OKAY, ALREADY… Geez, I do have a real job… 🙂 Anyhoo, back by popular demand and a bunch of email requests, some more Grey Man to ‘fill in the blanks’ for folks. Still © by me.
This section actually takes place six months before the previous sniper match…
John got up from the rocking chair, swirled the dregs of coffee in his cup and threw it off the porch. Rex trotted back up the steps and sat at the door waiting to be let in, but John just stood there bouncing the coffee cup in his hand. Thirty five years- that’s how long I’ve been doing this John thought, thirty five years of ups and downs, and most of the memories are of death. Hellva note…
Dad’s heart attack was the first, and the reason I came home; Mom couldn’t run the ranch by herself, and it’s probably a good thing I left the Army when I did because things were really starting downhill. 10 years down the drain, but Amy and Jack were already here, and had been for two years with me bouncing from Bragg to Nam and back. She never liked the whole Special Forces idea, and with Jack in the third grade and falling in love with horses and Amy helping Mom, they’d done pretty good. Hell, out of eight years we’d only been together for about two years at that point, and I think she would have left me if I’d stayed in.
Mom went five years later, cancer; but at least she went quickly, two weeks after she was diagnosed. Jack took it really hard since Mom was pretty much his rock, especially when it came to the horses and how to train them. Amy quit the County and came home full time then, did the best she could especially we me gone like I was. I thought things were bad after Nam, but that stint with the DEA just about put paid to our marriage because of the stress and the few times I got home, I couldn’t shake it. At least I got out of that after two years.
I guess the bright spot of that whole time was Jack and Pat getting married and having Jesse; but damn they were young! Not a lot of room to talk though, Jack was born when Amy and I were both twenty; but I’d already been in the Army two years, hell I’d already been to Nam once…
Then Jack and Pat got killed and we had to take Jesse in. I don’t think Amy ever got over Jack’s death; it was like a light went out in her soul. Guess I can’t blame her, my being on nights didn’t help things much and she just wasn’t ready for a little girl in the house all the time. Then I lost Amy to cancer too, in eighty eight.
If it hadn’t been for Francisco and Juanita showing up, and him shot to doll rags, I’d probably have… Ah hell…
Pulling the door open, John walked back into the house with Rex at his side. Walking into the kitchen, John pulled the coffee pot out and refilled his cup as Juanita came in the back door; he looked up as she slid a plate on the counter in front of him, “The sheriff called and he’ll be here in thirty minutes to pick you up John, so eat. I know they don’t feed you worth a damn on those airplanes.”
John took the plate and coffee to the table, “Thanks Juanita, I didn’t mean for you to get up and fix me breakfast, but I appreciate it!
“De Nada, Francisco was already up since he wanted to check on that cow in the barn, he’s afraid she’s breech with that calf, and he’s trying to make sure he’s got everything he needs when she drops it, “ Juanita replied.
John sighed, “Yeah, this is not the best time for me to be leaving, but I’m stuck with being on this panel with Sergi and Antonio and it’s been scheduled for four months so there is no way to get out of it.”
John finished the plate and took it to the sink, rinsed it and shoved it in the dishwasher, “Well, if anything comes up, you know how to access the operating accounts to get what you need, and keep an eye on Rex until Jesse gets back will you?”
Juanita harrumphed, “John how many damn years have we worked for you? Of course we can do what we need, and I think that damn dog has NO idea who he belongs to. Everybody and their damn brother feeds him, or lets him out, or lets him in.”
Francisco limped into the kitchen in time to catch the last of Juanita’s rant, “Thanks a bunch John, spin her up and leave ME to deal with it why don’t ya,” he said with a smile as he grabbed a cup and poured coffee.
“Hip bothering you again Francisco,” John asked?
“Ah, damn weather change is kicking my hip, shoulder, ass you name it John, it’ll quit sometime.” Francisco slipped into a chair as Rex came over and laid his head in Francisco’s lap. Petting the dog without thinking, Francisco added, “You’re gone a week right? Do you need me to pick you up at Midland?”
“Nah, I’m going to make the Sheriff,” John was interrupted by the sound of a car horn, “hellva watch dog there Rex, I’m going to make him come get me.”
Rex sighed, and followed the old man out of the kitchen as he went into the living room and picked up his suitcase and briefcase. Carrying his gear, he walked down to the Sheriff’s truck opened the back door and dumped his bags in the back. Slamming the door, he pulled the passenger’s door open and started to climb in, only to be interrupted by Juanita handing him a thermos of coffee.
The Sheriff leaned over saying with a smile, “Thank you Juanita, I’ll say it cause I know this grumpy old bastard won’t! And tell that hubby of yours to stop by and pick up the renewal of his reserve deputy commission.”
“I’ll do that Sherifff, thank you.”
Nodding to Juanita, John climbed into the truck and slammed the door, buckling his seatbelt as he slumped back in the seat.
“God, you ARE grumpy this morning aren’t you John. What’s got your tits in a ringer”, the Sheriff asked?
“If you really want to know, I don’t like the timing of this trip, too much stuff going on here, and honestly I don’t feel like I’m really qualified to sit on this damn panel. I know a bit about smuggling but I’m NOT a damn expert, and I wish they’d never published that damn paper we wrote,” John answered.
The Sheriff laughed, “John, you don’t realize how good you really are. How many busts did you have when you were with DEA? Both ships AND trucks, and how many coyotes have you caught on ten and twenty while helping out DPS? Or the smugglers you and Antonio got when you went over there? And how many years of working with the Marshals on both personnel and drug smuggling? Hell, how much did you teach my old fat ass when I was a young rookie? “
The old man had to smile at that, “Not a damn lot, you were too lazy! And anybody that runs for office just to get outta work needs their heads checked!”
Settling back the chatted the hour plus up to Midland/Odessa airport, where the Sheriff pulled into the drop off lane. Stopping the truck, he reached into the back seat and handed John a folder, “Here are your ‘orders’ if you will, permission to carry your piece, and PO’s to pay for the hotel in Virginia, but if they won’t take them, use the credit card.” Looking at John he asked, “You DID bring a suit didn’t you? I know you hate like hell to wear anything other than those ratty ass old Dickies, but you DO have a reputation to uphold ya know.”
Grabbing his bags, the old man grinned, “Suit, I don’t need no stinkin suit! What they see is what they get; hell they’re going to think I’m some kinda redneck cowboy, so why not live up to that image? Of course I’ve got a damn suit Jose, and shirts and ties, and I’m even wearing my BBQ rig, happy now?”
The Sheriff just shook his head, “Fly safe John, and I’ll pick you up Friday afternoon at five.”
Jose though back over the twenty some odd years he’d known the old man. First as a young deputy who was scared to death of him as a training officer, then as a co-worker and now as the Sheriff. And to be honest, after I read his entire personnel jacket, I’m still scared of him Jose thought. I don’t understand him, he’s rich and damn sure doesn’t need to work, but he does and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him flaunt it, well maybe that car he bought Jesse when she graduated, but that’s about it. And those strange trips John takes, I used to wonder about that, gone a week here, a month there; now I know he’s going all over the place as a ‘consultant’ to different law enforcement agencies and I really wonder how many languages he speaks, hell his Spanish is better than mine, and I’m a damn native! And what he’s done with raising Jesse, that’s a hellva situation. I can’t imagine losing my son, my wife and then taking on raising a little girl, but damn if Jesse hasn’t turned out to be one heck of a young lady, and smart too. And she doesn’t flaunt what they have either, and works as she says, ‘for a living’ out at the test track. I really wish to hell she hadn’t come on the department as a volunteer; I just don’t know what would happen if she got hurt or God forbid, got killed…
Stop it John, you’re going to drive your damn blood pressure up!
Putting the truck in gear, the sheriff looked over, waved and then drove off.
With a wave, the old man opened walked into the airport. He checked his bag and looked around until he found the on duty LEO, showing him the travel authorization and the LEO got him through security with a minimum of hassle although TSA did want to search his briefcase. Five hours and one lousy airline meal later, he landed at Washington National, grabbed his bag and headed for the rental car agency. Picking up the rental car he looked at the map and figured out what he ‘thought’ was the best way to get out to Dulles to pick up Sergi and Antonio; looking at the time, he realized he was going to be right in the middle of rush hour, so he just gritted his teeth and hit the road. An hour later he finally made it to Dulles and pulled up in front of the arrivals level. He remembered from his previous trip to Italy that they had come out at the West end of the terminal, so he pulled in front of the police car and parked.
Getting out he walked over to two airport police and pulled his jacket back far enough for them to see the badge, “I need to pick up a couple of LEOs coming in from overseas, is this the best place to get them?”
The older of the two nodded saying, “Sure you know if they are coming in on the same flight?”
The old man nodded, pulled out his wheel book and told the officer which airline and flight they were supposed to be on. The officer called on his radio and confirmed the flight had landed about 30 minutes earlier saying, “They should be clearing customs in about 15 minutes, if they haven’t already. Leave your car here, go in that first door and straight down to the main floor, that is where the international passengers come out, and you should be able to find them with no problem.”
After about ten minutes, he sees both Sergi and Antonio coming out together. Waving at them, he can’t help but laugh, they truly are Mutt and Jeff!
Sergi is at least six foot five, blonde blue eyed in great physical shape and looking like a movie star or model; Antonio on the other hand, is about five foot six, grey hair going in all directions, soup strainer moustache, rolly polly like a beach ball and looks like he’s been sleeping in his clothes for a week!
