Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Coldseeker - Part 1 of 4

© 2011 by Henry Melton

In my back yard is the dry, cracked basin that is usually a three acre pond.  A particularly hot dry summer has changed this place, and the swimming pool is now the only watering hole for wild things from honeybees to raccoons.  It seemed the time to pull out this old story.

Ike Walker scowled as he approached the edge of the canyon.  The hydrogen gauge was a whisker from the red line.  If he missed old State Highway 207, he’d have to turn back to Plainview.  His articulated crawler with six huge tires had no problem with the deep sand dunes that covered all of the Texas high plains, but the only way down into the deep canyon was via the ancient roadway, and the weathered asphalt was mostly covered.
It’s a bad habit.  I didn’t need that sale.   Hydrogen was the lifeblood of the farms he serviced.  Wilson begged him for one more cylinder, and Ike had parted with his spare.
Down in the canyon, his generator would resupply his stock and recharge the crawler with no problem.  But I shouldn’t cut into my safety margins.  One big dust storm, like last year, would leave him stranded.
Hot dry Texas winds shook the crawler, and the blowing sand hissed like a snake, removing a few more patches of paint from its sides.
Nothing unusual on the Weather satellites–just a normal spring day in the Texas Panhandle.
Navigation maps showed him in the middle of a lake.  Ike gave it a fractional smile.  The mismatch between the old charts and current day reality gave him perpetual amusement.  Prior to the expansion of the Chihuahuan desert into all of the western and northern regions of Texas, there used to be wet-weather lakes all across the Caprock.  The land was so flat that rain collected in any likely depression.  There’d been thousands of these playa lakes that appeared regularly enough to make their way onto the maps of that time.  Nameless, and isolated from creeks and streams, the collected water soaked into the ground or evaporated.
Gone forever now–rainfall here was no better than the Sahara–the depressions did nothing more than trap shifting sand.
Abruptly, the dune field ended.  Ike slowed down.  Broken slabs of asphalt ahead led down into the canyon.
He tapped the hydrogen gauge with a grin.  It was downhill all the way to his generation station in Happy Canyon.  He’d need its production.  Tanglewood station had been underproducing and it wouldn’t supply all the H2 he needed.
He’d been gone more than a year.  The Claude oasis north of the canyon had dried up and its dozen inhabitants had abandoned their domes to the desert, shifting his delivery route west.
Tanks in Happy Canyon ought to be fully pressurized by now.
The crawler tilted, and the vehicle hummed as the electric motors in the wheels acted as generators, replenishing his staging batteries on the downhill slope.
Ike checked the map.  It had been a two-lane highway in its prime, but part of the cliff-hugging road had collapsed.  There was barely room for the crawler to scrape by the rocks.
Ike had to strap himself down on the worst parts, but at least the scenery was a change from the endless dunes.
A dry stream bed–”Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River” on the map–marked the bottom of the five mile wide canyon.  At the southern end of his territory was another equally verbose obsolete watercourse, the “North Fork of the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos River”.  Both were just growing patches of sand now, collecting sand runoff from the high plains above, just as they had collected water runoff in the days before the climate shifted.
There used to be a bridge here.  Down under the sands now.
Happy Canyon was just a mile off.  He turned the crawler west and followed the map’s illusion of water, a crooked blue line.
Old Man Reuel had been a tough bargainer when he’d come through years ago, prospecting for cold spots.  Ike had gotten six-percent deals for most of his sites, but the old hermit wouldn’t budge for less than fifteen-percent, payment in electricity.  He disdained Ike’s offer to pay with food and store goods from town.  It was a bad deal, but the high walls of Happy Canyon were perfect for a hydrogen station.
Reuel’s homestead was shielded from both the morning and evening sun by the surrounding cliffs.  Winds off the caprock blew steadily down the canyon.  It was a perfect blend of coldtrap and windturbine sites.  By the time Ike had set up the tubes and the generator, he had known the place would pay its way.
Happy Canyon was a tributary to the Palo Duro Canyon, and the lands above and below the caprock had been in Reuel’s family for generations.  
I wonder how the old coot is doing.  For two years now, the hermit hadn’t deigned to come out and say howdy when he made his pickups.  If there hadn’t been the flicker of laundry hanging on the line and a curl of smoke from the roof, he would’ve gone up to the house and checked on him.
But without an invitation, Reuel made it plain visitors were unwelcome.
Ike’s crawler crested the rise, and the dry little homestead came into view.  In the shadows to the north, the cluster of collection tubes stood like a monster pipe organ next to the whirling blades of the windturbine.
