The U.S. of After Chapter 30
Standing a few feet behind Ethan in the crowd, waiting for access to the water that somehow poured out of the large boulder, I couldn’t breathe knowing what that liar had just told that poor woman. Other people had heard it, too, and were moving toward him, all of them looking sour. I was just about to say something to him when I heard gun fire.
Everyone started putting their hands over their heads as if the sky was going to cave in on top of us, but then we heard a tinny voice over a loudspeaker. Mostly it was the sound of somebody clearing their throat. I looked up on the ridge where we had been earlier and saw a row of men on horseback, all of them holding black shiny rifles and automatic weapons, staring down at us. They looked sweaty and gritty and ugly.
One of them, a big, bloated cowboy wearing a military style shirt and a wide brim white cowboy hat and mirrored glasses sat in the middle of all of them, his white horse chomping on the bit. He held a long shotgun and wore a thick mustache that was one of those handlebar types that spilled down the corners of his mouth like hairy gravy. All I knew was that he looked old and seasoned and scary. He held a battered red megaphone up to his fat lips and started with his speech.
“Good afternoon, tent village. I’m Captain Waldeburg,” he said, his accent sounding deep south. “Seems to me you folks have a problem recognizing authority with the welcome party you sent us. Well, Andy, Phil and Donovan send their regards.”
Three bodies suddenly fell over the edge of the ridge and tumbled down like bloody scarecrows, some of them breaking small saplings on the way down…and they were missing their heads. The people in the crowd went ape. I felt something flip in my stomach and fought the urge to puke.
“I’ll be keeping the heads out of personal interest,” continued the leader, really gravelly like a wrestling coach I used to know. “Now, usually I just tell everybody to drop on the ground and nobody will get hurt, but today’s not one of those times. What I need from you people is firstly half of your food stuffs ‘cause of taxes and all, then a portion of your able bodied men will join my ranks, and…”
He paused just long enough for the megaphone to feedback a bit and I saw a camouflaged man run up beside the cowboy’s horse and say something.
“Scratch that,” he said with a grunt. “Looks like you guys got a wizard in yer mix. I just want that guy first so’s I can deal with him. No offense to the religious types.”
Most of the people around me were crouching down on the gravelly sand, but two people were standing, looking up at the men on the ridge: Jacob and Clayton. Jacob spoke, and when he did it was so loud I thought he’d managed to get one of those megaphones, too.
“I’ll come quietly if you will leave these people alone. They have not done anything wrong and are simply trying to survive like you.”
I could hear a low noise along the ridge line as this band of scary guys all practiced their villain laugh.
“Now, now,” said the cowboy as he adjusted his big rear in the saddle. “You are in no condition to make demands. What will happen is that you’ll saunter on up here and git down on yer knees and pay for the havoc you’ve caused me and my men. I aint gonna tell ya twice. Once that business is over then I’ll commence to taxin’ these kind folks.”
Jacob looked around and made a motion for the people to stand. Some of them did. I realized that I was standing with my knees slightly bent and my arms out. I straightened up and walked over to stand by Clayton. Ralph joined us as we looked into the face of danger, or rather the faces of danger. Jacob turned around as if in slow motion and faced Clayton.
“Clayton,” he said calmly, his mouth parting to show his old man’s teeth as he smiled a bit. “I’m going up there to turn myself over to those men. I want you to stay here and pray. You know how to do that. When you pray, I want you to believe that God is hearing you. Do not lose your way. Send your message directly to the throne of God. He is waiting to exact his judgement and his mercy all in one action. Remember that there is no greater love displayed than when a man lays his life down for his friends.”
“Will they kill you?” asked Ralph.
The old man only spread his lips in a smile and cocked an eyebrow.
Clayton nodded his head and put his hand on Jacob’s shoulder.
Ralph looked back and forth at Clayton and Jacob and shook his head in disgust. I just didn’t know if this was the right thing to do, but the old guy was willing to sacrifice himself for the group. Why would he do that? He doesn’t even know us. My chest hitched in some air as I fought back tears. Jacob looked up at the man on horseback holding the shotgun.
“Captain Waldeburg,” said Jacob, his voice booming. “I’ll come quietly if you promise not to harm any of these people. Take some of their food, but take out whatever anger you have pent up upon me. I will bear it.”
Jacob started walking, and then came another blast of the gravelly voice from the ridge.
“No promises. Just leave that stick of yours down there,” he growled. “No need in bringing your magic with you.”
Jacob somehow managed a grin considering the circumstances, and gave the hickory walking stick to Clayton. He then started walking through the crowd of silent, world weary people, many of them touching him on the shoulder on the way toward the path. One woman stopped him to tell him that she loved his message earlier today, that she would be praying for him. He simply said “do” and walked slowly across the pinkish brown sand to the trail that led up to the road and the ridge line. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. This was so horribawful.
Two men, two Sasquatch men, met him halfway down to the shore of the river and each grabbed him by an arm, but he did not struggle or say a word. When he had disappeared from view, the Captain spoke again over the megaphone.
“You folks don’t go nowhere,” he drawled. “We got some fellas headed down your way to cull the herd. We need some able bodied men to swell our ranks. Place all foodstuffs out on the sand in a pile and we will be taking our portion. Do what we ask and no one will be harmed. That is all.”
I heard a click and a whine of feedback, and the men on horseback began to back away from the ridge. As they sent their goon squad down the pathway to our small village of tents, I stared at Ralph’s pained face. Even though we didn’t really have words to say, our faces told each other of our helpless fear. Clayton did not look at us. He knelt on the ground, his eyes closed, his mouth moving, speaking words that I hoped were being heard by someone. I joined him, even though I’m not much of a person of prayer.
Faith of a mustard seed, right?