Author's opening disclaimer:
This story is fiction. The events portrayed are fiction. None of the characters are real, the locations are fictional. But the paradigm exists now, today, in reality, pretty much as portrayed, in a number of places in America. Ask your congressman for details. email addresses and links are available at www.house.gov.
PART 1: FIRST ENCOUNTER
Rasmus parked his old '72 Chevy pickup at the same pullout he remembered from his childhood. The last one, he remembered, before fine hunting grounds. He got out, stretched, cracked his neck, massaged his back. Jesus, I'm starting to get old, he thought. How many more of these hunts do I have left in me? I don't remember everything being this much work!
Where were the pickups of the other hunters, he wondered. He recalled that there'd always been several there when he hunted in his childhood. Well, maybe he was first. Opening day wasn't until tomorrow.
He reached in back of the pickup and pulled out his Browning .338 magnum autoloader. The elk, he knew, were tough to kill at range, but this efficient tool would make short work of them at almost a thousand yards with this fine Leupold variable and his miniature state-of-the-art wind machine. Not that he expected to need such capability. But he could afford it, and it was there if he needed it. He slung his Bosch binos around his neck, stuck a handful of rounds for the Browning in his pocket, dragged his leather-holstered Ruger single-action .45 Long Colt out and put it around his lean, denim-clad hips. Fifty fresh rounds, and a loaded extra cylinder, sat there in leather if needed. Bear, he knew, inhabited these grounds. Even if he lost the Browning, the Ruger would probably take care of matters as well as dispatch a wounded elk if he needed to do that. And if he got bored he could shoot rocks or something. He shouldered his pack, strapped on his stainless handax, started out.
As he trudged up the hill leading to the hunting grounds he reflected on forty-two years in corporate America. Forty-two years, working his way up from mailroom to vice president in charge of product distribution, with a three-year break in the Marines as a sniper in Vietnam. One of twenty-two percent who survived the job. Then finally a six-figure salary, and all of it done in jeans and boots.
Rasmus liked that. He liked the sweet golden parachute that came with his retirement. He liked being able to afford to drive a piece of shit truck, get it fixed when it needed fixing. He liked being able to move back to Montana, buy a run-down log home on seventeen acres with a '39 John Deere, a well, a phone, electricity, oil heat, and termites. All of this paradise was twenty-three miles away from the nearest town, and that had only seventy-three souls. A gas station, a general store, a tavern, and a hardware store. The John Deere dealer was a hundred and nineteen miles away in Missoula. He'd already made the trip three times.
What else did a man need, he mused as the dust followed him in the cool but dry air. He even had the internet. Perfect.
Jewel had passed on seven years ago, of course, but she went peacefully and the way he'd like to go when the time comes. He missed her. He thought of her, happy thoughts, regretful thoughts at the things they didn't do together, the things he didn't say when he had the chance. But she knew, he thought. Not a perfect marriage, but a good one. Three kids, all off pursuing the American Dream. Now here he was, going back to hunt this place like he'd done last with his grandfather, forty-six years ago.
Rasmus crested the hill. What was that, he wondered. A building, a fence, some signs by the road. He walked up. A man in a strange uniform stepped out. Negro fella, he saw. Rare in these parts. What were these fences about?
He walked on, came to the gate and started through. The man in the strange uniform stepped in front of him.
"May I see authorization to enter, sir?"
Rasmus paused, looked at him. Strange accent. Not American. Rasmus pulled out his hunting license. The man looked at it quickly. "I'm sorry sir, this not permit to enter this area. Must go elsewhere to hunt."
Rasmus looked at the signs. United Nations Protected Area, one said. World Heritage Park, said another. Permit needed to enter. A phone number, an address. He looked at the man standing in front of him.
The man smiled. "This is United Nations managed area, sir. Not for public without special permission. See signs." He pointed.
Rasmus was confused. "What's the UN got to do with this? This here's American dirt. Got nothin' to do with the United Nations. I'm an American. You an American, son?"
"No, sir. From Zaire." He smiled. "Ready to go home, see my family. Too long here, too lonely. Now you must go."
"Well, go then, son. See your family. You don't belong here. I'm goin' hunting. Have a nice day." And Rasmus stepped forward. The man reached out and put his hand on Rasmus' chest. Rasmus felt his adrenaline surge. That had been a mistake for everyone who'd ever tried it before, he remembered. Of course, he was older now, but his canniness was sharper than ever.
"Best take your hand off me, son. No furriner gonna keep no American off American dirt, leastwise not here, not today. You head out now, go see your family. While you can. I ain't got nothin' against a man doin' his job, but you don't want to stand in my way. Not on American dirt."
"This is not American dirt, sir. It's United Nations dirt. You must go now, or I will haveto call the sheriff."
