Settings

The Monkey Wrench Gang 33


  Twilight silhouettes, blurred by dust, Hayduke and Smith stand at the controls of their tractors, peering forward. Then very quickly they climb off. The tractors go on without human hands, clanking like tanks toward the canyon, and drop abruptly from sight. The tanker, the shed, the billboard follow.

  Pause for gravitational acceleration.

  A bright explosion flares beyond the rimrock, a second and a third. Bonnie hears the thunderous barrage of avalanching iron, uprooted trees, slabs of rock embraced in gravity, falling toward the canyon floor. Dust clouds rise above the edge, lit up in lurid hues of red and yellow by a crescendo of flames from somewhere below.

  Hayduke comes back to the jeep, his smoky eyes alight with happiness. On his head he wears a billed cap of yellow twill with a harmless legend stitched on the forepeak:

  “I want it!” She grabs the cap and tries it on. It slumps over her eyes.

  He opens another beer. “Adjust the band in back.” He starts the engine, pulls back to the road and drives into the cool darkness.

  “Okay,” she says, “so what was going on out there? Where’s Seldom?”

  Hayduke explained. They had stumbled onto a tree-chaining project. The two bulldozers had been joined to each other by a fifty-foot length of navy anchor chain, strong enough to uproot trees. By this simple means the Government was clearing hundreds of thousands of acres of juniper forest in the West. With the same chain, by the same method, Hayduke and Smith had simply cleared away into the canyon the support equipment which had been assembled for protection and convenience between the two bulldozers. As for Seldom, he was up ahead in his truck.

  “Okay,” Bonnie says, “but I’m not sure that stunt was so smart.” She looks back. A flower of fire burns under the canyon rim, growing brighter as the night descends. “Anybody can see that fire for fifty miles. You’ll bring the Team down on us for sure now.”

  “Naw,” says Hayduke. “They’ll be too busy investigating the fire. And while they’re busy at that we’re thirty miles beyond, down by the black lagoon, melting their bridges in front of them.”

  They came to the first bridge. Finally. Smith and Doc waited for them in the darkness. Below the bridge was the apparently bottomless gorge of White Canyon. Leaning over the steel parapet Bonnie heard water gurgling below but could see nothing. She picked up a rock and lugged it, two handed, to the rail, let it teeter over and fall. She listened and heard only the water churning down below. She was about to turn away when the sound of colliding rock, exploding sandstone and small assorted splashes came up from the gorge. Prone to acrophobia, Bonnie shivered.

  “Abbzug!”

  A blue light danced before her, painting phosphorescent figure-eights on the velvet dark. She turned her head aside, blinking away the retinal afterimage, which lingered like a fading stain of color.

  “Yeah?”

  “Give us a hand, kid.”

  She found Hayduke and Smith mixing their powders, rolling them back and forth in a big closed canister: three parts iron oxide to two parts pulverized aluminum equals thermite. Then the igniting mixture: four parts barium peroxide to one part magnesium powder. A potent dish. Doc Sarvis stood nearby, cigar smoldering in his teeth. Bonnie was appalled by this display of reckless nonchalance. Her boys seemed unaware of danger, stoned on their delusions of power.

  “Who’s standing watch?” she demanded.

  “Waiting for you, my sweet,” says Doc. “You are the catalytic agent in this unprecipitated mélange. This retort malign of dissident chemicals.”

  “Then let’s get cracking,” she says. “Who’s putting up the road signs?”

  “We are,” says Doc. “You and I. But one moment, please. I’m watching Dr. Faustus at work.”

  “All finished with this batch,” Hayduke says. “Now I need sentries out. I’m going to blast a couple of holes in the roadway above the main arch of the bridge, one on each side. The idea is, we expose the arches, set up the thermite crucibles over the holes, ignite the thermite and let it flow down onto the steel. Should burn right through it—if we got enough mix. Gonna be some trial and error involved, so watch out.”

  “You’re not sure it’ll work?”

  “I’m not sure what’ll happen. But there is gonna be noise and there is gonna be some white heat.”

  “Just how hot does this stuff burn?”

