Juan Flynn had difficulty sleeping at night. He knew too much. Charlie had told him “things,” When we asked him what “things,” Juan remained evasive, preferring to keep his knowledge to himself, thinking perhaps as I had, that by disclosing such information he would only spread fear. Juan suspected Charlie of many things, but he wanted to be sure; he was like that—the kind of person who comes to his own conclusions. I always admired Juan for that quality. We all did. Also, having a six-foot-five
We were staying in the bunkhouse then, the four of us on cots in one small room. At night we’d play bridge and games of concentration. Sometimes Juan talked about his Panamanian mother, who “knew voodoo.” “She have, my mother, strong powers to keep thee spirits under control. One day I walk out in thee street in front of my home and find a dagger stock in thee ground and my mother she tell me not to touch, that eet keep away thee locura…how do you say…craziness.”
Following my episode with Charlie in the canyon, Juan put his shotgun on nails above his bunk. By that time Crockett had convinced him to try to sleep.
“We got a psychic umbrella around the ranch…it’s there. Soon as anyone enters that area, we’ll wake up…ain’t no way Charlie’s gonna sneak up on us.”
One night about two o’clock he tried it. We were all asleep, bundled up in sleeping bags. The nights had turned cold; we had a small wood-buring stove set up in one corner. I was awakened by Juan thrashing around in bed, talking in his sleep. Crockett and Posten were also awakened; we lay there watching and listening to Juan.
“You…son of a beech…” he muttered. “You motherfocker….Ah…ah…okay… okay. I got you, you! I got you! Hah! No, no, you ain’t getting away. There I’m in your lung. Now…burn. I’m burning real good…Sisss…” Juan’s legs flailed inside the sleeping bag, his body dangling over the edge of the bunk at both ends. Finally his foot struck the shotgun and it fell on top of him.
When he opened his eyes, I was looking straight at him from my bed just adjacent to his. Across the room, Crockett lay there wide-awake on his bunk. Brooks was already sitting up.
“What’s going on, Juan?”
“I got him,” Juan muttered.
“It’s Charlie, ain’t it…he sneaking up on us out there.”
“Yeah, but I got him good…I burned in there…in his lung.”
“It’s Charlie and somebody else,” Crockett said.
“I got him,” Juan repeated, his voice still groggy.
“Yeah, but he’s still coming,” I said.
Crockett sat up. “He may be comin’, but by the time he gets here, he’s gonna be so wiped out he won’t be able to do much.”
Juan slipped out of the bag and climbed down from the bed. He picked up the shotgun and checked the chamber before setting the weapon on top of the bunk. Then he walked to the door and went out onto the porch.
Seconds later we heard him. “Hi Charlie…what you looking for?”
Charlie’s response was unintelligible. Then we heard Juan. “And you too, Clem, you sneaky motherfocker…I know you’re out there. And you, Bruce, cabron!”
Charlie followed Juan inside the bunkhouse. Charlie was white. He looked totally disoriented. Crockett grinned, lit a cigarette, and offered one to Charlie. “Kind o’ late for a social call, ain’t it?”
Charlie wore buckskins and carried a leather thong over his shoulder.
“One of these nights I’m gonna sneak up on you motherfuckers,” he said evenly, forcing a grin, still trying to regain his composure. “And when I do…”
“Now, that’s impossible, Charlie,” Crockett said. “Ain’t no such thing as sneakin’ up on people. You know it and I know it…all that sneakin’ up is just make-believe, somethin’ people do to keep up a little intrigue in their lives.”
“Yeah,” I added. “You taught us too well.”
Charlie grinned, and some of the color returned to his face.
“Yeah, well…you folks just sleep tight.” He turned and walked out the door, and Juan called after him, “Hey, Charlie…thee next time, cabron, there ain’t gonna be no next time!”
Two nights later we all woke up simultaneously.
“Charlie,” Brooks said. “Creepy-crawly.”
“Son of a beech!”
“He don’t give up, does he?” Crockett sat up and reached for his shirt.
