The Service of Government
As towns went, Upton, Wyoming, was not particularly impressive or important. It was a quiet part of rural western America: a little ranching, a little farming, some mining (bentonite clays), some logging and manufacture of timber products, a little bit of oil, a few tourists on their way from the Black Hills to Yellowstone, and a lot of highway and empty space.
That, of course, was before the War. It became a lot more important after Denver became the secondary target of Federal offensives and Salt Lake became the major goal, the winning of which would end the War. What had been a sleepy backwater area now became an important alternate supply route, filling the voracious tanks, magazines and bellies of sixty thousand troops of XX US Corps getting ready to punch through the fortifications of Casper and south in hopes of cutting off the defenders of Laramie and the Medicine Bow and opening Interstate 80 for a blitzkrieg west.
Wyoming, of course, was one of the Free Western States, and the governor appealed from the "temporary capital" in Cody for resistance to continue even behind the Federal lines as they pushed back the weak forces which had screened the flank of the Western fortresses along the Front Range. Special teams of Rangers remained behind to assist the home defense forces in the various counties of the eastern part of the state. A semi-division defended the Big Horn cities; the 116th Armored Cavalry Regiment (Reinforced). So far the Easterners seemed content to hold the line north of Casper to the Yellowstone River with a brigade of their own, the 235th Separate Armored Brigade from Michigan. Three thousand men and 150 tanks are not very much to patrol about three hundred miles of line: the "front lines" leaked like a sieve. If only Cody or Salt Lake had had sufficient troops and equipment to spare, they could have royally fouled up the "rear areas" in Wyoming or even South Dakota, similar to what had been done for several years in western Kansas. Sadly, they did not, and the trouble they caused the support and supply troops in the area was more in the nature of a nuisance.
Like so many towns in the west in those days, Upton was crowded with a lot of people: the "voluntary" relocatees from the Eastern Seaboard cities shipped out by the Federal Relocation and Retraining Administration made up almost a quarter of the 1200 population; another quarter were refugee relatives which had returned to ancestral roots from Denver, Cheyenne or Minneapolis, hoping that the war would flow around this area. Then there were the most recent refugees, from Casper, Rapid City, Scottsbluff and other nearer areas, fleeing and being overtaken by the Federal forces anyway. It was of this group that we find the young Peter Franklin.
Peter was eleven, an orphan twice, with his parents killed in riots in Kansas City when he was nine, and his godparents, down in Gering (across the river from Scottsbluff) dead in the doomed defense of that Nebraska city. He'd been taken up to Upton with a mixed bag of elderly, wounded, and children, latching onto a convoy of surviving Western troops as they fled west and north. He was now the town pet; a bushy-headed blond boy, skinny and tall for his age, but with a ready smile and a willingness to try almost anything to be a help. He'd done much to brighten the otherwise dreary days of occupation.
Briefly, those weary days had disappeared, when a bold team of five Rangers ambushed a convoy just west of town on Highway 16, not more than a mile past the store and the mill on the way to the abandoned bentonite plant. The surprise and cover had been perfect; the five soldiers in yellowish-green battle dress rising out of hidden positions to launch a half-dozen anti-tank rockets at both ends of the poorly disciplined convoy. Twenty trucks and four hundred tons of supplies had gone up in flames in a bit less than five minutes. And then the Rangers had disappeared, leaving the Feds to wander around in a daze. The little bit of return fire appeared to have been worthless.
As Peter and a few dozen other townfolk knew, that wasn't the case. Corporal Granger, the assistant team leader, had made one of those unlucky steps, into a gopher hole which snapped his ankle bone in a thrice. Even though the Ranger team had stayed clear of Upton until now, he had nowhere else to go. Their contact in town thought about it and finally decided to put the wounded soldier in a most conspicuous place. This turned out to be the storeroom in the small diner right on the highway, and there he lay, a makeshift cast on his leg, almost twenty-four hours after the ambush.
It was then that the officer showed up. Until now, the sole US Army presence in Upton had consisted of a buck sergeant and five men of a contact and repair team out of the local Area Support Battalion's maintenance company. They patrolled the twenty miles on either side of Upton, repairing broken down equipment and "showing the flag." Theoretically, the NCO reviewed the local civilian government's action but he was from southwestern Virginia and didn't have much more liking for the US Government than the townsfolk did. He did his job and let them do theirs.
