Tunnel rats and communards traced their way back and forth across the sandy ground of the Emma Goldman Arts Co-Op and Biodiverse Living Center. Since we didn't immediately get Horiuchied, and since HumVees didn't soon swarm up the driveway toward us, I assumed with relief that our townsmen had taken out the snipers and the first part of the rescue operation, at least, had a chance.
Taken out. What an impersonal, military term. Like collateral damage, if we had to face what being taken out really meant, we'd have a hard time living with ourselves. These people, these feds, threatening though they were, had done no more than trespass up to now. To take them out seemed a violation of our precious non-aggression principle. Or even worse, of the time-honored Code of Hardyville.
I wish I could tell you that our hill-crawling militia teams simply ... oh, slipped a Hollywood-style mickey into the canteens of the snipers. You know, one of those tasteless, odorless, harmless poisons that tidily make people fall asleep without the slightest hint of an ill-effect. Or I wish I could say they shot them with diligently calculated doses of animal tranquilizers, then simply carried them away, bound in the softest of ropes. Then, when the snipers were fully recovered and feeling full of vim, I wish I could tell you that our townsmen released them all at the top of the pass that unofficially defines the western -- and most isolated -- border of Hardy County. Released them to be free as doves after learning the error of their ways. Released them naked. Into the snow. Without food. And released them only after a tort action on behalf of their victims stripped them lawfully of every possession they ever owned or ever might own.
I really do wish I could tell you that's how Hardyville took them out. But rest assured, they got took.
And at the commune, we hustled.
* * *
More than a mile to the southwest, over the highway and through many a radiator-busting, tire-puncturing obstacle, our explosives teams -- having stashed their .50 BMGs among the rocks and traded them for lighter, more portable weaponry -- were on the run. Nimble men, on foot or navigating ATVs over familiar Saturday-afternoon playgrounds, they led the federal squads onward -- across more arroyos, through more scraping, sticking, prickling greasewood, over more rocks.
They had made sure to be seen a few hundred yards beyond the fireballs, where they fired a few random shots and took off. The feds had followed like politicians after money.
A graveyard of major-media satellite trucks and yuppie SUVs had been left behind, scattered randomly across the landscape, spinning wheels in sand or with juniper branches tangled in their transmissions. Blonde girl reporters stood by the trucks, weeping in pain and frustration as blond boy reporters, equally mired, chivalrously pulled prickly pear spines out of their female competitors' open-toed shoes. The media hadn't come prepared for a chase like this.
On the fly, the leader of Squad Two reported in, informing Herr Kommandante they were chasing a small gang that appeared to be drug runners. (Where they got that idea, we're not sure. I guess when you're a drug warrior, every American looks like a drug-crazed criminal instead of what we really were -- well-armed, all-American guerrilla fighters.) Bumping over a field of half-buried boulders and trying to hear with his headphones jolting up and down on his ears, Squad Two leader didn't especially notice that the transmission was beginning to break up.
And the hills were getting closer together until, if you'd noticed in the dark, they began to look more like the mouth of a narrow canyon.
I wish I could say that thing about animal tranquilizers and Hollywood mickey finns again. But this time, the Hardyville Militia didn't even need them. Just block the only exit, put our own sharpshooters up in the rim, and the thing is pretty much done. By then, only one lone indy photojournalist in his own well-beaten Jeep was still keeping pace. It was chance and good luck that he later managed to get the only photos of what happened once the fed patrols sped into the trap of the canyon. His pictures were dark and full of vague blurs. There really wasn't that much to see. In the glorious tradition of journalists everywhere, he wrote all the details wrong, besides.
In the canyon, Squad Two and Squad Three commanders, along with the accompanying head of the sniper detachment, called frantically on radios, and then on cell phones, that weren't paying any attention to them. Above and around them, Hardyville closed in.
* * *
The last of us tunnel rats dropped the last burden into the mine's vent and scrambled down after. We were utterly exhausted. We'd been operating on adrenaline so long that only now did our bodies and minds finally get hit with the overload. But we'd made it. We were all in the tunnels -- rats, communards, kids, dogs -- everybody but Carty. And Marty and Jasper.
Carty, of course, because he had other duties that required him to remain out there. Marty and Jasper ...?
"C'mon, Mr. Harbibi," Jasper rasped. "C'mon. You can do it!" They crouched together in the shelter of the rock outcrop near the vent's portal into the real world. Marty gasped and gulped sobs of air.