Rasmus looked around briefly. There was the phone line, right there at the corner of the eaves. He stepped over and with one jerk pulled it out of the wall, tossed the broken end into the dirt. He saw the man's hand move slowly toward a holstered sidearm. Probably a .32, he snorted to himself. And it was snapped in snugly, probably take a week to get it out from under all the straps. A kid's holster.
"I wouldn't think about doing anything stupid with that peashooter, son. In fact, why don't I take it from you. It's dangerous in the wrong hands." He had the muzzle of the Browning pointed at him, and worked the action. The man froze at the authoritative rattle, looked wary. He didn't know the rifle wasn't loaded.
"Just unbuckle the belt with your left hand and let it fall, son. Then jump in your truck over there and and go home. You don't belong here."
The man did exactly as he'd been told. Rasmus picked up the sidearm and walked over to the truck. There was a radio in it. He jerked out the microphone, threw it into the woods. He checked the glove box. A cell phone. He took that. He turned to the man.
"You can go, son. Do what you want, or what you have to, or just go home to your family. What time does your relief show up?"
"Four p.m., sir. There will be much trouble about this. You should reconsider. I will not identify you if you just go. You good man, but don't understand."
Rasmus nodded. "That's right. I don't understand the UN keeping Americans off American dirt. My great grandparents took this land from the Indian, and it's ours now. If we have to take it from the UN too, well, that's in the American tradition. Now you go, do whatever you decide. I suggest you just go home. I'm going hunting."
The man climbed into his Land Rover, drove away. Rasmus watched the dustcloud follow him over the hill and disappear. He walked back to his battered pickup and drove it to the fence, parked it where the Land Rover had been. Then he loaded up his pack with all the rest of the ammunition he'd brought along, the man's sidearm and all the ammunition in the belt, stuffed in some more freeze-dried food, and walked into the restricted area, heading uphill to the high ground.
Jesus, this pack's a load, he thought as he trudged and puffed uphill. He thought more as he walked, one foot in front of the other, trying to conserve energy. You know, he thought, there might be some folks interested in this . . .
He stopped, sat, took off his pack and took a big swig of Gatorade. Then he pulled out the United Nations' cell phone. Might as well use up its battery before he started using his, he thought.
It was just ten a.m. There was a long day ahead.
Part 2: THE SHERIFF
Rasmus flipped the phone open. The signal strength lights flickered briefly, then went blank. He pulled up the antenna, stood up, waved it around. Still nothing.
"Damn." He should have expected that, he thought. Probably have to drive forty miles toward the interstate to get a decent signal, especially here in the high country. Come to think of it, the gate attendant probably lived that far away. Had to, if he used this phone.
He closed the phone, sat. Now what?
He grunted, stood, shucked his pack and rifle, started back down the slope. Too damned old for this kind of frolicking in the mountains, he chided himself silently. Uphill, downhill, uphill, downhill. Legs don't care for this a bit.
Forty minutes later he was back at the gate. He picked up the telephone line, looked it over. Wires all color-coded, he noticed. Ought to be simple. He pulled out his Swiss Army knife, peeled insulation off the ends of the wires. That done, he went to the exposed wires dangling off the side of the gatehouse and repeated the process. Then, tugging on the line and splicing with one hand, he practiced some cursing until he was satisfied that all the lines were re-connected and would hold while he went inside.
He picked up the handset. Dial tone. Smiling, he tried dialing. That worked. He talked with his friend. Another call. Another connection, another conversation. He made four more calls before the sheriff pulled up in front of the gatehouse. Rasmus recognized Olaf Jensen. He walked outside the gatehouse and greeted him as he climbed out of the green Suburban.
"Howdy, Olaf. Here to hunt, too?"
Olaf smiled, walked over to the gate. "Nope. No, Rasmus, got this call from the Henry's place that some frothing-mouthed, gun-toting mountain man is chasing off the foreigners up here. Know anything about that?"
"Only people I saw up here was one Negro from Zaire trying to tell me I couldn't hunt these mountains unless the U.N. said it was OK. He didn't like my not taking 'No' for an answer, tried to push me around just a little. So I defanged him and sent him home. Guess he didn't go home, though, did he?"
Sheriff Jensen just grinned, shook his head. "Just stopped at the first house he came to, is all. He's still goin' home. But he said you ripped the phone wires out of the wall, stole his cell phone, stole his gun. Said you trespassed on U.N. property. He also said he doesn't care for the disrespectful folks around these parts. That's what he called you, Rasmus. Disrespectful."
"Well, maybe I'm not real respectful all the time. Been told that before. But the phone still works." Rasmus gestured to the phone wires. "And his cell phone is on the table in there, for what good that is. Too far away from a transmitter, or something. I kept his toy gun for now. It's in my pack. I'll drop it off at your office when I'm done with the hunt. That be OK?"
The sheriff pushed his hat back. Clearly, he didn't like having to do what he was there for. "Gotta ask you to follow me back to town, Rasmus. Need statements, that sort ofthing. That fella may want to press charges. The U.N. will for sure, when they find out."
