“Ballarat or Bust”…A Novella…
Dedicated to A.C. - You know who you are...
It was 140F in the shade but that didn’t slow my progress. My head and shoulders seemed like they were on fire and I wished I had brought a hat with me. No time to think after Charlie yelled at me to get going. He could be such a hard-ass sometimes. Once he got a thought in his brain and told you to do something, you had to do it NOW, or else.
We had been preparing stashes all week, of 5 gallon cans of gas, cooking oil and barrels of dried jerky in all the caverns and caves Charlie could find. We were all tired and some of the girls had rashes on their legs and arms from digging out these desert hide-a-ways.
It was my turn to feel the heat, not just from the desert floor, but from Charlie’s wrath; and I couldn’t tell which was hotter.
Everything seemed to be on track since Charlie left the Esalen Institute on the 11th. I was just glad he had come into his own with new Family recruits up there and had been buoyed by their influx of new cash for the Cause. He had planned on returning by August 8th but I convinced him that his message was getting through to those rich folks up there and to stay a few more days and see how things would pan out.
He stayed and phoned Gary to see if it was okay for him to keep the VW for a little longer. Gary didn’t mind. He had his nose buried in some Poli-Sci textbook or something and he always had his old Volvo to get him back and forth from Topanga to Berkley.
When Charlie did finally return to Spahn’s, loaded with new Family members and a new lease on life, he hollered out the window as dust spit up in our eyes from his frenetic stop,
“Hey, I’m back, you S.O.B.s! Get everything loaded. We’re heading back up the Wash. It’s time.”
No hugs, although you couldn’t stop the girls from trying, no time to spare he barked. We “Bugged Out”, as if we were a M.A.S.H. unit in Korea, all programmed from the many times we had relocated, to scatter to the four winds and each in his own way, started loading up for the journey. The newest buggies were loaded onto the two flat beds, all our tools and the food the girls had got from the Gateway store on La Cienega Boulevard was bundled up and stuffed into the van, with Charlie’s girls and the clothes they had stolen from a Head shop on the Venice boardwalk. The guys got into the Jeep and Charlie’s buggy and we took off on the Pass like there was no tomorrow.
Charlie tried to hide his obvious pleasure at seeing that Cupid and Zero were coming too. Even long-dong Danny and a few of the Straight Satans decided to join in as they were looking for a new dope-running hideout anyways and Barker seemed as far removed from the cops as you could get and still be able to deal on the Vegas side.
The sun had been high in the sky when we left Susana Pass but by the time we got to the mouth of Golar, dusk was upon us and we decided to camp in the canyon for the night. The girls rolled some joints and we sat out in the stars and Charlie regaled us with his newest insights from Esalen. He seemed calmer than he had been in weeks and focused on our journey ahead. The paranoia had left his eyes, and for the first time, we knew that he knew our purpose in life and that purpose was in the desert. Paul had bought some sleeping bags from the General Store in Tecopa some weeks back and we were glad he did, because the night had turned into a frosty cold and we would need all the rest we could get.
Morning broke early and Charlie was the first one up. He kicked at the guys, still asleep in their sleeping bags, to get moving; and before we knew it, we were fighting our way up through the Wash, feeling every bolder and every rut over which our tires skipped and lurched in a kind of spasmodic advance. It took forever and everyone was covered in dust but we finally made to the ranch. The site of its wood-railed gate called to us in a kind of whisper that we were home. Sure, we’d done this trip before, many times, but we knew this time would be the last and we couldn’t help but cheer our victory.
The girls’ energy renewed, gleefully unpacked our cargo and began preparations for a welcoming meal while the guys unloaded the new buggies and set out plans for the following day. Charlie wanted us operating like a well-oiled machine, to have everything in its place and ready well before the Piggies in L.A. began their feud. Charlie wanted no screw-ups this time, like what had happened with Lottsapoppa and Tex. He didn’t need that kind of heat on the Family, now, when things were getting so serious in the valley.
Charlie was miffed he had to forgo Woodstock this week but building up the Family’s stores was more important to him now. Melcher and Gregg had reneged on their deal so what did he need with a bunch of rockers in Upstate New York. Charlie needed the desert more than the desert needed him and we sensed that in him and didn’t put up much of a fight at missing some rock concert out East. Hell, what did they know about Peace and Love anyways; you can only, truly know what they mean if you have had to relinquish them and those kids who would congregate on a farm field this weekend had their parents buy them their dope and tie-dyed T-shirts.
Charlie was right; we weren’t Hippies, we were Slippies and we knew hardships and knew when it was the right time to leave Dodge, even if those rich kids didn’t.
After a dinner of fried rice and belle peepers, we all gathered around the kitchen table and took turns slicing off our long hair. No body needed or wanted long hair in the desert heat and somehow us all looking alike with our close cropped heads gave a kind of team spirit to our task ahead. Brindle took the lead with Danny’s just-honed bayonet, slicing into Squeaky’s red locks as the rest of us watched. Her face took on a hardened look with each slice. She was no longer the naïve little red-head we guys had bedded but now a vixen determined to do harm in Charlie’s army.
Charlie knew what he was doing when he ordered our heads shaved. He knew we needed to look like the harshness of our surroundings to give us a shield of survival, to want to fight for life more than we had ever fought for it before. Charlie wasn’t being kind to us but neither, he added, would the desert be; and God knows how long we would have to live out here, amid the sagebrush and the sand, amid the coyotes calls and the rattle snakes, amid Life and Death in Death Valley.
He had banished me before, but this time seemed worse, almost as if he were challenging me to show my fidelity or die trying.
You could never show weakness with Charlie and if you did let your feelings show, it would be at the point of a knife to your throat, telling you to shut down those emotions and carry on with the Family’s goals.
I had done it again and this time, I felt sure that when I got to the bottom of the Panamint Range, Charlie would be there to gun me down. I had screwed up too many times before; how could he forgive me again. Sure, he had said I was his Lieutenant, his right hand man if anything happened to him, but he had said the same to Bruce and Tex once too. Could I rely on his goodwill to keep me alive this time; I doubted it.
With every step I took, with every rock I kicked, I listened hard for a repeat of that sound behind me. I wanted to stop in the shade and have a drink from my army surplus canteen but he had said no stopping and I didn’t want to find out if he was following me to make sure I obeyed. I was too scared and he was too scary this time, so I kept kicking those rocks and kept putting miles behind me, the heat on my head and shoulders sizzling into my skin.
He had meant it this time and the game was afoot; Ballarat or Bust, and Bust would mean blood, my blood.
Many miles and many hours later, my weak and worn body ambled onto the main drag of Ballarat, which is a one-horse town, without the horse. I spotted a diner midway down the street and decided to finally take a break, knowing that Charlie was nowhere in sight.
After a wash in the bathroom and coffee and pie in my belly, I pulled out my wallet and properly counted the cash Charlie had given me for the stores the Family would need thru to the winter. Rice and beans and powdered milk were my main goals, along with a few auto parts, either bought but preferably stolen from the gas station in town, needed for two of the unfinished buggies. Time was of the essence; and Helter Skelter was drawing near, according to Charlie’s inner clock.
I paid for my lunch and headed down Main Street in search of the items. The town’s agricultural co-op made short order of my list; and as I was pondering how to drag this stuff up the Wash, a trucker stopped for refuelling at the nearby station, towing, of all things, a semi’s worth of corn, potatoes and sweet belle peppers. It was the Mother Lode and I was determined to unburden this driver one way or another.
Feigning innocence and fragility and flaunting what God gave me, I conned the trucker into giving me a ride to the Nevada side of the Panamint Range, dropping me and my stores off just before he hit the border. He was a big, foul-smelling brute in torn, sagging. weathered jeans, dirty-blue suspenders and an equally dirty red and black checked flannel shirt. But beggars can’t be choosers and after loading up my wares, I hopped into his passenger seat and we headed NNE out of Ballarat together.
