Marty and Jasper were still in the open when the armored personnel carriers of the multi-jurisdictional task force rumbled up Commune Hill and hove into view.
They were that close to the edge of the clearing and the more brushy, more safe reaches near the mine shaft. But not close enough. With their frantic sweeping and some help from the disintegrating greenhouse (whose initial effects they'd dodged by ducking behind a power shed), they'd almost obliterated the most visible portions of our cannabis trail. Almost done what was necessary to make our escape thoroughly mysterious.
But for Marty and Jasper, time had run out.
Because of what happened next, many Hardyvillians later said Carty deliberately set those two up as human decoys. Some claim he did it to gain a little time or a small tactical advantage that Operation Santa didn't really need. Others are convinced Carty had an even darker, more cynical motive. He kept silent, so judge for yourself.
As the growl of engines rounded the last curve, Marty and Jasper started a crouching dash in the direction of the mine tunnel. Nobody knows which one of them realized they had to do something smarter -- for us -- and braver -- for them. But at the last minute, as the beam of a headlight swept past, one changed direction and the other followed. Instead of running toward the tunnel, they bolted -- as well as two out-of-shape and pot-bellied men could bolt -- at an angle that carried them a good 90 degrees away from our hiding place.
Now they had nowhere to run, except into the dubious concealment of hillside rocks and flora -- where movement could be seen easily from above. And they had been spotted.
Herr Kommandante had intended to go slow, stay inside his armored vehicle, and check things out first. He intended to dispatch a dynamic entry team to bust into the remaining buildings, subdue the occupants, put them under arrest, then use the earth-bermed dwellings for cover against whatever might be out there in the hills -- whatever caused his snipers to go silent.
But two running miscreants were too much temptation. Imperial Stormtroopers clattered out of the vehicles and into the night.
A spotlight swung, sweeping after the fleeing men. Fire erupted from half dozen MP5 machine guns and a handful of semi-auto carbines. Thirty-round magazines emptied. Brass rang on flying brass, then on broken glass. Tactical reloads ratcheted and snapped. A few more bursts. Then ...
"Cease fire," Herr Kommandante ordered redundantly. He stepped to the edge of the clearing, peered down the hillside, and tried to distinguish any shape of moving or dead bodies down in the brush. Nothing. One way or another, nothing.
"Check it out," he nodded to four of his men. Then he and the rest of his stormtroopers seemed to remember, belatedly, that they were standing bareass-naked (except for 50 pounds of armor, of course, but that wouldn't help them against rifle fire) in the middle of an Uncontrolled Situation. Somewhere around them 30 or 40 people had to be hiding in these houses. In the hills beyond, God only knew what unknown threat lurked. He had to get back on plan and enter those buildings.
After a huddle in the cover between two armored vehicles, the teams grabbed battering rams and went to work.
"DEA! Open up!"
"I said, 'Open up!,' you &^%$er &^%$ers!"
The thud of the battering rams accompanied their shouts. Wood splintered. Glass shattered. More foul shouts erupted as as they burst into the Earthship houses, expecting criminals.
Then ... puzzlement.
Herr Kommandante crept from building to building after his baffled men. Not a soul stirred anywhere, other than those he'd brought with him. All around them hung that endless, empty, eerie silence.
Inside the vacant Earthship houses, task force members slunk down below the window-walls and waited for orders. Or for something. What the hell were they supposed to do? A body pumped with adrenaline and ready for action can't just crouch in the shadows.
But that's what they did for some very long minutes, waiting for an attack, looking around for any sign of trapdoors or hidden rooms.
* * *
After a while, when no sign of a threat emerged and they realized the criminals were truly ... gone, the DEA teams crept cautiously across the clearing and flung open the doors of the greenhouses. No pot. Mere garden-variety vegetables grew there, or lay on their sides under shattered glass.
Finally, feeling both more puzzled at this Mary Celeste of a compound and more confident that, whatever else was going on, nothing was about to attack them, they stood up and turned their attention to the remains of the big ruined greenhouse whose destruction had brought them here. That, of course, had to be the real scene of the crime. That, of course, was where the precious evidence for the World's Biggest Pot Bust of the Week would be found, despite anybody's amateur attempts to obliterate it.
The drug-sniffing dogs bounded from the personnel carriers. They burst out eagerly, nearly pulling their handlers off their feet. Then ... confusion. The dogs dashed randomly, sniffing, whining, sniffing, whining, sniffing, pawing, alerting up a storm. But what was there to alert to? The ground itself? The charred wood timbers? The very air?
No matter where they rushed, in ever widening circles around the obliterated greenhouse, the dogs alerted -- but to everything. And therefore to nothing.
"Is it possible this could have wiped out every trace of the plants?" the commander asked a handler, indicating the still-smoldering bits of rubble.
"No. There'd be something." The handler pointed. "Like ... look here. Here's a potting table that survived, there on its side. Look, there's dirt. Broken pots. If there were plants around when the place blew, there'd still be ... well, some trace. Something."
The handlers and their sensory-overloaded dogs continued to circle in confusion.
