Circling buzzards lead U.S. Border Patrol agent Dolph Martinez to the corpse of a man executed in the desert...a murder that shatters the fragile calm in a dusty, Texas town. His investigation pits him against the Mexican Army, the DEA, big-money Houston real estate interests, a Catholic nun who practices voodoo, a charismatic revolutionary wanted on both sides of the border, and perhaps deadliest of all, the demons from his own, tortured past.
"Grit and grace in the face of troubling ambiguities in a moral borderland." Publishers Weekly
"Sanderson makes the gritty, thankless landscape of the border come alive, from the relentless heat to the failed hopes." The Washington Post
"Lean and lyrical." The New York Times
"Sanderson is especially good at contrasting the clarity and austere natural beauty of the Chihuahuan desert with the murky, Orson Welles aura that envelopes human society there." Dallas Morning News
About the Author
His many other works include two award-winning collections of short stories: Semi-Private Rooms, which won the 1992 Kenneth Patton Prize, and Faded Love, which was nominated for Texas Institute of Letters' 2010 Jesse Jones award for best book written about Texas or by a Texan.
Read an Excerpt
El Camino Del Rio
By Jim Sanderson
Brash Books, LLCCopyright © 1998 Jim Sanderson
All rights reserved.
MOJADOS, WETS, MULES
Chief Deputy Sheriff Raul Flores pried open the dead wet's stiff fingers and pulled the glass vial out of the palm. Flores held the vial between his forefinger and thumb and raised it up to the wind and sunlight. It was the same type of vial I had clutched, four years before, as I tried to press my guts back into my body.
"Let me see that," I said, and Deputy Sheriff Flores flipped it to me. It was filled with the same silver-blue metallic liquid as my vial.
I had been gut-shot and was dying. I was up a canyon trail seven miles away from the river. Because of the steep canyon walls, I was in a dead zone, so I couldn't radio for help. Sister Quinn found me, gave me a vial, and told me to press the vial against my chest and pray. As I held the vial and tried to keep my teeth from chattering, she grabbed me under my shoulders and dragged me down the trail. She grunted and strained, and I felt her sweat drip into my face. After a mile or so, out of the dead zone, she radioed for help on my walkie-talkie.
Fellow agents said that it was a miracle she had found me, but some of the locals along Texas Highway 170, El Camino del Rio, weren't surprised. She was magical, they said. She always showed up when someone needed help. Some called her a buena curandera; others said she was a saint. Some said that during the night, Sister Quinn could turn into an owl, just like the souls of the dead could, and perch on tombstones. They said she was probably flying overhead, returning from a tombstone, when she saw me dying.
Now here was another blue vial, only Sister Quinn hadn't been around to save this wet. I unsnapped the chin strap, then pulled off the motorcycle helmet and held it by the strap. The wind cooled my sweaty face and hair, and I felt a chill. Though you doubt you could ever get used to the summertime heat, you do, so the winters, pleasant to the snowbirds, sometimes chill you. I rubbed at my forehead and felt the dust smear into the sweat; then I pulled up the collar on my nylon jacket to keep the wind off my neck. My partner, Pat Coomer, Chief Deputy Sheriff Raul Flores, Deputy Sheriff Freddy Guerra, and I stared at the dead man. We had all seen the circling buzzards and wondered if something had happened to the wets we were chasing. I had spotted the mule just as the buzzards landed and started picking at his eyes and crotch. They lit out when I walked up. The flies didn't go away; they still buzzed around the neat .22 bullet hole in his head.
The six wets Pat Coomer and I were tracking squatted together around a mesquite. The mama held her smallest kid while the other shivering kid cried. A woman held her bloody leg. One man stared at the ground. A second man smiled at me. All of them glanced up now and then to look at the dead man, as though he were some evil sign — muy mal, un maleficio. They had their plastic jugs filled with water and their extra clothes or bedding rolled into tight bundles beside them. It was the childless woman who had stepped in the lechuguilla.