I put on my pants, then hopped back up on the bunk—Juan’s shotgun was under my sleeping bag. I tossed it to Juan.
We were all sitting up and Crockett was smoking a cigarette when Cahrlie pushed the door open and came crawling in on his hands and knees.
“Hi, Charlie,” I said.
“Buenas noches, cabron.”
“Lose somethin’, Charlie?”
Charlie was utterly humilated, but he didn’t lose his composure. “One of these nights…” he said. Then he got up and walked out of the bunkhouse. We heard him say something to
Crockett got to his feet and stretched. “Let’s head down to the main house and make some coffee. ‘Bout time we had a little powwow.”
It was clear that we had pushed Charlie to his limit. Up until then, the rules of the game had dictated a certain bizarre etiquette that we’d all adhered to. But Charlie’s karma was turning; it had started to turn from the day he met Crockett. Charlie could not get to Crockett. Charlie needed the paranoia of the city to work his fear tactics; in the desert Crockett was on home ground, amid surroundings which were a part of his consciousness.
Before, there were no doubts; Charlie’s belief in his “destiny” had been reinforced by an entire Family of followers. Two months had passed since the Tate-La Bianca murders, and still the law had nothing on him. They’d busted him for stolen vehicles but could not hold him. This made Charlie strong, made Helter-Skelter even more of a reality. It validated Charlie’s power. The fact that people had actually gone out and committed murder for him was proof of that power; proof that his revolution, despite all odds, was meant to be, and that he was beyond the law.
Then Crockett appeared and the Family began to disintegrate. Charlie sought to beat Crockett at his own game, but without success. He could not discredit the man. Maybe Charlie was wrong. Maybe Crockett actually had more knowledge than he did; if that were the case, then perhaps Charlie had created a myth; he had killed for nothing. Maybe Helter-Skelter wasn’t real. That’s when Charlie began to doubt himself, and that’s when his karma turned and he grew desperate. Though we didn’t know it at the time, Charlie’s rampages in the desert began to reflect his frustrations; just days before his nocturnal visits to us, he and Clem and Tex set fire to a construction site and several pieces of large earthmoving equipment—a sure way to bring the Man down on him.
Crockett had sensed the dangers but had no intention of letting someone drive him away from the canyon. He had also been curious to play out his hand with Charlie. Until that night.
“Seems to me,” he said, once we were seated around the table with our coffee, “that things are getting’ a little out of hand. What’s nice about bein’ here is the peace of mind…but there don’t seem much of that left…more like the city up here now. Old Charlie brought his Helter-Skelter with him. But I hate like hell to pull…just when we’re having success with our prospectin’ and findin’ that yeller stuff.”
Juan picked up his shotgun and walked to the door. “I don’t stay,” he said. “I’m going back.” He walked out onto the porch.
We took our coffee and joined him, sitting on the steps. The night was cold, studded with stars, but there was enough light to see the craggy spine of the Panamints cutting sharply across the sky.
“We’ll give it one more week,” Crockett said. “Make one more supply run. We can’t stay too much longer, ‘cause the cops are gonna swarm this place. I can feel it.”
The following morning Juan and I set out for Las Vegas. The trip took six hours; most of it was made in silence. Several times I tried to engage Juan in conversation, but he wasn’t in the mood to talk; he said only that he planned to return to Spahn’s and to pick up his back pay from George. After that, he confessed, he didn’t know what he was going to do. “Maybe when you and Brooks and Crockett find a good mine, I come and work with you…but I don’t come back to Barker Ranch…no more.”
I let Juan out on the outskirts of Las Vegas. While he hitchhiked south towards Baker, I drove on into town. It took three days to get supplies, round up parts for my BSA, and deliver a couple of messages for Crockett. By noon on the fourth day I was on my way back.
Like Juan, I too thought of leaving. Charlie’s terror tactics, even though they had backfired, had transformed our quiet productive scene into a perverse kind of torture. I had gained a certain satisfaction in seeing Charlie’s interaction with Crockett, since it reinforced my withdrawal from the Family and served to convince me I had made a wise decision. But I knew Charlie couldn’t and wouldn’t be pushed much further; his own credibility was on the line. There was too much at stake. Had I known just how much, I would never have returned that afternoon.
