Excerpt from OCHOCO REACH
We were still, watching the distance shimmer with heat. I thought of an old Hoyt Axton song and sang a couple lines.
Daniel laughed. “There are many kind men who guard this border,” he said, “but they are not so kind to men like us. If your life needs saving, they will do their level best. They do their job. If you are smuggling, they would just as soon shoot you.”
“I guess we’re smuggling guns,” I said.
“Yes. We are also smuggling the intent to kill a man.”
I watched the horizon waver. “That’s your job,” I said. “I’m only in it for the girl. That makes me the noble one.” I thought of Bucket. “Or a complete idiot.”
“I would not want to be between you and the girl,” Daniel said. “I sense great mayhem.”
“Oh yeah,” I said. “I’ve been thinking about the diversion part of the deal. I don’t think that will be a problem. I can be very pesky.”
“Yes, you can,” Daniel said, “but in a good way.” He paused briefly. “Mostly,” he added.
Noon came and went. The heat of the day was coming on. We went back inside and started drinking water. I studied the map some more. At about one thirty I folded it and put it in my pack. There were many details about the return journey that I couldn’t know until I was standing in them. There were other details that, at the moment, were also hidden.
“You look perplexed,” said Daniel.
“Planning,” I said, “is not my strongest suit.”
“No,” he chuckled, “but on the fly you are a genius.”
“When it’s just me,” I said, “that’s fine. This time I have somebody to worry about.”
He looked at me for a long time, his dark eyes seeing things that I would never see. He rested a hand on my shoulder. I felt his calm and his deep and abiding connection to everything.
“Stay open,” he said.
I looked into his inscrutable face, feeling the span of our lives. I sensed the slow beating of his heart and the beating of all hearts in a sphere bounded only by my imagination. I felt the measured breathing of everything in the world. I felt myself touching Willy’s living skin.
We heard a vehicle come up the road and growl to a stop outside.
“Hoka Hey,” I said.
The ride to the drop-off made me wish we’d walked. It was a torturous creep. The Humvee squeaked and rattled. We lurched. We shuddered. I tried to put it in perspective and feel gratitude for the ride. It smoothed out for the last fifteen minutes. I was grateful for that.
After unloading our gear we stood in the afternoon sun. I tucked a tie-dye bandana into my cap so that it covered my neck. Major Lewis stood next to the vehicle and offered his hand. We both took it in turn.
“Good luck,” he said. “Señor Montoya will meet you in Microondas.”
“How will we know him?” Daniel asked.
“He will know you,” Lewis said.
“Follow the wash until it ends. Go straight when it does and you’ll gain elevation until you can see distance to the south. There is a border fence, but it is spotty at best. You should be able to see a couple lights in the village as it gets dark. Montoya will wait until twenty-one hundred.”
As the Humvee rolled out of sight I shouldered my pack and settled it on my back. Daniel did the same. He had the rifle lashed to the top of his.
“With that cross to bear, you might have trouble with doorways,” I said.
“Let us begin our walk,” he snorted and studied my bandana neck-protector. “If you had hair you would look like a hippie,” he said. He looked at the wicked Air Force knife on my belt and at the armament tucked into my jeans at the small of my back. “Sort of.”
We stayed at the east edge of the wash and proceeded as lightly as we could. A mile into it the sweat was rolling, but it felt good. At two miles I could feel the sun as an actual load upon me. Each time I breathed I could feel the hot air drying the inside of my airway. At three miles we could see where the broad wash started to transition into a shallow rise. Daniel was a few paces ahead and he slowed to a stop. I came up beside him and was still.
“Tracks,” he said and pointed.
I followed his gaze to a faint line coming across the coarse sand. He started again and I fell in behind. When we intersected the line of tracks we stopped and knelt by them. It was a single set that came from across the wash in a slight arc and continued as the elevation climbed to the east.
“These were made last night,” Daniel said. “See how those little insect tracks cross the footprint? That was probably early this morning.”
“Recent Archaeology,” I said.
“Exactly. The scouts who really know this stuff, like the Shadow Wolves, would know what insect made the crossing tracks and its behavior, so that they would have a much better notion about time they were made.”
He stood and we followed the tracks to where they bent around a scrub of Mesquite. We saw the broken twig at about the same time. Daniel squatted and studied the ground.
“He is wearing boots and sturdy clothes. I see no fibers,” he said.
