Ballarat or Bust...A Short story...Chs.1-6
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 Enslen 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 Cienga were 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 Enslen. 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 refueling 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 colored 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.