Chapter One

A slight breeze, blowing across my skin, cooled the sheen of sweat I’d worked up as I climbed out of the wash. I took a minute to catch my breath as I stood on the bleak, barren Arizona desert I’d come to love in the past ten years. The only creatures I could see were two dark specks in the sky. More than likely ravens, I thought as I took off my battered straw cowboy hat and wiped the sweat out of my eyes with the back of my hand.

All the other residents of this hard, brutal land remained safely tucked away in their burrows and holes, waiting out the heat of the afternoon. If I were to stick around for a few hours until dusk, I would see a marked increase of animal activity, but I wasn’t planning on being out here that long. I wouldn’t be out here at all except for the fact it had been a hard week at work, and to make matters worse, my in-laws had popped in for a surprise visit on Wednesday afternoon. It was now Sunday and they were still at the house.

Don’t get me wrong, I love them dearly, but since they’d “found God,” they’d become a little hard to be around. Now, they were always preaching to me about being a better person, or telling me I’d better change my ways or I’d go to Hell. The worst part comes from the little digs they’d make, like, “What would Jesus do?” or “Choose the right.” Apparently my three girls, aged five, seven, and nine, were bound to become minions of the devil unless they were saved immediately by my unrelenting and, by my thinking, slightly demented in-laws.

They had planned on taking all of us—the whole Clark family—to church with them today, but at the last minute, I told them I had business to take care of. I strapped my .40 Glock pistol and two extra magazines to my waist, threw a little bit of food into a small backpack, added a water bottle, and drove out on the desert. I knew there would be hell to pay when I got home, but I just couldn’t bear sitting in a stuffy building for two hours with forty or fifty other people singing songs and listening to someone preach.

I’m thirty-four years old. I figure that’s old enough to decide for myself if I want to go to an organized church or not. Personally, I’d rather go out on the desert or into the mountains. I feel closer to God in the outdoors than I do in any building.

Taking a deep breath, I let my eyes rove across the landscape laid out before me. I stood on the southwestern foothills of the Mojave Mountains with the town of Lake Havasu City, two miles to the northwest, between the lake and me. My house sat right on the southern edge of town, just two blocks from the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) ground that surrounds the area.

The late-March sun burned hot, but at least we weren’t experiencing record-breaking temps this year like we had last year. Eighty, ninety degrees…I could handle that for a while. Once it got over one hundred, my body became lethargic and I had a hard time functioning. Last year at this time, our highs had ranged from a hundred-ten to a hundred-fifteen.

Everybody always says, “It’s a dry heat, so it isn’t that bad.” Yeah, right. Once it gets over a hundred, it’s just plain hot, no matter how “dry” it is. True, high humidity would make it worse, but not by much by my reckoning.

Adjusting my glasses on my nose, I saw an interesting outcropping of greenish rock on a hillside about a hundred yards away. An impulse to check out the rock came over me. I decided to look at it more closely. My watch said I had a few hours until dark. I knew I should be getting home, but I was stalling.

Walking on the hard-packed dirt went easier than the soft sand of the wash I’d just come up. I recalled how five years back, I’d gotten curious about rocks, gems, and geology. I had joined the local gem-and-mineral club to learn more about the area from the people who knew all about it. One of the first club members to make an impression on me was an old gold miner from Alaska named Mike. “A change in the color of dirt on a hillside,” he’d said, “means a change in the mineral content of the ground. It’s often a good place to find gems or minerals.” Mike turned out to be a good friend. Unfortunately, he’d died three years ago. I still missed him.

As I strode toward the outcropping, suddenly, out of nowhere, I walked into what felt like a large spider web. All around me, unseen silky threads tickled my exposed skin. I jerked side to side, wiping desperately at my face and skin. I couldn’t see anything visible. I felt silly dancing in a circle, trying to swipe away the prickly sensation.

I stumbled forward, hoping the feeling would stop. Instead, it grew worse. I began to sweat. My gut wrenched in fear that I’d gotten myself into some kind of harrowing trap. I continued struggling to brush off the invisible strands, which seemed to cling tighter and grow thicker. With each step, I felt like I was walking into a huge pile of cotton balls. I still couldn’t see anything, other than the desert terrain.

The stuff clinging to me seemed light in weight. It piled up thicker around me and pushed against me. I grunted with the effort to move my legs forward. Soon, I realized the stupidity of continuing forward, only getting myself more entangled. I turned back the way I’d come, but a force more substantial than what I’d been fighting stopped me completely.

