Wade Wesson, two-time New York junior pistol champ, turned toward the desert hills and decided the sound was a gunshot.
He’d followed El Camino del Diablo into the Gila Mountains, locked up his F-150 when he felt the suspension bottom out, unloaded his ATV and started cutting sign by Zero Seven Hundred. At Eleven Fifteen he’d come across the trail of a group of eight to ten, the last one in line dragging a blanket over the soil in a poor attempt to hide their tracks. The prints had been deep: people lugging something on their backs along a dry creek bed through the mountains as they tried to slip between the Yuma and Wellton patrol areas. They might’ve made it too, losing him on a stretch of rock, if he hadn’t cut his engine to study a broken saltbush branch. That had been when he’d heard it, at Twelve Zero Three: not the backfire of an engine or the snap of a firecracker but a faint pop, sending up a cloud of birds beyond a distant ridge, a covey of quail or herd of wren. That would be too much detail for a report but he wanted it in there. It’d been how he’d known.
He got back on his Yamaha, glad Glennette had approved his request for an exhaust silencer, and rode toward the base of the ridge. An outcrop blocked his path, its defiant brittlebush and cactus waiting to bite his ankles. He left his helmet and gloves on the seat and climbed carefully, pausing at the top to catch his breath and crouch between two goosefoot shrubs.
They were there, all right, down in a clearing, sitting against tan backpacks still on their shoulders. In the center of the group someone lay face down, arms splayed overhead. The circle of blood on his back explained the fleeing herd of wren. His backpack was off. Had he been killed for such a minor offense?
Wade scanned the group. There were, what, three, six, nine of them–too many to handle alone if they were armed. He edged closer and reached for his radio, studying them for a report. As he did, the group took on a different nature. Only one of them had a gun, and the rest included a kid and an old man. Hell, the one in the center wore high-top basketball shoes. This was no group of hardened drug runners; it was one drug runner, the guy with the gun, acting as a coyote to herd the other eight. They were migrant workers paying their fee for being smuggled across the border: drug mules, burros.
The coyote was leaning over the dead mule now, tearing open his discarded backpack and tossing out square brown bundles. One of them landed on the side of the clearing, near the feet of the old man, who was seated, propped up against an ironwood so it took the weight of his pack. He didn’t move. The coyote stomped over to him.
Wade touched the grip of his double-action Heckler & Koch forty caliber, wondering if it would’ve been better to be carrying a nine millimeter for its lower recoil and ability to get off more shots. The forty cal had more stopping power, especially with hollow-points, but it had a variance of two inches at twenty-fifty yards. He was at around fifty now, twice the distance as at the range, where the targets didn’t move or shoot back. And this target wasn’t just moving; he was pacing back and forth, yelling, gesturing with a loose cannon in hand.
Wade had stopped migrants before but never with weapons drawn. Protocol required him to withdraw and call for backup; but the coyote was killing people. His experience told him drawing his H&K and announcing himself would just escalate things, endangering the others. He tried to slow down and think. He couldn’t just shoot his way out of a tight spot: there had to be a better way.
The coyote was raising his gun now, pointing it at the old man’s head as he harangued him.
Wade hooked his fingers around the collar of his bulletproof vest and tugged, telling himself the nylon fibers were thick enough to stop a full-metal jacket, that the guy probably wouldn’t be firing a high-velocity one. He unsnapped his duty holster–no need to rack the slide because he was carrying in Condition 2, a round already chambered. He peeled his fabric ID badge from his vest, cupped it in his left hand and took a steadying breath.
He stepped between the shrubs and raised the badge. “Alto, migrantes!”
All heads turned, mouths open, eyes wide. Wade fixed his stare on the coyote. He was wheeling around now, not lowering his arm.
Wade held out his badge. “Suelte la pistola!”
But the coyote didn’t drop the gun. He grinned and extended it, turning sideways to blade his body. Here we go, Wade thought.
He dropped his badge and let instinct take over: long years of practice compressing a series of movements into the blink of an eye. He drew his H&K, quick and smooth–placing his right palm high on the backstrap, right thumb leaving room for the left, right forefinger against the barrel, and then pulling it up to break the holster, not too high, while dragging his hand forward to where his left hand was waiting, left thumb aimed at the target, elbows extending, right forefinger sliding back and down toward the trigger.
As the coyote closed an eye and squeezed his own trigger, Wade brought him into sight and broke the shot. Even before he saw the puff of smoke in the distance and smelled the stink of ammonia from his H&K, he felt the knife of pain in his shoulder, near where it pinched against his cheek. He took a step back to steady himself, watching as the coyote stumbled and fell.
