Chapter One—Lost Children
I'll grant that my rookie year as a Border Patrol was challenging. The move from a bustling coastal city to this remote desert ranch in the last vestige of the Wild West did not live up to my romantic notions. But in the last year, I have learned the ropes and developed myself into a decent agent. I have made more than 30 independent arrests. Left alone, I can spot sign of alien activity, track them myself and I have given chase and brought in some pretty good runners without help. Even still, management just lassoed me and threw me back to Agent Diaz and his posse of goons to keep an eye on me. When are these agents going to take me seriously and view me as a sovereign equal? Miss you.
If you wish to find synergy within the agency, maybe you accept help from the male agents and stop trying so hard to prove yourself. Sending my love,
Kids Like Gypsy, full manuscript, edited
By Theresa Handrahan
I will grant that my rookie year as a Border Patrol was challenging. The move from a bustling coastal city to this remote desert ranch in the last vestige of the Wild West did not live up to my romantic notions. But in the last year, I have learned the ropes and developed myself into a decent agent. I have made more than 30 independent arrests. I can spot sign of alien activity, track them myself and I have given chase and brought in some pretty good runners without help. Even still, management just lassoed me and threw me back to Agent Diaz and his posse of goons to keep an eye on me. When are these agents going to take me seriously and view me as a sovereign equal? Miss you.
If you wish to find synergy within the agency, maybe you accept help from the male agents and stop trying so hard to prove yourself. Sending my love,
Chapter One—The Drug Mules
Border Patrol Agent Hepcy Zug had never been much of an athlete, but tracking humans was an interesting sport. The score evens up when the target is smart and may be better prepared than the hunter. Agents had advantages—air conditioned four-wheel-drive vehicles with high tech radio communication, racks that held long guns, cases that protected optics for seeing far distances and in low light condition, and most notable, their lunch box. The lunches were packed in the wee hours by a loving wife while the agent rolled from the comfort of a warm bed and strapped on expensive boots provided by the generous bank of Homeland Security.
By the time the agents met their quarry, the travelers had often been laboring for days across hundreds of miles in the open desert, by dirty spartan boxcars, then foot. In descending dusk, they crossed the shallow Rio Grande, gathering their rationed supplies into a bundle that they carried above their heads as they waded, emerging muddy and shivering as they slid on the same cheap shoes they had worn thin on their journey to the Texas-Mexico border. Their advantages were only three: they outnumbered the agents ten-fold, they had unlimited time for route recon and stealth travel, and the knowledge that whatever shit they were walking into was a better option than the life they were escaping.
One of the finest coaches the Border Patrol had ever produced at the sport of tracking human sign was Agent Adrian Diaz. Diaz, a former illegal who had hopped trains to pick watermelons in his youth, was sufficiently ambitious to somehow obtain legal immigration. Now he used his experience to hunt other travelers stealing across the border. Now Agent Diaz leaned against a rock, shoving handfuls of sunflower seeds between his oversized lips. He spit the empty shells at passing butterflies. He stood 5’3” and wore his cap a notch too small so that the cap sat on top of his head, lending him two extra inches of height. He was dark skinned and as slightly built as the pygmy-like Indians of Oaxaca in southern Mexico.
“Hey, Zug.” His low tone, quiet as a whisper.
“What’s up?” She hissed.
“What the hell kind of name is Zug?”
“It’s from Switzerland.”
“Are you Swedish?”
Hepcy shook her head. “Some great-grandfather from back in the day was Swiss. I’m mostly Irish. A little German. A little Italian.”
“White mutt.” Diaz stared at Hepcy’s freckled skin and wild red hair.
“All Americans are mutts.”
“Not me. Soy Mexicano puro.”
Hepcy glanced over at his round, smug face with the pencil mustache that probably took him years to grow. His “pure” bloodline isn’t all that.
“Does Zug mean something?” Diaz put away the sunflower seeds and began consolidating his gear.
“Zug means to be happily different.”
Diaz snorted. “Yeah, you’re different all right.”