A few miles in, the trucker put on a Merle Haggard cassette and motioned for me to sit closer. I obliged, thinking the closer I got to him, the closer my stores would get to Barker. I asked him, real nice, what I had to do to get him to truck my supplies up the mountain pass beyond the highway cut-off and he said he’d pull over to the side of the road and ponder the answer. Well, pondering went to petting, went to his sweaty body heaving and lurching on top of mine in that tiny sleeper but it was worth every slimy minute, as that codger drove my stash all the way up the Pass to where the dune buggies and the Jeep could easily fetch it.
I hadn’t finished with this dupe yet though. I managed to convince him to pop a pill with me, to get high and to have sex one more time before he left me there. It wasn’t a hard sell; this sad excuse for a man hadn’t had good tail in a while, I could tell; so we popped the pills I said were acid but they were, instead, heavy downers and he passed out cold before he could stick me again. I knew I had time to run up that hill, alert the boys of my find and have his truck cleaned out before the guy came to. Charlie would be proud and pleased and I would once more be in his good graces.
That’s all that mattered to me now.
I had come back, as the prodigal son to his Father. And at least, for the moment, I was showered with praise and the glow from the warmth of Charlie’s approval satiated my thirst more than water in the desert.
“ What took you so long; I missed you.” was all Charlie said. You never really expected anymore than that. But that was enough, for now. His smile was genuine as his greasy hand had brushed the wind-strewn hair from my face. I lost my ability to breathe and thought I would faint, but it wasn’t from the heat of the desert.
I helped unload the Jeep and the two buggies Bobby and Bruce had driven to the Pass cut-off. The theft from that trucker’s haul was the easiest mark we’d ever hit. He was still propped up in the driver’s seat, leaning a wee bit to one side, his left arm dangling out of the open cab window, his right hand still holding his exposed cock, just as I’d left him.
I gave the auto parts and the cassettes and the tool bag that I stole from that trucker right to Charlie. I didn’t want him to think I had neglected any bit of his orders. He didn’t acknowledge the gifts, as he and Clem were back, elbows deep inside one of the buggies engines, talking of “threading”, “torque ratios” and “boring out cylinders” – none of which interested me.
While all the girls yelped at my find and scurried into the kitchen to preserve and prepare my yield, Paul came up, from behind me, just at the bottom of the porch steps, saying “Hi. You’re back. We missed you.” Paul was always the heart and soul of the Family, expressing what the others may have been feeling but, even with dope, never really could. His faded jean shirt and dark dungarees were covered in dust; the red of his bandana had become a mixed shade of wet and dark coloured mud; and even though I really hadn’t been gone so long, his face seemed a darker shade of tan than when I had left.
“How’s it going, Randy Racoon!”, I jeered back. The skin around his eyes the only part of his face that wasn’t tanned nor dirty from protection of the sunglasses he sported. “Where have you been, Man?” I asked.
“Prospectin’ with Brooks again.” he demurred.
“At least when I can sneak away from Charlie’s orders, I do.”
“We’ve hit some serious nugget dust just up North from here and we’re planning to head to town to cash it in. It’ll get us some stuff Charlie’s been nagging for and while in L.A. I’ll check on how Tex is doing. Charlie wants him back up here with us. He’s real insistent. Not sure why though but I really don’t care either way.”
Paul had a worried look on his face when he spoke of Tex this time and he silently shook his head and pointed in Charlie’s direction when he saw I was about to inquire further. How could I be so far out of the loop for only being gone for less than two days.
Preparations were in high gear. Everyone seemed to be intent on accomplishing one task or another and that evening, after a welcoming feast of lima beans and rice, I found out what I had missed and it wasn’t good news.
Barker has no electricity, so all we had were camping lanterns and candles and the light from those bounced off the stucco walls of the kitchen in odd shapes and colors. The harshness of the lanterns light made everybody’s eyes look sunken and their faces gaunt. We were already skin and bones from the food rationing we had endured, until my run to Ballarat, and this lighting was making us look worse than we already were.
The girls bedded down for the night and all that were left at the table were Charlie’s chosen few, who had got their hands dirty before and not just by fixing dune buggies either. Every time Charlie had some news to report that was in the least way nasty, Bruce would always be there, front and centre, smiling this thin, wide smile, no teeth involved, like the goddamned Grinch who stole Christmas, or something. And since I saw he and his smile were in attendance, I braced myself for the news.
Charlie, at the head of this oblong table, leaned in to the centre, his arms bent at right angles and his hands white knuckled from the fists he was making.
“Listen”, he said, “we’ve got to get some money fast, now, tomorrow, yesterday, Man! Tex got a hold of Bobby while he was at Gary’s a couple days ago and he told Bobby, well, Cupid, you tell’em”, Charlie barked.
“Tex phoned Gary’s and told me he had a ‘package” he wanted to bring up to Barker in a couple days; that it was a ‘hot’ package that he needed to get out of town soon, before the pigs found he had it and he needs some cash to ready this package for transport. I need to go meet Tex at his girlfriend’s apartment tomorrow night with whatever funds we can muster for him and to help with the transport.”, said Bobby.
“What’s so important about this ‘package’ that we have to drop everything – storing gas and food and mining at Lotus – and grab money for Tex, anyways?” Paul asked.
“It’s nothing you need know about ‘til it arrives, Man!” exclaimed Bruce. “Just get your ass down to Ballarat and steal something, anything and sell it for cash. That’s all you need to know. Or, how ‘bout you hand over that gold dust you and Brooks have been quietly storing around the bunkhouse somewhere. One or the other, Man, ‘cause time ain’t on our side this time. Bruce said.
“Sure. Hey, no issue here, Man. How’s a $100 bucks worth of dust? Will that do, ‘cause that’s all we’ve got at the ready right now.” Paul offered.
“Yeah, well, if that’s all we’ve got that’s all we got, don’t we.” Charlie snarled.
So Paul went off down the well-worn path to the Bunkhouse and in the desert darkness, retrieved a leather pouch from a tin box buried underneath the floorboards and shuffled back to the main house, knowing full well that anything he worked for was never going to be his; it was always going to belong to Charlie and whatever mind-bending plans he had from day to day. He didn’t mention that Brooks had more than double the amount of gold chips in his tin, and for good reason too, ‘cause Brooks needed the cash more than Charlie would ever need it.
Gold mining was all Brooks had going for him; Charlie had countless ways to find money. He didn’t need to know about any more than the $100 Paul offered.
“Well, there goes two weeks of back-breaking panning”, he mumbled under his breath as he opened the side door to the kitchen and back into Charlie’s lair.
“Listen, I want you to go with Bob to help Tex tomorrow, okay, Man?” said Charlie.
“Sure, whatever you want Charlie. What time are we leaving Bob?” Paul asked.
“We’ll bunk down now and head out at first light, if that’s okay by you.” Bob said.
“Yeah, fine with me.” Paul said. And he and Bob took one of the lanterns, opened up the side door and treaded back to the Bunkhouse for some sleep. It was going to be one long, hot, exhausting day tomorrow, a journey Paul feared wasn’t even necessary. But Charlie had looked serious enough and edgy all of a sudden, so it wouldn’t have been healthy to question the task either way.
As he climbed into his sleeping bag on the far wall bunk and Bobby into his next to the door, Bob mumbled the phrase “Take your gun. You’ll need it.” As he turned over and fell sound asleep.
Bob’s last sentence kept ringing in Paul’s ears and sleep didn’t come so fast for him.
4 a.m. came ‘round pretty quick.
I was jolted awake without ceremony by an already dressed Bob kickin’ at Paul and I with his boots.
“Come on Sleeping Beauties, Rise and Shine. It’s 4 and we gotta get a start before the heat sets in. It’s gonna be a long one and I’d like to get to Tex’s place with enough time to score some tabs and some grass before we have to leave.” Said Bobby.
