Zachary Adkins rested with his lower spine against the rough, scaly bark of a Virginia pine. He listened to the crickets in the dark. He inhaled the cool, fragrant air and imagined that this small patch of mountain forest covered all the slopes and hills; that fresh, clean water rippled and gurgled down pristine hollows.
On his left, Dan Spence kicked his boots and tossed his body from side to side. He finally sat up, reaching reflexively for his rifle that lay next to him.
“Can’t sleep?” Zachary whispered. He drew up one knee and circled it with his arms. He rocked briefly, his nerves sparking. He surveyed their position with eyes that had become keen in the night. He listened to the coughing and snoring and restless mutterings up and down the line.
Dan jumped a bit as they heard the tangled underbrush shift behind them.
“It’s Mary, it’s me,” she said as she scurried into a position on the free side of their commander. She was wearing night-vision goggles, and she raised these onto her forehead. “Met with the captains of recon squads eleven, fourteen, thirty-five, and forty,” she continued softly, a little out of breath. “No sign of troops or vehicles yet on Rt. 17. But an informant from Chapmanville relayed intel that Blackhawks from Detachment 1 of the Halliburton Security and Support Battalion are moving up from the south. Should be here in an hour or less.”
“Which means the 1st Batallion, 201st Field Artillary Regiment of the West Virginia Army National Guard will be coming along with ’em,” Zachary said, almost to himself. “The oldest continuous unit in the United States army, mustered in on Febuary 17, 1735. Now sponsored by Arch Coal, wearing the proud ACU patch of the corporation, instead of the musket, tomahawk, and the powder-horn….”
“If we only had something besides ham-radios and crank-driven receivers and walkies; they’ve completely shut us down,” Mary said as her breathing steadied and she rested for a moment.
“We’re okay,” Zachary said in his usual soothing way. “We have exactly what we need. And we know this mountain and these hills like we know our own skin.”
“The ones I’m worried about are the units that served south of the border,” Dan said, his voice thick as he tried to sound as emotionless as possible. “The 772nd Aviation. They’ve got assault Blackhawks, too. And the local guys from Charleston, the 77th Rockefeller Brigade. They’ve got five-thousand soldiers with the most up to date equipment, fresh from a twelve-month tour with the US occupation forces in Mexico.”
“So, do you think they’ll talk to us first?” came a female voice on Dan’s left.
Zach had only a small amount of patience left for calming others, for answering questions in just the right way that allayed fear and built confidence. He had always been a thoughtful man, a quiet and a peaceful man. For his entire life he’d been the one who others depended on to boost their spirits, to bolster morale. But now he was nearing his own death; it was difficult to focus on the outside of himself, to play the part of icon and paragon. He wanted to sink into himself and ready his own soul…. They were waiting for him to respond; he could smell their anxiety. Zach sighed, “Gina, yeah, they’ll go through the motions I think. Depends where they set up their positions. Depends on what they plan on using against us first.”
They were dug in on the knolls just south of Blair Mountain and Spruce Creek, along the heights overlooking Blair Gap. The site where the scabs and Sheriff Chaffin and the Pinkertons had tried to ambush the West Virginia miners who were trying to unionize in 1921. Just to the west, only a mile away, was another planet — the remains of the hills of West Virginia. In fact, all around them for hundreds of miles including what once were the Appalachians, was a ghostly gray wasteland. Mountain-top removal and fracking had turned the lands of Kentucky and West Virginia into an immense bone-yard more dead than the surface of the moon, terrain filled with lifeless and foul-smelling bare immense and crumbling mounds of debris interspersed with deep scars filled with poisonous slime. Leaden and glowing coal-ash sludge rolled in stream beds where crystalline currents used to rush. Mercury, arsenic, radiation levels a thousand times that of nuclear waste, covered the earth. Gas and toxins contaminated every underground spring, every brook and rivulet, the entire watershed of the Ohio River.