And just like that it was over.
Wade’s shoulder was already wet and reddening along his vest: probably just a flesh wound despite how much it hurt, the son of a bitch. He examined the bullet hole, ripped off a piece of shirt and plugged it. Then he picked up his fabric badge and slapped it back onto his vest. Finally he moved his pistol to his left hand and edged down the slope to the clearing. The others were watching him, their faces showing a mix of emotions, from fear to disdain. It didn’t matter: they were safe.
The old man at the tree stood up and shuffled over, mumbling something and holding out a thin arm, free of a weapon. Wade moved to step around him.
The man grabbed at Wade’s hand with callused, frail fingers. “What will you do now?” asked the man in Northern Mexican Spanish.
“Sit back down,” Wade said. “Siéntate.” He stepped over the coyote. He was on his back with open eyes, brown and unblinking. Wade knelt. A small black glistening hole stared at him from the coyote’s right breast and a larger one gaped from his left armpit. Under it a circle of blood-soaked earth seemed to be still growing. Wade reached out and winced. With his left hand he put two fingers on the man’s neck, wanting to be able to report he had done so.
The old man had thankfully returned to his tree. Wade went to the center of the clearing and knelt to examine the coyote’s victim. It was a young man who had been executed, probably for nothing more than not keeping up and then shedding his pack when challenged. Wade stood up and looked around, trying to find someone who could tell him exactly what had happened. The others were still sitting, eyes closed now, lips chapped. They were exhausted.
No, they were dying.
That was when it hit him that the incident was just beginning. Even as Wade’s left hand reached for his radio, one of the others, a teenaged boy, toppled over. It was like an oven, at least one ten: dry heat but still brutal–especially if you were hiking a marathon. Wade strode over and eased off the boy’s backpack. Then, bending over and clutching the boy’s belt, he dragged him to the shade and propped him up against a tree, a nice palo verde. He did this for five others who weren’t already in the shade, then paused to catch his breath and assess the situation. It was getting hotter. They needed water urgently. He headed back across the clearing for his cooler. As he climbed the slope he reached for his radio again.
When the dispatcher responded, he identified himself and reported that he had a ten forty-five and a ten forty-six, the apprehension of seven illegal aliens and narcotics, that his ten twenty was a pass through the Gila Mountains, and that he needed a ten sixteen with a ten twenty-five, a pickup with immediate medical assistance. It was almost as an afterthought that he gave the code for the use of force and explained, “Shots fired with two fatalities, a male migrant and a male drug smuggler.”
He listened to the dispatcher pass her headset to someone.
“Wesson?” said a woman. “You okay?”
“Glennette? I’m fine. Winged is all.”
“Shoulder. Went right through, looks like.”
“What’s your ten twenty again?”
He took out his phone, opened an app and reported his GPS coordinates. She repeated them and he confirmed them.
She said, “We’re gonna have trouble getting a Tahoe up there.”
He looked over to the dead mule. “There’s a clearing for a chopper.”
She left the air for a moment then came back. “BORSTAR’s on the way. Hold tight,” she said, as if he had a choice.
He signed off and climbed down the other side of the hill, wondering if the BORSTAR unit would come from Yuma Station, fourteen miles away, or from Wellton Station, only twelve. And would they be stuck with an EC-120, or did they have one of those AS-350s which were faster with more seats? He was glad he hadn’t asked. He didn’t want to tell the rescue specialists how to do their job. He had his own work cut out for him.
The Yamaha’s handlebars resisted his one-handed grip then reluctantly led him around the outcrop to a pass. He parked in the clearing beside the boy with the high-tops: somebody’s kid. He unstrapped his water cooler and started kneeling beside people, giving them sips, brushing away their hands when they reached for the handle. He was afraid people might throw it up if they drank too fast, that they were too dehydrated. As he strapped the empty cooler back on his Yamaha, he felt another knife of pain.
“You need a sling,” said the old man behind him.
“It’s nothing,” Wade replied, but the man stood up and unbuckled his belt.
Wade shook his head and reached for his own belt, but the man said, “I don’t need mine.”
It was a generous offer from someone with almost nothing. Wade decided he could return the belt to the man at the station, or the hospital from the way the group looked; and he let the man slide the length of leather around his neck and under his right wrist. The man buckled it and stepped back.
Wade adjusted the fit until it was snug. “Good.”
The man patted his back and returned to the tree.