  “Three thousand degrees centigrade. About six thousand degrees Fahrenheit, right, Doc?”

  “Negative,” says Doc. “The equivalence formula goes like this: degrees Fahrenheit equals nine-fifths degrees centigrade plus thirty-two. Three thousand degrees centigrade therefore is about, let’s see, five thousand four hundred and thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit.”

  “All right,” says Hayduke. “I want security on all perimeters. Lookouts, set up your road signs.”

  The crew begins to function. Doc and Bonnie take two of the road signs from Hayduke’s jeep and load them into Smith’s truck. Hayduke takes what he needs—dynamite, blasting caps, safety fuse—from the jeep, before Smith drives it off to the west. Doc and Bonnie drive a mile east of the bridge in the truck and set up the first sign, then a quarter mile farther, where they set up the second. They wait. Sound of three sharp whistles: alert. After a moment they hear the shot, the massive muffled thump—well tamped—of high explosive doing its thing.

  “Now what?” says Doc. “Does that mean the bridge is already out? How do we get back?”

  Again Bonnie explains the procedure. She and Doc are to stand guard at this point, from which they can see ten miles up the desert valley. They will wait for Hayduke’s come-in signal, which means he has the thermite “crucible” set up and ready to ignite. Smith meanwhile is doing the same on the west of the bridge. After that—

  Sound of the second blast.

  “After that,” Bonnie goes on, “we pick up the warning signs west of the bridge and take them across the middle bridge and across the Dirty Devil bridge and set them up again west of the Dirty Devil. Then George takes out the Dirty Devil bridge.”

  “Simple,” Doc says.

  “Simple.”

  “What’s the middle bridge?”

  “That’s the one across the Colorado River.”

  “I believe George said the Colorado River has been temporarily removed.” Doc’s fiery eye, the burning stogie, flares and then dims as a sprawl of smoke lofts toward the stars.

  “The river is still there but now it flows under the reservoir.”

  “What do you mean?”

  Silence.

  “Bonnie, my child, what are we doing here?”

  Silence. Together they stare up the road, a pale and winding dirt track in the starlight, toward the black outline of mesa, butte, plateau and mountain. Old moon later than ever. Nowhere a single human light. Nowhere a sign. Or sound. Even the poorwills are taking a break. Nothing but the whisper of night breezes rising off the superheated rock. And the far-off murmur of jet engines, 29,000 feet in the sky on the air lane to the north. No escape, anywhere, from that sound. Bonnie looks for the source of the noise and discovers tiny moving lights tracing a course westward through the arms of Cassiopeia. Bound for San Francisco, maybe, or L.A. Civilization! She feels a pang of longing.

  Sound of a whistle. One long, one short, one long. Time to return.

  Leaving their signs erect and in place, Bonnie and Doc climb into the pickup and drive back to the White Canyon bridge, Bonnie at the wheel. They find a rubble of concrete scattered the length of the roadway, through and over which Bonnie is forced to pick a way, driving the truck in low.

  In the middle of the bridge she stops to look at two witch’s nests of reinforcing rods splayed upward like electrified hair—black, crooked, smoking and hot, stinking of nitrates and vaporized wood pulp. Within these craters the bridge’s support members are exposed, the great beams of structural steel plate designed to last for centuries.

  Here Hayduke has set up his “crucibles,” the five-gallon cartons resting on two-by-four
s above the holes. Each carton is two thirds full of thermite; on top of the thermite is a two-inch layer of igniter mix. Buried in the center of the igniter is the business end of a fuse cord, taped to the rim of the carton so that it cannot be accidentally dislodged. The fuses lie draped over the sides of the cartons, running separately over the rubble toward the west end of the bridge, where George is waving his flashlight up and down, the brakeman’s come-ahead signal, at those two idiots parked in the center of his bridge. A fuse lighter burns in his left hand, coruscating like a Fourth of July sparkler.

  “Where’s George?” says Doc, peering about through his spectacles.

  “Maybe that’s him waving the light at us.”

  “What’s he want?”

  “Come on,” Hayduke roars. “Get the fuck outa there!”

  “That’s George,” Bonnie says, nervously. She shoves the transmission into low and engages the clutch, too fast. The truck lurches forward, stalls.

