A Time to Endure
The frigid mud sucked the warmth from Caden’s body. He moved close to the blackberry bramble for concealment. This ground was drier, but the thorns slashed at his skin and scratched at his camo uniform.
On either side a soldier lay watching with him. Looking through the binoculars he could see several Humvees and soldiers on the west edge of Hansen. He was certain more were just out of sight.
He shivered. Two months ago I had just been promoted to Chief Foreign Policy Advisor for Senator Stevens. Now the senator is dead, the capital destroyed and I’m lying on the cold ground about to fight a battle in Washington state. Funny how things change in our lives.
Looking again through the binoculars he slowly scanned the forces arrayed against him. “They’ve been there for hours. Why haven’t they made a move?”
The question had been rhetorical, but one of the privates beside him shrugged.
As they continued to watch the convoy the red-haired boy and girl Caden had seen so often in the area strolled across the field to the stream carrying fish traps.
The boy was in his late teens, the girl a year or two younger. Together they moved along the bank, and then put their traps in the water just twenty yards from the recon position. Afterwards, the two sat idly nearby looking in the direction of the trucks. Go home kids. But there was no way to communicate the message without exposing his position.
Caden pulled out his radio. “CW returning to unit.” Looking at the scouts he whispered, “Keep watch on the convoy. When they move out, alert us.” Crouching, he headed back around the corner with a silent prayer on his lips. Please God, keep those kids safe.
Zach’s stomach growled as he pushed back his blankets. He turned on the lamp beside the bed and watched the steam of his breath rise into the cold air. There was no hurry. He knew that for him and his sister, Vicki, this February morning would be like all recent ones, cold and wet; a time to be endured as they labor to stave off hunger for another day.
The dawn had yet to peek over the horizon as the two teens rose from their beds and donned coats, gloves, caps and waders. Vicki stuffed the backpack with hot tea, smoked fish and other supplies as Zach went to gather fish traps and nets.
“Leaving so early?” their mother asked, as she weaved into the room.
“It’s time to go,” Vicki said. “Are you okay?”
She slumped into a chair and shook her head. “I don’t feel well.”
“She’s drunk, Sis. Did Bo find more booze?”
“Don’t be disrespectful. I haven’t had anything to drink for three days now.”
Because you can’t find anything. “Good. Come on Sis,” he said and exited the pastel blue single-wide trailer that was their home.
The predawn glow provided enough light for Zach to lead his sister along the narrow path through the woods. He had walked this way many times to fish along the streams that flowed through the valley. Just visible under the canopy of cedar and fir trees were the ferns that dotted much of the forest. But this was not the lazy pastime of earlier days. He would not have gotten up so early or on such a cold morning to fish for fun.
Since the terrorists had set off nuclear bombs in Washington D.C., Seattle and other cities, people had bought or looted everything in the stores. Food was scarce and fish were now a primary source of nourishment and barter for his family.
Zach set down the wire mesh fish traps at the edge of the woods and pulled the cap lower on his head. He looked back at his sister and her long red hair. She often complained about the color or frizz of it, but right now he envied her well covered ears.
In the distance Zach heard the rhythmic mechanical clatter of vehicle engines. Gas was rare and expensive so the sound of engines demanded attention. Sometimes he would see a police car and occasionally military trucks, but rarely a private car. The rumble came from the highway at the edge of Hansen, the nearby town. He picked up the traps and continued down the path. They were headed in that direction.
The waist high grass was thick and the trees thin as the two moved along a muddy path toward the stream. Zach saw the water now, but here it ran too deep for the traps. They would continue along the bank to another location, close to the highway.
It took only minutes to reach his favorite spot. The culvert where the water flowed under the road was just fifty feet farther downstream, but despite the road being nearby the only sound was the rippling of the water and birdsong from the nearby forest.
The creek was wide, but shallow. The fish preferred a narrow, but deeper, channel near the bank. That was where they would place their traps. Vicki knew the spot well and, reaching it, dropped the backpack on the bank. The two waded into the cold water each holding a wire cage.
Zach pushed a pole through the wire mesh of the trap into the silt below and then gathered rocks. As they worked to secure the first snare, the roar of engines returned.
“Do you hear that?” Vicki asked.
“I’m not deaf, Sis.”
She stuck out her tongue and headed back to shore.
