The Greyhound to Los Banos, Nevada hadn’t been a ‘real’ bus, more like a big minivan. But George was glad to be out of Oregon. He’d worried the police might sweep down on him since he’d killed a serial killer in Eubanks, Oregon. You didn’t just murder a local without consequences, and he’d expected some sort of bulletin for the prime suspect. Then again, as far as the world was concerned, George Ishkowa was dead. That, and his limited interaction with the other residents of the hostel, were probably what had saved him.
A story on one of the supernatural ‘conspiracy theory’ sites he frequented brought him to Los Banos. People spoke of disappearances. Single people passing through the small town in the middle of the desert sometimes vanished in the night. Then hikers had discovered a body.
That body, a man in his early twenties, had exhibited signs of hard work in excruciating conditions. Blistered hands, barked shins, a partially-healed cut across the scalp like he had slammed his head into something before his death from dehydration. The stomach had reportedly been empty, as if the man had been worked for days without food. The hikers had found the body beside a huge saguaro cactus, the matriarch of a grove that stood in the midst of complete nothingness.
More outlandish were the second-hand stories of the search by local authorities for traces of how the body had come to be where it was. Supposedly no one could find a track anywhere near the body, but when dogs had been brought in, they had struck a trail. The scent they traced had taken their handlers miles through the desert. At first, it had been a meandering path, as if the dead man had stumbled in a confused daze before dying, then it became an almost rule-straight line as if he’d known precisely where he was going. The trail headed away from Los Banos towards the desolate Eugene Mountains, but by the end of the first day, the there was no sign of any dwelling or anywhere the man might have come from. Then, when the search was taken up the next morning, the dogs only went a few miles before stopping. They had not stopped for a creek, of which there were surprisingly few, nor some other place where a scent might be lost by a dog. No, the report spoke of the dogs, eager for the trail, suddenly stopping, first to snarl, then to whimper in fear of something their handlers could not see. Trackers attempted to find a cause for the strange behavior, but no bear or other predator, nor any sign that a similar animal had been present, was found. Stranger still, it had proven impossible to persuaded the dogs to go further.
The bus driver stopped, but as George prepared to step off, the stout woman’s voice had come from behind him. “Are you sure you want to get off here?”
“Yeah, I hear the hiking in the desert around here is fantastic.”
“You’re going out in that and hike…for fun?”
George looked back, found a look of incredulity fit to match the tone that question had been uttered in, and nodded. “What can I say, I guess I’m just a glutton for punishment.”
The driver stared at him, mouth hanging open, then shook her head like a dog trying to shoo a fly away. “As my Dad would have said it, whatever floats your boat. I guess for you, it’s tramping around in the middle of the Backside of Hell.”
George caught the emphasis, the almost explicit capitalization of those words. “Why do you call it that?”
The driver waved her hand as if trying to encompass everything outside her front windshield. “This place used to be a big mining district. As long as there was gold, or silver, or something else valuable to mine, they’d go out into the desert hoping to ‘strike it rich’. Most of them ended up going home with nothing to show for their time here but a broken back and lungs full of rock dust.” She favored George with a knowing smile. “My granddad prospected around here, just before he went off to World War Two. He always said almost getting killed by kamikaze attacks saved him from dying for sure in this desert. If that doesn’t tell you how bad this place is, I don’t know what will.”
It wasn’t the answer George had hoped for, but it gave him someplace to start. He gave the woman a smile, then took the final step and went to find the truth of what was happening in Los Banos.
The truth turned out to be elusive. George was able to find out the dead man was named Frank Ingram, but what had brought him to Los Banos, or how he’d ended up in the desert, were as much of a mystery as the day he’d stepped off the bus. With no clues, George decided to see if he could reach the spot where the dogs had stopped.