  “Come on,” roars Hayduke again, the fulminating human bomb. Somewhere beyond him, out in the darkness, Seldom Seen Smith is waiting, watching, listening.

  “Dear Bonnie,” Doc says in sympathy.

  She gets the truck going and rumbles forward over the debris. They stop a few feet past Hayduke to watch the lighting of the fuses.

  “Go on,” he says.

  “We want to watch.”

  “Goon!”

  “No.”

  “All right, good Christ!”

  Hayduke applies his lighter to the first fuse, then to the second. A coil of greasy smoke rises from each tip; the powder inside the lacquered casing burns speedily toward its goal.

  “What happens next?” Bonnie says. “Will it explode?”

  Hayduke shrugs.

  “You haven’t used thermite before?”

  Hayduke frowns, making no answer. Doc puffs on his cigar. Bonnie twists her fingers. The three of them stand and stare at the two pale tubs of thermite out on the roadway in the center of the bridge. The fuses cannot be seen, and only a faint trace of burning wax on the air reveals the progress of the initiators.

  Hayduke’s lips move. He is counting the seconds. “Now,” he says.

  A glow appears in first one then the other of the containers. A hissing sound. The glow brightens, becomes an intense white light fierce as a welder’s arc, painful to the eyes. The entire length of the bridge is brilliantly illuminated. They hear a soft thud, followed by a second, as the tin bottoms drop out of the cartons. A flow of molten metal pure and bright as sunlight streams down into the craters of the roadway, pouring onto the steel beams. The interior of the gorge far below is lit up, each detail of rock and crag and fissure now revealed, down to the pools of water on the canyon floor. Gobs and gouts of burning slag fall through space, flaring hotter as their descent accelerates, and splash with a steaming sizzle into the water. Fragments of red-hot welded steel and broiled concrete follow.

  The molten masses clustered like horrible tumors on the bridge beams start to cool, a cooling apparent to the eye, a clearly diminishing incandescence. Darkness creeps back on all sides. The stars can be seen again.

  The bridge still stands, apparently essentially intact, arched above the flood, above the trench of the darkening canyon.

  A red glow remains, like the coal of Doc’s cigar, under the span of the bridge, glaring like two red eyes through the sockets in the roadway. There is some sputtering and fizzling, some creaking and cracking sounds, as molecular adjustments take place, accompanied by the splash and kiss of fiery shards dropping into the water below.

  Quietude. The bridge remains. The three watch the failing light show. “Well,” says Doc, drawing on his smoke—the twin pinpoints of fire glint for a moment on the lenses of his glasses—“what do you think, George? Have we or have we not?”

  Hayduke scowls. “Have a feeling we been fucked. Let’s take a look.”

  “Don’t go out there,” Bonnie says.

  “Why not?”

  “How do you know it’s not right on the point of collapsing? The whole thing?”

  “That’s what I want to find out.” Hayduke steps forth onto the bridge, springs up and down, walks out to the smoldering center and looks into one of his glowing handmade volcanoes, his face lit up pink as a rose.

  Bonnie follows. Doc comes slowly after.

  “Well?”

  Far off in the east, a green light rises in an arc, descends and fades.

  “Falling star,” Bonnie says. How I wish, she thinks.

  They stare like kids. “More like a flare,” says Hayduke. “I wonder—What the fuck, let’s see what we got here….”

  They look down through a hole at the dull red blob of heat and steel, seeing what resembles a glowing jumbo-size wad of chewing gum mashed to the arch of the bridge.

  “Didn’t cut,” mumbles Hayduke. “Didn’t cut through.” Checking the other hole. “What we got is just two big motherfucking spot welds on the beams. I think maybe I made the sombitch stronger than it was before.” He kicks at a smoking rod.

  “Now now,” says Doc, “don’t be too hasty. The temper of that steel will never be the same again. Suppose someone tried to bring a tractor-trailer across here? Or a bulldozer?”

  Hayduke considers. “Don’t think so. Doubt it. Need plastique, goddammit, plastique. About two hundred pounds of plastique.”

  “How about more of the thermite? How much is left?”

