Copyright© 2010 by Shakes Peer2B
As the sun came up and the others went about preparing breakfast, Ramon and I studied the tracks left by our watcher from the night before. We found that he had actually followed us for some distance on horseback before we camped. When discovered, he hadn't gone far. We found traces of a dry camp on the other side of the National Trails Highway. On a hunch, when we broke camp, I made up a small packet of food and left it and a bottle of water under a stone cairn in the middle of our campsite.
"You figure he'll find it, and be all grateful and everything?" Colby asked derisively. "What a waste of food!"
"I figure it's a small price to pay for some potential good will," I shrugged. "This guy's been following us for a while, and from all indications, he's got skills in desert survival. If we're going to be living in the desert, even if he wants to stay alone, it can't hurt to let him know we mean him no harm. It might even keep him from stealing from us."
"A bullet would keep him from stealing from us, too," the former gang member said, touching the 9mm automatic he carried in the waistband of his baggy pants.
"You have to see him to shoot him, pal," I told him, "and I've got a feeling we aren't gonna see this guy unless he wants us to, so why not try to get him on our side? By the way, you ought to change into some pants that fit better and put a shirt on over that singlet. Those pants will have you chafed raw in a day or two, if they haven't already. You lose too much of your body's water if you leave your skin exposed to the sun like that, and that's not to mention sunburn. You may be dark to start with, but the sun out here will kill you quick. Here!"
I tossed him a campaign hat from our stores that looked like it ought to fit him. "This'll help keep you from getting overheated."
"What the fuck I want with a dorky-ass hat like this?" He said, and started to throw it back to me. Amanda caught his wrist.
"Wear it Colby!" She said sharply, "The man knows what he's talking about. It would do you good to talk to some of the people that came down here with him. You might learn something. Meanwhile, get changed, we haven't got all day."
Cussing up a blue streak, the young man went off behind the trucks to change. I started to admonish him to watch out for snakes, but figured he'd had all the lectures he was willing to listen to.
Suddenly his voice, higher pitched, came from the other side of one of the 6x6's. "'Manda! What the fuck is that! 'Manda!"
Ramon, Amanda, and I went rushing around the truck to find Colby backed up against the truck, his pants around his ankles, as a rattlesnake, coiled and ready to strike, serenaded him with the castanets on its tail.
"Don't move, Colby!" I told him, as calmly as I could. We had snakebite kits but no anti-venom.
Slowly, I unslung my M16 and made sure the safety was on, then eased up behind the snake. When the butt of the weapon was about a foot away, the snake turned its attention my way, and I backed up, keeping the weapon pointed, butt first, in the rattler's direction. The snake, thankfully, followed, striking at the butt of the rifle and I led it away from the campsite before withdrawing the gun and returning to the truck.
"One other point to consider," I told the gathered assembly as I wiped rattlesnake venom from the butt of my M16, "snakes are cold-blooded. They regulate their body heat by the sun. When they're cold, like in the early morning, they like to find a sunny spot to warm up. When they're warm, like in the middle of the day and the afternoon, they're likely to look for shade. At night, if you don't keep your tent zipped tightly, they'll crawl in the sleeping bag with you for the warmth."
"Why didn't you kill the mothafucka?" Colby asked, shakily donning a pair of fatigue pants.
"Why should I do that?" I asked. "I couldn't kill enough of them to keep them from being a danger to us, and they just want to live, same as us. That snake probably thought you were about to attack it. Next time, don't undress where one is sunning itself, okay?"
"Damn straight!" he replied.
"While we're at it, Amanda, with your permission, I'd like to have Sergeant Garcia go through the stuff you picked up in Barstow. Among other things, it will help us understand what we do, and don't need to get on our next foraging trip."
"Suits me. Colby, you show the Sergeant around, and remember, he knows what he's doing, too, so listen to him. If he tells you to toss something, toss it. If you've still got a problem with anything he has to say, bring it to me."
I heard some arguing from Colby's side, over the next fifteen minutes or so, as the two of them went through the contents of the trucks. I wasn't sure how Garcia would handle it, but he kept his cool and soon things were being dumped on the ground. Electronics, like televisions and stereos, perishable foods that had probably already spoiled in the heat of the desert, a few other frivolous items. Then began the loudest argument of all. When Garcia raised his voice, I knew it was time to step in.
I cocked an eyebrow at Amanda, and together we climbed into the bed of the truck that held the combative pair.
"I will not have a bunch of drunken amateurs handling guns!" Garcia, in his best drill sergeant voice was saying into the face of the angry young man, who had to look up to meet his gaze.