Wade looked around. Everyone was resting in the shade, free of his backpack, and had drunk some water: the situation was as in hand as possible. He listened for a helicopter and checked his watch. He could call the station again but he wanted to get more information first. The bundle at the old man’s feet was more rectangular than square, dark brown and wrapped in cellophane. Wade hefted it and imagined a ten-pound dumbbell, at least. He squeezed it, trying to feel if its contents were powdery or tar-like.
“What kind of heroin?” he asked the old man. “Black tar or brown powder?”
The man shrugged.
Wade swept his eyes over the backpacks around him and realized they were long burlap sacks onto which two towels had been sewn to serve as shoulder straps. He figured each one held four or five bundles if stacked sideways.
He walked over to a discarded backpack that he assumed must have been the coyote’s and lifted it. “This is way too much for this terrain and your condition.” Wade glanced over at the man he’d killed. “At least he took his share.”
“Ha!” the old man said then spat out a torrent of Spanish that Wade was hard pressed to follow. “That’s not his. He carried nothing until he had to; that’s what put him in such a bad humor.”
Wade frowned. “Then whose pack is it?”
“It belonged to a woman.”
Wade stopped. “What woman?” He turned around. “Where is she?”
The man lifted his arm and swung his hand forward in a wide arc, like throwing a baseball from center field–twice, three times.
Wade's uneasiness grew. “When?” he asked.
“Is she hurt?”
The man shook his head, but gestured with a hand in front of his belly. “She is pregnant.”
Wade’s stomach tightened. He told himself again to slow down. He said, “What kind of shoes is she wearing?”
The man pointed to his own feet with a vacant stare.
Wade said, “Boots or sandals?”
“Old ones or new ones?”
The man shrugged again. “Everything is new to me.”
Wade couldn’t bring himself to smile. He looked again at the man’s battered leather boots then at the other shoes. There were four pairs of sneakers coming apart at the seams including the high-tops, three pairs of leather work boots in similar condition to the old man’s, a pair of sandals–synthetic ones with a patterned tread . . . and a pair of new, expensive-looking hiking boots on the goddamned drug smuggler.
He turned to his Yamaha then stopped. He had no doubt BORSTAR would find the seven and that his being there wouldn’t speed things up, but he was duty-bound to place them in custody. Not long after starting his job at the Border Patrol Wade had come to conclude that, when a person was given a choice, he would usually choose the selfish one. Here, that meant that, given the chance, some if not all of these people would want to run, possibly with a few bags of the dope. But could they, with their burned skin and bloodless lips? Christ, they could hardly stand. He couldn’t put these people in plastic wrist ties.
He listened for a helicopter, checked his watch again, then called the dispatcher. He confirmed BORSTAR was on its way to his coordinates then reported there was an eighth migrant, a female, pregnant, left behind, probably south of the mountains, and that he had a ten thirty-one: he was going after her.
“The others are secure.” There it was; he’d said it.
The dispatcher went silent, then Glennette came on the line.
“Wesson, can you confirm a ten fifteen? The aliens are in custody?”
“Negative,” he said. “The aliens are secure. They’re burros, Glennette. They’re at death’s door.”
The line crackled then she said, “Ten four. BORSTAR will join you in the search after they’ve collected the seven. Good hunting. And stay in contact.”
It’d been good of Glennette to not make a fuss about clearance. They both knew why every minute counted: if he didn’t catch the woman before she left the mountains, she would be on the BMGR, the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range. He had blanket clearance there, subject to specific exceptions issued each week: the hot areas where drills were ongoing. Unless the woman happened upon a warning sign, she would just continue on, until live ordnance fell from the sky and stopped her and her baby dead.
Wade dragged the dead boy to the edge of the clearing to leave room for the chopper, then turned to the others and raised his good arm.
He felt like a clown. They weren’t about to snatch up a pack of heroin and make a break for it: they were too tired to open their eyes. Plus they’d lost their guide. They were using what dregs of energy they had left to pray to St. Anthony, finder of lost things.
“Help is on the way!” he said. “From the sky!”
He pointed upward. Some of the eyes were open now, looking to heaven.
He got back on his Yamaha and braked beside the old man. “What’s her name?”
“Gabriela,” said the man and crinkled his eyes. “Why do you care so much? Were your parents Mexican?”
Shit, Wade thought, him too? Most people had made that mistake since he’d been stationed down here. He wore a wide-brimmed hat every time he went out and used plenty of sunscreen, but still it’d taken only a few days to turn his skin brown, with a tint of red. He shook his head. “Native-American.”
The old man’s eyes widened then closed. He raised a tired hand and said in English, “Hi ho, Silver.”