Doug woke up screaming. He rolled off the stone slab and fell hard on the ground. His hands wrestled around blindly, searching for the brine-filled canteen. It was mid-day, but he dared not open his eyes, they might squirt out of his head from all the pressure behind them. The pain was beyond anything he had ever encountered, all the hangovers of his life combined paled in comparison to this one.
And he was swathed in ticks.
They covered his head, his neck, under his T-shirt, in his crotch, along every protruding vein. Doug found the strap to the canteen and crawled on all fours to the boulder beach, out into the blistering sun. Doug didn’t bother to take his clothes off. Kneeling before the All Seeing Eye, he shook the salted canteen, got it open after three attempts with numb fingers, then struggled to raise it above his head and pour it over him, all the while making grunting screams of anguish. He had soaked his head and shirt, arm pits and neck before he realized, clothed, this wasn’t going to work. He sat down and feverishly took his shoes off, whipped his pants and underwear off, flinging them into the lifeless pool.
Now he worked the brine into the crevices of his crotch and ass cheeks, his legs, his feet. Finished, he paused for a moment, gasping.
“Wake up!” Sam bellowed. Doug struggled to his elbows. “You can’t fall asleep in the sun, especially buck naked!”
He’d been unconscious. It couldn’t have been for long, his skin was not blistered, just a little pink. The salt had dried, the ticks were gone. Now his skin itched horribly, and once again he slid into the lifeless pool. He jerked awake when the water got past his nostrils, and he came up gagging and spitting. He felt something slide from his finger, and he straightened up on his knees, then looked down through the clear water. Something gold glistened from the bottom.
Doug looked at his left hand. His wedding band was gone. He hadn’t been able to get that ring off in years, and now it slid right off. Doug reached down and retrieved his ring, and suddenly saw an image staring up from the surface of the water, one he did not recognize. He stared for a long time at his reflection, eyes sunken into his head, hair matted flat against it. His chubby cheeks were gone.
“Doug!” Sam called sharply.
The naked skeleton in the water jerked his attention to the memory on the stone beach. Sam motioned as he crouched on his haunches.
“Chuck your clothes up here.”
Doug processed the command, then looked around him, spotted pieces of clothing and threw them up on the beach until Sam spoke again.
“Okay, now get out of the water. Nonono, not this way. Remember? You slipped, and scraped up your knee. Go up the other way. That’s it. Now, go lie down on the slab for awhile. Easier said than done, huh? Hey, grab your lip balm, its in one of the cargo pockets in your pants.”
Naked, Doug crawled gingerly toward the slab. His backpack was there, and his heart soared when he saw the water bladder. It wasn’t empty. He was so thirsty. And then he realized he couldn’t drink it. The one essential for desert survival is water, and he didn’t have any.
Doug began wheezing as he crawled up on the slab, which turned to sobbing as he lowered his head down.
“Doug! Wake up!”
The skeleton with skin stirred and looked up to see Sam.
“There’s chores to be done, Doug, and we’ve only got a couple of hours before sunset.” Sam pointed to the cave. “We need to set up a perimeter of salt around the slab, the wider the better. Put your lip balm on while I talk, Doug, that’s just one problem we don’t need right now, cracked lips. Then you’ll need to get dressed.”
“Water,” he croaked. Sam smiled and winked.
“Right you are. First batch of water came from the Datura Punchbowl, couldn’t help that, never even imagined the water up here was spiked.”
Doug moved mechanically as Sam spoke, wiping Carmex on his lips, nostrils, the corners of his eyes.
“How’s it spiked? Think about it. There’s some kind of fungus or lichen growing in this soil, and it either makes or is the psychotropic drug you ingested yesterday. It’s all steeped in the water, and the water here is a tea of this stuff. Where you made your mistake is,” Sam pointed down to the north end of the swamp. “You got your water from just this side of the Datura plants. The water’s been soaking in the source of the drug the longest right there What we gotta do is get the water,” Sam pointed to the south end of the swamp, to where the water drizzled into the bowl, “from that end, where the water hasn’t had a chance to soak in the mushroom dirt, or whatever. What do you want to do first?”
Doug looked down on his naked self, then back up at Sam.
