"Hold your fire!" Jake Green yelled as shots continued from both the Jericho side and the still approaching New Bern contingent. "Stanley! Eric! Hold your fire!"
Stanley frowned at the order but did as he was told. "Hold your fire!" he yelled down the line. Eric did the same and the firing trickled down and finally stopped on the Jericho side. Occasional shots continued to pepper the area from New Bern's fighters.
Now that the din of gunfire on their side had been reduced, it was evident what Jake had been trying to achieve with the cease fire. Military aircraft, in the form of assorted helicopters, were heading their way. Swiftly. And though New Bern had them beat in manpower and ordnance – though never in drive and purpose – there was no way that the helicopters were coming to support Constantino and his people. They might not be on their way to help either side, depending on who they were. If they were from the government, or rather, a government, they might be on their way to quell this fight no matter who started it and no matter who was intent to finish it. Something was up, though, and it was in Jericho's interests to see what would come of this.
"Hold your fire! Stay down!" Jake yelled. A half a dozen helicopters – three Apache Longbows, one Apache Attack, and two Kiowa Warriors, from what Jake could tell – fired between the small space that remained between the two factions, their warning shots clear, and almost not warnings at all as dust, bits of rock and shrapnel kicked up and around as residual action from the firing. New Bern stopped firing at Jericho. A shot was fired, however: at one of the helicopters. Jake recognized that move for the mistake that it was.
"Everybody take cover!" their new leader yelled as Jericho's citizens dove for protection. The explosion of rapid-fire rounds from the Apache Attack craft was loud and powerful. The sounds of death and dying from the New Bern side were unmistakable. Jake, Eric and Stanley all lifted their heads to see the black smoke and flames marring the landscape from several destroyed vehicles.
And then they heard the announcement.
"Citizens of New Bern and Jericho, this illegal action will cease now. This is the federal government. Put your weapons down."
Another shot was fired at the Kiowa Warrior from which the announcement had come. The sound of the rounds ricocheting off the metal and piercing the composite, but doing no real damage, were soon drowned out by more automatic weapons fire from the Apaches to the locations from which the shots were fired from the ground. From New Bern. Didn't they realize what they were doing? The silence from the New Bern side now showed that they had learned where they stood, too late for at least seven or eight men it seemed.
"The federal government will put down this insurrection by the citizens of New Bern. Continued firing on these vehicles will bring a full-bore defense and offensive measures will be taken, as needed. Set down your weapons. This fight is over."
The Jericho defenders watched as their former friends from the neighboring town dropped their weapons.
"New Bern, withdraw, on foot, one mile back, at the junction of Post Road. A military contingent will be there waiting for you. Do not, I repeat, do not enter the area with weapons. It will be considered a hostile act if you do and will be met with force."
No further shots were fired from the New Bern side, and the fighting citizens of Jericho watched as their enemy retreated. A truck started up and began to head through the tall, wild brush, the seeds from wheat and barley and other grains blown about from area farms sown naturally to dot the unplowed landscape around them. Three or four men were piled in the back of the pick-up, and at least one was in the front, driving. An Apache took it out with one shot, the engine exploding, bodies flying.
Dust kicked up wildly as one of the Longbows landed. An officer and several men jumped from the chopper. They headed straight for Jake's position, guns aimed at the men and women who made up the militia of Jericho.
"All weapons down," the officer ordered.
"Who are you with?" Jake yelled in question, the sound of the chopper's whirling blades making conversation difficult.
"Are you in charge here? Have your people lower their weapons to the ground."
"I can't do that until you tell me who you're with," Jake explained, trying to keep his voice calm despite having to raise the decibel in order to be heard.
"I'm with the federal government and I am ordering you to stand down. You've seen our firepower. Don't be stupid."
"Which government?" Jake asked.
"Well, now, so you've heard that the central U.S. government has been dissolved. I understand your reluctance now." The officer turned to the pilot and gave him a silent order to cut the engine. He turned back to Jake, walking up closer to him, his weapon no longer leveled at the older Green brother. The same could not be said for the rest of the military contingent, who continued to point their guns at the other Jericho men and women.
"Are you in charge here?" the officer asked. With the helicopter noise stifled, and the close proximity, he spoke loud enough now that only Jake and those closest to him could hear.
"I'm in charge out here, yes. Our mayor is back…he's somewhere safe."