Rasmus nodded, thought. "Any charges filed yet?"
"No, not yet. Expect them, though. U.N. can't allow folks to just come and go on their property without permission. Least, that's what I'm sure they'll say. Gotta set a precedent, they'll say. Uphold whatever agreement they have with our govamint."
"Well, Sheriff, no offense meant, but you can't arrest me without some sorta charges, and I don't want to miss opening day. So maybe you should go back and take a statement, see what charges those folks want to file, and then come and get me. I'll be - " he pointed toward the mountains behind him - "in there somewhere."
The sheriff made an unhappy face. "I gotta sorta insist, Rasmus. Don't make me be a tough guy. We known each others' families too long. Ellie's got lunch almost ready at the diner. Come with me, we'll eat and I can take an official statement from you. Hell, maybe you can even file a complaint against the U.N. But I gotta be lookin' like I'm doin' my job. The Feds will probably have to act as agents for the U.N., and I don't want to look like any more of a country sheriff than I am when they get here."
Rasmus looked at him for a moment, aware of the sheriff's discomfort. He didn't like putting him in this position, but that's what he was elected for. To do his job.
"I'm going hunting, Olaf. See you in a few days. Things will wait until then. I'll stop by on my way home, and we'll get this all straightened out then. Sorry for the trouble, but these here mountains are American, not U.N. I'm just an American going to go into them, do what I have a right to do. You're an American, too. So if you're not going to shoot me, I'm heading back uphill again. Say 'Hi' to Ellie for me."
"I could jump you, cuff you, toss you in the back of the Suburban, take you in, Rasmus. You're trespassing, at least. I could arrest you for just that."
"Yeah. You could do that. See you in a few days, Olaf." And he started back up the hill. He didn't look back, and a couple of minutes later he heard the sheriff's Suburban start up and drive away.
Goddamned legs, he thought. Goddamned mountains. Goddamned U.N. Goddamned Feds.
Well, somewhere there's an elk out there waiting for me. The hunt is on. He smiled at that, shook his head. Which hunt, he thought, was going to be the most interesting?
Part 3: THE HELICOPTER
Rasmus crawled out of his brand-new bivisac at precisely 4:30 a.m. His wrist alarm had sounded exactly on time, just as he had been expecting for the last two hours. The cold bit him right to the bone instantly, and he wasted no time in pulling on his clothing, disdaining the day-glo orange pullover panel that was supposedly going to protect him from other hunters.
What other hunters, he smiled. You're probably all there is, unless the U.N. has a lodge in here somewhere. He groaned as he pulled on his clothing, his joints stiff and sore.
You old fart, he thought, abusing your bones this way is something you ought to be smarter than to do. Damned insulating pad didn't help worth beans. Stifling another soft groan, he lit his Sterno stove and put on his four-cup coffee pot. As it heated he held his hands close to the clear flame, worked his knuckles loose.
Half an hour later, a ziploc bag of homemade gorp in one pocket of his parka and a stainless thermos of instant coffee in another, he picked up his Browning and started for his shooting hide. He'd reconned it late the previous day in the bruised twilight, just to see if it was still the same as he'd remembered from forty-six years ago. It hadn't changed, except for being fully overgrown. But he'd managed to stomp and cut enough brush to clear the field of fire he wanted to the meadow on the far slope just three hundred yards away. Piece of cake, he'd thought. Just like last time.
He thought about his grandfather, the man who'd taken him on what turned out to be his last hunt. Seventy-two years old then, he remembered, and didn't show a sign of being old or tired or sore or crotchety. Just being a grandfather and a hunter. Good company, a man he loved a lot. Talked a lot tougher than he acted, Rasmus remembered. Taught me a lot that a father never could. He wondered if that sort of truth was universal - that fathers can't teach kids what grandfathers can.
Why can't I be that strong, he sighed. Here I am, just over sixty, and I feel like the Grim Reaper already has me notched on his stick. Maybe I need to help raise a teenage grandkid to keep me young. Or kill me off earlier.
He wondered again how many others were up here hunting, maybe sneaking in illegally. He hadn't seen a sign of any of them, if there were any.
The sun was still behind a mountain, but his watch said seven minutes past official sunup. It was elk season now, officially. He watched the far slope, picked up his binos from time to time and scanned. Too much shadow to see much clearly, and early morning mists didn't help, either. He settled in to wait, dug out the coffee and gorp. Leaning against a tree for support, he kept his eyes on the slope. He was comfortable, passably warm in his expensive hunting garb, and his stomach was no longer bitching at him for not eating. He ate, he sipped, he watched. Finally he put the thermos down.
He awoke at nine fifteen. Something had pulled him awake, a sound that didn't belong, a smell, a movement somewhere. He didn't move. He listened, sniffed. Nothing. He moved his eyes around, searching. Nothing unusual. Then he heard it. A snap. Just a twig breaking nearby. He turned his head toward the sound, ever so slowly.