“Clothes,” he croaked. Doug did not remember getting to the stone beach. Dry and hot, his clothes felt like they’d been washed in a fabric softener. He wrestled with his socks to exhaustion, then his underwear, his pants, shirt, boots. He gasped for air. Every joint in his body ached beyond anything he’d felt before. He felt feverish, but there was nothing to sweat.
“Doug, we’re running out of time.” Doug nodded, rolled over and started toward the slab altar.
“We have to empty the water bladder, fill it with some water and wash it out.” Doug closed his burning eyes and shook his head, then opened them again, and crawled back to the slab. He could not carry the bladder. It was too heavy. He began to drag it.
“First we have to empty it so that the ticks won’t follow it up to where we are, and we want to attract the ticks down to the north end, away from the cave entrance. So go down to the ledge above the stone beach.” Back where he’d just dragged himself from. Doug grunted as he jerked the bladder along with him. At the edge he propped the bladder so its mouth hung over. He tried to pull off the cap. He struggled until his hand slipped and he tumbled off the edge onto the stone beach. He lay there panting for several minutes, finally struggling onto one side. He gritted his teeth as he studied the cap, his fingers, then bore into the task, grunting and cursing, until finally the cap popped off. The water poured over the stone beach and Doug. When it was light enough, Doug hoisted the bladder up and the content drained out.
“It’s full of sediment,” Sam said. “Get some of this punchbowl water in there and wash it out, then we’ll be ready.”
Doug nodded again, reached over, stuck the bladder in the velvet water, and sloppily washed out the sediment.
“We gotta get going here, Doug, we still have t’get the salt after the water. Time’s a’wastin’.”
Doug struggled for focus. He scooped up the cap and stuck it in one of his cargo pockets, then rose and staggered drunkenly to the wall. He focused on the swamp, the Datura plants a foot away from him. The ticks gathered. It seemed to take a long while, and even then there didn’t seem to be nearly as many as there had been before.
“You have to hurry,” Sam said. “The sooner you get to the south end, the more time you’ll have to get water. It’s going to be much more shallow, the rock’ll be inches below the surface.”
“Slide the hat into the crap,” Doug whispered. “Ready? Go!”
Doug rose and started his drunken dash. By the time he’d gotten to the cave entrance his wheeze was a whistling protest of exhaustion. Falling to his knees on the stone, he did just as he’d planned, slid the hat into the slime. Like the rest of his clothing, it too was bone dry, and it seemed to take forever for it to saturate with the grim, black septic-smelling water. Doug looked up. There was as yet no sign of the ticks, but he thought he heard a distant rattle, like small hard sticks being cracked against each other. He looked down. Water pooled in his hat. Doug worked the bladder around, his fingers feeling numb and inept. He managed to get a flow of the vile liquid into the bladder. He looked up again. Yes, they were coming. They weren’t in near as big a hurry as they’d been the day before, but the reeds bent under their accumulated weight, shivered with their glancing blows as they passed.
The water had stopped flowing, there was nowhere for the water to flow to, the bladder just not deep enough. The ticks were still only three quarters of the way to him when he jerked the bladder and hat out of the water, and staggered now down to where the peyote was. There was less than half a quart of water in the bag. Doug sloshed it around, dying for a taste. After a moment, he dumped it out onto the cactus plants. Collapsing to the rock, Doug propped himself up against the stones built up like a container garden.
“Come on, Doug, there’s chores to be done, dreams to be dreamt, visions to be seen, without the assistance of hallucinogenics.”
“I have to rest.”
“Chores, Doug. Have to do the camp chores.”
Doug closed his eyes, forced them open again.
“Sam? What if all these chores, all this talk, all this conjecture, is just to keep us occupied. Y’know, busy, while we wait to die.”
Sam sat down on the rock wall above Doug, his light day pack on his back, knobby knees sticking out.
“That could be said about life. We’re born, we struggle, we die.”
Doug could feel his resolve sliding away, dissolving. He tried to fight it, but it used so much energy.
“Let’s get some water to drink, Doug,” Sam said. “We’ll need to get the iodine tablets from your pack. Make some potable water, then you’ll feel better.”
Doug shook his head.
“In a while.”
“No,” Sam countered. “There isn’t going to be ‘in a while’. Its now, Doug, before the sun sets.”
“I don’t have the strength.”
“Kid, you’ve got to put up a salt barrier, you’ve got to make up another canteen full of brine water if they get through.”
