Authors: Charlotte Andrews
Fifty Years of Peace
Part 1 of the
Abrupt Dissent Series
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
is a pen name selected to protect the identity of the author.
Rockfish Gap, outside
what was once Covington, Virginia in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Dillon tracked the three figures silhouetted against the night sky through his rifle’s scope.
hiking along what had been Interstate 64 before the war, just about halfway across the four-lane bridge that led west into the New States’ territory. He twisted his magnification dial to get a closer look at who was trying to slip by him.
A man with a heavy hiker’s pack walked point. He wore a baseball cap that hid his eyes and a beard just starting to fill out. They kept clean-shaven on the East Coast, still able to manufacture steel razors. This man must be trying to blend in as he worked his way west. A boy came next, muffled in fatigues that seemed slightly big on him and bent by the weight of his pack. The third person was a woman, tall but solidly built, with a bandana tying her hair back and some kind of tattoo on her forearm.
Each one of them carried a rifle over their shoulder. The woman had a quiver of arrows and an unstrung bow lashed to her pack as well. As he watched them, Dillon realized that the New States must have been doing a much better job of keeping their technology a secret than he’d thought. These three looked professional. They never would have exposed themselves in this way if they thought anyone could see them at night.
He pulled his eye from the scope to check the wind speed. A light breeze on his cheeks but the tree leaves around him weren’t moving. Wind speed between three and five miles an hour. When he refocused, the group had stopped in the middle of the bridge. Had they seen him? No, it wasn’t possible. He lay on his stomach in a blind thirty feet up the trunk of a massive spruce and his targets weren’t carrying any night vision optics. The father was bending down and showing his son something about the creek that trickled through the gap below the bridge. It was strange for spies to be traveling as a family, a cruelty that wasn’t needed, and Dillon’s opinion of this group dropped.
The old United States was getting better at its tradecraft, although not by much. Dillon felt almost sorry for them as he chambered a round and sighted on the father’s chest. But these three were coming to threaten his country. They could not be allowed to cross the border into the New States.
Dillon exhaled, then stroked the trigger just as the boy looked in his direction.
Two hundred yards away the father fell backward against the guard rail clutching his shoulder. Dillon worked his bolt, chambered a new round, and re-sighted on the mother. His shot knocked her backward and she crumpled. But where was the boy? Dillon swept his scope over the bridge.
There, in between the two writhing bodies, the boy had dropped his pack to the pavement in front of him for cover and Dillon didn’t have a clean shot. He exhaled, sighted, and waited for movement. Suddenly Dillon saw a flash from a much closer section of the bridge. A bullet whined past him, thudding into the tree’s trunk at his back. He pressed his hand to his cheek, felt blood. The boy was good, deadly. He’d displaced, setup a decoy for Dillon, and no-scoped that shot in the space of maybe three seconds. Dillon slipped his rifle over his shoulder and shimmied down the handholds he’d nailed into the back of the tree’s trunk. He needed to get to his secondary position before the boy could get into the forest and away from him.
Dropping to the forest floor, Dillon ran skidding over pine needles and wet earth. The moon cut through the trees here and there, giving him just enough light to avoid falling into the gorge. He reached a small rock fall just inside the tree line, took two deep breaths, then slid his rifle into a gap between the boulders, and looked down over the bridge.
The family was gone. The mother and father’s packs still lay on the bridge, but their bodies had disappeared along with the boy. He swept his scope back and forth across the pavement but nothing moved. Somehow they’d gotten by his position. They’d been decoys maybe, and may have worn some kind of body armor. It didn’t matter now. U.S. spies were loose in the New States, and there was about to be hell to pay.
Indiana. 10 Miles outside New Louisville.
Jenny Williams leaned against her oxcart’s bumper and pushed. At the front of the wagon, Manuel cracked his whip over the heads of their cattle to get them to move forward. The cart’s wheel, salvaged from one of the rusting combines that scattered the county’s wheat fields, shuddered, then broke loose from the pothole that had collapsed under its weight.
“It’s free!” she called as the cart rolled ahead.
“Was that so hard?” Manuel asked, smiling. The old field hand pulled back the reins and brought the team to a halt.
