combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 03 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2005

A Stairway Over Louisiana
excerpted from A Stairway Over Louisiana


          A Stairway Over Louisiana is a story of betrayal, redemption, and atonement against an unusual futuristic background. By the late Twenty-first Century, the world is already at war with an alien race. Louisiana and five other U.S. states are occupied by a brutal and technologically superior enemy.

          The rationale for the alien occupation gradually unfolds, introducing the reader to strange metaphysical concepts and revealing why the aliens are here, why they refuse to leave, and why they have made no further moves.

          Alex Chamoiseau and Gary Kellogg are a pair of resistance fighters in Louisiana, John Wheeler a covert gunrunner across the river in Natchez, Mississippi. The three – along with secondary characters – are involved in a bitter war for a world that is already lost.

          It is between Alex and Gary that the series of betrayals occur, but despite the dark character of the book, the spirit and courage of those fighting in near hopeless conditions adds the quality of heroism. And the dramatic connection between the alien commander of the garrison north of Baton Rouge, his adolescent prisoner Tonya, and Alex, provides both intrigue and emotional pull.

          The novel begins in 2081 A.D.. New Orleans (and other coastal cities) are under water, causing a huge migration to north Louisiana. Scientists debate whether the flooding has been caused by the Greenhouse Effect or some natural phenomenon. The long foreseen earthquake has obliterated California. The invaders have neutralized atomic energy worldwide, rendering it useless. America's government has become so corrupt no one realizes how much defense money has been misplaced. Europe, Asia, and the Americas are economically and environmentally in trouble. It is to Central Africa with its manpower, resources, and rainfall that the world looks for the deployment of the largest conventional military force in history – to dislodge the aliens from the interior United States. Canada is an important player in the effort as well. Meanwhile the resistance continues to needle the enemy, despite the seeming futility of their efforts. It is a time of despair, of sacrifice, of endless waiting, and of a refusal to give in.

          Courage is found where it is least expected: in a strong but gentle teacher in command of secret military activities, a mother forced to face danger in unlikely places, an eighteen-year-old boy who is unaware of his own worth, a nightclub singer turned warrior, a young girl risking her own safety to plead for that of a stranger, an alien turning his back on everything in which he believes, and most especially, Alexis Chamoiseau, who in the words of the Lord Al-U, "repents of his fear," and finds his courage at the last moment.

          The central theme of betrayal, redemption, and atonement enlarges to embrace not only Alex and Gary, but also Al-U. It is Tonya who is the key player in the redemption of Al-U, unknowingly prodding him to take his first step out of the chaos that is his heritage, and it is Tonya who bears witness to the story of Alexis Chamoiseau. Lieutenant Colonel John Wheeler, heads the resettlement of Louisiana refugees and hearings into charges against collaborators at the end of the war. Through John's eyes the reader understands the final resolution of the story.

Characters Highlighted in this Excerpt:

    Major John Wheeler, covert resistance fighter in command of Natchez and elementary school teacher;
    Tess, John's wife;
    Mike and Tom, their boys;
    Galahad, their golden retriever;
    Major Alex Chamoiseau, commander of the Vidalia Resistance Camp;
    Gary, second in command;
    Celita, his wife and resistance fighter;
    Ricky, teenage messenger for the Louisiana Resistance;
    Cole, former classmate and teenage messenger in training;
    Abe Tullos, senior citizen in charge of the only computer linkup in Natchez;
    Boy, messenger for Mr. Tullos;
    Charlene and Victor, John's students and Mike's classmates;
    Unnamed Arkansas resistance fighter;
    Jake, possible collaborator;
    Susan Kennedy, one of John's fellow teachers.

Late Summer 2081 A.D., Natchez, Mississippi

          Galahad sat up abruptly, bumping against John's knees, a low growl sounding at the same time as Tom's shrill voice.

          "Daddy, somebody's here!

          John groaned and swung his legs over the side of the bed. "It's okay, Tom," he called. "I'm coming." Good Lord, he thought. It's Saturday morning and only a quarter to seven.

          Tess opened her eyes, murmuring sleepily. "Keep Galahad here with you," John ordered.

          He went downstairs, recognizing the boy on the bicycle through the screened door. "Message from Mr. Tullos, Mr. Wheeler," the boy said breathlessly, as soon as John opened the door. "It's urgent. He wants you to come right away."

          "On my way. Thanks."

          John went back upstairs and pulled on a pair of pants and a T-shirt. He grabbed socks and tennis shoes and ran back down the stairs, calling over his shoulder. "I'm going to Abe's house, Tess. Tom, don't hang out that upstairs window like that. All I need is you falling out of the second story."

          John sat down on the stoop and pulled on his shoes, disregarding the socks. He left them on the porch. He started walking without tying his shoe strings. "Urgent" from Mr. Tullos meant just what it said – "urgent."

          He loped down the driveway in an easy jog, the shoe laces swinging crazily from side to side. Hot already, he thought.

          Abe was waiting for him outside. "Got something on computer via Nashville, John," Abe said, shutting the door firmly behind them. "It's bad."

          "What?" John followed Abe back to the room where he worked.

          "Sit down, John. Here, take this." He pulled out the antique chair he always used when John was there.

          "Some insider ratted on the guerrillas in southern Arkansas," Abe said. "Told the aliens the location of just about every camp. There was a night – hear that? A night raid." "That's the first time since the war they've done anything at night," John said, shocked. "I can't believe this. But the Louisiana camps keep watch around the clock anyway. Doesn't Arkansas?"

          "Guess the damn fools got careless. The aliens killed over 300 guerrillas. Then every relative that could be found was rounded up and killed too. We estimate the total death count to be around 390 people."

          "How'd we find out about this?"

          "Couple of teenagers were sleeping in a barn behind one of the houses that were searched. They stole a horse and made it to West Memphis. Then they swam —"

          "Swam?" John said incredulously.

          "They used what parts of the old bridge they could. Anyway, they managed to cross the river to Tennessee – found a ham operator who relayed the information to Nashville. Took most of the night to come down to me."

          "God! Abe, I've got to warn Vidalia. They're too close. There's not much we can do about the other states, but Louisiana's too close. They're going to have to move every camp. Damn it all. Arkansas has always procrastinated about changing their authenticator codes. Alex changes them every other week – or at least once a month."