Earlier, as I rode the motorcycle through and around the wash, dodging the cacti, I had seen the bloodied spear of the lechuguilla. The night before, agents had dusted the dirt levees on our drag that paralleled 170 to Ruidosa. This morning, with the sun in my eyes, I had tracked for signs and spotted the footprints. If the wets had stayed on the old ranch road, they'd hit the sensors that we had up in San Antonio Pass and they'd be easier to find, but they'd do less harm to themselves if we caught them before they went through the pass. Then the checkpoint on Highway 67 picked up signals from the magnetized, bugged bridge we had put up over one of Raymond Kohlmeyer's fences. They had made good time; they were into the canyon.
So I had headed up 67 on the motorcycle, and Pat Coomer let himself in the northeast gate of Raymond Kohlmeyer's ranch and drove west. Kohlmeyer's ranch was just a lot of creosote and cactus southwest of the Chinati Mountains, but it was part of the only flat spot between the Rio Grande and the south rim of the Davis Mountains. Anywhere else this side of 67 was rough, ravine-filled territory; the other side of 67, the El Camino del Rio side, was even worse.
I had radioed ahead to Pat, who found no signs. I'd guessed that they would follow a dry wash, and I tried to track them. As I drove down the wash or along its caliche banks, I struggled to keep the motorcycle from fishtailing out from under me and away from lechuguilla spears. I noticed rolled pebbles, dust stomped off rocks, and eventually blood on another lechuguilla.
Raul Flores gave orders to Freddy Guerra, who was filling out the necessary Presidio County and state of Texas forms. Marfa was the county seat and Abe Rincón was the elected sheriff, but Raul Flores ran county matters around Presidio. Two years before, Joey Latham, who looked the part, was sheriff, but when we busted a pickup truck full of marijuana, the Anglo driver told us about the cocaine stashed in Joey's horse barn.
"Goddamn it," Flores said loudly to be heard above the wind. "I guess you better put gunshot as cause of death."
"No shit," Pat Coomer said. "What gave you that idea?" Red-haired Coomer had his usual give-a-shit grin, and now, even in winter, his fair skin blazed red in the sun and the wind.
"What are you going to do about it?" I asked Flores.
"Ask some questions."
"To who?" I asked.
"I've got my sources."
"What about this?" I held up the glass vial. "Doesn't this make you suspicious?"
"What the hell is it?" Coomer asked.
"Curandera shit," I said. "Medicine, luck, miracle juice."
"We'll question her," Flores said, then turned to his deputy, Freddy Guerra. "Better get that Baggie out of the truck and wrap this vato." Freddy left, and I pulled off my sunglasses to look at Flores. He glared at me. "Christ, what the hell else you want me to do?"
"Why don't you just wait for that crazy bitch to turn herself in?" Pat asked through his chuckle.
"Why don't you search her templo, question her, scare her a little?" I asked.
"Christ, she's a nun. How's it gonna look if the Presidio County Sheriff's Department is hassling a goddamn Catholic fucking nun?"
Quiet Freddy Guerra came back with the body bag and unzipped it.
"Before we bag him, look at his boots," I said.
"What the hell?" Flores said. "You want 'em, pull 'em off."
"How many wets or even mules with the money they get packing dope you seen with Red Wing boots? And those are genuine Levi's, not some off brand. And look at his hair: long but well cut."
"We'll compliment his mama or whoever else dressed him before he was shot," Raul said.
"Try a little harder," I said. Raul gave me a dumb look. "He's working for some people with money. And they're bad fuckers, real broncos, and he's a bronco too."
"So let's bag this bad fucker," Raul Flores said.
Pat shrugged just to me, then grabbed the man's feet to steer him into the bag. Flores lifted the dead wet's shoulders and looked up at me. "You too important to help, Mr. Senior Agent?" So I helped Flores with the dead man's shoulders so that Freddy Guerra could pull the bag over the body.
"At least it's not summer. They don't go ripe as fast in winter," Pat said.
As the deputy zipped up the bag, I sat down and looked at the huddled aliens. The wind gave me a chill that shook my shoulders. One man smiled; the other man stared at the ground; the woman with the children pushed the younger child's face into the soft spot of her shoulder and held the older child's hand; the woman with the cut stared back at me. That poke from the lechuguilla would sting for days.
I got up and walked over to the hurt woman. The smiling man nodded at me. "Hello, Arturo," I said. When I processed him before, he smiled at me the same way, and his compadre told me that somebody told Arturo a good-natured Border Patrol agent could pull strings and get a mojado a green card.