“It’s better than Diaz. Diaz doesn’t mean shit. Diaz is just another four-lettered word.”
“Diaz IS the shit.” He leaned back against a scrawny blackbrush tree, pulling his cap down over his eyes.
As the sun sank lower over Zigler’s Curve, Hepcy had to strain to see the river, but it was not yet dark enough to use the infrared scanner. This life was still new to her. Her master’s degree in literature had garnered her respect in her old life on the west coast. Border Patrol agents, however, were not even required to have a GED. The men here treated her like an over-educated moron. She had regressed twenty years back to Marine Corps boot camp. There, too, she had been a square peg, unable to master the lockstep choreography. Almost inevitably, if Hepcy’s platoon had turned left, she had faced right.
Hepcy was barely over five feet herself. Not only did she have short legs, she was thick in the thighs and sported a wide butt. The landscape was her greatest foe; the canyons, carved by the waters of the Rio Grande, spanned hundreds of miles. Agents leapt from one rock to another over ten-foot ravines chasing wetbacks. Hepcy was slower than the guys, and she had ripped out the crotch of four pairs of pants trying to clear barbed wire fences.
“Agent Diaz.” Hepcy, unable to mimic his quiet baritone, had to whisper.
“Yeah?” Diaz didn’t bother to look at her.
“Is it true you were born in Acuña and you have never been more than 50 miles from the Mexican border?”
“I went to the academy, didn’t I?”
“Artesia? Four months in a New Mexico shit town? You haven’t even traveled across Texas.” Hepcy focused her binoculars on the flat Mexican riverbank. Months had passed since Border Patrol agents had busted border jumpers in this canyon, but Diaz swore the canyon was ripe for travel. The supervisor was reluctant to dispatch two agents to a cold area, but Diaz had legendarily good instincts.
“I had to go to San Antonio to naturalize.”
“Wow. A whopping two-hour trip.” Diaz’s apathy for new input was unfathomable. “Don’t you want to see America? Meet new people?”
Diaz spit out a mouthful of shells and wiped spittle off his chin. “What for?”
“To see how other people live. To eat something besides tortillas and meat fried with lard.” Hepcy checked the batteries on the night vision goggles and her radio.
“What white people make isn’t food. Pre-processed, microwave shit. American fast food is the reason Mexicans are getting so fat. Food for lazy people. A woman like you would never know what it’s like to spend a day in the kitchen with your mamá, your abuela and your tías, learning how to hand roll tamales. What did your mom teach you? Thirty seconds on high?”
“I don’t even own a microwave, you backwards, ignorant Oaxacan.”
Diaz was Hepcy’s field training instructor when she first arrived from the academy and she had dealt with his chauvinistic crap for six months. She was an agent now, with almost two years of solitary field work under her belt. Some masochist in management had recently assigned them to the same team.
“What did you do?” she asked. “Marry the first teenage muchacha who could get you a green card?”
“Hell no! American woman are sluts. They’ll give you a blow job for a taco and two beers. I had to go back to Acuña to find a respectable wife.”
Hepcy slip off her sunglasses, folding them into a soft case that she put inside her backpack. “Ooh. Big shocker. Let me guess--she doesn’t work. Just stays home all day, making herself pretty so big Papí can come home and impregnate her.”
“I make enough money to take care of my wife and support a family, if that’s your question.” Diaz crossed his arms over his chest. “And as a matter of fact, she’s seven months pregnant.”
“Wow. Congratulations. I hadn’t heard.” Hepcy’s tone immediately flipped to sincere. “A baby is happy news. Your first?”
“Yes.” Diaz smiled. “My son.” He picked up her binoculars to scan the river below.
The agents had set up on a sheep and cattle ranch that spanned a few thousand acres. Like most Texas ranchers, the owners augmented their agricultural income by leasing the land to rich hunters from the north. They invested tens of thousands of dollars in high fences to contain their animal population and sold vials of monster buck semen in Thrifty Nickel papers. The thickest antlers brought the richest hunters. Now, as the sun set, Hepcy was enthralled by the sight of the graceful whitetail deer, strolling in to graze at the corn feeders.