          "John, you know what this means."

          "Of course I know. A daylight crossing."

          "Why not let somebody else do it, John? You've got a wife and two children."

          A wife and maybe three children, John thought sadly, remembering the brief contentment of the night before.

          "Most of the others have somebody, Abe. Besides, I'm number one in Natchez. No, I'm crossing and I'm crossing within the hour. Send a messenger to the river front and tell them I'll be needing the small Jon boat. Dirk's in charge until I get back. At least it's Saturday and I won't have to worry about school."

          He tied his shoe laces before starting back at a slow jog. Tess'll have to know, he thought. I need clothes from home before I can leave.

          He arrived to the smell of bacon frying. Tess was already up and dressed in a yellow checked gingham dress, simple and sleeveless. She looked so beautiful John's stomach clinched. The dress had always been one of his favorites; yellow accented Tess's dark blue eyes and made the gold highlights in her brown hair gleam.

          "Where's Mike?" John asked, entering the kitchen.

          "Here, Daddy." Mike and Tom were already seated at the table, in eager anticipation. Biscuits were baking in the oven.

          "Mike, watch the bacon for a minute. I need to talk to your mother."

          Tess looked at him, smiling, then suddenly she recognized something in his expression.

          "Come upstairs with me," John said.

          She obeyed without question, fear showing in her eyes. "Has something happened?" she whispered, as they rounded the landing and passed by the stained glass window. Rose and blue shadows wavered across his face.

          In the bedroom he told her the situation. "I'm going to need my camouflage clothing and the lightweight boots," he said, opening his closet door.

          "Shall you want breakfast?"

          "No time. Would you fix me two or three bacon and biscuit sandwiches I can eat on the way? I need to get to the river front."

          "Scrambled eggs, too. Oh, John." She grabbed his face with both her hands and kissed him hard. "Be safe. I love you. Sandwiches coming right up. They'll be ready by the time you get changed."

          "You look cool, Daddy." Mike grinned.

          Tom was pale and anxious. John went over to the table and knelt beside his younger son, ruffling Mike's hair with one hand. "Try and be like your brother, Tom-Tom," John said softly. "I've got to be away for a while and it's going to be dangerous, but it has to be done. You understand?"

          Tom nodded.

          "You guys have to fill in for me, now. Help your mother. Tess, if I'm not back by Sunday night – and I doubt I will be – send a message to the school for the others to take over my classes."

          "I still don't see why we have to go to school in the summer," Mike grumbled. "Victor says nobody used to."

          "Back then they went to school all day, Mike. You don't."

          "Why, Daddy?"

          "Tom, I'll explain that later. Or your mother will. For the hundredth time. Sorry, Tom-tom, I didn't mean to bark at you. But right now, I've got to go."

The River

          One of the other River Runners handed John the things he would need to carry with him. He already had his canteen; Dirk Peters hooked it securely to the back of John's belt. In addition he was given a knife, a pistol with extra rounds of ammunition, some dried meat and biscuits, and an odd package with two hollow reeds about a foot and a half long. He put the pistol and knife in his pockets; everything else was packed in a small brown bag with strings to tie it on the boat. He needed quick access – a backpack wasn't practical. The brown bag needed to be right beside him, open and at his fingertips.

          "Boat's ready, John. Sure you want to cross alone?"

          "Don't see any sense risking any more people. If I'm not back in – say five or six days – no, make that Wednesday evening for sure so you can be ready – send a night crew over. We don't want Natchez blind."

          John would be forced to suffer long sleeves to protect him from the sun, plus a life preserver. He smoothed insect repellant over his face, neck, and hands; at least mosquitoes would be sparse in daylight and near the salt water of the river. However the gnats and other biting insects were extremely adaptable.

          The other men went with him to help him get aboard and start the engine. "Good luck, John – God take care of you." They shook hands; then John began his eerie journey across the deserted waterway.

          The sun blazed in a white sky; the only sounds were the quiet motor, the calls of birds, and an occasional splash where a fish jumped here and there. Within minutes John felt as if he was in a wet suit. Time crawled, John nearly holding his breath, certain the very sound of his breathing would carry to some watchful alien. He scanned every direction periodically, looking for any signs of movement that did not seem natural.

          The trip would probably take about forty minutes. John had to constantly compensate for the current pushing the boat southward, fighting to stay on course. He was thankful for the recent shortage of rainfall; at least the river wasn't high. Sweat poured past the band around his forehead, dripping down his face and stinging his eyes.

          Two hundred yards out from shore and there was a sudden white flash. And it was not natural. John knew immediately what it was. He ditched the life preserver, grabbed the hollow reeds, and was over the side of the boat in seconds. More flashes followed.

          Damn! he thought. I forgot about the damn barnacles. He had slid both hands down the boat as he went under water, scraping them raw. They burned from the salt. He ignored the pain and put one of the reeds in his mouth, allowing the other end to stay above the water's surface about an inch. The boat began to meander toward the south, taking him off course. For this he was thankful. He didn't want the engine, which was still running, pushing him toward shore just now. He didn't want to lead the enemy to his beaching location. In fact, he had left the engine running on purpose, hoping they would think they had killed him.

          He had to struggle to keep the reed above water so that he could breathe. He couldn't see; he was forced to keep his eyes closed because of the salt and silt. All he could do was to hold on and pray.

          How long? he wondered. How long should I wait before I try to surface? How will I know when they're gone? I don't think they can see me; the water's not clear. They can't see my hands under the hull of the boat. Oh, God, I feel something brushing against my legs. Stumps. I'm getting close to land. Pretty soon the Jon boat will come to a stop. Will they come and look? Or blow it up? Maybe it's time to swim, now. Have to let go pretty soon. Might have to swim underwater and try to breathe through this damn reed and hope I don't end up in a nest of cottonmouths – or worse.

Near Vidalia, Louisiana

          A shout came from the perimeter of the camp before dawn. It was the man on watch. "Everybody, wake up! Weapons ready! We're on alert!"

          Alex was on his feet running, his pistol in his hand. The whole camp was up, the men flat on their stomachs in defensive positions to protect as much of their bodies as possible, automatics and handguns aimed at all sections of the perimeter. Even Gary, unable to stand, was leaning on his elbows, a firearm protruding through his mosquito netting, aimed and ready.

