-------------------------------------------------June into July: Las Vegas, Nevada
It didn't take them long to reach Nevada. Dawn broke when they arrived at Hoover Dam, red morning light washing over the martian landscape around the Colorado river. They stopped at a small spot overlooking the dam and got out of the car, walking like the undead, stretching their cramped limbs, brushing the dust off their old clothes. Both of them looked scruffy, as they hadn't found time to change or wash up since Sun City. It was chilly. The desert nights vanquished the last day's heat, leaving the sun with catching up to do. Taytu pulled her arms tight against her breast to keep warm. There, overlooking the dam, was a simple monument of red rock.
"The Battle of Hoover Dam, September 3rd - September 15th, 1938."
"Site of the only victory won by Nevada State forces against the United States Army."
It was simple and to the point. Taytu knew nothing more about the event than what the monument said. She suddenly thought of her little brother, and the memory of home warmed her from the inside. Yaqob would know more about what had happened here. He'd probably read a book about this battle. Maybe several.
"Nevada." He said. She nodded. They got back in the car and started on their way.
Noh kept the top down, betting on the cold air to keep him awake. Neither spoke as they crossed the dam. Part of it was they were too scarred from what had happened in Sun City, but mostly they were just tired. One of the rocky ridges overlooking the road was crowned by the roughly hewn statue of a man with a cowboy hat and a rifle. Taytu stared at it as they went by.
The first town they reached was Boulder City, where they were disappointed to find no hotels or motels or anywhere to stay for the night. Boulder City gave the impression of a work village, only houses and basic amenities available. They filled up the tank at a small self-serve gas station and went on past. The red rock gave way to open desert as they went through an even smaller worker's village called Magnesium, and they were disappointed again. Just past Magnesium, the static on their radio came alive. "We must be coming to a bigger town." Noh said as the lyrics became audible.
To the town of Agua Fria
rode a stranger one fine day
Hardly spoke to folks around him,
didn't have too much to say,
No one dared to ask his business,
no one dared to make a slip
The stranger there among them had a big iron on his hip,
Big iron on his hip.
They saw the radio tower before they saw the town. Las Vegas was only somewhat bigger than Boulder City, its tallest structures the radio tower, after that the bell tower of a catholic church. They passed several hotels, but a newly found paranoia kept them going past, hoping to find something less conspicuous. The biggest was a casino made to look like a barn, the words "The Bloody Knoll" glowing in red illuminated letters. They finally stopped at The Sands
: a series of rentable bungalows on the edge of town.
Taytu couldn't feel her fingers, and her legs seemed like jelly as she stepped out of the car again. Noh was quiet but determined. They both went into the first bungalow, a sign saying "Management"
above the door. A bell ringed when they entered.
"Good morning!" an old man with a broom-like mustache looked up from behind his desk. "You need a room this early?"
"We didn't have the chance to stop." Noh said stonily, "One room."
"A bungalow will run you fifteen dollars a night." Noh produced the money and the man handed him a key. "Third one down to your right." The walk to and into the cabin was a blur. They collapsed almost as soon as they arrived, and slept dreamless until midnight.
When Taytu awoke, it was dark. She felt drowsy, her eyelids heavy and strange. She struggled to sit up and fumbled for the lamp-switch. The room filled with bitter light so suddenly that it hurt her eyes. She squeaked when she saw Noh sitting on the edge of his bed, his body drooped as if he carried a bag of grain on his back.
"What time is it?" she asked.
"After midnight." he said, "You sleep well?"
"Good." he looked at her, and she saw resolve in his eyes. "We need to leave. I do not trust these people. They let wild dogs run loose."
"I was thankful for those men in the suits, back at the casino. We owe them something."
"But what were they?"
"The owners" she said meekly, knowing what he was getting at.
"Gangsters. Criminals! They saved us because 'nigger' corpses are bad for business!"
She was looking down at the floor now. She hadn't realized it before now, perhaps she had just been too tired, but somehow the experience at the Lucky Gent had been worse for him then it had been for her. "I understand where you are coming from, but we are strangers here. We have to accept enough about this place to survive."
A knock came at the door. Taytu and Noh looked at each other with wide eyes. Noh grabbed his gun from the drawer and leaned against the door. "Who is it?" he asked.
"Just wantin' to know if you'd like something to eat?" a familiar old voice replied from the other side, "I don't have much, but there ain't many meals out there at this hour, and I wouldn't mind the company."
