By Dave Stancliff
A month passed as Rafter and Smiley recovered from their wounds. Jenny kept things moving. She cleaned the house and made their meals. She came up with little odd jobs that both men could handle in their weakened conditions.
Sundance chased Mogli around the yard in the waning light of the day. In the drying shed, Rafter and Smiley recounted the pounds of pot. Each was wrapped in plastic and tagged with a number.
“That’s 174 pounds right?” Smiley asked.
“We can’t count on your buddy Lenny to help us get rid of these because he’s too busy bossing Rick’s smoke. Looks like you and I have to play salesman again.”
“There it is. I’m think of selling mine out-of-state. I’m also thinking of moving out of the state. The magic of Humboldt County is gone for me. I need to escape these new ghosts we’ve created,” Rafter said.
“So when do you plan on making your move?” Smiley asked.
“Soon. Not quite sure when, but soon…”
Rafter straightened up and stretched as he stacked the last pound on the pallet. He limped over to the side door and stopped for a moment.
“Are you coming?” he asked Smiley.
Suddenly both men froze.
Every combat veteran knows the whopping sound the UH- 1 Gunship-Transport Huey helicopter makes. They brought you down in the middle of hell and were there when it was time to go back.
The sound of the rotor blades caused a different reaction in the two men. Smiley listened intently, weighing options, and wondering who was going to visit them. He was outwardly calm and calculating.
In Rafter’s head he was in one of a dozen slicks, each carrying 11 men, flying over the Song Ve Valley. His squad was aboard one of the helicopters. The Hueys dropped, one by one, down to an open area between stretches of jungle. They didn’t know it, but they were landing on a hornet’s nest.
Rafter’s eyes glazed over and Smiley heard him shout, “Hey! I’m an American! Look at me! Look at me!” He raised his arms to the sky pleading to be picked up. Smiley wasn’t sure what to do with him. It was obvious he was having another flashback. The whopping sounds got louder.
On the other side of the mountain Rick stopped watering his plants and looked up at the rapidly darkening sky. His sharp old eyes spotted movements on the dim horizon, then his ears picked up the familiar whopping sound. He sighed. Part of him had expected this day to come. The day when the government made its move.
“Probably DEA…” he told Lenny, who was watching him tend the plants.
A blank look came over Lenny’s face and he looked up into the sky.
“What the hell?” he replied.
“Here comes trouble. C’mon. Follow me, we haven’t got much time.”
The two men ran headlong towards the house. Rick moved surprisingly fast. Faster than Lenny had ever seen him move. Rick was more of a mystery than ever.
Leading the way, Rick burst through the front door and ran to his room in the rear of the house. Lenny stopped in the living room and listened to the increasingly loud noise overhead. His normally pale face was now chalk white. Who was coming? He hadn’t clearly heard what Rick said.
Rick reappeared holding two M-16s and two bandoleers with extra clips of ammunition. He casually tossed a bandoleer to Lenny, who stood petrified in the middle of the room. Smiling broadly, he asked,
Have you ever fired a rifle?
Lenny’s head swiveled from side to side as he tried to speak. His mouth felt stuffed with cotton.
“Don’t worry about it, my man, these things are really easy to use.”
He offered him one of the M-16s. Woodenly, Lenny reached out and took it, surprised at how light it was. He couldn’t seem to form words.
Rick studied him for a moment.
“Well, it’s up to you partner. I’m going out and defend my crops from these invaders. These people shoot and then ask questions. Government sanctioned killers. DEA. I’ve heard rumors for over a year that a task force was forming. Looks like they’re ready to play. I’m outta here…”
Lenny dropped the M-16. Lucky for him, it wasn’t loaded. He threw the bandoleer down and looked around for a place to hide in the house. He told himself that if he survived this situation he was done with selling pot. The whole scene had turned into a major bummer.
Back at Smiley’s drying shed Rafter suddenly came to himself. He realized the helicopters meant trouble right now and hobbled as fast as he could on his bum hip to the house. Jenny stood at the front door looking skyward.
“Get Sundance and Mogli! Quick! To the bunker!” he shouted.
Jenny instantly responded and went back inside the house. Rafter followed as best as he could. Jenny found Mogli and took him in her arms. Sundance ran to her and they went out the back door. Rafter stopped just outside the house and looked around.
Where had Smiley gone? What was he doing? No time to find out. The tree tops bent under the force of the helicopter blades. He turned and followed Jenny into the trees.
Smiley threw the last gas can aside and took out a book of matches. He’d saturated the barn - with their precious marijuana - in gasoline. He paused before throwing the match and thought about the money the weed represented. Gone now.
There was no other choice. If they didn’t find his pot they couldn’t bust him and take his land away. Or his freedom. He lit a match and let it fall on the pile of hay in the center of the barn. Took a few more steps and struck another match, and another…
Rick watched the first of the two helicopters land near his Jeep. They were both black with no markings. The men who poured out of them wore black and had DEA stenciled on their armored vests. Inside the house, Lenny was terrified. He jumped out a side window and ran towards the nearest trees. He wondered what the popping sounds were.
The first two off the helicopter spun around, clutched their shattered helmets and fell. Rick’s .33 caliber hunting rifle used bullets with 250 grains of gunpowder. Enough to stop a charging Rhino, or shatter a plastic helmet like it wasn’t there.