I still couldn’t see a web or netting or matter of any kind, just the vista of desert and mountains around me. For a moment, I wondered if I could be imagining this, but the sensation felt all too real against my skin.

My fear began to turn to anger. I used both my arms to thrash at the invisible barrier surrounding me. My hands started bouncing off an unseen wall in front of me, as if the wall were made of rubber. Obviously unable to return the way I’d come, I spun around.

Instantly, the going got easier. Within ten feet of the invisible webbing, the area completely cleared.

My legs shook from the struggle. My hands trembled. I staggered a few feet and knelt down in the dirt, still not quite believing what had just happened. I looked back to where I’d been. I could see nothing but desert. No web, no strings, nothing. I exhaled my breath with a deep sigh.

I slipped off my backpack and opened the pocket holding my water bottle. I broke the seal and guzzled half the bottle before lowering it from my still-dry mouth. “What the hell just happened, Gavin?” I asked myself, comforted to hear the sound of my own voice.

It was so bizarre, I couldn’t even begin to comprehend it. Was this some previously unknown type of spider web? Some kind of invisible barrier being tested by the government? A time warp? A message from God? I chuckled. “Now, I’m getting ridiculous.”

My heart rate slowed. My hands stopped shaking. I stared back at the location for a long time. I couldn’t distinguish any difference between the desert sand beneath me and the continuous vista of landscape that stretched beyond and through the invisible barrier…if it was still there.

Now that I was seemingly out of danger, I considered checking to see if the thing remained. I decided to find out before I lost my nerve. Still on my knees, I put the water bottle back into the pack and threw the pack on my back. I wanted my food with me, just in case I couldn’t get back to this spot to retrieve it.

I stood up. Holding my hands out in front of me, I slowly walked toward the thing. I moved my hands from side to side, hoping I’d feel the beginnings of it before I got trapped inside it again.

My right hand suddenly slammed into a hard rubbery surface and bounced off. I jumped back and stood completely still. No small spider-web-type strings tickled my skin. No force pushed against my body. I gulped. Tentatively, I reached forward with my right hand until my fingers came into contact with the thing again. It gave the sensation of my hand rubbing against a cotton ball, a very warm cotton ball. I shoved my hand a little harder against the barrier.

This time, the thing pushed back.

I gasped, jerked my hand away, and stumbled backward ten feet. I tripped and fell, landing on my butt. I quickly scurried backward a few more feet and hoped the distance between the thing and me would be far enough to keep me from being sucked into it. It moves like it’s alive. Like it has a will of its own. How can that be? What can it be? This is too weird. Although fascinated and curious as hell, I wasn’t about to touch it again.

To tell the truth, I’d never been more frightened in my life. A deep gut feeling told me to get away from this thing as fast and as far as possible, but right now, the barrier seemed to stand between me and getting back to my truck and my home.

Once my legs stopped trembling and were strong enough to support my weight, I rose to my feet. I’d been walking east when I had first run into the web. I looked around and decided to walk north for five or more minutes to make sure I moved around the invisible barrier. Then, I’d cut back to the west and head toward my truck. Since I couldn’t see the thing, I couldn’t be sure where it stood or how much space it consumed. But one thing certain, the thought of getting stuck in it again sent shivers down my spine. I kept my hands out in front of me like a blind man. I was sure anyone watching me would have thought I was crazy, but at that point, I would have welcomed anyone else’s presence, even a person who might have thought I’d lost it.

After a few of minutes of hiking north, I turned and walked westward. Immediately, I ran into the thing again. Discouraged and frightened, I stepped back and continued walking further north.

*   *   *

An hour later, and ten failed attempts to find a break in the rubber-like barrier, I grew scared out of my wits. What the hell is this thing? How did it get here? Will it ever end? For all I knew, it could go on for miles. It could take me days or weeks to get home, and I’d only brought with me enough food and water for the day.

Normally, I didn’t panic in troubling situations. I had a pretty level head and a practical bent, but my encounter with this thing had me on edge.

I pulled out my cell phone and pushed the button to call home. Nothing happened. There seemed to be no reception. I’d been in this area on other occasions and had always gotten a signal. I tried again. No response. No service.

I scanned the area. The mountain just north of me topped out at four thousand feet. Maybe I’m in a dead spot. I’ll try again in a few minutes. If by tomorrow, I hadn’t checked in with my wife Erica, she would surely send out the search-and-rescue teams to find me. I hated the thought of not being able to let her know where I was.