There was a silence. Noh looked uncertainly back at Taytu. She nodded toward the door. He opened it a crack, revealing the friendly face of the elderly manager. "That sounds good, if we aren't too much trouble." she told him. All the tension in the air let out right then. Noh opened the door fully and they followed the old man into the starry night.
He led them back to his bungalow, and they sat on stools pulled up against the counter. A radio blared from time to time. The room was very small, but as she looked at the mess on the caretaker's side, it dawned on her that he lived there.
"All I have is grapefruit, and some bacon I cooked up on a hot plate, but a meager meal is better than none. I got coffee too."
"We'll take what you can spare." she said. He served their meals on paper plates, the coffee in old stained mugs, and the three of them started to eat. The radio was playing some sort of cop drama. She looked at it as she tried to figure out what was going on, struggling to make out enough words to form cohesive ideas. The old man caught her gaze and explained. "There was stabbing down at The Bloody Knoll
. Some fella and his friend got crazy on dope and the bigger guy slashed the other one wide open."
"That's the news?" she asked.
"Police radio." he said. She looked at him with a question in mind, but he guessed it. "No, I'm not a cop, but I like to know what goes on in this town."
"So that's really happening? Right now?" Noh said, giving Taytu a knowing glance.
"Fraid it is. World's goin' to hell on a fast train."
"Do you know where I might buy a gun?" Noh asked the old man. The question startled Taytu with its frankness.
"Why, what do you need another one for?" the old man said. Taytu and Noh both were startled by that. Taytu felt she'd adopted the qualities of a tennis ball, slapped from one side of the conversation to another.
"How did you know I am armed?"
"I've been around a while, I've picked up a thing or two. Now tell my, why another gun?"
Noh sulked a moment before he spoke. "We ran into trouble in Sun City. I couldn't draw in time..."
"That's you, not the piece." the old man interrupted.
Noh bristled, but responded in the same tone he had been using. "I'd feel safer."
"What kind of trouble did you two get into anyhow?"
There was an awkward pause. Noh looked down at his half-eaten fruit. It was Taytu that spoke up. "Racial trouble."
"Oooooh." the old man understood all at once, "I'm sorry you had to go through that. Well, you might find someone willing to sell, but Pete down at the gun store don't like to sell to out-of-towners. Too many gangsters come through here, we being smack between Reno, Sun City, and Los Angeles. But if you want to practice drawin' behind the cabins, well, I won't mind. Just put a distance between that pea-shooter and the horses."
"Thanks for the offer, but I don't think we'll be here that long." Taytu said, "We're going to get a flight to Los Angeles as soon as possible."
"And leave that car behind?"
"The embassy will take care of that. We just want to get back home."
"Embassy?" the old man's interest was peaked.
"We're Ethiopian." Taytu told half the truth.
"Oh. Well, I'm even more sorry about the trouble you had. Hate that my countrymen have to go make a bad impression."
"Your hospitality makes up for it." Taytu said, "By the way, I don't think I got your name."
"Norbert Noonan." he said, "Call me Bert."
"The next flight to LA takes off in two weeks." the ticket agent said, standing in a glass booth inside the nearly abandoned terminal of Oddie Airport just south of town. Noh despaired, in the Goya sense of the word, his face contorting for a split-moment in agony. The woman behind the glass looked frightened for him.
"One week?" Taytu spoke, "Are we in the middle of nowhere?"
"Yes you are, ma'am." the agent croaked, "This is Las Vegas. Only people come here are people looking for work. Do you want to purchase tickets on the next flight?"
"We'll think about it."
"Don't matter much to me." The agent seemed to have recovered from Noh's unhappiness. "It isn't going to fill up. You can come in the day of the flight and I betcha we'll have tickets."
They stepped away, toward the wooden benches on the other side of the room, sitting beneath a bulletin board advertising job listings, second hand appliances, and the like. "We'll have to drive." Taytu said. "I thought we might need to."
"I have seen the map." Noh replied, "The desert between here and Los Angeles is long and barren. I did not know the desert highways were dangerous, but now I do, and I cannot take the sister of his Imperial majesty through such a place. What bandits may we find out there?"
She bit her lip. She wanted to tell him it was fine, that they should go on. She wanted to be the strong one. But the incident in Sun City stuck in the back of her mind. She'd never been threatened before, not like that, and it instilled a feeling of uncertainty. Vulnerability. In a place like this, they really were weak.
"Is Las Vegas less dangerous? This place is a desert village."
"We have a place to hide." he said stubbornly. "And we know there are authorities here. Plus, did you see Bert's gun?"
"Gun?" she asked.
