number of bookcases crammed full of tomes.
Christian commented on the oil lamps on some of the tables; “No electricity in here?”
“Don’t really need it,” replied Pops, “But have a seat at the table and I’ll fix us all some supper.”
Pops fried up some venison sausage and served it with some potatoes and greens. It made for a hearty repast. Afterwards Christian, who had never previously eaten venison, remarked on how much he enjoyed it.
“That was delicious, Mr. O’Rourke. I don’t think I’ve ever had sausage quite so tasty.”
“Well, better than that foodpaste shit, anyway,” Pops admitted.
After supper they relaxed before the fire while Pops played his guitar for awhile. Shadow listened as though enchanted. She had always loved to listen to Pops sing and play; it never failed to bring her comfort. Stretched out on the floor alongside Pain, she gazed up at him like some adoring teenage fan. She was captivated by the music and the faraway mystic look in Pops’ strange blue eyes. They were that bright shade of blue that appears white in black-and-white photographs. Set in Pops’ dark, scarred face, they seemed to blaze forth with some inner fire. Shadow had long ago dubbed that particular hue “volcanic blue” in a poem she had written.
After playing an old folk ballad called “For the Love of Barbara Allen,” Pops set his guitar aside. He turned his volcanic gaze towards Christian.
“So,” he said abruptly, “What is your story? How came you to cast your lot with our Shadow-girl?”
Having been welcomed with such hospitality, Christian thought it only fair to “sing for his supper,” so to speak. It occurred to him that people in isolated regions passed many an evening swapping stories. Moreover, he had quickly taken a liking to Pops. And so he felt no qualms as he narrated his odyssey in search of his runaway sweetheart.
When the tale was told, Shadow added her commentary; “I told him it was nuts to begin with, and ten times more nuts to come with me all the way to the New Settlements.”
“Well,” Pops mused, “Men in love do foolish things. Or perhaps the wanderlust has taken hold of him. Or maybe he just can’t get enough of you, Shadow-girl.”
Christian visibly blushed. Pops and Shadow shared a little laugh at his expense.
“It’s getting late,” Pops declared, “You kids take the bedroom. I’ll just doze here in the comfy chair, right by the fire.”
“Oh, but we couldn’t…” Christian objected.
“No, no, I insist. I’ll be more than fine right here with Pain.”
“Well, thank you for all your hospitality, Mr. O’Rourke. I look forward to talking with you some more. You must have seen a lot of history.”
“Indeed,” the white-haired man muttered, “Indeed I have. Now off to bed with you.”
The bedroom was cozy and had its own fireplace. The large bed looked to be the most comfortable in the world. Shadow was surprised, yet not surprised, to see Christian unfolding his sleeping bag next to it.
“Why the hell don’t you just get in here with me?” Shadow demanded as she slipped beneath the covers. She was clad in a simple nightshirt she had obtained from one of the drawers. “I promise not to try to have my way with you. Of course, if you like we could cuddle a little bit maybe. Nothing wrong with that.”
“No,” Christian said flatly, “It is better this way.”
“Suit yourself, Church-boy. Most guys would…aw, forget it.” Pulling the covers close about her, Shadow rolled over to face the wall. She was asleep before he had finished his prayers.
In the main room, Pops tossed some more wood on the fire. Wrapping himself in warm woolen blankets, he sank back into the comfy chair. Pain was curled at his feet.
Pops looked to the fire, taking comfort from the warm bright crackle of the flames. It’s hell getting old, he thought. Yeah, sure, you can still twist the head off the average young buck. But that won’t bring anything back.
Physically, Pops was in remarkable shape. It was his mind that had grown weary.
What was it the kid had said? That he’d seen a lot of history? Oh, hell yes. Too damn much history.
The worst thing about getting old, he mused, was that the world that one was born into receded further and further into history, never to be retrieved. It’s during one’s formative years that one’s standards for what’s right and normal are conceived. Since the beginning of modern times, virtually every generation had grown up in a different historical era from its predecessor. Changes in societal norms, technological innovations, shifts in international alliances, economic fluctuations; all had come at an increasingly accelerated pace since the Industrial Revolution. The pace of this change often exceeded people’s capacity to cope with it. Many came to feel overwhelmed by it. A sociologist had referred to this phenomenon as “future shock.” How much more disorienting, then, was it to live through a truly tumultuous era?
What must it have been like to first see the light in the days of imperial Rome and breathe one’s last during the Dark Ages? Connor O’Rourke and his generation had a pretty good idea. O’Rourke had been born seventy-two years earlier in what had then been the western part of Pennsylvania. His father had been a Black Irish immigrant who had married a local woman of old Scots-Irish pioneer stock. He had grown up in Evans City, Pennsylvania, USA. The USA had stood for United States of America.