As the sun continued to lower on the horizon, hunger pangs rumbled in my stomach. I sat down and ate a few potato chips and half the one sandwich I’d brought. I thought I’d better conserve the food in case I’d be out here another day. Worst case scenario, I told myself, I’ll have to spend the night with the coyotes and the weeds. I hadn’t thought to bring any survival gear in my backpack for an emergency situation like this. It had never dawned on me I might be stranded. I checked all the pockets of my pack. I found a book of matches. Well, I could build a fire to keep myself warm and to help ward off any unwanted animals. I wouldn’t be all that comfortable during the night, but I’d survive. Still, I hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

I looked around with a hard decision to make. Should I continue north? Should I go south? From my starting point, I figured I’d only traveled a mile, maybe less. I had nearly reached the base of the mountain. If I pushed north, the grade would grow steeper and steeper from this point forward. It would be a tough climb. On the other hand, maybe this thing would end at the mountain.

The availability of firewood made for the deciding factor to continue north. If I were going to be out here all night, I wanted plenty of firewood. The narrow washes coming off the flanks of the mountain trapped lots of deadfall, which lay in the many bends where the water had flowed downhill during rainstorms. This being a desert where no large trees grew, I would have to make do with smaller branches and brush, which I could gather from the washes as I climbed the mountain. Not ready to concede defeat yet, I reminded myself to remain optimistic that I would be home in a few hours.

Continuing to work my way north, I began to climb the increasingly rough terrain. Each time I attempted to turn west, I ran into the thing, that unseen rubber wall. Forced to climb higher, I grew more and more discouraged. I wanted to get high enough to see some of the lake and the town in the last of the evening light, but a ridge blocked my view. I pulled out my cell phone again and pushed the button to call home. Still no signal. I looked at my watch. I estimated the sun would be going behind the western mountains in about twenty minutes. It would be difficult to cross the desert in the darkness.

I blew out a frustrated sigh. It was time to start looking for a place to spend the night. I turned southeastward and hiked until I found a wash with a sandy bottom. A large rock sat alone in the middle of the wash, a perfect place to bed down. Next to the rock, I piled sticks and brush, every piece of wood I could find in the area.

Just as the sun moved below the horizon, I got out my matches. Shortly, a small fire roared to life and helped to take the chill off the quickly cooling air. Luckily, I had worn a long-sleeved western shirt, jeans, cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat, rather than my usual shorts, tank-top, and ball cap for warmer days. I wished I’d brought my lined jacket from the truck and that I’d packed a blanket.

Starving, I had to eat the other half of my sandwich and the rest of the chips. I washed it all down with a few swallows of water. By this time, I was willing to take my chances that I would get back in the morning and feast on a full-sized breakfast. My cell phone still would not pick up a signal. I put my cell, my keys, and my wallet into the backpack beside me. I leaned against the rock and, aiming my feet toward the fire, I could only hope the incomprehensible thing would be gone in the morning.

I couldn’t help but think about Erica and the kids. Surely, they all wondered why I’d not come home for the evening meal. I could picture the worry on Erica’s face as she picked up the phone to call me and couldn’t get a response. She probably had ten messages waiting for me on my voicemail right now. The first messages would be angry and full of accusations because I’d copped out of the church ordeal and wasn’t home to buffer the interactions between her parents and the girls. Her parents had probably told her to pray for me, but I didn’t think that would offer her much comfort. Her last phone messages, more than likely, would be colored with worry and doubt. I wished to hell I had a way to contact her and tell her I was okay.

Meanwhile, I thought about my home-inspection business, which I ran from a small office downtown. I didn’t have any inspections scheduled for this week, so Erica could handle the phone calls and set up the new appointments until I got back. Should something come up, I hoped she would be wise enough to call Brian Daily, a friend of mine in the same business. Sometimes, when Brian or I had to be out of town, went on vacation, or got too much business to handle, the other would help cover the work.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Erica had contacted Brian already. Between the two of them, they would, no doubt, get a rescue operation going in the morning and keep my business running.

Why am I thinking I might not get back for a while? I shook off the idea and closed my eyes as I tried to think positively. In the morning, the thing will be gone. If not, I will either find a way to get through it or the rescue party will find me and help me get past it. Tomorrow, I’ll be back with my family and my normal routines.

I crossed my arms to keep warm as the temperature dropped and, eventually, I drifted into a soundless sleep.

Chapter Two

In the morning, I came awake with a start, immediately regretting the move. A sharp pain shot up through my stiff neck from having spent the night leaning up against the hard rock. To work out the kinks, I sat forward and rolled my head from side to side with my eyes closed.

“Howdy,” said a voice much too close.