The remaining six agents scattered. Rick withheld his fire while they poured hundreds of rounds in his direction. The Redwood tree he was hiding behind gave him great protection. Rick might not have been a combat veteran, but he grew up hunting and was a crack shot.
Five hundred yards away, to the south, Lenny lay down on his stomach in some dense ferns near the stump of an old Redwood tree. He figured out what the popping sounds were when he saw the muzzle flashes and a stream of red tracers stitching the growing darkness. He began to pray in earnest.
Rick retreated on his belly, snaking through ferns and thick undergrowth, until he was 50 yards south of his original position. He took up a sitting position in a strand of young spruce pines and waited.
He didn’t have to wait long. The agents also moved about and two had him spotted. They fired in his direction as he squeezed off a shot. One of the agents dropped his weapon and fell forward. Rick took two slugs in his chest and rolled over.
He couldn’t feel his fingers or move but he was still breathing. He was on his back and saw the stars between the giant trees surrounding them. A smile broke out on his face. He tried to say something to the men who gathered around him, pointing their weapons.
Time stood still as a rivulet of blood dripped from the corner of his mouth. He croaked once. One of the agents leaned over as if to hear his last words. Then one word came out, clear and strong,
The sound of gunfire filled the night.
Hyper alert Lenny heard him speak. It sounded like “Pig.”
Then more gunfire. It was more than he could bear. He curled up into a ball in the dense vegetation and prayed no one would find him. He fell asleep from sheer exhaustion after several hours of pure terror.
Kalispell, Montana - Rafter, Jenny, Sundance, and Mogli settled in for another winter of snow-oriented activities including snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and touring. A year had passed since the raid and not one word from Smiley.
Thanks to Jenny’s aunt Susan, they had found a place far away from Humboldt County. An old boyfriend of hers had agreed to sell his luxury lodge in Kalispell. They wouldn’t be giving up anything in the scenic beauty department, he assured Jenny and Rafter.
They lived close to Glacier National Park which contained a particularly rich biological diversity of plant and animal species. Their new neighborhood was 10,000 foot peaks, alpine meadows, lakes and streams, and nearly 50 glaciers. Getting used to the temperatures proved to be a challenge at first.
Money was no object. Most of Jenny’s money from their grows had been in three banks. She did lose some cash and all of her jewelry to whoever took their house safe in the raid. Rafter was in even better financial shape. Trusty Lenny had put his cash in two safe deposit boxes.
When he called a week after the raid Lenny answered his home phone in southern California. He’d escaped and swore off selling pot. He was concentrating on his grades in college. He’d managed to save enough money to pay his way through college to a masters degree in business, if he so desired.
“You know they killed Rick,” Rafter told him.
“Yeah. I read the story. It’s one of the many reasons why I’m going legit, Rafter. I’d advise you to do the same.”
“No problem there. I promised Jenny to walk the straight and narrow when we move.”
Rafter had called from Jenny‘s Aunt Susan’s house in Ferndale. After the call, he drove to Lenny’s house in a car rented by Jenny’s aunt. It took eleven hours, with two stops for gas.
The two old friends drank a bottle of 19-year old scotch and talked about old times for hours.
“You’re going to stay in touch with me, aren’t you?” Lenny asked, refilling Rafter’s shot class.
“Of course. It’s not like I have all that many friends,” Rafter chided. “Seriously, you’re like a brother to me. I plan on having many good times ahead.”
The next day they went to the safe deposit boxes and emptied them. They hugged. Rafter got in his rented car and promised to stay in touch. He thought about seeing his parents, then decided against it. Perhaps another time. It would take eleven hours of driving to get back to Humboldt County and he was eager to start his new life.
Two days later Jenny and he bought a brand new Ford F-350 King cab and headed for Montana. Despite all the terrible things that had happened, Jenny was happy. She was with Rafter and that was all that mattered. Nine months after moving into their new home he asked her to marry him.
Lenny and Aunt Susan came to witness their union. It was held in a small church just outside of the Kalispell city limits. Lenny got a surprise phone call before he left for Montana.
Snow blanketed the ground outside the picturesque little church with it’s old fashioned steeple and bell. It was a picture right from a post card. The stained glass windows glowed in the afternoon sun, lighting the interior of the church.
Only three trucks and one car were parked in the church parking lot. Suddenly another truck approached and turned into the parking lot. The driver jumped out and ran for the front door.
It was warm inside the church and Sundance, with Mogli patiently sitting on his lap, sat in the first pew. As the ceremony was about to begin, the preacher asked,
“Is there anyone here who objects to this marriage?”
Suddenly, the church door burst open and a tall, red bearded man with blue eyes hurried down the aisle. The preacher stopped short and watched him with a wary eye. All eyes turned to him as he approached the altar.
“I’m in time, right?” Smiley said with a stern look.
The tense silence that followed was palpable. The preacher, an older man with a long white beard, looked at Rafter and then Smiley, trying to gauge the situation.
Jenny looked at Rafter and then Smiley. Rafter watched Smiley intently, searching for an expression that would tip off his mood.
The silence was finally broken, Smiley asked,
“Can I be the best man?”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dave Stancliff is a retired newspaper editor and publisher who currently writes an Op Ed column for a daily newspaper in Northern California.
He’s a Vietnam veteran (Tour of Duty-1970), husband, father, grandfather, blogger since 2008, and a lifetime Los Angeles Laker fan. You can reach Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org or his blog, “As It Stands” at www.davesblogcentral.com