The orchard’s ripeness floated through the screen window like a first kiss. They begged to be picked. Gathered. Eaten. Rob fought hard for his orchard, for all his crops. From bugs. Birds. Deer. Rot. No more pesticides meant a man had to marry the soil, as it always had been. And people. Them. They were far enough from the cities, and by now the marauders had died from starvation. Or from Bull and his militia. You had to be thankful to Bull for that favor: the chance for peace. The chance to grow and harvest.
His weariness made him draw Nan closer. She sighed and rolled into him. They hadn’t planned on it, not after such a hard day, but lovemaking was one of the few things left that was free. That didn’t have to be bartered or planned. Watched for.
It was done half-asleep. She hugged him as he left her, as he dreamed of their meeting back then, of gentle teasing . . .
The helicopter’s distant rotors snapped them awake. Feds. Rob rolled out of bed and crouched by the window sill. The helicopter’s blinking lights shone in the eastern sky. It whined like a wounded bird.
Rob felt Nan’s hands press on his shoulder.
Another helicopter circled the other in a kind of mating ritual until machine guns opened up, tracers streaking across the sky. The first helicopter groaned and spiraled down, crashing into an orange bouquet of fire.
“God,” whispered Nan.
“At Russell’s Creek.” Rob’s whisper was gun-hard. They watched the second helicopter hover overhead, and then, satisfied with its work, it circled up and away. The door creaked open.
It was the kids: Taylor, Chris, Stone, and Polly. Taylor a sturdy 18, body tense as he held the rifle. The others peeked from behind him.
Rob snapped up. “Hell, don’t you kids knock?”
“Yeah,” Chris piped, “but we saw it — ”
“We got manners,” Rob said as he snatched his clothes off the floor and waved. The door closed. Nan reached for her shift — not that being naked was unusual, not in deep summer when sleeping bare and skinny-dipping were second nature, but you had to have rules in the house. It seemed the only place where there were any left.
Rob glanced out the window at the distant blaze as Nan, now in her thin shift, handed him his boots. When he was dressed and opened the door, Taylor handed him his rifle. Polly had lit the kerosene lamp. Its ghostly, yellow light cast a long shadow as Rob buttoned his shirt.
He missed electricity, but the darker things were, the better. He needed his night vision. Rob turned to Nan.
“Keep everyone here. I’ll go take a look. Taylor, with me.”
“Sure, Dad.” His son pulled on his jeans. As the dogs barked and scraped at the door, Nan took Rob’s arm.
“Handle it my way.”
“You need Rug for this. Taylor can — ”
“Mom, I’ll be okay.”
“Dad.” Chris’s high voice was steady, as though it were aimed. “Want me to ride into town and tell Bull?”
A quick glance at his daughter’s body angered Rob. “Put something on, will you?”
She flipped back her hair. “I got something on. Let me saddle Tulip.”
“No. Too dark. Got cougars out by the road. Everyone just wait. I’ll check it out.”
He finished buttoning his shirt and snapped on his web belt.
Rob, rifle in hand, was out the door, seeing the flames burning at a steady peak. He reckoned it was on the edge of the orchard. Then he looked down. At the base of the porch stairs, petting the dogs, was Rug. Rob swore to himself.
“Heard it first thing,” Rug stood, M-16 slung over his shoulder. “You and me check it out.”
“I’m taking Taylor.”
Nan gripped Rob’s arm. Her nails bit. “You take Rug.”
Rud must have sprinted to make it from his cabin, and in full gear. Still, all Rob saw was the man’s artificial leg hidden by the cammie trousers — that, and a former fed who might get sympathetic to whoever was out there. He stepped down.
“Need someone who won’t slow me up.”
Rug stood tall and stared deep. “Sir, I’m coming. We take the path, then split up and I’ll stay in the orchard.”
“Don’t need you.”
“Rob,” Nan was stern, “take Rug. Taylor’ll guard the fence.”
Rob emitted a spitting hiss. “Woman, don’t start.”
But Nan stepped in front. Even in the dark, her eyes burned. “Do it. You will do it.”
Chris stepped to the edge of the porch. “Come on. Let me take Tulip.”
“No.” Nan looked at her daughter. “Your Dad’s right. Anyway, Bull probably knows all about it.”
