Note: This story originally appeared in Media Rare, published in 1985 by Idol Hours Press. Rated PG-13. Not thoroughly beta'd, and my OCR software is very creative when it interprets certain words!
Incident in a Tumbleweed Town
By Linda S. Maclaren
B.A. Baracus hated the desert. Too hot in summer, too cold in winter, the desert was also too big, too open, and too damned unpredictable. The desert in bad weather was doubly detestable. Actually having to drive through the desert in doubly detestable bad weather defied description. Perhaps B.A. could be forgiven for his uncharitable thoughts because his actions were defying description at that very moment. After all, any environment responsible for the armadillo, the roadrunner, and the saguaro cactus couldn't be all bad.
The 'weather' on this particular occasion was wind ... a brutal, howling, roaring, blustering, rampaging gale assaulting them from the north. It swept all manner of flora and fauna before it, including a great cloud of sand and gravel which slashed everything in its path.
B.A.'s immaculate van happened to be one of the things in the sandstorm's path. The sand raked the shiny black finish as the van was buffeted from side to side on the narrow two-lane blacktop.
B.A. -- the initials stood for "Bad Ass," or "Bad Attitude" in polite company -- was an enormous black man with a penchant for gold jewelry. He was laden with pounds of the precious metal. Gold chains festooned his neck until they resembled an armored breastplate. Anyone with a notion of lifting this burden from him had only to look at his bulging muscles and belligerent scowl to reconsider the folly of their thoughts. Now, however, B.A. was reduced nearly to tears as he imagined the damage being done to his beloved van by the merciless sand.
The storm cut visibility to no more than a few yards, but B.A. made good time in spite of the hindrance. He was looking forward to reaching the next town, fueling the van, and finding a respectable cafe to ease his growing hunger pangs. Mostly, he was looking forward to a respite from the wind.
Beside him, Hannibal Smith had abandoned the idea of catching a quick nap; the unpredictable rocking of the van made the thought impractical. A handsome man of middle age, his mischievous bent for adventure made him seem much younger. He was the leader of the tight little group known as the A-Team.
They'd been a unit in Viet Nam. Accused of a crime they had not committed, they'd broken out of a military stockade and gone underground in the Los Angeles area. Unable to obtain a weekly wage through traditional channels, they occasionally hired out their skills as a crack commando unit when people could not obtain justice through the law. Thus, the legend of the A-Team had been born. No city, county, state or federal agency had been able to capture them ... but not for lack of trying. Even now, units of the Arizona State Police were on the lookout for them, having-been alerted by the unfortunately high-profile nature of their most recent mission. For this reason alone, the sandstorm was a blessing because it offered good cover and kept the helicopters out of the air.
But those were about the only things it kept out of the air.
"Wow! Wasn't that a beauty?!" Murdock exclaimed suddenly from the rear seat. He had a plain but charming face, which was currently alight with rapture as he peered eagerly through the windshield. War had wounded Murdock's mind, and he acted out various flights of fantasy from time to time. This occasionally made dealing with him difficult. At the least, his many assumed personae were harmless journeys into worlds beyond the ability of others to share. At worst, they were annoyances to be handled with gentleness and patience.
However, gentle patience was not in B.A.'s vocabulary where Murdock was concerned (although the menacing black man had been known to show great kindness toward children and dogs). Murdock's antics frequently frayed B.A.'s nerves to the breaking point. On the plus side, Murdock had never failed to come through in the crunch. He was part of the team, part of the family, and the others would tolerate and protect him as their varied personalities permitted.
"Wasn't what a beauty?" the fourth and final member of the A-Team asked absently from the other rear seat. Templeton Peck was a devilishly handsome man in his mid-thirties. He'd earned the moniker "Face" because of his extraordinary ability to con anybody out of just about anything. He possessed a multitude of disguises and roles guaranteed to defeat even the most dubious.
Hannibal began to suspect Murdock had slipped into another fantasy, but before he could explore the possibility, Murdock shouted, "Look out!"
He wasn't called "Howling Mad" for nothing.
Automatically, B.A. hit the brakes. Hannibal grabbed for the dash to keep from flying forward, and Face grabbed for anything at all, which included Hannibal. The van skidded but did not veer under B.A.'s expert handling. Within moments, he'd brought it safely to a stop at the edge of the road. Even parked, it shuddered violently on its springs under the wind's assault.