My head jerked up and my eyes flew open. My right hand moved down to grip the butt of my gun in my holster. I tried to focus on the blurry form sitting on the other side of the fire pit.

“Whoa. Down there, pardner.” The blur held out both hands, palms down, moving them gently in a calming motion. “I don’t mean ya no harm.”

“Who-” I stopped to clear the night mucus out of my throat. I finally got out, “Who are you?” I blinked my eyes until they cleared and his form took shape.

“Sorry ‘bout that.” Dressed head to toe in buckskins, he stood up and took off his tan cowboy hat, with its shabby wide brim, which had seen better days. “M’name be Maxston Vanguard.” Tipping his bearded head slightly, he bowed with his hat against his chest, like they did a hundred years ago. Strands of silver ran through his long dark hair, mustache, and full beard, all thick and greasy-looking. On one side of his hair, he had attached a string of bird feathers. A bright-blue-and-black beaded Indian design stretched across the front of his buckskin top. He appeared pretty weathered. I guessed him to be in his late fifties. He might have been a lot older than he looked…or maybe younger.

Sensing he might not be alone, I glanced around, checking to see if he had buddies waiting in the bushes, ready to pounce on me.

“Be by myself, if that’s what yer a wonderin’.”

The twinkle in his cobalt-blue eyes bothered me. Should I be worried or shouldn’t I? My right hand still held the butt of my gun, just in case. Noticing my backpack, which held my wallet and keys, a little distance from my side, I reached out with my left hand and pulled it toward me. “Why are you dressed in buckskins?” I asked.

The grizzled old man looked down at himself as if he hadn’t noticed what he was wearing. “Don’t know. Always wore ‘em. Don’t like store-bought. Wear out too fast.” His eyes flicked to my backpack.

I pulled it closer, intending to put it on my lap.

“Wouldn’t do that if I were you,” he said brusquely, shooting another look at my backpack. Before I could speak, he took two quick strides over the fire pit and slapped the backpack so hard it flew out of my hands and landed in the sand five feet away.

I fell to my right side to avoid him. “What the hell are you doing?” I sputtered. “Are you crazy, or what?” I tried to draw my pistol but, now, lying on my side, I couldn’t get the gun out of my holster.

“That,” he said with a big grin, pointing to a spot in the sand about ten feet away, “was about ta crawl up yer arm and sting ya.”

My eyes followed his finger to a four-inch-long scorpion, scurrying away in the sand. Swallowing hard, I managed to say, “Oh…okay. Couldn’t you have just said something, rather than scare the hell out of me.”

He chuckled. “Could’a. But it wouldn’ta been as much fun.” He slapped his hat on his leg. “Whoowee, Boy, ya should’a seen the look on yer face. Ya looked like ya was gonna shat in them fancy pants of yers.”

Growing annoyed at his impudence, my confidence began to return. “What the hell are you doing here anyway?” I stood up to retrieve my tossed backpack from the dirt. I studied it cautiously and shook it to make sure no other critters had made a home of it.

“Was passin’ by an seen yer tracks. Didn’t know somebody be out here but me. Thought ya might need some help, so I followed yer trail.”

“How long have you been watching me?”

“Half-hour or so.”

A horse whinnied to my right.

I about jumped out my skin as I turned toward the bend in the wash. Who else is here? I wondered. I couldn’t see the horse.

“Yer sure a jumpy sort, ain’t ya?” the old man said as he knelt down and stirred the ashes in the fire pit. “That be my horses. Left’ em down there so’s they don’t wake ya.”

I sighed, relieved I wouldn’t have to deal with any renegades or other strangers for the time being.

I needed to relieve my bladder. I looked around for a private place to go as I made conversation. “Can you blame me for being jumpy? After my encounter with that strange thing yester-” I stopped abruptly, about to tell the man something that might make him think I was mad.

“What thing?” he asked. His blue eyes, now serious, bore into me.

“I need to go to the bathroom.”

He pondered me a moment then shrugged his shoulder. “Take yer time. I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

I picked up my backpack and hauled it with me. I walked up the wash until I found a bunch of thick shrubs around a hill that gave me some privacy. While I did my business, I thought about this old gizzard who called himself Maxston Vanguard. Why was he out here? Why did he dress like a mountain man from the 1820’s? In the ten years I’d lived in Lake Havasu City, I’d never seen nor heard about a crazy old man hanging around the area. I’m sure someone would have said something. In a small community like Havasu, word got around fast.

