Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Intruder, Part Two, Into Darkness

A serious attempt had been made to get the truck back on solid ground. It had obviously been futile. I moved slowly forward, scouting the area carefully. Thinking back on the damaged gates behind me and the charred remains before me, I felt certain the vehicle had been stolen. The confusing array of footprints seemed to have no real pattern. There were several different men who had moved around making them. Spent 30 caliber rifle casings littered the area. Why the shooting? A search in an approximate 100-yard radius revealed little more. A couple of sets of tracks seemed to be moving generally south.

Where had these men gone? Had they backtracked to Vicente's house, taking the old rancher and his sister hostage, or worse? Had they circled back to the west to the hilltop headquarters of the neighboring Poenisch Ranch? What had brought this man Dan from Virginia to this lonely, remote ranch in the middle of nowhere? Who had come with him, and why?

The tailgate lying some 30 yards behind the truck had not been consumed in the flames and was a light blue in color. I picked it up and laid it in the bed of my pickup with the other personal effects. It was time to head to Tilden and the sheriff's office.

Driving back through the gates and leaving our family ranch behind, I passed Vicente's ancient family cemetery, then his weathered old ranch house and working pens. I barely touched the brakes as his house slipped by. If he and his sister had been taken, I would not help the situation by stopping at this point. Better to secure help.

Reaching the blacktop, I floored the accelerator on the old truck for the entire 26 miles into Tilden. At the courthouse, a cloud of caliche dust roiled over the truck as I came to a stop. Stepping out and slamming the door, I jogged up the steps and into the lobby. I crossed the hardwood floor and approached a young woman at a desk. It was just a short wait until a deputy sheriff arrived after being summoned by the dispatcher. He was tall and double jointed, and his runover cowboy boots settled into a cadence as he strode toward me.

"Problem?" he asked, offering his hand.

"Yep," I responded, taking it. "There's a burned out truck stranded on our ranch in the south end of the county."

A puzzled look turned quickly into a smile. "Out just past the old Hasette place?. . . We got him," he asserted, still smiling.

"Are Vicente and his sister all right?" I asked, liking him.

"Sure, the old man's fine. They're both fine," was the response.

I slid the duffel bag across the floor to him and indicated it might contain the personal effects of the man we were discussing. His eyebrows arched in surprise as he prodded it with a boot, then he lifted it onto a desk top and began to inspect the contents.

"It's him," he confirmed. "I'll need to call this in to the Secret Service. Where'd you find it?" he questioned.

"To the west, up the hill behind the truck," I said, puzzled as he picked up a phone and began to dial. "The Secret Service?" I pondered to myself.

"I thought we searched the area thoroughly," he muttered with a shake of his head. He finished his inventory report and wrote down some instructions before dropping the receiver back into its cradle.

"When did all this happen?" I asked.

"Sometime back in May," he responded.

"No way," I said. "These receipts in his bag place him only as far south as Louisiana on June 11th. That means he couldn't have made it down here before June 13th or 14th at the earliest!"

He let a lopsided grin escape and shoved his hat back on his head. "Could have been off a week or so on the date," he conceded. "Been a while back now, in any case."

"Tell me who he was and what happened," I urged. "Why weren't we called?"

He began to relate a strange tale of a man who had been originally from Portland, Oregon. Dan had joined the Navy and came to be stationed in Portsmith, Virginia, where he underwent training as a Navy SEAL. He became one of their best, specializing in covert high risk operations.

Over time, he began to ingest a variety of drugs. Becoming progressively more unstable mentally, he started to hear and respond to voices that existed only in his mind. The voices told him to head south to Mexico. There was no explanation of his purpose in doing this.

Winding his way across the southern states, he dropped down into Texas. Dan apparently became fearful of being apprehended. As he drove south through the night on highway 16 into a steady rain, he came upon the obscure road leading into our ranch.

He pulled over to the side of the pavement and stared into the darkness punctuated by rainfall, occasional lightning and the steady, slapping rhythm of his windshield wipers. He judged that he was now close enough to the Mexican border to reach it by cutting directly west and driving cross-country on ranch roads. It was a serious error in judgment--one that would cost him dearly.