B.A. turned in his seat and glowered at Murdock. "What is it, you crazy fool?"
Murdock pointed happily through the windshield. "I didn't know any of the big herds were left," he said wistfully.
The others looked to where he was pointing. Ahead, amid the swirling sands, several hundred tumbleweeds rolled, bounced, slid and soared across the highway.
Hannibal turned incredulous eyes on Murdock. "Tumbleweeds?"
"This is their migrating season," Murdock explained seriously. "We have to be particularly careful not to injure any of them."
B.A. tensed. The threat of pursuit and the lousy weather had combined to make his normally volatile temper even shorter. "I'm gonna kill him," he muttered through clenched jaws. Only a restraining hand from Hannibal kept him in his seat.
"Murdock, we have to get to the next town for gas," the A-Team leader explained patiently. "We have State Police crawling all over the place looking for us. We can't stay here until the wind dies down."
"I'm not talking about the wind," Murdock shot back petulantly. It was no use trying to reason with him. "When the tumbleweeds migrate, they stir up the dust. The wind has nothing to do with it."
Generally, Face possessed the magic touch necessary to keep Murdock under control. "What if B.A. honks at them?" he asked helpfully.
Murdock shook his head. "When the migratory instinct is strong, they won't hear the horn."
B.A. muttered something uncomplimentary under his breath and started to pull back onto the road.
"No!" Murdock shrieked in alarm. "You'll hurt them!"
The outburst was drastic even for someone called "Howling Mad." Murdock was deeply agitated, moved nearly to tears by his desperation. His three companions were shocked, B.A. to the extent that he braked again and stopped. Though Murdock was prone to extreme highs and lows of emotion, it was rare he came so close to the point of total breakdown.
"We won't hurt them," Hannibal promised quietly, rousing himself from his stunned silence.
"You promise?" Murdock snuffled pitiably.
For once, B.A. held his temper. "I'll drive real slow," he assured his teammate, "and I'll stop whenever we get to a big bunch of 'em."
"Herd," Murdock corrected, his protest appeased. "Tumbleweeds run in herds."
B.A. frowned but didn't retort as he pulled the van back onto the blacktop. True to his word, his went slowly, though his hands gripped the wheel as if strangling the life out of it ... or perhaps someone he was thinking about.
Satisfied, Murdock began to regale his reluctant audience with the lore of the tumbleweed. "They're one of God's most maligned creatures," he explained. "Millions of them are slaughtered yearly on our highways, but you won't find them on any endangered species list. Farmers and ranchers are free to trap and destroy them in huge numbers. Yet the tumbleweed is a very docile creature as long as you don't corner it or annoy its young." Along with his recitation, he pointed out particularly noteworthy examples of the species as B.A.'s van crept past. When he'd finished his impromptu presentation, he settled down to gaze rapturously out the window, admiring the numerous tumbleweeds scattering across their path.
Appropriately, he hummed, "Tumbling Tumbleweeds."
B.A. was certain he, too, was about to go stark, howling mad.
As for Hannibal, he stared morosely out the window and wondered at the mind that could create such torturous nightmares for itself.
Yenta Junction turned out to be one of those towns that would have been described as the "one horse" variety in the days of the Old West. It boasted a cafe, a liquor store, a gas station, and a general store respectively on each of the four corners of its main and only intersection. And that was it. There must have been a few houses or perhaps a church nearby, but none of these were visible as the A-Team pulled into the gas station.
They climbed out gratefully to stretch tired muscles. B.A. unfortunately, had to fight a couple of persistent tumbleweeds before he could get down from the cab.
"They're only trying to be friendly," Murdock admonished him.
"Don't press your luck," B.A. retorted.
The station attendant struggled out of his cozy office and staggered toward them through the wind. He backed up a step when he finally got a good look at B.A. -- in fact, he looked as if he wished he could blow right back into his office.
"Er, help you?"
"Fill it up, please," Hannibal requested politely. "We'll be at the store buying a few things."
"Fine." The attendant gave B.A. a wide berth and reached for the pump nozzle.
Hannibal turned to start across the street, but he bumped into Murdock, who stood mindless of the biting wind and watched something in the distance with rapt intensity. "Murdock?"
"Such noble sacrifice," Murdock murmured.
Hannibal wondered if he'd heard correctly. "What?"
Murdock pointed across the road. "There."