“And it looks like he knows where he’s going,” I added. There were no pauses or deviation in the line of footprints. “But he has a tendency to move to the left a little bit. Over time, that could really get him lost.”
“White man pay attention,” Daniel deadpanned.
“I do what I can,” I said as I adjusted the shoulder straps of my pack. “But it sure looks like he knows where he is and where he’s going.”
“I would love to follow, but we have a prior commitment,” said Daniel.
We set off again and climbed the shallow rise. The sun sat low to our right and bled into the long shadows made by irregular washes and arroyos. Mesquite, Creosote, groups of Saguaro, and Cholla were silhouetted like crazy dancers caught in mid-spin. The sky around it showed about every color in the spectrum of visible light. It was both forbidding and breathtaking.
The fence at the alleged border was a joke. We walked right through about a hundred yards of gap that looked as if there had never been a fence there.
“Welcome to Mexico,” I said.
We walked for another hour. The air didn’t feel any different. I didn’t either.
We topped a small rise and looked down a long dry plain. I could just make out a road running perpendicular to our line of travel. As the horizon moved up to block most of the melting sun, I made out the faint light of a building’s window.
“Must be Microondas,” I said and pointed.
Daniel nodded as he drank from his canteen.
“We hit it just about dead-on,” he said.
I studied the lights as darkness quickly wrapped the desert. The sun melted into the horizon, leaving a psychedelic sky of oranges, purples, yellows, and pinks. I let myself stare for a couple minutes, watching its intensity fade. When my eyes readjusted, I looked back at Microondas.
“Not much going on there,” I said.
“I wonder,” Daniel said. “It may be a hotbed of intrigue and clandestine meetings.”
“I reckon it is tonight,” I said. “It can’t be more than a few buildings.”
I could feel Daniel quicken. “Shall we go check it out before we make ourselves known to Señor Montoya?” he said.
We obliterated our tracks with branches of Mesquite as we made our way to the road. We crossed the still-hot asphalt about two hundred yards east of the first lighted building stashed our stuff in a very dark corner where the dust was undisturbed, perhaps for years. I took the big knife from my belt and stashed it with my pack. Sticking to the shadows, we advanced through a scattering of adobe and aluminum buildings, some obviously in use and some obviously not. There was one neon sign. It said ‘Open’ in blue and red. There was also a hand-lettered sign in the nearly opaque window that said ‘Abierto.’
I met Daniel in the shadow of a dusty Diamond Rio still hooked to a low-boy trailer that had seen better days. Tie-down straps and chains were still neatly secured to both the cab and the trailer, so I guessed it was still a working vehicle. When I moved to the front of the cab, I could smell the engine. It wasn’t warm, but it had been run as recently as yesterday, maybe even this afternoon.
There were four cars parked haphazardly around the building that announced its openness. None of them looked like it could haul Daniel and I, with our equipment, to anywhere.
The largest building in the scattered collection was what looked like a warehouse, or maybe a machine shop. The lights were not lit and I couldn’t make out much through the darkened windows. All I could make out was that there was quite a volume of space under the tall aluminum roof.
“You feel like a beer?” Daniel said quietly.
“Do I look like a beer?”
“No. Your head is too small. But if you go in first and the place does not explode, I will follow in a couple minutes.”
“Oh. White man goes in first to charm the locals and the Indian comes in when things are safe? Isn’t that backwards?”
“Yes. And it is about damn time.”
I squeezed his arm and left him grinning like a Cheshire cat. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same.
I checked the holster at the small of my back. The nine was riding comfortably. I pulled my Giants hat a bit lower. I’d left my Mariners cap at home. I was, after all, in disguise. The door opened easily. I smelled onions, grease, cigarette smoke, and the dust that came with constant air-conditioning.
It was a narrow dark room with a bar at one end and a pool table at the other. When I stepped inside I felt the quick vacuum as the half-dozen people stopped whatever they were doing and turned to look. I didn’t hesitate but went straight to the bar.
“Negra Modelo, por favor,” I said.
The barkeep was a woman who could have been in her fifties, but she was probably in her forties, maybe late thirties. She had a strong Indian cast to her features and was packed into her t-shirt like ten pounds of mud in a five-pound sack. She moved behind the bar like a ship, slowly but with a ponderous grace. I put an American dollar on the bar as she brought me the brown bottle. Her smile was broken, but genuine. I smiled back. I wrapped the gold foil away from the lip and took a long drink. After the walk we’d taken that afternoon, the cold dark beer was like winning the lottery. I tilted my head again, but left most of the beer in the bottle.