          "It's okay," Alex said, letting out his breath. "It's Ricky. But he's got someone with him. Fellow, let me see both your hands. Ricky, give me double the third number of the authenticator code. Now."

          Ricky complied. He did not add a duress word; this indicated he was not being forced. He had been helping a large black man walk. Ricky loosened his support and stepped carefully away.

          The stranger had been limping badly. He held both hands out, palms up. He wore only a pair of shorts. His bare chest heaved with exhaustion; his feet were cut and bleeding.

          "Down," Alex ordered. Two of the resistance fighters shoved the black man roughly to the ground. "Now search him."

          They patted down his shorts and ran their hands along his torso and limbs, not even overlooking his hair. "He's clean."

          "Okay, you can get up. "Who are you?" Alex demanded.

          "I made it across the border. I think I made it because of my color."

          "What are you talking about?"

          "I'm from one of the camps in southern Arkansas. I've been running for hours – to tell you people what happened. Can I please have some water?"

          Alex motioned to Celita. "What happened in Arkansas?"

          "The aliens – they – they raided us. Just after full dark. There were lasers flashing all over the sky. I think it was more than just our camp. They killed everybody. I tell you – I was at the edge, near a ditch. I – I think they missed me because my color is so black – 'ebony,' we call it."

          "Didn't your camp have a watch posted?"

          "Yeah, but something went wrong. They got him first. Somebody gave them information. Had to. They knew right where we were."

          "Oh, no!" Celita whispered. "They've never attacked at night. Never."

          "Alex, we've got to do something about this right away," one of the others put in.

          Celita handed the black man a cup of water. He took it gratefully.

          "If what you say is true, we need to act on it," Alex agreed. "There's just one catch, fellow. How do we know you're not a collaborator – trying to get a handle on where the Louisiana camps are?"

          "We don't know him from Adam, Alex," Celita said. "I don't see how we can trust him. We can't take the chance."

          "I can prove you can trust me," the black man replied. "I can prove to you without a doubt I will never betray you."

          Ricky was standing closer to the black man than the others; the stranger had had the opportunity to observe the young messenger for an hour or so. Before anyone could react, the black man snatched a long, gleaming knife from Ricky's belt. Alex tried to grab it, but the black man was faster. In a second's time, he slit his throat from one side to the other. He sank to the ground, arteries pumping. Alex tore off his shirt and tried to staunch the spurts of blood. "Quick – the rest of you – get me something —"

          Alex's shirt was already soaked through. Some of the others handed him blankets and articles of clothing, but nothing helped. The cut was too deep.

          The stranger's body went limp. Ricky and the rest looked on in silent, white-faced shock.

          "He'd dead," Alex said.

          "Dear God," Celita said shakily. "I guess he did prove his loyalty. A dead man can't betray anybody."

          John's breathing tube had taken in water, despite his efforts to prevent it. He choked on the salt, then exhaled as much air as he still had in his lungs.

          Got to surface, he thought. Got to risk it.

          He put two fingers up, waited a couple of seconds, and cautiously lifted the top of his head out of the water, peering over the Jon boat. He took a deep breath and studied his surroundings. No sign of the enemy – the boat was lodged firmly in the tree stumps. It was probably only fifty yards to the shallows.

          After tying the Jon boat to a stump and shutting off the laboring engine, he began to swim, using a breast stroke and alternating scissors kick, arms and legs under water. This enabled him to turn his head at will, rather than in rhythm with his strokes. Quiet and controlled – this was more important than speed. No human being alive could out-swim an alien laser. When he felt his feet strike bottom, he allowed himself to stand and began forcing his body toward the shore, a mass of tangled weeds and low-hanging trees. He spotted at least two cottonmouths in the branches, staring at him with glassy eyes. He ignored them, keeping his distance.

          Once he reached land, he took the time to clean his gun and check his extra ammunition. Then he dropped on his stomach to crawl his way in, his scalded palms bleeding and catching on bits of mud and twigs. It hurt, but he figured a laser hit would hurt a lot worse. He concentrated on moving west and north, heading for the Vidalia camp. Have to get there, he thought. Have to warn them.

          He stopped briefly to take off his long-sleeved jacket; fortunately he had on an undershirt. He took a drink from the canteen hooked to the back of his belt, knowing he was in danger of dehydration from the heat and from being soaked in salt water.

          The sun will guide me in the right direction, he assured himself. I wonder how far off I am? Probably no more than a few miles. I can make it before afternoon, as long as I'm not seen. And I doubt I will be, now that I'm in the salt marsh. Hard to see anything here from above. I'm going to make it. They'll get their warning – a little later than I'd hoped. But they'll get their warning.

          About the time Tess and the boys finished lunch, John recognized signs that told him he was getting close to his destination. Because of the proximity of the aliens' attack and the fact that it had taken place so recently, he was still afraid to walk. He thought it wiser to continue to crawl – and as much as he hated to, he had to take occasional swallows of water.

          The closer he got to the Vidalia camp the more uneasy he became. It ought to have been quiet, but not this quiet. He should have been able to hear suggestions of voices – murmurs, whispers. He should have been able to hear some movement.

          When he reached the edge of the camp he waited for the usual request for an authenticator code. It didn't happen – he did not hear the familiar "Give me" or "Let's have" from the watch.

          Something's wrong, he thought. He parted some of the dense vegetation and peered through it.

          Dismay hit him with the force of an eight-point earthquake. The camp was completely deserted. No people, no sleeping bags or blankets – only the charred ashes of the cooking fire pit gave evidence of prior habitation.

          He sat down where he was, leery of entering the empty camp. What now? he thought. Two choices – I try to find someone – but that's no good. I have much too limited a supply of water. There's nothing I can do by myself. The only tenable choice is to go back to the Jon boat and wait for nightfall. Then cross to Natchez and either hope we get some word from a messenger or come back to Louisiana in force – on one of the bigger boats, with more men and guns – to look for survivors.

          He sighed, and began to make his way on his hands and knees again, this time toward the southeast. Every yard of progress he made he paid for by picking up more dirt and debris in the open and bleeding sores on his hands. He had his jacket tied to his belt loop with his canteen and the used breathing tube in his pocket; nothing that might prove important later would be discarded. He would have liked to cut off the arms of the jacket to bind his hands, but knew his knife would be inadequate to the task. Despite the poor economy or perhaps because of it, river camouflage clothing was made to last.