There it was. The elk, the trophy head that would look fabulous on his termite-infested wall. Perfect antlers, no broken points anywhere. Big, healthy, happily munching away not forty yards behind him. Maybe eight hundred pounds, Rasmus thought. Carefully he felt for the wind on his cheek - the animal was upwind.
He slid the Browning across his stomach slowly, easily, no quick movements, no sounds. He lifted it carefully, quietly, held it against the treetrunk for stability. Sighting through the Leupold he drew a bead on the right shoulder of the animal, a high-percentagekilling shot and a leg break in case it didn't kill. The safety snicked off, the only sound in the universe.
The elk raised his head, looking around casually as though searching for the source of that out-of-place sound. Its ears flickered alertly, sampling the air for more sounds.
"Bang," Rasmus whispered, "You're locker meat." And he lowered the rifle. The elk heard him, looked at him oddly, then turned and shambled off.
"Too easy," Rasmus explained to himself. He'd wondered if he had the ability to kill anymore. Now he knew. He'd suspected, of course, after all these intervening years and his time as a sniper, that there was no satisfaction in it for him now. Oh, he enjoyed the meat, understood the enjoyment others got from a successful hunt, but he saw clearly now that he'd lost the stomach for the necessary bloodshed. But he hadn't outgrown the hunt itself. He took some vague comfort in that. The hunt was still exciting, fun.
And there was a lot of hunting yet to be done, he thought, before I have to leave. He got up, went back to his camp and made breakfast. It was still a couple of hours before noon.
The helicopter flew by his campsite not two hundred feet away, down the draw, up over the saddle, and out of sight. Rasmus hadn't gotten a good look at the markings, and didn't think it had seen him since it had gone by so quickly. He was still in the trees, hard to see in his non day-glo vested hunting garb.
Well, he thought, I wonder what that's for? Are they looking for me?
By noon he still hadn't heard a shot. Not one shot, and this is opening day. He broke camp and started for higher ground. He had a long way to go if he was going to make his noon date tomorrow. He hoped he wouldn't have to keep dodging that helicopter while he made his way upward. It was tough enough just walking along normally.
Goddamned legs, he thought. Goddamned U.N.
He trudged uphill, the pack gaining weight with every step. Snow level was less than a thousand feet higher, he knew. The helicopter would be looking for him to be lower, down where the elk were.
But he already had his elk.
Part 4: STAKING A CLAIM
Rasmus arrived at the lake only thirty minutes before noon. He was exhausted, being forced to climb mostly at night to reduce the chance of being spotted by the flitting helicopters and occasional light aircraft. Well above the frost line in the thinning trees his aching lungs and shaking legs demanded that he explain this foolishness. He'd grin from time to time, shake his head at his own obstinacy. Screw 'em all, he thought. This is how it was done a hundred or more years ago, ought to be good enough today.
As he'd expected, the lake had long since frozen over. He sat in the treeline at thesouth end, as he'd agreed, and waited. He lit the Sterno, got some coffee water warming.
The Cessna float plane settled gently onto the ice at the north end of the lake, slithered and skated toward him, seemingly just a toy on the slick ice that allowed no traction for brakes. Nonetheless, it roared and stuttered to a slow creep just feet from his bank, pivoted around, skidded to a stop. The engine coughed and fluttered, died. The pilot's door opened, and a man in heavy garb stepped down. He looked around, saw Rasmus, waved.
"Howdy, you old roundhead. Jesus, you've got folks in an uproar. Even the Feds are looking for you." Sven Larsen smiled as he walked up the bank, twisting his head to crack his stiff neck.
Rasmus stood, shook Sven's hand. "Good to see you, Sven. Set and see if you can swallow some of this instant brown shit. Jar says it's coffee."
"Don't mind if I do. Can't stay long, though. Next recon is due here in about an hour, and I want to be long gone. I managed to get a copy of the sortie schedule from Missoula -all the right flight plans, and all that. Public records, done right by expert beaurocrats. Here." He handed Rasmus a packet of papers. "Don't depend on that too much, though. There's certain latitudes the bigwigs have that the rest of us don't. And it'll probably only be good for today, anyway. Things change."
Rasmus thanked him, poured some warm water into a cup for Sven. He added a spoonful of brown crystals, stirred. Sven sipped, made a face. "Best coffee I've had since I landed," he said, shuddering.
"That what it is? Really? You sure?"
"Don't think I want to tell you what I think it might be. Listen. I brought all that stuff you asked for. And a CB walkie-talkie with a couple extra sets of batteries. We'll use channel 31 if you need anything. I'll be up here every day, just toodling around, at two in the afternoon. You need anything, call. Turn your CB on about that time in case I have something to tell you. And I also brought you a pocket radio so you can get the weather and news. Never know what sorta world-shakin' things are happenin' while you're up here vacationing." He sipped again, suppressed another shudder.