I had no intention of going back and talking to the man. Instead, my thoughts turned toward home. Erica had to be frantic by now. I pulled out my cell phone. Still no reception. I put it in my shirt pocket so I could check it every now and then as I walked.

I climbed out of the wash and headed northwest, following the tracks I’d made the night before. When I reached the area where I was sure the thing had stood in my way, I stopped and studied the ground. My footprints, along with numerous scuffmarks, indicated where I’d stumbled around, trying to get away from the thing. My footprints ended at the place I had last touched the invisible rubber barrier. Beyond there, the desert sand and brush seemed untouched. Is the barrier still there? I wondered. My heart raced at the thought.

I swallowed hard. No matter what, I had to get to my truck. I had to get home. My family would be worried to death about me.

My palms perspired as I lifted my arms to feel my way. I took a tentative step forward. Slowly, I took another step. My feet now rested in the last set of footprints closest to the thing. I couldn’t feel anything but air. Taking a deep breath, I moved forward a short step. Nothing. Another step. No spider web. No cotton ball. No rubber wall. Gathering my courage, I took another short step, then another. I found myself moving freely and easily forward.

Joy flooded through me. I was certain the thing was gone. I had walked well past the barrier. After several more steps, I picked up speed and ran as fast as I could toward the site where I had left my truck.

With intermittent walking and running, it took me only a half-hour to get to the last hill that stood between me and the sight of the truck that would take me home. As I started climbing the hill, a strange feeling came over me. Something seemed different. With each step, a sense of dread began to creep into my mind.

I crested the hill. There, I saw no truck, no tracks in the sand, no indication a vehicle had ever been in the wash below me. I stopped and stared out over the valley stretched out before me. Something was definitely wrong. Where was the lake? Where was the town? I couldn’t even see the river that normally divided the land between Arizona and California. All the familiar landmarks had disappeared…and so had civilization.

I glanced up at the blue sky, usually full of contrails, left by jets traveling from L.A. or San Diego to all points east. Not one contrail. This hadn’t happened since September 11, 2001, when the FAA had grounded all planes after the New York disaster. An eerie silence had filled the air back then, but now, it seemed even more ominous.

The dread welled up in me as I dropped to my knees. I could hardly breathe. My God, what happened to the town? Where’s Erica and the girls? Where am I?

I took off my glasses and rubbed my eyes to make sure I wasn’t dreaming or having hallucinations. After putting my glasses back on I kept scanning the desert panorama and eyeing the mountains on the horizon. The view seemed different, like the mountains were closer. I couldn’t put my finger on the bizarre sensations I was picking up from the visual images that surrounded me and the disappearance of all I had known.

I stared numbly at the empty land. One thing was certain, my world was gone. How do I get back? Where do I go? What do I do?

I thought about Max, the only human being I’d met since yesterday afternoon. Is he part of this phenomenon?

Feeling desperate, I glanced back toward the mountain where I had spent the night. It seemed I had only one choice: to go back and find the old man. Maybe he knew what was going on. Maybe he could help me figure out how to get home. I just hoped he would still be there. The idea of being one of the last humans on earth scared the hell out of me.

I dragged myself to my feet. Stumbling through the brush, I started hiking into the hills again.

*   *   *

As I trudged up the wash, I saw Max sitting alone at the campsite with his back to me. He had a fire going. Despite the weirdness of his buckskin outfit and his odd mannerisms, I felt a sense of relief to have the company of another human being. His presence, alone, helped to quiet my jumbled nerves.

I seriously debated about whether or not to tell him what was happening to me. I kept hoping I might wake up any minute from a bad dream and find myself in my truck, bouncing across the desert toward my customary life. But the stark reality of the missing town and missing lake hovered over me like a hammer of doom. I feared I might not see my normal life for awhile. Did I really want to get Max involved in my dilemma? It all seemed just too crazy to explain to someone. I decided to wait to get to know Max a little better before I shared my story.

As I walked to the fire and sat down, Max said not a word about me being gone for almost two hours. He took a bite of some kind of cooked meat-like food that had nuts or berries pressed into it.

My stomach growled loudly at the sight and smell of the food. It’d been a long time since I’d finished off my sandwich the night before. I opened my backpack and took a swig of water from my water bottle. I then rummaged around the bottom of the pack and in the pockets to find a piece of hard candy or snack I might have missed the day before. Coming up empty, I sighed and put the pack down next to me.

The old man handed me a piece of his food. “Here.”

“What is it?”


It sounded like some backwoods soul food. Skeptical about what it might contain, I asked, “What’s in it?”

