The Adirondack Park is a jigsaw puzzle of lakes, mountains, and valleys stretching out over 4.2 million acres. They form the north highlands of the Great Appalachian Range. Forty-six of its peaks reach over four thousand feet into the air. The enormity of the park combined with its rough terrain test the most hardened outdoorsman. However, the same qualities that make the wilderness such a challenge make it a superb refuge.
While the park was a veritable supermarket, trade was still essential to the clan’s survival and first priority of the council. It took weeks, but Valora was able to establish some back-door channels with Canadian food growers.
The August sun was beginning its climb when Jason emerged from his hut. At his feet were bouquets of wildflowers. The symbols of various faiths nestled between the flowers. Scrolled testimonies and prayers written on birch bark were scattered throughout the budding shrine. Giant was where he was every morning for the last three months.
“Good Morning, Giant. How did you sleep last night?” Jason asked humorously. Jason peered up at the big man. There was no reply, just a look of granite gentleness. The Giant never spoke two words since showing up outside Jason’s cave that chilly morning.
“Well, that’s great news. I slept well too, thanks for asking.” Flora was coming up the trail leading both Ebby and Kendo. Kendo was an impressive specimen, standing in excess of seventeen hands. He was one of the eight new horses that Jason had rounded up and presented to Flora on her birthday. Jason had a stable built as well. The only setback was Flora expected him to ride with her on occasion. That morning was such an occasion.
“Oh, is it Tuesday already? I almost forgot, I believe that they’re expecting me to show my face at the council meeting today,” Jason said upon greeting Flora. “I’m going to have to give you a rain check, sweetheart.”
“Oh, no you don’t. Don’t give me any of that sweetheart stuff. You promised me that we would be going riding today,” Flora declared, loudly. “Besides, I still have your last rain check. It’s been one excuse after another. I am not going riding alone,” she insisted, her hands propped on her hips, her lips pouty.
Jason was at her mercy, especially when she wore his favorite blue blouse, embroidered with tiny hearts around the collar. Although, he couldn’t prove it, he had a feeling she knew the blouse was his Achilles Heel, his kryptonite. Jason took the reins from Flora and called back to Giant.
“If Mother should show up, we’ll be back shortly.” Jason looked over at Flora who was shaking her head. “Well, anyway we’ll be back,” he uttered, correcting himself.
“Bye, Giant,” Flora yelled cheerfully as she and Jason led the horses down the trail. When the land flattened out, Flora mounted up and looked to Jason to do the same.
“Remember what happened last time. Don’t forget to adjust the girth strap. Horses will suck in their guts after you strap the saddle on. If you don’t fasten it a second time…well, you know what happens.”
“How could I forget?” Jason said, rubbing his backside. The thought of his fall evoked a sharp pain in his posterior. Flora smiled. After mounting up, Jason followed Flora as she followed a narrow trail deeper into the forest. Without warning, Flora let out a scream and broke into a full gallop. “What do you think, Kendo? Shall we indulge her?” Jason gave the reins a firm shake and clutched the horse’s mane with both hands.
Kendo reared his mighty head then accelerated into a gallop, kicking up clumps of dirt in his wake. It was all Jason could do to hang on as Kendo hurtled him through the shadowy forest. Jason secretly enjoyed the sound of the hooves thundering against the muffled earth and the blur of the majestic landscape zipping pass.
Watching Flora doing what she loved most was an added bonus. She never seemed happier. She and Ebby were one, anticipating each other’s every move. The giant evergreens gave way to the grasslands that stretched across a lush green valley, where Flora slowed Ebby to a walk, allowing Jason and Kendo to pull alongside.
God’s paintbrush was particularly fanciful that morning, waxing the sky with a litany of savory reds and pinks. The air around the lake, unlike that of the sultry ambiance of the forest, was crisp and cool. The wind blew from the south, delivering a refreshing breeze off the lakes, and combing Flora’s hair softly across her face. Leisurely they rode, allowing the horses to remember the way.
They dismounted by the lake. Flora loved to go for a morning swim while Jason was content to sit and watch. Ebby and Kendo wandered a few feet away, munching on t grass, swatting flies with their tails, and occasionally finding interest in each other. Flora emerged from the water stripped down to her bra and panties. Charging at Jason, she pulled up just short of a collision.
“What have you got against water?” Flora asked, whipping the spray from her hair in his direction. Jason threw his hand up in time to catch the moisture on his forearm. Flora fled down the water’s edge. Jason gave chase. With Jason in hot pursuit, Flora pivoted and ran directly at him and leaped into his broad arms. Her momentum tossed him backward several steps.