          An hour went by, then two – and he heard something. A rustle nearby. He froze and held his breath. Whatever or whoever else was on the move stopped too.

          There was a stand-off, a waiting. Then John heard the rustle again. He reached for his gun, placed his finger on the trigger.

          A panicky voice, a sharp intake of breath – "Ricky! I'm gonna throw up!"

          "Well, Jesus, do it quiet. Shit!"

          John pushed aside the brush in front of him and cautiously stood up. "Ricky?" he said. He could see the blonde teenager a few feet away, looking on in disgust at another boy vomiting against the base of a tree.

          Ricky turned around. "John? John Wheeler?"

          "Who's that with you, Ricky?" John still had his gun in his hand, pointing it at the unknown young man.

          "Cole's training to be a messenger – to help work my parishes. Can't take the heat, I guess."

          No duress word, John thought. Ricky's telling the truth. I'll double check, just in case.

          The other boy turned around, wiping his mouth. "I suppose you've been just the man all this time, Ricky? You ain't any older than I am. Don't tell me you ain't ever screwed up, Ricky, 'cause it's a lie."

          "Okay, you two, you're raising your voices. Quiet down. You're bickering about trivialities. Ricky, add the first two digits of the authenticator code for me." Ricky obeyed. John lowered his gun and grimaced at the pain in his hand. "I need to know if Alex and the others made it. And where they are."

          "We had to move all the camps, John. See – "

          "Yes. I know about Arkansas. I was trying to warn you. When I found the Vidalia camp deserted, there was nothing I could do but try to get back to the boat. Did someone else get word to you?"

          "One of the Arkansas guerrillas got away and told us what happened."

          "Good. Are you two available to help me secure that boat and then take me to the new location for Vidalia? Do you have water?"


          "All right, then, let's move." John tucked his gun away. "Absolute silence, from now on – and keep low to the ground," he added.

          The three of them reached the place where John had come ashore by late afternoon. He motioned to the others to stop. "We'll have to wait 'till dark before we wade out to the boat," he whispered. "Just settle down and be patient."

          "It's almost three hours before dark," Cole whined.

          Ricky gave him a venomous look. "Live with it, Cole. You're gonna have to get used to a lot worse than this. John," Ricky was obviously enjoying his role as senior messenger to the other boy, "I have some biscuits. And we have enough water between us to last until I take you to the new camp."

          Provided nothing else goes wrong, John thought. But he refrained from voicing this to the pair of teenagers. All the better for them if they didn't think of the same thing themselves.

          John and his teenage companions had made themselves as comfortable as possible, propping their backs and shoulders against twisted, scrubby trees. John sat quietly with his pistol across his knees. Ricky dozed while Cole fidgeted for the next couple of hours. Finally he stood up and said, "Ricky, I got to pee."

          "Cole, you don't have to tell us every time you got to pee or whatever. Nobody does. We just get up and go behind a bush. We're not in the camp – we're out in the middle of the dammed swamps. Jesus." Ricky shook his head as Cole disappeared. "He ain't learnin' very fast, John."

          "Give him a break, Ricky. You probably haven't made your last mistake yourself."

          "Yeah, okay," he mumbled.

          When the long-awaited twilight finally settled over the little group of three, John motioned to Ricky and Cole.

          "I want Ricky on the bank and Cole with me. You can swim, can't you? Okay. We wade, then we swim. Ricky, you take my gun for the time being. Cole and I are going to bring the boat in, but not all the way. I don't want the aliens thinking it's been beached. We're going to tie it where the shallows start. It'll still look like it drifted there accidentally – and that's what we want. As soon as we finish, we start for the new camp."

          John and Cole stepped into the muddy water, Cole's eyes widening at the sight of the cottonmouths coiled under fallen limbs at the shore.

          "They won't bother you, Cole; all you have to do is keep quiet," John reassured him. "And try not to splash when we start swimming – I don't think we can be complacent about our safety at night after what happened in Arkansas."

          Cole was noisier than John would have liked, but the pair reached the boat quickly and without incident. John motioned to Cole to grab one side of the bow while John himself took the other. Together they pulled the boat toward the shallows, using a side stroke, facing outward, backs to each other – a slow, tedious task. "Stay alert, Cole – keep your eyes open."

          John secured the boat firmly in the shallows, far enough out from shore to appear the vessel had been drifting rather than purposely towed. Cole laughed as they made their way back in, enjoying the feel of the water after sitting for so long in the heat. "This is great – gonna cool us off, huh, John?"

          "No, it's not, Cole. It's saltwater – take a drink from your canteen immediately."

          "But, why?"

          "Because you're going to start losing fluid."

          Cole shrugged, but obeyed.

          "About how far from here to the camp, Ricky?"

          "Less than three hours."

          "I think it'll be all right to walk now, just don't let your guard down. Hear that? Both of you." John took his gun back from Ricky, but instead of putting it away, kept it out and ready. He intended to do so until the trio was inside the perimeters of the new Vidalia campsite.

          John and Ricky and a scowling Cole began parting the dense weeds and brambles in front of them and making their way due west.

          In the hour before dawn when the black man from Arkansas had appeared to warn the Louisiana guerillas, Gary was still unable to sit upright – he could barely manage to raise up on his elbows to aim his firearm.

          Restless and bored, he used his time to think, and he found himself observing details he had never bothered with before. He watched the others at first merely to entertain himself. One of the men scratched his left elbow day in and day out. Another picked at his earlobes when he thought no one was looking. A third voiced the authenticator code and disappeared beyond the perimeter at least three times as much as anyone else, making Gary wonder if the fellow really needed to take a leak or if he was up to something else. Gary made a mental note to call this to Alex's attention.

          And that new messenger Ricky was so hot on. Cole. That boy's looking for an easy ride to adventure minus the hard knocks, I'm convinced of it. Thinks he's going to be fed on venison and shark meat and shoot the bull with the big guys. Someone else Alex and I need to watch carefully.


          "Yes, Gary?"

          "Ask Alex to come here for a minute, would you?"


          She found Alex where he usually slept, cleaning his gun. "Gary wants to talk to you, Alex."

          Alex frowned as he got up, wiping the gun on his pants leg. He walked past the campfire site to the opposite side of the camp where Gary and Celita's sleeping bag was located.