I sat beside the woman, and the wave of stink from the unbathed, sweating wets hit me. You can get used to the heat, but winter or summer, you never quite adapt to their stink. I looked at the wound on her whisker-stubbled leg. The cut had stopped bleeding; it would hurt, but it wasn't serious. Her stare at la migra softened, and she said, "Yo no soy pollita." She used pollo, a term from the interior or farther west, not mojado, with the d silent, like the norteños or Tex-Mexes say. Her ridiculous plea reminded me of the last time I busted her. "María?" I asked.
She was quick-witted. She shook her head and said, "Consuelo." Not "Consuela," like some norteños and Anglos would say. Maybe she had enough Spanish in her to be named María de Consuelo. She tapped her chest with her thumb. "Politíca."
"Political asylum," I said.
"Sí." She nodded vigorously. She had the same story the last time I sent her across the bridge.
"You bet, Consuelo," I said. The rest had probably been caught before too. They knew their routine, the fake humility. Like most of them we catch, they were ignorant, poor rural people who had one great gift: They could walk two hundred miles over old ranch roads without getting lost and then find a ranch or farm job somewhere in this country. The vato we just bagged was the new breed: the dope smugglers, the glueheads, the city people from the interior. They had the gold chains, the long hair, the tattoos.
Usually the rural people wouldn't give us trouble, but you could never tell when a peon or the occasional desperate American with a trash bag full of marijuana, heroin, or cocaine might start swinging, stabbing, or shooting. It was a hiker, a tourist, who gut-shot me. "They hurt?" I heard Raul say.
I shook my head to clear it, then pushed myself up again. "There are truck tire tracks up ahead, somebody other than us. Nobody but a local would know how to get through Kohlmeyer's gate," I shouted toward Flores.
"So why don't I arrest Kohlmeyer, the richest fucking property owner in the county? Hell, and he's just one of those part-time ranchers who's really a real estate guy in Midland, so you can piss off Midland too."
"Not him; somebody with a key," I said.
"And how many people you know don't have a key to his gates?" Raul Flores asked.
"I'm just asking if you want to help the investigation," I said.
Sheriff Flores tugged at his gun belt to lift his expanding gut. "Look, you want to make a federal case out of this, you go ahead. Since this vato's got a bullet in his head, he's probably got his civil rights violated."
"Only he's probably not legal," Pat said. "So he's got no civil rights, bullet hole or not." Then Pat turned to me. "Case closed, Dolph?"
"Look, alls I'm saying is that you should look around. Somebody local is involved in some mean shit. I got the authority; all I'm asking for is a little help."
Raul stuck his thumbs into his gun belt and looked from Coomer to me. "You're not elected. And even though you guys are on the US of A payroll, this ain't the real USA. This is the border. I can't stop this unless I start asking questions in Ojinaga, where I got no authority. Right now nobody local is that upset, except you."
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," Pat said.
I looked at Flores, then Pat, then over at our responsibility, the wets. "Vamos, p'allá," I said toward the illegal aliens, and jerked my head to the north toward Pat's truck. Sheriff Flores and his deputy grabbed the bagged corpse and grunted as they made their way uphill through the creosote, now shaking in the strong wind, to their squad car.
And the wets, since most of them knew the routine and were scared, trudged in single file toward our truck. Arturo smiled at me and nodded, Consuelo/María limped along behind me and stared at the back of my head, the mama held one kid and led the other by hand, the shy man hung his head.
As I had steered the motorcycle through the rough country, I knew when I had gotten close to the aliens; I could feel them hiding, probably something to do with their breathing or body heat. I had stopped, radioed Pat, driven parallel, stopped to check through my binoculars, and seen dust rising from behind Pat's truck as Coomer eased the four-wheel drive farther south. Then the wets bolted. I saw the flash of blue denim and tan faces from a hundred yards off and throttled the motorcycle. I closed the gap between us quickly, even heard Pat shout, "Alto. Arriba las manos," then I saw a buzzard lift itself up from the ground. I steered the motorcycle closer, got off, and walked until I heard the buzz of the flies, then I saw the murdered dope runner.