Rasmus and Sven spent another few minutes chatting, then they stood and went to the plane. Sven offloaded a large cardboard box and a heavier bedroll, helped Rasmus carry them up well into the treeline.
Before Sven left Rasmus carefully crafted a message on a lid panel from the cardboard box. Finished, he handed it to Sven. "Take this to Missoula, Sven, give it to a radio station or newspaper. Make copies, pass it around the media there. Let's see if we can make the point to enough people to get them interested."
Sven read it:
"I, Rasmus Perry, having conquered the United Nations territory hereafter to be known as Elkonia, do proclaim that territory to be sovereign and free. This territory will be turnedover to the United States of America at noon Friday at the gate I used to enter this area, without charge or cost, under the conditions that the Government of the United States of America, through the offices of any agency that can speak for the United States in a binding manner, promises in writing to me and the citizens of Montana and the United States, to cherish and protect it as I would, and make it available to the citizens of the United States of America, and of Montana, without condition except as necessary to control hunting, habitation and commerce in exactly the same manner they do in the rest of the State of Montana.
"If the United States of America will not accept this territory in the spirit in which it is offered, and in the letter of the conditions attached, I, Rasmus Perry, will retain it as my own sovereign nation, inasmuch as I captured it fairly and squarely, and the United States will have effectively declared that they don't want it.
"Like any sovereign nation, Elkonia will protect its borders from all nations and political bodies that lack goodwill. Trespass by armed troops or agents of the United Nations will be construed as a declaration of intent to recapture the territory, and will be dealt with in the same manner any respectable nation would use to protect its borders. Unarmed people of goodwill, not acting as agents or troops, are free to come and go at will."
It was signed, dated.
Sven whistled, looked up, shook his head. "Wow, Rasmus. This will make the evening news!"
Rasmus nodded his head. "Yep. Expect so. You wondering how many pieces of American dirt are under U.N. control or direction or whatever it is they do?"
Sven shook his head. "Never thought much about it. How many?"
"I don't know. Maybe this is the only one. But I doubt it. Maybe our government will think this through again, figure out that we shed blood to build this land and ought not to part with pieces of it like this."
"Or maybe," Sven said thoughtfully, "there'll be a few more Goddamned roundheads out there who'll think this is a good idea and go about 'liberating' the dirt in their home states."
Rasmus twitched a smile. "Yep. Might be. You better get that Cessna up in the air, now, Sven. You're overdue in Missoula."
Ten minutes later the Cessna lofted skyward, disappeared over the pass. Rasmus pulled his new booty slowly uphill to the spot he'd picked out for his temporary residence. He rummaged in the box, dug out a large can of canned chicken. He opened it and placed it on the Sterno, and while it reluctantly heated he set up his camp.
He looked forward to listening to the evening news.
Part 5: CONFRONTATION
"There's things happening, Rasmus." Sven had returned Wednesday evening, surprising Rasmus. While they talked they sipped at the better grade of instant coffee that Sven had brought. "The feds and the UN aren't real happy with your terms. They're inclined to make an example out of you. Maybe you've heard about it on the news."
Rasmus had. News about a "Mountain Man" and a "Self-proclaimed king." Not much news about the UN, though. He'd thought that odd, especially since his message out had made the news. Then the story had faded away, to be replaced by word images of an armed, dangerous wild-eyed ultra-conservative extremist making threats.
"Any idea what kinda example they got in mind, Sven?"
"Probably going to cuff you and drag by the scruff of the neck off to jail Friday. Then try you on all sorts of treaty violation laws, and trespass, and assault, and whatever else they can imagine. Probably try to tie you in with some militia groups or something, too. You're going to look like Timothy McVeigh when they get done with you. You'll be a handy example of why tougher laws are needed to track and disband militias, and why gun control is necessary, and all that."
Rasmus nodded. Just what he'd expected. He was destined to become a poster boy for the Disarm American Citizens bunch.
"You've got some friends who want to help, Rasmus. Some you don't even know."
"What kind of help?"
"Back-up. Folks who will help keep you healthy and free. Folks who see things the way you do and are willing to stand up and do something, same as you're doing."
Rasmus was cautiously pleased. They talked about that for more than a half hour, Rasmus finally agreeing and laying out plans with Sven.
"No independent action, though, Sven. Remember that. Make it clear. I call the shots, I give the signals. It's my butt out there, and it's my way or no way. Make that clear. Otherwise, I'll do it all myself."
Sven grinned. "They know that. They said you'd insist on it, and already agreed. I'll pass on the plan and the signals. All you have to do is show up Friday. In the meantime I'll be scattering leaflets all over Missoula tomorrow night and Helena early Friday. Then I'll be back here for the noon show."
When Sven lifted away into the pre-evening gloom Rasmus leaned back and sipped the last of the coffee. The evening news was on the transistor, and he was starring.