          "You wanted to see me, Gary?"

          "Alex, follow Jake the next time he goes to take a crap or whatever, would you? Make sure he's not fooling around with someone out there. He goes behind the bushes too often."

          Alex laughed. "Probably jacking off."

          "Probably, but I don't like to take chances. And, by the way, we need to watch Cole real careful. I don't trust him, and I don't want somebody doing us in like that traitor in Arkansas."

          "You have any reason not to trust Cole, Gary?"

          "No, just a feeling."

          "Your feelings are usually right on the nose. We'll both watch him, and discuss this periodically. I'll have a talk with Ricky too. Okay?"

          "Fine. Thanks, Alex."

Near Vidalia, Louisiana

          John and the messengers reached the new camp close to midnight, Ricky surrendering the authenticator code to Alex, who happened to be one of the men on watch. Two watches were posted at all times because of the Arkansas massacre.

          "John!" Alex grasped the other man's hand. John winced involuntarily.

          "Sorry," he mumbled.

          "Let me see that," Alex ordered. "What's wrong with your hand?"

          "Long story. Ricky and Cole, go find yourselves a place to sleep."

          "What about supper?" Cole asked.

          John laughed. "Ricky's got a couple of biscuits left. I'm afraid it's a bit late for supper, Cole. Go to bed."

          Alex grabbed both John's hands and examined them, frowning when he saw the palms.

          "You're current on your inoculations, John?"

          "Of course."

          "Well, look, John, you're still ripe for a bad infection. Go find a first aid kit and bring it to me. Only we're out of bandages. Get some cotton fabric from Celita's sewing supplies too. I've got to get that stuff out of your skin. Use authenticator codes if you're asked for them, but if anyone wakes up they'll recognize you."

          John returned momentarily with the kit and fabric. Alex motioned to him to sit down. "Celita'd probably have a gentler touch, but I have to stay on watch anyway. Hate to wake her. Hold still, this is going to hurt. When did you last get some sleep?"

          "I'm okay. I've just been up since seven this morning."

          "You made a daylight crossing?"

          "Yes, to warn you. Shit!" John jumped as Alex wielded a pair of tweezers. "About the night attack in Arkansas. Only you've obviously been warned already."

          Alex took John's other hand and started to work on it. "Hold still. I'm gonna have to use a needle too. Did you cross without being seen?"

          "No. But I'm fairly sure they thought they got me. I went underwater as soon as I saw laser fire. That's what happened to my hands – I forgot the side of the boat was encrusted with barnacles. Then I crawled my way in – to find the camp deserted."

          "Sorry about that. You sure as hell picked up a lot of dirt and stuff on the way."

          John shrugged. "I was heading back to the boat to leave for Natchez and bring some help when I ran into Ricky and his friend. Lazy son of a bitch."

          "That's Gary's opinion, too. He has a bad feeling about that kid. Fortunately we haven't allowed him his own handgun yet." Alex poured hydrogen peroxide across John's palms, smeared them with antibiotic ointment, and began wrapping them in the fabric.

          "Christ, Alex, my left hand has little yellow daisies all over it. I don't think there was any more plain white stuff. Looks silly."

          "Uh-huh." Alex frowned, intent on completing his task. "Why don't you go to the far side of the camp and use my sleeping bag, John. If the watch over there challenges you, you know what to do. Need anything? Hungry?"


          "Then get some rest and we'll talk in the morning."

          Around the perimeters of the camp some of the other guerrillas were stirring. There was no desire to sleep late outdoors in the Louisiana heat – with the exception perhaps of Cole, who was apt to use sleeping as an excuse for not working. No one approached John and Alex; it was obvious they were engaged in a serious discussion.

          "Speaking of Abe Tullos," John said, "you know that weird pattern he found on his computer – the tapping into the major libraries – has that got you worried about our codes?"

          "It bothers me a little. But there's been absolutely no indication that our primary codes have been accessed. Authenticator codes and locations – those are certainly a major concern. But everything the enemy finds out seems to be either from prisoners or collaborators. The enemy hasn't taken any prisoners from our camps for at least a month or two. We keep in constant contact about that. No – it's collaborators we have to worry about. And speaking of collaborators – wait here a minute for me. Jake's going in the bushes."


          Alex had disappeared like a tall, silent cat. A few minutes later he was back, smiling.

          "He's got the runs."


          "Jake. Gary told me he's going behind the bushes too often. I want to be sure he's not meeting someone out there. I'm checking him for the next couple of days. I'll keep you updated, John. As to whether he's playing with himself, or what."

          John almost choked on his coffee. "Please do, Alex. Please do. But do me another favor – the checking on Jake? Better you than me! I really don't want to look at something like that."

          John rested much of Sunday, offering to help with some of the chores around the camp until Celita told him to forget it and take care of his hands. Alex spent a great deal of his time tailing the frequently absent Jake. By dark Alex was convinced Jake's activities had nothing to do with the war.

          Three teams of two guerrillas each left after supper to conduct night raids. Cole and Ricky stretched out to sleep, Cole quiet at last.

          "Gary, don't think we have to worry about Jake," Alex said in a low voice. "He's got a problem with eating too many of those kudzu biscuits. The rest of the time – well." Alex shrugged.

          "Okay, Alex, maybe we can eliminate Jake from our worry list. But Cole is another matter entirely," Gary said. "The trouble is we need another messenger so badly. Louisiana's always used at least two messengers per one and a half parishes, so the relay system will work. Ricky can't do it all."

          "There's nothing we can do but keep a close watch on Cole," Alex said. "We can't fire him. This isn't a hamburger joint. He already knows too much."

Natchez, Mississippi

          When John still wasn't home Monday morning, Tess prepared a note for Mike to take to the school. She got the boys up extra early so they would get there before classes started.

          Mike and Tom grumbled, but Mike stuck the note in his pocket and the boys started off. As soon as they made it to the edge of their property, Mike signaled Tom to stop.

          "Hey, Tom – listen – "


          "Let's not go."


          "To school, dumb ox."


          "Daddy isn't here. Who's to catch us?"

          "But, Mike, what are we gonna do? It's so hot."

          Mike grinned. "We can go to the river."

          Tom's eyes were as big as the giant sunflowers nearby. "Daddy'll kill us."