After a round of handshakes, back slapping and John threatening to shoot Antonio if he tried to kiss him, they trooped out to the car. The older officer was still standing there, obviously keeping an eye on their car. John got the trunk open and looking over at the officer, realized he was curious as to who was who.
John motioned him over, “Sergi, Tony, this officer was nice enough to let me park here to retrieve y’all; so introduce yourselves and we can head to Quantico and dinner.”
Sergi came to attention, shook the officer’s hand and introduced himself, “Sergi Laine, Keskusrikospoliisi or NBI, our equivalent of your FBI. Thank you for letting the Cowboy park here!”
Tony strolled over, sticking out his hand and said, “Antonio Russo, Carabinieri, Direzione Anti Droga, our anti-drug task force. And yes thank you for not arresting the Cowboy, HE has to drive because we are too scared to!”
The officer shook hands, shook his head and just waved them on. Sergi and Tony finished with their bags, and closed the trunk; as usual Sergi grabbed the front seat and as usual Tony bitched at him about it. On the drive in they caught up with each other, and Tony pushed that they HAD to go eat Italian as this would probably be the only chance they had, and they HAD to return to Filomena in Georgetown. Grumbling John finally got down into Georgetown, and couldn’t find parking anywhere close, so ended up in a public lot. John decided to lock his hat in the trunk rather than call any additional attention to him or them.
Just like the last time, Tony broke into Italian walking in the door, and disappeared into the kitchen while Sergi and the old man were escorted to a private table. A few minutes later Tony reappeared, and pronounced that he had taken care of everything! Sergi just rolled his eyes, and John just shook his head, “Dammit Tony, I told you LAST time we would split the bill, I know this place is expensive and you aren’t made of money; Angela does get most of what you make and you spend the rest on the kids!”
During dinner, they chatted over how to handle the panel during the seminar, deciding whom would take the lead on the various sections and who would lead the discussions. They decided to wait until they were at the conference center tomorrow to get a look at how things would be set up. By the time ‘only’ a five course dinner was over, it was dark and being a Monday night, not that many folks were out. Walking back to the car John realized something didn’t feel right, and looking quickly at both Sergi and Tony realized they had picked up the vibe also. John said quietly, “.45 on my right hip.”
Sergi responded, “Knife only. I have right.”
Tony chimed in, “Knife and baton, I have the left.”
Rounding the corner at the parking lot, John realized the lights were out in the lot, either broken or just out. Behind him he heard a scuff of feet, and bouncing of a ball. Turning he realized they didn’t have any place to go, trapped between a building and a large truck parked on the street, unless they backed into the parking lot, but he had no idea who or what was in there. Cussing himself, he decided to see what was going to happen here and now, rather than later. He motioned for the guys to go on by, but they didn’t; stopping and blocking the sidewalk, the one on his right continued to bounce the basketball, while the one on his left turned and looked quickly over his back. The one in the center, obviously the leader spoke softly, “Ol man, you needs to give us yo money, yo watches right now fore we hurts y’all.”
Sergi, bless his heart, rattled off an answer in Finnish that did nothing but confuse the punks, and the leader said, “Get em, quiet like.”
Tony chimed in, in Italian with a querulous response, and once again confused the punks. They started to move in and John held out a hand, “Wait, I’ll give you my wallet and watch, just let me friends go,” and started fumbling with his watch band. Hearing a snick on the right, and a pop on the left, he assumed both Sergi and Tony were ready to act as necessary. The one facing Sergi suddenly threw the basketball at him, and started to rush. Sergi caught the ball and a hissing noise was heard, momentarily stopping the rush, “Oh, it looks like your ball has a leak, I’m sorry for that!”
Using the distraction, John drew his .45 and tac light and dropped into a combat crouch. The punk on the left realized what happened seconds too late and yelped, “Bro he got a gun!” As he reached for John’s arm.
Tony cracked him across the wrist with the Asp, and the punk dropped to his knees in pain. Sergi dropped the now deflated basketball off the end of his knife seemingly ignoring the three punks and asked, “Well, do we shoot them, cut them or just beat them Cowboy?”
The old man was still in a combat stance, light in the leader’s eyes and who’s arms were now at shoulder level, “Well, if we shoot em, it’s gonna take all damn night to do the paperwork, but it WOULD take em off the streets permanently.”
Tony said in a thick Italian accent, “I want to cut them, I haven’t had any fun since I left Sicily!” land waved his knife in a comedic parody of fighting. “But that looks like a police car coming now, we could cut them and give them to the police right?”
The three punks broke and ran at that point, and John, Sergi and Tony retreated to their car and slumped in the car letting the adrenalin drain off. Sergi folded his knife and John, seeing it out of the corner of his eye asked, “How BIG is that damn thing?”
Sergi flipped it open and chuckled, “Cowboy, do you not recognize the knife you gave me for Christmas a few years ago, it’s a Creekit M-16? I LIKE this knife it fits my hand well!”
Shaking his head, John realized Tony had put something in the floorboard of the car, “What’s that Tony?
“Oh I thought since they left their basketball, it would be a good challenge for some folks to see if they might get prints off it. Did I do wrong? Should I have returned it?”
John just threw up his hands as both Tony and Sergi laughed…
While the old man navigated 395, then I-95 down to Stafford, Tony and Sergi brought each other up to speed on their respective activities since they’d seen each other, and they all discussed the family status and bemoaned how much money it cost to feed the families and cars and animals. They finally got to the hotel at eleven PM. They checked in and agreed to meet in the lobby at 0600 and go find breakfast from there.
After a breakfast at Waffle House, they rolled out to the back gate at Quantico and onto the FBI’s portion of the base. Pulling into the parking lot in front of the complex, Antonio commented, “I still have nightmares about this place, and it is no wonder I couldn’t sleep last night!”
Sergi just grunted and the old man laughed, “Hey we’re back as the pros from Dover now, so we don’t have to play their games. And the reason you had nightmares was all that damn food!”
Getting out of the car, they stopped momentarily to look at those faded brick buildings, each dealing with their own memories of the place. Automatically, they all slipped on and straighten their suit coats, and the old man put on his cowboy hat. As they walked up the walkway to the entry, a familiar figure stepped out.
“John, you old bastard, I wondered if that was really you! I see that it is, and you’re as ugly as ever, Deputy John Cronin,” SAC Miller said with a smile and extending his hand. The old man, stuck out his hand and proceeded to fold the SAC into a bear hug and pounded him on the back, “Milty, who the hell let you up here? Goddamn, it’s been what 20 years? These are my co-authors, Sergi and Tony!”
Handshakes and introductions followed and the SAC said, “Hell John, I’m so old they put my tired ass out to pasture and this is the pasture. I’m the lead instructor and for my sins, the damn coordinator for this cluster fuck we’ve got this week. Com’on well get some coffee and I brought donuts for all you cops!”
Leading them into the building and the theater, they caught up with each other and discussed the plan for the seminars and their panel, since they weren’t on until eleven, they could either attend the first panels or come back. They decided since they’d already come out, and there was really nothing to do at the hotel, they would sit in on the earlier portion of the seminar.
Sergi and Tony wandered off, talking with a few of the early arrivals as the SAC pulled the old man to the side saying, “John, just to give you a heads up, Klopstein is going to be here, and he’s been writing a lot of memos on how flawed your paper is, so be prepared. Also, I’m pulling you guys out after lunch, we’ve got another meeting y’all have to attend. Don’t say anything to anybody else about that; I’ll come get you when we need to leave.”
The old man replied, “Klopstein? I thought that bastard got fired! How the hell did he get his nose back under the tent?”
Shaking his head, the SAC said, “Oh he wangled a position at Columbia in their Criminal Justice program and BS’ed his way into a department chair in Forensics and Analysis. You know about his whole model and simulation spiel, right? Well, he’s managed to keep pushing that shit down here and the head shed keeps giving him money to expand it into a real study.”
“Can I just shoot the bastard and be done with it Milty? I never could stand that sumbitch when he was trying to BS us in the forensics classes down here back in the day. Hey, any chance we can sneak over to the range? I still owe you a chance to get your money back from our last little competition,” the old man said with a grin.
Tony came back over and borrowed the keys to the car, saying he’d be back in a couple of minutes. As Tony came back with a laundry bag in his hand, Sergi wandered up from the front of the theater. When he saw Tony with the laundry bag he started laughing, “Mr. SAC we have a little challenge for you, if you please. We would like to know if your great lab here can get fingerprints for us.”
The old man shook his head saying, “Milty, we had a bit of a set to last night, and they left a bit of evidence behind; ahhh, not sure how you want to handle this if you even do.”
The SAC held out his hand and Tony passed him the laundry bag, opening it and seeing the basketball he looked at the three of them with a quizzical expression, “Evidence? Are there bodies to go with this, or is this it?”
After a humorous retelling of the events of the previous night, the SAC was chuckling with them and said he’d see what he could do, and knew just the person at Metro DC to pass the info to if they came up with anything.
Looking at his watch he said, “Well, time to get this show on the road, if you guys want to go or hide in the back feel free, I doubt you’ll need to be back before ten thirty.”
Shaking hands all around they broke up; the old man decided to stay and see what the other presenters were going to say, and Tony and Sergi decided to go visit the museum and stretch their legs.