“Oh, very mature.” At barely fifteen she was a year younger than him and, in his opinion, still very much a kid. He said as he bent low to weigh down the second cage with a few of the stones they had gathered. When the trap was secure Zach sloshed his way to shore. He pulled a towel from the backpack and wiped the frigid water from his arms and then held the warm thermos in his hands and joined his sister in peering over the bank near the road.
The grass was low in the rocky soil along the highway and with Hansen being slightly uphill from them he could see the road and three, maybe more, army trucks along the road with smoke rising from their tailpipes. An American flag fluttered in the morning breeze. Why are they just parked there wasting gas?
Vicki slid down below the bank. “We’re done here; let’s go on to the next spot.”
Without looking at her he said, “You go. I’ll be along in a bit. I want to see what they’re doing.”
Vicki raised her head back over the edge and watched with him for several minutes. “I’m going to set the last two traps.”
“Yeah, I’ll be along in a minute.”
As an orange sun topped the nearby hills, Zach counted more army vehicles, mostly Humvees and jeeps parked along the highway shoulder. Nothing happened and he was going to follow his sister, but then a single Humvee rolled slowly down the road. He caught a glimpse of two people inside as it passed. Then he watched as it continued down the highway, around the curve, toward the lake. When he returned his gaze to the main group, dozens of fighters stood on either side of the road.
The troops moved into the field, like hunters flushing birds from bushes. These were American troops, but something told Zach to be cautious and unseen. He moved into the tall grass a few yards up the bank. He couldn’t see as much, but if he remained still in his brown waders and a green shirt, he would be difficult to detect.
A Humvee raced back from the lake. Less than a minute later a dozen truck engines started almost at once. As the seconds ticked by he could hear the troops approaching.
Grass rustled behind him. Zach turned.
Two soldiers moved from the bramble on the far side of the stream. How long have they been there? They were dressed in the same uniform as the men coming down the road, but they stayed hidden in the shadow of the thicket. One soldier looked right at him. The man crouched lower and motioned for Zach to leave. The soldier reached into the bramble for something. Zach realized it was a radio.
A shot rang out.
The soldier collapsed back into the bushes.
The other returned fire and jumped for cover.
Zach wanted to run, but his legs refused to move.
The sound of gunfire became deafening.
The boy crouched low in the grass.
Dirt and leaves flew around the surviving soldier. Then he fell hard onto the first man and their blood flowed into the stream.
As the gunfire ceased, Zach’s breathing was so loud that he feared it would reveal his position. He struggled to control it as he tried to understand the bloody spectacle just a few yards from him. Why are American soldiers shooting at other Americans?
Gun at the ready, another soldier burst from the tall grass.
Vicki appeared from nowhere and screamed.
The soldier jerked his gun in her direction.
“No,” Zach shouted. “We’re just fishing.”
The man took a deep breath. “Hide,” he commanded. “A lot of people will die today.”
Grabbing his sister by the hand, he ran, splashing through the stream toward the culvert. As they hurried to the tunnel the current flowed faster and the waters deeper. They struggled into the darkness until they neared the middle. In the frigid waist deep flow he held his sobbing sister tight. “Don’t cry Sis. We’re fine.”
Zach hoped his words were true. He prayed the water and darkness would hide them from other, less merciful, soldiers. “Why did you come back?” he whispered.
Still sobbing she said, “I saw them moving through the pasture and came looking for you.” With each word her voice seemed louder. “I wanted to get you and go home.”
“Shhhh. I know,” he whispered.
“They shot those men.”
“Shhhh. Sounds echo in here. We’ll be okay,” Zach whispered. “No one shot us.”
Vicki buried her head in his shoulder as if to block out the world.
Seconds later trucks thundered as they passed overhead. With the noise, Zach felt free to move. First he wiggled his numb toes just to prove he still could. They moved but the lower half of his body was stiff and cold. He shifted his weight and nearly fell. During a momentary pause in the vehicle traffic he heard gunfire, but it seemed distant. Looking to the far end of the culvert he could see a farmhouse with a barn beside it. If we could get there we’d probably be safer and warmer. Even if we hid in the barn until the soldiers leave, that would be better than here.
When the last of the trucks seemed to have passed overhead Zach said, “I’m going to do a little scouting.” Cautiously he stepped toward the far end.
“No, stay here.”
“I’m just checking,” he whispered. “I won’t go outside.” Looking out the far end he didn’t see any soldiers. Gunfire raged, but now free of the culvert echo, he could tell the shooting was far off.
As he looked about his sister came up behind him.
