“Now, don’t be alarmed by all the weapons,” Darrell warned us. “When we get closer, it’s going to look like they’re prepared to start another world war, but it’s all for show. Most of their ordinance doesn’t work.”
“Why have it, then?” Charlene asked.
“Because as long as some of it works, or people think it does, they can keep control of the city and keep it from being taken over by México Lindo, Lone Star, or anyone else who thinks they want it.”
“So who’s in charge?” I asked.
Darrell shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. “Feds, sort of. At least, that’s what they call themselves.”
He went on to explain that when the United States pulled out of the southwest so they could focus on the area between the Mississippi and the east coast, they left some troops behind. “They needed us to guard the weapons that couldn’t be safely removed, so they left men stationed in the desert, here in this town, and at the nearby base. Our mission was to hold this valley until the government could relieve us.”
“That’s crazy,” I said. “You were surrounded.”
“Didn’t matter. Do you have any idea what a nuclear warhead is, or what it can do? Didn’t anyone ever tell you about New York? And we have other things besides nukes—conventional missiles, rockets, experimental things that you can’t even begin to imagine.”
“And I bet they all require some kind of petroleum-based fuel to move them into position and launch,” I said. “Don’t they? I’m not afraid.”
“What do you think we store in our bunkers, if not fuel?”
This silenced me, but only for a few minutes. “Okay, so why did you let this region go, then? Isn’t it true you don’t have enough fuel and men to control the southwest on a permanent basis? Isn’t it true you can destroy it but not keep it?”
“It’s true. And to be honest, the more time passes, the less reliable our weapons are, since we lack the means to maintain them properly. As for this town—“ he indicated a cluster of buildings in the distance, nestled against the mountains and bristling with what appeared to be rockets. “Once our men realized they were being made sacrificial lambs, they decided to carve out their own little empire. They cancelled elections and claim to be running the town in the name of the United States of America, but it’s really just a strongman dictatorship.”
“And how does this relate to what you and your men are doing in the desert?”
“We’re friendly, but not friends, if that makes any sense. Me and my men don’t approve of what they’re doing here, but there’s nothing to be gained from fighting each other, or from fighting anyone else if we don’t have to. We just want to keep our weapons from falling into the wrong hands. What other people do is their own business.”
By now we had passed an outer ring of missile launchers and other big fancy equipment. There were trucks here, too, but I noticed no one was actually driving them and many of them had flat tires and cracked windshields. The military men guarding the roads saluted us smartly, but their uniforms were frayed and faded, and I couldn’t help suspecting that the bandoliers they wore across their chests were all the ammo they had.
And now we were on one of the main roads into town. Like Marisa’s town, this place had once billed itself as a city, and it had the outer rings of dilapidated shoddy housing and shopping centers to prove it. Why did the people of the twentieth century and the early years of our own use such poor building materials? And why did they make everything look alike? One old city looks the same as any other until you get closer in, to where the oldest buildings are. You would have thought that people who were so rich and powerful would have wanted their cities to stand out and look unique. But when I asked Darrell and Charlene if they had ever seen a city that wasn’t ringed with these same interchangeable homes and stores, they shook their heads.
“It’s like this in Texas, too,” Charlene said. “And in every place those damn trains took me when I was trying to get to Colorado.”
“Not much different where I grew up in Georgia, either,” Darrell agreed.
“And they didn’t even build it to last,” I pointed out.
“Maybe because they knew it was ugly?” Isabel offered.
We all laughed and were still puzzling over the matter as we got closer to the rail station. Things were cleaner here and more orderly. There were even some neat little neighborhoods of the turn of the century variety that appeared to be in pretty good condition. “Railroad and military people,” Darrell explained. “They’re about the only ones who can afford the constant repairs.”
Once we got downtown, we bought some food from a street vendor and sat down in a little park to plan our next move. Isabel explained the different routes out of town and through the mountains. She couldn’t say much about the specific towns or villages we might encounter along each road, but the one that she said went northeast was of particular interest to me and Charlene.
“Are you going to try to head out today?” Isabel asked. “Most travelers stop here for a day or two and stock up on supplies.”
“Do they take federal money?”
Darrell and Isabel nodded. “They have to, since they call themselves part of the United States.”
This was good news, and Charlene seemed happy enough to have a day in town. Isabel took us to a motel she knew, and it didn’t escape my notice that she was as excited to be sharing a room with Darrell as if she were moving into a home of her own.
“See?” Charlene said as we unloaded our gear. “We should encourage them to get married.”
“What is it with you and weddings?” I said. “It’s no big deal to be married.”
“Just because you didn’t like it. . .”
We were interrupted by a knock at the door. It was Isabel, her eyes bright with excitement. “Me and Darrell are going to the zoo. Want to come?”
“Zoo?” I thought I knew what she was talking about, but wasn’t entirely sure.
Charlene clapped her hands in excitement. “I haven’t been to a zoo in ages! Of course we’ll go!”
“Charlene, we’re supposed to buy supplies this afternoon.”
“So don’t come,” she said. She picked up her hat and a small bag and flounced out the door.
Curiosity got the better of me, and I followed.
It turned out to be pretty interesting. Apparently the zoo used to have a lot of different animals, some of them from different areas of the United States and even other continents. Now most of the animals were local, such as deer and coyote. But there were a few monkeys, which I recognized from the drawings in my Curious George book when I was a kid. It was a fun to see a real one. I think I liked the striped horses best, though.
Afterwards, we walked around a little park full of trees. Isabel and Darrell went off together, and Charlene sat down on a stone bench, deep in thought.
“I’m glad we did this,” I told her. “You’re right. I should lighten up a little.”
“Hm? Oh, right. I’m just glad they still have a zoo. I heard that in some places they couldn’t afford to care for the animals, so they killed them and gave them to the people for food.”
“Speaking of food, I wonder if it’s too late to buy supplies so we can leave first thing in the morning.”
Charlene looked at me, surprised. “First thing? No, we can’t do that.”
“Why not?” I followed her gaze. She was watching Darrell and Isabel far off in the distance, holding hands as they walked along a path. “Are you still obsessing about weddings? Forget it. I’m heading out for Texas in the morning, and you can stay here if you like, but I’m not wasting any more time.”
We had dinner that evening in a little restaurant that Darrell and Charlene called a “diner,” and we paid in federal dollars. Those paper bills are useless in most places, so it was nice to be able to save my real money for later on.
Tonight we’re settled in at the motel, which we’ve been told has electricity until 9:00. I’ve got my bags packed for the morning, and I watched Charlene pack hers, although I thought I detected a certain phoniness about her. Well, that’s fine. She can stay here, take the train, ride out on her own, or whatever she wants to do. I can’t go changing my plans every time she gets a crazy notion.
And speaking of Charlene, I wonder where she is? She left after packing her bags, and I thought maybe she was going to check on her horse, go for a little walk, go to the outdoor latrines or something. But that was nearly an hour ago and she’s still not back.
I’m not worried for her safety. There are a lot of soldiers in this town, and although I don’t think all of them have working guns, enough of them do that crime seems to be pretty rare. If I didn’t have other plans, I’d be tempted to stay here just for the safety aspect alone. Who cares if the town is run by a military dictatorship? To be able to walk down a street without fear is a wonderful thing. Maybe the feds aren’t so bad, after all. They probably just wanted to keep the peace, like anyone does. Isn’t it strange how good intentions can lead to such bad results, like the anti-hoarding laws and the massacre in Valle Redondo?
But enough of that. It’s almost 9:00. I need to get my lantern ready for when the lights go out. And I suppose I should go hunt down Charlene.
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