Forty Days at Kamas
by Preston Fleming
Forty Days at Kamas is the first book in The Kamas Trilogy. Also available: Star Chamber Brotherhood and Exile Hunter (read my blog post).
For another book by Preston Fleming, see my blog post on Dynamite Fishermen, the first book in The Beirut Trilogy.
Inspired by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's account of a Soviet labor camp revolt in Gulag Archipelago, Volume III, the story of Forty Days at Kamas follows political prisoners and security officials at a corrective labor camp in Kamas, Utah, where inmates seize control during the summer of 2024.
Kamas, Utah. 2024. In the totalitarian dystopia that America has become after the Unionist Party's rise to power, the American West contains vast Restricted Zones dotted with ghost towns, scattered military garrisons and corrective labor camps where the regime disposes of its real and suspected enemies. Kamas is one such camp.
On a frigid March night, a former businessman from Pittsburgh, Paul Wagner, arrives at a labor camp in Utah's Kamas Valley, a dozen miles east of the deserted resort town of Park City, which prisoners are dismantling as part of a massive recycling project.
When Wagner arrives, he is unaware that his eleven-year-old daughter, Claire, has set off to Utah to find him after becoming separated from her mother at the Philadelphia Airport. By an odd quirk of fate, Claire has traveled on the same train that carried her father into internal exile.
Only after Wagner has renounced all hope of survival, cast his lot with anti-regime hard-liners and joined them in an unprecedented and suicidal revolt does he discover that Claire has become a servant in the home of the camp's Deputy Warden. Wagner is torn between his devotion to family and loyalty to his fellow rebels until, on the eve of an armored assault intended to crush the revolt, he faces an agonizing choice between a hero's death and a coward's freedom.
In Forty Days at Kamas, author Preston Fleming offers a stirring portrait of a man determined to survive under the bleakest of conditions and against formidable odds. Fleming's gift for evocative prose brings the characters and events to life in a way that arouses emotional tension while also engaging the reader's intellect with fundamental questions about the future of American society.
“Not believing in force is the same as not believing in gravity.”
~ Leon Trotsky
~ Leon Trotsky
Wednesday, March 6, 2024
The train lurched forward. I reached out to steady myself, and my hand closed around the cold ankle of the sickly high school teacher who had boarded the train four days earlier in St. Louis. He had been oddly silent through the night and I felt a fleeting pang of guilt for the sleep I had enjoyed when his coughing finally stopped. After six days of sitting on the floor of an unheated prison compartment with twenty other prisoners, I felt little else. Anyway, the teacher’s suffering was over.
Still only half-awake, I sensed that the prison car had been nudged from behind, as when a train switches engines. Then all was silent except for the sniffling and wheezing of the men packed in around me. Before I could be sure what had happened, a twinge of pain darted up my spine from the pinched discs in my lower back. It was like no other pain I had ever known. A glowing fireball roared up through my neck, filled my skull, burst out the crown of my head and pierced the ceiling of the compartment, propelling me with it into the clear moonlit sky. The fire and I became one, soaring over the icy rail yard where the prison train had come to rest.
Suddenly the pain and the cold were gone. Below me, rock-strewn hills rippled out in all directions, meeting a line of jagged mountains in the distance. Halfway between the rail yard and the mountains was a scene that both disturbed and attracted me. A string of brilliant flood lamps atop tall poles outlined the perimeter of a vast prison camp. The camp’s wire fence enclosed a neat quadrangle, marked at intervals by wooden guard towers and surrounded by a broad swath of ploughed no-man’s-land. Transverse walls divided the camp into five equal sections. Three of these sections housed row upon row of elongated single-story lodges. The other two held an assortment of structures resembling workshops, administration buildings, and utility sheds.
A steady wind blasted the camp from the north, creating swirls of snow and waist-high drifts in the lee of the tightly strung barbed-wire fences. I directed my attention toward the lodges in the center of the camp and saw them loom larger. Now I could hear the whistle of the gusts more clearly. As I hovered above the camp, a surge of terror overtook me, followed by waves of hatred, despair, and grief, each frightening in its power, yet unfocused and without object, as if the collective anguish of all the camp’s inhabitants had risen up to meet me in a whirlwind of human misery. I turned my face from the camp and climbed higher until the fear subsided.