“Next time I get the whip,” she laughed as she jogged to catch up to him.
“You’re good with the team, I’ll give you that, but I’m too old for pushing cheese wagons. Come on.” He held out his arm and she jumped to catch his hand. Manuel swung her up to join him on the driver’s seat, her leather boots dangling, and her denim coveralls flying out into the early summer air. June’s golden sunrise fired the blue tips of the mountains, and everywhere life was stirring. Flocks of birds nipped from tree to tree. Insects knotted the meadows that lined the old highway, which was still scattered with abandoned vehicles. She saw a family of deer lift their heads as the cart trundled past. The sleek brown animals scented the air and then, finding no threat, dipped back down to continue their breakfast.
“If this weather holds it’s going to be a fine day for the Peace Festival tomorrow,” Manuel said. His graying hair fluttered in the slight breeze, and he pushed the sleeves of his homespun flannel up his strong forearms. Manuel was the first employee her grandfather had hired after the war, and the only one he’d trust on the biggest market day of the year. Her excitement for the festival was tempered only by the fact that she wished her grandfather would have come to share it with her. Before dawn that morning she’d found him packing lunches for her and Manuel in a metal box.
“Oh you’re up already,” he’d greeted her and handed her the lunch pail. “You make sure to eat, and you don’t take less than ten dollars a pound for that cheddar.”
“I won’t Grandpa.”
“And you’ll ask the vet to come see about the south herd?”
“I will Grandpa.”
“And you’ll ask the mayor what he can do to fix the road?”
“I will Grandpa.”
He’d smiled, then bent down and swept her into his wide chest. Her grandfather was as tall as full-grown corn, with fine, white silk hair that ringed his head and a rosy glow that lit the fleshy parts of his face. He smelled of morning dew and damp straw when she hugged him and she’d smiled back, still waking up. But when he turned his cheek for a kiss she demurred, and he released her in mock surprise.
“What, no kiss?” he’d asked. “Don’t try telling me you think you’re too old…”
She’d blushed, even though she didn’t think she was. The truth was she was shy, and she’d much rather spend the days with her grandfather tending to the herds or mending fences than going out into a crowd of hundreds of people. In her sixteen years, her grandfather was the only real family she’d ever known. He’d been good at comforting her and it made her want to do everything that he asked exactly right, but it also made her curious.
“No Grandpa, that’s not it.”
“Well spit it out girl.”
“Why won’t you come?” she had asked. “The whole county will be at the festival. It’s the fiftieth anniversary!”
He’d stood back up then, both knees cracking, and sighed. She thought she’d seen his green eyes glimmer for a moment, but then he’d turned to the wash bucket and started scrubbing the knife and cutting board he’d used to carve their sandwiches.
“You never go to the festivals,” Jenny said. “And you were alive before the war. People always tell stories, and you could tell your stories! You could…”
Her grandfather had set down the knife on the edge of the sink, but the utensil was off balance and it fell clattering into the other dishes. Then he’d lowered his head for a long time until dawn glinted through their kitchen window.
“I don’t know if you’ll understand this Jenny,” he finally said. “But there’ll be too many memories waiting for me if I go. Manuel’s got the team hitched up out there, so you best go and join him. I’ll be here when you get back.”
She looked behind her as the cart swayed down the cracked asphalt. She hoped Grandpa would be ok by himself. He wasn’t really alone; four other families in addition to Manuel’s lived on the ranch, tending to the herds, and milking, and breeding. Most of the milk, cheese, beef, and breed stock in Henderson County came from Grandpa’s Two Star ranch, but part of her still felt that her grandfather was sad, that he had been for a long time, and she hoped one day he would tell her why.
Jenny closed her eyes to feel the sun on her face and the breeze streaming through her hair, and when she opened them she could barely see flashes of metal and glass peeking over the hills.
“Look Jenny,” Manuel called. “The old city, do you see?”
“I do,” she said.