He walked down the slope Friday, then sat in the treeline a hundred yards or so from the gate. He watched the gathering of dark-suited officials, of news hounds, of curious citizens. This last group was kept behind a rope stretched across the road, right at the crest from which he'd first seen the guard house. He saw that a spindly tower had been erected behind the rope barricade, and a television camera was visible on the platform at the top.
Good, he thought to himself. No hanky-panky. Everything was going to be broadcast.
He looked around. No sign of any supporters. No sign of the help Sven had said was going to be there. Well, Sven had told him he wouldn't even know they were there unless he signaled for their help.
He leaned back on his elbows and watched. He ached, he stank, but he was clean-shaven and as neat as he could make himself. Got to be a fitting example of the leadership of Elkonia, he thought wryly. Head of State, and all that. Almost crippled with aching joints and grossly insulted muscles, nonetheless he was going to stroll out, relaxed and springy-stepped when the time came. A smile, a white flag of truce on a stick, and an unarmed handshake for the first official he met. From there, he didn't know. But that's how he was going to start it off.
Like civilized nations do, he thought. Try it the easy way first.
His belly felt sour, hollow. He knew he was scared. He knew he could be living his last minutes. Well, he'd been close to death before. He'd felt this before. And here we was, still kicking.
His watch pointed at one minute to noon. He stood, picked up his stick with the white cloth attached, and stolled out of the woodline. He saw faces turn his way. A suit walked up to the guard house and waited for him. Rasmus didn't recognize him. He hoped it was an official from the United States, there to accept the land back.
Rasmus stopped a few feet inside the fence. The official waited in the guard house. Rasmus motioned to him to come in, and the official stepped out and walked up to Rasmus.
"Welcome to Elkonia," Rasmus greeted, and stuck out his hand. The official took it and they shook. Rasmus looked him over. Clear eyed, calm, purposeful. "What brings you out here today?"
The official cracked a half-smile at the absurdity of the question. He gestured to the white cloth. "I see you're unarmed. That a surrender flag, or a truce flag?"
"Truce," Rasmus clarified, "So we can talk. Who might you be?"
"David Jones," the official announced, and pulled out his identification. A Presidential envoy. Well, Rasmus thought, I know where this President stood on most things. Let's see if this guy has any surprises for me.
"Envoy from the President? You able to speak for him, and for the country?"
Mr. Jones nodded. "In this matter, yes."
"You read my terms?"
Jones nodded. "Yes. "
"The President wants me to convey his admiration for your patriotism, and tell youthat you are a free man, and can walk out of here and go home and resume your life as though none of this happened. He has instructed me to make sure you know he understands exactly how you feel."
Rasmus, knowing as he did this president, doubted that. "I doubt that, Mr. Jones. But please convey to the President that I appreciate his message. Now, what about my terms?"
Jones eyes were level, calm. "The President's position is that this is United Nations territory. As a member of the United Nations this country is compelled to act in their behalf, if necessary."
"You mean send troops, invade Elkonia, that sort of thing?"
Jones nodded. "If necessary, I'm empowered to arrest you. We hope it won't be necessary."
"Empowered by who?" Rasmus asked.
"By the Department of Justice."
"Didn't you just tell me that the President thinks this is United Nations territory?"
Jones eyebrows went up fractionally. "Well - yes, I did."
"You have credentials from the UN, empowering you to arrest me?"
Jones was calm. "No."
"You have an extradition treaty with Elkonia?"
Jones almost laughed. "No."
Rasmus nodded, scratched his chin. "We have anything else to discuss, then?"
Jones eyed him, speculating. Old man. Not feeble, but old. Easy to take, if he wanted to. He'd handled lots tougher. But that wasn't what he was there for.
Jones walked back to the guard shack. Rasmus went with him, stopped at the shack. Jones left, walked out the gate. He gestured to someone nearby. He handed Jones a hand-held radio, and Jones spoke into it.
Sheriff Jensen strode up to the shack.
"Howdy, Rasmus. You got things stirred up here, you know that? There's two, three hundred folks out there on the road, watching."
"Hi, Olaf. Yep. And all I wanted to do is hunt a little elk."
The sheriff smiled. "You get one yet?"
"Could have had dozens. Couldn't shoot one, though. Thought I could, but couldn't squeeze the trigger."
"You're makin' waves everywhere, Rasmus. A small town in New Mexico found out they got one of these UN places nearby, and half the citizens showed up with deer rifles, shotguns and pitchforks and drove out the UN guards. Feds showed up, and they drovethem off too. No shooting, but no backing down. I think the Feds are getting nervous about you."
"They ought to be nervous about giving away chunks of this country."
"I been reading on the internet about this UN protected place thing. And the World Heritage Park plan. You know much about it?"
Rasmus shook his head. "Just what I've seen here. That's plenty. Is there more?"
The sheriff nodded. "It ain't pretty, Rasmus. Look into it when you get the chance. It's spooky."
"You here to ask me to come out?"
