Chapter 13 - Tour from Hell
Despite the excess of upholstery and carpets, the noise that rumbled through the charter bus could have been left over from a rock concert. Matthius strutted up the aisle like an anemic Mick Jagger. But he had no emotional link with this band.
"They are like children. They worship me," he mused. The man knew how to bring the emotions in a crowd to a steamy bubble. What he didn't know was how to relate to their pain. He knew nothing of how to give himself back to the people who believed in him. Matthius was the ultimate consumer of human emotion. His followers didn't know what was inside the man. If they had, his ride would have been considerably more bumpy.
Chuck never sensed a soul in the young charismatic leader. He seemed to be an emotional black hole. "Does this guy have any convictions of his own?" Chuck wondered to himself. "Maybe he's just here to suck out the hate, digest it, then go on to something else."
Chuck knew how important the minister was to the protest trip, but he didn't trust Matthius. Admittedly, the preacher's energy and emotion had the guys from the streets excited for the first time in years. Chuck dearly hoped this clerical interloper wouldn't lead them all into disaster.
Matthius called Morgan and Chuck into a huddle. Although Matthius was in charge, Chuck was the strategist of the group, so he opened.
"We have the element of surprise going for us. Let's use it smart. This isn't a trained force and our objectives aren't military. All we have on our side is the knowledge that we're doing the right thing against enormous odds. Nobody expects us to stand up for ourselves in this way.
"My men are ready for the assault on the east face," Morgan stated confidently. "We've been training at the university all week and we could do it blindfolded."
"I am uneasy with these clandestine efforts," barreled Matthius. "We are the agents of justice. Surely the doors of the government of man will swing open before us."
"It's not that simple and you should know that better than any of us," Chuck patiently replied. "Even though we're strictly non-violent, they'll never let us past security. We have to do an end run around them, that's why Morgan's college buddies are with us. They'll climb up the blind side of the capitol, come in through a window and open the fire escape for us. It's simple and nobody gets hurt."
"So who cares if we crack a few skulls anyway?" asked Morgan. "They've got it coming after the way they've screwed you around."
"I care, for one," Chuck shot back. "We want the government to know that we still believe in democracy, even if they don't. If we can get them to listen to us for a few minutes, we can make them understand that we are human beings too, and that this bill has to be approved. We'll let 'em know that we count and deserve the same benefits and privileges as the rest of the American People, as they like to call us on TV. Ideas are what change things, not violent mobs."
"Your words are the truth," Matthius interjected. "Our crusade is righteous and powerful. Our message will be understood and heeded by even the most feeble soul."
"Well, maybe," Morgan hesitatingly agreed, "But personally, I'd rather bargain with a powerful idea on my lips and a loaded weapon in my hand."
Chuck leaped to his feet in dismay. "You brought weapons?"
"Naw; besides, they ran us all through a metal detector before they let us on the bus. I guess they don't trust us."
They apparently trusted Chuck, because he wasn't even aware of a weapons check. But as he thought about it, it seemed like an excellent idea. There were quite a few loose cannons in this crowd, and he shuddered at the thought of what some of those cannons could do. Although Chuck was soothed by the thoughtfulness of the bus company, not knowing who had issued the disarmament order unsettled him. Too many cooks, he thought.
"Okay Morgan, when your men get the fire exit open, the rest of us will come in through that door. Matthius, you'll lead the main group to the assembly floor. I know you'll have the right words ready for our duly elected state representatives. Use force to restrain an attack, but take it easy. We want to keep the bad press to a minimum. If you guys rough up too many suits, the only thing that's going to get on TV is the violence, and our trip will be a total waste of time.
I'll take Rudy and Vega into Speaker Weede's office for a little one on one with the wheeler-dealer himself, if we can catch up with him. When we're done, we meet on the main steps for a press conference. Or else we'll meet in jail. I think we all know why we're here, so any one of us should be able to talk to the media and get our message out there to the people who can change things."
"God has blessed you with a gift for organization," Matthius admitted. "I chose well when I asked you to join me. Now we must trust in the power of the Lord to guide us in our duties and lead us to success in our plans."
"I personally haven't seen much of the power of the Lord in the last couple of years on the street," Chuck cynically pointed out, "But right now I'll take help from anybody as long as they have the right connections."
They expected an eight hour bus ride to Sacramento, then added a three hour cushion just in case the tule fog slowed traffic in the San Joaquin Valley. Chuck didn't want to be inconvenienced by a foggy fifty-car pileup on the interstate. With five buses, even a mechanical failure couldn't keep the protest force from the chambers of the statehouse.
As Matthius' planning trio conferred in the lead bus, Vega and some of the more reliable men spread out among the other vehicles to keep things more or less civilized on the long road trip. Their strategy required a 9 a.m. arrival at the statehouse. The overnight trip on the comfortable bus was just a free bonus. Most of the protesters would probably sleep through the ride, cutting down the number of intramural squabbles.
Even though all of the guys lived on the streets, it would be inaccurate to say that they shared much camaraderie. Most of the residents of a particular block knew each other. They generally got along with their neighbors or moved to a different street. But all bets were off when neighborhood chauvinism got into the mix.
Vega was a short man of Spanish and Indian descent. He drew on his life as a loading dock foreman to get the buses filled. The protesters were fitfully sorted, primarily by neighborhood. He kept his ears open and got major parties to long standing grudges onto separate buses. Vega instinctively knew that personal conflicts could rip apart their efforts before they got to see the boys in suits. He would not allow this group to eat their own young.
The seating arrangements seemed set on each vehicle when voices rattled the back of Vega's own bus. "Keep your damned hands off my bottle you sonofabitch."
Vega heard it as he boarded, but the high seat backs blocked his view as he trotted to the tail section.
"It's not your bottle, snotbag," a higher voice chirped. "I gave it to you with the clear understanding that we'd share it if I wanted some."
It was the pair slouched in the back seat, behind the toilet cubicle. Vega recognized them. Wally and Otter had been on each other's case for years. Nobody knew why they hung around together, but that's folks for you.
"Both of you have had enough to help you sleep on this long bus ride," Vega intoned as he grabbed the disputed container. "And you will now begin to sleep very quietly, if you know what's good for you. Comprende?"
"But it's my bottle," Otter squeaked.
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