After a time, Diaz reached over and tapped Hepcy’s boot. He gestured east and she picked up the binoculars. A small fishing boat was navigating towards them with no lights, despite the rapidly descending dusk.
“How many?” Diaz whispered.
Hepcy studied the outline of the passengers. “Five, maybe six.”
Diaz stashed the backpacks of both agents in the shadow of a rock overhang. Hepcy crept away from the cliff edge to quietly radio for backup. They had hiked more than two miles from the Jeep Rubicon, so it would take agents 45 minutes to reach the vehicle, let alone find Hepcy and Diaz. Once they hiked into the mouth of the canyon, Diaz and Hepcy would be cut off from radio communication. They would have to rely exclusively on each other.
The boat had pulled under a ledge at the bottom of the cliff, so Diaz, crouched at the cliff’s edge, was unable to see it. Hepcy checked the battery on the hand held thermal scope, and then double checked the connection of her earpiece on the radio speaker so no unexpected noise would draw attention to their location. She crawled back down towards Diaz with the scope. They hovered at the cliff’s edge, low in the brush so they didn’t create visible silhouettes. Diaz absently swatted at mosquitoes, peering intently at the water.
Hepcy checked her equipment over and over, hands fluttering around her belt, feeling her magazine pouch, pistol, multi-tool, handcuffs, flashlight, radio, baton, and taser. She turned the scope on and off, noticing increasing heat signals in the cooling evening.
Nightfall had fully enveloped the agents when they heard the boat motor start almost directly below them. Hepcy’s heart leapt and Diaz gestured for her to turn on the scope. Hepcy located the boat and spotted the driver standing to steer out of the cove with no lights. She held up one finger to indicate the boat had a solo occupant. The load had been dropped, and there were four or five men below against the two agents above.
In a crouch, Diaz crept away from the cliff and scurried up the hill towards the mouth of the canyon. Hepcy tried to do the same but she stumbled over stones and cacti, nowhere near as fast and sure footed as her partner. He waited for her, hands on hips, at the top of the canyon. She reached the top, breathing heavily.
“Ready?” he whispered.
Hepcy nodded, glancing around for signs of patrol vehicles, even though they more than a mile from a navigable road. The agents descended silently into the canyon. Diaz had instructed her to find a hiding place to wait until the men passed, then close in behind them. The agents needed to block the retreat of the drug mules back to Mexico, forcing them to the top of the canyon where, hopefully, backup would be waiting. With limestone walls blocking their radio signal, they had to act with faith in their unit.
In the glow of the full moon, Hepcy she could see every lizard that darted across the rocks. Diaz was staring at the ground ahead so she flicked her eyes forward to ascertain what had caught his attention. There was half a boot print in patch of dust facing down into the canyon. He pointed farther ahead to a bit of trampled brush.
“That happened today,” he whispered.
“Are they yours?”
“Nah,” he whispered. “Not those giant boots.”
She studied the track. He’s right. That’s at least a size twelve and his boots aren’t much bigger than mine. “But those are Vibrant soles, right?”
“Yeah. Those are agent tracks.”
Weird. When Diaz told the supervisor we were coming down here, he told us the area hadn’t had traffic in months. She made a mental note to check with dispatch to see if an agent had reported any activity. She again reflected on Diaz’s insistence they work this canyon tonight. What did he know?
She looked for a place to hide, but found no vegetation larger than a sage bush. Since they were outnumbered, the agents had to rely on stealth and surprise, but there was little concealment. Diaz pointed out a narrow crack in the wall close to Hepcy. She put her back into it, and slid her cap around backwards to conceal the brim. Diaz chose to hide in a cluster of Spanish daggers, tall yucca plants, on the opposite wall. The agents were twenty yards apart.
Hepcy caught her breath, fixated on the trail into the curving lower canyon. The agents could not see the river, but both had hiked this canyon many times and knew there was no other way out.