During his boyhood, he had often heard that America wasn’t what it used to be. It was a frequent lament of men who were as old then as he was now. Even then Europe was arguably more powerful than the US, China definitely so. But militarily, economically and culturally, the United States was still a force to be reckoned with. The trouble was that the nation seemed to be running solely on momentum. The country’s mentors were lax when it came to new initiatives aimed at assuring America’s continued preeminence.
At that time, Europe was the up-and-coming power. But it was not the Europe of old. For generations, Muslim immigrants and their descendents had been supplanting the indigenous European races. European Christian civilization was on the wane. Indeed, O’Rourke’s father had emigrated from Ireland lest he find himself inundated by that rising tide. Germany was already an Islamic Republic before O’Rourke himself had been born. When he was in his early teens, the European Union formally reorganized as the Islamic Federation of Europe.
While Europe was melding into the new superpower, America was fragmenting along ethnic, class and cultural lines. The middle decades of the 21st Century saw the nation torn by social strife. The country’s 300th birthday in 2076 was widely greeted with cynical indifference.
The War had come but a few years later. A coalition of Mid-Eastern nations, with Iran at its center, finally moved to wipe out their mutually-despised foe, Israel. America was obliged to come to Israel’s defense. No sooner had it done so than the Islamic Federation of Europe issued a formal declaration of war against the United States of America. The American military, gutted by decades of neglect, proved no match for that of Islamic Europe. The eastern US came under relentless attack. Within weeks, America was fighting wholly on the defensive. The nation took a pounding that left it wrecked and ruined. The coup de grace was the invasion and occupation of New York City. O’Rourke had been in New York when it fell. He had been lucky to make it out alive.
The War ended soon after that. European intelligence got wind of nuclear options being considered by rogue elements of the US military. Moreover, the logistics of invading, subduing and occupying the vast American continent were costly and problematic. The original root cause of the conflict, Israel, was by this point moot. The United States would never again pose a threat. The IFE stood to gain much in the way of concessions from a chastened America should hostilities cease at this juncture. An armistice was conveniently proffered by Europe. The Third World War had come and gone with the appalling swiftness and destruction of a hurricane.
Early the following year, the World Peace Conference convened in Paris. The treaty that resulted from it was commonly referred to in America as “Versailles II.” The Conference had not been conducted in the Versailles palace. Rather, the allusion was to the treaty that had further humbled a defeated Germany in the aftermath of World War I.
Among the provisions of the treaty was the mandate that American states with large Muslim populations be allowed to hold a special election to determine if Islamic law should be adopted as the supreme legal authority. As of the late 21st Century, this pertained to most of the Northeastern and Midwestern states. The Special Election was held in 2081. The measure passed in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois. This did not go down easy in the non-Muslim areas of Muslim-majority states. In western Pennsylvania, there was considerable resentment over a vote that had been tipped by populous Muslim strongholds to the east such as Philadelphia. The western counties erupted in revolt. The Pennsylvania Uprising was underway.
The rebellion had quickly spread to neighboring states affected by the Special Election. In the meantime, activists in western Pennsylvania issued the Westsylvania Manifesto. The Manifesto declared that, by virtue of having adopted a higher legal authority than the United States Constitution, the states in question had for all intents and purposes seceded from the Union. That being the case, the framers of the Manifesto deemed it only right and proper that the western counties secede from Pennsylvania.
The Westsylvania Manifesto sparked secession movements in neighboring states. In Pennsylvania, the movement culminated in the Freedom March that took place in the spring of `82. Thousands of western Pennsylvanians trekked across the Alleghenies towards the state capital of Harrisburg. Many were armed with deer rifles and other weapons. Some carried the blue flag of the long-ago Whiskey Rebellion. Connor O’Rourke had been among the marchers.
The governor of Pennsylvania attempted to quash the Uprising by turning out the National Guard --a move that backfired spectacularly. The Pennsylvania Guard mutinied en masse and threw in with the Freedom Marchers. A calamity was averted when the western counties of Pennsylvania separated peaceably from the eastern portion of the state.
Other states followed suit, with southern Ohio, south Indiana and south Illinois separating from their parent states. The precise legal status of the sundered portions of these states was unclear. Local districts still retained their Congressional representatives, but no new senators or governors were selected. Government in those areas was now conducted at the local level. The seeds of the Border Region had been sown.
The adoption of Islamic law in the Northeast and Midwest, and the subsequent division of some states, was overshadowed just a few years later by an even more momentous turn of events. In 2085, in a move that had long been anticipated, the southwestern states seceded from the Union to join Mexico. Nor did the balkanization of the US end there. In 2089, the northern New England states, separated from the rest of the country by the Islamic states, also seceded and joined Canada. The trend continued into the `90s, with the Pacific Northwest also joining Canada and the Florida peninsula seceding from the state and the nation to form half of what became known as Greater Cuba.
Shadow had been born at the beginning of the last decade of the old century. At that time this part of the country was already Westsylvania, already Border Region. The War was a decade in the past by then. The Southwest and northern New England were already out of the Union. Shadow was only a baby when the Pacific Northwest and Cuban Florida broke away. She was not yet a teen when the Islamic States of America finally declared full independence. The United States of America, as it had existed before the War, when it had been whole and unsundered, was something she had never known.