Doug coughed a laugh bordering on hysteria. “
Son, this is it,” Sam said forcefully. “What you do right now determines whether you live or die. You’ve got to suck it up and find the strength to do what you have to do to live. You won’t survive another night with the ticks. They’re draining your blood away. There’s no other way, but salt.”
Doug paused, then turned bleary eyes to the entrance to the salted cave. Sam followed Doug’s gaze, then snapped back.
“If you go in there, we’ll never find you.”
“They won’t go in there,” Doug said. “The salt on the ground.”
“The lack of oxygen, or a poison gas. For God’s sake man, think of your family.”
Doug looked up at the old man, muddled through his fading memory.
“I have a family?”
Sam seemed to study the emaciated desert rat for a moment.
“Amnesia. I’m sure it’s an unintended act of kindness.” Sam slid off the wall and drew closer “Come on, kid. I need you. You promised to scatter my ashes with a cannon.”
“Thought we’d agreed on a shotgun.”
“Well—y’know, do what you can, but the point is, until I die, it’s all about me.”
Doug coughed another laugh, lolled his head forward and closed his eyes.
“See, that’s the difference between you’n me, Sam. I don’t care what you do with my carcass. Make rattles with my bones, use me as a doorstop until I’m too ripe.” Doug raised his head, and Sam was still there, looking concerned, his bushy white eye-brows furrowed.
“When I die,” Doug started with a twisted grin, “I want to be a desert ghost.” He nodded and grinned some more. “I’ve got my haunting route all worked out. I’d start at Rock House Canyon, right there where the line cabin is, go across to Carrizo Gorge and float up the railroad line, through the tunnels, across the trestles, to Dubber Spur, then shoot east to the Desert View Tower, south to Blue Angels Peak, run the border down to Pinyon Wash, edge north along the Mountains into Davies Valley, across the freeway, through Devil’s Canyon, back down to the road that runs from Dos Cabezas, Motrero Wash, back across the track to S-2, down Canyon Sin Nombre to that crude pioneer cemetery at the Grave’s Ranch, and back up Carrizo Wash to Rock House Canyon.” Doug’s hands had been traveling the route in the air in front of him as he looked into the old man’s eyes. “I’ll spend eternity climbing every boulder, exploring every cave, every water hole, every plant inside my domain, every old dig or sign that man had been, strived, lost, then disappeared. I’ll touch every stone, smell every cactus blossom, know them in every season, know the Washingtonia in the rain and cold, feel the sand in the heat of Summer. I’ll sit on the monuments in Moon Valley and watch the stars, stand at Mountain Springs and wait for the sunrise, Stand on Table Mountain and watch it set. I won’t know the cactus’s genus any more than I know them now, but I’ll know It, and I’ll smell the creosote after a good rain, find shade in the Shaman’s Cave or one of the dugouts at China Camp. I’ll do this until nothing living remembers my name, until I am truly forgotten.”
Sam didn’t flinch. He listened expressionless. Doug shifted fractionally, hinting at compromise as he continued.
“I might sit in at a campfire some times, listen to the dreams of the living, know what sweet sad fantasies they are, but I hope I don’t make a habit of it. The gnawing loneliness will be my well-earned Purgatory. The perfect peace of solitude, my redemption, my paradise.” Doug looked away in thought, returned his attention to the old man. “Heaven.”
The two men sat in silence for a long time. Sam coughed.
“You do know, Doug, I never did that thing to you, that nightmare.” Doug nodded as he looked blankly at the ground.
“Never hurt anyone in my life, ‘cept in ‘Nam. It was in your mind. All a hallucination.”
Doug hadn’t stopped nodding and now he whispered. “Yeah, I know.”
“Then come with me now.” The memory leaned closer to the skeleton. “Let’s get back to camp and get some water and food. Let’s drink ourselves sober, and tell tall tales. Come with me. Now.”
Doug had lowered his head into his hands. He did not answer.
"Now, Doug, now. Let’s go.”
Still Doug didn’t answer. It was a long time before Sam spoke again.
“I’m going back to camp now, Doug.” Sam rose, paused, as if waiting for Doug to answer. “Am I going to see you back at camp?” Doug rocked gently.
“Camp, Doug. Camp? Let’s go back to camp. You know where camp is?” The silence dragged on.