To steady her nerves, Hepcy envisioned every scenario that might unfold. Her right hand rested on her gun grip while she silently rehearsed Spanish commands: parase, sueltelo, manos arriba. She glanced at Diaz, squatting in the yuccas, staring into the canyon without blinking. She despised Diaz, but he was a swift and stealthy warrior.
The breeze from the river carried the first sounds of voices. Hepcy swallowed and sought out Diaz, who hadn’t moved an inch, his eyes intent on the trail below. The muted voices became clearer as the men joked amongst themselves. Hepcy rechecked her holster and radio with shaking hands, making sure her equipment was secure in case they had to run.
The men appeared on the trail a hundred yards below, walking in pairs. The astonishing clarity provided by the full moon illuminated the mud on their pants. A young girl was struggling behind the group, clutching the backpack of one of the men. A girl? These don’t look like drug mules. Hepcy flattened herself against the rock, trying to shrink into the crack. Her green uniform contrasted against the white limestone. Could they see her as easily as she was watching them? Diaz, too, had crouched lower and sunk into the shadow of the daggers.
The travelers were nearing Diaz’s location when the lead man spotted him, erupting into frantic Spanish utterance. The men pivoted and scrambled back towards the river. Diaz rocketed forward, but Hepcy maneuvered towards the confused girl, seizing her by the arm.
The men propelled down the trail, never turning to check the fate of the girl, but Diaz was closing the gap. Hepcy was able to pull the wisp of a girl with her to pursue Agent Diaz and the men, but as she was catching up, Diaz leapt into the air, arms outstretched, landing between two men, his hands grabbing the backs of their necks. With unbelievable agility, he brought them both tumbling to the ground. Hepcy watched, mouth agape. They didn’t teach that maneuver at the academy. Without pause, Diaz was up running again, leaving the two men sprawled on the desert floor.
“Zug! You got this?” he yelled over his shoulder.
Hepcy’s thumb automatically dropped the bale on her holster while her fingers wrapped around the pistol grip.
“Got it!” she yelled, then mumbled to herself, “because I sure as hell can’t do that ninja shit.”
One man scrambled to his feet, but immediately raised his hands when he saw Hepcy draw her weapon. Hepcy knew Mexicans rarely carried guns, nor did they resist agents that gave a strong show of authority. Nevertheless, she trembled.
The men wore cheap athletic shoes, work pants, and long-sleeved shirts. The man with the raised hands was big, close to six feet tall. He had a dirty mop of unkempt hair and a blue bandana looped around his neck. He was lean and tan—a field worker. The other man was smaller, a few inches taller than Hepcy. His hair was clean cut, but his baggy work pants appeared to be second hand, held up by piece of cut rope. Studying his gaunt face and wide eyes, Hepcy suspected he was a juvenile.
“Siéntate!” she commanded, still pointing the gun. The big man sat gingerly next to the other. “Dame sus zapatos!”
Both men stared blankly at Hepcy.
“Dame! Ahorita!” she screamed. They took off their shoes and tossed them towards her. She eased the gun into her holster, picked up the shoes, and backed herself and the girl away from the two men. Try running now. This terrain will cripple you in five minutes. She commanded the men to remove their backpacks, empty their pockets and take off their belts, piling their things as they did so, anxiously taking mental inventory: flip phone, pocket knife, wallets, contact numbers, corn tortillas and dried beef.
She glanced down the canyon trail towards the river, but saw only sage bushes and prickly pear cactus, still as stones. Where the hell is Diaz?
She eased towards them, retrieved their backpacks and tossed them on the ground behind the girl. As she was commanding the girl to remove her pack, the older man jumped to his feet. Hepcy stepped back, reaching for her gun. Her left heel caught a mesquite root and she stumbled backwards. The man charged her. Hepcy fell back, grateful for the bullet proof vest as her body slammed to the rocky floor. She managed to keep her head erect, but her right elbow banged against a large, jutting stone. While she was wrestling her gun from the holster, her finger squeezed the trigger and a round discharged.
Hepcy froze. So did the man. Shaking and breathless, she yanked the gun from the holster and leveled it at the man’s face. Her Spanish escaped her.
