Chapter 1: Getting There is Half The Fun

Copyright© 2006 by Gina Marie Wylie

Judy Bondi dropped the checklist she'd been working from on her bed and patted her backpack fondly. With practiced motions she cinched her sleeping bag to the bottom rail of the backpack and then grinned broadly.

It had been more than a year and a half since Judy had last gone camping with her brother. She remembered everything he had taught her as if she had learned it only yesterday. Carl would be proud of his little sister!

She swung the pack off her bed and leaned it against the wall by the door to the hall, then went to her desk to pick up the knife her brother had given her when he'd been home on leave over Thanksgiving. Judy pulled it from its sheath and stared at the long blade.

Her brother had told Judy it was a hunting knife, something she would find useful when she was camping. The knife had an eight-inch blade with a wicked look about it. Judy was sure it was really some sort of combat knife. About what you'd expect from someone who was now a Marine buck sergeant after just a year and a half of service in the Marines.

Judy sighed. The problem was that her brother had gone back to Vietnam, to a place called Khe Sahn, where, according to the nightly news, a lot of fighting was going on. All she could do was pray her brother kept safe, but in Vietnam in the spring of 1967, that was a lot to hope for.

Outside her room Judy saw the hall light snap off in the hall as her dad headed towards his bedroom. Judy's mind wandered along corridors of the past, the present and the future.

Once upon a time, hers had been a happy family. Her dad had been a gruff Italian bear, all noise and no bite. Mom had loved her children whole-heartedly, making them the centerpiece of her life. Not that the galloping liver cancer that had killed her in six brief months had cared at all what sort of mother she'd been to her children.

Ever since, day-by-day, Judy's father had changed. Gene Bondi was still bear-like and grumpy, but it wasn't pretend or for fun any more. He was like a bear with a sore foot; a bear that you wanted to be very careful you didn't rile.

Her father had driven her brother Carl out -- that was the bottom line. Carl had planned on going to Arizona State after high school and studying chemistry. Except Carl looked their father in the eyes and decided that living at home wasn't an option, so Carl had gone straight from high school to the Marines.

Sure, Carl had big plans for when he finished his tour. Carl planned on going to college on the GI Bill, where he could afford his own apartment. Where he could have his own life, away from the negative influence of their father.

Judy slipped the knife into her pack before turning off her own light.

Tomorrow, Mr. MacGregor, her eighth grade teacher, was going to take some of his class to the desert, staying over Friday and Saturday nights.

They had done something like this back in November. Judy remembered that it had been fun, a lot of fun. It had snowed the day before they had gone up to the high country. There were two or three inches of the foreign white stuff on the ground where they parked. Three of Judy's classmates had never seen snow before except in pictures. The group had hiked six miles deeper and two thousand feet higher into the mountains and camped in snow that was six to nine inches deep. Judy had reveled in the moans and groans of complaint from the others!

Now it was the first week of April; they weren't very likely to see snow this time! In fact, it was likely to be in the mid-90's all weekend long, and it was possible the temperature could reach into triple digits. Judy crooked a small smile, thinking about it. Likely there would be even more complaints this time, but none of them would be from her. Carl had done a good job teaching her to camp; Judy's parents had, too, before her mom got sick.

Judy closed her eyes, willing herself to get some sleep. Instead, Mr. MacGregor popped into her mind. At five ten, Judy was taller than just about everyone in her class, but standing next to Mr. MacGregor brought her back into perspective. Her teacher stood six four, weighed two hundred pounds and was tough as nails. He was all muscle.

Mr. MacGregor had been an Army master sergeant, even though he wasn't much more than thirty. He'd been in Vietnam too, just like her brother. He had been a Green Beret medic; he liked to tell funny stories around the campfire about life in the army. Mr. MacGregor also taught Outward Bound in the summer; he was someone who'd done a lot of exciting things in his life.

Judy had watched Mr. MacGregor last fall, coming down the mountain with his cousin, after everyone else who'd been hiking with them had called it quits. The two adults had climbed all the way to the top of the ridge and were running back, taking huge leaps and bounds through the snow. It had taken them four hours to climb up to the top of the ridge, less than twenty minutes to come back down. He'd had fun; she had seen it in his face, afterwards. Fun! Imagine, an eighth grade teacher who could have fun!

For this trip, he'd told them, he had a special treat for the class. His old commander from Vietnam, a man who'd twice saved his life, was going to come along. A man who, Mr. MacGregor said, should have gotten a lot more than a lousy Silver Star for the last time he'd saved him, because he'd saved a whole lot of others at the same time. Most importantly, Mr. MacGregor's friend had grown up in Arizona and knew everything there was to know about desert survival, and it would be very educational for them to hear him talk about it.

Judy tried to picture what sort of a man it would take to make Mr. MacGregor's eyes light up with pleasure and gratitude as they had when he talked about his friend. She was still thinking about Mr. MacGregor when her thoughts faded to dreams.

At lunch the next day, Judy sat in her usual spot in the cafeteria, off to one side. She took out her bag lunch and a book to read from her book bag.