He shook his head and smiled. “Fer a man who be hungry, ya sure’n be picky.”

Going on the defensive, I blurted, “I just don’t want to eat something I might be allergic to.” It was a lie. As far as I knew, I wasn’t allergic to anything, but I didn’t want to eat lizard or snake or scorpions.

“It be venison. Mixed with bear fat n’ blueberries.” His beefy hand held out the food again.

I took it and bit off a tentative nibble. I chewed it slowly. Mmmm. Not bad. I bit off a larger chunk and savored the flavor. While I chewed, I studied Max more closely.

I would guess him to be about five-foot-eight, with a sturdy, powerful build. He wore his hair loose, falling well past his shoulders. His unkempt silver-streaked beard hung to mid-chest. The rough, dark, leather-like skin of his hands and face told me he’d been exposed to the elements more often than not. On closer inspection, his buckskin outfit showed patches and stains in numerous spots. I couldn’t figure out why the front of his buckskin pants looked completely black and slightly shiny. He solved that riddle when he used them to wipe the grease and soot from his hands. Knee-high moccasins covered his feet.

A bone-handled knife and tomahawk stuck out of the wide leather belt at his waist, along with the butt of a black-powder pistol. An assortment of bags, potentially containing anything from tobacco to tinder to magic dust, for all I knew, hung from his belt. I noted the rifle held casually in the crook of his left arm. All of his weapons looked well-used and well-cared for. He could have easily killed me in my sleep if he’d wanted to. Hell, anyone could have attacked and killed me as soundly as I’d slept.

The more I studied the man, the more intrigued I became. He seemed like an enigma. However, before I dared put my trust in him about my problem with the thing and the missing town, I wanted to learned more about him. “So, Max, where do you live?”

He shot a stop-dead glare at me that would have made a grizzly bear cower in fear.

My eyes grew wide and I almost choked on the venison going down my throat.

“Name be Maxston. I’d ‘preciate it if ya’d use it.”

“Uh…sure…no problem.” Wow, he seemed mighty fussy for being a mountain man. Hell, I would have thought with an uncharacteristic name like Maxston, he’d prefer Max. I shrugged. To each their own. After I bit into another piece of the venison, I dared to ask my question again. “Okay, Maxston, where do you live?”

“North Town. ‘Bout twenty miles from here. That way. Other side a the mountain.” He pointed northeast.

North Town? Never heard of it, I mused to myself. He must be wrong. Maybe he’s talking about Kingman, the town northeast of Lake Havasu City.

At this point, I decided not to correct the man, not after his deadly look when I’d misused his name. Although I was taller at six-foot-one, Maxston carried a lot more muscle on his bones. His feisty nature would be formidable in a fight. He looked to be a little crazy, too. If I were going to correct him, it would have to be by tripping him up. I decided to do just that. “And just how long have you lived there?” I asked, trying to hide the sarcasm in my voice.

He smiled. “Too long.” He stood up abruptly. “Time ta go.” He kicked sand into the fire pit until he had completely covered all the burning embers. Without a word, he turned and walked down the wash.

I didn’t move a muscle as I watched him, yet something in me grew anxious at the thought of him leaving me behind. I still wasn’t sure I could trust him with the thing, nor did I want to leave the area for fear everything would return to normal and I could go home. Maybe I should try returning to my truck again. The thought made me shudder. I couldn’t bear to see the missing town again. Something deep inside me told me it wasn’t going to be there, and I wasn’t going to get home by going back that way.

Maxston called over his shoulder, “Ya comin’?”

“I…I’m going to go back to my truck,” I yelled after him in a maneuver to stall a decision. I sensed I really had no other choice but to go with him. I certainly didn’t like the idea of being completely isolated out here on the desert while strange things were happening around me. I didn’t have any food or shelter. My water would run out before the day was over. It only made sense to stick with Maxston until I could figure things out. I really needed some answers.

The old man stopped in his tracks and turned around. “Let me guess. Yesterday, ya went for a walk. Got yerself caught up in some kinda invisible spider web.…Right?”

I nodded hesitantly. Did he read my mind? How does he know about that?

“Then, ya wasn’t able ta get back home, so ya had to spend the night out here….Right?”

I reluctantly nodded again.

“Then, this mornin’, ya went ta try’n get back home. But ya cain’t….Right?”

I nodded again, feeling embarrassed, like he’d somehow caught me doing something wrong.

“What year it be?” he asked.

I squinted at him, wondering if he was serious. “2015. Why? Don’t you know what year it is?”