"Look. We need to talk. You need to stand your people down," the Air Force lieutenant colonel said. The insignia was similar, though not the same, as Jake had seen before. It was…disconcerting. The colonel leaned closer. "You need to do it now."
Jake looked around. He nodded his head, and their 'platoon' leaders gave the command.
"We're not giving up our weapons," Jake advised the colonel.
"You made New Bern give up theirs."
"They were the aggressor, and they attacked us. They are the insurgents in this matter and they are the ones we will be watching closely from this point forward," the officer replied. He added, "You and I need to talk in private."
"Not in private," Jake countered. "How…how did you know…"
"We had inside information that New Bern was planning an attack. A take-over, if you will." The colonel started to walk away from the group, an indication that he would be speaking no further so long as so many ears were nearby. His second in command followed behind him.
Jake turned to Stanley and Eric. "Eric, I need you to keep everyone calm. Stanley? Come with me." The two Jericho men joined the colonel and the lieutenant under a stand of trees, away from naturally curious ears.
"You have questions," the colonel said matter-of-factly.
Jake shook his head and snorted derisively. "You might say."
"My name is Lieutenant Colonel Richard Matson. I am here on behalf of the Coalition States of America, a provisional government." Not the provisional government, Jake noted to himself. "We're HQ'd in Cheyenne, under the command of Colonel Hoffman. He'll be coming in later, once we've secured the situation."
"The Coalition States of America? What's that?" Jake asked.
"It's the new federal government, son. It's the largest of the six new governments, soon to be five, set up after the attacks."
"Soon to be five?" Stanley asked. "And why isn't it just still called the United States of America?"
Colonel Matson looked at Stanley Richmond and then back at Jake, his eyes questioning who Stanley was and why he was part of the discussion.
"I don't know you from Adam…Colonel. Stanley stays."
"Whatever you say, son."
"Don't call me that. My name is Jake Green. You can call me Jake. This is Stanley Richmond."
There were only two men who had ever called him son where it meant anything to him. His grandfather had passed within the last year or so. He had meant so much to Jake, and had acted as a father to him when he and his dad had grown so far apart, and things had become too bitter between them for even the simplest communication to not devolve into a miserable argument.
But his dad and he had come to a realization of late, even if that understanding had come about in silence and knowing looks. That man was gone now, too. His father was dead. His grandfather and his father were now both dead and there was no reason for any other man on this planet to call him son now. Hearing it said without the warmth and affection – the love – of his father and grandfather made the word just another word. Just a cold, meaningless word.
Matson replied, "Whatever you say, Jake. I didn't mean to offend."
"You didn't." But if that was true, why did hearing it hurt so much? Jake looked to his best friend, who gave him a sympathetic smile. "So, soon to be five governments?" he asked as he did his best to return the smile, and then turned back to Colonel Matson.
"Yeah. Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico will be folding in with us by week's end."
"Peacefully?" Stanley asked.
"Every effort will be made to make it so," the colonel answered. "And to answer your question from earlier, we hope it will be the United States of America again. Some day."
"You said earlier that you had intel that this was going down. What intel?" Jake asked.
"I can't divulge that, Jake."
"Okay." Jake wondered if that intel had come from Heather. He wanted to hope that it was true, but the thought of his mother grieving over his father's dead body made him think twice about hope. He wondered if there was really any point. "So, what do you want from us? And how do we know that New Bern, or some other well-armed town or group, won't try to come after us again? This wasn't the first time we've had to bear arms for our survival these last months. And what about supplies? You're representing our government, right? We need food, medical supplies. Lots of other things. What's happening? Our rations are spread thin by refugees that we've taken in."
"Refugees? Refugees are supposed to head to the camps."
"Yeah, well, they tried that but then decided to take their chances to find some place safe. With food. They found the right place in Jericho. We have about a hundred more people living in Jericho now than we can sustain."
"One of the reasons refugee camps are in place is to make sure that displaced persons are not given the chance to fester into alienated, angry groups who might feel the need to raise their own mini-armies."
"We've experienced that already. But you and our…government," Jake said, trying not to sound scornful considering what little help this government had supplied these last months, "needs to do a better job with those camps. Until we do, these people are better off in Jericho than where they were," Jake explained forcefully.
Matson saw the passion mix with the bitterness and frustration that Jake Green tried so hard to keep at bay. He wasn't successful, but it seemed to the lieutenant colonel that something else was going on besides a battle that didn't have to be fought. A battle that would surely have been a losing one for Jericho.
