I leaned back against the side of the ravine, squeezing canned cheese onto slices of pepperoni – heaven in a heart-stopping snack. My hiking metabolism burns through the cholesterol before it has time to clog up my arteries. Seriously, it does!
“How do you eat that crap?” Mr. K said, wrinkling up his sun-weathered nose.
I grinned through cheese-coated teeth and smacked my sunburnt lips at him.
“Want some?” I said, holding out the can.
“Sure,” he said as he grinned back at me, holding out his healthy multi-grain cracker in the palm of a dirt-crusted hand.
“What is that?” I heard Amy say.
I looked over to see Amy half standing, peering over the top of the ravine. I studied her for a moment. Fascination with her increased as the hike continued. Grey strands of hair poked out under her wide-brimmed, white sun hat. It was pulled low over the top half of her face, which was already obscured by huge, black, square prescription sunglasses. Protruding from under the sunglasses was a small bit of a nose perched on top of large bulbous, zinc-covered lips. She pursed them thoughtfully as she peered out across the dry ground.
I just watched it. There was entertainment value here. How could you even see anything through those glasses? She was probably watching a thin, bony, desert cow. Movement of any type was fascinating here, and often the high point of the day in this dry, withered landscape.
Having nothing else to do, I sighed and stood up slowly on screaming feet, feet with shards of glass embedded into them – slowly.
In the distance, I saw a dust cloud, and my eyes quickly scanned the dust to pick out several points of movement around thin, dirty desert cows. Running along beside the cows was what looked like a ragged coyote, followed by a couple of horses with riders. I stood straighter and turned quickly to my pack (the one on my back), feet forgotten.
“Water!” I said. “They will know where there is water!”
We had been without water all day, coming across a cow trough only once, filled with green slimy, nasty bovine water. Jason and Robbie had filled their water bottles with the stuff “for emergencies,” they said, but I had refused to let it even touch my water bottle. I wondered if they might drink it. The changes would probably come on slowly, similar to after you get bit by a zombie – ghostly pale, sweaty skin, with bloodshot eyes and low, miserable moans. Zombie transformation was probably very similar to bad water sickness.
I shoved everything I had into my pack, threw the open pack over my shoulder, and started scrambling up the side of the small ravine. Staggering over the lip of the ditch, I then started shambling, at a slow trot, towards the distant dust cloud. I could hear the others moving behind me as they shouted for me to hurry.
I waved my arms, sure they had not seen me, and watched as the rider at the back of the small herd slowed and turned toward me. The horse paused and then headed towards me at a fast canter. As the horse drew closer, the haze around the rider’s head solidified into wildly blowing silver hair. My eyes widened, and I came to an abrupt halt as I realized the black stick pointing my way was a rifle pointed directly at me. Hopefully, all that bouncing up and down did not jostle the trigger finger.
“Whoa,” I said, taking a step back. “We just want water.” I doubt the scary desert witch heard me.
The horse slid to a stop and turned slightly, gun lowered to the cantle of the saddle but still pointed in my direction.
The woman on the horse appeared to be in her mid-80s but was probably closer to her late 50s or early 60s. Desert life was hard on the body. Sun-darkened, weathered skin was covered by fine wrinkles that did not allow for a small patch of relative smoothness. The eyes peering out from under the black cowboy hat were buried deep inside rows of dusty creases and wrinkles created from years of squinting into bright sunlight. The constant glare reflected from the sands.
“What are you doing here?” she asked in a sharp, clear voice. She was clearly in charge and used to not asking but demanding information. I was reminded of my fifth-grade principal and felt the same childish nervousness creep up from my belly.
She shifted the end of the gun away from me as she looked me up and down, frowning slightly. I dropped my pack to close the top, and her frown deepened as she appeared to become more irritated.
“We are hiking the CDT,” I said with a big smile.
“This is my land, and you are trespassing.” she barked at me abruptly.
Fifth-grade principal with a 3x bitchiness factor, I thought. I paused, caught a little off guard. The nervousness quickly dissipated and was replaced by anger. My hands trembled slightly as I looked down and finished cinching my pack. I took my time, taking a breath to collect my thoughts, but not deep enough for her to see my chest heave. I stood up again, only smiling slightly now.
“According to my map, this is BLM land open to public use,” I said as the smile faded. I had tried hard not to use private land and had not seen a CDT sign for some time. I hoped I was right.
“This land has been in my family for three generations,” she said in a lower voice.
She pulled back on the reins as her horse nervously danced in place. I’m sure the horse could feel her anxiety, and my eyes flicked back and forth between her icy glare and the gun only slightly turned away from me.
I was emboldened by the fact that Mr. K and the others were behind me, but I could imagine her statement now.
Cow woman: “I was holding the gun because I saw the packs from a distance and thought they were illegals.”
BLM Officer: “That is when you accidentally shot her in the foot?”
Cow woman: “She startled my horse, flailing around with that pack of hers, and the gun went off. It was an accident, Sir”
I had no doubt she could shoot me in a limb without even looking, and although the pain would probably not be much greater than the current pain caused by skinless feet, it might take a little longer for a bullet wound to heal. I know nothing about guns.
“We will get off your land as quickly as possible,” I said, with all friendliness gone from my voice.
I had forgotten to ask for water – kinda sorta forgotten. Honestly, I remembered, but my pride had stepped into the mix, and I was not going to ask this desert witch for anything.
“There is nothing out here but cow holes and troughs. You don’t have any water,” she said as she sneered at me.
“We have filters and chemicals to treat the water. We will be fine.”
“I doubt that!” she said as she wheeled her jumpy broomstick in a tight circle.
As she tore off across the sand, weaving in and out of the brush, Mr. K walked up next to me. He was breathing heavily and dropped his pack before leaning over with his hands on his knees.
“What did she say?” he asked as the others pulled up around us.
“She told us to have a great hike. She also said that although you appeared handsome and dapper, she had no water.”
“Really? Did you ask her to bring us some back?” he said through heavy breaths.
“I did not. We will find some.”
I heard him sigh in exasperation as I heaved my pack onto my back.
We spent the rest of the day searching for water. We found a mud hole with cow parts and paddies and a slightly less gross tank than earlier in the day. Everyone traded their prior green water for murky water with green things floating in it – a step up.
Dinner for me was three spoons of peanut butter, squeezed cheese, and pepperoni. The others boiled their sludge and mixed it in pasta or rice. I quipped that it looked like pesto sauce, giving everything a greenish tinge, and not to worry because we would be in Lordsburg tomorrow. The small organisms would take at least 24-48 hours to give them the runs; by then, we would be near modern plumbing. The group offered no responses and mostly glared at me over the tops of their little titanium pots. If they ended up sick, I had no doubts that I, not the cow water, would receive the blame.