I turned to the room and played a game with myself, trying to decide if Montoya was here and who else there might be relaxing on a Microondas Saturday night. It was still early, but this was definitely the busiest place in town. It was also the only place in town. It didn’t feel exactly right to even use the word ‘town.’
There were two young guys sitting at a table eating frijoles with tortillas. One was stocky and muscular, with dark ridges around his fingernails. The other was whippet-thin with the same mechanic’s hands. Their coveralls had seen better days, but were still accepting grime on the outside, which is the primary function of coveralls. They would look at me from time to time while they were chewing. There were four bottles on their table and the bartender swept around the end of the bar like a pulling guard carrying two more. She put them on the table and picked up the empties. I marveled at her size and her grace. She moved like a two-hundred pound ballerina.
At another table sat three young men drinking Dos Equis beer. They were dressed in jeans and t-shirts. I couldn’t see their pants, but I could see their hats. No Yankees and no Mets. I saw that as something in their favor. They did not seem surly or rude and weren’t making much conversation. The guy facing me didn’t seem particularly interested in me, which seemed a little odd. I watched him without obvious attention as he watched his beer.
At the other end of the room a solitary man in jeans and a green twill shirt was shooting pool. His black hair was combed back and he had a mustache dividing his broad face. He could have hidden a weapon in it. His movements were crisp and his aim was true. As he leaned over a shot I felt his attention. He looked at me and rifled a shot into the side pocket. I decided that I would not play pool with him for money.
I went over to a small table near the bar and sat facing the room, watching the pool player. He was about half-way through his rack and seemed completely unconcerned about the rest of the room. He didn’t miss.
The door opened and Daniel came in. Everybody looked. I did too, just to be one of the guys. As Daniel went to the bar, I stood and walked through the tables to the back. The mechanics watched me from the corners of their eyes. The younger baseball fans stopped their conversation and watched me openly. I smiled at them, but just got stoic stares in return. The pool player stood with his cue at parade rest. He was military. His movements were precise and practiced.
“’Un juego?” I asked.
He cocked his head at me slightly and nodded.
“I thought you’d never ask,” he said in perfect English.
I fished in my pocket for some change and put it in the table slot. The balls dropped with a satisfying kachunk. As I racked them, Daniel came through the room to the table. He had taken off his camo shirt and was wearing a black t-shirt with a picture of Geronimo on it in silver. A red headband framed his face. I smiled to myself. He was completely in character.
The pool player watched him. When Daniel arrived at the table, he offered his hand.
“You are Daniel,” he said. It wasn’t a question.
My brother nodded and cocked his head at me. “This is my brother Miguel.”
“You can call me Mike,” I said has we shook hands.
“You may call me Pablo,” said Señor Montoya. “It’s your money, your break,” he added.
As I found a cue and studied my rack, Pablo and Daniel moved to the corner of the room. I watched Daniel cross his arms over his chest. This was not a good sign. I watched him look at the three baseball fans for a moment and shake his head. I carried my cue over to them.
Pablo looked apologetic.
“I am afraid that I need your help before we can continue your journey. Those three,” he nodded at the young Mexicans, “are coyotes of the worst stripe. I believe them to be waiting for a ride to Sonoyta for a job. I want to prevent them from getting there, but I also want to see who will be giving them a ride. I had truly mixed feelings when they came into the cantina. Yes, I am sworn to help you, but I would be failing my duty if I did not figure a way to thwart their activities.”
“Thwart?” I said.
“My English comes from many hours of reading. I especially like Walker Percy.”
“Ah,” I said. “’… man has not the faintest of idea of who he is and what he is doing.’”
“Exactly,” said Pablo.
Daniel shook his head. “I guess we are in no hurry. Everything is set for Tuesday. Tomorrow is Sunday. How long will it take for you to figure out how to get inside?” he asked looking at me.
I shrugged. “Hard to say. A day, probably. At least a few hours to walk around the property and see how strict they are.”
“They are very strict,” Pablo said. “But they are also very arrogant. It is their supreme weakness.”
“Let’s play eight-ball,” I said.
Montoya brightened. “Yes,” he said.