          "Who's gonna tell him? There ain't nobody there in the daytime. We can play on the Jon boats."

          Tom found this irresistible. But the youngsters didn't figure on the teachers becoming suspicious. John and both his boys missing on a Monday? One of the women took her bicycle around ten and pedaled to the Wheelers' house. She knocked on the door; Tess was in the living room surrounded by the baby clothes she was working on. She jumped as a pin pricked her finger. "Who's there?" she called.

          "It's Susan Kennedy, Tess. Are the rest of your family ill?"

          "John's away. I sent a note to school with Mike early this morning."

          "Mike and Tom haven't shown up for school."

          "Oh, no!" Tess gasped. She tried to gather her composure. "It appears they've skipped, doesn't it? Thanks, Susan, I'll have to go find them."

          Tess waited until Susan Kennedy was out of sight before she exploded. "Damn it to hell! Those two little beasts! Now I'm going to have to use the car."

          She marched angrily to the car, got in, and started the ignition, something she routinely did every three days. "Half a tank of gas," she muttered with a sigh of relief. She drove around the small town for a while. Abe Tullos' house was quiet, normal for daytime. The streets were mostly deserted with the children at school. Except for mine, Tess thought with a frown. A couple of women chatted at the market as another set out vegetables.

          Tess finally admitted to herself what she had suspected all along and headed for the river front. She passed the old cathedral and turned north, toward the mean shacks the River Runners used. Now she was becoming alarmed rather than angry.

          There they were, her sons, happily running around the deck of one of the Jon boats, barefoot, shorts and shirts muddy.

          "Mike! Tom! Come down here this minute!"

          Mike looked up, startled. Tom burst into tears. They scrambled down the side of the boat and walked across the dock toward their mother.

          "Get in the car."

          Silent obedience. Silence all the way to the edge of the Wheelers' property. Tess stopped the car part way up her driveway. "Mike, get out and break me a switch off that hedge."

          "But, Mama – "

          "Just do it, Mike."

          She didn't have the heart to strike at their exposed legs, but when she got Mike and Tom to the house, she gave them a good lashing across the seat of their pants. Then she ordered them off to school.

          "It's half over," Mike said.

          "Too bad. Do you have any idea how worried I was?"

          Tom continued to sniffle.

          "It'll be more than half over by the time we get there," his elder brother added. "It'll be real embarrassing, Mama."

          "Good. I hope so. And come right home after. There'll be plenty of work for you to do. You aren't going to take advantage of your father's not being here ever again. Besides, you owe me for some gas."

          "She's kind of mean, ain't she, Mike?" Tom said under his breath as Tess threw down the switch and stomped up the porch steps.

          "Shut up, Tom."

          "The whole thing was your idea."

          "Shut up."

          "It wasn't even that much fun. Do you think she'll tell Daddy?"

          "Will you shut up, you dumb ox?"

Near Vidalia, Louisiana

          When the three attack teams returned at intervals during the predawn hours, one of them brought a welcome surprise – the two men had killed a rabbit. Sparse as it was, the taste of fresh meat was a morale booster. Cole looked on with puzzlement at the murmurs of appreciation from the others.

          "Ricky, why are they so excited about one bite of meat? I mean, it'd be a big deal if they'd shot a deer or something. Don't you guys ever have anything decent to eat?"

          "Shut up, Cole and have another biscuit. How good are you with a bow and arrow? We don't use rifles for hunting because of the noise."

          "These biscuits are made out of kudzu flour, aren't they? You can taste it – they're bitter. Hey – anyway we can get cleaned up?"

          "Sure. We can go to one of the bayous. After I check with Alex."

          Cole made a face. "I thought we didn't have to check out every time we went into the bushes, Ricky."

          "We do when we're in the camp. Don't you get the difference? Besides, I want to see if Alex needs anything before I get into a really long grooming thing with you. I remember how you used to be – combing your hair for hours."

          Alex assured Ricky there was no reason he couldn't take Cole to wash up. "Be sure to use the authenticator codes coming and going, and don't be more than an hour."

          "John," Alex said when the teenagers were out of sight, "it's probably a good idea for you not to go back until this evening. I may want to change the duress words again, at least for Vidalia. Until I'm sure about that kid."

          "Still going to send me over with Ricky?"

          "Yes, but your instructions won't be ready by then. And there may be more authenticator code changes. I want you to wait for messages before coming back over here."

          Ricky and Cole were gone more than an hour. By the time they were twenty minutes over, Alex began to pace. John watched him with amusement for a while. Finally John walked over to Gary and whispered, "Gary – look at Alex."

          "What's going on?"

          "Ricky and Cole are late."

          "Oh, hell, John, tell Alex to send somebody after them."



          "Why don't you go ahead and send someone after those two kids?"

          "Uh, uh. I'm going after them myself."

          The words were scarcely out of Alex's mouth before a code was heard being given to the watch, and Cole and Ricky emerged from the undergrowth, their hair still dripping wet. Cole proudly carried a limp rabbit under his arm.

          "Okay, Cole, you killed it. Now skin it," Ricky said.

          "Huh? I thought Celita would do that. Doesn't she do the cooking and such?"

          "You're late, Ricky," Alex said. "Cole, Celita's a guerrilla fighter like the rest of us. We all cook. We all skin our own rabbits, too. Better get to work if you want it for the midday meal."

          "I caught a damn crippled rabbit with my bare hands and wrung its neck myself! You mean I have to skin this whole rabbit for one measly bite of meat again?"

          "That's right." Alex crossed his arms and waited.

          "It's your rabbit, Cole. Go over to where we were sleeping. You can use one of my knives. They're sharper than yours." Ricky caught Alex's eye as soon as Cole turned his back and mouthed, "Have to talk to you."

          Alex nodded. "All right," he mouthed back. "What's on your mind?"

          Ricky pointed toward the camp's perimeter. "I need to take a leak," he said loudly. "How 'bout you?"

          "Yeah," Alex agreed. "Now that you mention it."

          Alex grinned at the watch who decided to be cute about the codes and ask for multiple digits. Alex and the teenager went off several yards until the older man was certain he and Ricky were out of hearing. "Give."

          "Alex, I'm scared. Because of Cole. He showed me something while we were cleaning up in the bayou. He even bragged about it."

          "What did Cole show you?"