This tract on Blair Mountain, like an island, was the last few acres of natural hardwood forest left in West Virginia. It was saved in the early 2000s after a long legal battle to declare it an historic site. But in the last several years, with the presidential Protectorate declared and voting rights restricted to property owners, the last of the national parks and historical places were sold to the highest campaign contributors.
“Are we going to die?” Gina asked. She pressed against Dan, wrapping her rimfire Remington in her arms.
Dan shoved her a bit, as if in fun. “Hey, we’re already dying from cancer and arsenic. This way, we go out fighting.”
Mary was spinning something between the fingers of both her hands. “Well, I’d better get back down the line,” she muttered. She turned and shoved the object against Zach’s chest. “Here,” she said, “I found it. It’s an eagle feather. A goddamned eagle feather. Might be from the last few mating pairs in the entire country. The goddamned bald eagle.”
Zach took the token, and listened as Mary pulled down her goggles. He heard her scramble, hastening through the moss and ferns and saplings and leaves, moving to the south. There was no light; he examined the feather by touch, brought it to his nose and sniffed it, rubbed it along his cheek.
“An eagle feather, really….” Dan said, his tone listless.
“The Cherokee lived here centuries ago. Some of my ancestors,” Zach said. “The eagle feather is a sign from the Great Spirit. It represents balance. The unification of opposites. Harmony of the four directions, unification in the truth. Dark and light, good and bad. The right claw of the eagle is used for destruction, for war, for greed, and death. The left claw, which is near the heart, holds hope for life, freedom, health, and human kindness. The eagle feather represents the order of the universe, the native tribes said, and the order of the universe is balance.”
“I can see ’em now, Zak, flashing your picture all over the monitors, screens, and billboards in the country, ‘Evil Bastard Tree-Hugging Hippy.'”
“Shut up, Danny,” Gina said, shivering a little.
“It’s okay,” Zach said. “Wait till they find my journal. I postulated a few days ago, just for the fun of it, what if the ancient Egyptians were right about the afterlife, after all….”
“We love you, man, but you gotta stop with the history crap,” Dan interrupted.
“No, listen,” Zach said, holding the feather by the quill. “I thought, what if one of those fundamentalist Christian hardliners now running the white house died — and he wakes up in a vast golden desert, and he’s watching this figure walk towards him, getting closer and closer, and the figure turns out to be Anubis with a jackal’s head and man’s body. And the guy goes all red-faced and hysterical. ‘Hey,’ he shouts, ‘What is this? Where’s Jesus? Is this Hell?’ And Anubis says, ‘I’m here to lead you to Osiris for judgment.'” Zach laughed.
“Only you would find that funny,” Gina said, but she smiled in the darkness.
“Thanks, Gee. I consider that a compliment.” He paused, then said, “We’ll give it another few minutes, then we’ll get our people up and ready. We’ll know in less than an hour, what they plan. You all know the response routines; we take immediate action if it’s gas. If the attack copters hover and the troops remain in formation, they might be willing to negotiate. We also have to see what heavy artillery is facing us….”
“Howitzers, grenade launchers…..
There was soft thumping and rustling; a couple more of their recon captains stopped in front of Zachary and squatted down side by side, panting. “Copters coming. Gun ships,” Greg Bass said between gasps.
There followed a minute where no one spoke. Zachary could feel the weight of their fear and hopelessness. He gritted his teeth, trying to scrape the sides of what was left of his own courage, to come up with a small amount to share. “We’ll be fine,” he finally said. “Get everyone up. Let’s get ready.” He checked his watch, pressing the tiny blue light quickly. “It’s just after five; won’t be light for another hour. We’ve got some time.
In less than thirty minutes, the entire force of ten-thousand men and women and some children, most of them from West Virginia or Kentucky, a handful from other states, were roused, their weapons loaded and ready as they waited behind barricades and camouflage built of branches and brush across the North and South crests above Blair Gap.
The sky glowed an eerie yellow-green in the east. A soft breeze made the trees overhead hum. Dew-like condensation began to form on their hair and clothing and the metal of their weapons. Zachary had dropped over the defensive escarpment, and was lying on his stomach a few paces ahead, on a bluff that overlooked a creek that fed White Trace Branch. He could hear the faint chup-chup-chup of the Blackhawks now. And a grinding, metallic rumble began to echo off the verdant slopes to the north.
