THE EVENT WAS A FAMOUS ONE, I would later learn—like Wounded Knee or Waco—but when my father first told us the story, it felt like no one in the world knew about it except us.
It began near the end of canning season, which other kids probably called "summer." My family always spent the warm months bottling fruit for storage, which Dad said we'd need in the Days of Abomination. One evening, Dad was uneasy when he came in from the junkyard. He paced the kitchen during dinner, hardly touching a bite. We had to get everything in order, he said. There was little time.
We spent the next day boiling and skinning peaches. By sundown we'd filled dozens of Mason jars, which were set out in perfect rows, still warm from the pressure cooker. Dad surveyed our work, counting the jars and muttering to himself, then he turned to Mother and said, "It's not enough."
That night Dad called a family meeting, and we gathered around the kitchen table, because it was wide and long, and could seat all of us. We had a right to know what we were up against, he said. He was standing at the head of the table; the rest of us perched on benches, studying the thick planks of red oak.
"There's a family not far from here," Dad said. "They're freedom fighters. They wouldn't let the Government brainwash their kids in them public schools, so the Feds came after them." Dad exhaled, long and slow. "The Feds surrounded the family's cabin, kept them locked in there for weeks, and when a hungry child, a little boy, snuck out to go hunting, the Feds shot him dead."
I scanned my brothers. I'd never seen fear on Luke's face before.
"They're still in the cabin," Dad said. "They keep the lights off, and they crawl on the floor, away from the doors and windows. I don't know how much food they got. Might be they'll starve before the Feds give up."
No one spoke. Eventually Luke, who was twelve, asked if we could help. "No," Dad said. "Nobody can. They're trapped in their own home. But they got their guns, you can bet that's why the Feds ain't charged in." He paused to sit, folding himself onto the low bench in slow, stiff movements. He looked old to my eyes, worn out. "We can't help them, but we can help ourselves. When the Feds come to Buck's Peak, we'll be ready."
That night, Dad dragged a pile of old army bags up from the basement. He said they were our "head for the hills" bags. We spent that night packing them with supplies—herbal medicines, water purifiers, flint and steel. Dad had bought several boxes of military MREs—Meals Ready-to-Eat—and we put as many as we could fit into our packs, imagining the moment when, having fled the house and hiding ourselves in the wild plum trees near the creek, we'd eat them. Some of my brothers stowed guns in their packs but I had only a small knife, and even so my pack was as big as me by the time we'd finished. I asked Luke to hoist it onto a shelf in my closet, but Dad told me to keep it low, where I could fetch it quick, so I slept with it in my bed.
I practiced slipping the bag onto my back and running with it—I didn't want to be left behind. I imagined our escape, a midnight flight to the safety of the Princess. The mountain, I understood, was our ally. To those who knew her she could be kind, but to intruders she was pure treachery, and this would give us an advantage. Then again, if we were going to take cover on the mountain when the Feds came, I didn't understand why we were canning all these peaches. We couldn't haul a thousand heavy Mason jars up the peak. Or did we need the peaches so we could bunker down in the house, like the Weavers, and fight it out?
Fighting it out seemed likely, especially a few days later when Dad came home with more than a dozen military-surplus rifles, mostly SKSs, their thin silver bayonets folded neatly under their barrels. The guns arrived in narrow tin boxes and were packed in Cosmoline, a brownish substance the consistency of lard that had to be stripped away. After they'd been cleaned, my brother Tyler chose one and set it on a sheet of black plastic, which he folded over the rifle,
sealing it with yards of silvery duct tape. Hoisting the bundle onto his shoulder, he carried it down the hill and dropped it next to the red railroad car. Then he began to dig. When the hole was wide and deep, he dropped the rifle into it, and I watched him cover it with dirt, his muscles swelling from the exertion, his jaw clenched.
Soon after, Dad bought a machine to manufacture bullets from spent cartridges. Now we could last longer in a standoff, he said. I thought of my "head for the hills" bag, waiting in my bed, and of the rifle hidden near the railcar, and began to worry about the bullet-making machine. It was bulky and bolted to an iron workstation in the basement. If we were taken by surprise, I figured we wouldn't have time to fetch it. I wondered if we should bury it, too, with the rifle.