“On the piso!” she screamed. ”Piso!"
The man put his hands in the air and dropped to his knees. Her mind reeled. How did Diaz tell them to lie down?
He complied, dropping face down in the dirt. She maintained her aim with her right hand and pushed herself to her feet with her left. She positioned herself to keep both men in her line of sight. She was relieved to notice the young man had not moved.
Hepcy evaded the big man’s strong legs as she approached. ”No se mueve!” she commanded. “I swear to the virgin that I will shoot you dead.” He didn’t even twitch when she twisted his arms behind his back to slap cuffs onto his massive wrists. Feeling the painful throbbing in her right elbow, Hepcy jammed her knee into the man’s ribs as she helped him into a sitting position near the boy. She pointed for the girl to sit near the boy.
Her eyes darted around. No one appeared hurt, nor there was anywhere obvious for a stray bullet to seat. She backed off to a position of safety and tucked her gun back in the holster. Obsessed now with the accidental discharge, Hepcy grabbed the flashlight from her belt, pulled the gun out, and shined her light into the holster. The leather holster was open at the bottom by design and showed no obvious physical damage, save for a powder burn.
”No se mueve,” she mumbled. She fished in her cargo pocket for the tiny canvas pouch Diaz had given her during field training. It held three bullets issued by the Border Patrol armory. She shook one round out, eyeballing the two mules as she removed the magazine from her pistol. She topped off her magazine with Diaz’s bullet, and put the magazine back in the gun. She knew Diaz would have her back. It looked bad for the agency when an agent got taken down by an administrative detail like a missing round. The press loved implications of a dirty agent. She dropped the gun back into the holster and returned the pouch to her cargo pocket. Still giving the men the stink eye, she grabbed her radio mic.
“Charlie 96, what’s your twenty?”
There was no response.
“Diaz! Diaz! Where you at?” she whispered fiercely into the mic.
“Sector?” she inquired, hoping dispatch was receiving a signal.
The night silence enveloped them.
Hepcy guessed the young male to be in his late teens and the girl a few years younger. The boys tracked Hepcy’s every move and he had subtly scooted away from the man. He was crouched in fear while I grappled with the big guy, but the girl hasn’t flinched once. The girl, watching Hepcy, stood and walked behind the two men, seating herself next to the older man. She must know him.
Hepcy rifled through the back packs for documents. The girl’s eyes fixated on the dingy white pack as Hepcy unzipped the various pouches until she found an El Salvadoran birth certificate. Rubi Lucilla Perez. She’s fifteen. She studied the document, trying to determine the name of the father. Naid Perez.
“Naid?” she called out. The still handcuffed man looked at her.
“Rubi es su hija?” Naid nodded confirmation that she was his daughter.
“Ella esta bien?” She asked.
“Rubi es autista,” he said.
Autista? What does that mean? Rubi’s eyes were still riveted on her pack, and she rocked slightly forwards and backwards. “She’s autistic?” Hepcy asked, and the man nodded. Interesting.
The bag contained mostly clothes for Rubi, sparkly tennis shoes, cheap jewelry. At the bottom she found medications. It was mostly over the counter allergy pills, but four blister packs caught her attention. She couldn’t read the label, but the four rows of seven pills each was unmistakable. Why in the hell does a fifteen year autistic child need four months worth of birth control?
She asked Naid in Spanish where they were headed and he answered that he had work in Galveston. Hepcy wanted to know if he had family there and he replied that a neighbor from Honduras could get him construction work. Upon further questioning, the man admitted that his wife remained behind in Honduras and would not be joining him. When Hepcy asked why he had not left Rubi home with her mother, Naid said he had heard there were schools in the United States that could help her speak better. You stinking, lying son of a bitch. There’s only one reason for a laborer to travel with a pretty teenage girl that can’t communicate.
“Es el su hijo?” Naid shook his head that the boy was not his son and said he did not meet him until the coyote came.
With quivering hands, she opened the pack of the boy. He had clean clothes and a pair of new tennis shoes. What the hell is this?
“Joven," she called, making eye contact with him. “Donde obtuvo los tenis?”