Jason held her folded in his arms, her knees pressed flat against her belly, her arms roped around his neck. They kissed as Jason carried her back to where the horses were grazing. The glow in Flora’s eyes was as warm and familiar as the sunshine on his face. While he could spend his life with her by the lake, he had put off attending the council meetings for three months, and knew it was giving fuel to rumors and gossip.
By promising to revisit the lake in a couple of days, Jason encountered little resistance when he suggested that they head back a little early.
After dropping Flora off, Jason swung by the cave to pick up Giant. He and Giant then headed to the Federation Council meeting, held in a recently constructed outdoor pantheon. The rows of benches formed a semi-circle around a dais that supported a lectern and a row of chairs for honored guest and speakers. A long series of steps, cut out of packed earth and leveled with flat slabs of stone, formed an aisle down the center.
All seven clans were represented. Seats on the council were granted according to clan size. In all there were ninety-eight council members and a council head. With Jason’s support, Commander Fein was voted into the top spot.
There was a buzz of excitement when Jason made his way to the front of the assemblage. The council rose to their feet, their eyes glowing with gratitude. Fein descended from the podium and greeted Jason with a warm hug and handshake. The council continued to applaud as Fein returned to center stage, and Jason took a seat on the podium behind his deceased father’s most trusted commander.
While it was Jason’s deity-like status that sanctioned the council, technically he wasn’t a member. He didn’t even have a vote. Though a spectator, he was expected to attend from time to time. If he had a vote, he would have been faced with a thorny dilemma. Today the council was deliberating on the motion to accept Raven into the council.
Jason had no idea until he saw Raven swagger in. Raven left his weapons and entourage at the entrance, as was council protocol, but looked every bit the warrior. Raven gazed straight ahead at Fein who was straightening papers on the lectern. Raven took a seat in the first row. Fein cleared his throat and continued with the proceedings.
“Raven, on behalf of the council, we are delighted that you could join us this afternoon.” Raven gave an approving nod and Fein continued. “Brothers and sisters of the Federation Council, our last matter of business today is a vote on whether to recognize Raven’s clan, thus making him eligible for admission to the council.”
Jason stared at his boyhood companion, but the look was never returned. The thought of Raven, whose impetuosity and lust for power led to his father’s death, being voted in left Jason fuming. Jason squirmed in his seat, trying to ignore the impulse to get up and leave.
“Raven, we have all heard of your heroic efforts in helping those stranded in the south,” Fein acknowledged. “From a small squad, your clan has grown to include over two thousand. None here can question your bravery or you skill as a commander. However, some here are concerned with your, how should I say, your brash spirit. Before we put it to a vote, is there anything you want to say to the council?”
Raven stood perfectly still. Then he shot to his feet and approached the podium. Fein relinquished the lectern to Raven and took a seat beside Jason.
“I know what you’re thinking, but it’s time to start building bridges,” Fein whispered to Jason while pretending to smother a yawn. “Jason, his efforts in the south while we were escaping to the north has earned him quite a following. That alone entitles him to be heard. And his name continues to grow as he leads raids against the enemy as far west as Ohio. Contrary to what people may want to believe, you and I know that the wolves will return to our door and they will be hungrier than ever. Face it, we need him.”
“Grand standing that’s all he’s doing, nothing more,” Jason replied, coldly.
“Well, if that is true, then he is very adept at it.” Fein sat back and the two men focused on Raven’s opening words.
“You all know me,” Raven started, his tone gruff. I am honored to be invited here to speak before the council,” he said, nodding in recognition of the council’s conciliatory gesture. “I am aware that my appearance here today will offend some. Our former supreme commander didn’t always support the beliefs of everyone who sought to join the federation, but he never ignored their right to be heard. You honor him by allowing me to speak today.
“My refusal to coordinate my forces with that of the federation is well known. I make no apologies, only I had my reasons. The federation has achieved a great victory over our enemy, but I would like to think that our diversion may have helped you in some small measure to jump the fence and escape the dog’s razor-like fangs.
“Some would shut us out; leave us to fend for ourselves. They may be offended by my rough edges. To them I say: let’s put aside past differences and concentrate on winning a war. We all know what is headed this way in the not-to-distant future. It may come next year or the following year, but the day of reckoning is coming. Whatever our differences, they pale by comparison to our common plight.