          "A letter. To his girl friend. She lives near Jena. He said next time we were close by he was going to deliver it. Alex, he had names and locations in that letter. Written down. I mean – well, it didn't look like it was planned – it looked more like bragging. But this stuff was written down. I think he's really stupid."

          "He may be stupid, Ricky. Or very clever. But you know as well as I that this is downright dangerous."

          "Yeah, but Alex – he's only eighteen years old. We've been friends since we were twelve." Ricky's face was as pale as his flaxen hair.

          "Listen to me, Ricky." Alex put his hand on the youngster's shoulder. "You've got what it takes, despite your youth. You're smart and you're stealthy – not many people could have gotten around the way you do without being caught. The other messengers didn't last six months. Also you've matured a lot in the past year. I think you know what this means. And you have to turn your back on it. Do you understand?"

          Ricky turned his face away, trying to hide the tears filling his eyes from Alex. The teenager looked at his feet. Finally he said in a low voice, "Yes. I understand. I won't say a word – you can count on me, Alex."

          "I know that, Ricky."

          Alex had to admire Ricky's performance that afternoon. He was tense, but not for one moment did he give himself away nor cease his mindless banter with Cole. The camp enjoyed a supper of blackened shark, supplemented with dried berries, biscuits, and fruit juice mix.

          Alex left the others briefly to go to his own sleeping location. He stepped surreptitiously behind a tree to reload his pistol with cartridges from his stash of subsonic ammunition, and added a khaki bag filled with fake documents to conceal the handgun. Then he rejoined his comrades.

          As soon as Ricky and John finished eating, Alex advised them to start the trek to Ricky's boat.

          "Can't I go with you guys?" Cole asked eagerly. "If I'm going to be a messenger, don't I need to learn how to find the beaching location and how to get to Natchez?"

          Alex stepped in quickly. "Cole – you'll learn all that later. With Ricky. I don't want more than two men on that small boat. Anyway, I want to start some special training with you tonight. With the main codes."

          "Just me?" Cole said, his chest visibly swelling.

          "Just you. In a minute. John, Ricky, be careful. Ricky, have a beer if you want, but come back tonight – get here before dawn. You know the routine."

          "Yes, Alex."

          Alex could discern the relief Ricky felt at escaping the camp, but no one else noticed, except perhaps Gary and John, both of whom had been apprised of the situation. Alex tucked the khaki bag under his arm.

          Once Ricky and John were out of sight, Alex motioned to Cole. The teenager was on the verge of scooting past the perimeter, but Alex stopped him. "Aren't you forgetting something?" the older man said coldly.

          "What? Oh, yeah. The password."

          The watch requested the last two digits of the authenticator code; Alex complied, then reminded Cole what would have happened if he had gone past the man on watch without saying it. "He's under orders to shoot anyone who does that, Cole. We're not playing some kind of game here."

          "Sorry," the boy mumbled.

          Alex regretted the lecture immediately. Have some compassion for God's sake, he told himself. The kid's only got minutes.

          Alex guided Cole toward one of the bayous, about a half hour's walk. Once the older man and teenager were there, Alex tapped Cole on the shoulder and pointed toward the west.

          "This way – Cole – upstream."

          "How're we going to read codes in the dark?"

          "I have a miniature flashlight."

          "Isn't that a bad thing? I mean, to show a light out here."

          "Not where we're going, Cole."

          Alex had no intention of using a flashlight; the half-moon would be enough for what he had to do. He had flat out lied to the teenager. Alex knew it was necessary, but he still felt badly about it. He had already told Gary not to expect him back for at least twenty-four hours. Gary understood that Alex had to recover from this – alone.

          The half-moon outlined Cole's thin features as he and Alex made their way upstream. Alex motioned to him to stop. Cole obeyed, an eager, questioning expression on his face.

          "Is this where the codes are? I don't see a hiding place."

          Alex had already pulled out his handgun from the bag.

          "What's that for? Nobody's around up here."

          "Cole, why don't you look at the water."

          "W – Why?"

          "It'd be better for both of us if you turned your back to me, Cole."

          Even in the scant moonlight, Alex could see how pale the boy was. His lip began to quiver; he fought desperately to hold back tears. He straightened his back in a weak attempt at defiance, then, unable to maintain it, choked back a sob.

          "Turn around, Cole."

          "Please, Alex – please – no – please ...."

          Alex raised the gun. His heart constricted at the utter terror in Cole's eyes. The muffled shot hit Cole squarely in the chest. A spasm ran through his body, his mouth opened in a wordless scream. Then a splash, a disturbance of the water – and there was nothing, except for the normal night sounds of a salt marsh.

          Alex made his way to a little known area, the new hiding place for the primary codes. He sat down with his back against a pile of rocks and brush and closed his eyes. The gun was put away but he thought he could feel its heat, feel it smoking. He could still hear Cole's voice, begging for his life, see the fear in his eyes and the bloodstain spreading on his chest, a dark crimson in the moonlight.

          I wish I could do something, Alex thought. Some kind of prayer service, like a funeral. But I can't. I just can't. He's gone, that boy, gone in the wink of an eye. Meaningless. Death is meaningless.

          Why were we born and tricked into a life that couldn't last, innocent, unknowing? None of us ask to live, and none of us ask to die. I don't understand. I never will.

Natchez, Mississippi

          Ricky tried to decline the River Runners offer' of a beer before returning to Louisiana, but John insisted that Ricky take a few minutes. "You've had a hard day, son. One beer isn't going to hurt you. I'll sit with you until you're finished."

          Ricky managed a faint smile, and gulped the beer gratefully. "All right, Ricky?" John grasped the teenager by the shoulders and looked into his eyes. Ricky met his gaze without wavering. "Good man. You'll be fine. Tell Alex I'll be waiting for word."

          "Okay, John. See you."

          John, agitated and out of sorts, dreaded the afternoon and what it would bring.

          It never failed when he was not up to par that one of his students would hit him with a difficult question the minute the day began.

          He was surprised it was one of the girls rather than a boy who asked the question. But Charlene Irby was an intelligent and inquisitive child. Later John had to mentally reprimand himself for his chauvinistic thought.

          "Mr. Wheeler?"

          "Yes, Charlene?"

          "Can I ask a question? It's about the war."

          War again, John thought. War – when this is over, will we ever be normal?