To the younger generations, those who had come of age during and after the War, the old flag was no more than a symbol of ignominious defeat. For many decades, even well before the War, the political, commercial and cultural life of the nation had been shifting to the South. In the `90s it became common to refer to the downsized nation as “the New American Confederacy.” The term carried a note of irony, owing to the fact that it had not seceded from the Union; rather, sections of the Union had seceded from it. During the New Constitutional Convention of 2104, the name “New American Confederacy,” in common usage for over a decade, was formally adopted. The New Constitution mandated that only Christians could be full-fledged citizens of the new nation, a measure aimed in part at stemming further balkanization. The new flag retained the red and white stripes, but the blue field now contained a cross instead of stars. When the old flag was lowered for the last time, only old-timers were seen to shed any tears.
Pops started awake, rubbing his eyes. The fire in the hearth was burning low. He had dozed off while watching the flames, letting them conjure visions as he thought about the past. He had relived the last forty years first in his thoughts, then in the visions in the fire, and finally in his dreams. Now it was daylight.
Pops rose and went outside. He followed a winding narrow path that led to a small forest glade. Within the glade was a single grave marked by a Celtic cross chiseled from stone. Pops had carved it himself and set it there in place of the rude wooden cross that had been there. As though suddenly pressed by some great weight, he sank to his knees before the grave.
“Oh, Steffy,” he groaned, “I miss you, girl. I miss you so much.”
Shadow and Christian awoke to the smell of breakfast cooking. Pops had prepared another hearty repast. There was more venison sausage, fresh eggs, coffee and biscuits.
Over breakfast Christian asked Pops, “Have you known Shadow a long time?”
“Long enough to teach her most of what she knows about the fighting arts, not to mention cards and a lot of other things.”
“I’ve learned a lot from Pops,” Shadow admitted, “And we’re also business partners. Did he show you the still?”
“Still?” Christian echoed, “Uh, no. He showed me the solar panel and windmill set-up, but no still. And you have a still for…?”
“Making moonshine, what else? We get a lot of trade from our neighbors on the other side of the line,” Shadow explained, “See, we’re right on the very fringe of the Border Region here. Cross the county line headed east, and you’re in Pennsylvania--as in the Islamic States of America. The Pennsylvanians in these parts are rural, pretty friendly. Some of them come over here to visit and do a little bartering and some business. Being Muslim, they’re not supposed to drink. But a lot of them aren’t all that devout, so there’s good money to be made selling them moonshine. So that’s basically my whole racket. In the spring and summer I sell reefer to the Christians down south, and in the fall I sell moonshine to the Muslims up north. Pretty sweet, huh?”
When Christian made no reply, she added, “You need to check out the still. Come on!”
So saying, Shadow took Christian by the hand and led him out the door. The still was located some distance from the other areas he had been shown. It was encircled by chain-link fence and stood beneath a metal awning to protect it from the elements. Christian had expected to see some crude ramshackle affair, in keeping with the pictures he had seen of moonshine stills from olden times. But the apparatus he saw before him was a fairly modern, sophisticated-looking piece of equipment. It would not have looked out of place in a laboratory.
Shadow explained the workings. “It can make liquor from corn, wheat or barley. Most of the equipment was originally designed to make ethanol for flex-fuel hybrids. But it’s been many a year since any cars have been seen in these parts, so we adapted it for other use.”
“Did Pops build this?” Christian asked.
“Pops and I worked on it together. He provided a lot of the technical know-how. But it’s my baby. I purchased the equipment with money I made selling pot. The whole moonshine thing was my idea. There are other moonshiners further up in the mountains, but most of what they make is just cheap rotgut compared to what we’re doing. There’s always a demand for a superior quality product.”
Shadow was explaining the workings of the still when Pops emerged from the cabin. He was clad in jeans and moccasins, as before, and had donned a green hunting shirt. The latter was a long tunic-like garment that fell to his mid-thighs. It was belted at the waist. The belt supported Pop’s sidearm, a Glock 21 chambered for .45 caliber ammo, and an Alaskan bowie with a coffin-shaped wooden handle and a massive twelve inch blade.
“Ready to head up to see Leon?” He asked Shadow, “I know he’ll be happy to see you.”
“Leon’s my other partner,” she informed Christian. “He looks after another one of my stills.”
Presently they set out for Leon’s cabin, located some distance to the north. Shadow rode Incitatus, Pops rode a huge black stallion he called Balor, and Christian peddled his bike. They left Pain behind to guard the cabin.
They reached Leon’s cabin by midday. As they entered the clearing, they were greeted by two men, one black and one white. The black man was medium height and strongly built. The white man was tall, lanky and youngish looking. Both were armed. The white man carried a twelve-gauge pump shotgun. The black man bore an M-16 assault rifle.