Thus began his frenzied effort; crashing through locked gates and working his way ever deeper, westward into the desolate, sodden terrain. The collisions left bits and pieces of his vehicle along the way. A few miles into his push through the night, he passed the glow of kerosene lanterns in the windows of an old ranch house. He barely glanced toward the light, so intent was he on maintaining progress through water filled ruts and keeping his truck centered on the slick ruts defining the road. Mud sprayed into the air behind his spinning rear tires.

Vicente sat on the front porch in an ancient chair, canted back against the wall. He loved the sounds and smell of the rain. It was a rare blessing in this arid land. It brought life and sustenance to his parched pastures and cattle. It renewed hope. His sister and niece were in the house, so he called them to step out and see the crazy man driving deeper into the night over rain soaked roads. Who would be so unwise? With muttered expressions of surprise, they watched as the swaying red tail lights of the truck gradually fishtailed away into the darkness and rain. The sound of the racing engine blended and merged into the steady splatter of raindrops on the roof. Shaking his head and muttering in Spanish, concerned about damage to the roads, Vicente and the women re-entered the house. They turned off the lanterns as they prepared for, and slipped into their beds. Each drifted toward sleep, lungs caressed by the sweet coolness in the air and the fresh scent of rain.

When he finally moved out onto and across our ranch, Dan became engaged in a desperate search for a route that would allow him to continue his push west to the Rio Grande and refuge in Mexico. Frustration built within him as he worked his way around the pasture and came to the realization that the road west stopped here, on this ranch. There was no gate leading beyond our land.

Dan tried to double back toward the entrance behind him. He found himself sliding down a rocky hill toward a flowing creek that suddenly emerged from the darkness and rain. The truck slid into the water and promptly sank up to the frame in the silt. The fractured beams of his headlights tilted down at an angle into the mud and slowly moving water.

In spite of his efforts, the truck remained hopelessly stuck. A sense of rage grew. The voices harried him. The air was cool and damp. The rain eased as a knee-high blanket of thin mist settled in, clinging to the earth. Dan was forced to wait, seething helplessly, for the coming dawn. He sat, alone in the darkness. . .

watch for the conclusion in
The Intruder, Part Three, Requiem

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Intruder, Part One, The Odyssey

Something caught the corner of my eye. Glancing to my right, I was surprised to see an olive canvas duffel bag. Astounded, I cautiously hefted the object and noted slight signs of insect activity beneath it before gently lowering it back into its original resting place.

I scanned the nearby drought stunted trees, then beyond to the horizon. I wondered where the person to whom this belonged might be? In my mind, nothing could have been more completely out of place.

After passing through eight gates after leaving Highway 16 between Freer and Tilden, Texas, finally, you were on the ranch. Three of those gates were always kept locked. I noted on this trip that all three had been damaged. The gravel and caliche roads in had been bladed and the shoulders graded, so I figured the gates had fallen victim to a careless equipment operator.

My purpose on this outing was to do a bit of scouting preceding an upcoming bird hunt. I wanted to make sure the bunkhouses and camp area were in good shape and ready for guests that would be coming in shortly for the annual event. Beyond that, I just loved being on the ranch. It is rugged, extremely remote, and the only material comforts are those you bring in with you. It is a great place to release distractions and re-focus on the basics.

This pasture in McMullen County has been in my wife Bonnie's family since her great-grandfather, a Confederate veteran, came to view it with his sons in a mule-drawn wagon back in 1912. The story is that he brought a bottle of whisky because the seller liked it and a revolver because Mexican revolutionaries, or bandits, like Pancho Villa were still making excursions into "The Wild Horse Desert" or "The Nueces Strip" as the area was known. The plan was to create a town and sell off lots when the railroad came through. That never happened, but the ranch has remained in the family some 96 years now. It is still untamed, remote and beautiful country.