The sheriff nodded again. "As your friend, Rasmus. You've made your point. Folks are taking a look around. Come on home, see if you can keep that John Deere running. I'd hate to see you get sent to jail, or worse. Here," he offered Rasmus a small instrument on a clip, "Fella up at the TV camera asked me if I could give this to you. Said it'd let the world hear what's said between you and anyone you talk with. Said just clip it to your collar by your throat. Inside, where it can't be seen."
Rasmus clipped on the small instrument. "Can you hear me up there? Wave if you can." He looked at the cameraman forty yards away. The cameraman waved.
"You going to come out, Rasmus?" The sheriff asked again.
"Just as soon as we get this settled, Olaf."
"Then good luck, old friend. We're pulling for you. Don't get hurt, and don't hurt no one. They ain't gonna let this just sit like it is. So watch your ass."
Rasmus thanked the sheriff, they shook hands, and the sheriff left. Rasmus left the guard shack, started back up the hill.
The helicopters came in fifty yards away, between him and the treeline. He stopped, watched the two machines hover close to the ground and disgorge a half-dozen troops each. They scattered, fell to the earth and took up positions facing him.
American soldiers, he thought. In UN uniforms. What a shame. What a crying shame. Pointing weapons at me, a citizen of their country. I was one of them once.
Rasmus took off his hat. Seconds later there was a loud "CLANG" and the helicopter on the left made a terrific clattering sound, shook, and settled to the earth with a resounding thud. The troops on the ground turned and saw the helicopter shaking and shuddering, the aircrew jump out of the doors and run to safety.
"What's happening?" Rasmus heard from behind him. He turned, and Jones was there, watching the wounded helicopter shake itself to a whining, clattering halt.
"Tell the other aircraft to land, Mr. Jones. Then have the pilot and crew get out and walk out the gate."
Jones looked at him. "Are you serious?"
"I don't want to hurt anyone, Mr. Jones. That's why we waited until the other craft was close to the ground and unloaded before we disabled it. Now do it."
Jones looked at the other helicopter. It was still hovering nearby, an obvious target for whatever had been used on the first helicopter. He spoke into his hand-held radio. It settled onto the ground, and moments later the crew got out.
"We Elkonians thank you for this generous contribution to our fledgling Air Force, sir," Rasmus said to Jones as the aircrew walked to the gate. "I don't suppose we could get you to throw in fuel and such, too?"
Jones just shook his head. He pointed to the troops. "Come with me, Mr. Perry. The U.N. troops you see before you insist you leave their territory."
"Tell your troops to remove all their military equipment, including their flak jackets and weapons and everything except their basic clothing, and walk out the gate, Mr. Jones. They are surrounded, as I've already explained. They're just simple soldiers, and I don't want them to get hurt."
"And if I refuse?"
Rasmus pointed to the damaged helicopter. "That helicopter was a painless demonstration. The next demonstration will not be, and you are the designated visual aid. You're not a simple soldier, sir, and I don't hold as many compunctions about hurting you. I don't want to, but I will if it comes to that."
Jones looked around. There was no sign of anyone else. How many more were there? How were they armed? How had they disabled the helicopter? There'd been no explosion, no shot, nothing. Just a CLANG, and then a disabled helicopter. Was there one man? A dozen? Hundreds?
"You're bluffing, Mr. Perry."
Rasmus hesitated. He didn't want to hurt this man, who was in his own way innocent of the situation. A tool, a lot like the soldiers, although more sinister. But still, just a tool. "If I make one gesture, Mr. Jones, you live the rest of your life with one leg. If you try to harm me, or touch me, you may suffer a worse fate. I'm not supposed to warn you of this, but no one's been hurt so far, and I want it to stay that way."
Jones pursed his lips. "We have a sniper, too, Mr. Perry."
"Of course you do. Well, I'm an old man, Mr. Jones. You could kill me easily. I know that. But then what? We have our first Elkonian / American border skirmish, with you and me as the first casualties? Is that the way this is supposed to work out on national television?" He gestured to the camera on the tower. "Is the United States really ready to kill and suffer casualties so they can give this piece of Montana territory back to the U.N.?"
Jones knew there was nothing else to do. "Well, I tried. No one can say I didn't. So, no changes? You just want your terms met? Nothing else?"
"I'd like to be a free man, too."
"Naturally. Well, come with me to the guard house. The Montana Secretary of theInterior will meet us there."
"He can meet us here, sir. After the troops have left. And I'd like to speak with the squad leader for a moment before he leaves."
"Sure." Jones spoke into his radio. A moment later one of the soldiers stood, signaled the others. They stood, went over to him. He held a brief conversation, some heads turned and looked at Rasmus. Their equipment went into a pile and the soldiers filed out the gate while the squad leader walked over to Rasmus.
He stopped and saluted. "Lieutenant Jeremy Withers, sir. United States Army."