"We're working on an airdrop of supplies. But I need to know more about these refugees. Have any of them been acting suspicious? Do we need to worry about them? Terrorists have already struck our country. There's no telling who's out there just waiting for a chance to strike."
"No," Jake answered. "I don't think any of those people are anyone to worry about. They're close to starving and just want to get their next meal, and catch a shower when they can. Their goals are modest these days. They want to know when life might get back to normal."
Colonel Matson shook his head. "I wish I knew when that would be. Not anytime soon, I'm afraid." He took a look around and saw the shape these people were in, some of them, their clothes in near rags. "Look, I am looking for someone. There is a person we know is somewhere in the area. He is someone who you and your fellow citizens should be concerned about."
Jake glanced quickly to Stanley as the colonel reached into his pocket. Jake shook his head once, indicating that whatever information they might have about this 'person of interest', he and Stanley would keep it close to their vests. For now.
"Do you know this guy?" Matson asked as he showed the picture of Robert Hawkins to Jake and Stanley. "He's used a number of aliases, but a recent one was Robert Dawson. He's also known as Robert Lipton, Robert Lawson…well, like I said, he's changed his name a lot lately. His real name is Robert Hawkins."
The two Jericho men looked at the photo, both of them doing their best to keep their faces neutral; they hoped their faces remained inscrutable to the military man in their midst. It had come easy for Jake. He knew he would be looking at Hawkins' face. He hoped that he'd given Stanley enough warning.
"No, he doesn't look familiar," Jake lied.
"Stanley?" Matson asked.
"You may find this hard to believe, and I know it's the twenty-first century and all," Stanley began. Jake watched him talk, worried about where he was going and hoping that his friend didn't give anything away, or talk himself into a corner. "We're still kind of white bread out here," he finished with an embarrassed wince. Jake put his head down and rubbed the back of his neck, needing to camouflage his face, the effort to snuff out the grin nearly impossible. Stanley had always been good at weaving a story, enhancing elements, when needed, to divert attention. It had been needed often the year or two before Jake left, Stanley giving Johnston Green the explanation whenever his best friend was forced to drive him home past curfew, and there were curfews for the twenty-something Jake so long as he chose to reside in his father's house. Even moments like that, frustration and anger from Jake at his father, and always Stanley trying to keep things light between the two Greens…he would even miss that.
He couldn't believe his dad was really gone.
"Hm," the colonel muttered. "You okay, Jake?"
Jake lifted his head tiredly, but Stanley answered for him.
"His dad was killed a just a while ago."
'Murdered', Jake thought, but now was no time to verbalize those feelings.
"I'm sorry," Matson said. Tears came unbidden to Jake's eyes. Stanley reached over and pulled him in for an embrace. Jake wiped the tears from his eyes and looked at the colonel.
"So, what's next…?" Jake asked. Before he could finish, a massive explosion in the distance shook the area. Everyone ducked and turned in the direction of New Bern, their sightline up to the train tracks.
"Lieutenant, get me some information. Now!" the Air Force man instructed his number one. "Next? I need you to take your people back to town."
"Colonel Matson, we were just attacked by our neighbors. Right now, I only have your word that New Bern won't strike again," Jake explained passionately. "You'll forgive me if I'm not feeling too trusting right now."
"I understand that, Jake. Let me find out what's happening. Get your people together. Prepare to head home. I assure you that we will take care of New Bern. I'll be right back." The colonel ran to catch up with his lieutenant.
Jake looked at Stanley, and then he looked beyond his friend to see his brother. Eric caught Jake's eye and they acknowledged each other with a nod. And then Jake dropped hard, and unexpectedly, to his butt.
"Hey," Stanley said as he went to his knees in front of his friend. "You okay?"
"Jake!" Eric called as he, too, slid to a stop on his knees before his brother. "What's wrong?" Stanley saw the colonel and the lieutenant look their way briefly, curious about the commotion. Their focus was elsewhere, however; Matson spoke into the headset as he leaned into the chopper. "Should I get Mom?"
"No!" Jake yelled, and then added softly, "I'm…I'm okay. I just, I think it's the adrenalin rush crashing on me. I'm fine."
"You look mighty fine, there, Jake," Stanley said derisively to his best friend. "When did you eat last, Jake? You're kinda thin," he added. Eric and Jake looked at him askance. "Thinner than normal." They both still just looked at him. "Too thin, damn it."
"Nothing like stating the obvious, Stanley," Jake chided.