The camphouses seemed to be in good enough shape after months of neglect. No sign existed that anyone had tampered with them. However, something had me feeling vaguely uneasy. The dried hide from a freshly skinned javelina had been hung like a wet towel from a nail near the corner of one of the bunkhouses. It had dried and stiffened in the arid heat. Where had it come from?

Leaving the camp behind, I drove deeper into the ranch. Summer rains had been unusually bountiful and the brush was lush. The two tanks in the center of the pasture stood brim-full of water, shimmering in the afternoon sunlight. The wings of a grey heron billowed outward and lifted it gracefully into the heat of a clear blue sky. I moved on along the main ruts of the sendero leading to the northwest corner of the land.

Passing the stand at the "Big Tree" I saw that it had been reduced to a pile of rubble. It was strange that it had fallen to the southeast, as prevailing winds come from the opposite direction this time of the year.

I noticed that corn had been planted in a neighboring field just beyond our land. It would provide a source of food for birds and wildlife in the fall and winter to come. The crop stand was just right. Plentiful enough for feed, yet too sparse to combine.

Rounding the northwest corner of the ranch, I eased up the incline of the "Rocky Hill" to hunt for arrowheads. Stopping in what had proven to be a productive sendero, or right of way, I had stepped from my pickup truck into the stifling afternoon heat to search for points when I found the duffel bag.

Frowning, I set the bag on my tailgate and leaned over to unzip and then study its contents. It contained a puzzling array of items; two dark blue jump suits, a wooden box holding 15 to 20 heavy metal rock eight-track cassette tapes, about a six-week supply of beef jerky, vitamin supplements, a coil of hemp cord, black military laceup boots, a small survival flashlight, face mask and snorkel with diving instructions, a Pentax 35mm camera with four exposures taken, various items of underwear, two unopened cans of Bud Light beer and what appeared to be a backgammon set.

I cautiously pried open the lid of the backgammon set. A handful of papers were snatched up and strewn across the sendero in a brisk southeasterly breeze. The afternoon heat was oppressive as I quickly chased them down. It surprised me to see that in addition to gasoline sales receipts, two of the papers were traffic citations.

The first name of the individual cited was Dan. He had originally been from Portland, Oregon, but had been cited twice for reckless driving in Portsmouth, Virginia. This, within a span of eighteen minutes. The series of events had begun on June 8, and gasoline receipts had traced his progress from Virginia to Shreveport, Louisiana, by June 11th.

How had his possessions come here, to a remote, brush-covered rock hill on a ranch in the middle of nowhere? Who and where was this man, Dan? Was this a crime that had gone wrong? Was it still unfolding? Had there been a kidnapping or even worse, a murder? Were drugs involved? Had he parachuted in to this spot? I felt the hair rise on the nape of my neck as I tossed the bag and its contents into the bed of my truck before crawling back into the cab.

I started the engine, shoved a sweat stained felt hat back on my head and jerked the truck into gear. I pulled slowly forward toward the crest of the hill and another sendero that bisected it, running east and west. As I rolled onto this set of ruts, I noted that some 350 yards distant, down and away to the east, at the base of the hill rested what remained of another pickup truck. Its hood was up and both doors were swinging open. I pulled a set of binoculars into focus and realized that flames had consumed the vehicle entirely. Who or what lay below me in that charred wreckage?

Thinking the better of driving directly to the site, I decided that it might prove an advantage to keep myself between what lay below and the only gate allowing access to the ranch. I circled back around and approached the ruined truck from the opposite direction, hoping there was not a body and knowing that the sheriff's department would need the numbers off the license plates to identify the vehicle.

My truck eased to a stop some fifty yards from the ruins. The flames had been so intense that the windshield had melted out of its frame. There appeared to be no license plates on the vehicle. A variety of tools had been scattered in and around the truck. It seemed to be resting on its frame. Well defined footprints of varying sizes dotted the muddy creekbed.

Having secured a pistol, I slowly approached the burned out truck with knuckles bordering on becoming white knots of tension . . . (to be continued)