Her friend, Becky Tomasino, joined her almost at once. Becky had the same long black hair as Judy, the same brown eyes and brown skin. Becky was four inches shorter than Judy, and was maybe thirty pounds lighter.

"This is going to be so much fun this weekend!" Becky said, her eyes bright.

Judy smiled and nodded.

A third girl joined them, Lydia Valenzuela. Lydia had the same black hair and brown eyes of her friends, but she was shorter than Becky and built a little heavier than Judy. Lydia didn't smile much and didn't then.

"What are you reading, Judy?" Lydia asked. Lydia might not smile much, but she was as curious as any cat.

Judy held up Andre Norton's "Sea Siege". Lydia held out her hand, and Judy handed it over to her.

"Wow," Lydia exclaimed after a second. "World War III and denizens of the deep! All in one!"

Judy nodded in agreement. "And last week," Lydia went on, "it was Farnham's Freehold. World War III again."

Judy smiled at that. "You should read it. Robert Heinlein is a very good writer."

Lydia shook her head. "Last night, we went to visit my grandfather in the hospital. He told me that he wanted me to have his guitar and he made grandmother bring it. He gave it to me, and then made me play a couple of pieces. Rodrigo." Lydia cast her eyes heavenward. "Those are really, really hard!"

Judy could only nod. She loved to read books; Lydia loved music. Lydia's grandfather was dying of cancer, just like Judy's mother had... only much more slowly. Judy hadn't much interest in reading when her mother had been sick. Nor had she found anything to smile about at the time. It's hard to see someone you love waste away to nothing and die.

"Hah! I read the history assignment!" Becky laughed. "You two..." Becky was shaking her head in mock anger.

Becky was practical and pragmatic.

"I did that two days ago," Lydia replied, mildly aggrieved.

Judy didn't say anything. She'd read the entire American history book once in the fall, read this particular assignment a couple of weeks before and again the previous weekend. This wasn't so much an old discussion, as an old joke between them.

It's hard to understand what draws people together, Judy thought. Becky was Italian, too, although in her case, both of her parents were actually Italian. Only Judy's father's parents had come from Italy, her mother had been from Hoboken, New Jersey.

Lydia's parents, both of them, had been born in Mexico and had come to the United States when they were young.

Three girls, friends since they could remember in school. All three had long black hair and brown eyes; all three wore their hair braided down their backs. They had been friendly rivals for years to see who could grow it the longest. To see who could read the most books and who could get the best grades in school.

Judy was certain that she couldn't have better friends in the world. She knew it because at one time or another, both Becky and Lydia had helped Judy with her hair after Judy's mother died. Long hair, particularly braided, takes a lot of time and effort to keep clean and brushed; it wouldn't have been possible without help from her friends.

"You looking forward to the weekend, Judy?" Lydia asked.

"A lot," Judy admitted to her friends, and then grinned. "I packed a lot of books."

"Not a single school book, I bet!" Becky said gleefully.

"Not a single one," Judy agreed.

"Not me!" Becky exclaimed! "I'm taking my history book!"

"I'm bringing my American literature book," Lydia said.

The other two fell to eating their own brown bag lunches. Judy marked the place in her book and joined the conversation. There will be, Judy thought, plenty of time to read over the weekend. Lunch ended and the three of them headed back to Mr. MacGregor's classroom to finish out the day.

The last bell rang and almost everyone was up and out of their seats; the usual Friday afternoon rush to start on the weekend. Judy sat still, waiting for the rush to get past. She saw Mr. MacGregor give her a small smile and a nod.

Judy knew that more than one girl in her class would get all dreamy-eyed if Mr. MacGregor were to nod at them. Judy, on the other hand, was tolerably sure that Mr. MacGregor was aware of how much respect she held him in.

"It wouldn't hurt to go now anyway," Mr. MacGregor said and laughed, reading her mind. "Tuck is very punctual; he expects it of everyone else, too."

Judy nodded, got up and walked to the back of the room and simply lifted her pack easily, swung it over her shoulder and onto her back. A few feet away, Judy saw Lydia shoulder a much smaller back pack, one without a frame, then pick up a guitar case.

Becky's pack was nearly as large as Judy's. "I am ready," Becky said firmly.

"You have your box?" Judy asked.

"Of course. I never let it get far away."

Becky's box was famous, had been since about third grade. Need something? See Becky. Scissors, glue, paper, pencils, string, pins, needles, thread, pliers, bobby pins, clothes pins; whatever you needed, Becky would have it.

Mr. MacGregor, when he needed something, would turn to Becky and say, "Does Miss Practical have... ?" and name what he needed. Becky was still afraid someone was going to start using that as her nickname, but Judy didn't think it would be a problem. It was too long, if nothing else.

Sarah Flowers, the other girl from the class that was going, was a few feet away, trying to pick up everything she'd brought along at once -- and failing.

Seeing Judy standing with her hands free, Sarah promptly handed Judy her sleeping bag. "Would you carry this out for me, Judy? Thanks." Sarah had instantly turned away, dealing with another minor crisis, without waiting for an answer.