The commander walked away from the milling men and dogs. He squatted where he could see his four men, still beating the brush for the fleeing dopers -- or their bodies. Someplace out there in all that darkness, there had to be one hell of a lot of people and a whole forest of pot plants. It didn't seem possible they could all disappear like that. But it had to be. He raised his visor and pulled on his night-vision goggles. But if some Birnam Wood of cannabis was out there, he couldn't see it, even under IR.
* * *
Down in the junipers on the opposite side of Commune Hill from which Marty and Jasper had fled, Carty did that trick with his cell phone again. He and his handpicked Hardyville Minutemen -- the expert teams who had "taken out" the fed snipers -- had waited a long time in the shadows. They had waited unmoving through the feds' gunfire at Marty and Jasper. They had done nothing because doing nothing was a vital part of Operation Santa. But now was the moment to do something.
This time Carty's text message read, "ENCORE."
After he sent it, he waved a signal and the Minutemen around him began creeping silently up the hill, approaching the earth-sheltered rears of the dwellings.
* * *
At the barricades, outside the DEA base camp, near one of the few remaining media vans (now staffed only by sleepy technicians), another cell phone buzzed. Another message arrived.
Moments later, a battered red Dodge pickup truck rattled its way down the highway and turned in at the driveway. That is, it tried to turn in. But its drunken driver, the Young Curmudgeon (who in this case was only pseudo-drunken; he had a job to do and took it seriously), missed the roadway and jolted to a halt with one wheel hanging over a ditch.
"Hey," Mudge slurred with beery friendliness, waving at the five remaining federales nervously manning the barricades. "Hey guys! C'n ya help me out over here?"
Metal shrieked on metal as he pushed his door wide and stumbled out -- revealing an untidy pile of plastic-wrapped packages on the passenger seat.
Most of the packages contained baking soda. A few had enough oregano to season all Italy -- thanks to Nat and his grocery store.
But the DEA agents didn't know that.
It was that "politicians-to-money" thing again. Drug warriors to drugs. Drawing guns and stumbling all over themselves and each other, the last agents at the barricades swarmed Mudge.
And every single "civilian" at the barricades -- plus a few who'd been bedded down in and behind cars -- mostly women, kids, old people -- pulled sidearms and swarmed them.
Not a journalist was in sight. Only the media techs stood witness. By then, although they didn't know what we were up to, they thought whatever was happening was pretty clever. Even amusing. Techies tend to be natural libertarians, anyhow. And we'd been working on them. By the end of that night several of them abandoned their vans and their pet journalists and defected permanently to Hardyville. There was nobody to report the incident at the barricades to the outside world.
As to the agents our "civilians" captured at the barricades ... just tell yourself that old Hollywood mickey finn story again. Of course we wouldn't harm them. Technically, they were only trespassers, even if they were everybody-else's-business minders with felonious intent.
* * *
The drug dogs and handlers still circled on the hilltop, keeping one eye out for a threat that seemed more abstract at every moment. Members of the media, emerging cautiously from the relative safety of the armored personnel carriers, poked into the rubble or stuck their heads into the silent, empty dwellings. Herr Kommandante still crouched at the edge of the clearing, scanning fruitlessly.
He whipped off the clumsy goggles and looked out into the unaugmented darkness. Nothing.
Yet he felt, at that very moment, a chill so deep it nearly turned his spine into an icicle. Yeah, the whole situation was creepy. Had been creepy all along. The whole setup was chill-inducing. But at that instant, something prickled an extra added creepiness, right at the back of his neck and down to a certain body part that abruptly puckered like a prune.
Why, how, he didn't know. But suddenly he was certain that the very silence of this place, the very fact that he and his men weren't being shot at from the hills, was one very damn bad sign. The worst kind of sign. Every minute that went by without somebody taking pot shots at them put them in that much more trouble. He didn't know how. But he knew it down to his bones and sphincters.
He leapt to his feet and wheeled back toward the ruined greenhouse, just as a media contingent rallied itself to descend on him with video cameras and notepads outstretched, the question "What the hell ...?" in their eyes.
"Take cover!" he screamed. "Take cover!"
Take cover from what? Confused journalists and raiders alike stopped in their tracks. Take cover from whom?
"For God's sake, get DOWN! TAKE COVER!!!" Herr Kommandante screamed, waving as he ran toward them.
* * *
At that moment, shots rang out. Shots boomed, cracked, zipped, spat, and ka-chinged as bullets struck rock and metal. Shots seemed to come from everywhere -- and nowhere.
Shots zinged off the sides of armored personnel carriers as journalists and raiders alike hit the dirt. Raiders inched under vehicles and rubble piles, looking around for something to shoot back at. A few fired, randomly.
Caught in the open, still far from concealment, Herr Kommandante dropped to a crouch, shouldered his MP5, and swiveled, seeking a target, chillingly aware that he was a target.
But again ... silence. Weird silence. The shooting stopped and the silence went on. And on. He looked around. Nobody screaming. Nobody bleeding. It was as if all that gunfire had only been to say, "We're here."
