Sundown at Coffin Rock (part 1)
by Raymond K. Paden
The old man walked slowly through the dry, fallen leaves of autumn, his practiced eye automatically choosing the bare and stony places in the trail for his feet. There was scarcely a sound as he passed, though his left knee was stiff with scar tissue. He grunted occasionally as the tight sinews pulled. Damn chainsaw, he thought.
Behind him, the boy shuffled along, trying to imitate his grandfather, but unable to mimic the silent motion that the old man had learned during countless winter days upon this wooded mountain in pursuit of game. He’s fifteen years old, the old man thought. Plenty old enough to be learning. But that was another time, another America. His mind drifted, and he saw himself, a fifteen-year-old boy following in the footsteps of his own grandfather, clutching a twelve gauge in his trembling hands as they tracked a wounded whitetail.
The leg was hurting worse now, and he slowed his pace a bit. Plenty of time. It should have been my own son here with me now, the old man thought sadly. But Jason had no interest, no understanding. He cared for nothing but pounding on the keys of that damned computer terminal. He knew nothing about the woods, or where food came from…or freedom. And that’s my fault, isn’t it?]
The old man stopped and held up his hand, motioning for the boy to look. In the small clearing ahead, the deer stood motionless, watching them. It was a scraggly buck, underfed and sickly, but the boy’s eyes lit up with excitement. It had been many years since they had seen even a single whitetail here on the mountain. After the hunting had stopped, the population had exploded. The deer had eaten the mountain almost bare until erosion had become a serious problem in some places. That following winter, three starving does had wandered into the old man’s yard, trying to eat the bark off of his pecan trees, and he had wished the “animal rights” fanatics could have been there then. It was against the law, but old man knew a higher law, and he took an axe into the yard and killed the starving beasts. They did not have the strength to run.
The buck finally turned and loped away, and they continued down the trail to the river. When they came to the “Big Oak,” the old man turned and pushed through the heavy brush beside the trail and the boy followed, wordlessly. The old man knew that Thomas was curious about their leaving the trail, but the boy had learned to move silently (well, almost) and that meant no talking. When they came to “Coffin Rock,” the old man sat down upon it and motioned for the boy to join him.
“You see this rock, shaped like a casket?” the old man asked. “Yes sir.” The old man smiled. The boy was respectful and polite. He loved the outdoors, too. Everything a man could ask in a grandson ….or a son.
“I want you to remember this place, and what I’m about to tell you. A lot of it isn’t going to make any sense to you, but it’s important and one day you’ll understand it well enough. The old man paused. Now that he was here, he didn’t really know where to start.
“Before you were born,” he began at last, “this country was different. I’ve told you about hunting, about how everybody who obeyed the law could own guns. A man could speak out, anywhere, without worrying about whether he’d get back home or not. School was different, too. A man could send his kids to a church school, or a private school, or even teach them at home. But even in the public schools, they didn’t spend all their time trying to brainwash you like they do at yours now.” The old man paused, and was silent for many minutes. The boy was still, watching a chipmunk scavenging beside a fallen tree below them.
“Things don’t ever happen all at once, boy. They just sort of sneak up on you. Sure, we knew guns were important; we just didn’t think it would ever happen in America. But we had to do something about crime, they said. It was a crisis. Everything was a crisis! It was a drug crisis, or a terrorism crisis, or street crime, or gang crime. Even a ‘health care’ crisis was an excuse to take away a little more of our rights.” The old man turned to look at his grandson.
“They ever let you read a thing called the Constitution down there at your school?” The boy solemnly shook his head. “Well, the Fourth Amendment’s still in there. It says there won’t be any unreasonable searches and seizures. It says you’re safe in your own home.” The old man shrugged. “That had to go. It was a crisis! They could kick your door open any time, day or night, and come in with guns blazing if they thought you had drugs …or later, guns. Oh, at first it was just registration — to keep the guns out of the hands of criminals! But that didn’t work, of course, and then later when they wanted to take ‘em they knew where to look. They banned ‘assault rifles’, and then ‘sniper rifles’, and ‘Saturday night specials.’ Everything you saw on the TV or in the movies was against us. God knows the news people were! And the schools were teaching our kids that nobody needed guns anymore. We tried to take a stand, but we felt like the whole face of our country had changed and we were left outside.”
“Me and a friend of mine, when we saw what was happening, we came and built a secret place up here on the mountain. A place where we could put our guns until we needed them. We figured some day Americans would remember what it was like to be free, and what kind of price we had to pay for that freedom. So we hid our guns instead of losing them.”