“Yeah, yeah, we’re comin’” I mumbled.
And out we crawled, threw on our clothes, packed some stuff in our gunnysacks and grabbed our shotguns off of the large brad nails hammered into the wall and headed for the door. The sun was already threatening to come over the Panamint Range and the sky was a groovy neon pink melting into a mild yellow, then a white until you knew that a brilliant blue and its heat was on the way.
We loaded up the Jeep with water and a bit of jerky the Girls packed for us, grabbed two handguns from deCarlo in the outbuilding that he had made ready for us, we said goodbye to everyone and Paul gave Snake a longer kiss than the rest, and we were off.
There was a slight breeze today, so the trip was a wee bit easier. We made it down to the old man’s mining shack and to the mouth of the Wash in what seemed no time and felt relief under our behinds when the road evened out and we were on the highway headed for L.A. and Tex’s place.
“Can you tell me what the hell is so God damned important about this trip that we have to baby-sit Tex back up to Barker?” I snarled.
“Look, Charlie says ‘Go!’ and I go. I have no idea what this is all about. Gary had no clue either when Tex was with him last week. All Gary said was that Tex stumbled up to his place, real late one night, covered in bloody clothes with his eyes just popping out of their sockets and asked if he could stay in his basement for the night; that he had someone with him and he couldn’t go back to his girl’s place until she left for her trip to visit her parents the next day. So Gary said ‘yeah’ and when Gary got up the next day, Tex and this mystery person were already gone. All Charlie told me was that Tex needed help with this person – to get them both up to Barker – and here we are, going to help. That’s all I know.” Paul confessed.
“Well, why do we need all these guns, Man?” I said.
“Hell if I know. But you know Charlie. The regular drama-queen that he can be sometimes. It’s probably nothing about nothing. Let’s just get there and get back and get this bullshit over with!” retorted Paul.
In the west, we could finally spot the city lights, shimmering in the heat and haze of the setting sun. The foul smells of the city streets were beginning to fill our nostrils and Paul and I remembered why we liked the desert so much and why we hated L.A. We both had the feeling that this was going to be one, long, night.
Our jeep’s headlights flashed on to the stucco building where Tex’s girlfriend’s place was.
It was dark by the time we pulled into the car park.
The complex was dead quiet except for the singsong of the cicadas in the bushes.
And the night air was still but the heat was heavy, as if the night had no power to drive it underground.
We slowly stepped out of our seats, our backs tight and stiff from the trip. We stretched, the both of us, tired and dusty, and trudged back to the hold to get our gear and all those guns. Why the guns? I thought to myself but I was too tired to seek the answer that night.
We both headed down the complex sidewalk and hit the first outside staircase we could find. Tex told us he was in #207; and within a few minutes and a few feet we found his front door. Knocking quietly and waiting for a reply, only moments slid by until the door slid open to reveal the bugged-out eyes of Tex staring back at us.
“Boy, am I glad you guys are here. I need help, Man, really. Come in.” Tex whispered as he ushered us into the front hall where we unceremoniously dropped our gear.
“We’re here but we’re wrecked, Man. It’s been a long day. What the hell is this all about? Charlie wouldn’t tell us anything.” said Bobby.
“Listen, keep your voices down. She’s sleeping right now and she needs her rest; she’s felt so sick since I took her.” Tex whispered.
“Her? Who her, Man?” Bobby blurted.
“Sharon.” Tex confessed.
“Sharon? Who is Sharon, Man?” insisted Bobby.
“Sharon Tate. You know, that hot babe in the movie ‘Valley of the Dolls’ and in those freaky vampire movies that asshole Polanski is showing all over town. That Sharon, Man!” said Tex.
“You have got to be joking, Tex. You have Sharon Tate in your bed? What the hell do you need us for, Man? Congrats, I’m sure!” smirked Bobby.
“No you don’t get it Bob, I took her.”
“What you mean you ‘took’ her?”
“I fucking went up to that Cielo house and she was there and I didn’t have the heart to kill her and her baby, like I did the others. She was so beautiful, so small, so pregnant. She begged for the life of her child, Man! She told me to carve the kid out of her womb if I killed her. I couldn’t do that; I wouldn’t know how. I just took her.” Tex said as he slowly slid down the hall wall.
“What did you do Tex? Why did you go to Melcher’s old place? What the hell are you playing at, Brother?” Bobby whispered in not so hushed tones.
“I need to get her up to Barker. Charlie said I should. I need your help, Man. You came to help me, right Bob?” Tex pleaded.
“Yeah, yeah.” Bobby mumbled.
And with that, we three walked into the living room and into our fates.
Sharing a joint and and a few beers, we three sat there in the living room literally stunned by the story Tex was telling.
He had found a way to get money for Charlie but things didn't go as planned and now we were left to pick up the pieces.
"It wasn't supposed to be this way." Tex insisted.
"I was just going up to Melcher's old place, to scout out the house and grab some shit from the back rooms. Once, I saw Terry slip the backdoor key into the eaves trough outside; so, I thought I could creepy crawl in and just grab some shit to fence and be outta there before anyone knew. I mean, we'd done this kinda shit before, why not do it again, right?
So anyways, I took George's Ford up there and got into the property as easy as you please; I parked at the bottom of Cielo. The key was there and I went in and no one seemed to be around. I headed for the dining room to see if there was any silver and then I saw one light on, on a desk in the living room and was headed out the way I came in when some foreign-speaking guy caught me in the foyer and tried to knock my lights out. I had to deal with him right there, so I stuck him with Danny's knife but the bastard let out a huge yell and woke up the rest of the people in the damn house!
I shoulda brought some of the girls with me but I thought it'd be quieter without'em. Shit! I coulda used their help, Man. Anyways, all these people came out and I had to deal with all of them. It was crazy, Man. Some small dude tried a karate move on me and I had to finish him with the .22 Charlie gave me.
Then these girls started yelling. It was crazy. I did in the one chick cause she wouldn't stop yelling but the other, well, the other chick, Man, she was so beautiful and pregnant, for Christ's sake. She begged me to carve out her kid if I was going to kill her too. I can't carve out a kid! So I took her with me; and now she's here and it's crazy, Man.
Charlie said to bring her and her bank account with her. She gave me tons of money and now we're here and I don't know what I'd do without you guys to help." Tex pleaded.
"Holy Shit, Tex! Are you serious? You have Sharon Tate in your bedroom?" Bobby asked.
"Yeah. She's right next door. Keep your voice down. I gave her some Vallium to calm her down and she finally got to sleep just before you guys arrived." Tex said.
"She's pregnant; what the hell are we supposed to do with a pregnant chick, Tex?" Bob asked.
"I don't know, Bob. Charlie said to bring her up to Barker once we'd got her money; that's all he said to do."
"Can she travel that Wash, man? It's hard for a normal chick to cross; how are we supposed to get a pregnant chick over those boulders?" Bob asked.
"I don't know but we have to try. Sharon is missing and its been all over the news. I have to get her out of here and quick." whispered Tex.
"Charlie said to buy some tabs and some grass, and bring her and her money up as soon as you guys got here to help me; that's all he said to do."
"Well, we're here but I'm not sure we're ready for all this. When do you want to leave?" Bobby asked.
"Tomorrow. At Night so we don't get spotted, okay"
"Okay by me, Man."
And with that and the dwindling supply of booze and grass, we three crashed on the living room rug, our treasure fast asleep in the bedroom beside us....
Percolating coffee on the stove is mesmerizing, isn't it? And as I watched the bubbles pop through that glass carafe, the smell made me think of home.
Charlie never let us think of our past lives but brewing coffee has a way of luring your thoughts back to simpler times, before Charlie and the Family, before all this pressure and confusion, before Sharon Tate...
