It jammed every time he fired it. Piece of shit. He should have paid the extra couple a hundred for the Bushmaster like Lionel said. It was an embarrassment. A man is judged by his gear. Except for the piece of shit AR-15, his combat gear was as good as anyone else’s in the group. It bugged him. He couldn’t afford to gun-up right now, even if he could find a sucker to buy his piece of assault shit.
Why did they have to meet here, half way to Dale on the Rockport road? There were better places closer to town. All this secrecy bullshit. As he waited, he watched a couple in a booth on the far wall. She didn’t look old enough to drink legally. Nice face, freckles, age of his daughter, wherever she was. She had her bare foot up the leg of the dude’s shorts across from her and was giving him a foot job. She was just sipping her beer, a little smile on her face. Why was he watching? Sicko.
— * —
Douglas was not use to being addressed as Mr. Bowles. That was suspicion number two, after the suit. Only bankers and undertakers wore suits in Jasper, and he had never seen a woman in a suit in the store before. His name tag said only Doug. He was restocking the potting-soil pallets. It was a blue suit.
She knew his address. “We haven’t been able to reach you at home, and we did want to speak with you in person,” she said. “Letters are so impersonal.”
“About what?” he asked.
“A survey we are conducting.”
“Not interested,” he said. He picked up another bag of Miracle-Gro.
“It’s about your land.”
“What about my land?”
“It’s historical importance.”
— * —
Douglas had always had trouble saying no to women. When she came out to the house, she had ditched the suit and brought an asshole with her. Tall guy, made some lame joke about him working at Walmart. It had been a while since there’d been a woman in the house, but he had kept it respectable. They sat at the kitchen table. He didn’t offer them any refreshments.
He only had around twenty acres left of what his dad had struggled to farm. Another twenty belonged to his brother, who lived up in Chicago and didn’t give a shit about the place. None of it was still being farmed; they had sold off what could be. And what was left had mostly grown wild. If she was looking to buy, he wasn’t looking to sell; but he’d hear her out. She had a Yankee accent and perfect teeth.
She started off talking about Indians, for chrizakes, the Shawnee. Stuff that had nothing to do with him. She had maps that Douglas ignored. He got up to get himself a beer from the fridge. It struck him that she’d brought the guy along for protection—he had nothing to say. If she was a man, she would have come alone. She wanted permission to do something on his land. She had like satellite spy photos of what she claimed was his land—black and white radar-like images. She pointed out places she called mounds. Whatever it was she was going on about, she expected him to be interested.
The tall guy got up and walked out the back door. Guess he figured she didn’t need protecting any more. Not that Douglas had anything to hide, but he didn’t like the idea of this guy just wandering around his property. He disliked even more the dude’s assumption that he could just do so. That was enough. He threw them out. She left her card—Carla something, a professor at some California university.
— * —
Maneuvers were a wash, rained out. “Fucking fair-weather patriots,” Lionel declared. Those that did show were holed up in Lionel’s camp cabin, the rain pounding on its tin roof. Even though all the other men were from Jasper or close by in Dubois County, Douglas only knew them from the militia. They were all strangers. That was one thing they all had in common—they were natural strangers. This belonging was a rare attempt at being communal. A suspicious nature linked them, that and a fondness for anger.
Even though the maneuvers had been cancelled, the guys that did show up stayed. Like Douglas, this was how they had scheduled their Saturday. They had nothing else to do. If they were married, their wives didn’t expect them home. Also, they were afraid if they did leave, Lionel would badmouth them.
No one talked much. Douglas dug that. There had been a chatty guy, cheerful jokester type, top-drawer gear, paratrooper boots. Lionel got rid of him, figured he was a fed. Douglas told Lionel about his meeting with the California professor, how he had thrown them off the place. Lionel was only interested in her maps and spy photos.
“California? Here? What was she looking for?”
“Didn’t say. I didn’t let her finish. Her sidekick was outside taking photographs with his phone.”
“Doesn’t that strike you as strange? California. What’s out there on your land?”
“Nothing, just scrub woods, too gullied to be of any use.”
“I don’t suppose she left them photos.” Douglas shook his head. “Mind if I stop by and look around? A California university?”
— * —
When Douglas got home from work on Tuesday, Lionel’s Ram was parked in the driveway. He had shot a whitetail doe in Douglas’s woods and needed help getting her out.
“She was the only thing worth anything I saw in there,” Lionel said. It wasn’t deer season, but that didn’t matter to Lionel, who held that seeing as he was a free, white, adult, American male, the same as such as had made the laws, he had the freedom to choose which laws to observe when and which laws to enforce. She had been gut-shot several times and had gone to die in a bottom hawthorn bramble. Douglas was not pleased but said nothing. It took a while, but they got her out and up into the back of Lionel’s truck. When Lionel left, he took the professor’s business card. Douglas cleaned up.
— * —
She brought a cold six-pack of beer as a peace offering. She had noticed what brand he drank. She was by herself. She apologized for just stopping by and for her former sidekick taking photos without asking permission. She wasn’t carrying any maps or photos. It was a nice Sunday afternoon. They sat on the porch. She had a beer, drank from the can. She asked how long his family had been on this land.
Douglas knew nothing about the natives who once wandered around this part of the country. He was fine with that. He knew nothing about the dinosaurs either and didn’t miss knowing. The important thing about the past was that it was over. All that history shit was a distraction. The past was like dead bodies, best buried and forgotten. Clara went on about history. He gathered that one of her grandparents had been part Shawnee. So what? She looked white.