After the first presenter and panel, the old man snuck out the back and wandered around the buildings letting the memories wash over him. It was hard to believe it had been almost 30 years since he’d last been here and that was for 10 long weeks. Homesick, damn near ready to leave after the second week, but determined to stick it out after Amy chewed his ass… But the folks he’d met had opened his eyes to the world-wide fraternity of good cops; Sergi, Tony, Amir but he’d been killed in the 80’s in a riot in Bombay, that ol’ boy from over by Shreveport…
And the classes got him interested and back in the books, especially the forensics classes and how to correctly collect evidence and pursue investigations. That had opened up a whole new world for the young deputy back then, and taken him down the road that had now brought him back here. As the Chief Investigator for the Sheriff’s Office he’d worked with so many different departments over the years and managed to put some truly bad guys behind bars, and a couple in the ground too. But his fascination with smuggling started right here, well that and the two years with the DEA in South America and the raids on labs and smuggling operations.
He realized he was standing in front of the old forensics classroom and there were still exhibits outside the door, but he didn’t recognize a single one of them. He wondered what had happened to the old ones, and figured they were in some storage unit somewhere on the compound. Hell, they’d had stuff from Dillinger here when he’d gone through. Looking at his watch, he decided to head back and make sure he was ready for the panel discussion that was to come.
At 1045 the seminar broke for a 15 minute break and the SAC came out the back; seeing the old man, Sergi and Tony he motioned them over and told them, “Okay you guys are up, and I’ll introduce you then we’ll give you about fifteen minutes to give your open and then open the floor for questions, y’all got that?”
The nodded and followed the SAC back down to the stage, and he showed them the computer controls and gave them each their mikes and had them each do sound checks.
As the last stragglers wandered back to their seats, he tapped the mike on the podium and started the introductions, “Okay ladies and gentlemen, the next panel is on smuggling of both drugs and personnel via both sea and land. I’ll let the three presenters introduce themselves and give a quick overview of their paper and then we’ll open the floor for questions.” With that he waved to the old man to start.
Stepping to the center of the stage the old man started, “Morning folks, I’m Captain John Cronin, Pecos County Texas Sheriff’s Department chief investigator. The paper we co-wrote is based on a small sample of smuggling operations the three of us have directly participated in either individually or together in Europe so this will be a micro view of a much larger picture, but in our case we have complete documentation and photos and video in many cases. I’m a graduate of the NA back in 1983, and investigator since 1984. My co-hosts are Sergi and Antonio.” Waving at Sergi, he walked behind the table and sat down.
Sergi walked to the center of the stage and introduced himself, “Sergi Laine, Keskusrikospoliisi or NBI, our equivalent of your FBI. I am a graduate of this National Academy in 1986 and I am a field operations person specializing in smuggling into Finland. Approximately eight of the examples are from my borders.”
Tony got up and said, “Antonio Russo, Carabinieri, Direzione Anti Droga, our anti-drug task force. I too am a graduate, 1988 and I am specialist in drug smuggling with a minor specialty in slave smuggling out of Africa. Four of the events are ones that we performed as part of Interpol operations and two of the events are joint smuggling events that both the Cowboy,” smiling at the old man, “And the big Finn”, waving at Sergi, “And I ended up working as a team during 1996. The first event was originally thought to be a simple cigarette smuggling from Corsica, but turned out to be a cartel operation from Columbia and Mexico via the Bahamas and the United States to smuggle both marijuana and cocaine into Europe disguised as a standard cigarette smuggling operation.”
“The second operation was from a lead from that led to a much larger organization smuggling slaves out of Ghana on coastal freighters to the Mediterranean and drugs and slaves being transshipped to other ships and to both Macedonia and the Baltic regions. Sergi was brought in through Interpol and was instrumental in getting us assistance from the Baltic nations to allow a focal follow on the ship of interest to its final rendezvous with small boats off Hanku, Finland and the final end point of Helsinki; while the Cowboy and I picked up the trucks and small boats used to deliver the product and slaves into Albania, Yugoslavia, and finally ending in Skopje, Macedonia. Since then Sergi and I have cooperated through Interpol on six other cases.”
The old man got up and gave a précis of the article, delving into the similarities observed in the way the smugglers set up their vehicles and/or ships. He also talked to the apparent international spread of very similar plans for adding concealment and spaces which they believed were probably based on the cartel’s reach into international crime. Sergi and Tony both spoke briefly on specific cases they had each worked on. Finally the floor was opened to questions, most of which revolved around key points for determining whether there were compartments and cues to look for.
Then Professor Klopstein strutted to the microphone…
Rattling papers and adjusting his glasses and ostentatiously clearing his throat he finally spoke, “I am Professor Klopstein from Columbia University, head of the Criminal Justice Forensics Department and based on my 20 years of research in this area, and my modeling which is used by a number of organizations world-wide; I find that your entire premise is flawed because your sample size is not statistically significant; I find no definition of the so called ‘slavery’ you claim to have observed, and I can help but notice that you killed nine, let me repeat NINE people in these two so called coordinated takedowns. My question to you Captain, or should I call you ‘Cowboy’ is what was your justification for all these people being killed without arrest or trial?”
Rustling his papers again, he stood in the aisle awaiting a response.
The old man started to get up, but Tony put out his hand, “I will handle this if you don’t mind sir.”
Walking to the front of the stage, Tony went from happy go lucky to deadly serious, to the point that Klopstein took a step backward. “Signor professore, if I may call you that; you have insulted all of us with your comment, and you are lucky we are not in Italy, because I would personally take you out in the street and whip you. But I will deign to answer your pathetic little question.”
Putting his hands behind his back, Tony paced slowly from one side of the stage to the other. “Remember this distance please; I will refer to it later. Now to your first point, we stated both here and in the paper this was a limited sample and we were very specific about that. There was no attempt to place this in any larger context than that of a limited look at drug smuggling specifically coming in from South America, and slave smuggling from Ghana. As for the definition of slavery, you should really keep up with the INTERPOL definitions professore, you are sadly uninformed in reality. Secondly, for a so called world-wide presence, we looked at your pathetic little model and summarily recommended not adopting it because you had nothing in the model that actually supports any law enforcement agency other than a US federal agency.”
Walking back across the stage, he stopped at the edge, “Please dim the lights up here and down in front if you would please.” As the lights dimmed, he paced slowly to the center of the stage, stopped, put his hands behind his back and bowed his head for a minute.
Klopstein started back to his seat, but Tony yelled, “NO, YOU STAY RIGHT THERE. You want answers I give you answers.”
Klopstein froze in place, as Tony walked back to the side of the stage, “Signor John, or Cowboy as you so derisively called him killed four people in the first operation for two reasons. You see, I was the lead boarder when we did a covert boarding of the first ship. It was a little darker than you see here. We used two Zodiacs with five people in each, one driver and four boarders. I was first up the rope to the starboard stern of the vessel, it was about seven feet up that boarding rope. As soon as I got on deck, I crouched until I was sure Cowboy was almost on deck and I started moving forward,” Tony walked quickly to the center of the stage. “I was shot by at least three smugglers at this point, actually shot multiple times in the vest, but one shot hit me in the side of the head and I dropped immediately.”
Pacing to the far side of the stage, “Cowboy was barely aboard when they shot me. He took out his pistol and shot all three of the smugglers with head shots from this distance, in less light than we have now. He took five rounds to the vest, and one shot in the left bicep. He then rushed forward and charged the bridge. As he was coming up the ladder, a fourth smuggler tried to shoot him off the ladder. Cowboy put him down also with a head shot.”
Stalking back to center stage, Tony again put his hands behind is back, “Cowboy then captured the Captain and the bridge, forcing them to kill all power on the ship and putting it adrift in the Adriatic while the rest of the team boarded. These smugglers did not go easily, and in fact we killed eight just in this boarding alone. I was medically evacuated by a helicopter, so you might ask how I know this. I know this from my team, who followed Cowboy and completed the takedown. And I have no doubt, nor do any of the men there that night that Cowboy saved my life. Lights please.”
As the lights came back up, Tony walked back to the table and leaned on it rubbing his hands, “Sergi and the Cowboy finished my job in Skopje, and only two smugglers were shot there when they first shot at us.”
Walking back to the front of the stage, Tony looked down at Klopstein and asked softly, “Have you ever been in the field ‘professore’?”
Klopstein blustered, “No, my work does not require me to go in the field. I rely on the ‘proper’ documentation from field agents for my work.”
“You don’t remember me do you?”
“No, why should I?”
“Professore, or should I say Analyst Klopstein, does the name SNC Technologies bring anything to mind? 1988 in Hogan’s Alley?”
Klopstein visible recoiled at that, turned pale and sat in the first seat he could find.
Tony looked out at the audience and said, “In 1988 as a student here, I among others was invited to participate in a new training technology called Simunitions today. Analyst Klopstein here, who used to be employed by the FBI as an analyst here, decided that he needed to participate in the exercise to quote, get a feel unquote for how operations are handled. He was placed on the hostage guard side of the exercise to get an understanding of how fast a takedown had to take place to save the hostages. When he was hit for the first and ONLY time with a Simunition, he dropped his weapon and ran screaming to the corner and collapsed; yelling for us to not shoot him anymore.”
In the dead silence that followed, Tony asked, “Are there anymore questions? Thank you.”
