Up to 70K words, I’m gettin’ there! Usual caveats.
And I DO appreciate the feedback and comments, as always!
The old man smiled as Hector agreed to host them again. “Hector, I’ve got two cows and two calves to bring back to you. Red got on them again, so they should be calving in the spring.”
He listened for a minute, then said, “Nope, I’d rather move them now. I know we agreed on spring, but moving them just before they calve probably isn’t a good idea.”
Chuckling, he finally said, “Okay, Hector, we’ll be in late Saturday.”
When Matt came in after lunch, he told him the plan and asked, “I’d like to take Aaron and Jesse this trip, if you don’t mind?”
Matt shook his head. “No, that’s fine. We’ll keep the kids. I know…the older lady was asking Felicia about Jesse.”
“Sofia? Yeah. And Isabella was curious too. I think they spent more time talking about Jesse than they did anything else.”
Matt glanced up. “What was the deal with the Mexican Marines? Huerta and Ortega? I never did figure out that relationship.”
The old man grinned. “Huerta is Francisco/Carlos Montoya’s sister’s boy. Ortega is related to Juanita/Lupe through Hector’s wife, Sofia.”
Matt cocked his head. “So, they were…protection? Or an escort?”
“Both, Mehico isn’t exactly friendly for Americans driving by themselves, and Huerta knows the story of how Carlos and Lupe ended up here, probably from Hector or Sofia. And I guess Ortega knows or suspects…probably knows.”
The old man shrugged. “Mehico. They do things differently down there, and family is everything, according to the Catholic Church.”
Matt chuckled. “Noticed that. Load Saturday morning?”
“Okay, I’ll get the truck and that damn trailer ready.”
The old man laughed. “Now, don’t be hating on my old trailer.”
That night at supper, he broached the idea to Jesse and Aaron. “Want a roadtrip? I need to take some cows and calves back to Hector Velazquez down at Boquillas Del Carmen, down Saturday, back Sunday.”
Jesse looked at Aaron and said, “What about the kids?”
“Matt and Felicia will watch them, turnabout and all that. They’ve already agreed. You’re not working, right, Aaron?”
Aaron rubbed his neck, then sighed. “No, thankfully! The follow-up investigations are completed on the shooters from here, and honestly, I wouldn’t mind a day or two elsewhere.”
“Getting a little burnt out?”
“Oh, hell no! I just…need a damn day off without being on call.”
“Jesse smiled. “Okay, we’re going! I’ve heard about Sofia and Estrella from Felicia, and I really want to meet them.”
Friday morning, Ernesto came in the barn, and the old man said, “Ernesto, can you please go get the Gator and the small flat trailer? We need to move some temporary corral fencing.”
“Sí, Señor John. From the back side of the barn? Up to the north forty?”
“Sí, we’re hauling those calves and the two cows that are pregnant back down to Mexico.”
Matt came around the corner and said, “I’ve got the trailer lubed and cleaned, I’ll move it up there today.”
The old man nodded. “Works.” He walked out of the barn, grabbing a set of work gloves, and headed around the corner.
Four hours later, they had an open-ended pen set up. The old man loaded the tools in the back of the Gator and waved to Felipe and Cruz, “Run ‘em in Felipe, We’ll get the gate.” A half hour later, they had the right cows and calves in the pen, all that was needed was to load them in the morning. Matt flipped a small bale of hay over the fencing and the three of them rode back to the barn.
The old man saddled up Diablo, said, “I’ll be back in a few,” and rode slowly up to the cemetery gate, Yogi trailing him. He opened the gate and rode through, then closed the gate. Dismounting, he dropped Diablo’s reins, then walked over to the little fence surrounding the cemetery, leaning on it as he looked at the cemetery. Cruz has done a good job of cleaning it up. Need to thank him for that. Carlos, Lupe, I’m gonna go see your relatives tomorrow. If they ask, I’ll tell them the good things. I wish you were still here, I don’t like being the only one left..
