If it hadn’t been for the earpiece, I never would have heard the radio over the snarl of the four-wheeler’s engine.
“Hillbilly, this is Plug,” Hank called.
I eased off the throttle and took one hand off the handlebars to key the radio. “Send it, Plug.”
“Can you push up to the top of that ridgeline just to the east of you and take a look to the south?” he asked. “Tell me what you see.”
“Sure thing,” I answered. It wasn’t like we had a set patrol route, or even any particular need to be anywhere. So far, this job had consisted of little more than long hours just hot-wheeling around the hills of southern Arizona on four-wheelers and the occasional pickup truck.
I gunned the engine and sent the sturdy little ATV surging up between the mesquites and the creosote bushes toward the ridge that Hank had indicated. It wasn’t a long climb, but it was steep and rocky, with plenty more sagebrush and creosote bushes that I had to weave around. But it still only took a couple of minutes to reach the top.
Halting my ATV, I stood on the running boards and pulled my binos out of the saddlebags. As I lifted them to my eyes and scanned the open ground to the south, I quickly saw what Hank had been talking about.
There were four figures trotting through the grass and brush in the next draw over. They were moving pretty quickly, and heading generally north. Given that Hank and I were the only ones out on patrol at the time, and all of Manuel Lopez’s ranch hands were either working around the house and barns, or watching the herds to the east of us, that kind of narrowed things down.
“Plug, Hillbilly,” I sent, keeping the binos trained on the four. “I do believe we have some uninvited visitors.”
“That’s what I saw, too,” he replied. “Just wanted to corroborate it. Meet you down below, and we’ll go say howdy?”
“Sure,” I answered. I wasn’t going to complain about actually having some work to do.
The truth be told, even though we were all experienced warfighters, with years of work in the military and some in the contracting world, we had perhaps been a touch naïve when we’d started up our little company. After all, we owned Praetorian Security, and we knew the score better than any of the soft-clothed financiers who owned most of the rest of the PMSCs out there. We could determine our own equipment, pick our own jobs, and find the jobs that would keep us in the thick of it, in the shit.
We were finding out the hard way that those kinds of jobs were few and far between, and often involved a lot more shady business to get than we’d necessarily expected. Most of the time, they were either outright illegal, or in some kind of gray area that tended to get all kinds of scrutiny, so the clients who had those sorts of jobs didn’t tend to be very forthcoming about them. We’d set up our little private Special Operations company, only to find that we didn’t immediately have clients running to our doorstep.
So, we’d taken the first decent job that had finally come our way. It paid only a little over three hundred dollars a day per man, which didn’t go even half as far those days as it had even five years earlier, but it was better than nothing. Even if it was for only two weeks. For our three hundred a day, we rode around Manuel Lopez’ ranch in the hills west of Nogales and watched for trespassers, be they narcos, illegals, or coyotes.
So far, we’d shot a lot more coyotes of the four-legged kind, along with a few coy-wolves, than we’d seen human interlopers. And the coyotes and coy-wolves were elusive little critters.
Leaning into the ATV, I started it down the ridgeline, which meandered down and to the south. It was rocky, but the four-wheeler had a good suspension, and I didn’t have too much trouble negotiating the terrain. The mesquite and sycamore trees were far enough apart that I didn’t have to do much dodging, either.
In a matter of minutes, I saw Hank’s dust cloud as he crossed the draw behind me, cutting ahead to meet me on the ridgeline, above and about seven hundred meters north of the oncoming group of newcomers. We’d be able to get a better look at them from there, and plan our next move. If they were just illegals, we could probably turn them around quickly enough, though if there was a coyote with them, and not the four-legged kind, he might be armed. But this didn’t look like a group that would have a human trafficker guiding them across the border. The coyotes usually preferred larger groups, especially with the Border Patrol having essentially fallen back to the Phoenix line. Bigger groups were more lucrative, and they didn’t have to worry about much interference.
I got to our rendezvous point about thirty seconds ahead of Hank, and sat my four-wheeler easily, taking a long drink from my canteen while I pulled my cap off to wipe some of the sweat and dust off my face. It was hot down there, and there wasn’t a lot of shelter from the Arizona sun away from the mesquites.
I was in full view of the newcomers, and from what I could make out of their activity with my naked eyes, they saw me. Well, there hadn’t been any way of disguising the noise of the ATV’s engine in the desert quiet, and besides, we were there as deterrents more than we were as gunfighters, as vaguely disappointing as that might have been for men hankering for another taste of that combat adrenaline rush.
Hank roared up and stopped in a small cloud of dust. He was short and barrel-chested, built like a fireplug, which had gotten him his callsign. That, and the fact that he was fire-engine red most of the time, if he was outside. It wasn’t so much a matter that he sunburned; Hank was just a red-faced guy. Since he shaved his head, it meant he looked a lot like a boiled lobster much of the time; a boiled lobster with a three-inch blond goatee.
“It’s about fucking time,” he grumbled, standing up on the floorboards of his four-wheeler. “This shit’s boring as fuck.”