Today, that changed. The raids by the local ranger team and five others along I-90 and US 16 had finally gotten through to the Area Support Group headquarters at Gillette, and a special reinforced Military Police Company had been transferred into the area. Now, 1st platoon of the 4275th MP Company had showed up to begin the work of cleaning up the area. The platoon in its ten Humvees roared into town, and used their loudspeakers to order a public assembly of everyone in town.
The assembly place was right on the highway, where most of the town's remaining businesses concentrated. The platoon leader, a big, husky man, stood in his Humvee, the armor panels opened up, looking as the people assembled. He knew the next convoy was not due for an hour, and figured he had plenty of time for his little object lesson. Around him, the other MP vehicles kept the central area, and the highway itself clear. Their M-60's and SAW's pointed out at the crowd, and no one was willing to move too closely to the big trucks.
Corporal Granger, from the boarded-up window of the storage room, could see the entire area clearly. In particular he noted the vehicle markings and the combat shoulder patch of the green splotched battle dress uniform of the lieutenant. It was a circle with a pilgrim carrying an old style blunderbuss over his shoulder; the 26th Infantry Division from New England. Even before the man opened his mouth, Granger knew this was a cruel and fanatic Federal Government man. Southern New England was diehard Federalist, and the 26th was known for having its ranks filled with men and women who wrapped their crimes in the flag and swore death to all westerners.
"I am Lieutenant Walter Gernhardt of the 4275th Military Police Company." His voice boomed out, the echo and his New England twang making him hard to understand. "An ambush west of here killed 15 men and destroyed twenty trucks. That is close enough to here that you, YOU here in Upton must share responsibility for this crime. You allow bandits to operate near your village without notifying the authorities, and you are therefore liable for their acts. You will remember and rue the day you allowed this to happen.
"The village can and will pay for this. For the twenty trucks, you will pay $400,000 in either cash or property. But for the fifteen men, fifteen of you will PAY!"
One MP got down from each vehicle and began driving the people out into a set of lines. There were babes in arms, small children, mothers, wounded and crippled men and women, and they went docilely to stand in line. Then the lieutenant began to indicate people, and his MP's would drag each one across the road to the brick facade of the old rural electric office. Finally, he had fifteen: three old women, four elderly men, a double amputee hauling himself along on rolling cans, several younger women, and several boys which must have been teenage, but just short of enlistment age and too short to be able to lie about their age. At first he pulled out one of the town council, but then exchanged him for another.
"Now," shouted the officer. "See what happens to those who turn against their own government."
He gestured with his hand, and a quick "Ready...Fire" the fifteen people fell over into their own blood.
It was more than Corporal Granger could take. Propping himself up on the makeshift cot, he pulled his rifle up beside him. It was an old M16A2, and the range was extreme for something like this. But he had good light, and he knew exactly how this thing fired. His leg was already weeping pus: a compound fracture in an area where almost all modern medicine had departed months before was probably fatal anyway. He chuckled grimly to himself: "If I die, at least I'll have settled one butcher's hash." He took aim again and squeezed off the round. The Lieutenant, his head exploding under the Fritz helmet, toppled off the Humvee and lay beside his victims.
The MPs dragged the wounded Ranger out, angry and ready to spill more blood. But as they were pushing him towards the same wall that had been the bullet stop for the fifteen civilians, the MP Company commander's Humvee roared into the cleared area. Captain Edwin Frank was an older, bigger version of the dead officer, and he stared at the shattered skull of his favorite lieutenant, where the corporal's well placed round had gone in just under the brim of the helmet.
"No," he ordered, in a down east accent. "Don't let the pig die so quickly." He looked around the area. "Nail him up against the side of that building," he said, pointing to an abandoned wooden-sided office. With their bayonets, the MPs crucified him: hands and feet pinned to the heavy weathered overlap joints.