Sarah was about five six; blonde and fair as the other girls were dark. She was wearing shorts and a thin, dark-colored blouse.

Judy smiled to herself. You will, Sarah, hear from Mr. MacGregor before the evening is out. You will learn a lot about how to pack a backpack, and then you will hear about what to wear when you go out into the desert.

Judy's eyes strayed to Sarah's mother, a few feet away from her daughter, her gear in equal disarray. It will be worth the price of admission to see what Mr. MacGregor says to you, lady.Sarah's mother was, at least, wearing jeans, but she was going to find walking in the desert exciting, wearing open-toed sandals, leather or not.

Becky also glanced at Mrs. Flowers and gave Judy a wry grin. Judy shrugged, but with a small smile. Both of her friends saw her expression and grinned too.

The three of them were always talking about things between themselves. Things like what sort of clothes to wear in the desert, what they should bring along for the weekend. If they weren't sure, none of them was shy about asking each other questions. In Judy's opinion, some things were a lot nicer learned in a classroom or sitting, talking on the phone.

Judy turned and led the way out the door, walking towards the parking lot about two hundred yards away, Becky and Lydia trailing her. Much further behind were Sarah and her mother. Mr. MacGregor was still back in the room, trying to help one of the boys reduce what he was going to bring along, although he was finishing up.

There was no doubt in her mind which vehicle she was looking for. It was a van with a sign on the driver's door that said "VALLEY STUD." There was a man with one boot heel on the front bumper, leaning back against the hood, a Stetson pulled down over his eyes. He was wearing black jeans and a long sleeved blue-checked shirt. When Judy got closer she saw it was just a plain shirt, not a western shirt -- there were no snaps, no fancy decorations around the pockets.

Judy stopped a few feet away from him, wondering what she should do. She glanced over her shoulder and saw Mr. MacGregor coming, trailed by a line of others. Becky and Lydia weren't far off; there was another girl Judy didn't recognize, with Sarah and her mother, still further back. Mr. MacGregor was walking quickly towards Judy.

"Tuck," Mr. MacGregor said when he got closer, "isn't like me. You get in Dutch with me if you don't do your homework. Tuck doesn't like people who are late." Mr. MacGregor waved at Tuck. "You'll notice Tuck can sleep standing up, on a hot Arizona afternoon, wearing long sleeves."

"At least," the man said, pushing up his hat, "I don't suffer from gas."

Judy considered Mr. Tucker for a few seconds. He was easily the most unremarkable person she had ever seen. He was about five eight, maybe 140 pounds, clear blue eyes. He didn't have a beak nose like she and Becky did, his nose wasn't even as large as Lydia's. His lips were thin; his brown hair was crew cut. He looked like some middle manager at the Western Electric plant where her dad worked.

"Which of you gets to ride in luxury and comfort?" Mr. Tucker asked. He looked at them, then at Mr. MacGregor. "Let me guess how the numbers work, Mac. Five guys and you. Six women and me."

"The air conditioning is busted in the Travel-All," Mr. MacGregor averred.

"So ladies, if you would, let's load up," Mr. Tucker told them.

He walked around the back of his van, opened the double doors at the rear and stepped back out of the way. Judy was right behind him, putting her pack down next to another pack frame, already there. There was a long canvas bag that Judy thought was a large tent, plus some plastic milk crates with things in them as well.

When Sarah loaded her pack, Judy handed her the sleeping bag. Sarah just dumped it next to her own pack and then walked around the side of the big van.

It took a while, but finally they were on the road, following Mr. MacGregor's very large car. Judy was curious about a number of things, things that she'd seen, things she'd inferred.

Mrs. Flowers had simply claimed the front passenger seat; Judy wasn't surprised, but was curious about the fact that Mrs. Flowers and Mr. Tucker barely exchanged any words.

Lydia had gotten into the middle seat, between the window and Sarah Flowers. Judy was sitting in the middle of the back seat, the stranger to her left, Becky to her right. It was fair, Judy thought, for her to get the middle. Normally she got a window seat, because as tall as she was, her knees would collide with the ceiling of any car she was in, if she sat in the middle. But there was no hump down the middle of the van, so it made no difference where she sat.

Judy cast a mild glare towards Mrs. Flowers. Lydia should be sitting where you are. Lydia gets carsick; she can't sit in the back seat of a car at all. The middle was going be a trial for her, but she could probably get by. She does just fine sitting up front. Too bad you never bothered to ask.

And, speaking of talking, the stranger sitting next to Judy wasn't doing any of it either. The girl was a very large question mark in Judy's mind. She was nearly as tall as Judy and was probably twenty pounds heavier than Judy. Not fat, but much further into the 'chunky' class of girl.

The real surprise was that Judy had absolutely no idea who the girl was. Not a clue. The girl said absolutely nothing, did nothing but stare straight ahead, not even bothering to look out the window. There was even less expression in the stranger's face than on Lydia's.