He grunted. “Trust me. Yer better off comin’ with me. I can explain on the way.” He turned and took off again, this time with a long loping gait.

His words about the spider web started to sink in. I jumped up and grabbed my backpack. Hurrying to catch up with him, I spewed forth my questions in a jumbled haste. “You know about the web? How do you know about it? What is it? Where did it come from? How come I can’t see it?”

“Hold on, Son. Everybody knows ‘bout the web. How ya think we all got here?”

Before I could get out another question, we rounded the bend of the wash. I got distracted, seeing four horses. Two carried loaded packs, one had what looked like a saddle on it, and one wore only a halter. It quickly dawned on me that I’d be the one riding bareback, not a comfortable way to travel for someone not used to it. Oh, I’d ridden plenty of horses in the past, but it’d been a long time since my last ride.

Maxston rummaged through one of the packs and pulled out a red-and-white-striped blanket. He threw it over the back of the horse without a saddle and tied the blanket down, front and rear, with a strip of leather. “Not the best,” he said as he handed me the halter rope, “but’s all I can do for ya. You can ride, cain’t ya?”

Having no other option, I put my backpack on my back and, holding to the leather strip on the horse’s back, jumped up, belly first. I wiggled, pushed, and pulled with my long lanky body until I sat upright on the blanket. “It’s been a while,” I said, “but as long as we take it easy for the first part of the trip, I should be okay.”

As I watched Maxston gather the lead ropes of the packhorses, I kept telling myself that the only reason I was going along with him was so that I could get more information about the spider-web thing. The sooner I could get the information, the sooner I could find a way to get back home.

I had to admit I didn’t really want to be left out on the desert alone for another night with no food and water, nor did I want to take a chance that I would never see another human being again.

Maxston climbed into his saddle, which I noticed to be nothing more than a plain wooden frame, held together with strips of dried rawhide. A leather pad, attached to the saddle, formed the strips for two stirrups, one on each side. Someone, probably Maxston, had whittled the stirrups out of wood and wrapped them with leather. For some reason, I’d expected the saddle to be decorated with beads or feathers or some other fancy ornamentation, like Maxston had tied a string of feathers to his hair and wore beads on his buckskin top. I found the plainness of the saddle somewhat disappointing for this colorful character out of the 1800’s.

With his rifle in the crook of one arm, Maxston turned the horses and we started down the wash in single file. I brought up the rear. All the while, my mind flipped through the eerie events I had experienced the previous day and all morning. I just couldn’t get my mind around anything.

I pulled my cell phone out of my shirt pocket to check for a signal. Still none.

Chapter Three

After about a quarter-mile of riding, the grizzled old man rode out of the wash and stopped.

Going up the side of the wash, my horse lurched. I grabbed onto the horse’s mane, saving myself from falling off the blanket.

“Need ta go downhill fer a while. ‘Til we can cut ‘round the end of them hills.” He pointed to the mountains behind us. “Then head northeast, ‘til we come ta North Town.”

As he started his horse forward, I rode next to him so we could talk. “How far is it to this North Town again?”

Instead of answering me, he opened one of the pouches hanging off his belt and dug his thumb and forefinger into a leafy brown substance. He pulled out a pinch of tobacco and stuck it between his front teeth and lower lip. “You ain’t soundin’ too convinced it be a real place.” He nudged his horse with a heel and moved it ahead of me into a trot.

I pressed my horse to keep up with him. “No, I’m not convinced,” I replied with annoyance, trying to talk to him and stay on my horse as we jogged down the sandy desert hill. “I’ve lived in Lake Havasu City for ten years and I know the surrounding area pretty well. I’ve never heard of any place called North Town.”

He eyed me with a funny look. “Where’d ya say yer from? Lake Hav…”

“Havasu. Lake Havasu City. You know, the town that sits next to the big lake on the Colorado River, just below Needles, Laughlin, and Bullhead City.”

He shook his head and continued forward. “Don’t know any’a them places. You sure ya didn’t fall’n hit yer head?”

“Positive,” I barked, growing more and more impatient with his evasive attitude. “So,” I said hotly, “tell me everything you know about this web thing I ran into yesterday. I want some answers. What do you know about it?”

He slowed up a little. “Why don’tcha tell me what happened to ya first?”

I began with my initial encounter with the thing, the rubber wall, and the missing town. It didn’t take long to tell the whole story.

When I finished, Maxston grunted and nodded his head as if everything I’d said made perfect sense.

When he didn’t offer to say anything, I asked, “Well? What can you tell me? Where’s my town? Where’s my family? What happened to them? What happened to me?”