At the sight of the weapons, Shadow’s alertness kicked into high gear. This did not bode well. The white man she did not know, but the black man was an old friend.
She called out to him.
“Leon! What goes on here? Has there been any trouble?”
“Trouble? Yeah, you could say that,” Leon replied grimly, “When we heard you ride up we thought there might be more on the way. We grabbed our guns and headed out to see what’s what.”
Pops and Shadow instantly drew their own weapons and scanned the surrounding woods for any who might be skulking about.
“It’s cool,” Leon assured them, “Wasn’t really expecting anything in broad daylight, but it pays to be on the safe side.”
The old man and the young woman dismounted and led their horses to Leon’s corral. Once the animals were squared away, Pops said, “Suppose you tell us what this is all about.”
“Better to show you.” Leon led the party around back to the other side of the cabin. Shadow cursed long and loud at what she saw there.
They were looking at what had been a still as sophisticated as the one at Pops’ place. Now it was a wreck, shot full of holes.
Shadow’s face was a bone-white mask of rage. She was looking at the ruin of considerable work and investment. “So what the hell happened?” she grated.
“Last night around ten we heard the animals acting up. I thought a bear or something had come around. I grabbed my deer rifle and headed out. I hadn’t taken two steps off the doorstep when I came under fire. Well, I dived back in here. Thank God these cabin walls are thick. I handed the rifle over to Arthur here, got the M-16, and we tried to return fire from the windows.
“Well, it’s a good thing these cabin wall are so thick. See those chips and holes? That wasn’t from woodpeckers. Anyway, we traded shots with whoever was out there, when the other side of the house came under attack. We split up, with Arthur defending the rear window.
“After awhile the shooting subsided. We waited out the night. This morning we went out to scout around. If we hit any of them, the others took them away. Didn’t find blood or anything, just a lot of spent shell casings.”
“Any idea who did it?” asked Shadow.
“Not really. But I think the object was to wreck the still. The initial attack was just to keep us penned in the cabin. Looks like a move by someone to run us out of the moonshine business. By the way, who’s the new guy?”
“I was about to ask you the same question.”
It was Pops who made the introductions. He started with Leon’s companion.
“Shadow, this is Arthur Gretch. He came to us while you were away.”
Shadow clasped Arthur’s hand warmly and said, “Nice to meet you. We don’t have enough handsome men around here.”
This brought a smile to Arthur’s normally sad countenance. He was quick to return the compliment, “I feel like I’m meeting a legend. Leon has told me so much about you.”
“Charming, too. Not many guys these days know how to talk to a lady.”
While Arthur and Shadow were getting acquainted, Pops introduced Christian to Leon. “Leon Jackson, meet Christian Foster. Chris is from the Confederacy.”
Christian shook hands with Leon, pleased at not having been called “Church-boy” or “Churchy.”
“So what brings you all the way out here?” asked Leon.
“It’s a long story.”
“Arthur’s from the Confederacy too,” Leon said, indicating his tall companion.
“Hi,” said Arthur, and that was the extent of his greeting. He took a step back as if to indicate that he did not wish to shake hands.
They all sensed the sudden chill. And they all knew the reason for it. One look at Arthur’s clothes told the tale. He wore moccasins and a leather belt he had acquired recently, but the rest of his garments were those he had worn since leaving the Confederacy. Shirt, jacket and pants were of the cheap, loose-fitting, pajama-like variety typically worn by the working classes in the Christian South. Such garments were commonly referred to as “peon jammies.” They stood in stark contrast to the well-tailored travel garments worn by Christian. Christian was a member of the professional classes. Arthur was one of the working class peons. Except when the latter served the former, the twain did not intermingle.
Shadow sought to ease the tension, “Well, whatever brought you guys to the Border Region, this is where you are now. And it looks like we could use all the help we can get.”
“So it would seem,” Pops added.
Then Shadow thought of something else. “Pops, if someone’s looking to bust up our moonshine business and get the racket for themselves, your place is likely to get hit next. We should get back there.”
“We’ll come too,” Leon told her, “We can help defend the place. And besides, I wouldn’t mind a little payback. It‘s good to see you again, Shadow. We were expecting you back maybe a week or so ago. Funny knack you have for showing up just as a brawl is about to go down.”
“Funny? Oh yeah, it’s hilarious.”
Pops, Shadow and Christian helped Leon and Arthur load a wagon with gear, weapons and provisions. Leon hitched a horse to it, and he and Arthur followed the others back to Pops’ cabin. They arrived just before dusk and managed to get everything unloaded before darkness, which came quickly in the mountains, had fallen.
After supper, Pops rode out to patrol the various roads and by-ways that formed the vast perimeter surrounding his property. Christian accompanied him. When Christian informed the older man that he knew how to ride, Pops saddled one of his mares. They rode out together. Both men wore lightweight night vision goggles, no more cumbersome than glasses. Pops had even devised apparatus for the horses, using old 21st Century night vision hardware. In this manner they could traverse the dark roads without an obvious source of illumination that would draw the attention of other night riders.