When I looked down I noticed a solitary road leading from the camp past a cluster of sandbag bunkers. I followed the road beyond an administration compound and motor pool, over a line of hills and into the next valley, where a concentration of street lamps and neon signs marked the outskirts of a town. The instant I focused my gaze on the town, I closed in on it at astonishing speed. Below me lay the same darkened rail yard where a locomotive had shunted our four battered prison cars onto a siding before towing the civilian coaches to the terminal.
The flashing red and white lights of a shunting engine illuminated a half-dozen canvas-topped troop trucks that disgorged black-uniformed guards in helmets and body armor. Some of the guards led snarling attack dogs on short leather leashes. As the shunting engine retreated toward the passenger terminal, the guards switched on their flashlights and formed a skirmish line opposite the coaches.
Not the dogs again, I grumbled. But before the fear of mauling could grip me, I realized that I was dropping back down to earth at an angle that seemed certain to land me on the roof of the last prison car. Just before impact I looked away.
A tremendous blow shook the car’s exterior wall. Then it struck again. But I felt no impact. When I opened my eyes, I saw huddled forms all around me rising slowly and painfully from the compartment floor. In the gray light filtering in through the compartment’s dust-caked windows, I saw that some did not stir at all.
More crashing blows struck the sides of the rail car. It took me a moment to recognize that these came from the banging of clubs and rifle butts signifying that the time had come to unload. Almost in unison, our crowd of shivering, half-starved public enemies began pressing itself against the barred door of the compartment.
Because I had occupied a place far from the door, the crowd’s shoving toward the exit gave me enough room for the first time in days to stretch out my cramped limbs. As I stretched, I felt lice crawling down my legs and suppressed an urge to scratch. With only a few seconds left before the guards would slide open the door to the corridor, there was no time to waste hunting lice, much less to think about my strange vision of the landscape outside.
Casting aside all thoughts other than how to haul my feeble body off the train, I rolled sideways onto my hands and knees, trying to tuck my right foot under me to stand. But there was no feeling in either leg. Apart from being debilitated from hunger and cold, the endless hours of sitting with my back propped against my fellow prisoners had cut off circulation to my legs.
The pounding of clubs and rifle butts began again at the head of the train and moved quickly down the line toward our car. From earlier stops I knew that once the door rolled open, anyone too slow to join the initial rush off the train would risk a thumping about his head and shoulders. Fear came over me that I couldn’t scuttle fast enough to avoid a beating. I made another frantic attempt to get on my feet, but I fell back against the schoolteacher’s stiffened corpse.
I had forgotten about him in the odd fascination of my dream and the urgency of leaving the train. Now I wondered whether there was time to scavenge anything edible from him. I patted down his pockets and the usual places where prisoners tended to stash a bread roll or an uneaten ration bar, and then searched for a bag or a bundle. It was no use; while I had slept the prisoners behind us must have noticed the schoolteacher turn cold and seized his belongings. For a moment I envied them; then I felt ashamed.
Outside the compartment a key turned the deadbolt in the steel door. Under power from the guards’ beefy shoulders, the door slid open and reached its limit with a heavy thud. A moment of silence followed.
Then began the hellish din of rifle butts on wood, cruel rasping curses, and discordant music playing from worn-out loudspeakers outside. The music, I knew, was required by convoy regulations to mask the cries of prisoners and the blows of nightsticks and rubber truncheons. Why the music was invariably an atonal modern symphony, none of us knew.
I was still on hands and knees at the edge of the crowd when the rush began and gained my footing in time to join the scrum as it heaved forward. The guards shouted and cursed at us as they drove us outside.
“Pile out, you sorry turds!“ one yelled over the frenzied barking of his well-fed German shepherd. “On the double to the blacktop! And plant your raggedy butts inside the markers!”
Through the filthy window, I could see a thinly spread line of guards with submachine guns leveled at the hip. Closer in, plainclothes thugs armed with truncheons, pepper gas canisters, and other non-lethal weapons herded the swift-moving stream of prisoners toward an assembly zone marked by orange traffic pylons.
The few stragglers who didn’t sit promptly upon reaching the ice-covered blacktop received a sudden kick in the leg or a sharp jab in the ribs from a guard’s rifle butt. Still another detachment of guards armed with sinister-looking jointed truncheons lurked further on, walloping any inattentive prisoner who failed to link arms with his neighbors. As the guards waited for the rail cars to empty, a flurry of snowflakes fell, diffusing the yellowish glare of the floodlights over the railyard.
