Vicente cupped the old porcelain mug of steaming coffee in gnarled fingers, lightly tracing the hairline fractures lacing the mug's surface. Warmth radiated outward, easing the arthritic ache in his knuckles.
Dawn's golden light played through the latticed foliage of mesquite trees in the yard, contrasting with the sharply defined shadows angling into the ground from the weathered pine boards and cedar posts of the corrals. Inside the house, soft footsteps slid across the hardwood floor as Vicente's niece set his breakfast plate before him. Refried beans, scrambled eggs and freshly baked tortillas brought a smile to his face.
The voice of his niece had an almost musical quality as she reminded him of the strange events of the previous evening. He tore a hot tortilla in two, pushing a mixture of eggs and beans into one folded half with the aid of the other. A sip of sweetened coffee aided in the chewing and swallowing of his first bite.
Outside, the smell of rain still dominated the coolness of morning. The hooves of lowing cattle made sucking sounds as they pulled free of mud on the way from their bedding ground near the house into the pasture to browse for morning grazing.
With an effort, Vicente's attention returned to the words flowing from his niece. Who had driven the strange truck past them into the driving rains so deep into the ranch in the dead of night? What had become of him, or them? Why had they not returned? His niece asked if she could she use Vicente's truck to follow the tracks into the ranch and see if help was needed. After some serious consideration, he reluctantly nodded to her. Whoever had passed was almost certainly in need of help.
Finishing his meal, Vicente admonished her to use extreme care with the truck. She was to use caution in the areas where water stood. If anything looked suspicious, she was to return for him immediately. Rhythmically tapping the table top with his forefinger, he went over the eccentricities of the old truck. Instructions on how to best start and operate the pickup were received by his niece with a serious, focused expression on her face. Though she had already learned these things by heart, she kept a respectful focus on the face of her uncle. When Vicente was satisfied, he pointed to the keys hanging on a peg just inside the door.
He had to smile, shaking his head as she bolted through the door and off the porch toward the truck. The screen door slammed loudly in her wake. His sister poured more coffee into his cup, then joined him at the table with her own. They heard the truck's engine cough to life.
Through a worried expression, his sister uttered her hope that the girl would be safe. "Con el favor de Dios," Vicente responded ('with the favor of God'). He stared through eyes clouded with cataracts at his sister and smiled, once again.
Meanwhile, back in the brush . . .
Dan awakened with a start. The closed windows of his pickup were heavily fogged with his breath and body heat. Covered in sweat, his shirt clung sullenly to him. Seeing that the sun was up, Dan quickly opened the door and stepped from the cramped cab of his vehicle. He found himself standing in a mixture of sludge and water some five to six inches deep. The air was fresh, and a gentle breeze stirred, cooling the shirt plastered to his back. Dan stretched and twisted to relieve cramped muscles confined to the cab overnight.
He squinted into the brightness of the early morning and immediately began to assess his situation. Wading to the rear of the truck, he dropped the tailgate and sifted through the materials inside. He settled on a set of small ramps used to lift the front end when changing the oil. Wedging them in tightly against the front tires, he slipped the truck in gear, placed a pipe wrench against the accelerator and ran to the rear of the truck to add his strength to the push forward. The wheels spun and the truck inched slowly forward about two feet before coming to a sudden stop. Walking around to the front of the truck, Dan saw that the ramps had sunk completely into the soft mud. He killed the engine and returned to the rear of the truck to lower the tailgate once again. It was difficult to drop, so Dan freed the side supports and lifted it from its hinges, tossing it behind him in frustration. He stacked his possessions neatly on slightly higher ground just off the sendero and some 30 yards behind the truck to keep them dry.
The voices, somewhat muted, still softly whispered instructions. Dan hoisted one of the rucksacks on his shoulder, picked up a rifle and moved back up the hill he had descended in the darkness. When he reached the crest he surveyed the view offered from a hunting stand that sat atop it. Noting the ranch house to the west, he pondered it. There seemed to be no activity there. He climbed back down the steps to the ground. Dan moved down the sendero so he would be less visible and sat down, unzipping his rucksack and retrieving a beer and a map from it. Draining the beer, he focused on the unfolded map before him. He soon formed a rough idea of his location and made the decision to head southwest. A road lay in that direction that would be impossible to miss. Mexico was still well within reach. The map went into his back pocket. He then stepped into the brush lining the sendero and set the rucksack behind a sage bush before returning to the pathway and making his way back to the truck.