Noh nodded. "He has a Martini–Henry rifle. I know it, my grandfather had one from his time in the war, and he passed it on to my father. That is a good weapon. Mr Bert makes us safer."
Taytu smiled. "You don't hate all these people anymore?"
"I don't hate anybody." Noh looked forward, frustrated. "I do not know what to think."
They drove on to the bank, where Noh used a payphone to check in with the embassy and have money wired to them. Taytu stayed inside and watched the few trucks and cars ply the sleepy western town. It seemed peaceful, idealistic. Even a small village like this lacked the grime that could be found everywhere in her home country. America seemed perpetually fresh. But now, after Sun City, that image was tarnished by a foreboding. America was not the a perfect fruit she'd always thought of it as. It was the deceptively waxed apple, its outside shiny, its inside as rotten as any broken society in the world. Americans hadn't perfected life, they'd perfected advertisement, and they used that skill to gloss over their societal ills. They'd learned better than any other people in the world to lie to themselves. For an outsider, this was as dangerous as the camouflaged predator.
They returned to the bungalow before noon. Taytu found Bert and told him they'd be staying with him a little longer. The old man's face was sympathetic, but his eyes lit up. She knew that he really did want their company, and for a moment, she felt bad to be working so hard to leave.
"I'll give you a weekly rate then. Last night will be included."
"You don't have to go through the trouble." she said, smiling.
"No trouble at all. You are good people, I don't mind having you around. It gets quiet around her."
"I'm sorry for keeping you up last night." she said, "We don't want to be a bother."
"No bother at all." he waved the apology away, "I don't sleep much at night. Mind keeps me up. It was good to have somebody to talk to for a change. If you two want to come over tonight, I'd be glad to have you."
"We will do that." she smiled. "Maybe not so late..."
"Of course, of course. You'll want your sleep. Hey! It's past noon! It's probably late for you now."
Taytu laughed. "I don't feel tired, but that will probably change when I see a bed. I'll see you later." She left the old man and caught up with Noh in the bungalow.
She hadn't really looked at their room before, having only rushed in and out of it until now. She realized this when she walked in for the third time since they'd rented it and noticed there was a painting of a wagon wheel hanging on the wall. This prompted her to look around, seeing the old desk, the hardwood floor, and the mirror that looked like something from another century. It felt decorated like an old woman's house. It was cozy, a small cave to hide from the world.
Noh left the bathroom. Taytu's mood had improved, she'd even grown calm, until she saw him. He was a broken man. It hurt her, scared her even, reminding her in a gut-punch way the things they had to worry about. But did they? Why did they see bikers around every corner now? How much did they really have to fear, and how much of it was their emotions, overworked since that one incident? She thought of the native woman in the desert, and the warning about the Ranger bar. Hadn't that been a close call? Her heart roiled. She wanted to put it all back out of her mind.
"I need you." she said. It felt like somebody else was talking. She grabbed him, pulling him to her like a safety blanket, the feel of his muscles writhing beneath his skin making her feel small and protected, each point of skin-on-skin contact a promise that everything would be fine, a promise she was insatiably hungry for. She began undressing him, and he slowly started to do the same for her. They fell into bed, their love making dream-like in her mind. When they were finished the darkness inside the cabin swallowed them up. The last thing Taytu was aware of was the chirping of a bird outside.
Suddenly, she was in an empty casino, its walls made of wood, all the empty chairs pointed toward the stage in the middle. She was aware that she was naked, though she did not see herself. She felt small and vulnerable, a hare cornered by a jackal, nothing to do, helpless. A stage light went on, so that nothing else but the stage and a standing microphone could be seen. A man walked into the light. He was a highway ranger by his appearance, a patchy beard on his face, his leather jacket almost rags. A feeling of dread welled up inside her as the man began to sing slow and sad.
"Some prayers never reach the sky"
"Some wounds never heal"
"They still say someday the South will rise"
"Man, I want to see that deal"
A second man joined him in ratty grey fatigues. He was old, his hair greasy and thin. Taytu was the only one in the room, but they didn't look at her, instead acting as if they were performing for a packed audience. The old man sang alone in a voice that was soft and strained while the second man stood by.
"I don't want to grow old gracefully"
"I don't want to go 'til it's too late"
"I'll be some old man in the road somewhere"
"Kneeling down in the dust by the side of the Interstate"
Then suddenly a dozen voices came together, men and women, highway rangers, aging soldiers, impoverished dirt farmers.