I held Consuelo's arm as she stepped into the back of Coomer's truck. She smiled but quickly pulled her arm away. Pat climbed into the driver's seat, then reached into the glove compartment and gave each kid a stale, melted sucker. Somebody in the Marfa district office thought of the candy after a "sensitivity training" session in El Paso.
The kids smiled, then looked out the back end of the truck as it rattled over the desert rocks — back toward asphalt and civilization. I looked at the kids' faces, the rising tunnels of dust behind Coomer's and Flores's trucks, then followed on la patrulla's motorcycle. In Presidio, the locals didn't call us la migra, like many Mexicans, illegal and not, on both sides of the border called us. To them, we deserved some respect — we were la patrulla.CHAPTER 2
Riding back to Presidio on a motorcycle, I was cold. As I got farther south, to lower elevation, I warmed up. It was as if my blood had turned cold like a lizard's and now needed the desert heat. You don't have a choice here. Presidio is hotter than hell, Texans say. All summer long it has the daily state high and many days the nation's high. The heat, the dryness, mixed with the bit of humidity rising from the river, worked their ways into you.
The desert is not just about heat. It is about space too. When you start tracking the signs, you don't just see one giant space anymore but a collection of details, some fitting together better than others. The details make the space. You begin to see details even in the clear desert sky.
So we used the desert. We had sensors on the main routes, on the old Indian trails, on footbridges we put up over ranchers' fences so the wets wouldn't destroy the fencing, and along the river but not off trail, out in the desert space. Maybe a Libyan terrorist might survive, but anymore no one else, not even an agent, had enough skill to just hightail it across the desert.
Still, some tried, or just panicked and got off the trail. The buzzards would spot them for us. Then again, to me, given the choice of taking on the desert or being locked into a boxcar or a car trunk and breathing gas fumes or stale air until I had no air, I'd choose the desert.
By the time Pat Coomer pulled the truck into the Border Patrol station in Presidio and I pulled in behind him on the motorcycle, the wind had gotten stronger and cooler. The gas signs at the Presidio gas stations swung on their hinges, and trash and tumbleweeds blew down the dirt streets and caught on curbs or picket fences. The starving dogs that wandered over from Ojinaga looked for a place out of the wind to lie down.
The Border Patrol station was a cinder-block building surrounded by a high fence, on the juncture between the only two paved streets in town, 170 and 67. During high winds the Border Patrol station caught its share of foam cups, old newspapers, greasy napkins, and tumbleweeds. Several of the starving stray dogs liked to dump over the station's large trash cans and scrounge for food. Even this isolated part of the world, with fewer people than most anyplace in the USA, had its share of people's trash.
As Pat Coomer stepped out of his truck and I walked up to him, two joggers in expensive Gore-Tex jogging suits loped past the station and into the north wind. Pat said, "Crazy Yankee bastards. Running in this kind of weather." I waved to the joggers, our newly hired city administrator, Ben Abrams, and the other "Yankee bastard," Father Jesse Guzmán from St. Margaret Mary's Church. Guzmán and Abrams were as close as we had to yuppies. They were headed for the recently bulldozed track a quarter of a mile north of the station. The high school track team used the rough gravel pit for practice. In this weather, Guzmán and Abrams would be choking on the dust.
Pat opened the back door of the truck to let the wets out; I held open the door to the station, and Consuelo and Arturo led the other man and woman and kids into the Border Patrol station for processing. Pat followed the wets in, but before I went in, I glanced up at Guzmán and Abrams, fighting against the wind.
The station was empty except for the secretary, Carmen Lopez, and Patrol Agent Dede Pate sitting at one of the desks, filling out her reports. Then the door to Major R.C. Kobel's office opened, and R.C., the patrol-agent-in-charge of the Presidio station, looked at the wets filing in. Without looking at me, he said, "Dolph, once you get these guys cleared up, stop by."
Excerpted from El Camino Del Rio by Jim Sanderson. Copyright © 1998 Jim Sanderson. Excerpted by permission of Brash Books, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsMOJADOS, WETS, MULES,
CLEBURNE HOT SPRINGS RESORT,
"MARÍA," "CONSUELO," "GUADALUPE," "EUGENIA",
EL CAMINO DEL RIO,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,
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