          "Mr. Wheeler, what happened to your hands?"

          "I tripped on my driveway and scraped 'em up, Victor. Don't interrupt when I've already called on somebody."

          "Sorry, Mr. Wheeler."

          "Okay. Now, what was your question, Charlene?"

          "Well, everybody says we don't have any defenses against the aliens' laser weapons. They get our planes and our smart bombs and we can't use bad stuff in America 'cause it would hurt our own people. So how's this big army gonna do us any good?"

          "First of all, most of the 'bad stuff' you're referring to has been done away with – the shock wave from the nuclear detonation in 2030 brought about a worldwide dismantling of weapons of mass destruction. The aliens have shut down any other access to nuclear power. But you've brought up a good question and a hard one, Charlene. It's going to take some time."

          "That's okay, Mr. Wheeler," Victor chimed in. "We all want to hear."

          "Give me a minute." Okay, John thought, what's the best way to get this down to fifth and sixth grade level? Maybe use the Alamo as an example. They all know about the Alamo.

          He continued to think as he stood up and went to the small chalkboard on the easel at the front of the room. He would have liked to have had something larger, but he could make do with what was available.

          "Mr. Wheeler?"

          John sighed inwardly. "Yes, Victor?"

          "Can I ask you one more question before you start?"

          "All right, Victor."

          "Didn't Dr. Carlisle have any real bandages?"

          One of the other boys snickered.

          "It was too late last night to see Dr. Carlisle, Victor. Now can we get off this subject?"

          "But – a real bandage is called a dressing, isn't it? Are you wearing a dress on your hands? A pink dress, even."

          "That's enough, Victor. Go to the back of the room, sit down facing the wall, and see me after school."

          Shaking his head, John drew a big circle on the chalkboard with an "X" in the center. Then he put another "X" just below the circle.

          "Charlene, let's pretend you have an army where the 'X' is inside the circle. Mike, you have an army where the 'X' is outside the circle. Boys and girls – which army has the advantage here?"

          There were frowns, puzzled looks. No one raised his hand.

          "Think about this," John said. "Which of the two armies could move to defend its position faster – the one inside the circle or the one outside the circle? Which army would have to cover more distance?"

          "Oh," Mike said, his eyes bright with interest. "The army outside the circle would have to move more. The one inside doesn't have as far to go."

          "Good, Mike. That's what we call 'inside lines.' It is always an advantage to fight on inside lines. The same advantage applies to a fortified position, like a fort. What happened at the Alamo?"

          "Everybody got killed," Mike said.

          "Yes, but who had the advantage?"

          "I guess the ones inside the fort," Charlene said. "But they all got killed anyway, didn't they?"

          "Just about, but there were only a few people inside, and a huge army attacking. Those few people were able to hold off the attacking army for a long time. It takes many more people to attack inside lines or a fort. We call that 'odds.' Some battle situations call for three to one odds. In other words, the attackers must have three times as many men as the defenders to succeed. Other battles may even require six to one odds."

          "But Mr. Wheeler, what does this have to do with right now?"

          "Charlene, who's got the inside lines? Who's got the forts?"

          "Uh – the aliens, I guess."

          "Who has the best weapons?"

          "The aliens," Mike said.

          "Then what do we need to attack 'em – beat 'em?"

          "Odds!" Mike and Charlene shouted simultaneously.

          "Definitely. We are going to have to depend on sheer numbers – as many men as we can possibly muster. That's our only chance of success. That's why it's taking so long."

          Please, John thought. These kids are so bright. Please don't let them think of the next logical step. The casualties. We're going to lose the first wave, the second, the third – I don't even want to allow myself to conjecture how many.

          He erased the circle and immediately launched into something else to distract the class as quickly as possible. "You did very well on this, boys and girls. But I'd like you to use those brains of yours and work on your grammar. Get some paper and pencils and let's get to it." He was met with the usual groans and sighs, but he permitted no stalling. Grammar it would be, then a break.

          They don't have any conception, really, he thought. We can't get planes, even helicopters, close to those impenetrable garrisons. We'll be reverting to the middle ages – having to use scaling ladders. Better ladders, more quickly assembled, but the men on those ladders will be sacrificed in unimaginable numbers. Yet somehow we must get inside those walls. That is our only conceivable hope.

          And all we have in the way of intelligence is from collaborators. What if they're wrong? Or managed to lie under duress? Surely not all of them – that's not logical. Supposedly if we can get troops into the courtyards, it will be possible to breach the weaker parts of the garrisons. But we don't know.

          He felt the familiar sinking sensation at the near hopelessness of the situation. He had to force himself to shake off his thoughts.

          Wear the kids out, he told himself. By the time they finish the grammar, which they hate, they'll be ecstatic about getting outside. Then they'll forget. Like all children, they'll get absorbed in their play and forget. I hope.

          He reminded himself to give Victor some extra homework.

          "I should be back before supper," John told Tess when school was out, "but I'll have to go to the river front later. I'll have to check every night; there'll be messages from Alex eventually – different duress words at the very least."

          "Didn't you just change them?"

          "We're all tense because of the Arkansas business. We're taking extra precautions." John wanted to spare her the heart-wrenching story about Cole's execution. The kid knew the authenticator codes and duress words; the latter had to be changed right away – the former would have to wait for Ricky. Even without witnessing Cole's death, John knew exactly how it had taken place. Tess doesn't need to hear that, he thought. We have two sons; it would depress her terribly. It would depress me if I didn't have to live with so much of it – everybody hates for a youngster to die. We have to forcibly push things like that out of our minds. Especially Alex. He had to shoot the boy. There won't be a message yet – Alex'll go off by himself for hours – or even days. But I still have to check, just in case.

          John paused at the edge of his driveway. The afternoon sun broke through a cluster of bright clouds, sending several streamers down across the sky to the west. "Stairway," he murmured. "Wonder if Tess knows that old legend? Every time a soul goes to Heaven ...."

          God bless you, Cole, he said silently. Maybe that's your stairway. Were you guilty or innocent? You poor kid.

by Mary Brunini McArdle
... who is a freelance writer of fiction, nonfiction, poems, and plays, with numerous awards and extensive publication credits; she has also taught poetry and military strategy at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. This story is excerpted from her prophetic book of the same title, A Stairway Over Louisiana.

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones