One day, my family received a plain package from Matt Barnes. Inside of it, we found a block of salt and a note.
Matt Barnes wrote that the block was from a salt train in the Sahara Desert in Africa. It was intended to go to Mali’s ancient city of Timbuktu. Obviously, it never made it there.
I could only guess why he sent it to my house. Here’s how I dream it happened.
Matt Barnes took the small cup of steaming tea from the dark-skinned man’s crusty hands and nodded as a silent thank-you. In an hour or two the man who led this caravan through the Sahara Desert would not be so thoughtful of Matt Barnes.
“Drink, the night soon get cold,” the man said in broken English. He smiled broadly, revealing a row of missing teeth.
In a small woven tent, they sat on worn pillows. The cushions once—very long ago—were velvety and soft. Now, the cloth was tearing apart at the seams and the cushioning had formed to a certain position like clay in the sun.
As the old pillows, the host had been worn down by his many treks across the Sahara. His body once was limber but it was now calloused. He knew the toll the trips had taken on him because of the unforgiving wasteland. At his age, he felt no real pain.
Matt Barnes, however, felt several blisters rubbing against his boots and a sore big toe. The arch of his foot ached from his walk. His feet had been limber too but were tearing apart and each step was painful.
His forehead and scalp had been singed during the day’s walk. The sun had burned his neck and by now the skin had tightened. If he twisted or turned his neck, whether quickly or slowly, it would sting and feel like it was releasing pent-up heat. As night came, the burns made him shiver with cold.
Too hot by mid-morning, too cold by midnight, the desert was unforgiving, unless a man, like the smiling man sitting before Matt Barnes, only knew the temperature extremes, never mildness.
Matt Barnes sipped the bitter tea and burned his tongue. He had to straighten his chest as the drink slid down his throat, passed his heart and into his stomach.
After a few deep breaths, Matt Barnes thanked the man for taking him in earlier that day. “I don’t know what I would have done otherwise.”
The thin man only nodded furiously and huffed excitedly.
Matt Barnes took another drink, wearily. The tea had cooled slightly, but its bitter taste still curled his tongue.
He was unsure about this caravan of camels that was hauling salt in the earliest mode of transportation. But it was his truck that had overheated and stopped running, not even one of the barking camels that were overladen with the blocks had collapsed. So much for modern advances.
His orders were to remain distant from the caravan and simply trail it to Timbuktu, the ancient city in Mali, West Africa. Yet, quite the opposite had happened. A very young scout with the caravan, sitting atop a camel, had noticed his truck through high-powered binoculars. And he was now a supposed guest in the tent of the leader of the caravan.
Matt Barnes took another sip of bitter tea. The dark-skinned man stared at him and his smile spread wider. He seemed as happy as a hyena who had found meat. Matt Barnes may have been too easy a meal, if anything.
“Another cup,” the man said, taking the cup, and pouring more hot tea. Then he added a spoonful of sugar, stirred it and handed it back to his guest.
Before he sipped it, the curtain swished slightly, as someone moved behind it. The man in front of Matt Barnes scrambled to move his cushion aside and put a giant one in its place. Then the curtain opened. A large man entered the room and sat in the cushion that was fit for this man, his size and respect.
“Mr. Barnes,” he said, tsking his tongue, addressing him as a principal would to a student in trouble. “I am not surprised to meet you here in the middle of the Sahara. But in such a predicament as an overheated truck? Be glad I took you in. The desert is unfriendly to those who don’t know its ways.”
The dark-skinned man handed him his steaming cup of tea. He took it like a king and never acknowledged him.
“So, tell me, what is your sudden intrigue with the desert and my caravan’s trek through it.” He sipped, waiting for a response.
Matt Barnes noticed the man was lighter-skinned than the other one, and he had a full set of teeth. He was twice his size, with a few more chins. He had a mustache that curled into handlebars on each end. Around his head, he wore a purple turban trimmed with gold. His long robe was extravagant, intricate with designs. He wore sandals that showed calloused feet, ones that also had trekked for years across hot sand.
“Sheik, I’ll tell you I’m glad to see you but I prefer to avoid you altogether.”
“I feel the same, Mr. Barnes. A bit of anger toward you too. You have cause me a lot of grief through the years. And I’m tired of you.”
Matt Barnes nodded and felt the tightened, burnt skin on his neck. “I’d guessed as much.”
“Why are you here, Mr. Barnes? And don’t tell me you think my country is beautiful.”
Matt Barnes always had the option to spill his guts on why he had gone to these foreign places to find leaders who would not like him then or ever thereafter. He knew he could say an intelligence agency had an operative in his caravan who was selling secret cables to major organizations that offered the highest price.