The problem was, nobody normally went where he needed to go. The more he thought about it, the more that fact stood out. In a desert seemingly filled with hiking and ATV trails, a section that people avoided was strange. So, when he heard that a pair of men taking their ‘off-roader’ out for a test near where he wanted to go, he hitched a ride. For George, with his undead body, carrying enough water to get out of the desert wasn’t a problem, but he carried a pair of large water bottles to convince his hosts he wasn’t going out to commit suicide. They were roaring along, George feeling like he should be hanging onto something to keep from rattling around the back seat of the crew cab, when the phone GPS chimed.
“Hey, HEY! Can you stop?”
Even shouting, he wasn’t sure he’d been heard until the the truck ground to a stop. Both of the men in the cab stared at him. The driver was the one who finally spoke. “You want to get out here?”
“Umm, yeah, why?”
The stare grew even more incredulous. “You don’t know?”
Maybe it was hoping for too much, that these two would have some clue as to what was happening out here in the desert, but George asked anyway. “No. What’s wrong with getting out here?”
“You didn’t hear? Some guy was found, not too far from here, like….dead.”
So much for getting information from these two… “Yeah, I heard about that. I was kind of hoping to find out why he was out here.”
That drew a pair of blank stares before the driver spoke up. “Why?”
George pinched his nose and fought the desire to shout out his frustration with people who had a level of callousness that allowed them to ignore the fact that someone had died in this vast emptiness. It wasn’t an easy struggle, so he grabbed the door handle and let himself out.
The rising breeze gave George his first hint he was near where he wanted to go. It had begun to pick up as the Sun set behind the mountains, and as it did, the rattling of plastic flapping came to George’s ears. The sound that led him towards the cactus was the yellow police tape, still strung in place around the spot where the dead man had been found. The winds had blown any tracks that might have remained away, leaving no clues for George to follow. Some CSI wannabe had neatly outlined where the body had lain in more police tape, this staked tight to the ground. That was where he sat down, looking over the shape in the fading light towards the surrounding desert.
The saguaro was now little more than a dark outline against the fading sky, but in all that vast space, it would have been the only real shade from a pitiless Sun. George laid his hand on what would have been the chest of the dead body and wondered what his final moments were like. Had he cursed those who had brought him to this point? Had he felt at peace for escaping from whatever hell had made this desolate spot seem better? The breeze died with the light, and in the silence that followed, George felt a presence. It had none of the violence, not a bit of the intense anger he’d encountered in other spirits. No, here he felt relief, like at the end, the man who had breathed his last here was at peace with his decisions. George tried to reach out, to draw that spirit to him, but all he gathered was an impression of a hole in a hillside. The spirit fled as George tried to press it for more memories of that place, leaving nothing but an impression of terror in its wake.
Overhead, the sky had become that endless black you only see far from people. The constellations, so easy to pick out where the sky never reached such a profound darkness, were lost in a sea of stars. All about him, the faint rustling of small creatures coming out to live their lives could be heard. George rose to find the ground about him lite bright by starlight, the hills standing out like cardboard silhouettes against the sky-glow. “Well, fuck it, guess there’s no point in sitting around waiting for sunrise.”
George soon found out that walking through a desert by star light was far harder than he’d thought. Slopes were far more difficult to judge. Soft spots in the sand looked solid. Twice, he stepped on rattle snakes that struck at him and connected, reminding him that being undead had advantages. Through it all, he kept moving. The sunrise found him in the foothills of the Eugene’s.
The impression he’d gotten from the departed spirit drew him leftward, towards a flat-topped hill that would have been a mountain anywhere else. He was closer, but still not at its base, when the Sun went down. That night brought other lights besides the stars. A string of lights led from a low building into an opening so deep the lights diminished into nothingness. Somewhere in the darkness a generator clattered as it kept them all working.
George saw a shadow move across the lights and crouched low before advancing again. Another form moved in the darkness, and the cold glint of a steel barrel revealed an automatic weapon in the hands of a guard. George froze, instinctive caution taking control of his actions. Then he remembered that he was dead, that no mortal weapon could harm him, and he moved closer. In close, he heard the screech of a wheel in need of lubrication before the the cart it was fitted to appeared. Four men shoved it towards the mouth of the tunnel under the direction of a guard armed with an AR-15. All of the men on the cart had the painfully thin frames of people worked too hard with too little food.