“One fellow I knew disagreed. He said we ought to use our guns now and stand up to the government. Said that the colonists had fought for their freedom when the British tried to disarm them at Lexington and Concord. Well, he and a lot of others died in what your history books call the ‘Tax Revolt of 1998,’ but son, it wasn’t the revolt that caused the repeal of the Second Amendment like your history book says. The Second Amendment was already gone long before they ever repealed it. The rest of us thought we were doing the right thing by waiting. I hope to God we were right.”
“You see, Thomas. It isn’t government that makes a man free. In the end, governments always do just the opposite. They gobble up freedom like hungry pigs. You have to have laws to keep the worst in men under control, but at the same time the people have to have guns, too, in order to keep the government itself under control. In our country, the people were supposed to be the final authority of the law, but that was a long time ago. Once the guns were gone, there was no reason for those who run the government to give a damn about laws and constitutional rights and such. They just did what they pleased and anyone who spoke out…well, I’m getting ahead of myself.”
“It took a long time to collect up all the millions of firearms that were in private hands. The government created a whole new agency to see to it. There were rewards for turning your friends in, too. Drug dealers and murderers were set free after two or three years in prison, but possession of a gun would get you mandatory life behind bars with no parole.
“I don’t know how they found out about me, probably knew I’d been a hunter all those years, or maybe somebody turned me in. They picked me up on suspicion and took me down to the federal building.”
“Son, those guys did everything they could think of to me. Kept me locked up in this little room for hours, no food, no water. They kept coming in, asking me where the guns were. ‘What guns?’ I said. Whenever I’d doze off, they’d come crashing in, yelling and hollering. I got to where I didn’t know which end was up. I’d say I wanted my lawyer and they’d laugh. ‘Lawyers are for criminals’, they said. ‘You’ll get a lawyer after we get the guns.’ What’s so funny is, I know they thought they were doing the right thing. They were fighting crime!”
“When I got home I found Ruth sitting in the middle of the living room floor, crying her eyes out. The house was a shambles. While I was down there, they’d come out and took our house apart. Didn’t need a search warrant, they said. National emergency! Gun crisis! Your grandma tried to call our preacher and they ripped the phone off the wall. Told her that they’d go easy on me if she just told them where I kept my guns.” The old man laughed. “She told them to go to hell.” He stared into the distance for a moment as his laughter faded.
“They wouldn’t tell her about me, where I was or anything, that whole time. She said that she’d thought I was dead. She never got over that day, and she died the next December.”
“They’ve been watching me ever since, off and on. I guess there’s not much for them to do anymore, now that all the guns are gone. Plenty of time to watch one foolish old man.” He paused. Beside him, the boy stared at the stone beneath his feet.
“Anyway, I figure that, one day, America will come to her senses. Our men will need those guns and they’ll be ready. We cleaned them and sealed them up good; they’ll last for years. Maybe it won’t be in your lifetime, Thomas. Maybe one day you’ll be sitting here with your son or grandson. Tell him about me, boy. Tell him about the way I said America used to be.” The old man stood, his bad leg shaking unsteadily beneath him.
“You see the way this stone points? You follow that line one hundred feet down the hill and you’ll find a big round rock. It looks like it’s buried solid, but one man with a good prybar can lift it, and there’s a concrete tunnel right under there that goes back into the hill.”
The old man stood, watching as the sun eased toward the ridge, coloring the sky and the world red. Below them, the river still splashed among the stones, as it had for a million years. It’s still going, the old man thought. There’ll be someone left to carry on for me when I’m gone. It was harder to walk back. He felt old and purposeless now, and it would be easier, he knew, to give in to that aching heaviness in his left lung that had begun to trouble him more and more. Damn cigarettes, he thought. His leg hurt, and the boy silently came up beside him and supported him as they started down the last mile toward the house. How quiet he walks, the old man thought. He’s learned well.
It was almost dark when the boy walked in. His father looked up from his paper. “Did you and your granddad have a nice walk?”
“Yes,” the boy answered, opening the refrigerator. “You can call Agent Goodwin tomorrow. Gramps finally showed me where it is.”
Sundown at Coffin Rock, The Sequel
by Raymond K. Paden
…And later, when the “volunteers” of the Green Ribbon squad kicked his ass all over the shower room, they had stood by in nervous silence, their faces turned away, their eyes averted, and their tremulous voices silent.
He sighed, Could he blame them? He’d been afraid too, when the squad walked up and surrounded him, and if he could have taken back those proud words, he would have. Anyone is afraid when they can’t fight back, he’d discovered.
