Jake’s hands got scraped up when he and Creek descended from the steep, rocky rise at breakneck pace. More than once, the weight of his backpack nearly threw him off-balance and had him toppling down the hill. After he was back on level ground, Jake took the opportunity to wipe his raw, dusty palms off on the front of his jeans.  Looking up, Jake noticed that Creek had kept moving, and there was a distance growing between them.

“Where are we off to in such a hurry?” Jake asked loudly, slightly annoyed. Creek stopped in his tracks, eyes still locked on the flames engulfing rooftops in the distance.

“Home,” Creek said in a determined tone that was still riddled with shock.

“What do we do here, man?” Jake asked, “Tijuana is burning, and the only road we know to follow out of Mexico goes right through it.”

“I know, I know. There are still several miles between us and the city. I think our best bet is to close that gap just a little more, then we skirt around the city proper. We’ll hit the border eventually—a guard station or the border wall itself.”

“You think the border isn’t on complete lockdown right now? I don’t have to roll the dice to tell you that it’s complete pandemonium up there right now. American or not, passports or not, we aren’t getting through.”

“I’m not planning on asking anyone to let me across.”

“I can’t believe what’s happening right now. It’s like the whole world has been turned on its head in just a few hours!”

Creek didn’t reply. He Just kept walking. Jake planted himself and began rooting through his backpack. It wasn’t until Creek was about 200 feet away that he turned back to see that Jake wasn’t behind him.

“What are you looking for?”

“The sat phone! I put it in my bag this morning after checking its charge. It had plenty of battery. We’ve just been so distracted, I completely forgot about it!

Creek started walking back toward Jake quickly. But before he could say another word, the roar of an engine and the blast of headlights suddenly appeared before the men, barreling toward them. There wasn’t time to move. There was barely time to think.

Jake stopped digging for the sat phone and let his pack fall to the desert floor. He dropped to the ground, picking up the shotgun he had laid down to free up his hands. Creek already had a bead drawn on the driver’s side windshield with the .22 he’d snagged off the shopkeeper.

The silhouette of the old but well-kept white Cadillac careened to a halt about 30 feet away from the men, kicking up dirt, sand, and gravel. The wind carried the cloud of dust straight into Jake’s eyes, but he hardly blinked. Music blared loudly from the inside of the cab. Its muffled garble of words and electric guitar squeals could barely be made out over the roar of the engine.

Suddenly, the engine was cut to silence, and the music died along with it. There was nothing but silence for a few moments—eerie silence. Jake cut his eyes over to Creek without moving his head. Creek’s hands were steady, gun drawn. Jake took a moment and pumped a slug into the chamber, bringing the shotgun up and tucking the butt into the crook of his arm. He drew in a deep breath and let it out hard. He was exhausted, but he was ready.

An eternity of questionable seconds passed. Then, the car door opened. Creek threw a bright beam from his flashlight on the open door.

“Hands!” Creek shouted, “Let me see your hands!”

Instead of hands, a billow of smoke wafted out of the darkened opening and into the night air. Then, a voice from the driver’s seat cut through the tension of the moment, “Raised barrels ain’t no way to greet a fellow American, friends. Just sayin’.” The voice was gruff but strong. Not a hint of nervousness in it. In fact, it had a light-hearted tone. Two hands poked up out of the door opening. “I’m gonna come out now, but I’d feel a lot better if you two took your fingers off them triggers. You can keep your pieces pointed at me, but let’s mitigate the risk of friendly fire because of the jitters. That okay with you?”

For better or worse, Jake felt at ease, but he still didn’t move his finger far from the trigger. “You can come on out now,” Jake said authoritatively, speaking with an intentional rasp that made him sound like he wasn’t someone to be messed with. Creek stayed quiet but kept his flashlight on the car’s open door.

“Alright then,” said the mystery Cadillac man, “I’m comin’ out now.”

A bear of a man emerged—he was older, in his 60s, lit cigarette, graying hair pulled back into a ponytail, rugged features that told of hard experiences, camouflage patterned flannel shirt tucked into tactical-style khaki pants, broad suspenders holding it all in place, polished black boots that reflected the desert moon, and a couple of rings on each hand that would undoubtedly send someone into the next century if he decided to ball a fist and throw a haymaker.

“This is the weirdest day of my ever-lovin’ life,” Jake said, almost silently, under his breath.

“What can we do for you?” Creek asked forcefully.

“Well, now that’s an interesting question, cuz by the looks of things, we might all be in need of some help,” said the Cadillac man pointing back toward the orange glow bouncing off the darkened night sky.

“Do you know what’s happening?” Jake asked

“Not fully, no. In fact, I probably don’t know much more than you do,” said the man.

“What are you doing out here?” Creek asked, again, in a forceful tone.

“Looking for my dog. He got worked up by something when I let him out to go to the bathroom. Started growling and whining like crazy. Took off after whatever it was. He usually comes back after a while, but not tonight.  You haven’t seen him, have you?”

“No…sorry,” Jake replied.

“Ah well, he’ll come around. He’s all the company I got these days. Not much else to keep me occupied. Thought I’d take a stroll and see If I could scare him up,” said the man before taking a long drag on his cigarette.

“What did you mean when you said you didn’t ‘fully’ know what was going on? Have you heard anything? A news report on the TV or radio?” Creek asked, softening a little.

“Don’t got a TV. Never had much use for one. But I heard some odd chatter on my ham radio back at my place.”

“Odd…how?” asked Jake.

“Couldn’t really piece it all together. Connections were spotty. It wasn’t till I was out here I even saw what was happening in Tijuana. I killed my lights to try and see it better. Then I heard you guys coming. Thought it best to stay quiet and put until I knew what was happening.

“You thought it was best to scare the mess out of us in the middle of the dark desert? You know that’s how people get shot, right?” Jake said slightly put off.

“Son, I have been involved in 13 military campaigns that may or may not still be classified. If I thought there was any way you were going to hurt me, you’d already be laying in a pool of your own blood,” said the Cadillac man with a gruff, hearty laugh and another draw of his cigarette.

“What are you doing here, in Mexico?” Creek asked.

“Just an expatriate retired to the coast. Look, I know this is a bit of an awkward situation, being how we’ve met and all, but I’m heading back to my place. Considering what’s going on and what little we know of it, my gut tells me it’s a good night to stay in. If you’re interested, there’s plenty of room, food, and clean water for the three of us…. I’ll even let you keep your guns,” said Cadillac man with an innocent laugh and hands raised in the air. “We can figure out what’s next for you guys, and I’ll help you as much as I’m able.”

Jake looked at Creek. There were no words that needed to be said. They knew that trusting the kindness of this strange desert Cadillac man was the least risky thing they had done that day. They lowered their guns and walked slowly to the car. Creek slid into the passenger’s seat, gun in hand. Jake took the back seat, behind the driver, with his shotgun at the ready.

“Sorry to be leery of you, sir,” said Jake, “It’s just been a crazy day.”

“Looks like you’ve taken a few good licks,” said the Cadillac man, looking at Jake in the rearview mirror, “I’ve got some ice and aspirin at my place. It’s got your name on it.” The car started moving slowly through the desert night, weaving around cacti and scrub brush, finding its way back to the road.

Jake spoke up with a laugh, “Speaking of names, I’m Jake, and your co-pilot there is Creek. And you are?”

The man smiled and looked at Jake again through the rearview mirror. “Around here, they call me ‘El Stumpo.’ But you can call me Stumpy.