Copyright © 2006 by Rich Mussler. Not to be reproduced without permission.
There was no moon but it didn’t matter. The stars were so bright I could see plenty with my naked eyes, but peering through the night vision field glasses was like looking out there at high noon. These were the most technologically advanced binoculars available and came with a high resolution intensifier that amplified light 35,000 times. The best part was that, even if there was no light to amplify – zero, zip, nada – the infrared illuminator would cut through the darkness. The glasses were called Night Scouts and all the boarder patrol guys carried them. Mine were borrowed and dangled from a strap at my neck when I wasn’t peering through them.
Rex heard him before I spotted him and jumped to his feet, his ears pointed straight up. I knelt beside him and put my arm around his neck and could feel his muscles tightening. I scanned the horizon, peering over the top of the dog’s head in the direction his long nose pointed, to the east of us, upwind, and then I saw him. Less than two hundred yards away, head down and shoulders hunched curiously, the half-Apache-half-Mexican with red hair they called El Gallo, The Rooster, padded along in the dark, following a trail only he knew through the tall saguaro cactus. He made no sound at all.
“Quiet Rex,” I said under my breath. “Sh-h-h.”
There was maybe only an hour before dawn so I wasn’t worried about losing him or anything. We were still sixty miles from the border and I figured he would have to stop to rest when the sun came up. But I decided to follow him just a little to see if I could get a sense of his movements before I went back for the others. I hunkered low and ran through the sand along a low ridge, out of sight. Rex panted quietly along beside me. After about three hundred feet I paused, caught my breath, then raised my head to peer with the night vision glasses through some prickly pear. I spotted him immediately, traveling toward the mountain and slowly, silently, moving into a steady night breeze. I was close enough to smell him now, as I knew Rex must, a sour man-smell of sweat mixed with blood. He paused briefly to catch his breath, looking all around, standing in the shadow of a tall saguaro. The cactus stood with its arms outstretched and bent like a muscle-man on the beach impressing girls. El Gallo wasn’t breathing hard, just deeply. He had somehow busted the chain between his feet but his hands were still cuffed together. That accounted for the hunched shoulders when he ran, I figured. And he wore the dead deputy’s carbine on a strap over his neck.
He stood still a long moment and I think he must have sensed that I was watching him. I could have shot him dead just then, but I wanted him alive not dead – I wanted to interview him and needed his testimony. His head pivoted slowly and he searched the horizon, but I was invisible in my clump of prickly pear. He lit a cigarette and drew upon it; through the binoculars it looked more like a flare illuminating his features. He had a scar across the bridge of his nose that ran the length of his left cheek, and a pencil thin mustache. Watching him I forgot about Rex a moment but Rex knew to be silent. His nose twitched and he peered through the cactus right along beside me, sniffing the smoke from the cigarette. Finally El Gallo cocked his red head and padded over the edge of a small ridge. He went down, out of my sight, toward the mountain. I studied the terrain so I would know where to pick up his trail and stood to my feet.
Rex and I headed north then, the desert breeze to our backs. We backtracked through the cactus and rocky soil a mile or so to where the others lay sleeping, at the end of the two-lane blacktop. As we approached the camp Rex ran ahead, barking the alarm. The stars were so bright I could see the outline of the RV and other assorted pickups and vehicles. A bulb inside the camper flickered and yellow light streamed through its windows.
* * *
Exhaustion came upon me as soon as we picked up the trail again.
I’d awakened the others and while they scrambled into their clothes and broke out the Honda all-terrain vehicles I took a moment to fire off a report to my boss in Austin. My laptop is cellular-linked to the internet so I can log onto the DEA website from just about anywhere you can use a cell phone. The signal was weak but I managed to send an email. I was concerned about this party because they were all Brewster county cops, co-workers and buddies of the deputy El Gallo had dispatched in his escape. They had nothing vested in the case, other than murderous revenge, and the name Fritz Hauser meant nothing to them. They weren’t about to listen to me and would, in all likelihood, as soon plant a slug between the eyes of their escaped prisoner as recapture him. I wanted my boss to know that in case things got out of control and I ended up in their line of fire.
I was too tired to deal diplomatically with those six “good-old-boy” West Texas deputies. I was impatient with their clumsy, noisy ATVs and the regular halts they made to swig from canteens. It took us a couple of hours to get back to where I’d watched El Gallo slip over the ridge. One of them, though, a country kid in his early twenties and a good tracker, sensed my exhaustion and led the way on foot. Rex and I hiked along beside him. He was the brother of the man El Gallo had killed and he was determined to be there when we caught up with him. His name was Jack, and I liked him. He wasn’t really a deputy like the others – he’d volunteered to go after his brother’s killer. The sheriff had sworn him in on the spot.
We stood now next to the saguaro cactus where I had watched the escapee smoke in the moonlight before he slipped over the ridge out of sight. The sun was just above the horizon casting long, pink shadows. We were waiting for the others to catch up in their four-wheel ATVs. Fatigue overtook me.
“Here’s where I seen him last, Jack,” I said, sitting down. “Heading south towards that mountain.”
Jack nodded. “If he gets over it he’s gone, Mr. Hauser. The river’s only a foot deep on the other side.”
