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