Dora unlocked her lips from Carty's and stepped away. Carty stood shock-still, imitating an ox that's just been whacked across the forehead with a copy of the U.S. tax code and hasn't figured out it's dead yet.
Dora finally had to break the silence. Snapping to a parody of attention she asked, "Well, Heroic Rescuer, what do you have in mind for us?"
When Carty explained there were groans. But -- his old self again now -- he cut off all objections: "Two choices. You can stay here, whine, and get Waco-ed. Or you can get to work."
Blank faces queried other blank faces in the dark. Fear crossed paths with doubt. In the end, though, what choice did they have? The response was the same when Carty, Dora, and Jasper appeared in the second dwelling where the rest of the communards hid and started doling out assignments there. Anything was better than idly waiting for disaster or walking down the hill, surrendering, and facing decades in a federal prison.
But the next stage of the rescue was going to involve some 60 people -- the communards and we tunnel-rats -- moving at will around the complex. And what about those prying eyes? If even one sniper spotted the proposed goings-on, the jig, as they say, was up. No hostile watcher could mistake what we were about to do for "casual activity." We had to hide from their eyes.
Carty pulled a cell phone out of a pocket in his tactical vest. He drew its batteries from another and inserted them. Punched in a one-word text message and selected a pre-set list of numbers to zap to. Poked send. He waited to make sure the call was well-launched. Then he switched off and removed the batteries.
"SHOWTIME," the message read.
* * *
On a hillside nearly a mile southwest of the commune -- across the highway, over a wide arroyo, down a slope of loose shale -- and far away from where Carty and company were up to nefarious good deeds -- a Hardyville militiaman reached into his vest and pulled out a cell phone that silently buzzed the arrival of a message. He punched buttons. Read words on the tiny lighted screen. Raised his shooter's earmuffs onto his ears, as did the three fellow militiamen waiting invisibly among the boulders. He nodded as he signaled thumb's up.
Will Goodin, who had -- surprisingly for a city man -- become one of Hardyville's best benchrest shooters, rotated his shoulders, inhaled deeply, then lowered himself to gaze through the long-range night-vision scope of the .50 BMG Barrett that had rested all those months in the back room of his store. He took another quiet breath or two while focusing on his target. The combination of the night scope and invisible infrared "illumination" -- a.k.a. heat -- made the target stand out against the cool hillside. Will's confidence took over. He let out one breath halfway and smoothly compressed the trigger.
The night exploded. Across an ancient river valley, now a moonscape of sand, rock, scrub, and cactus, five booms reverberated in succession as five isolated benchrest shooters took their shots. Answering them, from the bases of the even more distant hills, thundered five tremendous explosions.
Each explosion triggered a second series of explosions, so close-paced only someone listening carefully would realize they weren't one solid blast. Five fireballs bloomed into the night, all in a chain, making a ruby-and-gold necklace at the base of otherwise empty hills.
It was merely Tannerite. All sound and fury. Quite a bit of Tannerite, actually. And okay, I admit, it was Tannerite augmented by a few sticks of volatile old dynamite. So quite a bit of sound and fury. Not much else, though, except for one sagebrush bush that caught fire and burned brightly for a while.
But the DEA and friends didn't know that.
* * *
As the boom rolled across the landscape Herr Kommandante of the DEA rolled -- almost literally -- out of his cot. The guards on duty were already shouting at each other or calling into their radios: "What the hell ... ?" "It came from over there." "No, wait a minute! I heard heavy-weapons fire south-southwest first!" "No way. It was east. Had to be. Behind that row of hills ..."
Herr Kommandante experienced another weird moment of believing his own lies. Could those commune people have actually blown themselves up, as he had told the media they threatened to do? But no way. All intel said they were as passive as babies.
Fully clothed already, he launched himself out of his tent and into the chilly night. By the time he reached the command post, aides and guards had agreed: the noise and flash had come from the southwest, far from the Emma Goldman Arts Co-Op and Biodiverse Living Center (a.k.a. "World's Largest-Ever (would-be) Pot Bust of the Week"). The glow of fireballs still lit the horizon, though the explosion sites themselves were hidden from view.
He cast his eyes up the commune's driveway. It curved away into the night, silent and dark, revealing none of its secrets. "All posts report in," he demanded to his second. The aide relayed the request, and from the hills encircling the commune came ten reports of "all quiet" at their locations and on the commune's hill.
Damn bosses, the DEA field commander thought, as his teams gathered around him, watching him for orders and looking antsy. Damn them, sending the choppers back! Washington had ordered the mission's helicopters back to Billings and Cheyenne after the embarrassing discovery that the Emma Goldman Etc., Etc., Etc. was secretly owned by the internationally untouchable billionaire Jorge Delaval. The muckymucks left him operating on a shoestring -- or more likely dangling from his own hangman's noose -- as the diplomats in Zurich, Liechtenstein, and D.C. figured out how to get out of the political stewpot.