By the time I parked the truck at Barker’s, it was too late to carry in the supplies, so I left everything and hiked back up to the ranch. When I got there, all the lights in the ranch house were on. I saw Snake and Squeaky walking up the path to the house. Two dirt bikes were parked at the gate, and three or four dune buggies beyond the bunkhouse. Clem and Bruce Davis were sitting beside Brenda when I entered the gate. I saw Sadie coming down the road from the Meyers place with Ouisch and Kitty Lutesinger, one of Bobby’s old girlfriends. As I reached the porch, I spotted two of the girls getting out of the bus, followed by Tex and Bill Vance, who had driven a new dune buggy up the back route by way of Furnace Creek.
My heart was pounding as I walked into the house. Charlie sat at the table across from Snake. Katie was cutting Snake’s hair. Snake smiled, but she looked ghostly. She laughed nervously when I sat down.
“Glad you’re back, brother,” Charlie said, getting to his feet and stretching his arms over his head.
“Where’s Brooks and Crockett?”
“Don’t know.” Charlie walked past me to the door. “But I got to dig a couple of graves before it gets dark.”
He let the door slam as he walked out.
Fear, rage, utter desperation commingled inside me. Tex came in with a shotgun and sat down at the table. Then Squeaky, Sandy, and Brenda entered the house. All had short, uneven, recently cut hair. The sound of the scissors slicing through Snake’s hair sent chills down my back.
Bruce came in and sat down across from me. His face was red and puffy; some of the sores on his arms had healed, but new ones had erupted on his neck, just under his chin. “Where’s that Panamanian piggie?” he rasped.
Before I could respond, Charlie called to him from the porch and he walked out. I got up, went into the bathroom, and closed the door. I had to compose myself. I had to face Charlie without blowing it. I heard him and Bruce walk past the house. I heard Bruce’s coarse pneumatic laugh as I started to take a piss. Then I heard Charlie speaking to Phil Simms, an ex-con and friend of Charlie’s who had apparently just arrived.
“How’s your wife, Jean?” Charlie wanted to know.
“Real pain in the ass at the moment… you know how women are.”
“Well,” Charlie blurted, his voice hard and without a trace of humor, “why don’t you bring her up here and we’ll throw her down a mine shaft. Then you can move in with us.”
I didn’t wait for Phil’s reply, but went back into the living room. Katie, Stephanie, and Cappy were in the kitchen preparing a meal. Cappy said, “Hi, Paul,” as I passed the kitchen doorway and took a seat by the table, just as Charlie and Bruce walked in from the porch and sat down.
In addition to Charlie and Bruce, there were two other males seated at the table – a kid they called Zero, and a part-time wrangler from Spahn’s named Larry Jones; there were also two new girls, introduced to me as Beth and Shelly. With his Family slowly disintegrating around him, Charlie felt the need of recruiting additional followers. But I paid little attention to any of them. All my focus was on Charlie.
He grinned at me. “Let’s make a little music.” His eyes were dancing. I knew it was test time, and sensed, as I held his gaze, that what lay in the balance was everything.
While he tuned the guitar, he told me that the tapes we’d made at Spahn’s were set to be recorded and that an LP record would soon be released; he said it was long overdue but that our hard work would pay off. I put all my attention on Charlie, on the music. I listened to the sounds he made on the guitar. Then he sang, and I sang with him, and it was like one sound. Afterward he came over and put his arm around me. “You’re finally back, huh… where you belong… It’s about time.”