George saw that what they pushed was an old-fashioned mining cart, like something out of an old Western movie. It ran on tracks that ended on a raised platform. Beneath the end sat a large dump truck. As he watched, they brought their load to the end and with a heave that took all four of them, emptied it into the truck bed. For a moment, the four figures stood together, leaning against the cart they’d been pushing like it was the only thing holding them up. A voice echoed off the rocks, too faint to distinguish the words, but the tone made the meaning as clear as the gesture the guard made with his weapon. He wanted the laborers to get back to their back-breaking work. They shambled, two to a side, around the cart and began shoving. One man slipped, fell, and the man with him stopped pushing to help him rise. The cart slowed, and the guard came around it. Now the voice was loud enough for George to make out.
“Get your fuckin’ asses back to work! Now, damn it, or I’ll put a bullet in both your worthless skulls!”
The two men rose, one with the other’s arm over his shoulder, and together they threw themselves against the cart. It’s speed rose, but evidently not enough for the guard.
“Faster, damn it! We ain’t got all night. That truck loads before sunrise, and none a you worthless bastard will get fed if it ain’t, hear me?”
The cart picked up speed, but from what George could see, none of those pushing it had been fed regularly for days. “That sick fuck probably takes away their food as often as he can.” he muttered to himself as he started moving towards the entrance to the mine.
He slid down into a low gully and a form appeared before him. This form had no gun, no defined shape at all, just a black blob that stood between him and the mine. A voice like an echo from the grave addressed him.
“La muerte te espera.”
George had had enough Spanish-speaking friends to get the jist of what the spirit was saying to him, that death awaited him. He rummaged around his rudimentary Spanish to come up with a reply. “Ya estoy muerto, amigo.”
The form moved closer, resolved into what might once have been a handsome young man before someone had savagely beaten him. The head tilted one way, then another, then nodded.
“Sí es usted. Vienes a vengarnos?”
The meaning of that last sentence was unclear to George, the earnestness with which it was said led George to conclude this spirit wanted what was happening to stop.
“Los detengo, lo prometo.”
The outline faded, leaving nothing but a whispered reply behind. “Bueno.”
That was when George saw the gully was really a burial pit. A skull lay at his feet, and scattered around him lay others, along with all the other bones of the human body. Many of the skulls were damaged, partially crushed or missing the entire top like they had exploded. A low snarl caught his attention, and George saw a partial corpse move as if it were alive before a skunk emerged from it dragging a string of entrails. Blessing the undead body that didn’t vomit, he moved to the far edge of the pit and climbed it as steathfully as he could.
He saw the two guards from earlier had moved, and one of them was headed his way. Had he made some noise that caught the man’s attention? George slipped back down the pit and did his best to disappear into the darkness.
George hadn’t needed to worry. As he watched, the guard stopped at the edge of the pit, unzipped, and pissed into the open grave. The casual indifference of that act of disrespect made up George’s mind about what he would do.
This man would die, as would all those who worked with him.
Bladder relieved, the guard turned his back on the grave and began zipping himself up. He never finished. George was up as soon as his back was turned. Before he could react to the sound behind him, George grabbed the man’s head and snapped his neck with a twist so violent the face turned towards him. He saw the man’s mouth open in shock, then go slack as he died. An AK knock-off on a web strap hung from the corpse’s shoulder. George took it before kicking the body into the pit that held so many innocents while hoping the man he’d just killed was already in the hottest pit of Hell.
Now, with one of their own missing, it was only a matter of time before the guards figured out something was going on. George abandoned caution and advance on the mine opening. His path took him past one of the structures he’d seen from a distance. Up close, he saw it was little more than a crude framework of 2X4’s, bare on the outside and covered on the inside with sheet rock. The rhythmic creaking of springs and exaggerated moans coming from inside told him not all the prisoners here were men slaving their lives away in the mine. He kept moving, hoping he could free the men in time to rescue whatever woman was being raped later.