Almost unwillingly, Hannibal felt his gaze drawn to the point Murdock was indicating. There, snared by and piled to the top of a three-strand barbed wire fence, stood a little pyramid of tumbleweeds. "Sacrifice?"
"Impaling themselves upon the wire so the rest of the herd can have a safe bridge to the other side," Murdock intoned eloquently.
His tribute lost a little of its impact when B.A. slapped him on the back with enough force to send him staggering.
They went. Not even a madman argued with one of B.A.'s commands.
The interior of the store was an interesting decor best described as nineteenth century Seven-Eleven. It stocked everything from curry brushes to Hostess Twinkies, fishing flies to moon pies, saddle soap to Ivory Soap.
Hannibal nearly lost his grip on the door as the wind tried to tear it from his hand, but he managed to hold on as he was swept inside. The other three tumbled in behind him. Together, they closed the door.
Though free of the incessant buffet of the wind, they could still hear it, whistling and moaning amid the cracks and eaves of the old building.
"Just blow into town?" the storekeeper asked, chuckling at his own humor.
"Something like that," Hannibal admitted as he and his companions spread out to pick up a few snacks and drinks for the trip. He nearly ran over a State Trooper, who was picking something off a low shelf near the back of the store. "Howdy, officer," he greeted cordially.
The trooper looked him up and down, then smiled. "Howdy." Hannibal watched as the officer went to the counter, paid for his purchase, and sauntered out the door. The casualness of his exit was spoiled when the wind did its best to topple him back inside. In his struggle, the trooper nearly lost his hat, but managed to keep his dignity. The door finally shut behind him.
Hannibal picked up a few things and passed Face. "I think we've been made. Let's get our stuff and clear out."
"Right." Face passed the word along to B.A. and Murdock. The four gathered at the counter with their choices.
"That was quick," the storekeeper commented, ringing up their purchases with agonizing slowness.
"We're in kind of a hurry to get back on the road," Hannibal explained, digging some bills out of his pocket.
"Wouldn't be in such a hurry to get out in that wind if I were you," the storekeeper observed. "Worse wind we've had in years."
"That so?" Hannibal replied with disinterest. He was thinking about the Arizona trooper outside.
"And all the damned tumbleweeds," the maundering storekeeper continued. "After the wind dies down, we'll have to gather 'em up and burn 'em. Makes quite a little bonfire."
"Bet it does," Hannibal agreed, receiving his change and picking up the small grocery bag. He turned to his companions and froze. "Where's Murdock?"
Face made a hasty tour of the small store. "He can't have gone out the front or we'd have seen him. He must have slipped out the back."
They left the store quickly and squinted anxiously up and down the street. Just standing still in the wind required enormous effort. Sand stung their eyes and faces.
There was no sign of Murdock.
"Okay, let's split up and find him fast," Hannibal instructed, clutching the meager groceries protectively to his chest. "If that State Trooper has time to call for back-up, we might have to fight our way out of here."
The three parted company and headed off in search of their missing companion. Face and Hannibal spotted him at almost the same moment and converged at the fence behind the store.
Murdock was hastily freeing tumbleweeds from the snare of barbed wire and tossing them across, where they were caught by the wind. "Flee, my beauties!" he cried in anguish. "Flee before the wicked come to immolate you in a fiery pyre!"
Face grabbed him and pulled him back from the fence. Murdock's hands were already cut and bleeding from a hundred tiny cuts inflicted by the thorny branches of the tumbleweeds. Murdock struggled to break free, and Hannibal nearly lost the sack of groceries as he tried to help.
"Murdock, listen to me!" he shouted against the wind. "That State Trooper made us. We have to get out of town before he can call in reinforcements."
"But the tumbleweeds!" Murdock wailed. "They'll be slaughtered!"
"You saw the great herds today," Hannibal insisted reasonably. "They'll survive and prosper in spite of a few misguided people.
Murdock thought this over. Finally, he nodded. "You're right. When we've blown ourselves to cinders, they'll still here, migrating to their secret breeding grounds and roaming freely across the vast plains."
"Right," Hannibal agreed somewhat less poetically as Face steered Murdock back towards the van.
B.A. saw them coming and hastened to pay the station attendant, who gratefully disappeared back into his office. Hannibal stuck the grocery bag on the floor of the van. Just as he started to climb in, a strong voice warned, "Everybody freeze!"
They froze obediently, though the command seemed a bit much considering the onslaught of wind. Cautiously, Hannibal turned his head to see the speaker. As he'd feared, it was the State Trooper, riot gun aimed unerringly at his back.