“Your commanders have won a great victory and have proven themselves worthy. We are a fraction of your number, but what we lack in size, we more than make up for in audacity and cunning. I mean no disrespect, but my clan fighters are still in the field, engaging the enemy where we find them. If our enemies launch their offensive tomorrow, how prepared will your forces be, how effective will they be in the early stages when the outcome of the war may well be decided? So, I leave it to you to decide whether we should continue a course of estrangement or join forces to face the inevitable.”
As flamboyantly has he arrived; he departed, leaving the council to deliberate on the proposed resolution. Jason felt the awkwardness that his presence was causing under the circumstances. He knew that some members were reluctant to speak their minds, knowing of the reported bad blood between Raven and he. It didn’t take a Messiah to know what the council’s decision would be. He knew that Raven’s appearance was merely a formality. He did, however, wonder why he felt moved to attend the council meeting on that particular day.
As much as it galled him to admit it, some of what Raven said rang true. Jason had given little thought before that day to the battle readiness of his army in the coming months. There were so many other pressing concerns, like feeding fifteen thousand. How would he maintain his fighter’s battle edge, forged in the furnace of actual combat? To ease his concerns, and perhaps to command men in the field again, he called an emergency meeting of his regiment commanders in the grand cave.
It took two days to round them all up, which, in itself, suggested that they had already lost something. Three of his former commanders had been seriously injured or killed. Lee Fong, a short unobtrusive man of Asian descent, was elevated to regimental commander. What he lacked in size he made up for with his calculating mind and ability to adjust to the nature of the fighting. He required his unit commanders to memorize the Art of War.
Carlos Peres was promoted to regimental commander when his mentor was killed in battle. Ironically, his parents were illegal-aliens living in New York when the cookie started to crumple. He was delivered in the sewer, when his parents were driven underground. He proved himself a fearless commander on the field of battle, earning him the respect of his clan and a place at Jason’s campfire.
Angela Pike was perhaps Jason’s most promising senior commander. She excelled as a strategist, but her greatest feat was in winning the cult-like devotion of her fighters. She saw over every detail of her clan’s welfare, often ignoring council directives when she thought it necessary.
Jason’s other three commanders, James McMillan, Terry Walsh, and Donald Millhouse, had served under his father. While they were each capable field commanders, Jason considered them too conservative in their tactics. If they had any weaknesses it was in being overly cautious.
There was heavy security surrounding the grand cave with each commander accompanied by their own escorts. When the commanders had finished with refreshments of herbal tea, honey figs and dates, Jason emerged from a long corridor extending up from the lower caverns.
“Thank you, commanders, for responding to my request in such a timely fashion,” Jason said, registering his displeasure. “By now you have all heard the news of the council inviting Raven to join forces with the federation. That includes giving his clan several seats on the council.”
“Commander, please forgive my intrusion, but I thought that no one who commands a regiment may sit on the council, including you.”
“Evidently, there has been a change in policy. Now, getting down to business. I need a report from each of you on the readiness of your regiments.” The commanders looked at one another, stunned. Angela was the first to respond.
“Jason, I’ve given most of my people time to return to their families. There’s tons of work to be done constructing shelters and planting before sowing season is behind us. My regiment is at less than a third of its full strength. I can’t speak for the other commanders, but my fighters can be ready in a heart beat if the situation requires.”
“Jason,” Commander Walsh interrupted, “there is a feeling permeating the clans that the war is over. Well, perhaps, not over, but that it’s been put on the back burner for the time being. Our fighters fought gallantly and we lost many of our comrades and loved ones. Most of us have given our fighters time to heal.”
Jason scanned the faces of his commanders. He saw in their eyes their exhaustion; he heard in their tone their support for a respite from the training and the fighting. Jason’s face turned to stone as he contemplated the comments of his two commanders.
“I’ve ordered my regiment to the southern passage leading into the region just in case a holiday is not in the enemies’ plans. They have not been given time to see to their families and to prepare for the winter. Within the next few days I want a list of one hundred fighters that will form a standing regiment to replace my own fighters.
“In addition, I want a list of another hundred fighters from each of you. They will continue to train and prepare. That training will be maintained year round, with the fighters rotated so that all fighters will spend at least three months out of the year in preparation for the coming conflict. During which time, their families will be cared for.
“Commanders, we must guard at all costs against complacency. I’m fully aware that it is difficult to maintain morale during this pause in the fighting, but the safety of the clan depends on our readiness. Raven’s fighters are not taking any time off. They’re living off the land and what they can forage, allowing them to carry out around-the-clock search-and-destroy missions. Perhaps, we should take a page from their book.” As soon as the words left his mouth, he wished that he could take them back. His commanders had performed brilliantly in the field.