  “I used exactly half of it. Was saving the other half for the other bridge.”

  Bonnie, looking westward toward the river, the reservoir, the black bulk of the Dirty Devil Plateau, sees a pair of headlights creeping down the road, five miles or more away. “Here comes Seldom.”

  “Well,” Doc continues, “why don’t we give one of these beams a second application? The full and intensive thermite treatment? Better to get one bridge than none. Run a big truck across it. A road grader, perhaps. Whatever we can find over toward Hite.”

  “We’ll try it,” Hayduke says, looking at the approaching lights. “That ain’t my jeep.”

  Three long hoot-owl hoots from Smith’s lookout post float on the air, accompanied by warning signals from his blue flashlight, a frantic X-ing in the dark.

  The first pair of lights is followed by a second, and a third.

  “Let’s go,” says Hayduke.

  “Which way?” says Bonnie. “There’s somebody coming the other way too.”

  They turn and look. Two pairs of headlights are swinging down into the red-rock country from the east.

  “I thought you said there was never any traffic on this road at night,” Doc says to Hayduke, who is staring at the lights.

  “I think we better get out of here,” Hayduke says. He fingers the butt of the revolver in his belt. “It’s my opinion we better go.” He starts toward the truck at a run.

  “Which way?” Bonnie yells, looking over her shoulder as she runs, stumbling over a chunk of bristling concrete.

  Doc jogs along in the rear, clutching at his hat and his cigar and his spectacles, big feet slapping on the pavement. “No cause for panic now, no cause for panic.”

  Hayduke and Bonnie pile into the truck. Hayduke guns the motor, waiting. Doc climbs in and slams his door.

  “Which way?”

  “We’ll ask Seldom,” Hayduke says, driving ahead into the dark without lights, toward the blue of Smith’s circling flashlight.

  They find him standing on the road beside the idling jeep, an anxious smile on the buzzard-beaked face. “How’s the bridge?”

  “Still there.”

  “But weakened,” Doc insists. “Structurally impaired and on the verge of collapse.”

  “Maybe,” says Hayduke, “but I doubt it.”

  “Those people are coming,” Bonnie points out. “Let’s discuss the bridge later.”

  “What’s the escape plan?” Hayduke asks Smith.

  Smith smiles. “Escape plan?” he says. “I thought Bonnie she was in charge of escape plans.”<
br />
  “Let’s not be funny,” Abbzug snaps. “Which way out of here, Smith?”

  “Now don’t get your bowels in an uproar.” He looks up the road to the west. The lights, flickering behind an intervening rise of land, are making slow progress. “We still got a couple of minutes, so we’ll take this abandoned loop yonder and wait for that bunch to go on past. Then we cut back to the road and head on up to the Maze and that Robbers’ Roost country. We can hide for ten years in there if we have to, unless you’d rather hide somewheres else. Or maybe we oughta split up beyond the middle bridge and half of us borrow a boat at Hite and go down the sewage lagoon.” He stares at more lights approaching from the east. “Damn if it don’t look like the whole returned-missionary brigade is out tonight. That Bishop Love, he’s bound to make Governor yet, the cottonmouthed sonofabitch. What’d you say, Bonnie?”

  “I said let’s get going. And I don’t want us to split up.”

  “Might be smarter,” Hayduke says.

  “What do you say, Doc?” Smith asks.

  Dr. Sarvis withdraws the cigar for a moment. “Let’s stay together, friends.”

  Smith smiles happily. “That suits me fine. Now, follow me. And no lights.” He gets into the jeep and drives it down the cut-off loop of the original road. Hayduke follows. Five hundred yards farther, down in a deep arroyo, Smith stops. Hayduke stops. All wait in the dark, eyes wide, hearts beating, motors idling.

  “Better snuff out the cigar, Doc.”

  “Of course.”

  The lights come over the hill and around the bend—the first, the second. East of the bridge the other group also approaches, but slowly, having passed the first of the DANGER signs. In the middle of the bridge a rosy glow can still be seen. Barely there, cooling, dying out: 5432° C. of molten thermite all for naught, a splash of magma in the night and nothing more.