She told him the Shawnee name for Crooked Creek, which curved around his woodlot. He forgot it immediately. It sounded like something from a Chinese take-out menu. She said the name was significant of something. She was wearing sandals, red toenail polish. What she wanted his permission to do was to clear off one of her mounds and conduct an archaeological survey. No, she couldn’t pay him anything. She said it was for science, though he couldn’t see where the science came in.
He told her he’d think on it, used the excuse of his brother, that he’d have to consult with him. He wouldn’t. She seemed to take that in good faith. Then she asked if they could go out there, to that parcel by the creek. It wasn’t much of a hike out behind the house. In those sandals and shorts, she could stand at the edge and look in. There wasn’t any trail, and the underbrush was dense. The only break in it was where he and Lionel had lugged out the doe.
She noticed the blood on the broken brush right away. He offered no explanation. What was there to say? What business was it of hers? She didn’t ask.
“How far is it to the creek?” she asked.
“A quarter-mile, more if you get lost,” he said.
“Any other way in?”
He walked her back to her car.
“By the way, do you know anyone named Lionel? He left a message on my office voice mail, said he was from here, and asked me to call back.”
“Yes, I know a Lionel,” was all he said.
— * —
“Did you know that the university your girlfriend works for has contracts with the federal government? With the Department of Defense and NASA and NOA?” Lionel asked.
“She’s a fed.”
“She says it’s about the injuns, the Shawnee.”
“Bullshit. They all died out in Oklahoma. The feds want your land for some reason. They’ve got their sights on Dubois County. Why else is Federal Highways upgrading the road to the Interstate? Why else is the Department of Agriculture paying all the corporate farmers not to plant? Some experimental station maybe? Who knows? You can’t trust those suckers. Camel’s nose under the edge of the tent.”
Douglas didn’t know what camels had to do with it, but Lionel knew a lot about such things. He read a lot of stuff, kept up on politics. He had not, however, offered Douglas any of his doe’s venison.
The helicopters cinched it for Lionel. There was no reason for helicopters to hover over Jasper, but a few days later a pair of them were up there, doing something unexplained. At the next militia meeting Lionel discussed surface-to-air ordnance.
— * —
“Is Lionel your lawyer?” This time at least Clara was pretending to be a customer. She was looking at garden seeds even though it was long past planting season. “I returned his call, and he said he would like to meet to discuss terms for a short-term lease of your land.”
“No, he’s not my lawyer,” Douglas said. “You don’t have to deal with him.”
“I don’t have grant money for that sort of thing.” She was holding a packet of baby breath seeds. “I told you that.”
“He doesn’t represent me.”
“Have you spoken with your brother?”
“I’ve lost your card, your number.”
“Can I stop by?”
“Okay, come by, after six.”
Douglas stewed about it the rest of the day. Where did Lionel get off sticking his nose into his affairs? He had joined the defense force because he thought things were going badly in the country and would only get worse, and it wouldn’t hurt to be prepared. He hadn’t signed up to have someone mess with his personal life, rather the opposite. After work he called Lionel, who said he only wanted to meet with the professor and check her out, and that he thought that seemed like a good excuse. “Due diligence, Bowles. Like it or not, you and your property are now on the frontline. We got to stop ‘em before they get a foothold. And I don’t want to hear any Indian rights crap as a cover story.”
— * —
He had to ask. Why not? “Are you a fed?”
“A what?” Clara said.
“You know, a fed, a government agent.”
“No. I’m a university employee. Why do you ask?”
“Lionel thinks you’re one.”
They were having beers on the porch again. A lingering pink sunset. She wasn’t hard to be around.
“I gather that being a fed is not a good thing.”
“They’re not especially appreciated hereabouts, never have been.”
“No, I’m an archaeologist, an agent of the past. Believe me, the federal government has zero interest in archaeology.”
“Tell me what you propose to do.”
It was fairly straight forward. She’d bring in a crew and a surveyor to cut a trail into the mound she’d picked out. They’d clear it and measure it, dig a few test pits to try and date it. A couple of weeks, if the weather held out. The crew? Local labor and some graduate students. They’d be as neat as possible. It was dinnertime, and Douglas had nothing to offer, so they drove into Applebee’s, in separate cars. Clara insisted on paying the tab.
— * —
What the hell? Fuck Lionel and his frontline against the feds. It might be interesting having people around the place, and he’d have a trail into the woodlot and a private cleared space to go to. It was his land. He’d decide what to do with it. It wasn’t about Indians. It was about a man’s freedom on his own land to do as he pleases.
Of course, Lionel didn’t see it that way, and on the day that Clara showed up with her surveyor and crew, Lionel came with a squad from the defense force in full combat gear.
The standoff didn’t last long. At the sight of the militia’s weapons, the local crew took off and the surveyor excused himself, leaving Douglas and Clara.
“You’re trespassing, Lionel. Get off my land.”
“So, this is Lionel,” Clara said. She was folding up her map. “What is it you want, Lionel?”
“We’re here to keep Dubois County free. You’re not pulling your plot off here.”
“Free from what? Free from the past?”
“You won’t get away with this, Lionel,” Douglas said. “I’ll get the law on you for this.”
“No, Douglas, he has gotten away with it. I don’t want any trouble for you. I have an alternative, if inferior site I can record, across the river in Kentucky.”
“They can have you. Good riddance,” Lionel said.
Clara left. The militia men followed her.
Lionel lingered behind. “You know, maybe the feds weren’t interested in your land, but were interested in you, as a way to infiltrate our organization. That would explain why they sent out an attractive woman to recruit you. And you fell for it.” He turned to go, then stopped. “You’re off the force, Bowles. You can’t be trusted.”