“Sir,” Commander Millhouse cut in, “now that Raven’s fighters are a part of the federation, does that mean Raven will being joining this circle?”
“Good question, Commander. If Raven has a mind to, he is certainly welcome, but it is unlikely.” The meeting lasted for a couple more hours. Afterwards, the commanders were allowed to return to their respective clans. Jason was beginning to feel the strain of command. It seemed easier somehow commanding on the battlefield, where there was a real and present danger. This was different.
That night, Jason and Giant returned to the cave. He was pleasantly surprised to see his mother back days ahead of schedule. She had been away for most of the month coordinating and overseeing the distribution of foodstuff to the new arrivals. Jason walked in as Valora was waking from a nap.
“Mother, how did things go?” Valora didn’t respond, but grabbed a jug of spring water poured a cup, and drank it down. Then she sat down, clearly still exhausted.
“Jason, the clan is growing beyond our ability to supply them. Our reserves are already nearly exhausted. Hundreds are flocking to the region each day. At this rate, we’ll run out of supplies even before the snow arrives.
“I have been thinking about taking two regiments out to pillage New American outposts. I’m sure they have provisions enough to last the winter.”
“Yes, but to feed this many, it would take an invasion of the heartland. Since that would be plain suicide, I have another idea. I have been speaking with some of the more recent arrivals that escaped New America by way of Canada. It seems that we have many Canadian supporters who are just waiting to be contacted. I’m sure that we can strike a deal with them for food and arms in exchange for future mineral rights. But, we will have to move fast.”
“Mother, you’ve already got the council to agree to send an envoy. Maybe Fein will go himself.”
“The council serves a great purpose, but when matters are most urgent, they are sluggish and inept.”
“So let me guess, you want to make the trip yourself.”
“What, do you think that I’m too old or that I can no longer wield an automatic?
Jason smiled, raising his hands in surrender, realizing that her mind was made up. “If you’re going, when will you be leaving?”
“At first light.”
“Fine then, but you will require an escort.” Scorpion was the first to come to mind, she and a unit of his best fighters. Jason had more than one reason for choosing Scorpion.
“I hadn’t given it much thought until now,” said Valora. “I suppose an armed escort would be prudent, considering I’ll be sailing into uncharted waters.”
“Then it is settled. I’ll assemble the unit at once. Mother, don’t take any unnecessary risks. No one will know of your mission except those that have to be told. And, that does not include the council.”
“Jason, I heard that Raven will be joining the clan and that the council rolled out the red carpet for him. Is that what’s eating at you?”
“Who said that there’s something eating me?” Valora’s stare battered down her son’s wall of pretense.
“You may be the great commander, an exalted Messiah to a budding nation, worshipped and adored, but you’re still my son. And, a mother knows when her son is troubled.” Diverting his gaze, Jason conceded to her maternal instincts.
“He may have been responsible for the death of my father, your husband. That, I cannot forget. Perhaps, his recklessness will cost us the war,” Jason stated.
“Are you sure that it’s the war that you’re concerned about?”
“Yes. What else could there be?”
“You don’t have any proof that it was his actions that led to your father’s death. Your father was a warrior. Every time he took to the battlefield, he spit in the face of death. He did so that others may live, the same as you…the same as Raven. I’ll be gone for a couple of weeks; we can talk again when I return if you like. It would be nice if we had Flora’s family over when I return. However, there are a million things to do tonight.”
Jason nodded and watched his mother snatch up the very knapsack from her college days and headed through the aperture into the starlit night.
It took weeks, but Valora was able to establish some back door channels with major Canadian food producers. Although the Canadian government never openly supported the clan, they did nothing to block the transactions. The government saw it as insurance against an invasion. The Canadian government had its suspicions about the man in Oklahoma City.
Valora was thrilled to discover how many supporters and followers her son had in Canada. She was treated like a foreign dignitary; being asked to speak at church services, open forums and campus rallies. Scorpion pitched camp on the American side of the border, waiting to escort Valora home.
They informed Valora of a worldwide depression, prompting rioting around the globe. From the stories coming in, the United Nations had mobilized a global army to combat the growing chaos. With over 50 nations contributing troops, the UN had now become the world’s lone superpower. While she learned of corporate Europe’s and corporate Asia’s joint ventures with New America, there was encouraging news of Jason’s growing appeal throughout the world.