Plus, the girl's hip had brushed against Judy's. Judy pretended that nothing had happened, but unless Judy was very mistaken, the girl had a very large knife in her jeans pocket.

Then there was Mr. MacGregor's friend, who was driving. She'd been curious about him since the first time Mr. MacGregor spoke of him. Now, having seen him, she was more curious than ever. There was an economy about the way he moved, the way he talked, that she couldn't put a finger on, but it wasn't just an impression. No, that was what he was like. Economical.

Judy could not imagine describing a person with the word "economical" and if she had, She'd have probably used the word thrifty, instead. But economical suited Tuck.

In the fall, the entire group had been able to fit in Mr. MacGregor's car, and they had talked and laughed for the entire drive to where they were to start hiking. On the way back they'd sung stupid camp songs; it had been a lot of fun.

Mr. Tucker had tried to start a conversation earlier, when he'd asked everyone their names, but the conversation had lapsed almost at once. At least Judy had gleaned the name of the stranger, Elspeth Brenner. She didn't recall hearing it before at school; it would be interesting later to see if Becky or Lydia knew her.

After everyone had given their names, Mr. Tucker had said, "William Tucker is the name my parents gave me, but that didn't stop them from called me Billy when I was growing up. In Nam, Mac started calling me 'Tuck' -- he didn't think Billy sounded enough like what an officer's name should be. The name caught on. So, please, call me Tuck, everyone does."

Twice after that, Judy had seen Mr. Tucker, Tuck, say something quietly to Mrs. Flowers. Once, Mrs. Flowers had turned away, rudely looking out the window. The second time she had simply ignored him.

Yet Mrs. Flowers had given him her name and so had Sarah. So, maybe it was just instant bad chemistry.

It took an hour to get away from the city and then they went along a dusty dirt road for another hour.

Tuck finally broke the silence, waving ahead of them at Mr. MacGregor's car. "Mac said that some of you went with him into the mountains last fall, and this spring he wanted to bring you into the desert. This is the prettiest time of the year in the desert."

Some people saw rocks and sand, mountains and hills and thought the desert was desolate. Actually, Judy thought, the desert was dotted every few feet with bushes, mainly creosote and sage, Palo Verde trees were also frequent. Less common were ironwood trees and a few other tree varieties as well. There were all kinds of wildlife too, from bugs and lizards to deer.

Tuck continued, "Mac came up here a couple of weeks ago, looking for a spot for us to camp. Here in a bit, we're going to cut cross-country to reach the spot he picked."

For the first time, Judy noticed that Mr. MacGregor was about a quarter of a mile ahead of them. If Tuck was following him, why not follow closer? Then Judy realized that Tuck was staying just back of where the dust plume from the other car faded away. Judy realized that he was doing it so the people in the van wouldn't have to breath the dust Mr. MacGregor's car kicked up. Thinking that, she also realized she hadn't seen another car for a quite a while.

"Are we going to do any hiking?" Lydia asked from her seat in the middle, next to Sarah Flowers. Lydia loved to walk, almost as much as she liked to play the guitar.

Tuck laughed, but it wasn't mean or sarcastic. "Tomorrow, we split into two groups. Those who are demented can go with Mac and cross the Verde on the cable car. Those who are sheep can follow me across the Sheep Bridge. We will all do a fair amount of walking."

Ahead of them, Mr. MacGregor was slowing, his right turn blinker on. Judy had been able to see the Verde River in places for the last few miles, they were still about a mile or so away from it, but now they were turning directly towards it.

"Like I said, we're going cross-country, so don't get excited when we leave the road," Tuck said, as he too slowed and put on his blinker.

Judy tried to see where they were going, but the problem with sitting in the middle of the back seat was that she had a lousy view in every direction. Judy wished she could see what Tuck was seeing right then, driving without a road. It would have been even more interesting to be with Mr. MacGregor, going across the trackless desert.

Judy never figured out what happened next. She had impressions, but a poor vantage point to see from.

Without warning, there was an instant of darkness, and then it was like being in some sort of rainbow light show for another second or two. It looked like being inside a waterfall of rainbows.

Judy glanced to the side and saw when the rainbows vanished. Instead of rainbows, about forty feet away were a half-dozen men. She didn't have a good view of them past Becky, but it was enough to see that all but one of the men were holding the reins of horses; each man was dressed in what looked like some sort of chain mail armor shirts. The men were carrying very long rifles, slung over their shoulders.

The van's brakes grabbed, throwing Judy forward. Only a quick move kept her from smashing into the seat in front of her; Becky, next to Judy, did fly forward, sprawling in the space in front of the middle door.

The van swerved sharply and for a second Judy could clearly see the wall of whatever they were inside, a few feet past the window. It looked like silvery mesh; a mesh that seemed to pulse with faintly rainbow-colored light, with a vague view of the desert beyond it. A desert that shimmered and flickered oddly.

Then Tuck slammed the gearshift into reverse and floored the accelerator. Judy was pushed back against the seat, just as the rainbows started again.