A silence took over, only broken by everyone’s heavy breathing and the dog’s panting and whines, anxious to go into the orchard. The flames made a distant crackle. Rob hoped it wouldn’t spread. Oh God, not that. Not on his crops, his peaches, what he had left in this world that hadn’t been taken. His rifle clicked as he pulled back the bolt, and he looked at his family and sighed.
“Just what we need. Democracy. Son, take the fence. Keep low and wait. Hold the dogs.”
“Dad — ”
“No back talk.”
He nodded to Rug, and both men headed toward the flames. Taylor crouched by the fence and Nan herded the children back into the house.
* * *
Rob and Rug were silent as the smell of burning metal wafted through the dense pine and beeches, then mingled with the beautiful smell of ripe peaches. Rob cleared his mind of all the mistrust he had of Rug as his eyes, growing accustomed to the dark, sketched out trees, brush, and the fence ahead. The helicopter was beyond his sight, and that was good. He might have worried about cougars. They had been seen in the last few months, but their reappearance meant that the deer population was being thinned, and the fewer of them eating crops, the better.
His orchard’s border was a dry creek bed. He saw that the helicopter had crashed in the middle of it, which was good since no trees had caught fire and his crops were safe.
Rob wondered if anyone in town had heard the explosion. Surely they had. Bull and his men must be on their way, so all Rob had to do was wait. But . . . no. It was near his property. His home and family. All of it – they — had to be defended from what was out there. The smell of the peaches was thick.
He wished Rug wasn’t so quiet and efficient. He always thought a man with one leg would be hampered and clumsy, but Rug had been a soldier. He’d fought his way back.
Rug tapped Rob’s shoulder, then slid into the deepest part of the orchard to the tree line near the boundary. Rob walked ahead, then heard breathing. A man stumbled in front of him, his black shape bent and smelling of smoke, no doubt from the burning helicopter. The man’s breathing was heavy and labored as he staggered closer.
“Stay where you are,” Rob warned. He thumbed on his flashlight.
The man slowly stood up, blinking at the white light. His face was stained with oil and dirt. His clothes — casual outdoor clothes still stiff from not being worn — were dirty. One of his pants legs had burn marks.
“Oh, thank God,” the man sighed. “Help me. Please. Been out here for ages.”
“Chopper only crashed 15 minutes ago.”
“Seems like ages.” The man was recovering from his shock and aimed for dignity.
“I’m the only one left. Have to be. Jumped clear before . . .” He gulped air.
“Who are you?” Rob asked sharply. Of course he was a fed, but Rob kept the man talking, to fill in the blanks.
“God, I smell peaches. This an orchard?” The man looked around. “Yeah. Ripe.”
“Who are you?”
“God’s sake, don’t you know me? Are you that far out of it?”
He said this a little too firmly; an order-giving man. Rob narrowed his eyes. He’d had enough of those. The ones who’d drove in, demanding food. The soldiers who began to pillage and grab girls until Bull and his men opened fire. Rob’s flashlight shone, catching the man’s aquiline nose, high forehead, and steady eyes. They were familiar, and not in a friendly way. The man cleared his throat.
“I’m your President.”
Rob stared back. It was Donald Burgin, all right.
Burgin became impatient. “Do I have to show you my driver’s license?” He reached into his pocket.
“Keep your hands where I can see them.”
“Look. I need your help.”
“Stay where you are.”
Burgin frowned at the rifle barrel. “I guess you didn’t vote for me?”
“I give up voting a long time ago. Like anyone sensible. Voting’s like throwing fire on gasoline.” Burgin stared back. “Heard you was captured.”
“That’s right, and General Washington did it. Illegal as all hell. I escaped, and I was on my way . . . You’ve got to help me. Help me get to the nearest town.” Burgin’s hand rested on the nearest tree. “Bentonville, right?”
“West of here, a ways.”
Burgin nodded. “We’ve got to fight back. You saw what happened. Those men tried to kill me.”
Rob didn’t hide the acid. “I wonder why.”
“Okay . . . What’s your name?”
Rob almost sneered at the attempt to elicit friendship. “Doesn’t matter.”
“Look. You’re a family man. I can tell it. Feel it. Like me. Right, aren’t I?”
“Then you know what’s at stake. I’m fighting those people. They’re the enemy, and I need to make it to Bentonville. There are men there, ex-military. I need to get to Nashville, where folks are backing me. So we can take it back. Mister . . .”
Rob knew he was supposed to introduce himself. He didn’t. “Here to help out, huh?”
“Sure, I know, you don’t trust me. But help me get to Bentonville. We have to start fighting back. Get this country rolling again.”
Rob’s glaring silence caused Burgin raise his voice. “For God’s sake! Men died to get me here. Good men. Soldiers. My staff. Secret Service. Americans . . .”
“Yeah,” Rob muttered. “The ones who gunned down men protesting you and your kind?
What about Bernbaum? He still with you after he and his Jews looted the Treasury? And Rozak? Your ‘political soul mate?’” Rob started breathing harder and faster. “The one who told you to attack Russia?”
“Look — ”
“That was pretty goddamned stupid, wasn’t it?”
“We needed Russia’s oil reserves. They were preparing to — ”
“Save your speeches, Burgin. You aren’t welcome here. Not after what you and your kind did to us.”
Burgin was stern as he massaged his leg. “You had no idea what I had to do. If you had seen what I saw. What might have happened. Look, just help me get to Bentonville.”
“Swear to God,” Burgin’s voice rose. “We have to get moving. My family — “
“Family,” Rob growled. “You and your corporate marriage. That Hispanic wife.”
“Threw men in jail who refused to speak Spanish. Threw ‘em in jail!”
“Thousands of people are depending on me. At Nashville, a whole army is waiting. If I get to Bentonville, I can take the first step.”
Rob frowned. Nashville? Army? What you been smoking?
When Burgin stepped forward, Rob put his finger on the trigger. Burgin sighed and sank to his knees, fighting back tears.
“I’ve come this far. All those men dying so I could make it. My God in heaven, I’m doing the right thing. The only thing. I told my boys.” He swallowed. “My two boys . . .”
Rob sighed and nudged Burgin with his rifle barrel. “Oh, get up.”
Burgin sprung up and grabbed the rifle barrel. He wrestled Rob, knee aiming for his groin and making a partial hit, but Rob’s shifting kept Burgin from hitting home. Rob struck Burgin, but it didn’t slow him down and he elbowed Rob, then tripped him. Rob didn’t go down and sprang back as the rifle was wrested from his hands. It dropped to the ground as Rob spotted a pistol that Burgin had whipped out of his jacket pocket. Its barrel shone in the dark, matching the gleam in Burgin’s eyes.
“Secret Service taught me a few things.” Heavy breathing from both men filled the air.
“Now, you’re taking me to Bentonville. I have few options, mister, and I’ve got to get moving. I don’t want to hurt you, so don’t do anything stupid.”
Furious at being suckered, Rob glared at Burgin. They watched each other as Burgin slowly picked up the rifle. Rob saw that his pistol had brushed nickel and pearl handles. It looked like a rich man’s gun, the kind displayed on a wall alongside fancy writing from donors. A dude’s gun, and the dude had got the drop on Rob.
Rob slowly rose, hands in the air. Burgin shouldered the rifle. He looked beyond Rob.
“Peaches. Ready for taking.”
Burgin, eyes and gun on Rob, reached over and plucked a peach from the farthest branch sticking beyond the fence.
“I always like fresh peaches. Start walking, and not too fast.”
A crash of brush on the left, and Rug’s rifle butt cracked Burgin’s temple. Rob crouched by the nearest tree. Burgin lay on the ground. Rug stepped on his wrist, making Burgin cry and out and let go of his pistol while the rifle was also snatched out of his hands. Burgin thrashed around.
Burgin stopped, relieved. “A soldier. Can tell. Thank God. Name? Rank?”
Rug picked up the rifle as Rob snatched the pistol.
“Rugwith, Silas. Corporal. 25th Infantry.”
“Good unit,” heaved Burgin. “Help me.”
Rug glanced at Rob. “Kill him?”
A long pause. Rob rose, pistol in hand. “Let him go. He’s nothing to us.”
“Please,” Burgin said, “Corporal — ”
“Man’s right,” Rug said, cold as his barrel. “You’re nothing to us. Sent us over there and let us rot. So shut up.”
Rob felt an urge to kick the shocked Burgin, this injured, fleeing man who had been President, but Rob had had enough. He wanted to go home and protect his family and farm. Ignoring Burgin was, after all, the finest punishment. Really, it was the only punishment. He pointed at the dry creek bed.
“Follow that creek. It will take you to Bentonville, about four miles. You’ll see the road, then the lights. Ain’t too many of them. Watch for cougars. They’re out.”
Burgin shook his head. Rob’s flashlight caught blood trickling down his temple. He
caught his breath and looked around into the dark.
“Cougars. Could I have my gun?”
Burgin’s hard eyes appealed to Rug, but the man was a glacier.
“Get going. Go on. Talk to them. See what happens.”
“And you took a peach from this man. Best give it back.”
The President bit his lip, took the peach out, and dropped it. He turned and limped down the winding, rocky way. Rob called out.
“Take it slow, or you’ll twist your ankle.”
They heard a crash in the dark. Burgin swore, then nothing. Rug picked up the peach and offered it to Rob. He took it, admiring its softness and reassuring fuzz. “Let’s go home.”
Rug shouldered his rifle. “Yes, sir. That’s a good idea.”
* * *
At daybreak there was a quick breakfast, and the kids were already in the orchard. They had gone to stare at the smoking hulk of the helicopter until Rob called out to get to work. Birds sang and perched nervously as young hands reached higher, filling baskets.
Rob walked back into the kitchen, rubbing his unshaven cheek as Nan set a single pancake before him before she started on the dishes. Sorghum waited in a thick jar.
“They’re hard at it,” he said.
Nan poured a cup of chicory. “I told ‘em winner gets one gold piece.”
“What the hell?”
She looked at Rob. He shrugged. “Okay.” As he dug into the thick pancake, Nan let the cat in. It rubbed against Rob and then bee-lined for the milk saucer.
Nan leaned against the screen door. “You found the President, huh?”
Rob looked up. “How did you know?”
“Rug told me. He was up all night, and just came back from the wreck.”
“For gosh sakes.” Rob leaned to one side and looked out onto the porch. Rug sat on it, looking over his artificial leg; one long, metal bone with no flesh. It looked absurdly weak, but Rug said it worked very well. His rifle was at his side, as was an empty plate. The cat was batting at the rifle’s sling. In the morning light, Rug looked older than 26, his hair a dull ginger.
“Rug,” Rob called. “Told you to go home.”
“Thought I’d hang around,” Rug called back, “just in case.”
The cat licked up a smear of sorghum on the plate.
“Dad!” Taylor called out from the orchard, “Bull’s coming!”
Chris piped up. “Got some of his boys by the chopper.”
Rob frowned at Nan. “Just keep at your work.”
Nan wiped her hands. “Trouble, you think?”
When the dogs started barking, Rob, leaving his weapons, stepped out onto the porch, Rug by his side. The kids, despite Rob’s orders, stopped picking as the horsemen rode in, weapons slung and their horse’s hooves kicking up small puffs of dust on the road. Bull led three of his boys, waving his broad-brimmed hat.
“Morning, there. Peach time, in’it?”
Rob nodded. “Sure is.”
“Boys,” Bull commanded, “y’all help ‘em out. Go flirt with them pretty Pettis girls.
Say, Rob, maybe half a basket for helping out?”
“Sure,” Rob said hesitantly. “Sure. Anyway, peaches are getting ripe.”
The horses were hitched and then gulped water at the trough as the boys joined the kids, the picking growing louder and faster. Bull slowly approached the porch, the barrel of his gun slung downwards. He wiped his forehead, then scratched his beard.
“Got one pancake, Bull,” Nan said. “Want it?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’d like that fine.” Bull helped himself to a place on the swing. Its old wood groaned as Rob and Rug continued standing. A man came from the orchard; Larance, Rob knew, who was a carpenter in town. He spoke to Bull, who nodded, then jogged back into the orchard. Bull’s eyes centered on Rug. “Rug.”
Rug nodded back.
“My boys are all over the chopper. We saw it last night, and the judge sent me to give it a looksee. Four men, all of ‘em burnt like toast. One jumped clear, but he bought the farm, just did it more slowly. Must have died this morning.”
“I didn’t hear anything,” Rob said.
“I went there,” Rug said. “I saw them. He was just breathing heavy. I let him be.”
“Sure,” Bull said. “Nothing you could have done.” Nan came out with the pancake. Bull nodded his thanks and took a bite. “Damned good. Going to make some peach pies, I bet?”
Nan wiped her hands. “I think more’n one.”
“I like peach pie. Always comes with August, now don’t it?”
Rob stuck his thumbs in his pockets. A ripple of laughter was heard from the kids as peaches dropped into baskets. “You find Burgin?”
“Sure. Thanks for sending him to us. He limped right into town just as folks were waking up. Had his own one-man parade right up to the folks at Nolan’s cafe.”
Nan offered Rob a cup of chicory. He drank. “What happened?”
Bull laughed. “Oh, Burgin talked up a storm. Had the judge, the colonel, preacher, and everyone around the courthouse to tell us we had to fight back. He said he’d heard of our dust-up with the feds, and how he’d changed his ways. He’s for the people now, he said. Him and General Jamal Africa Washington.” Bull pronounced each name with a sour contempt. “They’d had a real falling out, and at Nashville, he was going to lead the movement to . . .” Bull gestured
like a camie. “. . . ‘take back our country, and put God in the saddle.’”
“Yeah,” Rob said quietly. “Tried to give me a speech, then pulled a gun on me.”
Bull’s laughter was hearty. “Did, did he? Well, that’s a fed for you.”
Rob looked at Chris and Roy Bull play tug-of-war with a basket of peaches, but they’d already filled it, then started on another. He wondered how soon it would be before she slept with Roy, or with any boy. Bull sopped up the last of the pancake.
“Guess it was a good thing you keep Rug around. Don’t guess Rug let himself get no gun pointed at him.”
A staring nod came from Rug. Nan took the plate.
“So Burgin got the town stirred up?’
“Said he needed 20 men to get him to Nashville and get the troops ready. Old Washington, DC don’t seem too secure. Seemed to think we were all ready to join the cause.
He’d had him some ‘re-liable sources . . .’”
There was a pause as Bull looked around, smiling at the peach gathering. He leaned back, and the swing groaned again.
“Should have seen Burgin’s face when the judge and colonel told him he was under arrest for treason. Murder. High crimes and misdemeanors’ His majesty’s jaw dropped. Oh, we gave him a real good trial. Nice and quick. All for free. Just like the ones his goons give us.”
Rob and Nan stared. Rug played with the cat.
“Strung him up in front of the courthouse. He started bawling and struggling until I cocked him one and told him to take it like a man. Cried about his two boys.”
“Yeah,” Larance said. “The half-breeds from his Mexican wife.”
“He give us that thousand-yard stare when the deputies put the rope around his neck,” Bull continued. “He’s still there, twisting about. Got a nice breeze in town, thank the Lord.”
Bull fanned himself with his hat. Rob relaxed. He’d expected a chewing out for not going to town right away to tell them about Burgin, but there was a strange calm. It was over. Rob imagined it had been quick. A whole company of men had been called up from their county to serve in the Guard. Rug was the only one who had come back. Rob wondered if any others were left. Maybe in Siberia, making little rocks out of big ones. Since the generals and colonels they’d captured were paraded in Red Square and tried as war criminals, Rob doubted anyone was left.
He’d been too cold toward Rug, the soldier who’s turned against his fellows when the feds came to town to loot and rape. Rug turned the tide, and yet Rob had always distrusted him. That had to change.
“Rug,” he said, “why don’t you go home to Janine? She’s probably waiting for you.”
“If that’s okay,” Rug said.
“Sure. Take a bowlful of peaches. She’d like that.”
“She would,” Rug said as he slung his rifle over his shoulder. “She’d like that.’
The kid’s laughter danced across the orchard. With Bull’s boys helping, the crop was getting picked fast. Rob looked at Nan as Bull widened his smile. She offered Bull a fresh peach. He nodded, his thick fingers squeezing its soft body.
“What’s it like?” Nan asked. “Hanging the President?”
Bull bit into the peach, savoring its sweetness, and swallowed.
“Makes me feel . . . patriotic.”
* * *
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David Zsutty Introduces the Homeland Institute: Transcript
“A Few More Steps and We Were . . . On Some Edge of Things”: Staircases That Lead Nowhere, Part 2
Used to Be a Bad Guy: Carlito’s Way at 30
The Suppression of the Maryland Moderates During the Civil War
G. Gordon Liddy’s When I Was a Kid, This Was a Free Country, Part 2
Closing Down the Stations of the Cross
Must Jews Be Able to Feel Safe in Germany?
The Black Gestapo