"Look, I know we're low on food, but the fact is that you need to eat more. I'm going to have Bonnie grab some extra grain from the stores we have hidden." Eric and Jake continued to stare at Stanley Richmond. "I had to keep it quiet, you know that. But you need to eat."
"We all need more food, Stanley. Eric's been tortured…"
"I'm fine, Jake."
"Sure, there you go. All the Greens are just fine!" Stanley shouted sarcastically. The devastated looks in the eyes of the Green brothers told a different story, but that was wholly due to the trigger finger nature of Stanley's big mouth. "Ah, shit. I'm sorry. That was stupid."
"Forget it," Jake said as he struggled to get his legs to support him in his attempt to rise.
"Forget it, Jake." Eric mirrored his brother's words. "Sit still," he ordered. "What's going on with him?" he asked, nodding his head toward the colonel who was now seated in the helicopter. He looked back at his brother. "Are you sure, Jake? Mom's gonna kill us if she finds out."
"She doesn't need to know," Jake said as he patted his brother's chest affectionately. "The colonel went to find out about that explosion," Jake replied in answer to the question.
"Do you think it was Hawkins?" Stanley asked.
"Most likely," Jake returned. He raised his knees up, leaned his elbows on them, and then rested his head in his hands.
"You're lookin' a little pale big brother," Eric said. He tried to keep the comment light. He knew that Jake did not want to hear it right now.
"Yeah," his brother answered. "I think we'll be able to head back to town soon." Jake lifted his head and looked back at the house. "We need to get dad…back," he said, wishing that those words could be literal rather than figurative. Jake looked around the property and said, "Stanley, your place…"
"A casualty of war," Stanley interrupted. "We'll get it cleaned up."
"Your…um…your k…kitchen," Jake said. He didn't need to say more. He put his face back in his hands, not able to hold back the one uncontrollable sob. One was all that he could afford right now.
"I know. We'll take care of it," Stanley told his friend as he squeezed his best friend's ceck compassionately. Stanley and Eric hovered around Jake, Stanley crouched close, Eric's hand on Jake's back.
Colonel Matson joined the group.
"Something wrong?" he asked. It was clear from the look on his face that he recognized immediately his poor word choice. Someone had lost his father, of course something was wrong.
Jake scrubbed his face with his hands and then looked up, his own expression telling in its grief. And in its exhaustion.
Stanley begged to differ. "Well, nothing that more food wouldn't solve, and maybe twelve hours of sleep." Jake gave his friend a dirty look. Stanley raised his eyebrows in silent challenge.
"What'd you find out?" Jake asked.
"That train that was heading here from New Bern?" he asked, looking at the Jericho trio carefully. "You knew about the train, right?"
"Yeah, we knew," Jake supplied tiredly.
"It's been…derailed. My team found a tank on…well…on and off the tracks, along with four of the cars. They're all charred. There were a number of cars still on the tracks. Most of them are unharmed." Matson looked for signs of recognition, or guilt, or any clue that these men had known about this turn of events. They were a hard group to read; there was a reason they were the town's leaders. "Anybody know anything about a tank?" he asked.
Stanley Richmond and the Green boys held their ground, and said nothing. Jake finally replied, "We had a group out there, but I told them to only perform reconnaissance. They weren't equipped to take on a tank," he added, hopeful that the sly misdirection worked, and didn't come back to bite him in the ass later.
"You were pretty out-manned as it was, and with that train…" Matson noted. "The munitions and additional men…you wouldn't have been able to put up much of a fight."
"We know that," Jake admitted quietly. "We had to try. And we don't know who was on that train. It could have been New Bern. It could have been someone else. It didn't really matter who it was. We made a commitment to this town and to…we had to fight. Jericho is our town. It didn't belong to New Bern. Our hometown is our life right now. We didn't know we had a country left to fight for, but we still had Jericho. It's why we had to fight, and it's why we would do it again." He put his head down thoughtfully and then looked Matson in the eyes. "We'll fight for our country, too, now that we know there still is one." Jake said it, and he meant what he said about standing up for their country, but he still wasn't convinced about the 'Coalition States' or Matson. That didn't make the sentiment any less real and true.
Matson nodded his head. "That's noble, and I appreciate your willingness to stand up for your country, but you would have lost this fight."
"We would have lost standing up for what is right."
"I know that you think that," the colonel said, looking down at Jake, both men holding eye contact. "Are you okay? You're looking a little peaked."
"We're all tired."