I am a renegade
I've been a rebel all my days
I am a renegade
I've been a rebel all my days
We were hopelessly outnumbered
It was a lost cause all along
But when we heard the bugles call
We swore we'd stand or fall together right or wrong
At the last line, all their eyes turned to her, and the music stopped. The sheer horror of that moment woke her up in a cold sweat, and it took her a panicked moment to get her bearings in their dark bungalow. As her eyes adjusted to the room, she saw Noh sitting at the desk, naked, cleaning his gun in silence. When he looked up at her she saw the wet glint in his eyes.
Over the course of the week, their circadian rhythm hammered their days back together, and they bided their time at the Bungalows, eating meals with Mr Bert, Noh practicing by shooting old sarsaparilla bottles behind the last bungalow in the back. Each shot echoed long and heavy across the lonesome desert. Taytu went out from time to time and watched, until the repetition bored her and her eyes started to wander over the desolate Mojave until she found herself watching Bert's horses. One day Bert himself came out and asked to see Noh's gun. Taytu stood there in the summer heat and watched as a reluctant Noh obliged the old man.
"Walther." Bert said, staring interested at the weapon in his palm. "Are these common in Africa?"
"We get them from Ostafrika
. They are very common." Hearing the two men talking now, Taytu became conscious of Noh's accent.
Bert nodded, his bald head gleaming in the sun. "Nine millimeter. I can get you something for this when I go into town" Shortly afterward he went away in a beat up truck, and Noh returned to sniping c ans. Bert returned with ammunition, which he gifted to Noh, buying his trust. When they ate together that night, Noh was more animated than usual.
"Where did you learn so much about shooting?"
The old man chewed on a piece of bacon fat and look down at his shoes. "Used to shoot jack-rabbits where I grew up outside of Tonopah. That's up north a ways." he paused for a moment and smiled weakly, "It's good shootin'. That's where I learned the most of it."
"Oh. With that rifle, I thought you'd been in the army."
Bert laughed. "They wouldn't accept me in the army. No, that gun is from a different time. I keep it clean, but it never gets used. Doesn't need to be."
"Giving the jack rabbits a rest?" Taytu said.
"My jack rabbit days are over. So are you kids going tomorrow?"
"Our flight should be here."
Bert leaned back. "It'll take some time getting used to the quiet again."
When they went back to the bungalow later that night, Taytu felt a strange sadness in leaving this place. It'd been a refuge for the last two weeks, and it was starting to feel like a home. It was a kind she'd never had before. This world was closed in, simple, comfortable, lacking any of the complex rules she'd grown up with in the world of royalty. That warm, wishful feeling, nostalgia for something she'd never had, all went away when she heard the strange putter of small engines on the road. Her blood froze in her veins when she looked around and saw three lights, all spaced apart. Motorcycles. She watched them go by, disturbing the supreme desert darkness. She fled inside only when they had passed.
"Delayed!" Noh shouted at the frightened woman in the glass booth, "It is the only one for weeks! How can it be delayed? What can we do!"
"Calm down, mister, or I will have to call the police." the woman on the other side threatened, "It is not my fault. It's going to be another week. The airline made the decision."
"We cannot stay here that long!"
"Drive to LA. It's only a five hour trip. Won't take you that long at all." The agent said. Noh left the booth in frustration and returned to Taytu. That thought about how stupid it was for them to wait for a plane had crossed her mind a few times before, but she'd accepted caution. She might've eschewed that acceptance just now if it wasn't for the motorcycles the night before. They made it easier for her mind to build bandit camps in the Mojave, belching out bands of redneck pirates on the hunt for anybody who wasn't white. "What are we going to do?" Noh asked her, but she just sat there frozen as a statue, unsure of anything. An idea came to her. "We should return to Bert." she said, "He'll know what to do."
The drive through the town was silent. They kept the top down, the breeze reprieving them from the desert heat. Taytu watched as banks, dime-stores, and cafes passed by as pretty as a picture. Her heart felt burdened, ready to drop out of her chest. What could they do? Perhaps they could call the consulate! It seemed foolish they hadn't before. An airplane could be sent for them. Taytu was going to tell Noh to pull over at the next gas station so he could make the call when she saw the three men mounted on their motorcycles. They were grimy, unshaved, and leather-clad. She sat perfectly still, hoping they wouldn't see her. They gave no indication that they had. It wasn't until further down the road, when she saw them trailing far behind them, that she knew for certain they were in trouble.
"Go faster." she said. Noh didn't look back. He'd saw them too.