Tired and beaten, I leaned over the stove top like an old man and as I closed my eyes and let the aroma seep into my senses, a soft voice cut the stillness of my thoughts.
"Hi. Can I have a cup?"
"Sure", I stammered, my mouth incapable of working while my eyes were filled with the sight of her. She was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen and it was almost sacrilegious to have her standing Tex's galley kitchen. She was smaller and more frail than I remembered seeing on the silver screen; her honey-brown hair loose by her sides, with such an angelic face God himself could only have fashioned. I was face to face with Sharon Tate and for a brief moment, I forgot all this craziness and just fell into the aura of her.
She looked as much exhausted as frightened, with a mix of resignation and shock not yet worn. I wanted so to apologize for whatever Tex had done to her, whatever had been done to her friends, as if my presence in all this was guilt enough. But all I could do was stare and wish I had met her under different circumstances.
"Listen, is there anything I can get you, do for you? Do you need anything from the drugstore? I'm going out later; I could..." and I was stopped in mid sentence.
"No, no; I'm fine, really. Just a cup of coffee would be nice and some toast, do you think?" her soft voiced asked of me. Hell, if she had wanted toast on the moon, I would have stolen a NASA rocket ship to get us there. How did, could anyone say no to such beautiful woman?
"Yes, of course. I could bring it to your bed if you'd like." I blurted out, realizing after what a damn fool thing I just said to an angel.
"You're Tex's friend, Paul, right?" Sharon said.
"Yep. And that fool all curled up on the sofa is Bob. We've come into town to help with your move up to the Ranch. I mean, Tex has told you, I guess, about where we're all headed, right?" I enquired.
"Yes. He filled me in. I just want a chance to deliver my baby, that's all. Just a chance. And Tex said he'd give me that chance. I don't know what will happen to me and the baby after, well after I give birth...' Sharon trailed off.
"Hey, look, no one is harming anybody while I'm around. Charlie gave strict orders to take real good care of you and your baby. And you'll both be fine where we're going. We're fully supplied and we'll buy stuff today especially for you and your needs; don't worry about a thing, okay?" I pleaded.
"Yeah, sure, of course. No worries. I just don't want to think about anything anymore, just the baby, that's all. Just the baby." she whispered.
And with that last refrain, this gossamer beauty floated out of the kitchen and back to her room, leaving me with that coffee pot and my thoughts of her.This just couldn't be happening. How could anyone hurt her so? Her eyes looked so tired and the only glimmer of hope shone in them when she talked of her unborn child. What had Tex done to this women? To all the people up at Cielo? What had we all got mixed up in because of Charlie's orders?
And as I pondered the imponderable, I heard a second padding of footsteps reach my stove top and a smile on the face of Cupid a mile wide.
"She's something else, huh Paul? I cannot believe we are property holders of that babe; she is more beautiful in person than that sonofabitch Polanski portrays her on the screen. Why these beautiful broads go for the ugly producer types, I'll never know!" Bob spit out in a forced whisper.
"Listen, all we're here to do is what Charlie wants us to do, to get that chick up to Baker as soon as possible. And that is what we're going to do. So put your tongue back in your mouth and your dick back in your pants and let's get this show on the road before we're all spotted with her." I said.
"Hey, I come in peace, Man. Don't kill the messenger. Where's Tex?" Bobby asked through his yawn.
"Out still buying the dope Charlie wanted and all the supplies we'll need for Sharon's delivery. I guess he drained all her bank accounts - some $50,000 - and Tex is finishing Charlie's wish list for everything we'll need up at Barker to get us through the winter. The money comes at a great time but what a price to pay to see that sweetie so broken emotionally. I bet she was something special to be around before all this bullshit unfolded." I exclaimed.
"Yeah, sure, whatever, Man. But this chick is ours now and I for one am looking forward to those cold winter nights up at Barker, if you know what I mean!" Bobby snarled.
"Yeah, I know what you mean. But it'll be Charlie's call, right. Hands off til the baby arrives and then it's Charlie's call. What makes you think she'd look at you twice after the Hollywood set lived in her world? We're Slippies, remember Bob. We're not Hollywood Hippies. Our worlds have met but they never really mingled." I said.
"Yeah, yeah; I got you, Man. Wake me when Tex gets back. I'm going to go dream the dreams men dream when they have a starlet in the bedroom next to them!"
And with that flippant response, Bob scooped up a cup of Joe and padded back to the living room couch and his wet dreams of Sharon Tate.
And I, now a half pot of coffee short and on overflow in my thoughts, sat back in Tex's metal kitchen chair and forgot all about those simpler times, before Charlie, before The Family, before all of this mess.
And the coffee didn't smell good anymore...
Tex returned from his buying spree for Charlie and for the pregnant Sharon and we all waited for the sun to set before heading out of Tinsel Town.
Loaded and ready, Bob and I lit cigarettes and waited for the others to follow. Tex had given Sharon an old faded jean shirt and jeans to wear, to keep her warm in the cold desert air and to protect her from the searing sun when dawn broke.
Golar Wash wasn't a Pass you did by moonlight but that rule had to be broken to lessen the risk of Sharon being spotted heading out of town and to avoid the midday desert heat that would surely make her ill. Those risks were greater than the lack of light we’d experience traversing the Pass.
We did however have the advantage of a clear night and a full moon to guide us as I slowly pulled out of Tex's parking stall and headed north for the Panamint Range, silently praying that everything, and everyone, would go as planned.
As I glanced in my rear-view mirror, I saw Sharon sitting mannequin-still in the backseat beside Bob. Bob was acting the real macho man beside her, his right arm out stretched over the top of her seat and his legs spread wide apart, with an expression on his face of a cat who had swallowed the canary.
Tex had bought a knit cap for Sharon to wear, to hide her recognizable honey-blond hair and to keep her warm in the night. She wore that and a pair of purple tinted John Lennon glasses, so, to look at her, she resembled just another hippie girl out for a drive with her male friends.
From the news reports we caught on Tex's TV last night and early this morning, A.P.B's were issued state-wide for Sharon's recovery and the C.H.P.s cops were conducting random car checks along the major highways heading out in all directions from L.A. All the major stations were frantically covering the scene found at Cielo the day before, and from the helicopter footage, the white sheets covering the bodies which were found lying on the front lawn really sent home to me the reality of what Tex had done to these people. I could not believe he had it in him to do.
Charlie's hold on Tex and his newly found addiction to coke and meth, I guess, gave impetus to his actions up there in the Canyon but I thought Charlie and The Family were all about love. These actions were going in the other direction, and I really began to wonder what I was doing with a group who no longer talked of love but of hate and death.
Sharon's face didn’t betray her thoughts but I’m sure she was awash in a mixture of fear and loathing for us, the people who stole her from her life and were carrying her against her will to a future decidedly less attractive than the one she knew and loved. The Family had stolen Sharon from herself, from Roman, and, God help us, from the lives of her very dear friends, and, as we later found out, from the love Jay still held for her.
I snuck another look in the rear-view mirror and could swear I saw tears slide down her cheeks from behind those John Lennon glasses and the sight almost broke my heart.
I had a thousand "Why?" questions for Charlie, as I knew Tex wasn't in a position to deliver the answers. But all that would have to wait for now, as I slid the Jeep into its highest gear and hit the throttle headed for Death Valley and Golar Wash.
I took side roads to get us to the mouth of the Wash, to avoid any C.H.P.s road-blocks and my scenic route worked like a charm. No cops, no cruisers, no road-blocks, just us passing a few motorists and a few RVs along the way, heading no doubt to Vegas and all points beyond. No one makes Death Valley their destination except the occasional hikers, miners and The Family, so once we turned off the Coyote Canyon Road and onto the dirt road which lead us to the mouth of the Wash, we were home free.
I stopped the Jeep well inside the Golar Canyon entrance, in order to be out of sight from the highway we had just left. I knew we’d need a break before we attempted the Canyon trail ahead.