From the moment he'd hatched his plan to create a provocation to raid the commune -- a plan he hadn't yet had time to implement -- he'd known he'd have to move against the target without the choppers -- and with fewer men than he'd counted on, too. He could work with that. What he hadn't imagined was this: explosions in a completely different direction. Drawing off what was left of his strength. Damndoubledamn. He could really use those choppers now to chase after those fireballs.
He glanced uneasily toward the media vans, where rumpled reporters were awakening, in that ready-for-action way that only doctors and journalists can manage. Their faces echoed those of his men. Anxious. Eager. Questioning. Respectful -- but also ready to judge him. Hero? Or scapegoat? Which would they make him when this was all over?
He glanced at the scattering of silent citizens standing by the road, outside the barricades, even at this hour. Their faces were blank, unreadable. Some looked eager. Some hostile. But they'd all be witnesses if he screwed up. He felt his future career in the agency -- or anywhere outside of the Lower Podunkville Police Department -- slipping away even further if he didn't do this right. Is it a real incident out there? Or a diversion? But who would set up a diversion? The locals can't give a crap about these dope-dealing hippies. And we've got all the hippies surrounded and trapped. Anyway, even if it is a diversion, I have to ...
"Squads Two and Three," he ordered. "I'm pulling half my sharpshooters from the perimeter and giving them to you, just in case you run into something you can't solve up close and personal. Investigate and report. Engage if provoked."
As half his team members loaded up and started rumbling overland toward the smoky remnants of the fireballs (and as nearly 3/4 of the media vans raced after them, as if satellite trucks were capable of navigating sagebrush), Herr Kommandante again glared up the driveway in frustration. He wanted those pacifist, dope-sucking weenies up there. He wanted them bad. Wanted them now. But explosions a mile away in the wrong direction aren't enough excuse to raid. The nine black-robed Nazgul in D.C. would never buy it. This wasn't his provocation. At least, not yet.
He turned his attention back toward the smudgy southwestern horizon.
* * *
Huddled in the darkness outside one of the commune buildings, Carty had observed the explosions with a tight smile barely cracking his face. Now he heard the roar of heavy vehicles lumbering away. And saw the reflected glow, from the rocky valley beyond, of their retreating headlights.
Again, he quietly drew his cell phone and its batteries from separate pockets in his tactical vest. Again he assembled, hit buttons, typed a one-word text message, and launched the message toward multiple recipients.
"APPLAUSE," the message said.
"APPLAUSE" set in motion another series of militia actions. Swiftly, silently, Hardyville teams in the hills started moving in on that half of the federal snipers and spotters still posted around the perimeter of the commune. This -- aside from the tunnels -- was the trickiest part of the operation. Just one fed alerted too soon could ruin the entire operation. We had to be very discreet.
"APPLAUSE" also sent our diversionary explosives team further into the hills -- stashing their .50 BMGs among the rocks and swapping them for a variety of rifles and handguns, from .308s and 7.62x39s to little, silenced .22s.
There was more. But for now Carty, as he twisted his wrist to check the watch he wore on the palm side, was more immediately concerned about what the Emma Goldman communards and we tunnel rats -- still waiting in the old mine shafts -- would do. The other operations were in solid, trustworthy hands. The commune rescue was in his.
Down in the tunnels we had felt and heard the explosions. Trust me, you do not enjoy feeling the earth quake when you're crouched in a 150-year-old collapsing silver mine. But we knew it meant we'd be moving in minutes.
Those minutes stretched on for a long, long time. We waited below. Christian Goodin, still crouching by the rock outcrop at the mouth of the vent, awaited Carty's signal.
There it came. A wave, no more than shadow against shadow. But repeated.
Christian stuck his head into the shaft and nodded to Nat, who stood at the bottom.
"Let's roll," Nat whispered, with a fatalistic sigh. (Let's roll. I was coming to hate that expression.)
Grateful tunnel rats swarmed up ladders into what seemed glaringly bright moonlight, though in truth the moon was no more than a little lemon slice in the sky. Damning discretion and hoping our fellow townspeople had taken care of that small sniper problem, we moved with, as they say, all deliberate speed, toward the buildings. There, the blinking, shell-shocked communards emerged and stared at us as though we were an apparition born of some drug far stronger than cannabis.
But Carty, Nat, and Jasper as a sort of impromptu Captain of the Communards kept them, and us, moving. And move we did. As fast as we possibly could. We had an impossible task to perform. But if Herr Kommandante had something to prove to himself for his own sake and the world's perception, so did we. We had to prove that Hardyville could not only beat an unconstitutional, tyrannical, invading government, but to prove that we are such a formidable opponent that it's better never again to touch us.
And so we hustled -- every dirt-smeared tunnel rat, every Birkenstock-wearing idealist, every 100-percent-all-natural-cotton-diaper-wearing toddler, every man, woman, and dog of us. We hustled.
Thank you to proofreaders Darrell Anderson and EB -- saving writers from themselves one typo at a time. Thank you, also, to the Chivalrous Gun Guys of The Claire Files Forums who generously solved my night-shooting problem. Many of you guys are very ... er, creative. While I don't want to slight anybody, I do want to give special thanks to Dave Polaschek, Ian, Chris, Slidemansailor, and Thunder for solutions verging on the practical. :-)
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