Travis gets his hackles down over Lolo’s invasion of his privacy and says, "I had a couple cows I was running up here, but I lost ’em. I think something got ’em."
"Long way to graze cows."
"Yeah, well, down my way even the sagebrush is dead. Big Daddy Drought’s doing a real number on my patch." He pinches his lip, thoughtful. "Wish I could find those cows."
"They probably went down to the river."
Travis sighs. "Then the guardies probably got ’em."
"Probably shot ’em from a chopper and roasted ’em."
They both spit at the word. The sun continues to sink. Shadows fall across the town’s silent structures. The rooftops gleam red, a ruby cluster decorating the blue river necklace.
"You think there’s any stands worth pulling down there?" Travis asks.
"You can go down and look. But I think I got it all last year. And someone had already been through before me, so I doubt much is coming up."
"Shit. Well, maybe I’ll go shopping. Might as well get something out of this trip."
"There sure isn’t anyone to stop you."
As if to emphasize the fact, the thud-thwap of a guardie chopper breaks the evening silence. The black-fly dot of its movement barely shows against the darkening sky. Soon it’s out of sight and cricket chirps swallow the last evidence of its passing.
Travis laughs. "Remember when the guardies said they’d keep out looters? I saw them on TV with all their choppers and Humvees and them all saying they were going to protect everything until the situation improved." He laughs again. "You remember that? All of them driving up and down the streets?"
"Sometimes I wonder if we shouldn’t have fought them more."
"Annie was in Lake Havasu City when they fought there. You saw what happened." Lolo shivers. "Anyway, there’s not much to fight for once they blow up your water treatment plant. If nothing’s coming out of your faucet, you might as well move on."
"Yeah, well, sometimes I think you still got to fight. Even if it’s just for pride." Travis gestures at the town below, a shadow movement. "I remember when all that land down there was selling like hotcakes and they were building shit as fast as they could ship in the lumber. Shopping malls and parking lots and subdivisions, anywhere they could scrape a flat spot."
"We weren’t calling it Big Daddy Drought, back then."
"Forty-five thousand people. And none of us had a clue. And I was a real estate agent." Travis laughs, a self-mocking sound that ends quickly. It sounds too much like self-pity for Lolo’s taste. They’re quiet again, looking down at the town wreckage.
"I think I might be heading north," Travis says finally.
Lolo glances over, surprised. Again he has the urge to let Travis in on his secret, but he stifles it. "And do what?"
"Pick fruit, maybe. Maybe something else. Anyway, there’s water up there."
Lolo points down at the river. "There’s water."
"Not for us." Travis pauses. "I got to level with you, Lolo. I went down to the Straw."
For a second, Lolo is confused by the non sequitur. The statement is too outrageous. And yet Travis’s face is serious. "The Straw? No kidding? All the way there?"
"All the way there." He shrugs defensively. "I wasn’t finding any tamarisk, anyway. And it didn’t actually take that long. It’s a lot closer than it used to be. A week out to the train tracks, and then I hopped a coal train, and rode it right to the interstate, and then I hitched."
"What’s it like out there?"
"Empty. A trucker told me that California and the Interior Department drew up all these plans to decide which cities they’d turn off when." He looks at Lolo significantly. "That was after Lake Havasu. They figured out they had to do it slow. They worked out some kind of formula: how many cities, how many people they could evaporate at a time without making too much unrest. Got advice from the Chinese, from when they were shutting down their old communist industries. Anyway, it looks like they’re pretty much done with it. There’s nothing moving out there except highway trucks and coal trains and a couple truck stops."
"And you saw the Straw?"
"Oh sure, I saw it. Out toward the border. Big old mother. So big you couldn’t climb on top of it, flopped out on the desert like a damn silver snake. All the way to California." He spits reflexively. "They’re spraying with concrete to keep water from seeping into the ground and they’ve got some kind of carbon-fiber stuff over the top to stop the evaporation. And the river just disappears inside. Nothing but an empty canyon below it. Bone-dry. And choppers and Humvees everywhere, like a damn hornet’s nest. They wouldn’t let me get any closer than a half mile on account of the eco-crazies trying to blow it up. They weren’t nice about it, either."
"What did you expect?"
"I dunno. It sure depressed me, though: They work us out here and toss us a little water bounty and then all that water next year goes right down into that big old pipe. Some Californian’s probably filling his swimming pool with last year’s water bounty right now."
Cricket-song pulses in the darkness. Off in the distance, a pack of coyotes starts yipping. The two of them are quiet for a while. Finally, Lolo chucks his friend on the shoulder. "Hell, Travis, it’s probably for the best. A desert’s a stupid place to put a river, anyway."