The truck slowly backed up until the open tailgate rested over the eroded ditch beside the dark dusty road. Suddenly the driver floored the gas pedal spinning the new tires on the sand at the edge of the ditch before the truck sped off into the night.
The dirty bundle rolled off the back of the truck dropping into the ditch with a thud looking like someone had lost a sack on the way to the laundromat. It lay there, silent and ominous as the grit settled all around. Minutes later the dry desert breeze gusted and a corner of material flapped open. It was a body!
Hesitantly, a filthy hand reached out of the pile and grabbed the nearest large rock. Wiping the muck from his battered fingers on the rough surface he scrawled shaky letters that dripped onto the desert sand:
Not far away, Andy and Danny and their Aunt Carlotta Montrose (Lotta to her family) were hiking out of Sheep Canyon, an offshoot of the larger Coyote Canyon.
"Ok! You guys can chase the girls all night if that's what you need to do but I want a nice dry bed and some sleep," Andy said stepping lightly over an exposed rock in the narrow trail. Seventeen-year-old Andy Watkins loved to be out in wild canyons like this one.
Naturally elegant Andy would look equally good in a prom dress or in the jeans and T-shirts that she liked best and mostly wore. Her honey toned skin, wavy dark brown hair and tall slenderness were gifts from her Jamaican mother.
"Does Andy always talk to the frogs, Aunt Lotta?" Danny asked stuffing his jacket into his daypack. Danny was spending the summer with his cousin Andy Watkins and his aunt while his parents were deployed to Washington, DC, as military lawyers.
"In answer to your question, I guess since Andy comes with me lots of times to do my research in these desert canyons she hears me talk to the frogs. When I'm out alone, with no other person to talk with, the male frogs are talking to each other all the time so it's kind of fun to talk back to them. They've never mentioned that they didn't like having me in on their conversations."
Danny and Andy both laughed at that. Carlotta Montrose was their favorite aunt even if she was a little different.
It was well past midnight on the dash clock in the SUV as they packed up the recording equipment. These desert canyons are silent on windless nights. California tree frogs like the long months of warm darkness that the desert provides. There is always water in the canyons even if it dies down to a trickle during late summer and fall. Small ponds here make wonderful sheltered breeding pools for the insects that tree frogs like to eat.
Flood waters can come boiling down between the narrow rock canyon walls after storms in the mountains above, sending giant boulders crashing into each other and ripping out huge trees.
Parked in the mouth of remote Sheep Canyon, the moonless desert night enveloped the world ahead. Andy, who was just learning to drive, lingered there in the driver's seat listening before switching on the headlights.
Away from the stream and the incessant call of the tree frogs, the warm silent darkness stretched before them wrapped in the dryness that makes it seem like there is no air at all out here. It is an unearthly moonscape filled with strange lanky ocotillo bushes swaying soundlessly on equally silent breezes. More often, the wind blows a gale through Coyote Canyon the large canyon that Sheep Canyon branches off from but tonight the wind was silent too.
"It's as if the desert is always silently waiting for something to happen," Danny said, and in response somewhere nearby came a strangled scream, making them all jump!
"Probably a rabbit," Andy shivered even though it was still very warm. "The only time rabbits ever make a noise - when coyotes grab them."
"Hey, coyotes have to eat too and they have neat pups. Remember the pups we heard last summer who were trying to learn to howl?" Danny was tall for his age, seventh grade. He tolerated his cousin and aunt's interest in frog biology because it got him out at night. Astronomy was his thing and nighttime photography.
"Yeah, they sounded really cute," Andy added.
"Aren't we leaving early tonight?" Danny asked sitting in the passenger seat behind the king cab of the truck and looking at the photos he'd taken tonight.
"I have to get back. Monday is the start of the dreaded final exams for my college biology students. You're lucky, Danny, finals aren't something you have to worry about in middle school and Andy has already finished. But I need tomorrow to prepare the test and get some solid rest and there is still that long dark drive over these two narrow ruts that pass as a dirt road," Lotta said listening to the far off chorus of calling tree frogs.
The not too distant sound of a vehicle making its way down Coyote Canyon reminded them all of the need to get home. Andy turned the key and as the SUV engine came alive the frogs were silenced in a trail of dust churned up by the spinning tires. The 4-wheel-drive cut in and they headed toward the lights of Borrego Springs, the nearest small desert town.
Minutes later the wind was beginning to kick up as Danny reached for his water bottle.
"What's that!" He said as the truck rounded a bend and came alongside what looked like a bag of dirty laundry crumpled up in the ditch by the road. The breeze tugging at the shirt edge killed that theory.
"This guy looks like he made the wrong decision about his own endurance in the desert heat. I hope we found him in time but it looks really bad!"
©Copyright - Ann Wellhouse 2015