Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Anasazi Strip - Chapter 28 - Part 1

As Dwayne neared Bighorn Buttes camp, he began to slip into a deep funk. The moon was just starting to climb above the Paria Plateau and the Camel Rocks were highlighted against the nighttime skyline like giant sentries. Dwayne could almost see the rocks breathe. This dead-end canyon would make the perfect trap. Dwayne had spent the year 1970, fighting for his life and country in the sweltering jungles of Vietnam and he knew all about stumbling into deadly ambushes. And as he drove from Fredonia to House Rock Valley, Dwayne had become more and more convinced that he was entering a war zone. Saunders killed Professor Jarvis while searching for the location of Linda Joyce. If Jarvis knew where she was camping, then so did Saunders.

      Dwayne pulled over and parked the government truck; he felt much safer walking into danger than driving. He had hunted since he was ten and he could stalk prey in this type of country as well as any man. He was armed with a 12-gauge Remington over and under, and a nickel-plated 44-magnum in a holster on his hip. They were close-order weapons, which was precisely the way Dwayne intended to fight: up close & personal.

      He put on his dark green parka and stuck a box of shotgun shells in one pocket, filling the other with stubby 44-caliber rounds. The rising moon would make his task more tricky, but Dwayne planned to walk back up the road about a half-mile or so, and come around to the camp in a big half-circle, hugging the base of the Buttes. It might take Dwayne a while to get where he really wanted to go, but he was going to arrive there alive. If the girls were okay, then they would all have a good laugh on ol' Dwayne.

      As his eyes became accustomed to the light, he noticed the outline of another vehicle parked a hundred feet away in the shelter of a small grove of pinyon pine trees. Dwayne raised his shotgun and made his way in that direction. Every one of his senses was tuned to the unexpected, but the only sound he heard was the rhythmic buzzing of a Shoshoni locust in search of a mate. The vehicle was a black GMC pickup, probably Saunders' truck. If Saunders was still here, Linda and Jenny might still be alive. He jotted down the truck's license number on his forearm. Dwayne was suddenly reminded of the Army custom of pocketing dog tags before going into battle, so that the graves registration people would know who they were dealing with.  Hopefully, Jason would find the tag number and use it to track down Saunders if Dwayne ended up getting killed tonight.

      He retreated back down the road, looking for tracks, and scanning the perimeter as he followed the two-track road away from Bighorn Buttes. Fifteen minutes later, he was well away from Linda’s camp. As he left the road, he was forced to slow his pace through the irregular groupings of cactus and sagebrush. He could see the obstacles clear enough in the moon glow, but only as long as he moved slowly.

      Grand Canyon rattlers did their hunting at night, usually lying motionless underneath the natural ground cover. It was a myth that rattlesnakes always rattled their tails before striking. Sometimes they did. But just as often, they didn’t make a sound. Walking through a high desert at night, when the moon was high, was like walking through a mine field. Dwayne kept his eyes glued to the ground. The terrain sloped gently uphill to Bighorn Buttes, and after about fifteen minutes he was finally standing on bare rock at the base of the looming sandstone cliffs. His boots made a loud clip-clap sound on the hard rock and he found himself wishing that he was back on the soft sand again. He stepped gingerly and crouched low. Below him, there ran a dry wash whose sandy bottom sparkled in the moonlight like water. A rabbit broke from the cover of a fourwing saltbush and took off down the sandy creek bed in a flash.

      Dwayne could see that he was slowly gaining elevation; he was now at the same height as the tops of the two sentinel rocks where Linda was camped. He couldn't see down into the floor of the canyon; but by the same token, Saunders wouldn't be able to see him, either. He began traversing the series of talus slopes which drained off the thousand-foot high stone walls. The ground gave under his weight and tiny rocks slid down the steep slopes in tinkling mini-avalanches. He sand-skied to where the drainage slides funneled together and leveled off, forming a finely polished pour-over spout. He crept up to the edge of the precipice and cautiously peered over the side. There, almost directly beneath him, was Linda's camp.

      The moon lit the valley floor in a weird parody of daylight; everything could be seen, but it was like looking through a milky lens. Dwayne spotted Linda's truck, and nearby he could make out the faintest wisps of smoke rising off a smoldering camp fire. Jenny's government rig was nowhere in sight. Beside the fire Dwayne saw a large, dark shape that looked like someone in a sleeping bag, but there was no movement. He cradled his shotgun and crouched down, smelling the pungent odor of sage as he stared down into the silent camp. Somewhere down there, Saunders was waiting for him, like a hungry rattlesnake in hiding.

      So far, everything had gone pretty well; he had managed to get close enough to the camp to see what was going on, and he apparently hadn't been spotted yet. But Saunders had to have heard him arrive; as soon as he saw Dwayne's government truck, he'd know that someone official was playing hide and seek with him. Dwayne figured Saunders would move to high ground, probably somewhere around the Camel Rocks. Dwayne carefully studied the two monoliths, but if Saunders was there, he was well-hidden.

      Dwayne stood up quickly and made his move. He stepped over the edge of his rocky perch and skied down the treacherously loose rock slide, banging his shins several times on embedded boulders. He hit the canyon bottom on the dead run, and didn't stop until he was safely behind the cover of a large juniper tree. He grimaced in pain as he rubbed his bruised legs. There was no telling whether Saunders had heard him make his sudden entrance, and there was no way that Saunders would have expected him to come in from the backside of the canyon. Even if he had heard Dwayne, he probably had to change position. Dwayne wasn't going to give him time to regroup.

      He could see smoke hanging lazily in the air about a hundred feet away. He took a deep breath and began darting like a rabbit from tree to tree, his shotgun at his hip. Running in sand with cowboy boots on was not easy, and he almost pitched headlong into the dirt several times. At one point, he heard a rattler sound its tail alarm, no more than a few feet away, and he nearly pissed his pants.

      He burst into camp and rushed over to the motionless sleeping bag by the fire. Dwayne turned the bag over and almost shouted for joy when he saw that it was Linda. She was still alive!

      Linda's eyes widened in amazement. She grunted and groaned as she kicked at the clinging sleeping bag. Dwayne removed Linda's gag, cupped his hand over her mouth, and spoke in a hushed whisper.

      "Now listen, Saunders is probably real close, so we've got to be quiet and we've gotta get moving. You understand?"

      Linda nodded her head.

      Dwayne removed his hand from Linda's mouth. "Where's Jenny?"

      "He's got her someplace up on the Paria Plateau where they're raiding an Anasazi pueblo.  He's had her since yesterday. She never showed up here like she was supposed to."

      Dwayne frowned with confusion. "You don't know where Saunders went, do you?"

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