They reached The Sands
and peeled onto the dusty ground. Bert came out and watched bewildered as Noh drove their car behind his bungalow. They waited, hearts in throats, as the sound of small engines came up the road. It needed to pass them, Taytu thought. She began to pray, though she didn't realize that was what she was doing. The world seemed to fall apart when the engines slowed down, and they heard them pull into The Sands
. One of the rangers yelled something, but they didn't take the time to hear it. Noh hit the gas. They charged through the rough desert, spinning around Bert's bungalow and back onto the highway. Taytu looked behind. The chase was on. They barrelled through Las Vegas, rangers on their heels, and turned south toward California and freedom.
"You drive" Noh asked. She grabbed the wheel as he maneuvered into her place. Her eyes went wide when he drew his gun. He fired at their pursuers, who weren't ready for it. She saw the rangers try to widen their formation. They couldn't fire back, or didn't try to at first. Taytu felt joy explode in her heart, more than she'd felt before. They were going to win! They were going to win!
A ranger shot at them. The bullet hit a back tire, blowing it out, sending them careening sideways. Noh was thrown from the car. It came to a screeching stop on the shoulder of the road, and the sound of approaching motorcycles spelled their doom. Taytu tried to accept death, but didn't know how to.
An arm reached up and opened her door. She squealed until she saw Noh, his arm bloodied, his face covered in dust. He grabbed her and took her running into a nearby shack. The rangers pulled up and took places hiding behind the rental.
"Give up, Niggers! This ain't your country!"
Noh peaked out the window. There was nothing in the building beside a piece of tumbleweed. They were already caught. "Let us go home and we'll leave your country to you" he offered.
"Too late for that." another man called out. "You done wrong by livin' here, now you gotta take your punishment."
A shot rang out. It peeled straight through the dry wood. They weren't safe. This was a death trap. Noh fired back, the painful sound ringing in her ears. Taytu couldn't look. She curled herself up in a ball and lay prone on the floor, her eyes closed, her mind suffering from the knowledge that this was her last moment on earth. She wept into the dust.
"Boom boom!" one of the rangers taunted. The gunfire went back and forth slowly. She felt like a gazelle being toyed with by a lion. If it had to end, couldn't it just... end? None of this torture?
Wood splinters flew by, old planks cracking every time the Rangers took a shot. It kept going and going, until it suddenly... stopped. Then she heard that same voice. "Boom... BOOM" the last word came as a grunt, as if it had been said with great effort. Something landed softly near the door. Then the sky fell down. A great big explosion lifted up the ground, sending splinters everywhere. Noh was knocked on his back. She was showered in dust and wood. She peaked up, and to her horror, the entire front of the building had disappeared. They were outside again, shielded only by a fading cloud of debris.
Noh stood up, his gun in his bleeding hand. "Show your faces, cowards!" he said, his voice almost a squeal. The gunfire started up again. She saw Noh grab his shooting arm in pain, his gun falling to a floor. Then a bullet struck her. She didn't completely understand it at first. It felt like she'd been punched in the side. She looked down and saw that she was bleeding, then unreality seemed to take her. Noh was on the ground, but the gunfight was still going on somewhere, heavy and hard.
Taytu woke up on a table. It wasn't in a hospital, but rather seemed to be in a bar. Music played from a nearby radio.
It was over in a moment
and the crowd all gathered 'round
There before them lay the body
of the outlaw on the ground
Oh, he might have went on livin'
but he made one fatal slip
When he tried to match the ranger
with the big iron on his hip,
Big iron on his hip
She was in pain. She felt it all over, but it stabbed worse at her side. "What happened?" she begged, "Where's Noh?"
To her surprise, the face came into view wasn't some hairy ranger, but rather the kindly expression of Mr Bert. "Noh is fine. He was only scratched." Bert Noonan wore a cowboy hat and had a rifle strapped to his back. Another man she didn't know stood next to him, but he didn't speak. "We went through your stuff, to see who we should contact. I... I didn't know. Your highness." Bert said.
"Am I going to live?" she asked.
"Yes. It just bit you in the skin. Your highness, if you please..."
"Don't talk like that" she struggled.
"This is Tom Bedford. He's the bartender here in Goodsprings, but I used to know him in a different time. He knows a thing or two about how to mend a bullet wound." The bartender said nothing. He only looked at her strangely, like a curiosity in a museum that'd just appeared from thin air onto his table.
"The Feds have arranged an escort. You'll be safe now."
"Thanks" she sighed. "But the pain... do you have something?"
"Here" Tom said, handing her a bottle of whiskey.