“Do you know what ‘camp’ is?”
Sam’s tone had shifted to irritation, disgust. A moment later, Doug sensed Sam leaving. He looked up and saw the old man floating up, west, clearing the boulders by maybe a foot, towards the caves of three days past. His boots dangled, his legs were stiff, his arms down to his sides, as if he was being flown out by a cable. Really a graceless flight, no elegance to it at all. Sam never looked back, and Doug did not watch the whole time. He did not look again either, but collapsed to the stone ground in an ungainly heap. Less than an hour later Doug woke up with a jerk and vomited. The coiled snake in his gut twisted, and Doug was ripping his pants off, and in one corner of the planter container he squatted and screamed and wept as he crapped and vomited all at once. It went on in bouts for an hour, until what was coming out his ass was the same white viscous liquid that dribbled from his sobbing lips. Finally, when there was nothing left in him, the snake eased up, and Doug laid down again on the rock.
The night came, and so did the ticks. Not nearly as many as before, they weren’t as enthusiastic either. The driven of the species had already glutted themselves, three times over, paired off and set about reproducing, the bred males being eaten by the females to supply them even more nourishment for the unborn progeny. The ticks now taking up their position behind ears, in warm places, were the males that, for whatever reason, hadn’t bred. Their gene lines were doomed to extinction, their only reason to seek a warm-blooded host was to maintain their own meaningless short lives. The females would lay their eggs in the cold swamp and the next generation would lay dormant until the presence of a warm-blooded host was sensed, which could be decades. Then they would hatch and hunt for the source of their survival stirring. The doomed male ticks had no such driving force behind them, just going through the motions like the borderline robots that they were. They did suck harder on a low blood pressure host. They didn’t mind wasting the energy. They did not sate themselves and leave either. They had no place to go. They also dumped more of the enzyme they used to thin the blood, to keep it from clotting, which acted as an endorphin on the host. They did not leave when the host suffered a stroke in the night, but merely re-doubled their efforts to stay fed. It was a mild attack as strokes go. The host had recovered for the most part when it awoke some time near midnight, but there was very little left of Doug the Desert Rat.
The host, the Candidate, rose as best it could, neatly gathered up all the gear it had brought, packed it roughly, and without hesitation, turned to the cave.
The machine had a certain whimsical quality to it, in a cruel amoral sort of way, but where Rube Goldberg might have had a gloved stick toss a hat on a scale to tip up a string attached to a typewriter cover, thus drawing it off, the ancient shaman’s had bred a tick to perform a certain way and hibernate in a cold swamp between feedings, a Datura plant to live for centuries, Magic Mushrooms and moss that steeped in the cool waters of that same swamp. Through decades of observation they had learned that the trapped inevitably, in desperation, laid their face against the stone, and built the entrance to the salted cave to be seen no other way. There was the other end of the machine, the refrigerator, the cool caves. It was more complex than the simple vacuum cooling system. There were many caves, all swirling around one cave which received nothing but cool air. Moisture would condense from the air, and water would flow down into a pit in the central cave, where bat quano would mix with the water, and the liquid flowed into the swamp, watering and fertilizing it all at once. During the day, the bats would flee to this cave and hide. At first they would spread out through the cave, but as the day wore on they would crowd more and more at the entrance, struggling for a breath, the rest of the carved duct filling with an air devoid of oxygen but heavy with moisture from the panting breaths of the vermin residents. This was the air that floated down into the rock pipe, and it would cool and condense, sending more water onto the swamp.
In Summer, when it was a hundred ten Fahrenheit outside, the temperature inside would be a balmy seventy. This dry air got shoved further down the shaft by the heavier air coming down from above. It compressed northward, up a carved shaft clogged with boulders. The air caressed the stone as it moved along, dumping even more moisture until it was a cool, dry gas, oxygen free. At that point it escaped the shaft and fell suddenly into the cavern above the salted cave, in a fashion that the atmospheric pressure in this chamber dropped by half.