The SAC stepped to the podium and thanked them for the presentation and called a lunch break for all.
As the old man, Sergi and Tony walked off the stage, the SAC met them at the bottom of the steps. At the same time a young Thai policeman approached them diffidently, then gave the traditional bow and hands together gesture to the old man, “Sawasdee krup.”
The old man returned the gesture and greeting, and the young Thai continued, “Sir, Pan Wattanapanit asked to be remembered to you and hopes that you and your family are well.”
The old man stood there for a second or two, then looked sharply at the young Thai policeman, “Do you mean Joe? What IS that bastard up to these days?”
A bit taken aback by the response and not sure how to answer, he said, “Sir, Pan Wattanapanit is the director of the Central Investigation Bureau now, and my superior.”
The old man started laughing, to all the others surprise. He shook his head and replied, “Joe or I guess ‘Cho’ as you say it was my roommate here, and talk about a homesick sumbitch, and lousy card player, but smart as a whip and all whang leather tough and damn that little shit could drink! And he loved Kentucky sour mash! That Joe?”
Smiling the young Thai said, “Yes sir, he still loves it and requested that I bring him some Blanton’s home. He said he will never forget that gift.”
Turning to the others, the old man said, “On the tenth and twentieth anniversaries of our graduations, I’ve sent him bottles of Blanton’s; and all I get back is that damn Sang Thip.’ Turning back to the young Thai he smiled, “Please see me tomorrow and I will make sure you have another bottle or two to deliver to that old souse…”
Bowing the young Thai nodded and left. The SAC just shook his head, and said, “Okay guys, we need to make a little road trip here, so if y’all will join me, we’re outta here.”
Sergi and Tony just looked at each other, but the old man nodded and said, “Let’s go, I need to eat something though, Milty.”
Laughing, he just led them out to his car. Once they were on the way, he told them,
“Y’all are going over to the Marine side, and give another brief and Q and A with a few military folks. This one is going to be NATO Secret, and you’re all cleared to that level.”
After crossing through the gate, the SAC turned again, “McDonalds?”
They all laughed and agreed, so they did the drive through and proceeded over to the Marine Corps Combat Developments building. After clearing the front desk, the SAC told them he would be back to get them in an hour. They were escorted to a secure conference room by a young Captain, and offered coffee. Shortly thereafter, the room began to fill with various very fit young men in civilian clothes, and one older Coast Guard Captain. The old Captain did a double take, then walked over to them. Sticking out his hand he introduced himself, saying to the old man, “Captain Jeff Carson, you don’t remember me do you?”
Shaking his hand, he said, “No Captain, I can’t say that I do, John Cronin by the way. Should I remember you?”
The Captain laughed, “Probably not, the last time I saw you, you were playing at being a second class petty officer; that was in 1979, remember that? And heloing on and off a Cutter down off Columbia in the middle of the night?”
Slapping his head, the old man grinned, “LTJG Carson, how you’ve changed! My god that was YEARS ago! I see you’ve stuck it out, and done pretty well since I know they don’t make a lot of Coastie Captains!” Looking over at Tony and Sergi, he quickly related the tale of his dropping in on the Coasties in the middle of the night as a DEA agent to do a takedown on a particular mother ship off Columbia.
Shortly, a Marine Colonel entered and the room came to attention. Motioning the three to the front, he introduced them in a very truncated fashion and said, “Gentlemen, these folks have been there and done it, you’ve all received copies of the paper they wrote and now is your chance to ask any questions and get any details you think are pertinent. Captains, these young men are from a variety of military organizations and are here for special operations joint training using new technology in a program called Visit, Boarding, Search and Seizure or as we know it VBSS. This is not your generation’s version of it, and we are doing our best to standardize this across services and countries so that we can operate effectively not only with each other, but from a variety of platforms. Gentlemen you have one hour.”
An hour and a half later, John, Sergi and Tony though they had been through the wringer…
The questions had come hot and fast, everything from intel, timeliness, radio coordination, covert and overt boarding options, smugglers and guards and their normalized placements on the smuggling ships, where and how to look for hidden compartments, hidden scuttle valves to allow compartments to be sunken in the bilges, smells that might cue them, heated or cooled areas and their indicators, deceptive lighting, and many more questions.
And they’d figured out there were at least six or seven different organizations represented, but no one other than the Captain, who merely observed, ever identified themselves.
The SAC picked them up and took them back to the theater, and pulled the old man off to the side, handing him a flyer, “John, I know you’re still a shooter, and this is right up your alley if you’re not too old. It’s a little competition over in West Virginia in about six months. If you want to take a break, this would be a good one to go do, and you’ll be against the best around. Trust me.”
The old man looked at the flyer and folded it neatly and put it in his pocket, “Thanks Milty, maybe this will be my last one. Speaking of which, are we gonna go shoot or not?”
“Not this trip John, but Becky wanted to invite y’all to come to dinner tonight at six thirty if that works for y’all.”
Shaking hands with him, the old man replied, “We’ll be there with bells on.”
6 months after the Sniper Shoot…
The old man came in the house and let the screen door bang shut, as he did, Jesse called from the kitchen, “Is that you Papa?”
Walking into the kitchen, he responded, “Who else would it be at five thirty in the morning? And if you took your damn dog out yourself, ‘I’ wouldn’t have to do it!”
Juanita and Francisco laughed as Rex padded in behind the old man and came over and laid his head on Francisco’s lap for a scratching.
Jesse reached for the coffee pot and poured a cup of black coffee and sat it on the table next to the orange juice, “Thank you Papa, and I’ve got some news Papa,” Jesse said with a grin.
“Yeah, Aaron got orders and he’s going to be here Friday, right? Umm, Juanita could I have some of your delicious Huevos Rancheros please?” the old man said with a grin.
Juanita smiled and asked, “Anybody want anything different? Francisco, Jesse? REX, out of the kitchen!”
As the dog slunk out of the kitchen, Jesse shook her head and looked over at the old man with a stunned expression, “How did you know? He only emailed me an hour ago? Is it alright if he stays here?”
The old man rocked back in his chair, “Well, YOU are not the only one that has friends in low places; and I’m guessing it’ll be okay, we can ask Juanita to open up the mother-in-law suite for him.” He leaned back sipping his coffee, ostensibly ignoring Jesse with a little grin on his face.
Grinning, he turned to Jesse, “Matt called last night, he’s on orders too, he’s going to Pendleton to take charge of the range out there and be the senior enlisted instructor. He said Aaron is now a Staff Sgt and will be going to MARSOC at Pendleton, and then to the Marine First Special Operations Battalion after he completes training. They are driving out at the same time, and he’d asked if he could visit too.”
Juanita asked, “This Friday John? Do I need to get more food?” as she finished preparing four plates of Huevos.
“Well, they ARE Marines Juanita, and at least one of them has already ‘landed’ on somebody at the table, so yeah, we’re probably going to need more food. Speaking of which, Francisco are the Ramos brothers still doing the rolling BBQ setup?”
As Jesse blushed and opened her mouth to retort, Francisco laughingly replied, “Sure I think so, you want me to check? And if so, do you want them to get a beef and do the prep?”
The old man laughed, “Nah, I think it’s about time that old Brindle steer meets his maker, and I’ll check with Grissom today to see if he’s still got that half hog in the freezer. I figure we can do a little BBQ for a few folks, and maybe a little Tex-Mex if Juanita and the ladies are willing to do the fixins. You think you and Toby can wrinkle him outta the Mesquite?”
Juanita served the plates and took a seat at the far end of the table as Francisco thought out what would be needed, “Sure, I think he’s still up on the North 40; if we can’t get him out with the horses, I’ll go in there and drop him, Then we can go get him with the truck and trailer or take the tractor up there and just drag his ass outta there.”
“That should work okay Francisco, and you know Juanita, the more I think about it, I think we’ll just throw the Marines in the bunk house, it’s not like they don’t know how to live in cramped quarters!” The old man snuck a look at Jesse as he said it, and watched her trying to figure out how to respond.
Jesse just kept her head down and kept eating, so the old man decided to have a little fun, “At least this time, he’s coming here rather than you inventing reasons you had to fly to the East coast Jesse, and I figure feeding them is the cheaper alternative.”
Jesse wailed, “Papa THAT’s not nice, and I DID have good reasons to go, they sent me to that…”
All the others were laughing and the old man answered, “Sure you did hon, but all of a sudden you’re awful damn sensitive about it, and I haven’t seen that idiot Frank sniffing around lately.”
Francisco snorted into his coffee and Juanita had a coughing spell trying to cover her laughter; as Jesse, injured pride and all snipped, “Well, ‘I’ decided Frank was not what I wanted to spend, ah hell, I give up. I’m going to work, which sector are you in today Papa?” She picked up her plate, rinsed it in the sink and dropped it in the dishwasher, filling a to go cup with coffee as she headed toward the door.
The old man replied, “I’m in Sector three, so don’t get in any trouble today, cause I would hate to haul your butt to jail, and tell that speed demon Rick that if I catch him screwing around I WILL put his ass in jail.”
Kissing the old man on the cheek Jesse smirked, “Yes Papa, I won’t Papa, I’ll tell him Papa.” Dodging his attempt to swat her on the butt as she went by, she patted Rex as he snuck back into the kitchen and took his accustomed place at side of the old man’s chair.
The old man got up and took his dishes to the sink, rinsed them and put them in the dishwasher, picked up the coffee pot and tipped it toward Francisco, who nodded and held out his cup, as Juanita waved it off. The old man poured him a cup, then one for himself as the screen door slammed, and they heard Jesse start her car and pull out of the driveway.
Juanita turned to face the old man as he leaned back against the sink. “Okay John, what is going on,” asked Juanita, “Marines? Where is this coming from?”
Taking a sip of coffee, the old man thought for a second, “Well, you remember when we went back East to that sniper shoot?”
“About six months ago?”
“Yep, we drove back and shot against a bunch of military and LEOs in West Virginia. We met a couple of pretty sharp Marines from Quantico and the young one took a shine to Jesse. That’s why she’s made a couple of trips to the East Coast, granted some of it was business, but mostly to see Aaron. I didn’t think much about it till Frank stopped coming around.”
“Okay John, where do you really want to put them?” Juanita asked grabbing a pad and pencil. “You’ve got one bedroom here, and two in the old house, and then there is the bunkhouse, but I wouldn’t want to put them in there with Toby, he’s such a slob.”
Francisco chimed in, “The window units both work in the old house, so that’s where I’d put them. But if Jesse and this Aaron are ‘friendly’, well that is going to complicate things.”
The old man grinned, “Yeah, you’re probably right, why don’t we put Matt in here and Aaron in the old house, that way I don’t have to listen to a bunch of noise, or react to a situation that I really ain’t worrying about if you know what I mean. Hell, Jesse is of age, and knows her own business.”
Francisco laughed and Juanita just shook her head saying, “YOU are a dirty old man John, but if that is what you want? So how many people do you want to invite?”
“Oh, I guess the usual suspects, and I’m assuming you’ll invite your usual suspects so we’ll be feeding what, fifty, a hundred? Plus kids? And do you feel up to doing the Tex-Mex?” the old man asked.
Poking Francisco Juanita replied, “Well, since this old man never takes me anywhere, I’ll get the girls together and we’ll put on a good feed for them and I’ll get to have a girls day too!”
Mumbling under his breath, Francisco got up and rinsed his dishes and headed out saying, “I never take you because you NEVER want to go, and unlike the rest of y’all I have work to do, this ranch doesn’t run itself. Stay safe today John.”
The old man nodded and replied, “Thanks Juanita, take whatever you need out of the operating account and I’ll leave the menu in your capable hands. I gotta get to work too, since I’m down South today.”
Juanita nodded as the old man went into the living room, picked up his gun belt and slung it around his hips, grabbed the radio out of the charger and put on his cowboy hat. Rex looked up hopefully and whined, but the old man gave him the stay command, and walked out the door.
At lunch the old man gave Grissom a call and determined there was a half a hog available, and passed that along to Francisco. He also talked to the Sheriff and switched his Friday patrol to sector four, figuring he’d have to go meet Matt and Aaron in Pecos and lead them back in rather than trying to give them directions on the back roads and farm roads in West Texas.
Back at the ranch, Francisco and Toby saddled up a couple of horses and rode up to the North 40 (which was really a 160 acre section), didn’t see the old brindle steer, and split up to try to bust him out of the mesquite and creek bottom. Francisco, knowing steers and this particular one was a nasty one, decided to keep Toby out of trouble if he could. Toby was 20, and becoming a pretty good hand, but he had a lot to learn about Longhorns and especially the nasty ones. He also loved to charge into things, sometimes getting himself in binds that took a bit to get out of, but this time that ‘bind’ could get him dead before Francisco could get there. After about three hours, Francisco called on the personal radio, “Toby, you seen anything yet?”
Toby replied, “No see boss, I working North to South on far side high ground but over by the bottoms, I not seeing him, see most the rest of the beeves but no him. How damn hell can something grande disappear?”
Francisco chuckled, “Cause he’s an old mossy back and he probably has a hidey hole in the bottoms that we just haven’t found. Come on down to the big rock on the west side of the creek and we’ll eat lunch and figure out what to do next.”
“On way boss!”
After sandwiches and bottles of water, Francisco decided to just run the creek out and see if the steer would show up. After about 15 minutes, they found him on Francisco’s side of the creek and moved him down to a corral at the back of the ranch house. Francisco called the Ramos brothers and set up for them to come out Friday and start the BBQ of the steer and the hog.
Meanwhile, Juanita had been on the phone to various friends and had come up with plenty of folks to help prepare the food, and meet Jesse’s new beau. Most of her friends thought it was a shame she hadn’t already married and had children, thinking she was going to be a spinster daughter. As Juanita was shopping for ingredients she reflected on how lucky she and Francisco were; making good money and having a nice house to live in, even if they didn’t own it, but that was made up for by working for Senor John and Jesse. She worried that if Jesse DID marry this Marine she would leave the ranch and then what would happen, but that was a thought for another time, not for now…
Hanging up the cell, the old man called in, “Dispatch, car six I’m heading up to the truck stop in Monahans to pick up my visitors, be out of the county about an hour ETR is 1500.”
The female dispatcher came back, “Roger Car six, y’all going to come by here? I could use a good man you know.”
Chuckling the old man responded, “Dispatch, we’ll see, but one of them is already taken.”
His cell rang, and he picked it up to see the Sheriff was calling, “Yeah Sheriff?”
Sheriff Rodriguez rustling paper paused, “John, do you want to go off early today? I can push Hart up to cover four for the rest of the day since he’s just driving in circles over in sector six, and DPS has two cars working I-10 over there.”
Cocking his head, the old man thought for a minute, “Nah, it’s been quiet up here all day too, other than that idiot oil tanker driver that I wrote up this morning. I might stop at the house for a few to get them settled and introduce them to Francisco and Juanita, but I’ll stay till the end of shift.”
“Okay, sounds good John. What time do the festivities start tomorrow? I know Betsy is helping with the fixings, but she never told me what time ‘I’ was supposed to show up.”
The old man smiled, “Well you’re welcome anytime, but the food is going to start about three or four. I’ve asked Jose Ramos to make up some cuts to take to the department for both the deputies and the fire rescue folks about five and I think Juanita is planning on feeding them better than she’s feeding us.”
Sighing the Sheriff replied, “Like I need to eat any big meals. But this is one feed I’ve never passed up. Call if you need more time John.”
“Will do Jose,” hanging up the cell, the old man eased down on the accelerator and headed up 18 to Monahans. He wondered what this weekend would bring, and hoped things didn’t blow up, but he would be glad to see Matt, and yeah, Aaron too. But he would give Aaron a ration of crap, just to see what he was made of. Twenty minutes later he pulled into the truck stop at Monahans and spied two dirty SUVs sitting off to the side of the gas pumps with Virginia license plates. Looking closer he saw that both SUVs had Marine Corps stickers on the back glass, so he pulled in right behind them.
Getting out and stretching, he looked around but didn’t see either Matt or Aaron, so he wandered into the coffee shop.
The waitress came over and asked if he’d like a cup of coffee, so the old man agreed and dropped a couple of dollars on the counter. Behind him he hear a quiet, oh damn; turning around he saw Matt and Aaron just coming out of the bathroom.
Matt walked over and started apologizing, “Sorry sir, I didn’t figure you’d get here that quickly, so I was trying to be ready.”
The old man just stuck out his hand and laughed, “No biggie Matt, I know about hitting the bathroom, trust me! “ He reached over and shook Aaron’s hand too, and the waitress handed him his coffee. “Y’all need anything for the road? We’ve got about a 30 minute drive from here.”
A chorus of no sirs came back, so they headed for the door. As they walked toward the vehicles, he noticed Matt heading toward the Chevy SUV; so he turned to Aaron, “Don’t tell me you’re driving a damn FORD! I don’t allow FORDs on my property; you can leave that POS here, and ride with Matt.”
Aaron just looked at the old man with a stunned expression until he realized the old man was smiling and Matt was laughing and he finally responded, “Damn, I heard y’all were pretty parochial about trucks down here, but I didn’t realize it was THAT bad Sir. Although I did notice as we got further South and West the more trucks and fewer cars were in dealerships.”
“Yep, people have been disowned for buying a different brand down here, and that can go for generations. And you can bet every damn one of them has a least a rifle in it, if not a shotty and a pistol or two. Y’all both have VA carry, right?
Matt nodded and Aaron said, “Virginia and Florida both Sir.”
Matt added, “Florida too.”
“Okay, strange as it may seem, concealed is legal with either of those, but open carry is NOT legal any time you’re off the ranch. We normally open carry when we’re on the range, but remember off the property CONCEALED.”
A chorus of yes sirs again, and the old man smiled, “Okay, we’re going to follow 18 South for a while then out into the boonies a bit, bout 30 minutes. If something comes up and I have to haul ass, just continue to Ft. Stockton and call Jesse, and she can come get y’all. Okay, let’s go.”
Getting back in the car, the old man led Matt and Aaron back down 18 then back to the ranch. As they pulled into the yard, the Ramos brothers were finishing stripping out the hide of the old brindle steer hanging over the corral gate to the right of the driveway and the smell of BBQ was wafting over the yard.
Matt and Aaron got out and looked around in amazement; they were standing in front of the big house, with a porch that looked like it went all the way around the house. Off to the right was a smaller house that looked like it was really made out of logs, and further to the right were barns and sheds all with tin roofs and most looking like they had been there a while. Off to the left, the West as they automatically oriented themselves, there were a row of cedar trees and a few oaks that seemed to lean to the East and more trees could be seen behind another log building and behind that a newer small house with more trees. Other than the driveway, everything was fenced and Matt remembered they’d crossed a cattle guard coming into the driveway.
The old man was walking up to the house and an older Hispanic couple was coming from the house along with a damn big German Shepherd that bounded down the steps to the old man, then growled at Matt and Aaron.
Grabbing the dog’s collar the old man said, “Friends Rex, friends, you guys stick your hands out palms down and let him sniff em. And this is Francisco, my ranch foreman, and Juanita his wife who takes care of all of us!”
Laughter and handshakes went around, and the old man bowed out to go back to work. Juanita took one look at the Marines and invited them into the house, putting glasses of iced tea in front of them, “You are Matthew,” pointing at Aaron; “And you are Aaron. I have seen pictures of you. For you Matthew, you will be sleeping in the back bedroom here. Aaron, you will be in the guest house out back, and Francisco will show you where to put your bags. I have placed clean sheets on the beds and you have fresh towels and soap and shampoo on your beds. Supper will be at seven pm, breakfast at five thirty am, and NO eating the desserts! Those are for tomorrow. Any questions?”
Matt looked at her with a smile, “Yes ma’am, were you ever in the Marines, cause you sure sound like a drill instructor!”
Juanita playfully slapped Matt on the arm, “Maybe I should be, twenty years of taking care of lazy men around here and trying to keep this place clean. Maybe I need some Marines here to show these lazy bums how to clean up after themselves.”
Francisco just rolled his eyes, earning a glare from Juanita, “Just ignore her, she’s all bark and no bite just like Rex. Come, I will show you where to put your bags.”
As they walked through the house, both Matt and Aaron looked around at the old but comfortable furniture, obvious antiques, and when Matt was shown the bedroom he would be sleeping in commented on the Winchester hanging in the deer antler rack by the bed, “Is that thing loaded?”
Francisco told him, “Of course it’s loaded, and it’s an 1886 in 45-70 and there are spare rounds in the night stand, top drawer. All the guns you see in this house and the others are always loaded for safety in case they are needed.”
Aaron chimed in, “Always loaded for safety in case they are needed? What does that mean sir?”
Francisco shrugged, “This is a ranch senor, in West Texas, and one never knows when you will need a gun to hand.”
Leading them out the back hallway to the old house he told them, “According to John, this is the original house built here in the 1870s and it is on part of the original ranch section of land his five times great grandfather settled after the Civil War. At one point, they had almost twenty thousand acres of ranch and farm land in this area.” Gesturing at the old house he said, “Yes those are bullet holes in the door, and around the windows, the house was attacked a few times over the years by Indians and rustlers. But they have continued to upgrade the house over the generations, and Senor John’s dad was the last family member born in this house. He built the new house in the 1940s. It does have air conditioners in the windows, and it does have running water, although that is in the addition on the back of the house. The kitchen no longer works, but the bathroom does, including the shower, and the sink in the kitchen does have running water.”
Opening the door Matt and Aaron both stopped cold, it was like walking into a museum except it was real and Aaron at least would be staying here. Francisco opened the middle door on the right, and pointed out the light switches, and said, “Before you ask, yes that is also loaded, and it is a .44-40, but that one is an 1873 Winchester and spare rounds are in the nightstand. Feel free to look around, I must go back to work now; John and Jesse should be here in about an hour.”
Matt and Aaron unloaded their bags into their respective rooms and wandered around a bit, realizing they were literally seeing a family history in the furniture, the pictures on the walls, and the furnishings. Just looking at the houses, the set up and watching the Ramos brothers starting to cook both the steer and the half hog in a huge smoker they had pulled in behind their truck made them wonder what they’d walked into. Aaron was looking around like a pole axed steer, mumbling that Jesse had never said anything about any of this, just lived on a little old farm…
After they looked around a bit inside, the smell of BBQ convinced them go outside and over to where Jose and his crew were working and Jose explained they don’t use all hickory or mesquite, but put both apple and cherry woods into the mix also, and they would be cooking until the next afternoon before all the food was ready. They’d set up chairs, a picnic table, and had a little portable TV running on the table as they dusted the steer parts and hog with rubs. He also explained they wouldn’t actually put any sauce onto either set of meats until the last half hour, and he and Matt got in a long discussion over types of BBQ. Aaron wandered over to the steer hide and poked at it, trying to imagine what it would be used for.
Half an hour later, they were sitting in the kitchen enjoying another glass of iced tea when they heard two cars pull into the driveway and shut off, two doors slammed and then the screen door. Matt looked at Aaron and noticed that Aaron had suddenly gotten very tense, and chuckled to himself.
He looked back and Jesse was standing in the door, suddenly as shy as Aaron seemed to be, until she got a push in the back from the old man, “If you’re gonna kiss him, go kiss him; don’t stand there like a love sick calf, girl.”
Juanita laughed and that broke the spell, Jesse walked over to Aaron put a hand on his shoulder and kissed him on the cheek saying, “Hi, I’m glad you made it okay. Hi Matt welcome.”
Aaron reached up and put his hand over Jesse’s and just looked at her.
The old man laughed, “Okay, y’all can go somewhere private a catch up, meantime I’m going to get a cup of coffee and talk with Matt.”
Blushing Jesse grabbed Aaron’s hand and drug him out the back door. The all laughed as the noticed the back of Aaron’s neck was red too.
Juanita yelled after them, “Catfish in an hour, don’t be late!”
The old man grabbed a cup of coffee and led Matt into the library slash office. As he eased himself into his favorite rocker, he looked up at Matt; waved around the room and said, “I’m sure you have a few questions don’t ya Matt?”
Matt walked over to the book lined cases and looked at one shelf that had a few pictures and trinkets sitting on it, “Well sir, it does seem you’re not just an old country boy sheriff’s deputy. And judging by the number of oil wells I’ve seen, and the size of this place, I think y’all are doing pretty well and have been here a LONG time!”
The old man sighed, “Well Matt, short story is our family settled here in the 1870’s, managed to get a pretty good piece of land out here bout 20,000 acres; lost some of it to keep the family fed, and we’re down to about 3300 acres give or take. Luckily nobody ever sold off the mineral rights, since this is actually the quote Permian basin unquote, which is one of the largest oil fields in the US. But more specifically we’re sitting on what’s called the Delaware basin and Sheffield channel which connects to the Midland and Val Verde basins. The first field in Pecos County was the Yates field down in the Southeast corner of the county, round about 1926, and grandpa told me he hit oil a couple of times in the 30s trying to get water, which is actually more precious out here than oil by the way. But that was the depression and he couldn’t get anybody to come get it since he never sold or leased any mineral rights to anybody. It wasn’t till WWII that they came looking up in this part of the county for oil and grandpa finally got some wells drilled down about eight thousand feet. We’ve done pretty well since, and manage to keep the place up, money in the bank, and we run a few head of Longhorns up on the North section.”
Matt asked, “Is that what you referred to as the North 40?”
“Yep, but it’s actually a full section, so it’s really 640 acres.”
Meanwhile, Jesse and Aaron walked down the path behind the house. Once they were out of sight of the houses and Jose and his crew, Aaron stopped and pulled Jesse into his arms and they kissed for a long time; Jesse laid her head on Aaron’s chest and Aaron said, “I’ve missed you Jesse, and there seems to be a few things you didn’t tell me,” sweeping the property with one arm, “This is a helluva lot more than a little farm isn’t it?”
Jesse leaned back in his arms, then glared over toward the trees, “TOBY, you come out of there right now!”
Abashed, Toby came out of the brush, walked over and said, “Miss Jesse, just making sure he okay. No want bad guys here.”
“Toby, Aaron is NOT a bad guy, he’s my boyfriend. Aaron, this is Toby, he’s the ranch hand that works for Papa and Francisco. Now the two of you shake hands, and Toby, you disappear, got it?”
Smiling and bobbing his head, Toby shook Aaron’s hand and replied, “Yes Miss Jesse, I go work with horses now. You ride Buttercup tomorrow?”
“Maybe Toby,” shooing him away.
Puzzled, Aaron looked after Toby, “What kind of Indian is he? Or is he? That didn’t sound like…”
Putting her arms back around Aaron, Jesse answered, “He’s a Montangard, Papa’s friend’s son who is here to try to make a life for himself outside his culture since they have way too many males. He’s three years younger than me, but he knows horses and animals like nobody I’ve ever seen. And before you go there, yes I DO have a horse named Buttercup. DO NOT go there, understand?”
Laughing Aaron kissed the top of Jesse’s head, “Yes dear.”
“Now you’re learning,” grabbing Aaron’s hand they walked down to the corral and Jesse introduced Aaron to Buttercup and the other horses, joking that if he wanted to hang around, he’d have to learn to ride and be able to keep up with her.
Back in the house, Matt asked, pointing to a picture sitting in the back of the shelf, “Is that you sir, when you were in the Army?”
The old man got up and walked over to the shelf, taking out the picture and the piece of bracelet lying there, he bowed his head for a minute, the looked at Matt, “Yeah, that’s me as a Staff Sergeant, and that’s a picture of the Degar village I lived in and worked out of for almost a year West of Pleiku. Of the people in that picture, I think maybe six are still alive.”
“Yards, Montagnards or hill people as they were known. Actually that ville was part of the Jarai tribe or family if you will. I was there until early ’68 before I got rotated out. We were sitting on the South end of the trail, and our job was to provide a tripwire for major movements and interdict if there were small movements. Those people were fantastic fighters, and they got fucked so bad by not only their own government, but by us that it still pisses me off. They were left behind to die when the US pulled out. Actually a few have been relocated to North Carolina, maybe three thousand total; but they’ve got problems adapting here too. Actually my ‘hand’ Toby, well, he’s a Degar.” Pointing to a young girl in the picture he continued, “His mother, I found out she and a couple of others made it out; I helped them out a little bit quite a few years ago, and actually brought them out here for a while. Toby, that’s what we call him because we can’t pronounce his real name; he fell in love with the horses and animals, but his momma couldn’t handle the environment out here, and she went back. About two years ago, I got a call from her, wondering if I’d take Toby and put him to work. Since he’s part white, he’s pretty much an outcast to the tribe, and he still loves horses. Hell, he’s doing all the breaking of the horses for us and a couple of other folks.”
Shaking his head, he put the picture back on the shelf. Bouncing the piece of bracelet he commented, “This is the last bracelet they made for me, and I wore it for about three years until I was directed to take it off. It’s Elephant hair, so it’ll never wear out for all practical purposes. That was kinda a clue to folks where you were or had been too.”
“I went back the last time in 71-72 as an advisor, hell there wasn’t much to advise… Most of the ARVN were on the run or just going home, and we got the shit shot out of us a few times. I came home from that and did a couple of other short detachments various places and got out in ’75 after my dad died.”
Matt pointed to the plaques shoved in the back of the shelf, “Those are quite a collection, are they from the dets?”
The old man sat back down, grabbed his coffee and drained it, “Nah, I joined the Sheriff’s Department here in 1976, since we’d sold off the cows and there wasn’t much to do here. I did a two year second to the DEA and in 83 the department sent me to the FBI National Academy, that’s the one with the NA on it. The rest are from some things I’ve gotten for being loaned out here and there. I kinda know a little bit about smuggling.”
Matt and the old man compared notes on the differences between the Army and Marines and combat in Vietnam versus Afghanistan and Iraq. By the time dinner was called, they’d established a mutual respect that crossed both the age and service boundaries.
After dinner, Matt pleading a full stomach and being tired from the drive, headed for a shower and bed. The old man and Francisco helped Juanita clean up the kitchen and wash the dishes that didn’t fit in the dishwasher; and Francisco and Juanita headed over to their house. Jesse and Aaron had disappeared, and the old man just smiled. He ruffled Rex’s head and walked back into the office and worked a few emails before going to bed.
The next morning everyone made it to breakfast, although Jesse and Aaron looked strangely tired and blushed a lot, much to the amusement of everyone else. After breakfast Juanita handed out assignments, freely drafting Matt and Aaron into the working parties necessary to set up for the 100+ expected people.
With Francisco driving the tractor and trailer, tables and chairs were brought out of storage, washed down and set up between the old house and new house. The old man was summarily sent to the store for coolers full of ice, Matt and Aaron drafted into helping the arriving ladies unload various trunks, back seats, and generally carrying things that were needed.
The ladies took the measure of Aaron and numerous comments in Spanish and English flew around the kitchen and the yard as the ladies bustled around setting up the tables, serving area and cooking areas.
Francisco, Matt and Aaron strung lights plugging them in and replacing the bulbs that had blown out and did a general cleanup of the area.
Aaron was almost to the point of a permanent blush until Jesse rescued him and Matt and sent them to the store for heavy-duty plates, silverware, packages of napkins and drink cups. After driving the horses all into the corral and securing the gate, Toby brought the tractor over and mowed about a third of the pasture and picked up the hay.
After Matt and Aaron returned, Francisco drafted them to help drive stakes to mark parking areas in the field and to help take the gate off the hinges and set it to the side of the cattleguard. Their next assignment was to move all the ladies cars over to the pasture, which became rather interesting, since most of the ladies were nowhere near as tall as Matt or Aaron, and hilarity ensued when Aaron tried to drive a Miata to the pasture without moving the seat back.
The old man finally returned with the ice and the Sheriff in tow. Once the ice had been distributed, the men were finally allowed to go out on the front porch with a pitcher of iced tea.
After introducing everyone, the old man plopped down in one of the rockers, “NOW I remember why we don’t do this very often. God what a PITA!”
Matt just shook his head saying, “Damn, Juanita could get a job tomorrow as a sergeant major in the Marine Corps, that lady has her act together!”
Aaron chimed in, “Hell, I think she could teach some of the sergeant majors I’ve seen some things. And I really wish I knew Spanish so I could figure out what they were saying.”
The old man and Sheriff both chuckled, and the Sheriff replied, “No son, you really don’t. Those ladies in there are all basically farm girls, so they cut straight to the meat or bone depending. But it does look like they approve of you, so you’re really in trouble now. They’ll be planning the wedding before the night’s over.”
Aaron looked like he’d been hit with a 2 x 4, while everyone else laughed. “Wedding, what damn wedding, I… er…”
More laughter ensued with the old man chiming in, “Well, you’re a helluva lot better than the last one she was seeing. And most of those biddies in there think Jesse should be married with kids by now. So all I can say is I hope to hell your intentions are honorable, otherwise they’ll gut you like a fish, and hang your hide over the corral fence!”
Matt looked over at Aaron, “You’re on your own now buddy, I’m outta this one!”
Aaron was saved by Jesse walking out with a new pitcher of iced tea and the decree that the men needed to clean up and get presentable, but the bathrooms in the main house were off limits, since the women needed to freshen up and they’d laid claim to them. The men could use the bathroom in the old house, and step on it, people would start showing up in an hour.
Grumbling and claiming the homeowner’s right, the old man went in grabbed his clothes and a towel and headed to the old house. Matt and Aaron decided to wear khakis and their red Marine polo shirts, figuring in for a penny, in for a pound. Francisco disappeared to his house, and left the Sheriff sitting on the porch when Jesse returned to pick up the pitchers.
Jesse plopped into a chair sighing, “My feet are killing me already, and we haven’t even started dancing yet.”
The Sheriff laughed, “Well Jesse, y’all decided to do this, not us so you’re getting no sympathy from me. And you DO remember you’re on the schedule for a patrol shift tomorrow don’t you?”
“Oh shit… I forgot all about that. Can I, no. Ummm, if I take the shift can Aaron ride along? I mean it should be fairly quiet.”
The Sheriff rocked back in the chair and looked at Jesse, “If I say yes, you still have to do the patrol and you will have to pay attention. Can you do that?”
“Yes sir, I will. It’s not like Aaron doesn’t know about patrolling, I mean… he’s done it in combat, so I don’t think there will be a problem.”
“Okay, but come see me before you go out tomorrow. Holmes is out sick with a stomach bug, so I’ll be in the office tomorrow.”
Smiling, Jesse nodded got up and grabbed the pitcher, disappearing back into the house.
45 minutes later, the men were all back on the front porch, when Juanita came out and inspected them and brought a round of Shiner’s for them, “Y’all cleanup pretty good, and here’s your reward, y’all get one now and one with dinner, no more just in case anybody gets stupid.”
A chorus of Yes Ma’am’s were followed by the old man’s toast, “Once more into the breach dear friends, and absent comrades!” They all touched bottles and sipped appreciatively.
Shortly thereafter, cars started arriving and Francisco and Toby managed the parking as the old man played host. Matt and Aaron did their best to stay out of the way and help out where they could, ferrying food from the kitchen and coolers from the barn for the drinks. Finally the old man and Jesse walked to the front of the tables, “Well, I think about everybody that’s coming is here, so let’s have a quick prayer and get to eating.”
Everyone bowed their heads, and Jesse said a short prayer thanking God for everyone and his guidance. The line moved quickly as the Ramos brothers filled plates with the BBQ of folks’ choice, and they moved to the next table with all the trimmings. Matt and Jesse hung back and waited for the old man, Francisco and Toby. Juanita came over, flushed and smiling and looked over the crowd, “I think we done good boss, what say you?”
“Yep, y’all done good, and Jose, thanks for coming out and putting the BBQ on for us! Remember we need to set aside some plates for the folks on duty, and having said that, I’mhungry, let’s eat!”
Jose nodded, saying, “We’ve already prepped twenty-five plates and set them aside, we did twelve beef, twelve pork, and one veggie so that should make em happy.”
Juanita chimed in, “We’ll load the trimmings on later, and the Sheriff says he’ll take them in when he leaves, so we’ve got a couple of hours. Now go, I’m hungry too!”
The old man told Matt to try both the beef and pork, so both Matt and Aaron took a little of each, there were BBQ beans and refried beans, potato salad, fresh cut French fries, salad, tortillas, rice, fresh jalapenos, pickles and white bread to choose from. Jesse laughed as Aaron tried to figure out how to fit everything on one plate, telling him, “You CAN come back you know, it’s not like there isn’t going to be anything left.”
Aaron ducked his head, blushed and let Jesse lead him over to a table on the side of the area with a number of younger folks already sitting there, Toby had saved them two places together so they put the food down and Aaron went for drinks. Jesse introduced Aaron to everyone and after the HI’s and howareya’s were done, everybody got serious about eating. Aaron was amazed at the different taste and said so to Jesse, who just laughed, “Well, this is real Texas BBQ, not like that stuff we got in West Virginia. And they just don’t know how to do real good brisket back there.”
Matt sat with the old man, Francisco and Juanita and the Sheriff. He realized this was really the first time he’d seen the old man even close to relaxed, but he was still sitting where he could see the doors and the drive into the yard. Matt wondered if the old man was carrying, and figured ‘he’ was probably the only one at the table that wasn’t carrying. He’d noticed even Juanita with her apron on, probably either had a pistol in the pocket or behind it.
Looking around he realized that probably most of the folks here were carrying, and remembering the looks of the trucks in the field, there were some serious shooters in this bunch. It also seemed most of the people were at least bi-lingual as the conversations flowed freely between Spanish and English depending on what was being said. The other thing he realized was all these folks were equals, regardless of their heritage, definitely not what the media reported, but then again he reminded himself that he knew better than to listen to and believe the media after what they’d done to the Corps. And he also noticed there were some pretty Spanish ladies here in their blouses and colorful skirts!
After finishing the plate of BBQ, he turned to the old man, “Okay, I’ll admit this is some damn good BBQ, and I don’t think I’ve ever had better brisket anywhere. And I’ll admit this is better than most of the Carolina BBQ too.”
The old man laughed, “Accepted, and now for the dessert. Com’on, I’ll explain what we’ve got over there.”
Getting up and moving between tables, the old man was greeting folks and introducing Matt as they went. Finally arriving at the dessert table, he pointed out the Flan, Churros, Chili-Chocolate cake; blackberry, peach, and apple cobblers, and cakes and pies. At the end of the table were churns of home-made ice cream in at least three different flavors.
“Choose your poison Marine, there’s more where this came from,” he said with a smile.
Matt groaned, “Now you tell me all this is here, if I’d known this, I wouldn’t have gone back for a second helping on the BBQ.”
As they made their choices, Jesse dragged Aaron over to the patio and suddenly the music got cranked up to a ‘dancing’ level. Folks started getting up and moving toward the patio as Jesse and Aaron stood off to the side apparently disagreeing over something. Matt pointed, “Oops, looks like the first fight is in progress, and I’m betting it’s over dancing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Aaron on a dance floor anywhere.”
The old man chuckled, “Can’t say I blame him, but Jesse’s a dancing fool. Just watch! She’ll embarrass him to the point he’ll get up there.”
God Bless Texas by Alan Jackson came on and the line dancing was on. Some of the Hispanic folks were disappearing toward their cars and Matt asked, “Are they leaving?”
The old man replied, “Nah, they’re after their instruments; we’ll have a pretty good little Mariachi band here in a bit. Once that happens, they’ll alternate back and forth for a few hours or until I throw em all out.”
Jesse was up leading the line dance and teasing Aaron anytime she came close. Matt and the old man sat back and just watched and enjoyed it. Getting up to get another cup of coffee, Matt stood by the table for a few minutes and realized there was a woman standing near him; he nodded to her, she smiled back and walked over, “Hello, my name is Felicia and I’ve been watching, you don’t dance?”
Matt realized she was a very attractive lady and probably close to his age, mid-late 30’s and not wearing a ring. He looked out at the dance floor and answered, “I’m Matt, and well I don’t know how to line dance, and I’m not much good for anything but slow dancing. I’m one of those WASPs with no rhythm…”
Felicia cocked her head, “WASP? What is that?”
Matt chuckled, “Sorry, white Anglo-Saxon protestant, it means I’m a lousy dancer. Besides I’ve got big feet.”
Felicia looked up at Matt and said, “Well you ARE a big man, and I think a hard man, but inside I think you’ve got a big heart.”
Matt wasn’t sure how to respond, so he excused himself, grabbed a second cup of coffee and headed back to the table with the old man. Handing him a cup, he looked back to see Felicia step onto the dance floor by herself and slot seamlessly into the line dance. The old man leaned over, “Why didn’t you dance with her?”
Matt shrugged, “Hell I’m too damn big and clumsy for dancing; besides she’s just a little bitty thing!”
The old man just laughed.
A few minutes later the stereo went down and the Mexicans tuned up for a few minutes, then swung into a salsa beat. The dancers changed out, some sitting and others jumping up to dance. Jesse was grabbed by a young Mexican and they swung into an excellent salsa that showed they’d danced together before. Aaron got disgusted and walked back over to the table and sat down, “I don’t believe this, not a single damn dance I can actually dance to, and I’m not about to make a fool out of myself!”
Finally Jesse came over, smiling and laughing, wiping her face with a napkin she plopped next to Aaron, “They’re going to play a slow dance in a couple of songs, and I want to dance with you, okay?”
Aaron nodded and perked up a little bit.
“Hon, I’m not trying to embarrass you but I like to dance, and besides it’s good exercise!”
Two songs later, as Jesse and Aaron got up, Matt also got up and walked over to Felicia; holding out his hand he said, “I’m willing to try this if you are.”
Felicia cocked her head, put her hand in Matt’s and led him to the dance floor. When they got on the floor, Matt realized how little Felicia really was, she barely came up to his shoulder, and felt light as a feather. In an attempt to be polite he asked, “Are you from here too? I guess you know we’re just here for a couple of days.”
Felicia looked up at him smiling, “Originally I was, but now I live in California and work as a translator for Customs and Border Patrol. I just happened to be back on vacation and got to come along tonight. I remember Senor John from when I was a little girl, my Padre worked for him during roundups.”
Matt’s heart did a little flip, but he was afraid to ask where in California she lived. The dance ended way too soon for Matt, and he escorted her back to the table she was sharing with family. Thanking her for the dance, he grabbed another cup of coffee and headed back to their table. Francisco and Juanita were just sitting down and taking a break too. Juanita glanced over at Matt, “Thank you for dancing with Felicia her mother was afraid no one would dance with her.”
Matt asked, “Why? She’s a good dancer, and a pretty lady!”
Juanita answered, “Well, she doesn’t live here anymore, and she’s now a widow, her husband died a year ago in a construction accident. So any man she dances with here would be in trouble with his wife or family, especially if they danced with her because they feel sorry for her. I was afraid I was going to have to ask John to dance with her!”
Matt said, “Well, I didn’t mind it, and I don’t think she did either.”
Francisco broke in, “Matt, I think she lives not too far from where you are going to be stationed. I think Encinitas, Escondido, something like that.”
The old man just sat drinking coffee and watching the dancers, he noticed that Jesse had finally convinced Aaron to try some line dances, and they were both laughing; and they made a good couple. Thankfully Jesse had gotten her looks and build from Pat, not from Jack he thought…
At six feet plus Aaron topped her by four or five inches, and obviously loved her. Couldn’t ask for much more, whether he realized it or not. Glancing over at Matt, he and Felicia were an interesting pair, Matt looked like a Viking berserker, holding Felicia like she was a little Spanish doll and he was going to break her; that got him chuckling…
Jesse turned the stereo down and all four of them came over and sat down. Jesse turned to Matt and Aaron, “Eduardo and Rosa are going to do the Hat Dance, and that will be the last dance. They’re married and actually professional dancers, but tonight it’s for fun! Since I don’t think y’all know the history, it’s pretty much the representative dance of Mexico now, and represents the courtship of a man and a woman, with the woman first rejecting the man’s advances, then eventually accepting them. The sexual connotations were the original reason for disapproval and banning by the Catholic Church. Now, Rosa is wearing the most traditional outfit is called the China Poblana; The blouse and skirt combination is named after a woman from India who came to Mexico on a ship called the Manila Galleon to work as a servant in the early 19th century; why China? I dunno. But the Asian dress was adapted in the State of Puebla, with the skirt now heavily embroidered. The traditional outfit for men is that of the charro, generally heavily decorated in silver trim; and Eduardo’s using the traditional real silver Conchos that have been in his family for years.
After the dance, everyone started packing up and picking up, and the old man bid everyone a good evening and thanked them for coming. The ladies quickly and efficiently fixed the 25 plates for the sheriff to take back to the station, and everything else went into the fridges or freezers based on Juanita’s direction. By midnight everything was pretty much done, with the exception of the tables, and the old man gave Jose Ramos a check for his help and profuse thanks for doing the cooking. Juanita finished cleaning the kitchen and poured one more cup of coffee as everyone filtered off to bed. Sitting down she realized it had been a long day.
Juanita remembered the first days here, not knowing if Francisco was going to live or not; then being offered a place to live and a new life. She first thought that it was just out of pity, but now she knew it was really a partnership. And when Amy died, she’d become the de facto mother to Jesse. She’d been worried about Jesse and her finding a good man, but now after meeting Aaron and watching him for a couple of days, whe was feeling a lot better. Both Matt and Aaron were a lot like John, the depth of character proven on the battlefield didn’t show unless you knew what you were looking for; but both of them had it in spades. Aaron was almost as quiet as John, and it was funny to watch him try to figure out situations and interactions. She thought he probably hadn’t had any siblings and probably wasn’t real good at personal interactions. And Jesse liked to poke him, but she was doing it both because she’s truly in love and because she’s testing him. Just like I did with Francisco those many years ago in Guadalajara. Yes, I think they’ve made the commitment, even if neither of them realizes it just yet.
Again, thanks to all that read and commented, I appreciate it!!!