Back in the cabin, Shadow tried to get a conversation going with Arthur. It wasn’t easy. He wasn’t exactly shy, just unaccustomed to other people taking an interest in what he had to say. She felt that was too bad. He had a full head of thick tousled brown hair, and his eyes were a nice shade of green. She thought he would be very good-looking if she could get him to smile more.
“You don’t like Church-boy, do you?” she asked in an effort to draw him out.
“Uh, no, that’s not true,” he replied slowly, after taking a moment to choose his words, “He actually seems like a decent enough sort. It’s just that…” a pause here before committing himself, “…the fucking suits can’t be trusted.” And so saying he summed up the prevailing attitude held by the workers towards the professionals in the New American Confederacy.
Arthur Gretch had been born thirty-one years ago in the shadow of Atlanta, the Confederacy’s greatest metropolis. His parents had been in early middle life when they married. At that time his father’s resources finally seemed sufficiently adequate to enable him to merge his life successfully with that of another. His mother had been the eldest of seven children, and had spent the better part of her life helping to care for her siblings until all were grown.
Arthur’s father had died of overwork and exhaustion while Arthur was still a toddler. Arthur and his mother were left to survive on public assistance. His mother was a sorrowful woman who always seemed frightened of everything. He remembered her crying frequently.
When he was old enough, Arthur was shoehorned into an inferior public school. The curriculum seemed designed mainly to teach students how to tell time, follow a schedule, remain stationary where posted, and enable them to follow instructions. The reading program, for example, aimed at making students functionally literate, but not at fostering any real enjoyment of reading.
Upon “graduation,” Arthur entered the workforce. He lived with his mother well into adulthood. He was pleased to be able to furnish her with some small simple comforts. When she died, he was forced to move out of public housing. Even a tiny one-room apartment proved to be a strain on his budget. He opted to move into the “peon barracks.” There he had a bed and a locker. Such spare time as he had was spent mingling in the common areas. The “peon barracks,” like the public housing he had grown up in and the apartment house he resided in briefly, was an unadorned cinder block structure. Members of the working class were housed far from those they served. They were shuttled on special bullet trains to the more fashionable areas to perform their tasks.
In church, the virtues of family life were extolled. However, Arthur had no desire to start a family. He couldn’t see siring children who would grow up with the same disadvantages he had known. Nor could he see sharing a wretched existence with some stooped, pinch-faced woman of the working class --so many prematurely grey, wearing their hair in buns while still in their thirties. How unlike the belles of the middle and upper classes.
Arthur had served their kind while working as a waiter in a coffee shop. They had been resplendent in their finely tailored clothes. He had served them in silence, with a name tag affixed to the apron he wore over his peon jammies. How haughty they had been, so self-assured, while the men and women of his class lived in constant dread of the next horrible thing to go wrong. The professional and upper class women thought nothing of treating him as their personal flunky, when they deigned to notice him at all. When not needed he was invisible to them, part of the background like the wallpaper. It doubtless never occurred to any of them that a male of Arthur’s station would look upon them with lustful thoughts. He was less than a man to them.
But Arthur was a man, with a man’s cravings. He lived in the peon barracks, subsisted on foodpaste, and put money aside all year so that he might enjoy a steak and a woman on his birthday. The steak had been tough, but the hooker had been nice. She had really tried to help, and made a sincere effort to make him feel better.
How livid he had been, then, just a few Sundays later, as he sat rigid in his pew listening to his minister disparage “loose women” from the pulpit. The preacher had railed against “harlots” as a disgrace to “good upstanding women,” and warned that any man who trafficked with them was destined to share their fate in Hell. Arthur had glared back at the man as though his eyes could shoot laser beams of concentrated hatred. He decided then and there to flee the Confederacy and strike out for the Border Region.
He had moved from town to town, gradually working his way northward. In the cities and towns of the Border Region he had found rich and poor, but no aristocrats and peasants. He could have settled in one of the city-states, but they were not his goal. His objective was identical to that of young men of bygone centuries whose options had been limited --to go to the frontier.
In the New Settlements he had met Leon Jackson, who was working to expand his farm and needed assistance. Leon was Border Region born and bred, the descendent of Pittsburgh steel workers. He had treated Arthur as a peer from the beginning, and Arthur was proud to call him friend. It was here that he had met a man such as Pops O’Rourke…and now a woman such as Shadow.
Shadow. God, what a woman! Never had he seen her like. She was beautiful, bold, dynamic, and sensuous beyond all belief. And she treated him like a man. Arthur felt a fierce glow of pride awakening at the thought of this, for Shadow made the women who had treated him with such disdain look like a bad joke.
This is where I belong, he thought. In the Confederacy, he had walked hunched over. His skin had looked pale and pasty. Now he walked with head held high. He looked healthy and invigorated. His frame had filled out. Here he breathed clean mountain air. He performed meaningful productive labor instead of inane tasks. He realized he mattered and thought, I’m home.