There was another instant's blackness followed by hard sunlight once again. Then an abrupt bump, as the van ran into something solid, stopping it, giving the occupants one last jolt.

Judy had time to take a breath, before the screams started. Mrs. Flowers, Sarah, and Becky from the floor. Lydia gasped, and Judy felt the girl next to her move so that her hand was down between them, trying to get into her pocket.

"Oh, my God!" Lydia exclaimed, crossing herself. "What happened?"

"Calm down," Tuck's voice was clear, calm and confident. "Just sit still for a second."

"What was that?" Mrs. Flowers asked.

"I have no idea," Tuck told her. "Please everyone, sit still. Try to calm down!"

Judy was amazed at how short people's memories were. Maybe a minute later, there wasn't a sound; the relief was perceptible, too.

"I'm going outside to have a look," Tuck explained carefully. "I want you all to sit here, quietly, while I'm gone. Please do not freak when I take out my pistol."

In spite of that, when he drew a holstered pistol out of the pocket next to his seat, there were audible gasps. Mrs. Flowers said bitterly, "Is that really necessary?"

"I don't know, so better to err on the side of caution," Tuck told her. Judy nodded emphatically at that.

He closed the door behind him, but didn't latch it. Judy watched him stand still, looking around. After a bit, he moved, slowly circling the van, obviously looking around. He was wearing the pistol on his hip in the holster, not holding it ready. He kept his back towards the van, and never got further than a step away from it.

Judy watched Tuck as he circled around outside, using the time to get a grip on her own emotions, trying to think through what had happened.

When Tuck finished his circuit of the van, he popped his door open again. "I'm going to fire three shots into the air. That's a signal to Mr. Macgregor; we seem to have gotten separated. Please don't be alarmed."

Judy saw he was studiously looking at the rest of them, not Mrs. Flowers. It was like a little light going off over Judy's head. Oh! She doesn't like guns! She doesn't like soldiers! What was she doing here then, with her daughter?

Outside Tuck's pistol cracked once, twice, three times. Each shot was a couple of seconds apart, each crisp and sharp, the echoes racketing back from the hills around them.

There was though, no discernable reply.

A minute passed, then Tuck returned again. "I'm going to take a longer look around. Roll down the passenger window, Mrs. Flowers. The rest of you, please open the side windows. I'm not going to be out of sight, but if you think you need help, just beep the horn." He waved at the steering wheel. "Just keep calm, keep cool. Please don't get out of the van."

After five minutes, Judy was quite convinced that waiting was really harder than being outside, with something to do. Judy wasn't sure why she felt better when she could see Tuck; she just knew that she did.

Still, Tuck eventually came back. This time he motioned for them to get out.

"I don't know what's happened," Tuck said simply. "At the least, we seem to have gotten separated from Mr. MacGregor. Since I know where I am, that has to mean he's the one lost. Think of what a fine story you'll be able to tell on Monday!

"You might as well get out," he concluded.

The entire group clustered together tightly, just a step from the van, all eyes on Tuck.

"I'd like to tell you I know what's happened. I don't know, so I'm not going to try." Tuck waved around them, pointing at landmarks. "The Verde River is over there. There's Mazatzal Peak to the northeast, and over there to the southeast is Lion Mountain. So, I know where we are. I want everyone to take a few slow, deep breaths and relax."

Judy looked around, identifying the places he had pointed out. When he asked them to take a few breaths, Judy glanced towards the back of the van. It had hit a rock that was about three feet high and about that wide, leaving a crease in Tuck's back bumper. She turned to look in front of van. She remembered them stopping, starting to back up, there in that other place.

She froze. Her breathing stopped; it seemed like her heart stopped too. About ten feet in front of the van the tire tracks appeared in the desert sand. They were clearly visible in the soft ground of the desert. And just as clear as if it was spelled out, the tracks started in the middle of a sandy spot; there were smudges where the van had started, then a clear track back to where it had stopped.

But, nothing beyond. She turned, looked behind them. They might have missed the rock the first time, but the desert sand was soft. There was just a short set of tracks where the van had rolled backward and nothing else. It looked as if the van had been dropped into the desert, rolled backwards a few feet and then had stopped.

She lifted her eyes and met Tuck's. He gave her a minute headshake. Judy swallowed. Tuck had just told her to keep her mouth shut! Nicely, but that was the message. Why? This was a pretty remarkable thing that had happened!

"Ladies," Tuck spoke again, "it's getting on towards six. In about an hour, it's going to be dark. What I'd like to do is put up the big tent I brought, then we can see what we can put together for dinner." He smiled reassuringly.

When he said the time, Judy checked her watch. It was still ticking, showing a quarter of the hour.

Tuck walked to the back of the van, and opened the rear door. "Let's wait to get the rest of the gear out, until we get the tent up." He reached in, picked up the tent bag one handed and lifted it clear, putting it on the ground.

"Now, since we're here anyway, let's pretend that we've reached where we wanted to go. Where's a good place to pitch a tent, that's ten feet on a side?"