The vehicle was hopelessly stuck. Dan checked to be sure he had removed all necessary supplies and then removed the license plates and a five-gallon can of gasoline from the bed of the truck. He doused the cab first, leaving both doors open, before soaking the engine. Tossing the nearly empty can back into the truck bed, he stepped away, struck a match and tossed it at the cab. He backed quickly away from the heat and smoke.
Vicente's niece came to an abrupt stop atop the hill. Her mouth opened in amazement as she looked down upon the flames and billowing cloud of black smoke erupting into the air above the truck. She noted the man standing beside it.
Motion tugged at the side of Dan's vision and he gazed quickly up the hill at the newly arrived truck. Grabbing the barrel, he pulled the rifle from his shoulder and began to bring it up into firing position.
Taking everything in, she slammed the truck into reverse and, almost immediately, backed out of his line of sight.
Dan cursed his slowness and listened to the muted sound of the engine fade rapidly into the distance. The huff and roar of the nearby flames had covered the sounds of her approach.
Moving quickly, Dan put some distance between himself and the burning vehicle and hid parts of his valuables in a couple of obscure locations. He returned to the truck and checked the progress of the consuming flames before hoisting a final rucksack onto his shoulders and heading southwest into the brush, moving at a measured pace.
Within minutes of her return to the old homestead, Vicente, his niece and sister were headed out of the ranch, onto the highway and north toward Tilden and the sheriff's office. Based on the information they related to the authorities, the sheriff gathered a posse and returned to the ranch to investigate.
Dan finally emerged from the brush on a highway some five miles southwest of the ranch and followed the pavement west. A sheriff's deputy spotted him walking along the shoulder and eased to a stop beside him. Dan produced the requested identification papers, which indicated he was in the U.S. Navy. Dan affirmed the deputy's guess that he was headed for the naval landing field a short distance down the highway. Dan provided a plausible story to the deputy, saying that he had been on leave, had mechanical problems and was trying to return to base before being listed A.W.O.L. Dan dropped his bag into the back seat and was given a ride to the base entrance by the deputy. Dan thanked the officer and waved as he pulled away.
The posse found no trace of anyone around the smoldering truck and began to expand the net of an organized search.
Some time later, word came from the naval landing field that an individual had taken control of the base at gunpoint. The gunman had secured all base personnel in a conference room and had attempted to disable all radios on the base. A pilot had slipped through a window and used a transmitter in a jeep to call for help before being captured and locked up with the other base personnel by the lone gunman.
The deputy who had given Dan a lift to the landing field responded to the call for help. Returning to the base and discovering the staff locked in a conference room, he was informed that the gunman had commandeered a dump truck. The deputy reasoned that he had headed toward Cotulla since he had not met him on his return trip to the base. The officer caught up with Dan near the Nueces River and captured him without incident. He no longer had any weapons or possessions on him, and none were ever recovered.
Dan chatted amicably with the deputy on the way back to the landing field. He was keenly interested in survival tactics and ways of living off the land in the area. The deputy explained that snakes were the best meat to eat at this time of the year due to problems related to various diseases flourishing in the heat of the summer. He also pointed out various types of plants, including cactus that were edible.
After returning to the base, Dan requested permission to use the men's room. While inside, he apparently took some sort of chemical or drug. Upon re-entering the room, Dan proceeded to dismantle that part of the base and the personnel along with it.
Desperate, coordinated efforts finally subdued him. Dan was securely restrained and later flown out, back east where he began undergoing psychiatric evaluations. It was documented that his condition was considered so delicate that he was restrained in a padded cell, and his hold on any semblance of sanity so fragile that he could not be questioned about the circumstances of his behavior.
Driving back to the ranch, I reviewed the many unanswered questions about Dan:
Why had the Secret Service been involved?
Had this been an element in some sort of drug or smuggling operation that had gone awry?
Why had he questioned the deputy sheriff about survival in these harsh brushlands?
Was he really psychotic, or incredibly clever?
Had he left something behind for which he planned to someday return?
Since that time, we have found various other personal effects scattered around the ranch in Dan's wake, additional diving gear and a tattered Texas flag among them. Many questions remain about Dan that I am sure will never be answered.
We had always felt the ranch was such a secure haven. Living in today's world, I'd like to think that the violent history of the South Texas brush country is a thing of the past.