During the night, the bats flew away, searching for food, perhaps returning in small groups to drink the water in the shaft, the temperature outside would drop to ninety, eighty, and the temperature in the cavern above the salted cave dropped to fifty, forty. In spring, winter, fall, the temperature inside the caves could drop below freezing, but there was no moisture to freeze into ice, and if it got to freezing outside the central cave, the water would freeze there, often sealing the holes that circulated the air, guaranteeing the temperature in the vacuumed cavern never got too far below freezing. The combination of extreme dry air, and the oxygen content constantly fluctuating, plus the atmospheric pressure of about six thousand feet, eliminated animal and insect life in the cave, and greatly reduced bacterial action. The salt in the upper cave absorbed any latent moisture, and the salt in the salted cave was treated with a poison the shamans extracted from tobacco, first Coyote Tobacco, and later Tree Tobacco, after the padres came. It was especially effective against insects, but it also kept animals from scavenging the salt.
Where Goldberg’s device was to make the boss think you’re somewhere in the office even though you haven’t quite made it to work yet, the Shaman’s machine lacked such a clear understanding. Its creation had been over the course of a thousand years, with starts and hitches that one could only imagine, even if one had been there.
The principles and knowledge the machine was based on was the confluence of a six thousand year-old oral history. Its purpose had changed and perverted and changed again, but it all would be incomprehensible to a western mind, inscrutable. A western mind would imagine food storage or creature comfort. The cultists who had operated this machine, maintained it and tinkered with it, never even thought of such a thing. There were those that had been experiments, there had been those that had been punished, there were those that had been honored to be chosen, that had enthusiastically volunteered and waited patiently for their turn, but they were all forgotten, along with their reasons.
The last of the shamans had thought it funny to make it a game, a trap. He never saw it work, but he had studied the human condition long enough to know that it would.
The host did not worry about how much time it had before it became unconscious like before, it did not think at all, except on an instinctual sort of way. It turned its flashlight on and went. When it reached the salted cave, it did not look to the comrade cowboy mummy, it crawled to the spot before the five shamans by impulse, and placed before each of the leathery cadavers something to join the trinket piles of rattles and wrist watches. A GPS, a cell phone, car keys to a Jeep Wrangler, an energy bar soaked in Datura, now dried, and a band of gold. It did not hesitate again, but crawled, dragging its backpack and water canteen full of brine along with it, to the tar black dots that pointed up. It did not sense the cold, although the parasites it hosted squirmed and sucked harder to fill themselves with warm liquid. As it crunched along over a floor of salt, it did not flash its light around to see his companions in this large multi-chambered cell. It did not recoil at the bodies that lay in its path, it did not contemplate why the Indian woman, maybe twenty, would take her newborn infant and be preserved in this place. It did not sense the tragedy, did not consider the possible stories of all the victims, if they were victims. The internal conversation had concluded. The dark Indian man and woman in relatively modern clothes, maybe from the fifties, maybe yesterday in Tecate, with the four children that sat as a group in an alcove, did not register on its psyche, the rows and rows of men and women of all ages, ranging from children to the very old were of no interest. It did not marvel or blanch at their perfect preservation, their flawless mummification. It did not admire the beautiful blonde girl with the long legs, sporty shorts over a tight body suit, expensive boots, perfectly applied pouty make-up, who had scribbled above her resting place in lipstick ‘Was Ist Los?’ It had no urge to know her story. It found a spot not far away, where it fell exhausted against a wall.
It sat there for some time, catching its breath, and then, hesitatingly, reached down and scooped up a handful of salt. Another pause, and it crammed the salt into its mouth and found the moisture to swallow. Another handful, then another, until it choked and gagged, breathing salt into its lungs. After the coughing fit passed, it laid its backpack in a corner of the stone, and lowered its head down. A moment’s hesitation, and it reached down and brought out the Carmex, and applied it. As it had since the candidate arrive with a splash five days before, the cold dry wind sucked moisture from the host’s still moist flesh, sucked the water from it’s still wet breath. The candidate had lost two days, staggering about in a psychotropic haze. The ticks sucked desperately to keep warm.
The host was well on its way to becoming a fine mummy. It would live another four hours in a comatose state, before the heart seized up, the lungs stilled, before the bats returned to the Central Cold Cave and reduced the supply of oxygen to the cavern, but long before that, what was left of Doug the Desert Rat found himself standing on Blue Angel’s Peak, a hot night wind blowing across him, the moon and stars above, swirling in a crystal sharp blur, and after a moment’s contemplation, he turned east towards Pinyon Wash, and began to wander.