Judy spoke up, "There's a clear spot in front of the van. If we put it to one side, we can build a fire in the clear area."

No one else spoke, so he smiled and gestured at Judy. "Why don't you take charge of getting the tent sent up?" Tuck then turned to Elspeth. "Elspeth?"

"Yeah?" The other girl was, if anything, ruder than Mrs. Flowers.

"Why don't you help Judy carry the tent and get it set up?"

Elspeth pushed forward and grabbed the tent. It didn't move when she tugged.

Judy took hold and lifted. Gosh! It was really heavy! Really, really heavy! "I can carry this... about three steps," Judy told Elspeth. "Please, would you help me carry it?"

The other girl looked at the tent, then looked at Judy. Without a word, she got a grip on the bag, and between the two of them they carried it forward. Judy aimed for a spot in the middle, put it down, and then undid the fat green clip that closed the bag.

Without a word, Judy started tugging, and Elspeth lent a hand, until the canvas was all out of the bag. There was a tangle of ropes, a series of poles.

"I don't see any instructions," Elspeth said, looking a little frustrated.

Judy started spreading out the heavy canvas over the ground, finding a bundle with steel stakes in a cloth bag inside the tent.

With a nod to herself, she stood up and went to Tuck. "Tuck, do you have a hammer for the stakes?"

He'd been standing looking off into the desert, towards the river. Judy was startled when he held out his hand with a short-handled sledgehammer in it. "This works for me."

Judy took it and started away.

"Ladies, may I have your attention for a moment? Please gather around."

Judy walked over to the tent and dropped the heavy hammer on top of it, then returned.

"Two things for you to think about." He gestured at the tent. "You should all get together and help put up the tent. The desert gets chilly at night; working together you can get it up quickly.

"Some of you are going to feel the urge at some point to go off into the bushes." There were a few blushes, but Judy wasn't one of those who did. "Don't go by yourself. Go in a group. Don't go anywhere by yourself and don't go anywhere more than a few steps from the van without telling either Mrs. Flowers or myself where you are going and how long you are going to be.

"You've all seen the 'Think Ahead' sign where the last few letters are jumbled. Well, think ahead, ladies! If you decide to do something, stop; take an extra second or two, think about what you want to do. Maybe discuss it with a friend."

He waved a ways off. "There's a small gully over there, and a clump of bushes just over the edge. I'm going to visit the bushes with my trusty shovel and dig a small latrine pit. It will smell a lot better if, after you use it, you put a little dirt in the hole."

He did as he said, walking a ways off, out of sight. Judy returned to the tent, took one of the stakes and hammered it into the ground through a loop at one of the bottom corners.

To Judy's surprise, Elspeth laughed. "Yeah, that works!" She pointed to Lydia and Becky. "Would you give us a hand with this?" Elspeth started tugging on the heavy canvas, until it was pretty tight at the next corner.

Judy hammered in another stake. "Sarah, why don't you get more of the stakes out, and put them next to each loop?" Judy asked, and the girl nodded her head and went to get some.

It wasn't really all that hard. They did the four corners, and then Elspeth and Lydia went inside with some of the poles, and lifted the tent up, while Judy pounded stakes outside.

When Judy was about half done, Becky took the hammer and she pounded in stakes for some of the ropes. It took only a half hour before they were done putting up the tent. Judy was quite pleased with the job they'd done. It was a really nice tent, large, spacious and with lots of headroom.

Tuck returned from his explorations. He'd glanced at Mrs. Flowers who was sitting inside the van, the door open. Judy couldn't read anything from his face, but she doubted if he was happy. Then Tuck had checked the tent, then went to work making a fire pit about twenty feet in front of the tent.

When everyone gathered around to talk about what to eat, Mrs. Flowers finally joined the rest of them. Tuck produced a large pot and it was decided to dump in a couple of cans of chicken soup along with some other vegetables people had brought. Tuck added a half-pound of rice as well, after everything else. Tuck handed Mrs. Flowers a large wooden cooking spoon, but the woman shook her head, giving the spoon instead to Sarah.

Judy helped fetch more wood for the fire, and then took a small drink from her canteen. Becky and Lydia came over to where she was standing and Judy passed them her canteen.

The three of them were off to one side, no one else close. "What happened?" Becky asked. "I landed on the floor, I didn't see much of anything."

Lydia, who actually had a window seat, described what she'd seen. It was clear, Judy thought, Lydia had been looking to the left and hadn't seen the men or the horses, just the rainbows and the wire mesh.

Becky turned to Judy. "What did you see Judy?"

Judy contemplated not saying anything; she couldn't bring herself to do it, though. What would be the difference between that and lying?

"On the right side I could see a half dozen men. Most of them were leading horses. They looked like soldiers from the Middle Ages or maybe conquistadors. They had armor; their horses had armor. They were carrying what looked like guns of some sort. Long ones."

"You could be mistaken," Becky's voice was suddenly shaky.