Sliding his hands around the brim, he looked over at all the graves. “Just so y’all know, everybody is doing good. Jesse and Aaron are happy, Jace and Kaya are growing like weeds, and they’re going to be the next generation. Got a couple more hands, Felipe and his son, Cruz, who came and cleaned up around here.”
Slapping his hat on his thigh, he shivered as if a hand had touched him on the shoulder. “Well, that’s about all I got, for now. I just need for y’all to keep guiding me.”
Another strong gust of wind passed through the graveyard, rattling the limbs, and the old man put his hat back on, picked up Diablo’s reins, opened the gate and walked him back through it as Yogi paced at his side. Closing the gate, he mounted and trotted Diablo back to the barn. “I’ll give you a good ride when I get back, boy,” he said as he finished grooming Diablo in the stall.
After supper, just before Matt and Felicia left with their kids, the old man said, “We’re ready load up in the morning, same as last time, we’ll cross at Del Rio, then up to Hector’s place at Boquillas Del Carmen. We’ll spend the night there, then come back Sunday. I called Bucky, and he is aware of the plan.” He glanced at Aaron. “And I also let Jose know.”
Aaron smacked his head. “Dammit, I knew there was something else I was supposed to do!”
Everybody laughed as the old man continued, “As usual, gotta cover for you kids.”
Felicia said, “I’ll have breakfast ready, and we can move the kids up to our house in the morning, while you load the cows.”
Saturday dawned bright and chilly, as the old man backed the C3500 and trailer up to the loading gate at the north forty. Felipe and Cruz got ready to load the pregnant cows and calves as Matt and Ernesto stood by the back of the trailer. Matt fiddled with the cattle prod as he asked, “You don’t have a problem getting in the trailer, Ernesto?”
Ernesto laughed, “No, I just take care not to surprise the cow, or get between them and their calves, even if we have separated them. We will load the two pregnant cows first, push them in the front, and use the gate to separate them from the calves in the back.” As the first cow trotted up the chute, twisting her head sideways to not hook the ramp, and moved into the trailer with almost no hesitation. Matt prodded her forward, into the front of the trailer, and a minute later, the second cow was up there, too. He unlatched the interior gate and shoved it across to Ernesto, and he fastened it closed on his side. Thirty minutes later, the cows were loaded, the trailer buttoned up, and the old man drove into the ranch yard.
He got out and stretched as Aaron and Jesse came out of the house carrying bags. “I’m ready, Papa,” Jesse said, as she swung her bag up into the back seat on top of his, noting his old briefcase sitting on the floorboard.
The old man nodded as Aaron slid his into the bed of the truck. “AR is in the tray under the back seat. Aaron stick your pistol in the console with mine. Jesse, you got yours in your purse? Everybody got your IDs, passports, and credentials?” He slapped his pockets, making sure he had his, and when they nodded he turned to Matt. “We’ll have our phones on to the border, then we’ll be on the sat phone if you need us. Otherwise, we’ll be back Sunday evening.”
Matt nodded. “Copied all. Drive careful.”
Jesse hopped in the back seat and the old man pointed Aaron at the driver’s side. “Time for you to learn to pull a big trailer. Take is easy to start with, need to give the cows a chance to get their feet under them and adjust to the movement of the truck.” Aaron drove to Comstock, where they stopped for a break, and the old man checked on the cows, as Aaron and Jesse changed places. Just short of Del Rio, Jesse pulled over. “You want to get us across the border, Papa?”
The old man nodded. “Yeah, I’ll take it from here, since neither of you have driven this route.”
He drove up to the border crossing, showed their passports and the cow’s paperwork, and were waved across into Mexico. Heading south on Hwy 29, Jesse asked, “How much longer, Papa.”
He pointed to the map on the console with the route marked out. “There isn’t a direct route, it’s five hours from here. Gotta go south, then come back north.”
Jesse sighed. “I’m going to take a nap. Wake me up if anything interesting happens.” The old man and Aaron looked at each other, and didn’t bother to reply.