The tunnel stretched further than George anticipated, but luck was with him. Nobody stood guard at the entrance, nor did he encounter any guards until he could hear the sound of hammers on rock. He crouched down, advancing with more caution, until he saw the outline of a man sitting in a niche carved into the rock. He lounged back, his butt resting on what looked like an old sofa cushion, another one behind his back, his head facing down the tunnel. George straightened and advanced with what confidence he could muster, hoping to bluff his way up to the guard, and beyond.
He didn’t need to worry. Here, the noise of excavation was loud enough George couldn’t hear his own footfalls. He unslung the AK, and the motion must have caught the guard’s attention. He started to turn, but the rifle’s stock slamming into the side of his head laid him out cold. An AR stood by his crude guard post, and George collected it. He could see the rock face now, a dozen emaciated men wielding hammers and picks beat the stone, trying to break pieces off. Behind them, his back turned to George, stood the guard who’s threatened the cart crew. He dashed towards the man, but one of the workers saw George’s rush and his wide-eyed gape gave him away.
The sound of gunfire in that confined space was like thunder. George felt something hitting him, but no pain. He hit the guard running, sending both of them sprawling. George tried to push himself away, to get some room to swing, but he didn’t get the chance. Seeing their tormentor down, the prisoners attacked. The first hammer blow sent brains all over George’s face, and he narrowly escaped being struck himself as other blows rained down on the now-dead guard. Several minutes filled with mutter curses and the grunts of men swinging as hard as they could passed, then the fury drained from the imprisoned. They stood in a rough circle, panting from their efforts, as George pushed himself to his feet. He let his eyes take in the men about him. Most were Spanish, but some weren’t. He addressed them all, hoping someone in the group would understand him.
“We need to get out of here, now. Those shots are going to tip off the guards outside that something’s up.”
One of the Spanish men stepped forward, a smile on his face and a Midwestern accent on his lips. “Don’t worry, they shoot folks in here all the time. Usually, they say we’re getting to ‘uppity’ or not working fast enough. Sometimes, I think they do it because they’re bored.” He stopped talking and held out a hand. George took it, and felt a strong grip behind that calloused hand. “I came down here from Duluth, from a job in an iron mine no less, to do some hiking. Never imagined I’d go from driving a dump truck in an open pit mine to a slave in some unlicensed uranium mine.”
George looked around, the inborn fear of radiation overcoming him, and the man in front of him chuckled.
“Don’t worry, kid, it’s not radioactive enough in here to fry your nuts or anything. Some of these guys are going to need checking out, but they’ll need to be in a hospital for malnourishment, so it’s not like that’s the only thing they need to worry about.” He stopped, his eyes narrowing as he looked at George. “Speaking of hospitals, how come you’re still standing? I saw his hit you at least three times, but you’re not bleeding.”
Time to get his mind on other things. George thought and did just that. “Don’t worry about that, worry about getting out of here. There are more prisoners here, aren’t there? We need to get them, and we need to get everyone the hell out of here before the guards figure out you’re trying to escape.”
“Easier said than done, kid! They told us all we’re at least two days walk from anything like a town. Worse, they said the police in that podunk town, Los Banos, were on the take and knew we were out here. So how the hell do we escape?”
George gave him a smile. “You said you drive a dump truck for a living, right? Think you could drive one to keep living, cause there’s one right outside the entrance to this mine.”
“Hell yeah! Show me that bitch, and I’ll make her stand up and howl if it means getting out of here. But what about the guards? They hear that thing start up, they’re gonna know somethings wrong.”
Stooping, George picked up the dead guard’s AR-15 and held it out. “Well, we’ve got this, plus the two guns I walked in with. If we’ve got anyone here who can use them, maybe we can convince the guards it’s better to let us go than to die trying to stop you.”