Thomas sat alone upon the cold stone, shivering slightly in the chilly pre-dawn air of this April morning. The flashlight was turned off, resting beside him on the bare granite of Coffin Rock, and involuntarily he strained his eyes in the gray non-light of the false dawn, trying to make out the shapes of the trees, and the mountains across the river. Below, he could hear the chuckling of the water as it crossed the polished stones. How many times had he fished here, his grandfather beside him?
He tried to shrug away the memories, but why else had he come here except to remember? Perhaps to escape the inevitable confrontation with his mother. She would have to be told sooner or later, but Thomas infinitely preferred later.
“Mom, I’ve been expelled from the university,” he said aloud in a conversational tone. Some small night animal, startled by the sudden sound, scurried away to the right.
“I know this means you won’t get that upgrade to C-3, and they’ll probably turn you down for that surgery now. Gee, Mom, I’m sorry.” It sounded so stupid. “Why?” she would ask. “How?”
How could he explain that? The endless arguments. The whispered warnings. The subtle threats. Dennis had told him to expect this. Dennis had lost his parents back in the First Purge back in 2004, and his bitter hatred of the state’s iron rule had failed to ruin him only because of his unique and accomplished abilities as an actor. Only with Thomas did he open up. Only with Thomas did he relate the things he had learned while in the Youth Re-education Camp near Charleston. Thomas shuddered.
It was his own fault, he knew. He should have kept his mouth shut like Dennis told him. All his friends had come and shook his hand and pounded him on the back. “That’s telling them , Adams!” they said. But their voices were hushed and they glanced over their shoulders as they congratulated him.
And later, when the “volunteers” of the Green Ribbon squad kicked his ass all over the shower room, they had stood by in nervous silence, their faces turned away, their eyes averted, and their tremulous voices silent.
He sighed, Could he blame them? He’d been afraid too, when the squad walked up and surrounded him, and if he could have taken back those proud words, he would have. Anyone is afraid when they can’t fight back, he’d discovered. So they taught him a lesson, and he had expected it to end there. But then yesterday had come the call to Dr. Morton’s office, and the brief hearing that had ended his career at the university.
“Thomas,” Morton had intoned, “You owe everything to the State.” Thomas snorted.
The light was growing now. He could see the pale, rain washed granite in the grayness as if it glowed. Coffin Rock was now a knob, a raised promintory that jutted up from a wide, unbroken arm of the mountain’s stony roots, its cover of soil pushed away. There were deep gouges scraped across the surface of the rock where the backhoe had tried, vainly, to force the mountain to reveal its secrets. He was too old to cry now, but Thomas Adams closed his eyes tightly as he relived those moments that had forever changed his life.
Those shouts and angry accusations as the agents found no secret arms cache still seemed to ring in his ears. They had threatened him with arrest, and once he had thought thegovernment agent named Goodwin would actually strike him. At last, though, they accepted defeat and turned down the mountain, following the gashed trail of the backhoe as it rumbled ahead through the woods.
At home, he had found his mother and father standing, ashen faced, in the doorway. “They took your grandpa,” his father said in disbelief. “Just after you left, they put him in a van and took him.” “But they said they wouldn’t!” Thomas had shouted. He ran across the yard to the old man’s cottage. The door was standing open and he wandered from room to room, calling for the grandfather he would never see again.
It was his heart, they said. Two days after they had taken him, someone called and tersely announced that the old man had died at the indigent clinic a few hours after his arrest “sorry.” the faceless voice had muttered. Thomas had wept at the funeral, but it was only in later years that he had come to understand the greatest tragedy of that day: that the old man had died alone, knowing that his own grandson had betrayed him. That grandson was Thomas Adams, and he was now too old to cry in the growing light of the cold mountain dawn, he did anyway.
Thomas was certain that his father’s decertification six months later was due to the debacle in the forest. As much as anyone did these days, they had “owned” their home, but the Certification board would still have evicted them except for the intervention of Cousin Lou, who worked for the State Supervisor. As it was, they lost all privileges and, when his father came down with pneumonia the next autumn, medical treatment was denied. He had died three days after the first anniversary of grandpa’s death.
Thomas had been sure that he would be turned down at the University, but once again his cousin had intervened and a slot had “opened” for him. But now that’s finished, he reflected. He would be unable to obtain any certification other than manual laborer. “Why didn’t I keep my mouth shut?” he asked the morning stillness. In a tree behind him, a mockingbird began to sing its ageless song, and as if in answer, the forest began to twitter and chirp with voices of other birds, greeting the new day.
No, what he had said had been the truth and nothing could change that. The State was wrong. it was evil. It was unnatural for men to be slaves of their government, always skulking, always holding their tongues lest they anger the State. But there is no “State,” Thomas considered. There are only evil men, holding power over other men. And anyone who speaks out, who dares to challenge that power, is crushed. If only there was a way to fight back!
