When Maggie didn't come back to the trailer around lunch time, Hutch thought about going out to find her, but Starsky was still napping soundly on the cot. Hutch considered waking him, but his partner was in need of the sleep, and Maggie had been wearing a revolver on her hip when she left. If she were in trouble, they'd have heard gunshots calling for help. Maggie's father had been an immigration official in Nogales, and if there was one thing that could be depended on, it was Maggie's ability to take care of herself in the desert. Wade had always called her his cactus flower -- born to wildness.
Hutch found himself a broad-brimmed hat that might well have belonged to Wade, it certainly wouldn't fit Maggie's head, and Wade had been a desert rat too. Pushing it down close to his eyebrows, Hutch stepped out into the noon sun, and practically wilted. The heat was a smothering blanket pressing down on his shoulders, scalding his skin wherever it touched. Pulling his jacket over his shirt, he yanked the cuffs down over his wrists, and on second thought, turned up the back of the collar. He'd been called plenty of names, but he wasn't about to set himself up for Starsky to call him a redneck.
The van sat under the shade of the cottonwood, and even so, visible heat waves rose off its roof. A thin veneer of yellowish dust coated the brown paint. Deciding that he'd check the water level first, then the oil, gas, battery, and so forth, Hutch opened the hood and poked his head around under the truck's shallow cover, trying to figure out what was where in the unfamiliar, compacted interior. There, there was the radiator cap. Hot as blazes. He immediately decided to leave it until last. Swearing under his breath at the touch-heat of all the metal, he uncapped the battery and checked the water in it. Holding one cap, he jiggled it in his palm to avoid touching it too closely, while he reached for the next one, and the first danced out of his hand. Swearing aloud this time, he bent over, hunting the cap, and saw that it had rolled under the van. Hands and knees, then. He crawled in underneath. noticing how much cooler it was in the shadow there, resting a moment before retrieving the cap -- and he happened to look up at the underside of the chassis. The glint of new metal was incongruous against the dirt-caked rocker panel. Forgetting the battery cap, Hutch peered at the spot of glitter more closely -- and a chill swept through him in a wave.
He was out from under the van and on his feet and running back toward the Rex when a bullet droned past his ear and whanged into the side of the trailer.
"Starsky!" he shouted, and rolled under the Rex, his Magnum already in hand. He couldn't see the sniper from where he was. The shot had come from the north, by the trail that led into camp. How had anyone come up the road below without him seeing them?
"Starsk, get up!"
Another bullet pinged off the trailer's skirting, sending a spume of old paint chips flying.
"Hutch. can you see 'em?" Starsky called softly from behind the screen door, by the floor.
"How the hell they find us out here?"
"Had a radio tracer under the rocker panel. I found it just before they opened up. You feeling better?"
"Yeah. Cover me, I'm comin' out."
Hutch sent a volley in the general direction of the sniper, and the screen door crashed open, Starsky rolling down the three steps and under the trailer in one motion. He was completely dressed, but as he rolled next to Hutch, he laid his gun down to tie his sneakers.
"How did you get dressed already?" Hutch said, eyes squinting out at the featureless hillside.
"You're lookin' at a master of fast living," Starsky said, grinning.
"Who do you think set us up? Buehler?"
"Could be. If not him, someone close to him. Not much doubt who our organized assassination bureau is now, is there?"
"J. Edgar would turn over in his grave."
"Who knows, he coulda started the whole thing," Starsky said, another bullet kicking sand in his face. "Hutch, they must have a scope. They see us too good."
"What do you want to do?"
"Back at the ruins, I hope. If she has any sense, she'll stay there."
The next bullet hit the metal stairs and the ricochet clattered around under the skirting.
"Close. If we stay put, we've had it," Starsky complained.
"If we go out there, we've had it faster. You can't stalk what you can't see."
"Guess we'll have to break for it."
"Break for what?"
Starsky was about to say, 'For the van,' when a great whoooooomm erupted, and a wall of concussion from the exploding gas tank of the van sent sand and smoke into their faces. A ball of flame engulfed the BMW, and it, too, went up with a bang.
"That was bound to be next," Hutch shouted over the noise of the fire. "It's into the hills. buddy."
"South, to Maggie. We can't leave her behind, they'll kill her."
They scrambled out from under the trailer on the side opposite the sniper and dashed through the pond and out of the oasis, their escape helped partly by the plume of greasy smoke. The low growl of a powerful engine started up a long distance behind them and Starsky glanced back as he ran.
