Short Story - Dead Burro Wash
Dead Burro Wash
She was scared.
She had violated every rule, and she knew it. She had ventured into the desert in mid-summer without water and without telling anyone where she was going or when she expected to be home. Pete was going to be furious…if she lived.
She had spotted the saguaro skeleton on their last venture into the Sonoran Desert, several weeks ago, and she made a mental note to retrieve some of the ribs on the next outing. However, earlier that morning, a local retailer and a solid client had called, needing a desert themed display by the weekend for a sidewalk sale, so here she was, mired in the sand of a dry wash.
The brush covered, small road off the main highway was sparsely traveled, and only the locals and explorers like Pete even knew it was there. The fork which led to the wash and her saguaro skeleton was partially overgrown from years of non-use, and was more of a game trail, than a road. But her Suburban was fully capable of negotiating such a rocky path, so she eased it down to her quarry, and loaded half a dozen ribs into the cavernous rear. All went according to plan, until she was ready to leave, and needed to turn around.
The trail was too narrow to turn around, and too long to back out, so she drove on down to the wash, where there was room to maneuver. At first, all went well, and she succeeded in turning around, but when she tried driving back up out of the wash, she realized that her rear wheels were spinning in the deep, soft sand and sinking in, and the first cold fingers of fear sent a shiver down her spine.
She paused to calm herself and then shifted the lever into four wheel drive. For a moment, the big vehicle moved forward slightly, but then halted, as the front wheels also sank into the sand in a vain attempt the free the mired rear wheels. Fearful of sinking further in, she shut the Suburban off, and climbed out to survey her situation. Both axles were barely off the sand, and she knew that any further attempt would result in making the situation worse. And what had Pete told her, time and again? “Put it in four wheel drive before you get into trouble, not after!”
It was late morning, and already well over one hundred degrees. The monsoon winds were bringing moisture up out of Mexico, and the increased humidity made the atmosphere feel like a hot, stifling blanket. To the south, menacing, gray storm clouds were already building, as predicted by on the morning weather report. “Oh great”, she thought, “I have the car stuck in a large wash, and it looks like rain. Pete will never let me forget this.”
The last time they had been here, they had been unable to make any calls. On the off chance that it might work now, she pulled out her cell phone and dialed Pete, holding her breath. To her despair, the phone beeped a warning that she was out of range. Then she tried dialing 911, with the same results.
The fact that she had no water was already making her thirsty, and the silence of the deadly desert had her close to panic as she tried to remember what Pete had told her to do should she ever find herself stranded like this. Of course his first advice was to never put herself in such peril, but it was far too late to worry about that. She sought the relative shade and coolness of a nearby mesquite, and sat down to ponder her situation.
She was wearing shorts and a light, sleeveless blouse, so she was badly exposed to the sun. She had no headgear of any kind, and she was wearing flip flops. She had been drinking coffee on the way, but that was long gone. She realized that she was in real trouble, and that she had few choices. She could try climbing one of the steep hills in hopes that the altitude might put her in cell phone range, or she could try walking back to the highway, several miles away. Without water, she had small chance of succeeding, no matter what she did, and she knew it.
She decided to try climbing the hill, and was just rising when she heard the rumble of a vehicle, probably on the larger road, perhaps a quarter of a mile away. She rose and began a desperate run up the rocky path, in hopes of flagging down the driver. She barely ran fifty feet before the grill of an older Ford Bronco bounced over a rise, and drove down the trail to meet her. It was covered in mud, and looked recently wet, so she supposed that he had just driven through a creek somewhere.
Barely visible through the mud, the driver’s door was emblazoned with the logo of the Pima County Sheriff’s office, and the tall, young man who climbed out was in uniform. The embroidered lettering on his pocket read, “Morgan”, and he wore a Deputy Sheriff’s badge.
“Saw your tracks going down here, and thought I’d better have a look-see. Folks get back in here and sometimes get stuck.” He looked over her shoulder at the Suburban, and smiled, shaking his head.
“Reckon it’s a good thing I did come down here. You stuck over there?”
She nodded, suddenly ashamed at her foolishness. As if reading her mind, he smiled again.
“I’ve seen folks who have lived in the desert all their lives make the same sort of mistake. You need any water?”
She nodded, and he walked to the back of the Bronco, and lifted the rear window. In a moment, he returned with an ice cold bottle of water. She took a grateful swallow, and thought it was the best drink she had ever tasted.
“Let’s see about getting you out of there.” He reached into the Bronco and pulled out a small tire gauge, and a short handled shovel.
“What’s that for?”
He grinned. “I’m going to let some air out of your tires, so they can help pull themselves out of the sand. It’s an old desert trick. The shovel is in case any of the valve stems are buried in the sand.”
Twenty minutes later, she was behind the wheel of her suburban, and the deputy had a tow strap attached to her front end. He had turned the Bronco around in a space she had not thought possible, and was taking up the slack. He had told her what was going to happen next.
“When I wave my arm, you apply some throttle, and between your deflated tires and the tow rope, we should pop you out of there like a cork.”
She watched as the strap came off the ground with a snap, and she felt the jolt. Then she saw him wave his arm out the window and she stepped on the throttle. Like a cow lifting its foot out of mud, the big Suburban jolted up out of the ruts and bounced forward. Seconds later, she was on the rocky trail, and out of the sandy wash. Overhead, the lowering clouds were dark and menacing, and she heard thunder from somewhere. She took a breath, suddenly realizing she had been holding it.
The deputy halted his Bronco and backed up slightly. He got out and unhooked the tow strap from both vehicles, stowing it in the Bronco. Then he waved for her to follow him. They crawled up the narrow trail, and stopped when they reached the small road. The deputy got out and walked back to her car. She lowered the window, just as the first few spatters of rain hit her windshield.
“I know by your tracks that you came in from the right, but I want you to go left to where this road runs into the county road. Then go right at that intersection to Kitchen’s Corners. It's only two or three miles, at most. Bob Kitchen will air up those tires so it’s safe to drive. Until then, don’t drive over twenty miles an hour. Got it?”
She nodded her agreement.
He looked up at the sky, and watched the clouds for a moment.
“Looks like we got you out of there just in time. That wash has been known to run bank full from flash floods during the monsoon. You be careful now, you hear?”
She nodded, and he patted her arm, with a smile on his face. It sent an unexpected shock through her body, and her mouth dropped open, but he had already turned and was walking back to his Bronco. Then he waved her on, and she drove by him, turning to the left to go get her tires aired up. The spattering of rain suddenly increased to a downpour, and she was glad to be back on a solid roadbed again. When she looked back through her rear view mirror, the deputy and his Bronco had disappeared in the rain.
Old Bob Kitchen patiently aired her tires up as he listened to her tale, nodding now and again. Under the canopy, they were dry enough, but beyond that, the rain was now coming down in sheets. Twice, lightning struck so close that there was almost no time between the flash and the clap of thunder.
“Deputy Steve Morgan, eh? Did he tell you about the time there was another storm like this? It was a real humdinger, and a flash flood came down that same wash and it tore out the bridge on the county road, just up the highway, maybe two miles.”
He put the cap back on the tire's valve stem, and stood up, arching his back.
“That time, Steve was responding to a call, and in the rain, he failed to see the bridge was gone until it was too late. He hit it at full speed.”
She stared at the old man. “Good Lord! It’s a wonder he survived!”
The old man nodded, wiping his hands on a red shop rag.
“Well see, that there’s the thing. He didn’t make it. Neither him nor the Bronco he was driving were ever recovered.”
He looked at her for a long moment. “You have yourself a nice day, ma’am.”