These thoughts passed through Arthur’s mind as he listened to Shadow narrate some of her adventures for his entertainment. The conversation took a more serious turn when she told him, “There could be more trouble on the way. Will you stay and fight?”
“Fight? You bet I’ll fight.”
It wasn’t long after that when Pops and Christian returned from their vigil. They had nothing to report.
“That doesn’t mean they won’t show up,” Pops told the rest, “Since they hit your place early on, they might hold off until the wee hours before dawn. Or they might not come at all.”
Shadow and Arthur took the next patrol. Arthur had never been on horseback before coming to the Settlements, but he’d been in the saddle a number of times since. In any case, the mare was gentle enough for a novice rider. Christian didn’t care to see the two of them ride off together, but refused to admit to himself that he was feeling any sort of jealousy.
After the pair had departed, Christian asked Pops if there was much money in moonshine. In answer, Pops conducted Christian to a small safe in the back room and opened it. Within it were stacks of bills, fastened by rubber bands, of various denominations.
“Islamic States currency is good for personal transactions in most of this end of the Border Region,” Pops explained, “Come spring Shadow exchanges some it at her bank in Pittsburgh at the current rate. But take a look at this.”
Pops withdrew a single small stack of a different kind of currency. “Fuckin’ Euros,” he stated bluntly, “And the ISA insists they’re not a colony of Muslim Europe. Pah!” He tossed the wad of bills back into the safe, slammed the door and spun the lock.
Back in the living room, Pops and Leon filled Christian in concerning the history of the New Settlements.
After the War, the eastern part of the Old Union lay in ruins. The infrastructure was so badly wrecked that food and other essentials could not be transported any great distance. Relief efforts were spotty at best. Once things became better organized, people in blighted areas took to tilling what they cynically referred to as “defeat gardens.”
In the eastern rural regions, the Amish were instrumental in mentoring residents in the ways of self-sufficiency. Those residents in turn tutored others. After the Special Election and the subsequent Westsylvania secession, the Amish who had long dwelt in the northern and eastern parts of Pennsylvania chose to migrate rather than live under Islamic law. They resettled in what became the northeastern fringe of the Border Region.
In the meantime, adventurous Westsylvanians who felt they had sufficiently mastered the necessary skills opted to embrace the rugged frontier existence their ancestors had known. The New Settlements gradually formed in areas between Amish enclaves. As in the frontier days of old, there were brawls, feuds and other outbreaks of violence. But none raised a hand against the peaceful Amish, who were revered as mentors. Like frontier physicians, the couriers who regularly brought news of the outside world, and roaming troupes of entertainers, the Amish were considered untouchable.
By way of holding up his end of the conversation, Christian told of growing up in North Carolina and of life in the cities of the Confederacy.
“`The New American Confederacy,’” Leon sighed, “I can’t get over that. You have to understand that as a black man, the term `Confederacy’ has certain unpleasant connotations.”
“No one down there has a problem with it,” Christian informed him, “The name actually got started with the notion that it didn’t secede from the Old Union…”
“…The Union seceded from it. Yeah, I know. I heard it.”
Ignoring the interruption, Christian continued, “When they finally had the New Constitutional Convention, that became the name almost by default. That’s because everyone had already been using it for over ten years. So rather than call it something else, they just went with the name commonly used. By the way, black and white contributed equally to the new society. In fact, it was a couple of black clergymen who helped popularize the term `New American Confederacy’ during the previous decade. So race isn’t really an issue.”
“Maybe not. But class is.”
Christian didn’t have a rebuttal for that. For working class citizens of the Confederacy, opportunities for upward mobility were disgracefully few. But that state of affairs had hardly come about overnight. For well over half a century before the War and the breakup of the Old Union, American society had been polarizing along economic lines.
“I take it you don’t think much of the Confederacy,” Christian said at length, “But parts of it are beautiful, like where I grew up. And there are exciting things being done there these days.”
“Oh, I’ve been there,” Leon told him, “And a lot of the people are nice. But the government and business leaders give me a pain. They carry on like the Confederacy is this younger, leaner successor to the Old Union. But the sad fact is that on the world stage the New American Confederacy is a third-rate weenie power. Mexico has more clout internationally.”
As well it might, Christian thought, with California and the other former southwestern US states now part of it. But he didn’t argue the point because he didn’t feel all that passionately about it. The truth was that he felt little in the way of patriotic sentiment regarding the New American Confederacy as a political entity. Christian had been in his early teens when the New Constitution had been adopted, too old to feel any sense of nationhood regarding the Confederacy. Likewise, he had little regard for the defeated and broken Union he had been born into. But for all of that he had fond memories of growing up in North Carolina. He did hope that the new country would one day wax strong and prosperous.
Christian didn’t feel like talking much after that. It was getting on towards morning and Shadow and Arthur had not returned. He wondered about the delay. And then a thought occurred to him.