The officer inspected their work and pronounced himself satisfied. He ordered the town council to stand nearby, and the rest of the town to file by, one by one, to see the suffering man pinned there on the side of the building, like a frog stretched out on a dissection board. Long before half the town had walked by, Granger was crying out for a drink of water. His face and arms swollen from the effort of keeping upright, he panted for breath and pled for something to drink.
Peter was deemed too young to stand in line, and so he got to watch the whole situation. He knew what death was; far too young under most conditions, in this state of total war he understood the lifeless and swelling bodies that still lay where they had fallen, swollen rivulets of blood draining into the roadway. Peter also knew Corporal Granger from hours of conversing with him on the sly, and watching the soldier whittle on pieces of wood from the mill.
At last, he could not ignore the man's cries, and grabbing a chipped metal cup, he filled it with water from the cafe and carefully made his way to the corner of the building. While the occupying soldiers paid more attention to the crowd, he stood on his toes and held the cup to Granger's mouth. Straining, the crucified man swallowed most of the contents of the cup before a rifle butt knocked cup and boy away. A follow up blow to Granger's stomach resulted in only a few drops of spray, blood-tinged water, from Granger's mouth. His tortured body would not give up the precious moisture.
Peter lay on the ground, another Federal soldier's bayonet at his throat.
Captain Frank shouted angrily, "Don't you people get it? We are in command here, and you will obey our orders. He who disobeys will die!"
The soldier standing over Peter gave a cruel grin and started to press down on the boy's throat with the naked blade of the bayonet.
Frank stopped the man with a gesture. "Wait, Private. Let us teach them what I mean. If I have the boy obey my command, his brave but futile gesture in giving water to the killer will be forgotten in the shame attached to his name. What is your name, boy?"
Peter had to swallow several times before he whispered his name.
"Well, Peter, would you like to live?"
Peter nodded jerkily.
"Good. Then stand up." The MP commander looked around, sizing up the area. He looked at the now shattered M16 on the ground, at the weapons of several men who had donated their bayonets for crucifixion nails, but finally reached for his own pistol, an issue 9-mm Beretta.
Pulling the magazine down, he ejected all but the one round already chambered.
He stepped to the boy, grabbing him roughly and pulling him toward Granger, who looked upon the scene with glazing eyes.
"So, Peter, if you want to live, you must show you are useful to us, to the true government. I need you to do something for me, Peter."
He pressed the pistol with the single round into Peter's hands, and then holding the boy's pitifully thin arms, he moved the arms until the muzzle pressed against Granger's heaving breast.
"Peter, you have a choice. You may either kill the murderer and therefore put him out of his misery far better than just giving him a drink of water, or my men will kill you for me. Now kill this man."
Peter was frozen, feet spread wide apart, heavy pistol held with both hands and finger on the trigger. He looked around wildly, at the shocked faces of the town crowd. He looked up at Granger's face, pale with approaching death.
"Kill the murderer, Peter," Captain Frank ordered in a loud voice. "Kill him and you save your own life, Peter. Kill him."
Again, Peter looked at the pistol and at the face of the man crucified before him.
It took Granger several tries before he got more than a grunt past his lips. "Go ahead, Peter, shoot me. You can't do anything to save me, lad, so save yourself. Go ahead and save yourself. Shoot, Peter. Do it."
Frank beckoned forward the man who had held his bayonet at Peter's throat, and the man threatened Peter once more. "Kill," Frank ordered Peter, "Kill and live, Peter."
The group of people waiting in line now moved closer and spread out to see this tableau, and Granger once again cleared his throat loud enough to again urge Peter to give up and kill him. "I'm already dead, lad, so it won't be anything serious to go ahead and pull that trigger."
One of the men came out of the crowd, shouting at the MP commander. A soldier pushed the man back.
"Shoot, Peter," the officer ordered. Several of his soldiers egged the boy on.
Peter again looked in the face of the man he was ordered to kill.
"Do it, Peter, you won't save me by sacrificing yourself, lad." Granger was having more difficulty breathing.
Peter nodded, and he took a better grip on the pistol. Granger steeled himself for the additional explosion of pain, and the eastern MP officer grinned in anticipation. Peter's finger found the trigger, and he turned quickly, light on his feet with a weapon that seemed to be almost as heavy as he was. He turned... and shot Captain Frank through the throat.
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