Riding along nonchalantly, he chewed his tobacco and kept his horse moving at a steady gait forward. “Sounds ta me just about like everybody else’s story…includin’ mine.”

“What do you mean? Did the same thing happen to you?”

He stared off into the distance, making no effort to look at me or answer my questions.

Growing increasingly frustrated, I couldn’t hold back my anger. “So, what is it? What is this damn web?”

He shrugged. “Don’t know. Fer as I can tell, nobody knows.”

I halted my horse and shouted, “You told me you could explain everything to me on the way to this North Town you claim exists. I’m stopping right here. I’m not going anywhere with you until you start talking.”

The old man yanked hard on his reins, causing his horse to stop so fast the two packhorses ran into each other. He turned in his saddle and glared at me with his blazing blue eyes. “I did explain it to ya. You ‘n me n’ everybody else in this here world got caught in the web. None of us can go home again…ever.”

A chill ran down my spine at the definitive tone of his voice when he’d said the word ever. He had to be wrong. But I wasn’t about to tussle with the guy over it with his short-tempered streak.

“‘Bout three ta four hours. You be seein’ North Town fer yerself. N’ fer hell’s sake, relax. Yer stiffer than a week-old piece a meat.” He clamped his mouth shut behind the thick mustache and beard, kicked his horse in the ribs, and rode off at a brisk trot.

“Fine, you ornery old fart,” I hollered at his receding back. “Go ahead. I’ll bring up the rear.” If I’d had someone else—anyone else—to count on, I would’ve just turned around and headed out on my own. But no such luck…at least not yet.

Okay, so I’d go to this so-called North Town with him and find out what was going on. If the old man wouldn’t give me any answers, I’d find someone else who would.

Maxston stayed well ahead of me for the next part of the ride. That suited me fine.

*   *   *

As I rode along, I must have dozed in the saddle, so to speak, since I wasn’t in a saddle. When I woke up, something bothered me. The country around us didn’t look familiar. I’d been all over this part of the country, exploring the desert for years. I knew the terrain well and had visited many of the popular spots for rock hunting with the gem-and-mineral club. Now, I noticed we’d moved from the cacti and mesquite bushes of the low desert to the cedars and sagebrush of the high desert. How did we travel so far in such a short time? I couldn’t have dosed off for that long a period without falling off my horse. Did Maxston do something to change our location?

I looked at my cell phone. Still no reception. The battery was starting to go dead. My watch said only two hours had passed since we’d left the camp. If the changes in the terrain kept up like this, we’d be among quakies and pine trees before long. That eerie feeling that I’d gotten this morning when I’d looked out over the desert and saw Lake Havasu missing, started creeping up in me again.

An hour later, sure enough, we passed a stand of pines. The temperature changed, too, cooling off by at least ten to fifteen degrees.

A while later Maxston stopped on top of a hill.

I continued climbing toward him as he waited for me. Not sure of the reception I was going to get from him after our hours of silence, I hesitantly approached.

“There she be,” he announced as I pulled to a stop next to him. “North Town.” He acted like we’d never had our little spat.

I looked out across the valley floor, now laid out directly in front of me. My eyes bugged out at the sight of the collection of ramshackle huts, log cabins, and sod shanties. In the center part of town, it looked like someone had built a wooden rampart, a fort of some kind. From what I could tell, North Town stretched two to three miles across, with cultivated fields of flowers and plants surrounding the town for miles. A wide, lazy river flowed north of town, running from east to west. This was certainly no town I’d ever seen or heard of.

A cool wind blew through the trees toward town. The chill on my back made me shiver.

I had to admit that, as bad as the place looked, I couldn’t wait to get there so I could get off my horse. My inner thighs, not used to the constant motion a horse makes as it moves, burned from blisters. I was pretty sure I had blisters on other parts of my body, too…parts that should never get blisters.

Maxston urged his horse over the edge of the hill. “Come on. We be almost home.”

Not me, I thought defiantly as I followed him down the hill. I’m not home. This ain’t gonna be my home, Mister.

For some reason, Maxston’s earlier words rang through my head. None of us can go home again…ever.

Well, if what he’d said was true, that might be good enough for Maxston and these people, but it wasn’t going to be good enough for me.

As my horse made its way down the hill, trudging through a field of cotton, that ominous, wary gut feeling about everything around me being wrong came tumbling over me again. I looked at the shabby town ahead, something akin to the slums of L.A., or maybe a gathering place for homeless refugees. It just didn’t look right.

Oh, God, what have I gotten myself into now?