We ate a huge meal together that night; then the girls moved the table and chairs and brought in mattresses and laid them on the floor; Tex built a fire and we all gathered around Charlie to make music. I sensed that it was all a means of showing me that the Family was still unified, that the love was still there, that we were still one. But going through the motions was not enough. The people sitting around me, Snake on my left, Brenda on my right, then Katie, Sadie, Stephanie, Ouisch, Cappy, Tex, Kitty, Bill Vance, Crazy Patty, Sandy, Clem, and Squeaky – seemed lifeless. With their close-cropped hair, the girls looked like a gaggle of militant dikes. There was no feeling, there was only a strange, depraved momentum set in motion by Charlie. When I looked at Snake, I felt sick inside; her eyes were glassy, lusterless; she looked insane. When Charlie made a joke, everyone laughed, yet the laughter was soulless and without joy. At times I found the girls looking at me as though I were a stranger, or perhaps someone they had seen before but could not quite remember. Still, there was a connection, however vague and nostalgic, and I felt it. I also felt Charlie’s attention on me, particularly after he began to play the guitar. Like the others, I went through the motions.
We were getting ready to drop acid when Bruce Davis came stumbling into the room to announce that the truck was stuck in the wash. Charlie flew into a rage.
“Motherfucker!” he shouted. “Can’t you do anything without someone holding your hand! I might as well send a girl to drive the truck! We got to drop off that gasoline and get supplies!”
“I can get the truck out, Charlie,” I said.
Charlie’s eyes found mine. He got to his feet and walked across the room muttering to himself.
“Yeah,” he said finally. “Why don’t ya do that. Deliver them gas drums and pick up supplies, then come back here. You go too,” he said to Bruce. “Make sure everything gets back safe and sound – everything!”
Charlie was taking a chance, yet he probably saw it as an opportunity to teach Bruce a lesson while testing me at the same time. In a way, it was a continuation of the power games he had been playing with Crockett. With Crockett gone, he may have considered his position stronger. He knew that Bruce, having assumed my position within the Family, would keep a close eye on me.
Charlie went into the bedroom and came out with a wad of folded bills, which he laid in my hand. “Here’s three hundred bucks. Buy some camping gear and a couple of parachutes, then play the slot machines for me… okay?”
I interpreted this gesture as a vote of confidence, and as a means of castigating Bruce. Less than a week before, I had been on Charlie’s shit list. Now he was entrusting me with money and responsibility for supplies. He was also, he believed, securing an implied agreement from me – to return.
My plan at that point was simple: to get the truck unstuck, get to Vegas, and start looking for Brooks and Crockett. I had a growing sense that they were safe. I wasn’t that worried about Bruce Davis.
Charlie walked with us down to the gate, Bruce on one side, me on the other. For a long moment we stood in silence looking down the road that leads to Golar Wash. Charlie lit a cigarette and exhaled into the chill night air. I was aware of a low rumbling sound that seemed to seep up out of the canyon, the same psychic vibration that preceded Charlie’s arrival at Barker’s just weeks before. I had an impulse to ask Charlie and Bruce if they heard the sound, but thought better of it. Even then I knew what the sound was. It was a sound Brooks and Crockett and I had heard a week earlier. The sound of the Man closing in.
As I stood beside Charlie listening to his final instructions to Bruce, I recalled the words he had spoken to me at Gresham Street over six months before. “You know, once Helter-Skelter comes down, I’ll be going back to the joint. After that, it’ll be up to you.”
It was after three A.M. by the time we got the truck out and drove it to the base of the wash. I told Bruce to stop while I lifted my BSA out of the pickup. Without a word he helped me load it onto the flatbed. Then we headed out across the valley toward Ballarat, to deliver Charlie’s gas drums and continue on to Las Vegas.
Bruce did a lot of talking on that trip. He told me about going to London and studying Scientology; he told me Helter-Skelter would stun the world. He also told me something I’d heard before; how hard it had been to kill Shorty Shea.
Once we got to Vegas, I ditched Bruce long enough to make a phone call to Shoshone. I spoke to Don Ward. When I asked if he knew where Crockett and Posten were, he said, “Maybe, but we got to talk to make sure who you are…”
The next day I unloaded my bike and drove it to Shoshone. Brooks Posten and Paul Crockett were in Don Ward’s office when I got there.
The following morning, the Barker ranch was busted.
COPYRIGHT PAUL WATKINS AND GUILLERMO SOLEDAD