"And hungry," Stanley added.
"You're always hungry," Jake joked back to his friend. He held his hand over to Stanley, who stood up, reached for Jake's hand, and pulled his friend up. Eric and Stanley watched carefully, but Jake seemed steady enough. "I'm fine. You guys are worse than Mom."
"I doubt that," the deep, familiar feminine voice said from behind. All three Jericho men visibly winced; Colonel Matson had a hard time not laughing at the group.
"Hello, ma'am. I'm Lieutenant Colonel Richard Matson."
"Um, Mom, this is a war zone," Eric said. "What are you doing out here?"
"It doesn't sound like a war zone anymore, dear," Gail said. Her sons thought she was doing an amazing job keeping herself together, not that seeing her like this really surprised them. "Is it?" she asked the colonel.
"We're still in the process of securing the area, but we're making progress. I have told your son…" he continued, but was interrupted.
"Sons," Gail corrected.
"All three of these are your sons?" he asked. He hadn't caught the last name of this Eric, though it wouldn't have been unusual these days for brothers to carry different last names. Certainly Jake and Stanley acted close enough to be brothers.
Gail answered, "No. Just two…" she started, and then she corrected herself with a warm smile. "Well, I have three sons, but I only gave birth to two of them." Tears came to Stanley eyes and he reached down and gave Gail Green a long bear hug. Her sons looked on, immense sadness exuding from the pair, but pride in this woman also clear in their bearing.
"I love you, Mrs. G. I'm so sorry…"
Gail tapped Stanley's back and stepped away. "You can't be sorry, Stanley, you did nothing wrong. None of us did anything to cause this. But I'd like to get your father back home," she said as she turned toward the sons she'd actually borne. Gail turned to the colonel and asked again, "Are we free to go?"
"You are, ma'am. And my condolences on your loss." The colonel directed the next comment to Jake. "We'll be coming into town after we deal with New Bern. It may be a couple of days."
"Can I talk to you in private for just a moment, Jake?" Jake nodded and stepped away with Colonel Matson.
"Keep your eyes open for this Hawkins fellow. He's more of a danger to your town and your people than New Bern is right now."
Jake didn't believe it was so, but then again, he couldn't know it for sure. But Matson wasn't going to hear that from him. Hopefully, he was doing a good enough job of hiding his feelings as well.
"We'll keep an eye out."
"Good. It was good to meet you, Jake." Matson reached his hand out. Jake shook it. "I'll see you in a few days."
Jake walked back to his family as the colonel headed to his men.
"You think he'll have New Bern contained?" Stanley asked.
"I do, though I'm not sure I have a good feeling about how he'll be doing it. And even if New Bern is taken care of, what's to stop this from happening again?"
"You don't think they're fake like the Marines who came here last time, do you?" Eric asked.
"No, they're real. I'm just not sure they're the only government claiming Kansas as theirs. I'm not sure we're any safer now than we were before New Bern came for us."
They all seemed to agree with that sentiment. While Stanley headed for his truck, and the Greens prepared to take Johnston home, Jake put in the back of his mind that they would need to remain on guard, with this military, against New Bern or others who sought their town as their own, possibly from Robert Hawkins, though Jake tended to trust the man ever since he willingly took a bullet trying to get him out of New Bern.
One final thought came to Jake as he, Stanley, Eric and his mom walked over to take his father home: had it been Heather who had stopped this from happening? He knew now that he had to consider anything he'd been told by anyone from New Bern as suspect. And after what had happened today, was it realistic to think that Jericho's adopted daughter was still alive out there, somewhere, doing what she could to help? Jake didn't know what to think. But he knew one thing: there wasn't a lot to hope for these days, but what little hope he had left, he would try to make room to hope for Heather's safety. He knew he could only afford to give up a little bit of hope for that; there was so much that he hoped could still happen to his friends and family in Jericho to make their future less grim. He didn't necessarily feel any bright, shining hope for tomorrow. He might not feel it in the days to come. But he hoped the emptiness could be salved sometime. Somehow. He didn't know how he'd survive if it wasn't.
And tucked far away, safely away for now, was what he would do about Constantino. Healing the hole that the man who used to be their friend had left in his heart would be a needed step in the healing of his soul. The bitter thoughts, the need for retribution that simmered just out of reach, that was what would keep him moving forward. For now. He hated himself for feeling like this, but it hadn't been his doing. He truly hoped that these feelings wouldn't be his undoing.