He looked beyond the pile of quaking journalists, to a pile of rubble in front of one of the vehicles. If he could reach there ...
Still holding his MP5 in firing position, he flopped onto his belly and elbows and began inching toward cover.
Smack! Dirt kicked up in his face as a bullet hit the ground in front of him. He inched backwards. Bullets smacked the dirt at his feet. He froze. They -- whoever they were -- weren't going to let him move. A couple of his men fired in the direction of the muzzle flashes. But there was nothing there to hit.
From another direction altogether boomed a voice: "If you wanna die, keep firing. Don't make no difference to us."
It was a fact. The DEA teams were in a lighted clearing, some of them completely in the open. The shooters and the voice were above, in darkness, sheltered by the berms of the housetops. Unless they exposed themselves by firing again, there was no way to retaliate. And even then, no way to retaliate without getting well-exposed butts blown off.
The multi-jurisdictional federal task force, led by the mighty, politically untouchable DEA, had been beaten by a bunch of yokels that nobody could even see.
"Throw your weapons out," Carty ordered. "Throw them in the middle of the clearing where we can see them. You! Down there on the hillside! Throw your weapons and walk up. Nice and slow. With hands in the air."
A clatter as the first firearms hit the dirt. Herr Kommandante flexed his sweating palms around his MP5. He couldn't give up like this. Not like this. Not on his face in the dirt, beaten by invisible tricksters. He was the government. He was the federal ...
Then he realized that a sound had been growing on him.
He dared to raise his head imperceptibly. He listened. Yes! It was the thump of helicopter rotors. The helicopter was distant, yet, and out of sight. But it was his miracle.
The cavalry had arrived.
They'd done it. By God, the bosses had done it. D.C. had actually gotten him a chopper. He couldn't believe it. His demand on the phone to his boss had been sheer bravado -- the gesture of a man going down in flames.
But now here they were ... backup! He raised his head further and started to chuckle. All around him, he could feel the slight stir of his cowed men noticing, shifting slightly, readying for hope. The clatter of thrown weapons ceased before it had hardly begun. They hung on to what they had. He started to raise his body from the ground.
Psst! Another shot spit dirt into Herr Kommandante's eyes. He flattened.
"Stay down on your ugly face," Carty ordered, implacably. "And I told ya -- throw those weapons out. All of 'em. Or die. Your choice."
Despite the promise of aerial backup, this confident command voice booming through the night rattled the raiders. More machine guns, carbines, sidearms, and even a few tactical knives landed with a clatter on the growing pile.
"No, you idiots!" Herr Kommandante screamed, watching his men surrender around him. "Don't you hear it? They're coming. Our guys are going to blow these yokels off this hilltop!" He laughed again, edging into hysteria. "We've won!"
Carty let him laugh for a while then called over the increasing roar, "Sorry, Mister. But that chopper? It ain't yours."
Herr Kommandante looked into the sky, where a civilian Bell JetRanger abruptly burst into a halo of spotlights as it descended. It was white. It had a company logo on its side, with a prominent red cross hastily taped over that
As it hovered, the once-and-never-again DEA field commander flung away his MP5 and, as ordered, laid his ugly face in the Hardy County dirt.
* * *
The chopper set down. Blue-clad medical personnel burst from its doors. After a word from Carty, and led by a handful of Hardyville militiamen, paramedics hustled down the hill.
Carty and his hand-picked crew of Hardyville Minutemen finished the job of rounding up the last members of the task force and their leader. You can think about that catch-and-release program again.
* * *
Operation Santa, the first battle fought by the Hardyville Militia in nearly 200 years, concluded with a pair of surprises.
The danger past, and the invading federales under control, a distinguished older gentleman with a silver aura of hair shining in the spotlights stepped out of the helicopter and gazed around for the first time at the sacred ground of Hardy County. You could tell, even before he emerged fully and spoke in his elegant Castilian accent, that he was continental down to his manicured fingertips.
No, he wasn't Jorge Delaval. That would just be too, too deus ex machina, wouldn't it? It was merely Delaval's chief aide, Alejandro Verdugo Serrano. Carty stepped up to shake his hand. As the rats and communards emerged dazedly from the tunnels, so did Nat, who approached the chopper as if he'd been expecting this visitor all along. Serrano accepted Nat's dirty paw with diplomatic aplomb and a radiantly gracious smile. When Dora hobbled up on work-sore legs, Serrano bowed low over her brown, broken-nailed hand.
The second surprise came with sorrow.
One of the paramedics rushed back up the hill to retrieve more supplies from the helicopter. In answer to Carty's question, he paused long enough to say, "The older man. He's dead. I'm sorry. The young woman ... seriously wounded. Very seriously. But still alive."
Carty gaped after the paramedic. Young woman?
Don't forget to stop back next Monday for the beginning of another great Hardyville series.
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.
Read More by Claire Wolfe
Comments regarding Claire Wolfe's articles may be addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments may appear online in "Feedback" or in the "Letters" section of Backwoods Home Magazine. Although every email is read, her busy schedule does not permit a personal response to each one.