The old man noticed that Aaron was checking the right side of the road, until they were out in the countryside, just like he’d been trained. Two hours later, Aaron asked, “Roadblock?”
The old man slowed, and Jesse woke up asking, “What’s going on?”
“Roadblock. I think it’s the Marines again.”
The Marine major stepped to the open window, “Capitan Cronin?”
“Sí. Hola, Mayor Huerta.”
Huerta smiled. “I am grateful that you remember me, Capitan. We will be your escort to the rancho of Señor Velazquez.”
The old man laughed. “Mayor Huerta, you make me wonder if you are afraid I will get lost. And I’m sure that Hector had nothing to do with this, right?”
The major shrugged, smiling. “Who could think that Señor Velazquez would possibly have that much influence. We are merely on a routine patrol. We will lead and one Hummer will follow, if that is acceptable.”
The old man bowed his head. “Completely, Mayor, lead on.”
Three hours later, the little convoy rumbled over the cattle guard onto the Velazquez spread, and the old man stretched as much as he could. “We’re here.”
Aaron nodded. “Interesting trip.”
The first Hummer pulled into the yard, and the old man pulled over to the loading chute at the side of the barn, backed the truck and trailer into position, and shut it down. Hector and Sofia were walking from the front porch, as they piled out of the truck, with the old man bending and stretching, as they walked up. “Hector, next time you can damn well drive up to my place!” He hugged Sofia and continued, “My granddaughter, Jesse, and her husband, Aaron. And I know she wants to go to the bathroom.”
Sofia laughed, hugged him and said, “Welcome. Come with me, Jesse. Isabella is fixing something to eat and is very excited to meet you.”
Hector shook hands with Aaron, then hugged the old man. “Welcome!” He turned to Major Huerta. “Julio, will you be able to stay for dinner?”
“I’m sorry, Tío Hector. We must go do a patrol down Autopista viente, there is a track to the west that we believe is being used by the coyotes and mules to stage drugs coming north. I believe we should be back by midnight. Possibly earlier.”
Hector sighed. “Well, we will keep food warm for you and your men.” He turned and called out, “Mateo, Luis, shall we unload our cows?”
Mateo nodded, and slid open the back of the trailer, as Luis poked the calves and they trotted down the chute into the corral. The old man walked back and unlatched the inner gate then pushed it open as the two cows came out of the front of the trailer. “Hector, Red covered these two, and they are pregnant. So that should give you a good mix. One of the calves is a bull, if he proves out, or you can cut him. Up to you.” The old man looked around, and saw Aaron talking with Major Huerta, and shook his head. “What the hell is he up to?”
Hector, distracted by the cows asked, “What?”
“Aaron and Huerta. If he runs off, Jesse is going to kill him.” Finally, he saw the two of them shake hands, then the major mounted up and the two Hummers pulled out of the yard.
Hector said thoughtfully, “Marine?”
“Yeah. And he’s got my old job at the county. He’s the investigator.”
“Well, at least he has you to fall back on. Let’s go in. By now the women will have food ready, and I’m sure dinner will be soon to follow.”
The old man, Hector, and Aaron talked ranching, cattle, and law enforcement until Jesse came and got them for supper. Sofia and Isabella had prepared the dinner themselves, Jesse had warned them, as they walked into the dining room, ending with, “You damn sure better compliment the hell out of them,” she hissed. The old man chuckled. “I know. Hector already told us. And Sofia is a hell of a cook. She was an unacknowledged chef in Mexico City when Hector met her. They had some fat, greasy, slug that was the ‘front’, but she did all the work. Hector happened to be sitting where he could see into the kitchen, and as he says, it was love at first bite.”
Aaron snickered at that, and got an elbow in the ribs from Jesse as they walked up to the table. An hour later, they finally pushed back from the table, after a meal of tournedos of beef, with a spicy sauce, fried potatoes, and vegetables in a light crème sauce. That was followed by a tres leches cake topped by their local strawberries and a cinnamon sauce. The old man groaned as he pushed back from the table. “Ladies, that was one of the best meals I’ve ever had. And I want to know why Hector does not weigh four hundred pounds!”
Sofia and Isabella both smiled, and Sofia said, “I only cook for him maybe once a month, unless he’s been really good. And Isabella is trying desserts, so you will see more of them tonight and tomorrow. She’s becoming a very good sous chef in her own right!”
Isabella blushed as Hector laughed and added. “And Manuel is getting fat. I need to work him harder!” Then he grumbled, “All I normally get is Maria’s tamales.”
The old man held up a hand, “Hey, those were damn good, I wouldn’t be complaining if I were you!”
Hector smiled. “Oh, I know. Shall we adjourn to the fire pit? I need a brandy to settle my stomach after all that food.” He got up and led them out, as the kitchen help cleared away the dishes.
They sat around the outdoor fire pit, cigars and brandy in the men’s hands, and the women enjoying glasses of Port laughing and talking as only old friends can. The women went in, and the old man said, “I’m going to go get my pistol out of the truck. I forgot I left it in there.”
Hector and Aaron got up, with Aaron following Jesse inside and Hector saying, “I’ll walk with you. I like to take a last look around before I go to bed.” They walked around the side of the hacienda, and the old man unlocked the truck and retrieved his 1911. Sticking it in his belt, he walked back toward the house, but Hector stopped. “I will join you in a moment. I don’t smoke on the front porch, it seeps into the house.”
The old man chuckled, and continued up onto the porch. As he did, he heard a rough voice in Spanish tell Hector that they required food and water. He turned slowly, seeing a coyote, carrying a nickel plated pistol, another Hispanic with what looked like a MAC-10, pointed at Hector, and what looked like nine male mules, loaded down with drug bundles. Not moving fast, he took a soft step to the side, putting Hector further out of the line of fire, if things went south.
Hector looked the coyote up and down, and told him that he did not feed or water coyotes or mules. If they wanted water, there was a water trough with a spigot by the barn. The coyote lifted his pistol, then laughed and said he would shoot one of the pretty cows for each minute until food and water was brought out. Hector shook his head, laughed at him, and said this hacienda is protected by El Lobo Blanco and anything he did would be at the risk of his life. The coyote motioned with his head and the Hispanic with the MAC-10 turned toward the corral as the coyote spat in the dust and said El Lobo Blanco was a bogeyman to scare children.
The old man had had enough, and stepped off the porch, his 1911 already extended. “No soy un fantasma.” As his foot hit the ground, he shot the Hispanic with the MAC-10 in the face, even as he spun toward the porch, the MAC-10 already firing. He transitioned to the coyote as he saw the shooter fall, putting a round in the coyote’s face, as he arched and started bringing the pistol up. The coyote slumped bonelessly to the ground, and the old man transitioned back to the shooter, but he was sprawled out, the MAC-10 well away from his hand. “You alright Hector?” He asked softly in Spanish. Hector nodded, and the old man stepped back up on the porch, disappearing into the darkness again.
Hector told the mules loudly that they might want to leave the ranch, and to drop their drugs right where they were unless they wanted to be shot, even as lights came on and doors banged open. Mateo charged into the yard from his house, closely followed by Luis and a couple of the vaqueros, all in various states of undress, but all armed with rifles and shotguns. Hector directed them to march the mules back to the southern border of the ranch, and release them there, to be shot on sight if they were ever seen again.
When they were gone, Hector walked over to the front door, knocked in a precise sequence, and the door was cracked open by Aaron, holding an AR. Hector giggled and looked at the old man. “Still the bogeyman, John. Still the bogeyman.” He stepped in followed by the old man, “There was a bit of an issue, but it is over now. Sofia, please tell the house help to stand down, and I request you ladies remain in the house until we take care of the…issues outside.” Hector disappeared into his office, and came out smiling and flicking a playing card in his hand. The old man just rolled his eyes, as he and Aaron followed him back out.