Anxious for my legs to recover in time to drop to the platform without injury, I hung back and let others pass. To jump without full control of my legs might cost me a broken bone, which in a labor camp could lead to reduced rations and eventual starvation. Yet to be last out the door meant a beating and damage that might be just as bad. With each second I prayed for my circulation to return. Then I heard Will Roesemann’s voice coming from the next compartment.
“Paul, quick—I need your help.”
Preoccupied with my legs I had forgotten about my former cellmate at the Susquehanna interrogation facility. My first impulse was to refuse, but Roesemann had come to my aid many times and he had never asked anything in return.
“Give me a second, Will,” I told him. “My legs aren’t quite right yet.”
I dropped out of the packed corridor into the compartment where Roesemann knelt at the side of a bruised and bloodied prisoner.
The night before, at an unscheduled stop near the Colorado border, a squad of security men had tossed the prisoner aboard like a sack of potatoes. Word spread through the sleeper car that his name was Glenn Reineke and that he had escaped from a corrective labor camp at Kamas, somewhere in the Wasatch Range east of the Great Salt Lake. He and his partner had managed to evade capture for two weeks before a logging crew spotted them and held them at bay. The security force that finally took the fugitives into custody had given them an exceptionally brutal handling because both had escaped from Kamas before.
Roesemann pulled one of Reineke’s arms over his shoulder and offered the other arm to me. He was surprisingly heavy for so lean a figure and I could feel the thickness of his arm and shoulder muscles. During his time on the run he had grown a full black beard flecked with gray that matched heavy eyebrows knitted together at the bridge of a prominent nose. Reineke’s eyes were shut and his body completely limp. I wondered if he was even alive.
“This is pointless, Will. He’s a goner,” I said.
Suddenly the wounded man stiffened and raised his head. He mumbled something unintelligible.
“He thinks he’s back at Kamas,” Roesemann said with a troubled look.
“I’m not sure I can handle this, Will,” I replied. “I can barely walk myself.”
“Will, this guy is trouble...”
“Goddamnit, Paul, stop whining and give me a hand.”
I swallowed hard, and then took Reineke’s arm.
The shouting of the guards outside became frenzied, their grunts and howls making them sound more like victims than aggressors. As prisoners we knew better than to cry out when hit because that only provoked the guards to beat us harder.
When we reached the car’s exit, by some miracle no guards remained on hand to harass us other than the dog handler stationed five yards back from the tracks. Roesemann jumped out and put his arms around Reineke’s chest while I lowered myself to the ground holding the wounded man’s legs.
At that moment a pair of guards looked our way from the edge of the blacktop and started toward us, clubs raised to strike. Roesemann and I put our heads down and rushed forward, prepared to meet their blows. But the guards were not after us.
Without a word, the pair lit into a shuffling graybeared just ahead. They rained blows upon his distinguished bald pate until his scalp was awash with blood. He scrambled desperately to break free but a vicious kick in the gut promptly felled him. He lay motionless a few feet short of the blacktop, rivulets of blood streaming onto the thin layer of new snow. Then two other guards seized him by the feet and dragged him between the orange pylons, his bald head bouncing across the frozen ground with sickening thuds.
Throughout the beating, Roesemann and I kept lugging Reineke between us, evading all blows except for a few glancing kicks from a young guard who stopped pursuing us the moment we reached the pylons.
“Get down and link arms!” the uniformed youth threatened from a spot safely beyond reach.
Behind us a truck engine roared and I turned around to look. At that instant a rubber truncheon caught me behind the ear and sent my knit cap flying from my head. Though dazed, I tucked my chin into my chest to protect my throat from additional blows. When none followed, a murderous rage well up inside me, not only at the pain and humiliation, but at the absence of any warning. The guards treated us not like fellow humans but like domestic animals that responded better to physical correction than to words.
We waited anxiously on the snow-covered blacktop until the guards were satisfied that no prisoners remained in or underneath the coaches and none had concealed themselves anywhere else in the rail yard. My lice stirred again, this time in my scalp and up and down my neck. I caught one and crushed it against my boot, but left the others alone. It was pointless—no matter how many I destroyed, more always appeared.
“Get up! De-link arms and form a single column four abreast!”
Having performed this operation many times, we succeeded in forming a workable column within seconds. Roesemann and I lifted Reineke and held him between us.
“Prisoners, prepare to march at my command!”
With guards flanking us on either side, we crossed the tracks and followed a deeply rutted path through a patchwork of open fields for fifteen or twenty minutes before it intersected a four-lane paved road that led toward town. Carrying Reineke had depleted my last reserves of strength, and the pain in my lower back had become unbearable.