I understood. He meant the Rio Grande, the natural border between the great state and Mexico. Once over it the escaped prisoner was no longer in our jurisdiction.
“Call me Fritz, Jack,” I said. “It’s sixty miles. We’ll catch him before he crosses.”
It was then I should have sent the others back to the camp but I didn’t know (of course) all that would happen. I considered it. Jack, Rex and I could track and capture this drug runner alone, I figured. But those county boys weren’t really mine to boss around and unless I pulled rank and made a federal case of it I didn’t have the authority to send them back. It is another of the mistakes that seem to plague my career in the DEA, but hindsight is always twenty-twenty.
Jack looked down at the deep tear in the sandy soil where El Gallo had slid down the ridge. He slid down it, too, then bent over to study the tumbleweed branches. The leaves were bent. “This way,” he said and moved forward.
“Better wait for the others.” But he wasn’t listening to me just then. I looked over my shoulder and waved at them, pointing down into the ravine. They waved back. Then I slipped over after Jack. Rex trailed along playfully, his tail wagging.
“Hold on, Jack. Wait for the others.” The sun was already warming things significantly. “He’ll stop when the heat gets to him,” I said. “Then we’ll surround him.”
Jack looked at me but didn’t say anything. It took about ten minutes for the others to catch up with us on their Hondas.
Late in the afternoon we were still tracking him through the arid country. I was so sleepy now it was all I could do to keep moving, following Jack. My shirt was soaked with sweat and the brim of my hat was so damp that the dust in the air turned to mud as it settled upon it. Rex’s tongue hung out and he wheezed a bit as he trod along. The ATVs were noisy and bounced hard over the rocky soil and slogged down in the deep sand. The others complained, wanting always to stop, but Jack kept moving, steadily placing one foot in front of the other. The escaped half-breed’s trail followed a dry river but not exclusively – at times it wandered east and then west for no apparent reason, crisscrossing, which meant crossing the dry river’s sandy soil, six to eight inches deep and tough going like slogging through an endless sandbox. The ATVs had to be pushed up each side of the dry river bank. We must have done that a dozen times.
“Why do you suppose he makes these side trips, Jack?”
Jack sucked the dirt from his nostrils, mixed it with the tobacco chaw under his lip and spit. “He ain’t deaf, Mr. Hauser. He knows he’s being followed by those ATVs and wants to tire us.”
I nodded. “Suppose we just stay along the river then, and catch him as he comes back?”
Jack shook his head. “The moment we do that, he won’t come back. He’ll keep goin’ and we’ll be waitin’ here scratchin’ ourselves. How much fuel do we have for them things?” he looked disdainfully at the ATVs.
“Plenty. They all are packed with extra. We can cross that mountain twice and not run out of gasoline.”
Jack nodded but looked disappointed.
“And call me Fritz, Jack.”
We moved along.
At dusk we made a dry camp where the river bed turned west to circle around the base of the mountain. I fell asleep as soon as I sat down, leaning against a red boulder with my head nestled between my arms. I hadn’t slept in forty-eight hours.
* * *
I dreamed details of El Gallo’s escape though I hadn’t witnessed it. He was an important link to the Miramontes Columbian drug cartel and his capture had meant a break for us. I was waiting in Laredo to transfer him into Federal custody when the call from the Brewster county sheriff came in. He’d escaped, I was told, and murdered a good man so I’d better get to Alpine in a hurry if I wanted him back. I chartered a helicopter and was there in two hours.
A sweet little girl seven or eight years old had seen the whole thing. Her parents owned the café where it happened. I interviewed her myself. She had dark skin and enormous chocolate brown eyes.
“¿Qué es su nombre, niña?”
“Refugia.” She was very shy.
She also spoke English.
“Can you tell me what you saw in the café, Refugia?”
“The prisoner was eating?” I prompted her.
“Yes,” she said, “and so were the two policemen. But his hands were locked together.”
“You mean with handcuffs?”
She nodded again. “Like this.” She held her wrists out together. “And he walked like this,” she said, and imitated a man with his ankles chained.
“And then what happened, Refugia?”
“He had to go to the bathroom.”
“He said that?”
“Yes. He said, ‘I gotta go, Deputy. I gotta go bad and I mean right now.’”
“And you watched him go into the bathroom?”
She nodded, saying: “One of the policemen kept on eating but the other went in with him because he said he had to watch. And then there was a noise.”
She screwed up her face and her eyebrows shot up and down excitedly.
“What kind of noise?”
“A noise like when my mother dropped the flour sack and made a mess in the kitchen.”
“What did you do when you heard the noise?”
“I went to look and pushed the door open. There was blood on the floor. Then I went and told the other policeman.”
El Gallo had killed the deputy by driving a butter knife up under his jaw and right through the roof of his mouth and then went out through a tiny bathroom window hardly big enough for a cat. He’d taken the deputy’s weapon, his cigarettes and the keys to the police cruiser. While the other deputy ran to the bathroom El Gallo very coolly walked around the building to the front of the café, started the cruiser’s engine and drove out of town.
We found the car just three miles away. A carbine and one hundred rounds of ammunition had been removed from it.