"I can't. No way. Never. I'm never going. Down ... there. Again. No."
"You have to, Mr. Harbibi. You just have to ..."
Jasper desperately looked around. Carty was running at them in a low crouch, "Move it, &^%$#@!!" he ordered. But even faced with The Carty, the hyperventilating Marty didn't budge.
"I'll die if I have to go down there! I'll have a heart attack. The rocks will fall on me. I'll suffoc ..."
"Jeezus, shut him UP!" ordered Carty. Jasper clasped a hand over Marty's wailing mouth.
Then Carty looked back toward the commune and saw a much bigger problem than Marty.
A trail. Winding through the moonlight and the sandy soil. Not just a trail of our footsteps. That would have been bad enough. The real problem was what was mixed with our footprints.
It was a trail of cannabis leaves and broken buds, of dark organic soils, of occasional cracked bits of ceramic pot or residue of peat potting cups. A trail of wheel ruts from where we'd steered garden carts, of parallel skids from where we'd dragged pallets of potted plants. The trail unwound from the big greenhouse straight to the mouth of the mine's vent -- where we had carried each cannabis plant for the last hour, from the tiniest rooted cutting to the most towering sativa hybrid in its black earth.
The plants were in the tunnels beyond us. But would all our work be for nothing? Against the dead tan sands of our native soil, we'd left the remnants of a tropical jungle -- and possibly the remnants of a now futile operation.
"&^%$#@," Carty muttered.
He looked around. All was still quiet -- but wouldn't be for long. How the hell to erase this giant neon arrow pointing from greenhouse to tunnel? Part of it would soon be obliterated, anyhow. But he needed to get rid of it all, guaranteed, to avoid discovery. But how to get rid of any of it? Impossible! Some operation commander I am. Carty battered himself. &^%$#@. No brains.
He glanced at Jasper, still clasping Marty's face. Jasper had spotted the problem, too. It was that obvious, even in the dark. He looked stricken. Terrified. As if doom had followed him with a personal thundercloud.
Carty turned from Jasper and Marty and regarded the trail again. He made a scuff mark or two with his foot, right where he stood. No good. He snapped off a small broom of sagebrush and scuffled that in the dirt. Black soil blended with sand. Wheel ruts softened. Better. If he could just start at the greenhouse and if he could ...
"I'll do it," a voice behind him quavered. "I'll stay and cover the trail."
Carty glanced back at Jasper's white face. "It might not work."
"I know. But it'll be better than it is now."
"You'll need to start out there -- in the open. Not here in the brush. You might not have time to finish."
Neither of them wanted to consider the implications of not finishing. Either for Jasper or the operation.
Jasper -- still holding Marty like a ventriloquist's dummy -- turned Marty's wooden head toward the trail, then nudged him to pay attention.
Marty's eyes widened.
"Look, Mr. Harbibi. Now there's something you can do besides go back into the tunnels."
Marty nodded numbly.
"Go!" Carty ordered as he faded down the hill himself, heading for a rendezvous in the dark. At least he didn't say, "Let's roll." We'd all be rolling too soon, anyhow.
* * *
More endless minutes passed. The rat pack in the tunnels didn't know what was going on. In a way, we were out of it. We'd done our part. We'd gotten communards and crops underground. Now those unreliable gods were in charge again. There was nothing more we could do except wait. Wait and emerge back out of the vent shaft if the fates were with us. Or leave the plants stashed where they were and make a desperate run through the labyrinth to Nat's ranch if the feds discovered our trail.
Each rat was assigned a communard to comfort, and if necessary, to guide. We were probably as terrified as they. But now we were the bold rescuers being strong for the rescuees. I clutched the arm of a skinny young woman I couldn't see in the dark, and she clung to me, making my claustrophobia even worse. Down the tunnels, babies whimpered. And grownups, too.
Wait and emerge if our guys above beat the feds. Wait and escape through the mines to Nat's ranch if something went wrong. There was one other possibility we all understood but didn't dare utter -- the possibility that the tunnels would collapse and we'd all die when ...
Ka-boom! The earth rocked. The earth rolled. The earth jerked like an attack dog hitting the end of its leash. No distant thunder this time. This time we were smack in the middle of the thunderhead with the lightning storm cracking all around us.