Returning his gaze to the farmhouse he mapped out a route in his head. They could follow the stream for a few hundred yards and then, if they stayed low, the grass would conceal them as they approached the farm. They could get close without being seen by any remaining soldiers. “Sis, we’re going to that house.”
“No…no…please, let’s stay here.” She dug her nails into his hand.
“I’ll lead,” he said prying her fingers loose. Keeping low he moved with the water and caused barely a ripple. He then hugged the bank of the stream. He imagined that he was hunting a deer and needed to get closer. The soldiers might not be hunting him, but he was certainly not the hunter. His heart pounded in fear and he crouched low to hide. Every step was slow and deliberate. He wished he had his bow. That would give him some ability to defend Vicki and himself, but it was back at the house.
It seemed to take forever, but when they neared another culvert Zach saw an opportunity to head directly toward the farmhouse. Using rocks he climbed up the bank behind a large thicket of of blackberry brushes. A rutted dirt driveway split from the main road just a few feet ahead. Grass grew high along a fence that followed it. “Sis, stay low and follow me.”
Confident they hadn’t been observed, he moved away from the stream with his sister close behind. As they neared the house the grass was cut low and cover sparse. He paused and looked about. There was a barn near the house with a car parked between, but nearest to them was an old tractor. He signaled his sister follow him.
Crouching, Zach stepped from the grass-covered fence and heard the unmistakable rack of a shotgun.
Vicki bumped into him. “Why’d you….”
Without moving his arms, Zach slowly turned his head and his eyes focused on the barrel pointed directly at him.
The young woman who held it stood behind a car. An older man stepped from the barn. He wore a green vest with many pockets and carried a black, military-style rifle. The front door of the house opened and another young woman holding a gun said, “What have we here, Maria?”
“I’m not sure,” the other woman said. “Stand up you two and keep your hands in sight.”
Zach stood slowly.
Vicki, white as he had ever seen her, followed with her mouth agape.
The man walked toward the brother and sister. A yapping puppy followed close by his side. “Quiet Nikki.”
The dog slowed its barking.
Turning to Zach the man asked, “Were you trying to steal food? Are you hungry? Is that why you were sneaking up to our house?”
Zach was hungry. Since the first nuke attack a month ago it seemed fish was all they had to eat and not nearly enough. “No sir. We’re doing okay. We just didn’t want to be seen by the soldiers,”
The three holding the guns seemed to relax.
Zach took a deep breath. “They shot two men….”
Eyes wide the woman with the shotgun demanded. “Civilians or soldiers?”
“Soldiers. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes…what’s going….”
“Show me where,” Maria said.
Vicki grabbed his hand and held it tight.
“No Maria. I’m sure it’s not Caden,” the older man said.
The people huddled around the front porch discussing the pros and cons of going to find the two soldiers. Zach relaxed a bit now that the guns were not pointed at him. He turned and smiled at his sister. A hint of color had returned to her face. He looked back over his shoulder and considered making a dash back into the field, but he was now less afraid of the family than any soldiers who might still be in the field.
Returning his gaze to the three grownups, still debating what to do, he allowed his eyes to linger on the two women. The one they called Maria had dark hair and spoke like any other American, but her skin was a light golden-brown. He wasn’t sure if her ancestry was Mexican, Spanish, or maybe even Italian. The other woman had brown wavy hair and pale white skin like most people from the area. They were both young and good looking enough that he could imagine dating either one but, being pretty much grown at sixteen, he was wise enough to know that probably wouldn’t happen. Still, even if he did have a girlfriend, Zach’s eyes lingered on the two women for a while.
Suddenly he noticed the older man was staring straight at him. Zach cast his eyes to the ground and stuffed his adolescent dreams to the back of his brain.
Two more women appeared on the porch and joined in the discussion. One was older like the man, perhaps his wife, the other younger and clearly pregnant. How many people live here?
The man walked to the edge of the yard and then stared through binoculars toward the main road. “There’s a jeep near the intersection of Hops road and the highway . I can see three soldiers. There may be more.”
“What if it is Caden, or David, and they’re wounded?” the brown-haired woman said.
Finally, the one called Maria put up her hand in a stop gesture. “We’ve got to know for sure.”
The pregnant woman nodded. “Wait a minute.” She disappeared into the house and returned moments later with a green backpack and waders. She reached out the backpack to the brown-haired woman, but the old man took it.
“I’ll carry the first-aid kit.” the man said. “Lisa, you stay here and keep watch.”
Brown-haired Lisa started to protest.