What if they had come across some cozy spot and were getting better acquainted? Were they even now enjoying a lover’s tryst? As the notion crossed his mind, lurid images came to him unbidden: Shadow and Arthur nude, locked in passionate embrace. He imagined them writhing, coupling.
Christian muttered a prayer between clenched teeth, calling on God to help him banish the obscene images. With an effort, he forced himself to think about other things, like baseball and the dog he had had as a kid. After a few tense minutes, the devil let go of him.
The internal battle had left him shaken and sweating. He took a few deep breaths and grew calmer. Panic gave way to reason. Shadow wasn’t that kind of girl. She might not be a proper Christian woman, but it wasn’t her way to copulate with some man she had met only hours earlier. Probably. And even if she had done it once or thrice, she certainly didn’t do it with every guy she met. That much he knew. Then another thought occurred to him.
Why did he care so much? What was it to him anyway? He was forced to take a cold, sober look at the situation. Did he actually have feelings for this woman? Angel was lost to him. He had to accept that. Why was he now interested in Shadow? Was he indeed interested in Shadow?
A month earlier he would not have thought such a thing possible. Here was a woman who danced naked in front of men, sold drugs, sold moonshine, killed men in gunfights, danced naked in front of men… She was bold, savage, wanton, an outlaw. She was the sort of woman men dreamed of in those dreams they did not confess. He knew that many a man longed to possess such a woman. And if he had a woman such as Shadow, he would be the envy of many men. And that, he realized, would wipe away the shame and humiliation of Angel having left him. Was that the root of his growing infatuation with Shadow? Was that all there was to it? How was he any better than the leering patrons in a Wheeling strip club?
But there was more to it than that. He genuinely cared about Shadow. He had seen her warm, thoughtful side. She was, in his view, a decent person who had adapted to tough circumstances. He had taken a real liking to her as a person. That, combined with her undeniable sexual allure, made for a potent cocktail that could go straight to a man’s head. He could end up falling hard for her, if he hadn’t already.
This raised another question for Christian to ponder. If he had fallen for her and decided he wanted to be with her, what next? Could he really “make an honest woman out of her?” The man wasn’t born who could tame that hellcat. If he wanted to remain with her, it would have to be on her terms. That meant starting a new life in the Border Region. He had a good life in the Confederacy, and a fine profession. Once he completed the business at hand, could he really chuck it all and leave home, friends and family?
Christian knew that he must decide these matters soon. Shadow would not remain available forever. He knew that Arthur was interested in her. He could tell by the way he looked at her. In the Border Region, especially here in the New Settlements, they were equally eligible as suitors. If Christian wanted Shadow, he needed to make his move soon. If it wasn’t already too late, that is. Shadow and Arthur still were not back.
Christian found himself wondering once again if they were somewhere making love. Then, for the first time in the course of all this morbid brooding, he considered the possibility that they might have come to harm. A fine friend he was, not to have thought of that before this. He felt himself growing really anxious when he heard them ride up.
Shadow and Arthur‘s patrol had been uneventful. While they were out they detected no sign that any intruders had ventured into the area. The group bedded down after that, sleeping through part of the daylight hours. At any given time one person remained awake and on watch. The following evening they repeated the vigil. Shadow took the first patrol. Christian volunteered to accompany her before anyone else had a chance to speak up.
Out on the trails, they rode together in silence. Shadow remained alert for anything out of the ordinary. As for Christian, it was as though he had been struck mute. When he tried to break the ice with an innocuous comment about the possibility of rain, his tongue felt swollen and his mouth had gone dry. A swig from his canteen relieved the parched feeling. He now felt he could talk without his voice cracking, but was actually glad he had been unable to speak a moment earlier. He didn’t want to embarrass himself by saying something that made his sound like a blithering idiot. He knew he had to frame his words carefully before he spoke.
It was not the first time this paralyzing awkwardness around women had afflicted him. It had always been so. There had been times when he tried too hard and made the worst sort of fool of himself. On other occasions he had attempted to play it cool and let golden opportunities slip through his fingers. So what to do now? After much deliberation, he decided to err on the side of boldness.
When the moment seemed right he told her, “I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate you.” This evoked a quizzical look, a raised eyebrow, and an odd little half-smile.
Christian groaned inwardly. Way to go, Casanova, he told himself, How can you miss with a line like that? But at least he’d made an opening move. If he followed it up subtly and discreetly, he felt that a smart girl like Shadow was sure to take the hint.
After they returned, Pops and Leon went out on patrol. That left Christian, Arthur and Shadow alone in the cabin. The situation made for some awkward moments. In addition to class resentment, she could sense the jealousy simmering between the two men and their sexual tension regarding her. Shadow worked at smoothing things over. It wasn’t easy. She managed to steer their conversation onto innocuous topics, and gradually felt the mood in the room lighten.
Following the second night on alert, with still no trouble materializing, the group assembled the next day to discuss future strategy.