I sank the ten on the break, made a couple more and then missed an easy one. Pablo never hesitated as he ran through all of the solid colors. I think he missed the eight out of politeness.
I made another and then missed again. Pablo made a two-bank shot and buried the eight in the far corner. We shook hands.
He looked at his watch. “Perhaps we should retire to the outside smoking lounge,” he said.
“You cannot smoke in here?” asked Daniel, waving his had through the blue-grey air.
“Sure you can,” Pablo said. “But I have a suspicion that it will be more exciting out there.”
Daniel and I eyed each other. Our eyebrows were raised in concert as we followed Pablo Montoya outside into the warm Sonoran October night.
As if on cue his cell phone beeped. His brown face was silver-blue as his dark eyes absorbed the light from the small screen.
“Excellent,” he said as much to himself as to us. He closed the phone and looked at us. “There is a truck coming with some uniformed men, who will take our border guides and their driver into custody. If we are very lucky, we may catch a bigger fish to fry.”
“When this is done,” Daniel asked, “how will we get to San Blas?”
“We will go in my vehicle to an airstrip south of Sonoyta. From there it is a light plane ride to San Blas, unless … “
He was interrupted by the sound of a car moving at high speed, arriving from the west. We heard it slow down and the saw the headlights as it turned in to the gravel around the cantina. Montoya looked at his watch.
“Dios maldito,” he said and turned to us. “We must prevent that car from leaving, if it tries to before the uniforms get here.”
“Yes,” I said and ran to where we’d stashed our packs. I came back with my .357. The Ford was idling, pointed east towards the long stretch of straight road.
“Where’s the driver?” I asked.
“Okay, then. Stay hidden and cover your ears.” I grinned into the darkness. I heard Daniel sigh.
I walked up to the car and cocked the big pistol. I put two flaming rounds through the hood. The motor seized, hacked up its last breath, and shuddered to a stop. The noise the magnum rounds made was always astonishing. I sprinted west and around the back side of the cantina and what appeared to be a mechanical shop, probably the place where the two guys in overalls plied their trade. My ears rang like a big bell in a little room. The portable cannon I held in my hand had come through again.
I circled around the long building and came back towards the cantina in the alley between the machine shop and the warehouse I’d seen earlier. When I got back to where I’d started from it was a completely different scene. Everybody who’d been in the bar was now outside. The three young coyotes were sitting as Daniel covered them with his Glock. The mechanics were leaning against the aluminum wall of the building, smoking as nonchalantly as they could. My attention went to a fat man, who was behind the bartender using her as a shield between himself and Pablo’s formidable pistol. I couldn’t say for sure, but it looked like he might have a knife at her throat. I stepped up behind him, pressed the barrel of the .357 against the base of his skull, and cocked it. For him it must have been deafening. I still couldn’t hear a thing except a whine like an endless ricochet.
“Tengo tu antención?” I asked politely.
I felt him sag.
“Caiga el cuchillo,” I said, “y déjela ir.”
The knife clattered on the gravel and the woman leaped forward, almost falling. Her considerable prow was heaving, but there were no tears.
“Ahora, séntese,” I said to the fat man.
He dropped to the ground like someone had hit him on the head. I felt like letting go a sigh of relief, but didn’t.
“Pinche puto,” the bartender hissed at the fat man. “Gracias,” she said to me as she held a hand to her throat.
I looked at Pablo as I kicked the knife under a car. “This is your show,” I said.
In the distance we heard tires singing on the warm asphalt. With any luck, it would be the cavalry coming to take these suddenly humble fellows off our hands. Pablo’s pistola seemed to be in control of the situation, so I uncocked the .357 and slipped it into the back of my waistband next to the nine. I wondered if my pants might fall down.
A large green truck came off the road and slid into the lot, spraying gravel. It was a dramatic entrance. I melted back into the shadows to watch. I couldn’t see Daniel, so I knew he’d done the same thing. As I watched the efficient transfer of the three young Mexicans and the fat man to the custody of the uniforms I wondered what kind of cop Pablo Montoya was. The army-green leader of the uniformed quartet was deferential and respectful. Pablo was at ease giving orders. I didn’t know much of anything about Mexican law enforcement hierarchy. I was wondering how to find out about that when a piece of gravel bounced off the back of my head.
“Dammit,” I said. I’d been killed again.