From a distance, the dozen or so pre-war skyscrapers still looked intact, but if they crossed the river they’d find the city abandoned. She’d learned in school that before the war, most people had lived in cities like Old Louisville, but on field trips with her classmates she couldn’t see why. Everything was built of concrete and glass and metal, which were so expensive to make and so hard to repair that she didn’t understand why they would build with them. Inside the school they’d visited there was little light, and the lack of fresh air made it hard to breathe. Who knew how the pre-wars had kept warm in the winter without fireplaces. Her grandfather had told her about something called central air conditioning but when she’d tried to understand the concept and ask more questions like how the cities got their food or why the school library didn’t have any books he always stopped answering.
He was like that with most questions she asked about life before the war, responding to questions without giving the real answer, as if he didn’t want her to connect things. So even though she was shy she looked forward to the stories other pre-wars told at the Peace Festivals because they’d answer her as best they could and she would learn. She smiled as they cleared the last hill and joined the throng of people making their way to the city for the day’s market. The Festival would be two days to remember.
New Louisville had sprung up on the northern bank of the Ohio River. The dock and train yards dominated the town near the water, with warehouses giving way to government buildings, shops, and apartments that filled the small downtown. Many buildings had been reclaimed from those built before the war, but here and there Jenny saw new stone and wood construction rising. The town was lucky to be on the river and rail lines that made up the heart of the New State’s eastern trade routes, and she felt proud to see so many carts and wagons filling the town. They were doing their duty to help the rest of the country, and gladness filled her heart that she was part of something like the Two Star Ranch that had been such a big help during the rebuilding.
The old Route 64 brought them right through the center of town to the fairgrounds where the Festival would take place, and they joined a row of traffic crawling toward the check-in where they’d receive their assigned stalls. As Manuel and Jenny neared the fairground entrance, a tall, handsome young man with a clipboard leaning from his wide chest walked up to meet them.
“Morning Jenny,” he called, and she did a double take.
Jenny was shy with most people, but an attractive man like this made Jenny quiver in her boots. Then she realized she knew him.
“Jacob Johnson is that you?”
The man laughed and spread his arms wide.
“Who else?” he asked.
It wasn’t a man at all. It was Jacob, who’d graduated high school only a year ahead of her. He wore a blue jacket over a white cotton shirt to represent the colors of New Louisville, and looked as happy as could be to see her. Since she’d last seen him Jake had grown nearly as tall as her grandfather and looked equally as strong. Moreover, she couldn’t get over how beautiful and mature he looked; he certainly was not the boy she had remembered.
“What are you doing now?” she asked.
“I’m a clerk for Mayor Trestle.”
“You were always good with numbers.”
“That’s because I had a good tutor,” he smiled and Jenny laughed nervously. As Jenny’s cart passed, he walked alongside and lifted up the blankets Manuel had helped her throw over their cargo. “Wow. How much milk went into this load?” he asked.
“Well, it takes three gallons for each pound of cheese, and this here is 4,562 pounds. So you tell me.”
“A quiz,” Manuel hollered, and they all laughed.
“I guess that would make it 13,686 gallons then, right?”
She lifted her eyebrows and looked away. Jacob’s intelligence had always impressed her and intimidated her at the same time. It was a strange feeling for her that she’d never been sure how to handle.
“Give or take,” Jenny said, though she didn’t know the real answer.
“All I really know is that you have the best cheese around Jenny, that’s for sure. Do you have your entry fee?”
“I do.” She reached in her coin purse and pulled out twenty dollars, the cost of doing business at the market, and handed it to Jacob.
“Thank you kindly. You’ll be taking stall 113. Go down the row to the far side of the fairgrounds and then turn left.”
“The far side of the fairgrounds Jacob? How are we going to get any business over there?”
He winked as their cart rolled past the entrance.
“It’s the one closest to the stage. I saved it for you when I saw Two Star Ranch on the reservation list.”
He’d done her a favor, just like he always had when he’d brought her apples or pears to snack on during their lessons.
“Oh, and Jenny,” he called as he jogged alongside her cart. “Maybe we can meet tomorrow after the speeches? I’ll be near the stage with the mayor all morning.”
She smiled at him, blushing. There was no way to treat shyness except to get over it. At least, that’s what Grandpa would say.
“I surely will Jacob.”