Slowly, he raised his hands. The rest of the A-Team followed suit.
"Step away from the van," the trooper instructed, "and line up here in front of me."
B.A. walked around the front of the van to join them. From this position, the five of them were hidden from sight of the gas station office. The little drama unfolding on the streets of Yenta Junction was being played without an audience.
"The A-Team," the trooper gloated happily. "I caught me the A-Team." He gestured with the shotgun. "That way, to my car."
They went. Hannibal tried furiously to think of a plan. Though it was certainly possible to jump the officer -- four against one made for good odds -- there was also a good chance one or more of them would be wounded or killed by the riot gun. Furthermore, the A-Team avoided injuring police officers; they relied more on out-smarting the opposition whenever possible.
They reached the police car, which was parked by the side of the general store, and stopped by the right rear door. The trooper shifted from foot to foot in his excitement. "Just wait 'til I call this in -- Trooper Jerome Davis captures the notorious A-Team all by himself!"
Hannibal glanced at Face, who hadn't missed the remark. The trooper hadn't called for backup; there was still a chance.
"Now, open the rear door and climb inside. It'll be a little cozy, but I want you safely locked up," Davis ordered.
B.A., the nearest, opened the door. The riot gun never wavered. It looked as if they were going to have to take a desperate chance or else accept custody. B.A. looked at Hannibal for a sign.
Hannibal, however, was literally dumbstruck with disbelief. It wasn't possible....
The benign smile creasing Murdock's face said not only was it possible, it was happening.
The granddaddy of all tumbleweeds, so huge and cumbersome that the wind shifted it only slowly, lumbered towards them. At the last instant, while only a few feet away, it suddenly reared on end and toppled into Trooper Davis, nearly burying him. Trapped between the car, the open door, and the behemoth, prickly weed, Davis shrieked in alarm and tried to push it away. The shotgun wavered. B.A. reached across the door and lifted it easily from the trooper's hand. In the next instant, he lifted Trooper Davis just as easily and pinned him to the car.
"Good work, B.A.," Hannibal approved, cautiously dislodging the tumbleweed. It sat still for a long moment, then slid ponderously around the side of the car to continue its interrupted journey. Murdock called his profound thanks after it.
Hannibal relieved the trooper of his weapon and handcuffs, then shoved the hapless captive into the back seat of the patrol car. He handcuffed the trooper to the divider grill. "You'll be safe out of the wind until help arrives," he said cheerfully, then slammed the door. Davis howled helplessly in frustration, but his shouts were lost on the wind.
"Let's go," Hannibal said. Then, once again, "Where's Murdock?"
This time, they didn't have far to look. Murdock appeared around the rear of the store, the huge tumbleweed dragging ponderously behind him.
"Murdock, what are you doing?" Hannibal demanded, his patience wearing thin.
"I thought you'd want to thank him properly for saving our lives," Murdock returned lugubriously, miffed by the others incredulity.
For a moment, Hannibal was nonplussed. But there was no point in fighting it. "Of course, Murdock, how ungrateful of us." To the tumbleweed, he solemnly said, "Thank you very much for saving our lives."
Next, Hannibal looked at Face, who shuffled with embarrassment.
"Isn't that right, Face?"
"Uh, right," Face mumbled. "Thanks a lot."
B.A. glared aggressively at Murdock. "No way I'm gonna talk to no weed," he said threateningly. "So say your good-byes and let's get out of here."
Murdock was satisfied. He chatted amiably with the tumbleweed for a long minute, and didn't seem at all put out by the fact that the tumbleweed didn't show any interest. Finally, he released it to the wind. It rolled cumbersomely away, its size making any semblance of grace a product of a fevered imagination. However, when it reached the corner of the store, some vagrant convection of wind carried it aloft for several feet, where it pirouetted elegantly before toppling once again to earth.
"Ah, wasn't that pretty?" Murdock applauded.
"Delightful," Hannibal said flatly. He wiggled his fingers in farewell to the helpless trooper. "So long, Jerome," he called. To the others, he said, "Let's go before someone else spots us."
Murdock sauntered toward the van. "We've got nothing to worry about," he assured his companions.
"Oh?" Face asked. "How's that?"
"As payment for our kindness on the road, the tumbleweeds are going to stir up enough dust to cover us all the way to the state line," Murdock explained seriously.
And he was right.