“Ah, it still gets us out in the open, and we’re still getting paid to carry guns,” I pointed out without looking at him. I was still watching the four below. “It’s better than nothing.”
“Maybe so, but it’s still not the ‘Next Executive Outcomes,’ is it?” he grumbled. He laughed suddenly. “Boy, were we optimistic, weren’t we?”
“Let’s focus on the here and now,” I said. “Do they look like they’re running for cover to you?”
He squinted, then frowned. “No, it does not,” he agreed. “Bad guys, you think?”
“You never know, down here,” I said. “We’re not that far from Nogales, but I’m pretty sure that the local cops who aren’t on the take aren’t going to be in a hurry to do much law enforcement this far from backup.” Which was a large part of why we were down there; Mr. Lopez couldn’t be sure that there was anyone else to secure his ranch, and he’d lost some stock already. So, unable to rely on the law, he’d hired us, at least for as long as he could afford.
“How do you want to play it?” Hank asked. He was one of the few of us who had been “just a grunt,” though I knew a lot of grunts who could outperform and out-shoot SOF guys, but had just never gotten the chance. Hank was one of those guys. He wasn’t bitter about it; he was just glad that Jim had known him and had brought him aboard and given him the opportunity.
It wasn’t like there were a lot of other jobs open for former trigger pullers those days.
I peered around at the sage- and mesquite-covered hills. There were any number of spots that would make decent overwatch positions, and I didn’t want to be running down there to get in the middle of those guys without somebody watching my back. We both had our rifles in scabbards on our ATVs for a reason. Finally, I pointed to a rocky promontory sticking out of the grass and brush about another two hundred meters south of us. The four down below were going to have to go past it soon. “Why don’t you go set up there, and I’ll move down to intercept them once you’re in position,” I said. “Don’t bother about concealment; they need to see you to get the message.”
With a jaunty half-wave, half-salute, Hank revved his four-wheeler again and headed for the indicated position. I turned my attention back to the oncoming intruders. Hank knew his business.
The four of them were still moving, threading through the sage and creosote bushes, apparently completely unconcerned about the fact that we were watching them. That got my hackles up, and I scanned the hills for backup. Either they thought that we were local law enforcement, bought and paid for, or Border Patrol, which had had its teeth pulled this far south for years now, or they just figured we didn’t have the guts to do anything. Or, this was an ambush, and they were the bait.
But I wasn’t getting paid just to watch. There wasn’t anyone to report the crossing to, either. So, after giving Hank a couple of minutes to move into his pos, I started to thread my way down into the draw, taking a route that would bring me up to them from uphill. I’d take any terrain advantage that I could get.
I was halfway down the side of the ridge when Hank’s voice crackled in my earpiece. “Hillbilly, Plug. In position. No weapons in sight.”
I waved over my head to let him know I’d heard. Hank would have set up in such a way that he could watch them and me at the same time.
The four of them had slowed as I got closer, though they hadn’t stopped. I considered pulling my SOCOM 16 out of its scabbard, but decided that I’d be able to get the .45 on my hip into action a lot faster, especially with Hank providing covering fire from above. I left the rifle where it was for the moment.
They finally stopped as I roared within fifty yards of them. I moved to get in front of them before braking hard, the ATV rocking on its shocks as I stopped in a cloud of dust.
“Buenos tardes!” I called out. “You know you’re on private property, right?”
None of the four of them looked like the type who really gave a fuck whether they were on private property or not. They were all Mexican, lean and mean-looking, dressed in an assortment of jeans, cargo pants, and t-shirts. Only one guy, who looked like the youngest, had a collared shirt on, open to his breastbone, and revealing parts of several extensive and somewhat gruesome tattoos.
Yeah, even if the bottom dropping out of the dollar hadn’t slowed down the traffic in migrant workers to a bare trickle, these guys weren’t going to be mistaken for migrant workers looking for a better life anytime soon.
The young guy in the black collared shirt spat in the dust, but none of them said anything. They just stood there and glared at me.
“Yeah, I get the message,” I said. “And I couldn’t give less of a fuck. Turn your asses around and start walking back the way you came. Otherwise, my partner up above might start getting a mighty itchy trigger finger.”
The beefy-looking, sweaty one spat at my tire. “Chinga tu madre, maricon,” he said. Fuck your mother, faggot.
I just grinned like a death’s head and waved my off hand. A sharp crack echoed across the draw, and dust was smacked up less than a foot from old boy’s feet. He flinched and jumped backward a bit, almost hitting one of his homies.
“We don’t usually like to use warning shots, but I’m feeling generous today,” I said, not entirely truthfully. While Mr. Lopez had said he didn’t really give a damn how we went about securing his ranch, he’d still been noticeably uncomfortable at the notion of setting up sniper hides and just schwacking anyone who crossed the line when that course of action had been brought up, though not entirely seriously. So, Alek and I had decided to go ahead and make warning shots SOP. “Now turn around and leg it back down the draw, or the next one goes through your fucking skull.”
The story continues in Drawing the Line, a novella roughly the same length as “Rock, Meet Hard Place,” set shortly before the events of Task Force Desperate.