Tex went to the back of the Jeep and rummaged through his gunny sack to retrieve the wax-paper wrapped ham sandwiches he had prepared for everyone while I hit the red metal Coke cooler for drinks. Tex and I stood around the back of the Jeep, eating and having a smoke while Sharon dangled her legs out the side of the back passenger door as Bob stood beside her and informed her of the trip ahead.
The plan was for Bob and Tex to walk ahead and throw the stones and boulders to the sides of the trail while I babied the Jeep through the tight corners and ruts, with Sharon by my side in the front passenger seat. I told her just to call out when she needed me to stop, no matter how many times, as we weren't on any schedule now, except to try to arrive at the ranch before the midday heat hit us. She seemed to be absorbing it all as Bob then went on to describe the layout of Barker Ranch and some of the Family members that were already there.
Finally breaking her silence, Sharon confessed that she had never been to Death Valley before, that her family always camped along the Pacific Coast Highway and environs south of San Francisco when she was a child. She admitted she was more of a Tom-boy than what was portrayed of her in Hollywood and that she'd be just fine on this last leg of the journey.
The look in her eyes told me she believed that to be true.
Our small lunch and chit-chat at an end, we relieved ourselves behind separate boulders and looked the other way as Sharon, who didn’t seem fazed at all by this, followed suit. Having achieved some measure of privacy behind the boulder she chose, the first such privacy since this trip began, she allowed herself to think of the others but not for long. On her return to the Jeep, she seemed to wipe away some tears with a determined air, as she let loose her hair from that wool cap and took off those glasses and let them hang from her jean shirt. She had the look of a Mother-to-be who would face head-on whatever was in the future, if not for her, at least for her baby.
I saw that Sharon’s eyes were red and a bit puffy as I helped her into the front seat and then took my own seat behind the wheel and turned over the engine. With Tex and Bob in front, we slowly, ever so slowly, began the almost instant uphill climb to Barker. I was wishing we could have transported Sharon to Barker from the Vegas side but there were too many police cruisers always monitoring that highway and the risk of detection was just too great. That, and Charlie ordered us to take the Wash, so, as always, we obeyed him, and here we were, gingerly carrying our precious cargo over some of the worse gutter-gouged and rock strewn roads imaginable in this California desert landscape.
As we made it passed the steep walls of the Golar Canyon Pass, the only sounds which filled our ears came from the water that was bubbling out of the nearby spring and trickling down the trail and the low gear humming of the Jeep engine. None of us spoke. Bob and Tex kept bending down to shove away the larger stones and to throw other debris to one side; and, with shovels in their hands, they filled in any potholes that were too deep for the Jeep to traverse.
When I glanced over at Sharon, she was leaning back in the passenger seat with her legs stretched out, in a slight V formation, her feet flat on the floorboard, her right hand grasping the ledge of the door and her left hand under her belly in an attempt to defray as much of the turbulence away from the foetus as possible. Her eyes stared straight ahead but I think her thoughts were somewhere else.
Occasionally, Sharon would grab the wineskin from the dashboard which was filled with cool water and take a drink, more out of fear of thirst than from thirst itself. The full moon made the night seem like day, making the landscape a kind of bluish/grey hue as the canyon walls fell away to a wider boulder-filled terrain.
We were progressing but if it hadn't been for Sharon, walking would have been faster than driving that Jeep to its high desert destination. We passed a miner's cabin a third of the way up but the old guy who usually kept house there was nowhere to be seen, thank God for that. This was the last obstacle we would have had to overcome to the gate at Barker. Now we really were home free. It took hours but we finally reached the last steep stretch of the Pass before we turned left and upward to the final plateau which would carry us all to the Ranch.
The grinding of our engine, we were sure, would be heard by some of the Family members, as all man-made noises seemed to carry in that Panamint Range valley.
Our Jeep made one last wide left turn and in the distance the Barker gate came into view. This was Sharon's first glimpse at her new "home" and her reaction didn't betray how she felt about her new life to come.
As we pulled into the gate and I swerved up to the stone pathway, Tex and Bob were met by Charlie who had been crouched, buck naked, at the front door. There were no other Family members up yet; only Charlie.
He slowly walked over to the Jeep and didn't think it odd to meet Sharon as he was. Their eyes met, for really the second time in both their lives, although Sharon at this moment didn't recognise the bare-skinned diminutive man standing in front of her.
"Welcome to Barker, Sharon. I'm Charlie and this is your new home." As he waved his arm over the landscape he had long decided was his own.
"Thank-you." Sharon said meekly. A response I doubt she meant.
Charlie helped her out of her dusty seat and guided her with his arm in the small of her back up those stone steps and to a rusted metal deck chair on the porch.
"Would you like some cool lemonade? The girls hiked down to Ballarat just today to buy the lemons for you."
"Yes." Sharon said.
When Charlie left in search of the lemonade, she leaned over and asked Tex where her quarters would be and where the washroom was. He pointed in the direction of the front door, and carrying her gear, he took her inside to the only bedroom in the Main Cabin.
She would be sharing this small stucco-walled room with Charlie on a single mattress in the far corner and her on the metal-frame bed near the door. The girls had made the bed with a freshly washed pastel flower sheet set, the only linens the Family owned, and on top of a weather-beaten wood nightstand that separated Charlie’s bed from her own, stood a small clear glass vase with desert wildflowers.
The morning sun, now creeping slowly over the Panamint Range, seeped through the sheer and torn white curtains, which were, by now, a decrepit shade of dirty yellow. This room she would now occupy with Charlie, wasn't even the size of her Master Bath at Cielo. A thread-bare set of towels - yellow & white stripped Canons - lay ready for Sharon on a rickety wooden chair positioned at the foot of Charlie's mattress and above the chair was a large shard of mirror hung on the cracked stucco wall by hemp rope and a large brad nail.
Tex told me later that Sharon glanced at herself in that mirror but only for a second, as if she didn't approve of what she saw or didn't want to recognise the reality in which she found herself.
After a time in the tiny bath, Sharon crept back on tip-toe through to the front door and out to the porch, trying not to wake the others who were all splayed out on mattresses and sleeping bags all over the cabin floor.
Returning to the deck chair, Sharon leaned back and let out a little sigh and rubbed her belly as she did.
Charlie returned with her lemonade and was about to ask if she was okay but thought better of it and just walked inside and back to bed, sensing that she needed some time alone. Bob, Tex and I did the same but before I hauled my gear back to the bunkhouse, I told her where water and food could be had in the kitchen but I really don't think she heard me. Her thoughts were elsewhere as she just sat there staring straight out towards the direction we had just come, over the Panamint Range and to the life she once knew, the neon-coloured layers of the rising sun seeping ever skyward.
It was a Barker Ranch morning at its finest, dead quiet save for those incessant cicadas and the odd crow or buzzard soaring overhead, looking for its next prey.
"Please, no more prey; no more blood." I whispered to myself as I dragged my tired body back to the bunkhouse.
All that, I prayed, would remain at Cielo Drive, in the city, in the past and in the gaze of Sharon’s eyes.
Days flowed into nights, and nights into days, and soon Paul Richard was born and Sharon felt real joy for the first time since August 9th.
Charlie, of course, wouldn’t accept Sharon’s chosen name for her baby boy and in a layman’s ceremony, in the old porcelain bathtub out by the pool, Charlie christened him Scorpio, a short form version of the venomous spiders which made Barker their home and with which Charlie was so enamoured.
Sharon accepted the name – how could she refuse - and all the girls fawned over this new little life that they were calling their own.
In yet another yelling match that Charlie and I had, and on yet another banishment to Ballarat for rice, I overheard on a trucker’s radio an emergency APB for Sharon as the police knew her delivery date was near and was urging the public to come forward with her whereabouts.