"Holy shit!" He shoved Hutch ahead of him even faster. "They got a Land Rover. That thing'll take 'em anywhere."
The shots stopped, and the Rover started after them across the rough terrain.
"What's wrong, what's going on?!" Maggie shrieked, running toward them. "Ken, who is it?"
"Killers! Keep going!"
"Where to?" Starsky panted, looking over his shoulder every few steps. The snipers were still far behind, but coming fast.
"Maggie, where can we go? Where can't they follow us in that?"
"We need water, we can't run without water," she said, bewildered. "We'll go to the site. This way."
She led them down a steep alluvial slope, kicking up stones and stumbling over creosote shrubs in their headlong scramble.
"They're cuttin' above us," Starsky warned, still bringing up the rear.
"We need help," Hutch gasped. "Mag -- where can we go? Where's the nearest civilization?"
"Oh God, nowhere. Not out here! There's nowhere. The interstate's the closest."
"That's thirty miles!" Hutch shouted.
"Twenty-eight on the road. About twenty as the crow flies."
They skidded around a tight crook in the path and plunged into a narrow arroyo between high rock walls. Another corkscrew turn, and carved handholds in the stone let up to a modest cliff-dwelling of five structures, mostly tumbled down.
"Can't go up there," Starsky called. "They'll have a clear shot at us from the other cliff."
Maggie dropped to her knees near the base of the cliff and began to throw chunks of stone off what Hutch suddenly realized was a cache. He helped her pullout the plastic water carrier. She handed another package to Starsky.
"Some jerky and a few other emergency supplies. In case I ever fell or got hurt and couldn't get back to camp. Davey, who are those people?"
"They're part of some illegal government undercover gang who take nice people and turn 'em into robots programmed to kill folks," he said, hefting the light package, then shoving it against his chest under his shirt. "Hutch and I busted up a nest of them awhile back, and we may be the only witnesses left who might be able to finger them."
"I'm sorry you got mixed up in this," Hutch added. "He thought we got out of town clear, but they traced us."
"Damnit, Hutch, we shoulda known!" Starsky said.
"We can beat our breasts later. Right now, we have to get moving. Maggie, isn't there anyone closer, with maybe a phone or a radio, who we can reach without getting ourselves killed?"
"I don't know. Maybe. There's a campground on the other side of the Granite range, but that's all the way across the valley and over the ridge. Maybe fifteen miles, but it's mostly out in the open."
"How about east, over the mountain here behind us?"
"There's nothing for forty miles or more. Prospectors live in Kenzo in the winter and spring, sometimes, but it's a ghost town this time of year. There's nothing at all south of here for farther than that."
Starsky stood, grabbing Maggie's hand and giving Hutch a hard shove. "Move. Down the gulley. Talk as we run."
"Okay, so we go east or north," Hutch said, taking the lead.
"Either way, if we go out in the open, they'll cut us off in the Rover," Starsky said grimly. "They don't have to stick to roads in that thing."
"Did you ever drive one of them, Davey?" Maggie said, letting him help her down a water-smoothed drop in the dry wash. "My dad used to say that you could tell a city man by the confidence he put in his machines. The only thing different about four-wheel-drive vehicles is that when you get a four-wheel-drive car stuck, you're stuck for good!"
A stone near Starsky's feet exploded as a bullet demolished it. Hutch dove behind an outcropping, gun drawn, peering up the mountain behind him.
"Keep going!" he ordered, preparing to shoot it out with the snipers and buy the others time.
"Don't be a jackass," Starsky yelled, and dragged him down the arroyo by the arm. The bullets pinged all around them until they got around a bend in the wash, where the terrain shielded them. They sank down on a patch of sand, winded.
"Hey -- this is no good," Starsky wheezed. "We gotta think. We need a plan."
"Got any bright ideas?" Hutch said. He scanned the cliffs carefully.
"Listen, partner, you couldn't do no good back there. Your gun won't reach. They've got fancy rifles and scopes. We're outclassed."
"You know, Starsky, you're turning into a real smartass in your old age."
"Yeah, and you're going senile."
Lifting her face out of her hands, Maggie blinked up into the sky. All their clothes were blotched with sweat. Starsky was without a hat or reasonable shoes. The only water they had was the canvas-slung gallon Hutch had shouldered at the ruins. Their handguns would be useless in a battle against the long-range rifles. Worst, they were on foot while their pursuers were in an off-the-road vehicle. She looked up to see Hutch's eyes on her.