Matt Barnes had been sent by a man named Johnny Reel to follow the Sheik. Johnny had information that the Sheik had more than blocks of salt. He knew the Sheik as an underhanded businessman who dabbled in hauling major weapons deeper into Africa. He would trade the weapons in Mali, take his money and head north again. Much richer than before.
“I was testing out the engine on the Jeep, to see if it could survive the desert. You know engineers are always looking to get away from camel trains. They have new petroleum and oil mixes to test, and I get to be the one who gets sunburned doing the tests.” He touched the back of his neck and felt the cold heat.
“Ha! If only you were telling the truth. You have to lie as much as I do, but you’re not as good as me,” the Sheik said with a sly grin. He twisted his mustache with a fat finger. “Now, I’ll ask again, why are you following me?”
“And I’ll tell you again. I am only testing out the endurance of the Jeep’s engine and the new oil stuff. Just like I was testing out the gliders a few years back and the trucks with the oversized wheels before that. You know me.”
“So well in fact, that I don’t believe you, and I never have either.” He turned hastily to the skinny man. “Take him away, Yahan, tie him up and,” he snarled at Matt Barnes, “this time, take his clothes. Maybe he will rethink ever finding me again.”
The skinny man leaped up and grabbed Matt Barnes by the back of his neck as if he were a desert viper. The pain stunned Matt Barnes, nearly paralyzing him. The man who had smiled and served tea kindly a few minutes earlier had now become brutal. Driven out of the tent, Matt Barnes heard the Sheik laughing pompously.
“Now you face me, Mutt Burns,” Yahan said, his accent thick. He raised up and slapped him in the face.
Matt Barnes dropped to the ground, spitting out sand, and squirming as Yahan pressed his foot on his neck. Yahan hissed in laughter as he bore down on the neck. Opening his eyes, Matt Barnes saw the other foot knotted toes with overgrown, yellow toenails. He thought he had only one choice.
He released his foot, and mumbled something angry in his native language. Once near the camels, Yahan ripped off Matt Barnes shirt, the buttons popping off. The chill of air ran over his burned torso. He shoved Matt Barnes to the ground, next to a pile of fresh camel dung. Yahan grabbed the bottom hem of his pants and yanked on them.
“Yahan, don’t, please. I can help you, I can get you your own camels. You deserve more than the Sheik.”
Yahan stopped but didn’t drop the pant legs. “You a liar. Always to lie to Sheik.”
“But me lie to you, I have never?”
“Gliders, trucks, Jeeps, all lies. You lie to Sheik, you lie to me.” And he tore the pants off Matt Barnes, leaving him in undershorts, socks and brown combat boots.
“The Sheik,” Matt Barnes said through wrenching pain, “has told me things about missiles, guns, new weapons and stockpiles. You can get access to them. I know where they are, who to get them from. They want to work with someone like you rather than the Sheik. I’ve talked to them about you, how loyal and wise you are.”
Yahan kicked Matt Barnes once more. “Lies again! You talk to no one about me.”
“I have, Yahan, I have. I just wish I could bring you to them. If only you would go. Think of tea all the time, soft cushions, no traveling unless you wanted to.”
Suddenly, Yahan squeezed his fists and he tied up Matt Barnes and left him outside in the cold Sahara night, where the temperature had dropped from higher than 100 degrees to 50 degrees. Add the sunburns to the night and Matt Barnes suffered. Bound hands, sand and pebbles grinding into his skin, camels’ barking and their terrible scent.
Late that night though, Matt Barnes felt a soft hand pat his face.
“Sir, sir,” a young voice said quietly. “Sir, I want riches, dollars, tea, cafes, soft cushions. You offered Yahan it, he refused. I no refuse. I take.” Then his voice change to a deeper tone and better English. “I am more loyal.”
Matt Barnes recognized him as the young scout with the high-powered binoculars. “If you want it, untie me. I will bring you to them.”
The scout cut the cords. “My name Anwar.”
“Yes, Mutt Burns, yes.”
Everyone with the caravan was in the tents. The scout was on guard duty that night but his lack of loyalty to the Sheik had drawn him off duty.
“Where to?” Matt Barnes asked.
“North, to Mizar and Alcor, big stars,” he said. “Then wait.”
“Whatever you say. But first I need a block of salt, as a memento.”
The two walked, Matt Barnes still in his undershorts and boots, north and then waited. At sunrise, a whirl of sand appeared on the horizon, and soon, a truck had arrived. Anwar spoke to them in another language and had convinced them quickly that they were supposed to take he and Matt Barnes to the city. The men dropped off the pair in a city of dusty streets. From there, they left the desert and the Sheik.
Matt Barnes introduced Anwar to people he knew. And the two split. Only to see each other a decade or more later in another city on another continent in a very different circumstance.