I never told Charlie nor Sharon of the news. Ignorance was closer to bliss in this regard, I felt.
But then again, I shied away from anything that gave Charlie reason to get angry, as I was getting awful tired of the trek to and from Ballarat, always in fear that the next banishment might be permanent.
Gypsy and Squeaky seemed to take charge of this new little boy in our lives forcing Sharon to the sidelines, only allowing her close to their charge while nursing.
To take her mind off the forced separation from Scorpio, the girls soon got Sharon involved in all the domestic activities and mining chores Charlie assigned to them. Sharon became head chef as well, as her knowledge of cooking and her inventive use of spices was far superior to that of the young runaways. And, as a result, dinners became culinary events once Sharon reigned over them. Candles were de rigueur as were table manners and this newly found air of refinement Charlie had no desire to quash.
In no time after the delivery, Sharon’s energy returned and Charlie soon saw that for her any chore to keep busy, to stop her from thinking of the past, was better than no chore at all.
And to Sharon’s way of thinking, her need to keep busy, to forget everything and everyone in her past, was paramount if she and Paul Richard were to survive. So she reverted back to her tom-boy ways, as she had done as a child with her Father all those years ago on camping trips, and actually relished getting down and dirty in the desert sun.
Since Scorpio’s birth, Cupid was flinging his lustful bows at Sharon like there was no tomorrow. He had patiently waited by the sidelines for this beauty to give birth and to see if Charlie would claim Sharon for his own, but when the birth came and Charlie showed no interest, Cupid jumped at his long awaited chance at being her new paramour. Cupid’s target practise must have been less than perfect for Sharon rebuffed Bobby without even a moment’s hesitation and instead began to spend all her free time with Bruce.
Yes Bruce! Surprised me too! Surprised us all…including Bruce!
Charlie’s lack of interest and Sharon’s rebuffing of Bobby paved the way for private chats between Bruce and Sharon; and although Sharon had been renamed Moonbeam by Charlie the day after her arrival at Barker, to Bruce, she remained Sharon, in secret and in whispered tones. They would go for sunrise and sunset walks along the bluff over-looking the ranch. He would point out coyotes and bald eagles to this city girl and she would make rings of wild flowers to wear in their hair as they walked. No one knew what was said between the two quiet souls, but both seemed rejuvenated and refreshed from one another’s company.
On scorching days when the heat brought all labour to a standstill, Bruce and Sharon could be seen frolicking in the fieldstone pool, laughing and giggling, as if what brought them there had nothing to do with murder or suffering. When Charlie was on a buggy run or napping, Bruce would steal Scorpio from the girls, so that Sharon could have him by her side, in that make-shift pool, to cuddle and to hold, to splash and to laugh with, to kiss and to teach as only a Mother can teach her son.
Days flowed into weeks, and months soon ebbed by and Scorpio was now a sturdy toddler who looked instinctively to Charlie for the answers to all his youthful questions. And Charlie was so calm and collected in his presence, an entirely different man. No longer the ex-con, the hustler, the pimp nor the peddler, now a Father and a Teacher and a man capable of showing unconditional love. When a coyote had strayed into the camp, dying of rabies, Charlie shot the tormented animal at once, skinned the carcass and made a furry mask and body suit for the little Scorpio in which to play dress-up. Scorpio became Charlie’s living embodiment of Nature, his symbol for everything good and pure in the world and Scorpio obliged not knowing any different. The two would go rock-hunting together, hunt prairie dogs and desert rats and Scorpio began to embody the characteristics and mannerisms of Charlie, even down to his curly golden locks being allowed to grow long and untamed.
Life at Barker was settling into a routine and outside forces didn’t disturb this ideal way of life for the Family. No more news of the murders, no more news of hunting for Sharon, no more news period reached the gates of Barker. And for a time, all that was bad was seemingly forgotten and we lived in the Now. Charlie and The Family had finally reached Now.
But the past was still lingering in the mind of Sharon and a plan for the future to regain her past was slowly forming from nothing, as a Dust Devil forms from nothing in the desert.
Things seemed to kind of fall into a routine.
All the provisions were bought and stored in caves all over the desert near Barker. The field phone lines were laid, the look-out bunkers were dug (great chore to give Sadie!) and everyone’s defences started to lower after a time, that no fuzz had come up to question The Family of late, on any of their nefarious activities, much less the
But not everyone was as blissful as Charlie had thought.
“Hey Charlie, are you plannin’ on sendin’ anyone to Ballarat for some perishables, as the girls are tellin’ me we’re getting low on dairy and such?” asked Bruce, as the two leaned on the chassis of another broken dune buggy engine.
“Well Hell Bruce, Paul and them guys just went down! And we’re low already? Shit! Too many people to feed now. Too many, Man, and they keep wanderin’ in too. I swear George is sending us every walk-in weirdo he finds on his boardwalk down in town, up here!” yelled Charlie, as he threw a wrench down on the dusty ground, the heavy metal making a thudding sound as it landed.
“Charlie, listen, I was gonna go into town anyhow, to meet up with those guys who have that stash to sell. Why don’t I just pick up the list the girls have made?” offers Bruce.
“Yeah, sure, I don’t give a s---. Just stop throwing all this crap on my lap. I got enough on my plate as it is. These damn dune buggies keep getting sand in the fuel lines and the engines die. Tex is trying to manufacture a better filter but I’ve got more buggies down than going, and if we gotta split fast, we’re f—ked!” barked Charlie.
“Yeah, okay, I’ll handle it. You need any supplies for the buggies while I’m gone? asked Bruce.
“Talk to Tex. He knows what we need.” was all Charlie said as he grabbed the wrench that was stilling laying in the sand and leaned over the engine once more.
“Okay, okay, thanks Charlie.” Bruce sheepishly offered and walked in the direction of the bunkhouse where some of the guys were getting high.
As the afternoon wore on and everyone went their separate ways after the evening meal, Bruce took his customary stroll with Sharon, up along the bluff over looking the Panamint Range and the valley below, well away from Charlie’s prying eyes, as he and Tex had taken off to test the rebuilt engines of two of the buggies.
Bruce and Sharon sat on the western end of that bluff almost until nightfall, the longest time they had ever spent alone together.
No one knows what was said or what they did but some of the Family noticed their absence around the camp fire that night.
As the pair finally strolled back to the house, they chose not to join the gang at that fire and went instead to their own beds, for an unusually early night.
Morning came, as it always did in the Panamint Range, dry, hot, with a brilliant laser blue sky, well over 100 degrees even before noon.
Today, the girls got together at Barker and took a complete inventory so they could give tell Bruce exactly what would be needed to feed the gang for the next month.
We hoped to not bother Charlie with another food-run to Ballarat as he was gettin’ hotter under the collar every time we asked to spend more money. We still had tens of thousands from Sharon’s “bequeath” but Charlie was a tight-fisted sonofabitch!
In the distance, Sandy and Brenda could see a figure approach their Myers ranch hideout from the Barker ranch side, a lone figure walking slowly, kind of bent over, in what looked like heavy thought as he walked. As the figure grew near, they saw it was Bruce. They hoped it was a good sign and not a bad one.
“How’re ya doin’ out here?” he asked as he strode the last few feet up the Myers main house drive where the girls had the two babies under the two large trees that gave shade to the front yard.
“We’re okay. How’re things up there?” Sandy’s question a bit hesitant, probably hoping that Charlie hadn’t got into one of his rages again.
“Fine, fine. Just came by to see if you gals had a list for me and Paul. Charlie has given the okay for one more Ballarat run, and this one had better be the last for the next month, as he’s just too uptight to okay stuff with him anymore. I don’t know what’s got him so hot under the collar right now; all I know it this is the last run that I’ll be willing to ask of him, at least until the final one before the winter season sets in.” said Bruce, lighting a cigarette as he spoke. He often smoked away from Charlie as Soul didn’t approve of the nicotine fix everybody was craving.