“Keep to the road! One step to the right or left and I’ll fire without warning!”
I spotted a line of six unmarked tractor-trailer rigs parked two hundred yards ahead along the shoulder and resolved to hold out until we reached them. When we closed to within a hundred yards of the nearest truck, Reineke suddenly began to mutter and shuffle his feet. Roesemann and I looked at each other, unsure of what to do, and in that split second of hesitation, the man twisted out of our grip and broke away toward the fields.
Without thinking, I left the column and tackled him around the waist. Someone fired a warning shot and a half dozen guards swarmed after us. I lay still, anticipating a shower of blows. But to my amazement, the prisoners nearest to us closed in around us to form a protective screen. All Roesemann and I needed were a few seconds to pull the breathless fugitive onto his feet and we all managed to keep moving. The guards withdrew.
After the scuffle, I let go of Reineke for a moment to see whether he could walk without my support. It was only because of my odd position that I was able to see someone keeping pace with us among the trees. A moment later an old woman carrying a basket and a duffel and a young girl wearing a canvas backpack emerged from a thicket onto the road’s shoulder.
At first the guards failed to see them. The woman made the sign of the cross, then calmly stepped into the road, removed the cloth covering from her basket and began handing out bread rolls. The half-starved men broke ranks and collided with each other to get their hands on a precious roll.
A burst of submachine gunfire erupted, aiming over our heads. Dogs whined and barked, straining at their leashes to attack.
“Everybody on the ground! Sit! Link arms!”
The command rang out again and again as prisoners dropped to the ground, stuffing precious bread into their clothing.
“You! Woman! Freeze!” screamed the enraged dog handler closest to the old woman. But the woman had already taken the girl’s hand and was leading her back into the trees with remarkable speed and agility.
Without a moment’s hesitation the handler reached down to unleash his dog. In a flash a black German shepherd was racing alongside the column in headlong pursuit. Having seen dogs like these maul prisoners many times, I shuddered at the thought of what would happen to the unfortunate woman or her child. For an instant I considered stepping between the dog and its quarry but I lacked the nerve. The beast galloped past me at top speed.
Then I heard a high-pitched canine yelp followed by shouts and cries of animal pain. I turned my head in time to see a broad-shouldered prisoner sitting astride the black shepherd dog, one forearm locked firmly in the dog’s jaws and the other pinning the dog’s windpipe against the icy road. Guards converged upon the man and beat him senseless but the dog remained limp when they pulled it away from the prisoner’s inert body. Angry murmurs spread among us but another burst of gunfire silenced the crowd immediately.
“Major Whiting! Sir! Request permission to track the women!”
A young dog handler stood at attention before the convoy leader, a lean, sinewy man of about forty.
“Stand down, Rogers,” Whiting responded with an Oklahoma twang. “We have prisoners to deliver. Leave the women, and help move these vermin onto the trucks.”
Whiting waved off the eager young soldier and strode back to where one of the guards was directing two prisoners to drag the dog slayer’s body to the nearest tractor-trailer.
“Is he still alive?” Whiting asked the guard.
“He was a minute ago.”
“Then tie his hands and feet. If he lives, send him to the isolator with Reineke.”
“Yes, Sir!” the guard answered.
“And next time, son, when you open fire, don’t waste your bullets firing into thin air. Hit somebody.”
Roesemann and I looked at each other in mute fury. On command we hoisted Reineke between us and lifted him onto the truck.
Praise for the Book
"A brutal portrait of a dystopian America, full of dramatic irony and shocking revelation." ~ Kirkus Reviews
"A page-turner…moves at a solid clip. An overtly political story that succeeds as entertainment." ~ Pacific Book Review
"Weighty in ideas, Fleming’s book is both informative and deeply disturbing and provides an intriguing read." ~ San Francisco Book Review
"Masterfully paints a grim landscape with believable detail and vivid characters." ~ bookpleasures.com
About the Author
Preston Fleming was born in Cleveland, Ohio. He left home at age fourteen to accept a scholarship at a New England boarding school and went on to a liberal arts college in the Midwest. After earning an MBA, he managed a non-profit organization in New York before joining the U.S. Foreign Service and serving in U.S. Embassies around the Middle East for nearly a decade. Later he studied at an Ivy League law school and since then pursued a career in law and business. He has written five novels.