“I promise to tell you the truth whatever we find.”
Slowly she nodded.
Maria finished putting on oversized waders. “Come on,” she said to Zach. “Show us the way.” She started to leave while the old man struggled to get his waders on.
Zach didn’t budge. “While I’m leading you back to the soldiers, my sister stays here and you protect her…”
“No, Zach don’t go.” She squeezed his hand even tighter.
“…and let her call our mom so she can say where we are and that we’re safe.”
The older woman nodded. “Of course she can call her mother.” Turning to Vicki she said, “You look frozen would you like something warm to drink?”
Vicki nodded, but returned her gaze to Zach. “We’re not safe. No one is. And what if Mom wants to talk to you? What do I say?”
“Tell her I’m outside. It’s true and won’t worry her much. I’ll be back soon, and then we can go home.” Once again he pried his sister’s hand from his.
Maria approached Vicki and Zach still holding the shotgun, but with a gentle look on her face. Turning to Vicki she said, “We’ll bring him back safe, I promise.”
Zach’s eyes fixed on Maria. “That’s a big promise to make.”
Now dressed in waders the man put the binoculars into one of his many pockets, adjusted the backpack and put the rifle sling around his neck. “Zach, take us back the way you came.”
“Do I get a gun?” he asked.
The old man looked at the boy for a moment. “Do you know how to use one?”
Zach had gone on hunting trips with his father, but that had been years ago, when he was a kid. His father had carried the gun all those times and since his Dad died there had been no opportunities to hunt. “Point. Pull the trigger?”
“No, you don’t get one,” the man said.
With Zach in the lead the three of them headed out. “Stay low along this fence. The tall grass will hide us.”
As they neared the stream bed two army jeeps, followed by a flatbed truck, rumbled down the highway. Zach watched through gaps in the grass as they slowed and turned down the little road toward the farm. “Head for the gully and hide,” he whispered.
Maria raced ahead and disappeared down the bank. Moments later as Zach climbed down the rocky embankment to the water and looked for Maria, but couldn’t find her. The man was the last to reach the stream. The rising ground on both sides restricted their view but, hopefully, also concealed them. As the vehicles approached the three splashed across the creek and crouched down against the bank nearest the road.
When only the sound of the distant battle disturbed the quiet, they relaxed. For the first time since leaving the house they were free to stand erect. Zach looked down stream wondering where Maria was when he heard splashes behind him. Turning he saw her, soaked up to her hips, coming out of the dark culvert upstream.
As she came toward them the man stood and stretched to his full height, wincing as he did.
Zach grinned at the sight. “I overheard Maria’s name when you were talking back at the house. What’s your name?” He resisted the urge to end the sentence with, ‘old guy.’
The man caught his smile and said flatly, “Westmore.” Then he seemed to look more intently at the young man, as if evaluating him. “Trevor Westmore.”
The boy smiled. “I’m Zach Brennon.”
Trevor nodded. “I’ve seen you and your sister fishing this stream and trading in the town market.”
He stomach grumbled. He hadn’t eaten today. “There’s been no food in the stores for weeks. We catch, eat and trade fish to get by.”
“I know,” Trevor said. “We’re all just trying to get by.”
Maria hurried along the muddy bank toward the site of the shooting. The two men followed as gunfire echoed across the valley.
After walking several hundred yards in silence, Zach turned to Trevor. “I heard Maria mention two guys, Caden and David. Who are they?”
“Caden is my son and the commander of the National Guard armory in Hansen. Maria is his…friend…good friend. David is the XO.”
Zach watched Maria trudge through the mud and freezing water twenty yards ahead of them and picked up his own pace.
“So why is the army shooting at the Guard?”
The old guy sighed deeply and seemed to consider the question as they walked on. Finally he said, “People in our own government and other countries are using the terrorist attacks to seize political and economic power.”
Zach wasn’t sure what economic power was, but said, “And your son is trying to stop them?”
“As best he can, yes, along with others.”
The boy mulled it over in his mind. It seemed to him the old man was saying people at the other end of the country and foreigners were trying to tell them what to do. He didn’t like that idea, but he wasn’t even old enough to vote. As he walked along the stream bank he wondered what he could do to help, but nothing came to mind.
As they rounded the next bend in the stream the culvert under the highway came into view. He tensed as he remembered the shooting. Then his gut wrenched tight as the growl of many trucks filled the air.
The three hid side-by-side in the bramble and weeds as the roar reached a crescendo on the road just a couple of feet above them.