Thomas shifted on the stone, hanging his feet off the downhill side. His feet had almost touched the grass that day, but now, although his legs were certainly longer, it was at least ten inches to the scarred rock surface below.
As he kicked his heels back and forth, he could almost hear his grandfather speaking to him from long ago… “One day, America will come to her senses. Our men will need those guns and they’ll be ready. We cleaned them and sealed them up good; they’ll last for years. Maybe it won’t be in your lifetime, Thomas. Maybe one day you’ll be sitting here with your son or grandson. Tell him about me, boy.”
Tell him about the way I said America used to be.
“You see the way this stone points?” the old man was saying. “You follow that line one hundred feet…” Thomas’ heels were suddenly still. For many minutes he did not move, playing those words over and over in his mind. “…Follow that line…”
What hidden place in his brain had concealed those words all those years? How could the threats have failed to dislodge it? He stood upon shaky legs and climed down from Coffin Rock. In his mind’s eye, he could see the old man pointing and he walked down the hill and through a clinging briar patch, counting off the paces. The round stone did seem solidly buried, but he scratched around near the base and found that the rock ended just an inch or so beneath the surface. “One man with a good bar can lift it,” Grandfather had said. Thomas forced his fingers beneath the stone and with all the strength of his 21-year-old body, he lifted.
The stone came up, and he slid it off to one side.
Cool air drifted up from the dark opening in the mountain.
Thomas looked to the right where the scars of the States frustrations ended, only 15 or 20 feet away. They had been that close.
He squatted and stared into the darkness and he remembered his flashlight. In a moment he was back with it, probing into the darkness with the yellow beam. There was a small patch of moisture just inside, but then the tunnel climbed upwards toward the ridge. On hands and knees, he entered.
It was uncomfortably close for the first twenty feet or so, then the cavern opened up around him. The men who had built this place, he saw, had taken a natural crevice in the granite rock, sealed it with masses of poured concrete, and then covered it with earth. The main chamber was bigger than the living room of a house, and they had left an opening up near the peak of the vaulted roof where fresh air and a faint, filtered light entered.
Wooden boxes and crates were stacked everywhere on concrete blocks, up off the floor, stenciled with legends like, RIFLE, CAL. 30 M1, 9MM PARA., M193 BALL, 7.62 x 39MM, and 5.56MM. He pushed between them and crawled to the wall where he found cardboard boxes wrapped with plastic sheeting.
They were imprinted with strange names like CCI, OLIN, WW748, BULLSEYE, RL 550B.
He did not know what the crates and boxes contained, and was afraid to break the seals, but near the center of the room he found a plastic wrapped carton labeled, OPEN THIS FIRST.
With his penknife, he slit the heavy plastic wrapping.
It contained books, he saw with some disappointment. But he studied the titles and found that they were manuals on weapons and how to repair them, how to clean them, how to fire them, and ammunition…how to store it, and how to reload it. And here was something unususl: A History of the United States. He lifted it from the carton and crawled back to the open air. Leaning against a stone, he tore open the heavy vinyl bag that enclosed the book and began to read at random, flipping the pages every few moments. On each page, something new met his eye, contradicting everything he had ever been taught.
Freedom is not won, he learned, by proud words and declarations. He remembered a quotation taught at the University:
“Blood alone moves the wheels of history.”
An Italian dictator named Mussolini had said that, but now he read of a man named Patrick Henry who said,
“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
Mao was required reading at the University, too, and and he now recalled that this man – called a hero by the state – had once said,
“Political power comes from the barrel of a gun.”
Freedom is never granted, it is won. Won by men who are willing to die, willing to lose everything so that others may have the greatest possession of all: liberty.
Mentally, he began to list those he could trust. Men who had been arrested for speaking out. Women whose husbands had been arrested and never returned. Friends who had been denied certification because of their father’s military records.
The countryside seethed with anger and frustration. These were people who longed to be free, but who had no means to resist…until now.
Thomas laid the book aside and then worked the stone back into position, carefully placing leaves and moss around the base to hide any evidence that it had been disturbed. He tucked the book under his arm and started for home with the rays of the rising sun warming his back. He imagined his grandfather’s touch in the heat. A forgiving touch.
A long, hard struggle was coming, and he knew with a certainty that defied explanation that he would not live to see the day America would once again be free. His blood, and that of many Patriots and tyrants would be spilled, but perhaps America’s tree of liberty would live and flourish again.
There is a long line stretching through the history of this world: a line of those who valued freedom more than their lives. Thomas Adams now took his place at the end of that column as he determined that he would have liberty, or death. He would be in good company.