Ping!  The ricochet of a rifle bullet off the sturdy hull of the crawler caught him by surprise.  He’d been shot at before in this wilderness, but Happy Canyon was too remote for poachers.
He threw the tiller over to the side and sent the crawler back the way he had come.  Ping!  Another shot.
The hull was too tough to be bothered by simple rifle fire, but there were windows, and the antenna cowlings.  The tires might be punctured, but it was unlikely.
What is wrong with the man?
At the bottom of the canyon, out of sight of the homestead, he pulled to a stop.
“Could it be poachers?”  He had lost one generating station five years before when someone had tried to steal the H2, triggering a fire.  They were long gone by the time he appeared, but the machinery had been melted well past recovery.  It’d nearly destroyed his business, and it’d been worse for his customers.  Without hydrogen one family had to give it up and leave.
He looked at the crawler’s tank–not even enough gas to make it to Amarillo.  Climbing back out of this canyon would be impossible on an empty tank.
I’ve cut it too fine.  I need that H2.
How old was Reuel getting?  Had he gotten senile?
I need to go check.
The dust helmet was an indulgence bought years ago, and then blessed many times since.  He lived in the crawler, but he couldn’t live in it 24 hours a day.
He topped off the helmet’s little water supply and wiped the visor clear of dust.  In a dustcoat, he would blend with the sand well enough, as long as the poachers didn’t see him move.  Had they followed?  There’d been no more rifle shots.
Ike secured the door after him and headed up the slope.
He began sweating under the dustcoat immediately.  Stay in the shade.  Sunlight and bullets were both bad for his health.
The homestead looked besieged by the sand dunes upstream from it.  The perpetual drift off the caprock was trying to make its way down the main channel, but Reuel or his ancestors had put a dam across the streambed.  The water was gone, but sand had filled the cavity.  A dome behind the house was partly engulfed by the dunes.
Ike took a closer look at his hydrogen station.  It was downhill from the house, but the dunes were starting to collect there as well.  At least no sign of a fire.
Motion–near the big loop where his crawler had turned around, someone in camouflage was creeping downhill.
Ike was divided between the urge to go protect his crawler or to sneak a peek at the house and his generator.
Could Reuel be trapped?  Or dead?
Keeping to the rocks, Ike made quick progress down towards the house.  He fretted over the sound of every rock he dislodged. 
The homestead had seen better days.  There were signs of a barn, now collapsed, and fenceposts of a corral.  The house itself was built into the side of the slope, with no rear wall visible.  The dome was the same white spun-glass used on every farm for outbuildings and greenhouses.
Last time, there’d been signs of life.  This time the only thing that moved was blowing sand.
He worked his way cautiously across to the house.  It was dangerous, but he lifted the latch and quickly closed the door behind him.
“Reuel?  Are you here?  Mr. Reuel?”
The room was dark and the insulation muffled the sounds outside.  There was a lightpipe by the door.  Ike opened it, and sunlight brought the vague shapes into focus.
Sand piles had accumulated more than a foot deep next to the door.  Furniture, tables, any flat surface was covered with a sheet of grit.  There were no footprints.
The place had been deserted with the door open for some time.  It had been abandoned abruptly.  Old faded pictures still hung on the walls.  A book lay face down on the couch.  A dustcoat hung on a hook by the door.
That’s Reuel’s coat.  
The room was as dry and dusty as the outside, but with the door closed, the air was still.  A faint odor of death lingered in the room.
Ike stepped through the sand, towards the closed door at the rear.  Dread slowed his progress more than unsteady footing.  He reached for the doorknob.  It had to be the bedroom.
Behind him, the door opened.
“Stop right there.”  It was a woman’s voice, muffled.
He turned.  A was rifle aimed at his chest.  The owner was hidden behind dust gear.
“Get out of there!  Right now!”
Ike nodded.  “I was just...”
“Out!”  she screamed.
He moved.  She backed up slowly to let him exit.  There was no chance to make a grab for the gun.
He trudged downhill, towards his crawler.  His back itched.  When he spared a look, she was twenty feet behind, pacing him.
“I just came for my hydrogen.  I was worried about Mr. Reuel.  We had a contract.  I need my hydrogen.”
“Really!  I need it.  I can’t get out of the canyon without it.”
They crested the rise and his crawler waited where he had left it.
“Get in and go away!”  She was closer now.
He slowly turned to her.  The rifle looked bigger, with it in his face.
“I don’t have enough fuel to leave.  Let me recharge my tanks from the generator and I’ll be gone, out of your hair.”
The muffled and wrapped head shook.  “No.  Just go away.  Now.”  She shifted the aim of the rifle.
BANG.  The sound was deafening, as the shell buzzed past his head.  “Go now!”
He didn’t argue.  He pressed the key button in his pocket before he reached the step.  Inside, he latched it behind him.
Low hydrogen or not, he started the motors and left the crazy woman behind him.

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