It takes Maggie's rolling bleating camel stride a week to make it back to Lolo’s homestead. They follow the river, occasionally climbing above it onto cold mesas or wandering off into the open desert in a bid to avoid the skeleton sprawl of emptied towns. Guardie choppers buzz up and down the river like swarms of angry yellowjackets, hunting for porto-pumpers and wildcat diversions. They rush overhead in a wash of beaten air and gleaming National Guard logos. Lolo remembers a time when the guardies traded potshots with people down on the river banks, tracer-fire and machine-gun chatter echoing in the canyons. He remembers the glorious hiss and arc of a Stinger missile as it flashed across redrock desert and blue sky and burned a chopper where it hovered.
But that’s long in the past. Now, guardie patrols skim up the river unmolested.
Lolo tops another mesa and stares down at the familiar landscape of an eviscerated town, its curving streets and subdivision cul-de-sacs all sitting silent in the sun. At the very edge of the empty town, one-acre ranchettes and snazzy five-thousand-square-foot houses with dead-stick trees and dust-hill landscaping fringe a brown tumbleweed golf course. The sandtraps don’t even show any more.
When California put its first calls on the river, no one really worried. A couple of towns went begging for water. Some idiot newcomers with bad water rights stopped grazing their horses, and that was it. A few years later, people started showering real fast. And a few after that, they showered once a week. And then people started using the buckets. By then, everyone had stopped joking about how "hot" it was. It didn’t really matter how "hot" it was. The problem wasn’t lack of water or an excess of heat, not really. The problem was that 4.4 million acre-feet of water were supposed to go down the river to California. There was water; they just couldn’t touch it.
They were supposed to stand there like dumb monkeys and watch it flow on by.
The voice catches him by surprise. Maggie startles and groans and lunges for the mesa edge before Lolo can rein her around. The camel’s great padded feet scuffle dust and Lolo flails for his shotgun where it nestles in a scabbard at the camel’s side. He forces Maggie to turn, shotgun half-drawn, holding barely to his seat and swearing.
A familiar face, tucked amongst juniper tangle.
"Goddamnit!" Lolo lets the shotgun drop back into its scabbard. "Jesus Christ, Travis. You scared the hell out of me."
Travis grins. He emerges from amongst the junipers’ silver bark rags, one hand on his gray fedora, the other on the reins as he guides his mule out of the trees. "Surprised?"
"I could’ve shot you!"
"Don’t be so jittery. There’s no one out here ’cept us water ticks."
"That’s what I thought the last time I went shopping down there. I had a whole set of new dishes for Annie and I broke them all when I ran into an ultralight parked right in the middle of the main drag."
"Beats the hell out of me. I didn’t stick around to ask."
"Shit. I’ll bet they were as surprised as you were."
"They almost killed me."
"I guess they didn’t."
Lolo shakes his head and swears again, this time without anger. Despite the ambush, he’s happy to run into Travis. It’s lonely country, and Lolo’s been out long enough to notice the silence of talking to Maggie. They trade ritual sips of water from their canteens and make camp together. They swap stories about BuRec and avoid discussing where they’ve been ripping tamarisk and enjoy the view of the empty town far below, with its serpentine streets and quiet houses and shining untouched river.
It isn’t until the sun is setting and they’ve finished roasting a magpie that Lolo finally asks the question that’s been on his mind ever since Travis’s sun-baked face came out of the tangle. It goes against etiquette, but he can’t help himself. He picks magpie out of his teeth and says, "I thought you were working downriver."
Travis glances sidelong at Lolo and in that one suspicious uncertain look, Lolo sees that Travis has hit a lean patch. He’s not smart like Lolo. He hasn’t been reseeding. He’s got no insurance. He hasn’t been thinking ahead about all the competition, and what the tamarisk endgame looks like, and now he’s feeling the pinch. Lolo feels a twinge of pity. He likes Travis. A part of him wants to tell Travis the secret, but he stifles the urge. The stakes are too high. Water crimes are serious now, so serious Lolo hasn’t even told his wife, Annie, for fear of what she’ll say. Like all of the most shameful crimes, water theft is a private business, and at the scale Lolo works, forced labor on the Straw is the best punishment he can hope for.