Judy nodded. "I'd wonder too, except that when Tuck was pointing out things, the one thing he didn't point out was the road we drove here on." Judy could see mild skepticism on Becky's face, more so on Lydia's. "I think we should be careful," Judy told them.

"I'm not sure I trust him," Becky spoke softly, her eyes indicating Tuck.

For a change, it was quiet Lydia who spoke. "The alternative is to trust Mrs. Flowers." Judy snickered and Becky shook her head, acknowledging that had been a stupid idea.

Finally, it was well after dark and everyone was sitting around the fire, the three friends mostly talking amongst themselves. Lydia pulled out her guitar and played some simple songs. Judy wasn't unhappy with that, because Lydia knew a lot of songs, some of them pretty complicated, but all of them nice.

Mrs. Flowers mainly talked to Sarah; Elspeth sat off to one side, there was almost a visible wall of thorns around her. Tuck sang along and then spent some time talking with Judy, Becky and Lydia. School stuff mostly, nothing about what had happened.

Tuck tried to include Sarah and Mrs. Flowers, but he didn't push it when they didn't respond; he didn't even bother to try with Elspeth.

Judy watched Tuck a lot. She could see him thinking. His eyes would go around the area every few minutes. Twice, he went away from the fire, returning after a few minutes with wood. But Judy didn't think that was the only reason he went out.

Tuck ostentatiously checked his watch. "I know it's just nine," he spoke a little loud, over the crackling of the fire. "I think, though, you should go to sleep early so we can get an early start back to Phoenix, first thing in the morning. We'll have breakfast and then get going. If Mr. MacGregor and the others are in trouble, we have to get people looking for them, as soon as possible."

Judy stared at him intently as he spoke. Why was she sure that it wasn't Mr. MacGregor who needed rescue? They were sitting around a crackling campfire; there was no wind to speak of and the smoke was going straight up. Everyone had eaten a nice dinner; there was a nice tent to sleep in, everyone had warm sleeping bags to sleep in. You'd think they were pretty safe. Yet, in her bones, Judy didn't think so, not for a minute.

Tuck smiled. "I'll give you a Coleman lantern for light to get ready for bed, but remember, when it's on, you can sort of, almost, see through the canvas. There will be a flashlight just inside the door of the tent too, so that if you get up in the middle of the night, you can find your way. You'd be smart to wake someone else up to go with you.

"We have a full moon coming up. I'll be on watch during the night."

Judy looked; indeed she could see the moon coming up, although it looked more like a half moon than a full moon. She swallowed; then swallowed hard again. It was like before, when she'd noticed the tire tracks. When Judy had left for school this morning, the moon had been full and just setting. Tonight it was late to rise and was in the wrong phase.

Tuck handed Mrs. Flowers the lantern, the movement snapping Judy back to the moment. Why did he say you could see through the canvas with the light on? Judy was intimately familiar now with the tent; at most you could see a vague shape through the heavy material. Then Judy remembered her flush of embarrassment. Tuck had said that so that they wouldn't take their clothes off! Everyone was going to sleep fully dressed, after what he said! Judy grinned to herself. That had been tricky!

In spite of everything, once everyone was inside and settled and the lantern was turned off, Judy lay in her sleeping bag, staring into the darkness. Sleep would not come.

Eventually, Judy gave up and went outside, standing near the entrance to the tent. The fire was out, quite out. Tuck had even put dirt on the fire; there was no hint of life from it, only a faint smell of smoke.

Even with the half moon, there was enough light to see fairly well. She saw Tuck standing as he had been when she'd first seen him this afternoon, his foot cocked back against the bumper of the van. This time though, he was looking upwards into the sky, not sleeping under his hat.

Judy walked up to him, saw him glance her way, and then he went back to contemplating the sky.

"I like looking at the Milky Way," Judy said quietly. "You don't get to see it from Phoenix."

Tuck chuckled. "No, no you can't. It is pretty."

"What happened, Tuck?" She knew it was rude to just come out and ask, but what could she do?

"I don't know. I know a lot of things, but that I don't know." He pointed to the southeast. "Over there, I should be able to see the cable crossing on the Verde. I can't see it. I should be able to see Horseshoe Lake over there; all I see is the river."

He waved to the northeast. "Up there should be the Sheep Bridge. It's not much of a bridge, but here there's no bridge at all." Again he gestured, this time back south.

"I've been coming up here since I was your age. All those years I'd look south and see the sky glow from Phoenix. Over the years it has steadily grown brighter; tonight it's gone."

Judy looked south; there were stars there, right down to the horizon. She'd seen the skyglow from the city herself; it wasn't there tonight. She scanned around the horizon; there were no lights that she could see at all. Just the moon, slowly rising higher into the sky. It was going to set much earlier than it had yesterday, too.

She closed her eyes and sighed. "I saw the tire tracks," Judy said, her voice a whisper. "I can't believe my own eyes. Yet, here I am. Here we all are."

"Something happened," he agreed. "I don't know what, in spite of having seen -- something. I don't understand what I saw, so finding a good explanation..." He shrugged. "Still, like you say, here we are."