“We can’t keep doing this,” Shadow told the others, “They’ve tipped their hand, so they know we’ll be ready for them if they strike again soon. The smart move for them would be to lie low, bide their time, and lull us off guard before they hit us again. We can’t wait around for them to do that. We need to take the initiative, take the ball away from them, take the fight to them somehow.”
“That could be a tall order, considering that we don’t even know who ‘they’ are,” Leon reminded her.
“Well, somebody knows,” Shadow replied after a moment’s reflection, “Assholes like to brag. People hear things. Nobody in some shit pile like Eden can keep his mouth shut.”
“Eden?” Christian asked abruptly, “What’s Eden?” His curiosity had been piqued as much by the Biblical name itself as by the context.
Pops filled him in. “Eden is one of these little hamlets in the Settlements where people gather to mingle. You have your trading post, taverns, gambling joints, whorehouses; all made of logs mostly. Eden’s the nearest one.”
“I’d like to go right up there and find out what the hell’s going on,” Shadow announced.
“Except everyone will clam up when they see you,” Pops gently reminded her, “They’ll know it was your still that got hit, and nobody is going risk getting caught in the crossfire if there’s a feud brewing. They wouldn’t tell me anything for the same reason. Everyone knows we’re in business together.”
“Same goes for me,” Leon added, “Arthur would be better, but plenty of people have seen us together by now. I even took him up to Eden a couple of times.”
“So that leaves me.” It was Christian who had spoken, to the surprise of the rest. Their heads all turned his way. He had their attention. “Nobody knows me,” he continued, “I’m a total stranger. I could act like I got sick of my life and set out for the New Settlements. I could talk to people about all sorts of things, the way a person who didn’t know his way around naturally would. That way maybe I could find out what really happened.”
“No way.” It was Shadow who vetoed the notion. She had no intention of letting Church-boy blunder into a potentially lethal situation. It was one thing to ask him to carry his weight in a fight with her there to watch his back. But this was different.
“No,” she repeated emphatically, “What do you think you are, anyway? Some sort of secret agent?”
Christian took that with a smile. “I might surprise you,” he said.
“No, no, and no!”
“Enough,” rumbled Pops, “We can’t just stumble around swinging blind. We need to figure this out better.”
“So who’s the competition?” It was Arthur’s turn to speak up. “I mean, who else is making moonshine on a big enough scale that he might want the market to himself?”
Pops knew the Settlements better than most. “Well, let’s see,” he said, “There’s the Wayne brothers, Bruce and John. There’s Peter Gonzales, Babs Kowalsky, Chuck Newman…oh, and Sailor Clanton. I believe you have a history with him, Shadow.”
“Don’t remind me!” Shadow groaned, her face reddening with both anger and embarrassment. It had been a few years back. She’d been a kid then, dumb enough to almost fall for someone like Sailor Clanton. Lots of girls already had. He was a swaggering young rogue, devilishly handsome. There was no denying that he was a hunk, with his trim muscular body, black hair, blue eyes and killer smile. None knew how he came to be called Sailor; if he had actually been to sea or even seen it. It was just something that added to his mystique.
At least that’s one youthful indiscretion I managed to avoid, Shadow thought. She had almost succumbed to his considerable charms. But even then she had been nobody’s fool. She knew damn good and well that Sailor was incapable of taking her or any other woman seriously. To him, she would be just another notch on the bedpost, another conquest to brag about to his doltish pals. While she certainly didn’t mind a romp in the hay with a handsome, muscular stud, she wasn’t having any of that shit.
Unfortunately, Sailor Clanton was not the sort who handled rejection well. When Shadow spurned his advances, he tried forcing himself on her. She didn’t go for the ball shot, which he would surely be expecting, as her opening move. Instead she snaked a vertical-fist punch to the center of the face, breaking his nose and blinding him with tears. Then she kicked him in the balls and left.
Looking back on the episode, Shadow now felt certain of one thing. “It’s Clanton,” she announced to Pops and the others.
“How do you know that?” Leon asked sensibly.
“Because no one else in the Settlements is that big an anus,” she told him, “He’s had it in for me since I shot him down when he tried to make it with me.”
Shadow felt certain she was right. During their acquaintance, she had found Clanton to be petty and vindictive. He was just the sort to nurse a life-long grudge. In rejecting him, she had hurt his ego. The broken nose she had given him marred his good looks ever so slightly. That did not endear her to him either. Clanton was vain as well as proud.
“Honey,” Pops said sympathetically, “You may well be right. But we need a little more to go on than your woman’s intuition before we start a feud with Sailor Clanton, his family, and his cohorts.”
“You’re right, Pops,” Shadow admitted, “We’ll have to make sure he’s involved. If he is, well, maybe he’ll listen to reason. Maybe I can sweet-talk him, or we can cut some sort of deal. Or maybe we’ll have to fight it out after all. But whatever the case, I have to confront Sailor Clanton.”