That brought a fierce smile to the other man’s face. “It just might be possible. Hell, even if it ain’t, at least we can have the pleasure of killing a few of those bastards before they kill us. Thanks for coming, by the way. I’m John, John Sandoval.”
“Good to meet you, John, I’m George Ishkowa. Do you know Spanish, maybe enough to ask if any of these guys know how to use these guns?”
“Yeah, I do. One of my uncles has a farm down in Jalisco, we used to go visit him when I was a kid.” John faced his fellow prisoners. “¿Alguno de ustedes puede usar estas armas?”
Several hands went up, including one belonging a scrawny, pasty-faced red-head. “I was Air Force, military police. I can use one a them things.”
John gave the man a look. “Don’t doubt you can, Ken, but you can barely walk. You gonna be able to keep up if we gotta make a run for it?”
The red head pushed forward, snatched the AR out of George’s hand, and popped the clip off. He flipped a lever on the side of the weapon, then pulled back on a small handle George hadn’t noticed, sending a bullet flying. Stooping, he retrieved a clip from the pocket of the dead guard and slammed it into place before working the handle again. He turned to George, then John, a toothy grin on his face. “Cocked, locked, and ready to rock. Any of those bastards tries to stop us, they’re meat on a stick as far as I’m concerned.” Two men who looked little better than Ken took the other weapons, and after a quick check, the group headed outside.
Everyone stopped short of the mine entrance, then George and the armed men moving forward. One man made a dash for the hut from which the noise of sex could still be heard. An inarticulate shout, followed by a crash, spoke of the violence that happened. The light inside the building illuminated four women, one of them looking like she should be in high school, following their rescuer out the door. It wasn’t a lot of noise, but it must have been enough.
Somewhere in the darkness, a shout rang out, and everyone followed George as he sprinted towards the truck. Up close, the truck loomed like some mechanical monster in the darkness. John seemed happy to see it. He gave a laugh before running for the ladder that climbed to a cab far above. “Damn, I never thought I’d see one of these babies again! Wait for me to get in the cab, then send everyone else up. There’s a ladder to access the dump bed, but the cab door has to be closed to access it.”
John went up, far more nimble that he’d been before, and as the door closed behind him, George pulled the young woman to the ladder and pointed up. She looked up the ladder, then turned a wide-eyed stare at George. He opened his mouth and froze, unable to think of the words to tell her she needed to climb. One of the older women came forward. “You want her to climb, sí?”
“Yes, but I can’t remember how to say it. Can you explain she has to go up this ladder, then up the one next to it. All of you need to climb up and get in the back of the truck, entender?”
“Sí, I tell her.”
What followed was far too quick, and far too quiet, for George to understand. Whatever the older woman said was enough. The young woman went up the ladder, followed by the interpreter, then the rest of the people. George waited until the end, then climbed as far as the cab. John gave him a thumbs up, then reached forward to punch a button. The roar that accompanied that act drown out any chance of George addressing him. The dump truck lurched forward, then began circling to the right following a track visible in the headlights. Something struck sparks off the door frame in front of George, and the quick rattle of gunfire from over his head told him the guards were trying to stop them. The headlights swung across a straight stretch of road, and with a howl, the truck accelerated along it. There was a final burst of gunfire from above George, then nothing as they lumbered their way towards freedom.
San Carlos was even smaller than Los Banos, but the sheriff there fed everyone before taking statements from John and all the other captives. George stayed in the background, refusing all the praise heaped upon him. He didn’t want to talk to the sheriff, or even talk to the people he’d helped. He was happy for them, and glad he’d solved the problem of the dead hiker. But he knew there was no way to explain the three holes in the middle of his shirt, and the gaping holes behind them would have been impossible to ignore. Saying he wanted to find a phone, George Ishkaw slipped out of the sheriff’s office and walked down the main drag of San Carlos in search of a ride. It was time to move on.