Rasmus, a little embarrassed, returned his salute. "Rasmus Perry, former Sergeant, United States Marines. Sniper, Vietnam. Thank you for stopping a moment to speak with me. You can relax, you're in no danger now."
"Yes, sir. Thank you. You asked to speak with me?"
Rasmus looked him over briefly. Lean, younger than a March flower, full of energy and dedication. A prime example of the best of America's military.
"Son, you remember the oath you swore when you raised your right hand to join the service? About defending the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic?"
"Yes, sir. And to obey the orders of those lawfully appointed over me."
"Whose uniform are you wearing?"
Lieutenant Withers started to speak, instead closed his mouth and nodded slightly.
Rasmus saw his understanding, pressed the point a little more. "And take a look up at those mountains, son. What country are they part of?"
Lieutenant Withers looked, and didn't answer again.
"You were asked to take them away from an American and give them to the United Nations, weren't you?"
"I was ordered to secure them from you, sir. As a leader of a United Nations unit."
"Do you know what I wanted to do with them?"
"Well -" He glanced at Jones - "I read where you just wanted to give them back to the United States."
"That's right. On your way back to your unit, Lieutenant, maybe you can talk with your soldiers about this situation. And while you're doing that, maybe you can remember a class you've surely had that explained your obligation under the Uniform Code of Military Justice to refuse to obey an order that you judge to be illegal. You might want to discuss the question of who the enemy was here today."
"Yes, sir. I think I see what you're getting at. Thank you." He saluted again, and trotted away to the gate to join his men.
A man came through the same gate and walked up to Rasmus and Jones. He presented his credentials. Montana Secretary of the Interior.
"You want this wilderness, sir?" Rasmus asked the Secretary formally.
"On behalf of the citizens of Montana, we accept this wilderness exactly according to your conditions, Mr. Perry. It's beautiful country. We'll be proud to take care of it." He presented a single-page document stating that to Rasmus. He also gave one to Jones. "For your president, sir. Not that it should be necessary," he said.
"Your president, too," Jones reminded him.
"Not mine. I didn't vote for him." The Montana Secretary wasn't being especially diplomatic. Rasmus wondered if he knew that he had a microphone.
"Mr. Jones? You accept this territory on behalf of the President of the United States, according to my terms as well?"
Jones made a face. "Yes, you stubborn old galoot. But we want a favor."
Rasmus decided neither of them knew he had a microphone. He supressed a smile at the thought of their words being broadcast worldwide. "What favor?"
"We don't want to see you in Minnesota, or Tennessee, or Maine, doing this again."
"Are there places like this there, too?"
"Yes," Jones said, "And a number of other places as well. We don't want to see you doing this at any of them. And we want our helicopter and all the soldier's military equipment back."
"That's fine. I'm not inclined to be a troublemaker. At least, not on purpose."
"All right then. I guess it's over," Jones said.
Rasmus felt like laughing, but refrained. "So now I just walk out the gate and go home? Is that where things stand?" Rasmus wanted it plain.
Both officials nodded. "Yep," the Montana Secretary affirmed. "No harm, no foul."
Rasmus turned to Jones. "I don't have to sleep with one eye open, wondering what federal agency is going to storm my house in the middle of the night? Or worry about the IRS deciding to audit my last forty years of returns?"
Jones frowned. "Of course not. This is America!"
Rasmus snorted. "Somehow, that isn't as reassuring as it used to be."
"You have the personal promise of the President, then," Jones assured him, "And my own as well."
Rasmus put his hat back on. "You seem to be a man that values your word, sir, so I'll accept your personal assurance. The President's word isn't as comforting. Now, since I got my elk, soon as I get my gear packed up I think I'll go home." He shook both their hands, a civilized man again.
"You can tell your men to come out, Mr. Perry. They can go home too."
Rasmus laughed. "They'll go home when they want to, Mr. Jones. That isn't up to me. It's a free country, remember?"
Jones smiled. "Who are they? How many do you have?"
Rasmus told him the truth. "I don't know who any of them are, and I don't know how many there are. I just know they're there, and I hope there'll be people like them available whenever they're needed by their real country."
"Real?" Jones asked.
"You know what I mean. The America we all thought we lived in."
"Don't we still live in that America, Mr. Perry?"
Rasmus looked at Jones. "Mr. Jones, I know you're a government man. But think about this situation a little, from the citizen's perspective. Think about your role in it, why it even came about that an American citizen had to take back American territory. Then ask yourself that question and answer it truthfully. Ask yourself what it's likely to take to get it fixed again." He headed back uphill to gather his equipment. He groaned inwardly at the prospect of the long upward trudge. But the warm glow inside made him smile. There was still a little spring to his step as he set off.
It had been a worthwhile hunt. The hunt of a lifetime. And he'd be home before dark. And then, after a long hot bath and two fingers of Glenfiddich, there was the internet. Suddenly, retirement looked to be the busiest time of his life.