Aaron asked softly, “What’s going on?”
“Hector is…perpetuating a myth. Leave it at that.”
Hector rolled the coyote over, slipped the playing card in his shirt pocket, then patted it almost tenderly just as Major Huerta and the two Hummers rolled into the yard. They came out guns at the ready as they saw the bodies in the yard, then the drugs surrounded by Hector’s vaqueros. The major shook his head. “Apparently you have done our job for us, Tío Hector. We drew…a dry hole?” He examined the two dead men and whistled. “Very good shooting, Tío Hector.”
Hector smiled. “That was not me. El Lobo Blanco did that. From the porch, in the dark.” The major looked from Hector to the old man, finally noticing that Aaron was cradling an AR in his arm.
He got up and turned to face the old man. “You did this,” he said shaking his head. He paced back to the porch and came back. “Twenty meters, in the dark, with…a forty-five, correct Señor Lobo?”
The old man shrugged and reached carefully for the 1911 stuck in his waistband. He pulled it out with two fingers. “This one, as a matter of fact. I assume you’ll want it for evidence?”
The major laughed. “No, Señor, these bodies will be found on the side of the road in the morning, killed by person or persons unknown.” He turned to his men, directing them to load the bodies in one of the Hummers and to go dump them on the side of the highway, far enough away from the hacienda that the odor wouldn’t carry to the house. He glanced at Hector. “Now, Tío Hector, you promised to have food for my men?”
Aaron came into the kitchen, and the old man said. “Coffee, right here,” as he shoved a cup at him.
Aaron took it and nodded. “Oh man, I needed that. Didn’t sleep worth a shit. Kept waking up at any noise.”
The old man chuckled. “A little jumpy are we?”
He nodded ruefully. “Yeah, I guess so. Jesse wasn’t sleeping real well either. Where is Hector?”
“He’s down with Mateo and Luis. They are loading up the calves.”
Sofia came into the kitchen closely followed by Maria, spatula in hand. “Huevos Rancheros, gentlemen?”
The old man grinned. “Love some, Sofia. Can we eat here?’
Sofia laughed as Maria gasped. “No…I think Maria would consider it sacrilege for a guest to eat in the kitchen. Shall we go to the dining room?”
A half hour later, breakfast done, they loaded the bags in the truck as Major Huerta’s Marines loaded the bales of drugs in the back of the second Hummer. The old man checked the trailer, ensured the interior gate was closed and locked, and checked all the tire pressures. A round of handshakes, hugs, and air kisses followed as Major Huerta came over. “Thank you for taking out the trash, I think you say. There will be no repercussions for what you did last night.” He hugged Hector, they had a short conversation and he continued, “We will stop and pick up the coyotes, then, we will escort you back to Acuña.”
The old man nodded. “Thank you. I wish you and your troops the best.”
The old man and Hector shook hands one last time, then clasped each other. “Stay safe, my friend.”
“We will, Hector.”
“Vaya con Dios.”
Jesse said, “Maria gave us tamales for the road.”
The old man smiled. “Good, we’re gonna be hungry by the time we hit the border,” he felt around and added, “There should be a thermos of coffee back there somewhere.”
Jesse rummaged around and found it under his briefcase. “Got it. Now, or later?”
“Let’s get moving, later.” He waved out the window and Major Huerta’s Hummer lead them down the drive toward the highway.
Seven and a half hours later, they pulled back into the home ranch, with Aaron driving and Jesse sound asleep in the back seat. “I’ve never understood how she can do that.”
The old man shook his head. “Dunno. She’s always been able to do that. I guess it’s the sleep of the righteous.”
Aaron laughed. “Or the sleep of one that’s not paranoid.”
“Humph…there is that.”
Jesse woke up as the crossed the cattle guard. “Are we home?”
They both answered, “Yes, we’re here.”
“Good. I have to pee.”