"Okay?" he asked.
She ignored the solicitousness. "It'll take them awhile to find us down here, even if they come on foot," she said, swallowing dryly. "If they stay in the Rover, they'll have to stick to the north side of the cliffs all the way into the valley, and they won't be able to see us from the rim most of the way."
"Wanna bet they'll be waiting for us at the bottom where the wash empties out?" Starsky added. His shoulders were still heaving with breathlessness. He had kept up with them, running, but he looked distinctly unwell again. "Maybe we can cut out behind 'em and start north from here, huh?"
"We can try," she said. "We've got to find someplace to hide out of the sun, though. If we try to run all day, they won't have to shoot us down, we'll probably drop dead from heat prostration."
There was no argument on that point.
"You know somewhere we can hole up?" Starsky said.
"Maybe. If we can get that far. If they don't have a topo map and psych us out." She traced a rude map in the sandbank. "Here's the arroyo we're in, and the mountain behind us; the camp; the road we drove in on. Here's the valley, the dunes. Up here, there were some silver mines that petered out in the 1890's. You remember the shacks we passed on the way in? Right there."
"It's at least ten miles from here," Hutch said.
"Ten miles on the road, maybe six or seven overland. It's rough overland, though, all along the west face of the range, in and out of arroyos like this one."
"Rough country will keep the Rover from gaining that much of an advantage on us," Hutch pointed out.
"Yeah, it'd have to go around every little gully the whole way, and we can climb right in and out," Starsky added. He seemed intrigued with the idea.
"You make it sound so easy, Starsk."
"Just tryin' to look on the bright side."
"Maggie, how long will it take us to cover seven miles in this heat and over this terrain?"
"I'd guess about four or five hours. Most of the afternoon. This is the hottest time of day, but when the temperature goes up into the hundred-twenties, it really doesn't cool down much at night, even here in the desert. If we make it to the mines, we'll be in good shape, though. You could hole up in one of them for a week, if you had to. Most of them have only one entrance, they'd be a fortress. And there's one I remember that has a water hole inside -- the wild burros use it all year around."
Glancing up at the overhead sun, Hutch dragged the back of his hand across his brow under the brim of the hat. He expected it to beaded with sweat, but noted that except for where the hat touched his skin, his face was dry. The noon aridity was sucking water from him -- from all of them -- like a thirsty vampire. He caught Maggie's glance, and she handed him the water can.
"Drink up. They say the best place to carry water is in your own tissues."
He nodded and took a hearty swig, then passed it to Starsky. Starsky still did not look well, but at least his nap had freshened him. His nose was going crimson in the sunlight already. Hutch tucked his hat down onto Starsky's head, yelping as he touched his partner's heat-holding dark hair.
"Always knew you were a hothead," he complained. "You wear the hat awhile. I'm going to take a look to make sure our friends aren't following us on foot." He got to his knees and scuttered around the bend in the wash.
Starsky readjusted the hat, leaning back heavily against a rock, watching back the way Hutch had gone. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that Maggie was holding her head in her hands, hunched in a ball. Bravado or not, the woman was terrified. She wasn't alone. Starsky capped the water can and slid over beside her, putting an arm around her shoulder.
"You're really something, you know that?" he said softly.
"Tell me about it when we get out of this," she growled, but her anger wavered. She twisted away, biting back tears. Starsky didn't let go.
"Mag, honey, I'm scared too. We're all scared. Dammit, it makes sense to be scared. I wish this wasn't us, the three of us, especially not you, but it's happened, and now we gotta do our best to get out of it. But we have to do it together, okay? We need each other. We can't do it, any of us, without the others."
"Don't lecture me."
"Hey." He touched her chin, turned her face back to him gently. "Come on, now. It's okay, but don't you know you shouldn't waste water in the desert? An old desert rat like you. No, a cactus flower, right? Maggie Landis Cactus Queen. Right?"
She smiled in spite of herself and dabbed at her eyes. "I don't know how you do things like this every day," she breathed. "I'm so scared I can hardly move."
"It's when you stop being scared that you really have troubles," he said seriously, then grinned. "Anyway, we don't do this every day. Maybe every other day..."
She looked up into his mocking eyes and he leaned close. Their lips met, touched lightly, parted. Her wistful smile broadened.
"See? Good friends can brighten up the crummiest picnic," he said. "Come on, we'd better collect Hutch and get this show on the road."