Nguyen wasn't backing off an inch, though, and stood nose to nose with the Marine. "You can toss any damn thing you want out of this fuckin' truck, you military muthafucka, but the goddamn beer stays!"
Without a word, I stuck a shoulder between them, facing Sergeant Garcia. Using my opening, Amanda did the same, facing opposite, until we stood back-to-back between them.
"What's the trouble, Gunny?" I asked mildly.
"This... civilian has ten cases of warm beer that are taking up space that could be used for something useful!" He looked like he might have a stroke at any moment.
"And you're concerned that someone will get drunk and be careless with a firearm or worse. Is that correct?"
"I see your point. Amanda?"
"We thought it would be nice to have a little something civilized to drink once we got settled in somewhere," she answered.
"I see your point as well. Can you guarantee that none of your people will break open the beer until you give them permission?"
I deliberately tuned out of the murmured conversation between her and Colby, even though it took place less than two feet away. A short time later, Amanda spoke up.
"We will issue very strong warnings to everyone that it is not to be touched without our permission, and Colby will accept responsibility for making sure the cases are unopened until the appropriate time. Since we have no place to lock it up, that's the best guarantee I can give you."
"Are you willing to share with the entire group when the appropriate time arrives?"
"Under those conditions, Sergeant, can you see your way clear to allow the beer to stay?"
"If I may add my own admonition against unauthorized use, then yes, sir."
"Very well, Sergeant. Oh, one more thing, Sergeant: Is it good beer?"
A grin spread across his face as Garcia answered, "Top notch, sir! It'd probably even taste good warm, like the English drink it!"
"Excellent! Carry on, then!" I had deliberately put on military airs to keep Garcia in familiar territory, but I didn't want him getting too stiff-necked on me, which was why I asked about the quality of the beer. We were going to have to babysit these civilians through a lot of crap that they wouldn't want to do, and the last thing they needed was a martinet pushing them too hard.
"Nicely done!" Amanda told me, under her voice as we jumped down off the tailgate. I heard laughter from the two still inside, so I didn't argue with her.
"Can't integrate if we're fighting, now, can we?" I winked at her. "By the way, thanks for your support so far. I'll let you be the judge of how far you can take that without losing your people's loyalty, but I appreciate you working with me on this."
"I told you the truth last night, Gav. You've got skills I can't hope to match, so until I can, or until we get into something I'm better qualified to handle, you're the man. I just hope that when that time comes, you'll defer to me without too much trouble."
"Me too, Amanda. In my head, I know it's the right thing to do, but smart people sometimes fool themselves into thinking they can come up with the answers to everything. I just hope I can keep from falling into that trap."
"Well, if you give me any trouble, I'll just have to whack you a time or two to remind you" Her grin took the bite from her words, but I had no doubt she would do just as she said, and maybe that was a good thing.
I noticed, with some satisfaction, that others of the LA group, including the skinny blond, had followed Colby's example by dressing more appropriately for the desert.
With all the delays, it was mid-morning before we got the trucks moving, and I used some of the time to have them fill every reasonably clean container we could find with potable water from the faucets in Chambless. These went under the tarps in the truck beds. All three trucks and the Hummer had been topped off in Barstow, and the LA group had had the foresight to fill some barrels with diesel, so I figured we were as ready for our journey across the desert as we could be.
Far from being the barren wasteland of popular belief, the Mojave Desert is dotted, in some places rather densely, with sages, flowers, grasses, and small trees, including the Joshua tree. It supports a variety of animal life, much of it native, but some, like the wild burros, introduced by man. It is a harsh, dangerous environment, but one who knows the place, and is respectful of it, can survive quite handily.
Cadiz was little more than a railroad switch between the east-west line of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, and a north-south line of the Arizona and California. We slowed only long enough to take the eastward jog in the road that eventually crossed the east-west tracks before continuing south by southeast on the road toward Archer. South of the tracks, the pavement vanished and our vehicles left plumes of dust in their wake. The road was straight as an arrow, but not traveled enough that the state had felt it worth paving so we spaced the vehicles out to give the drivers some relief from the dust of the trucks ahead.
To the west of our route, we could see neat rows of trees where someone had decided that the Mojave would make a good orchard. The trees were already turning brown from lack of water, now that no one was tending them.
About two or three miles south, we came to a junction where the main road turned right across the north-south railroad tracks before continuing on toward Archer. Ruth, who rode in the cab of the lead truck with me, told me to keep straight, and soon, the road we were on turned sharply eastward.
This road, too, though unpaved, was ruler straight. After about fifteen minutes, Garcia, who had quickly noted the advantages of horses for scouting this kind of terrain, rode up alongside the truck. To my surprise, Colby, somewhat ill at ease, but gamely hanging onto the reins, rode beside him.