”Brenda, are you and Sandy having any problems with pests down here?” asked Bruce.
“Oh Bruce, we’re swamped with those desert rats! We put the babies down for a nap yesterday and when we looked in on them, one had crawled in their crib! Can you ask that old coot who runs the General Store down there for something we can use to get rid of these monsters?” pleaded Brenda.
“Yeah, sure. Charlie had already pestered me to get some stuff the last time Paul and I went down but the guy had to order it in. I’ll pick up whatever he’s ordered, okay. Anything else, you Mommies need?”
“Will Charlie okay suntan lotion for the babies, do ya think? Ivan is actually blistering on his forehead from the sun and little Scorpio the same.” added Sandy.
“Don’t worry about Soul, I’ll get you the lotion.” were the last words Bruce said as he was handed their “Wish List” scribbled on a crumpled piece of paper and lumbered back west towards Barker, one quarter mile in those cowboy boots of his was no easy task.
As Bruce made it back to Barker, I had got the list from Tex of the dune buggy parts that were needed, loaded the Jeep with a couple guns, three water jugs and some tools and a couple of sleeping bags in case we broke down. After the girls gave us their final lists, we took off, cutting it mighty close to reach Ballarat before sundown.
As we drove away, Bruce took a glance in the rear view mirror to see that the Girls were waving bye. As the jeep jumped and putted and slowly crept away, headed for the Wash, Bruce could see that everyone had gone back into the main ranch house, in preparation for their daily sit-down meal of rice and veg.
But one woman, one woman remained, standing there at the edge of the Barker gate, waving back.
That one woman was Sharon.
Photo by Lara Hartley
It had only been less than twenty-four hours since Bruce and I had left Barker for our supply run but Bruce was as fidgety as a cat on a hot tin roof to get back to The Family.
Usually Bruce was a pretty non-chalant guy but not today.
“Jesus, Man, will you hurry up with them sacks, the morning’s dragging on and I don’t want to get caught in the Wash at dusk”, Bruce barked.
“Yeah, yeah, stop getting your shorts in a knot”, I barked back.
As Bruce loaded the last of the supplies and got all the paper-work straightened out with that old codger who runs the
Photo by D.A. Wright
General Store, he paid what was due, slipped the last of the small items into his gunny sack in the back of the Jeep and plunked himself in the driver’s seat, loaded for bear, the engine slowly turned over with an annoying fan-belt whine but got off the starting block real fine as Bruce floored the throttle.
I was going to bug him again about his impatience at getting started for Barker but the cold stare he had for the road gave me pause.
“What’s goin’ on Bruce? Man, you usually love to get away from Charlie for a few days. We didn’t have to return this quick ya know”, I offered.
“Listen Paul, those girls are having a hell of a time with the babies being sun burned and the rats not letting up, crawling all over the place. Just yesterday, it looked like Ze Zo Zose had a bite from one of them varmints on his backside. I gotta get these supplies up to them, it just ain’t fair”, Bruce snapped back.
“Okay, Man, settle down. I see where you’re comin’ from. That ain’t a pretty picture, no how.” I muttered back.
Photo by Len Wilcox
The Jeep continued to roar on its way down the highway and no more was said between us up until we reached the
mouth of the Wash. Both of us deep in our own thoughts. As for mine, it was times like these that the lingering doubt of why I was here, doing what I was doing with a gang who were now multiple murderers and kidnappers to boot, would rear its ugly head, especially when hate and murder were counter-intuitive to everything I held dear.
It really came down to the fact that I had no where else to go, no one else who gave a damn one way or the other, if I lived or if I died, so being with the Devil however perverse was more comforting than being alone.
Somehow, it seemed un-natural to have such a fatalistic viewpoint of Life at such a young age. But I think that was Charlie’s doing. We were going to find that Bottomless Pit in the desert or die tryin’. It all just seemed pointless but I had no idea of how to get myself out of this Family anymore. Once you’re “in”, you’re in, and there ain’t no turnin’ back.
After what was hours in the midday sun, as Bruce and I took turns gently guiding that rusted old Jeep over the boulders and the wash-outs, drinking almost all of our canteen water in the effort, we finally got by the old miner’s cabin, by the Lotus Mine, by the discarded machinery rusting to nothing in the sand dunes and reached the last right turn before Barker would come into view.
Bruce stopped the engine and turned and looked at me.
“Listen, if anything ever goes wrong, you know, between Charlie and me, or The Family, if some bad karma comes down, you know, I never deliberately wanted to hurt you or the girls, you know that, right?”
“Sure Bruce, I know. What you goin’ on about? Why you bein’ so serious all of a sudden?” I asked, almost afraid to hear his response.
“Nothin’, Man, nothin’. I just don’t never want you to think that I think as bad about you as I do them kids who killed for Charlie and took Sharon, okay?” pleaded Bruce.
“Yeah, Man, I know what you mean. I hope you know I don’t put you in that scene no way neither?” I said.
“Thanks, Man. Listen, I only helped kill Shorty cuz Charlie ordered me to, not cuz I wanted to, you know?” he offered.
“I know, Man, I know. No one says no to Soul, Man, and lives to tell the tale”, I said.
“Okay, Man, we’re straight with one another? We’re okay? No hard feelings no matter what happens, between us that is, are we in agreement on this, Man?” asked Bruce, his body leaning in at me, his eyes and his expression deadly serious, too serious, almost.
“Yeah Bruce, we’re good, we’re tight. I’m here no matter what comes down. I’ve been ready for a long time, for whatever is supposed to happen. I ain’t got no where else to go, so I’m at peace with whatever, you know?” I confessed.
Bruce silently nodded as he leaned over the steering wheel and turned over the already steaming engine once more, to crawl us the last hundred yards or so to the entrance of Barker Ranch.
It was late afternoon when we finally pulled the Jeep through the gates and up over the bluff to its hidden location, walking toward the cabin through the
back gate. All was as it was when we left a day earlier.
Charlie and Tex still bent over engines, looking tired and dirty as they worked feverously to get the last of the buggies road worthy, Cappy and a few other girls were in the lattice-covered outside kitchen peeling some potatoes, Sadie, Katie and Ouisch sitting beside them on the ground, miners picks in hand, chipping gold flakes from the boulders they had dug from the Mine, and Sharon, Gypsy, Brenda and a few others lounging in the pool, a tarpaulin cover hoisted up and over the opening to give respite from the searing sun if not the heat.
The kiddies were no where to be seen and I suspected it was naptime for them as the midday heat was just too dangerous for them to be up and about.
The scene on the face of it, looked quite idyllic, really. Just a group of young people trying to make a peaceful go of it where the “Man” would leave them alone. If there hadn’t been all the bloodshed, that’s the impression this scene gave. But there had been bloodshed, so every innocent act performed by The Family always had a dark cloud hanging over it, bad karma, I felt in my gut, we’d never be able to shed.
Bruce had already left the Jeep in the time I was just sitting and staring, his gunny sack with him, heading straight for that pool. Charlie barked out at him to hand over the buggy parts and Bruce complied, sensing that work, as always, came before play.
I got the last of the supplies out of the Jeep, storing the perishables in water-tight containers deep within the well with the help from the other girls. And just as the last of the sun tipped below the horizon, the cow bell Charlie had installed for the girls on one of the front porch beams rung announcing the end of this workday and our evening meal. Sharon had been hard at work in the kitchen as usual and the aroma wafting out of the cabin was incentive enough to drop our tools and call it a day.
Charlie was the last to come in and wash up and we waited patiently and silently around the kitchen table for him to join us. We never knew what kind of mood he’d be in from day to day but tonight, maybe because of the engine parts that Bruce and I had got, Charlie was relaxed and quite jovial which made the rest of us breathe a wee bit easier.