He told her that a woman had given him the shoes and clothes the day before, and she also gave him food and helped him take a shower.
“Cual mujer?” Wanting to know what woman.
The kid said she ran the house for kids. Hepcy tried to ask him about the house, but the Spanish got too complex and she couldn’t understand what he was telling her, distracted by her unsuccessful search for documents in his bag.
“Cuantos anos tienes?” she asked. He told her he was fourteen, and upon further questioning that his name was Daniel and that his mother was sending him to live with an uncle he had not met. Hepcy asked where the uncle lived and the kid shrugged. He didn’t know where he was going, but that everything had been arranged and paid for by a white man.
What the hell is going on her? Where was Diaz? Why had he been so pushy about coming down here? Why had an agent gone into this canyon today? Why didn’t dispatch call out sensor hits when these people stepped onto the bank?
Hepcy’s fear for herself transferred to the fate of these children, and she glared at the man as she felt the familiar fire stoking in her gut. His own daughter. The waif sidled against the large man with the calloused hands, her eyes staring back at Hepcy, blank and unblinking. The boy, sitting alone, staring at the ground in front of him. Too young to be a man, too experienced to remain a boy.
She picked up the man’s pack. Work clothes, a change of socks and underwear, deodorant, more food. There were two bottles of water. She held the water up in the moonlight, looked at the yellowish tint, the particles inside. Water obtained from a cattle trough. Ugh.
She fished the full bottle from her cargo pants and commanded the boy to drink half. She gave the other half to the girl, all the while, her eyes boring holes into the skull of the man, regretting that the gunshot had not castrated him.
The breeze carried in the sound of a distant motor. Is that an airboat or a chopper? She tipped her head back to look at the sky. She heard voices on the trail behind her. What the...? Is that English or Spanish? She whipped around with the flashlight and yanked the gun out of the holster.
"Parasé!” she screamed, her heart beating in her throat and her elbow throbbing from her efforts to hold the gun without shaking. “Identify yourself!”
Laughter drifted down the trail. “Is that you, Zug? Stand down. Stand down.”
Agent Vasquez and Agent Bowles sauntered around the bend. She slid her pistol back into the holster and breathed in the night air, trying to decompress.
“Whatcha got?” Bowles asked.
Now the guys see I got this shit. She aimed her beam at the handcuffed man and the two children.
“Damn,” said Bowles. “Are you out here by yourself?”
“Not exactly. Diaz is looking for the other two tonks.”
“Good job!” He moved forward to give her a fist bump. “Where is he?”
“I have no idea. I haven’t heard from that little Oaxacan in half an hour.” The motor was closer now, definitely an airboat coming up the river. “I don’t know if he’s alive or what.”
“He’s fine. He’s been chattering on air for the last twenty minutes. Let’s give him a hand.” Bowles took off down the trail towards the river and Vasquez followed.
“Seriously?” Hepcy pulled the radio off her vest and looked at it. The battery was fully charged. Freaking limestone walls.
The roar of chopper blades echoed through the canyon, now washed white by the blinding search light. The airboat halted in the water below, just out of sight. The sound of Diaz’s laughter preceded his appearance on the trail. He climbed up the canyon with his captive, both soaking wet. “I lost the pinche coyote,” he said, describing to the agents where he lost sight of him. Bowles and Vasquez climbed in and the boat took off, able to radio the helicopter above for support. Diaz seated his prisoner next to the other two, observing their filthy feet.
“Where are their shoes?” he asked.
She went to retrieve them. Once everyone had their shoes on, they still faced the long hike back up to the road. Diaz shot Hepcy a cynical look, but she flashed him a jubilant smile. He grinned and asked for her cell phone to get a shot of her with the four captives. Hepcy framed the photo the next day, the picture of her, cap still backwards, as she stood stinking and sweaty among the illegals. Diaz gave her a high five and pushed her all the way up the canyon, the first magnanimous act in two years to include Hepcy in the crew. Maybe, just maybe, she would prove herself an asset to the United States Border Patrol.