Dirt and small rocks rained down upon the cannabis plants and on our arms and faces. Screams shrieked through the tunnels -- but mostly unheard amid the ear-splitting thunder and concussion. We hunched down. We grabbed our ears, ducked our heads, tried to make ourselves small. And all the while we knew that 16 or 20 feet of earth over our heads was no friendlier than if it had been 200. Either way, planet Earth held enough gravity to crush us to nothing.
And then the rocking stopped. And all we could hear was the ringing in our ears. But we rats and our charges were still alive.
And over our heads -- well, 50-some yards from over our heads -- the feds now had their "provocation" to raid the commune. Our July 2 pyrotechnics crew had promised they'd do it as gently as they could, for our sakes and the sake of the rest of the commune. It hadn't felt very damned gentle. But it was done.
Aboveground, the formerly cannabis-containing greenhouse had gone up exactly on time and now, no doubt, burned as brightly as a beacon, calling to Herr Kommandante and what was left of his raiders.
It was an act of strategic property destruction we hoped our communal neighbors would forgive.
* * *
"Sniper teams! Sniper teams! Report in!" The DEA field commander barked into his radio. Beyond the curve of the commune's mysterious driveway, the fireball bloomed, close enough that he could hear its roar, see its red-gold top, and hear its rubble raining down. But exactly what was going on up there, he didn't know. (He had another moment of unreality, wondering once again if his lies about the communards blowing themselves up had magically become true.)
"Sniper teams! Report!"
Silence. Of course. Our hill-crawlers had taken care of that. He had no "eyes" to tell him what was going on up on Commune Hill.
"&^%$#@" muttered the commander. He had already been trying to raise his away teams, Squads Two and Three, and getting nothing but the silence of the box canyon where we had them trapped. Now this. He darted his eyes toward the few remaining journalists, those who hadn't chased the original explosions. They leaned forward like wolves about to hunt. He could almost see them sniffing the scent of blood in the air. "&^%$#@," he cursed again. He didn't know what was going on, but this time he knew for sure he was screwed. Even the lower Podunkville P.D. wouldn't hire him after this fiasco.
Well what the hell. If you gotta get raped, might as well enjoy it, he thought, without a twinge at his own grossness.
He got on the horn to his boss, the DEA Man, waking him out of dreams of world domination.
"What the &^%$#@!" growled the DEA Man. "I just got back from the latest try at working this out with Delaval's people and the ambassadors of about six European countries. What are you doing waking me up at this ...?"
"Forget 'working it out,'" Herr Kommandante snarled. "Forget politics. This is it. This is the real thing. The compound is burning. I don't know why. And I can't raise my sniper teams." He decided not to mention also having lost half the rest of his people to a now-obvious ruse.
"Listen up," Herr Kommandante barked to his startled boss. "I am going in. I am taking my teams up there. Those hippie anarchists can blow themselves to powder for all I care. Hor-Hay Del-La-Val can kiss my ... But I am not going to let anybody destroy the evidence for my big pot bust. You get me backup -- stat. You get me a medical team with tactical EMTs. And choppers. I want a gunship. I want evacuation. And I want everything here within half an hour; I don't care if you have to carry them personally on your back from Denver or Salt Lake City. Get off your damn politics and get me what I need to do my job!"
He punched the disconnect button. It wasn't as satisfying as a good old-fashioned receiver slam. He flung the phone into the dirt.
In Mordor-on-the-Potomac, the startled DEA Man stared at the phone receiver as if it were a rattlesnake that had just slithered into his bed and nibbled his earlobe.
At the foot of the mysterious driveway, Herr Kommandante marshalled most of his remaining team, and the blood-sniffing wolves of the media. He dispatched four of those precious few agents into the dark, to the first sniper position in the hills, with another "investigate and report" -- maddeningly aware that his forces were draining away in drips and floods.
Then, clad in enough armor to make them twins of Imperial Stormtroopers, his depleted teams lumbered into armored personnel carriers and ground their way -- at last -- toward the commune.
It wasn't the way any sane commander would have chosen. Only enough personnel for a frontal assault. Not even enough to prevent an escape to the rear. An unknown situation in the surrounding hills. Unknown dangers to himself and his men from all that godawful empty landscape. But by God, it was the last chance to save his World's Biggest Pot Bust and his career, and he was taking it.
Thank you to proofreaders Darrell Anderson and EB -- saving writers from themselves one typo at a time. This column is dedicated to Robert Crichton, author of one of the world's most delightful novels, The Secret of Santa Vittoria. I ... um, borrowed an element or two from him for this part of the story.
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