Dan, the second in command, crawled towards Zachary until they were side-by-side as low to the ground as possible. “Looks like the army has arrived,” he said.
They peered down some two-thousand feet to the right; billowing clouds of gray dust rolled in their direction from behind the hill where the state road curved into view.
Zachary clutched his Ruger semi-automatic rifle in one hand lying on the grassy surface. He reached into his shirt and withdrew the eagle feather, holding it out in front of him. It was white with dark-brown mottling. He held it higher so that it could catch the first filtered rays of sun.
Dan grasped his wrist, forcing his hand down. “What the hell are you doing?”
Zachary rose to a sitting position.
Below them, a multitude of forms appeared in the distance, and the squeaking grumble of treads, the grinding of gears, grew louder. To their rear, behind their own line, they could hear gun-magazines loaded, unloaded, clicked into position once more.
Zachary slowly came to his feet. Dan tried to grab his legs and yank him back, but their leader and commander evaded him and was already making his way down the embankment, half sliding, half walking, winding his way through the vegetation as he descended the mountain. Dan clutched the earth and glanced behind him. He looked once more at the scene before him, then moved himself backwards on his hands and knees until he reached the escarpment; he turned and climbed up and over, joining the others.
“Where’s Zak? What’s happening? What’s going to happen?” came at Dan from different directions, in voices high and low filled with panic and despair.
“He’s….” Dan sank to his haunches in their trench, holding his rifle with both fists in front of him. “I think … he’s going to meet them….”
Hovering in the gritty sky were the copters of the 19th Special Forces Group. Cranking amidst the columns were the vehicles of the 150th Armored Reconnaissance Squadron, and marching in formation along state Rt. 17, spreading out into several lines, were the men and women of the 77th Rockefeller Brigade. Zachary could see them more and more clearly as he approached, his white feather held aloft. They were dressed in the pinkish-brown, tan and gray fatigues of the Mexican war zone. Their helmets were rounded and tightly fitting, and most of them wore black gas masks, the blowers attached to their belts. Each of them carried an M9 pistol and M-18 assault rifle. On the periphery of his sight, Zachary recognized the big guns — the Howtizers — being set up, the fifty-pound shells unloaded from trucks.
He locked his eyes on the individual soldiers in the forward positions. Obscured by their gear, looking alike, it was hard to tell if they were even human. He skidded through the purple phlox, down the last slight rise of the mountain, and reached the side of the road. He stepped onto the asphalt of Rt. 17, only thirty feet away from the advance guard. Zachary paused. He heard shouting from among the officers ahead. The troops immediately in front of him raised their rifles. The sun was high enough in the east to gleam off the gun barrels and make the plastiglass of the gas masks white with glare.
Hanging his own rifle from his right hand in the downward position, Zachary raised his eagle feather as high as he could in his left. He inhaled deeply, and started advancing steadily towards the forces of the army. He felt as light as air. No one fired. Except for the helicopter blades, there was no sound. He came to within five feet of the first group of five soldiers. He saw their eyes now, behind the transparent shielding of their masks. “I want to talk,” he said to them.
In an instant, a rush of wind came through the Gap. It hit Zachary from behind and pushed his hair in front of him. It bent the trees above them. It dissolved and scattered the dust still hanging in the air around them. It took his white eagle feather and pulled it out of his fingers, lifting it in circles higher and higher. Zachary craned his neck in shock, watching as the feather fluttered and soared and disappeared into the brightness of the day. His left hand was still extended, his fingers still pressed together. A sound made him glance down again.
The soldiers immediately before him had dropped their weapons to the ground. Four of them ripped off their gas masks. “Hey buddy,” one of them said. “Where are you from?” And, “I’m from Logan County, I’m from here,” another chimed in. And, a third, a woman, spoke, “We’ve been ordered to kill you all,” she said. “I don’t think I can do that….”