"Mr. MacGregor was always saying when he teaches math, two plus two always equals four, no matter how big you make two. Here, we have X. Two plus something equals X. This time, I think it's a really big something, because X is really strange."

Next to her, Tuck chuckled. "Why do I think you get straight A's?"

Judy didn't know what to say, so she said what popped up first in her mind. "I got a B last year in chorus."

He chuckled again. "Judy, it's after midnight. You really should get some sleep."

"I'm not even a little tired. Why don't you rest a bit, and I'll watch? I promise I'll wake you up if I get sleepy."

"Or if you see or hear something," he amended.

"Or if I see or hear anything you need to know about," Judy modified.

"When I got off the plane in Vietnam," Tuck told her, "Mac was there to meet the green first lieutenant, just out of Army ROTC at Arizona State, with only a short detour to snake eating school and a quickie class to learn how to jump out of airplanes that worked just fine and didn't need to be jumped out of.

"'Don't get killed, ' Mac told me, 'you seem like a nice guy, pretty smart. If you get killed, I'll have to train me someone else." Tuck was silent for a moment. "I didn't get killed; I did learn a lot of things from Mac." He chuckled. "Including how to delegate. Don't push it, Judy."

He simply pulled the Stetson down over his eyes and leaned back against the van like he'd done earlier.

Judy looked at Tuck for a second and then shook her head. She couldn't imagine being able to sleep standing like that. Yet Judy was sure he was asleep, she was also sure it had been something he learned in Vietnam. That led Judy to wonder about her brother. She had a terrible feeling about Carl; she didn't think he'd told her the truth about what it was like over there.

The stars slowly wheeled, the moon rose steadily until it reached the zenith. Judy walked in a small circle around the tent, not straying far from the standing shape, who, so far as she could tell, never moved.

A few times coyotes yipped or howled in the distance; other than that, it was silent. Finally, around three, she walked over to Tuck.

"Get some sleep, Judy," he told her as she got close, before she could speak. He pushed his hat back, glanced up at the moon. "Two and a half hours until dawn. Don't rush waking up." He stretched and yawned, and then grinned at her.

"You know anything about raising horses?" he asked. Judy shook her head.

"Let's just say that it can mean long, long, hours." He sighed, looked up at the clear stars. "Mac promised me a vacation for a couple of days; I was pretty frazzled, I needed it. Then this..." He reached out, touched her shoulder for a brief second. "Thanks, Judy."

She nodded, then walked back to the tent, laid down on her sleeping bag and was asleep an instant later.

In the morning, at first, the stirrings of the others didn't bother Judy, but the smell of smoke and cooking bacon changed that a little later. She got up, contemplated changing clothes. Then she decided, why bother? Instead, she did something she hadn't done yesterday and should have. She pulled the knife her brother had given her out of her backpack and strapped it to her belt.

As she and the others were finishing up breakfast, Tuck spoke to them. "I am going on a longer look see. I'll be gone about an hour. You will all stay here; you will all listen to Mrs. Flowers and do whatever she asks you to. Above all, don't wander around!"

"What's happened to us?" Sarah Flowers asked.

He simply shook his head. "I have no idea. Something has happened, that's for sure. I don't know what. I do know that we've become separated from Mr. MacGregor. I want you to take the tent down while I'm gone, put it back in it's bag and then put it and everything you have, back in the van. As soon as I get back, we'll go."

"This isn't some sort of trick?" Mrs. Flowers asked.

Tuck looked her right in the eye. "Mac has a stable of practical jokes, I'll grant you that. For the most part, they consist of things like letting you taste the water from a barrel cactus. You've all heard about drinking water from a barrel cactus?"

Everyone nodded.

Tuck laughed at them. "Let me tell you, don't do it! First off, it's illegal these days. Secondly, once you've tasted it, you might well consider dying of thirst a nicer alternative. It's pretty awful.

"So, no, this isn't a trick we've cooked up."

"Why not just leave now?" Becky asked.

Tuck looked at her seriously and answered her the same way. "I have a van, not a four-wheel drive. I need to find the road and then I need to find a way to get to the road without getting stuck. You folks finish breakfast and then start getting things ready to go. I'll be back inside an hour. Like yesterday, if you need anything, beep the horn."

Again, it was Judy and Elspeth who did most of the work on the tent. It was a lot easier to take down, although it wasn't as simple to roll up as tight as it had to be rolled in order to get it back in the bag.

Still, everyone was ready long before Tuck returned.

He came up, looked around, nodded to them. "I can't find the road," he said simply. "So, I scouted a way about a mile south, and I can see another mile or so past that. We'll mount up and go as far as we can. Then I'll look around again. Please, try not to drink anything unless you absolutely must."

"Tuck?" Elspeth had been standing off to one side, mostly not paying much attention to Tuck. When she spoke, everyone turned to look at her.

"There's a cloud of dust, over there, across the river."

She pointed into the distance, to the mountains four or five miles away. There was a clear plume of dust visible, coming down off the hills.

Chapter 2 »