"Gav!" The Gunny called, nodding his head toward the north.
There, about half a mile away, but not trying to stay out of sight, rode a single horseman. With the binoculars, I could make out that he rode bareback and was shirtless and hatless.
"Our visitor from last night?" I asked.
"Most likely," Ramon answered. "Don't know what his game is, though."
"Whatever it is, he knows we know he's been trailing us, so he's not bothering to hide himself anymore."
"Want me to go after him?"
"Waste of time. Let's see what he's got in mind."
"All right, but just say the word. With one of those long guns you got at the sporting goods store, I could probably worry him some."
"He hasn't shown any hostile tendencies, so let's not aggravate him. Sooner or later, he'll give us some idea what he's up to."
With that, Garcia and his counterpart from Amanda's group peeled off, pacing the trucks about a hundred yards to the north. I kept checking, and soon, our watcher pulled ahead and disappeared.
About lunchtime we were approaching the base of a spur of the mountains that ran along the eastern edge of the desert. This was just an isolated outcropping. We would see the mountains proper a bit later in the day, if we continued eastward, but the road here led around the northern end of these hills, just cutting through one corner of them. About half a mile before we got to the hills, I spotted something in the road. As we approached, I saw that it was small cairn of rock, much like the one we had built to protect the food we left behind at the morning's campsite from the desert creatures. I signaled to Ramon and to Matt who flanked us to the south, to be alert. I was about to tell Amanda to have her people keep a lookout, as well, when she approached me, carrying something in each hand.
"Here," she said, handing me a walkie-talkie. "I'm kinda surprised that you didn't get some of these for your own group."
"I guess I was thinking a bit too far ahead," I replied sheepishly, "figuring that we wouldn't be able to keep the batteries charged once the power grid went down. I forgot that they might come in handy on the road."
"Good thing you ran into us, then, isn't it?"
"I was already thinking that, before you showed up with these, but yeah, it is. Anyway, we've got a cairn of rock up ahead, a lot like the one we left behind this morning. It's probably a return message from our visitor, but we want to be alert while we check it out."
"That the guy who's been shadowing us to the north?"
"Probably," I answered, delighted that she had spotted him. "Hey, you got any more of these?"
"Picked up a couple dozen and some chargers at the Marine base, even got some headsets for 'em if you want 'em."
"I'd like to have one in each vehicle and give one with a headset to each of our outriders, unless you've got a better plan."
"Not better, but I'd suggest keeping a charger in each truck, too, so we can keep swapping out the low batteries with fresh ones."
"Good idea. Would you take care of the logistics, while I see about this pile of rocks?"
Amanda looked at me sharply. "Don't you think Garcia ought to handle that? It might be booby trapped."
"I'll agree that he's probably better qualified, but I've got backup now. He doesn't."
"Then I'll do it. You tell Colby I said to distribute the radios."
"I can't let you..." I began and she spun to face me.
"Yes you can and you will! You proved to all of us last night that you're better qualified to lead this bunch than I am, so don't go getting soft on me or I'll knock you on your ass and do it anyway!"
By this time, we were collecting an audience from both groups, and there was no point in making a bigger scene of it so I said, "Wait. Put on a headset and get Garcia on the other end. He can talk you through it."
I took the Gunny's place on watch while he and Amanda, on a separate channel that we forbade others to use, went through the careful process of making sure the rock pile wasn't booby trapped. It wasn't.
Under the rocks was the water bottle we had left that morning, empty, and note scrawled on a scrap of paper: "Turn back. No water before Colorado River."
I remembered seeing a pen in our truck, so I got it and wrote on the back of the paper. "There is. Come and see."
I had them leave another bottle of water, sitting on the note beside the roadway, re-covered with rocks.
"You sure that's a good idea?" Amanda asked, "Inviting him to come along?"
"How do you propose to keep him from following?" I answered her question with my own. "Even if we keep him at a distance with our guns, he can follow our tracks wherever we go. He'll find us eventually, so I'd rather he's in a receptive state of mind when he does."
Amanda gave me an appraising look but said nothing, and I let it drop.
We mounted up and continued on, our turnoff not being too far ahead.
Ruth had taken me over the route on the map, but I would still have missed the turnoff if she hadn't pointed it out to me. As the roadway crossed the northern end of the rocky spur just before heading out again into open desert, a tiny eyebrow of a trail turned sharply south. Looking ahead at the steepness of the trail, I stopped and had the Hummer unhitched. With Matt riding ahead, and Garcia driving the Hummvee, we engaged all the drive wheels of the trucks before heading up the trail.