“You girls out-did yourselves tonight; this casserole looks great!” hollered Charlie, as he dug in his fork, the signal for all of us to do the same. We all laughed and smiled and told stories as everyone dug in and cleaned their plates. There were no leftovers as usual and not one drop of the homemade lemonade was left in the pitchers, which was a pity as not all of The Family made it back to the cabin in time for chow.
As the guys pushed their full bellies from the table, the candles that had graced the table were moved to the sink so the girls could clean up.
The men headed out with two of the hurricane lamps and onto the porch for some well deserved pot, to relax in the cool breeze that often came when the sun disappeared from view.
“Things are goin’ pretty good. You guys brought them parts, they all fit in perfect and I think Tex and I have finally got our battalion ready and able” , Charlie said with a certain amount of pride in his voice, as he leaned back on one of the metal deck chairs, rocking it back and forth on his heels.
“Yeah, Charlie, them last two buggies are doin’ just fine. We can go back out and continue our search for the Pit tomorrow, if ya want” offered Tex quite enthusiastically.
“Yep, that there is a plan! That’s exactly what I’m aimin’ to do.” he answered back but with no specific details, of how that would be accomplished, offered.
The crickets and cicadas and the odd howling wolf were the last sounds of the day as night had overtaken the ranch. The wooden slats creaked and groaned on the old rickety porch as the men swayed back and forth in their chairs.
The candle light that had glowed from within had suddenly vanished, signalling that the girls had retired for the night.
“Okay, Charlie, that’s what we’ll do. We’ll start searching again tomorrow” was all Paul said. I couldn’t see his face, well, I couldn’t see anyone’s face as the darkness in the Panamint Range was as black as the inside of a coffin. One by one, we bid our goodnights and headed to our respective bunks. The days were long and deathly hot in the desert yet the nights were freezing and a little unsettling, maybe because you couldn’t see the hand in front of your face.
Maybe because you couldn’t see anything at all.
Chapter Fifteen…The Final Chapter
It gets light awfully early in the desert.
Not a sound, usually, just the dawning of a new day, the sky as colourful as a Zombie cocktail, layers of mauve, neon pink, then pastel pink, bright yellow, then pastel yellow, and as the minutes tick by, those layers evaporate into a pale blue, then an electric blue, which stays as brilliant ‘til the day is done.
But today, there were sounds coming with the dawn, only these sounds were not from Mother Nature, these were Man-made, un-natural, unsettling…
Moans, groans, murmurings…rustling…
Low and few and far between, then louder and stronger, filling the entire cabin, originating from all who had slept there last night.
Well, almost all.
And it was this sensory scene which awoke Sharon from her fitful sleep.
She looked exhausted, dark circles lay under her eyes, a sight not usually seen with this beauty. As she quietly rose up from her cot, she looked to her left and saw that Charlie was still in bed, totally uncharacteristic of the man who was usually up before everyone else.
And some of the moans and groans were actually coming from him, as he writhed on his floor mattress, asleep but not at rest.
Sharon kept staring at her Leader. She couldn’t take her eyes from him, his face all tight, his features strained, eyelids flickering as if he was deep in a dream, tossing and turning but not enough, she thought, to wake him from his fit.
“Psst, Sharon, you awake?” a disembodied voice whispered from the living area of the cabin.
That voice instantly shook her from her stupor, and she whispered back, “Bruce, is that you?”
As he tip-toed over to the bedroom door, the one festooned with
Manson’s favourite pictures, Bruce peeked around the door frame not knowing what to expect from her room-mate.
“Well?” he enquired.
“I don’t know. He’s doing allot of moaning but doesn’t wake up.” Sharon replied.
“The same out here. No one seems to be awake but they’re not asleep either.” Bruce whispered back.
“Get your stuff together and hide it in the summer kitchen. I'll walk on down to the Myers Ranch to get Paul. You wait out on the porch for me, okay?” he ordered, his voice still barely audible.
“If anyone comes to while I’m gone, just tip toe back to bed like nothing’s amiss, okay?” Bruce said.
“Okay, but hurry, I’m worried I didn’t do it right last night.” Sharon hissed back, as she saw Bruce run off down the hill in search of Paul at Myers.
When he got to the gate, he stopped running, his feet screaming from the pain caused by such exertion in cowboy boots. He hovered there, to see if he could hear anything but the place was dead quiet.
On approach, he peered into the front room and saw no one around. As he opened the cabin door, its hinges giving off a terrible squeak, he was sure to be discovered, but it was he who did the discovering, seeing Sandy and Squeaky fast asleep, he thought, on the twin cots, Paul, Ivan and Ze Zo Zose were wide awake and playing quietly in their crib until they spied Bruce and then they all began to cry.
The noise, he felt sure, would wake the dead but neither girl was roused. As he leaned in further to take a good look at them, both seemed hardly to be breathing, their chests only rising with shallow and sporadic breaths.
Without a thought, he scooped up the babies and took Ze Zo Zose by the hand, not bothering to close the front door as he left. He knew there was no need.
The trek back to Barker took a while with his charges but finally the foursome made it back to the ranch and to Sharon, her running to the gate to scoop up Paul in her arms as soon as she saw their figures top the rise.
As Sharon babysat, Bruce headed back to the
bunkhouse to fetch his gunny sack and as he did, he spied the other bunks. I and Paul Watkins were comatose, barely breathing and as Bruce looked down at me, tears left his eyes, the drops splattering on the woollen blanket below him, the one on top of me and my writhing, fevered body.
Even in the midst of doing good, bad things can happen to good people. Sometimes they just have to…
On his way back to Sharon and the babies, he grabbed Sharon’s sack from the summer kitchen, and as he did, he heard the
side door of the Main cabin creak open and his heart did a full stop.
As the door slowly turned, the body of Tex was seen lying on the ground, half in the cabin and half out, his hand grasping tightly the frame, his eyes wild and fighting to remain open. As he looked up, he saw Bruce looking down at him, and for just a brief moment the two gazed at one another, Tex’s expression seeming to say, “What have you done, Bruce?, What have you done?” But of course, Tex couldn’t talk, his tongue was swollen twice its regular size, drops of blood leaking out of both sides of his mouth.
Bruce could have answered the mute and suffering man but what was the point, he and the rest would know the answer very soon, he felt.
On reaching the front of the walk, other Family members were crawling out of the front door, some trying to talk, others just gasping for breath. Manson was in the lead, his determination to escape more strong than the others. He saw Bruce too, and as he gazed up at him, managed to grunt out the words, “Water- Bruce – Why?”
“I had…we had…no choice, Charlie. You brought all this down on yourself, Man.” stated Bruce very matter-of-fact, almost cold, certainly detached.
Charlie crawled further, his face red and full of anger but his body was weak and his strength to advance soon subsided. Bruce didn’t wait around to see and hear anymore, he just grabbed Sharon’s hand and the five living human beings slowly left through
the gate, no one taking a second look back but Paul, or rather Scorpio, his little arms reaching out for the only “Dad” he had ever known…Charlie.
Sharon hushed Paul, grabbed his hands in hers and said everything would now be alright. That, she promised her little boy.
The moans now becoming screams as more Family bodies emerged from the buildings, crawling, craving breath, dying of thirst, bleeding from every orifice they had, all heading for oblivion fast. It was a living nightmare but the sounds and the sight of them all soon evaporated with the distance the five had already covered under the mild morning sun.
Sure, Bruce would report the scene they had just left. He would admit to the rat poison being placed in last night’s meal and in the lemonade, and maybe, just maybe, many up at Barker would survive…
Honestly, Bruce didn’t want to know one way or the other. Neither did Sharon.
But not until one woman was reunited with one man, her entire family and a nation yearning for her return, Sharon’s return. Only this time, with a friend in tow and with a beautiful little boy, Paul Richard, in her arms…
As it should have been all along.