Shadowline

Chapter 9 - In Motion

Regret made a poor traveling companion; it made a long road endless and vexing thoughts fester.

The road from Denver to Mexico, usually wide open and mostly straight, allowed Vin to sort his thoughts and settle his emotions through the trademark growl of his Harley. This time, knowing that anyone else on the road could be looking to bring him in, he was unable to completely relax and enjoy.

Jumping bail was something he was all too familiar with albeit from a different perspective, and Vin didn't like this side of that line one bit. It didn’t take long to adjust, however, because he knew the ropes both as hunter and hunted. He preferred the hunter end of things, though, and with that thought, regret bared its ugly fangs once again.

By now, he had to be in the system, Vin figured. A fugitive. A fugitive with a goal, he reasoned, but he had nothing positive or solid in which to explain his goal. The only plus on his side was the team he left behind and he knew that even in the face of all the evidence telling otherwise, they believed in him. Their faith maintained his spark of life and gave him the incentive to get back to them, no matter the cost.

Well south of Las Cruces, Vin checked his rear view mirror for any sign of police cruisers or possible tails. He was glad he didn't have to deal with Texas law enforcement because they looked for guys like him – long haired renegades riding chromed, iron horses – but New Mexico was a little more forgiving, especially south-bound. In Texas, he had viable contacts but it was too risky to be on the road that long in the U.S. Fortunately, the best person right now was just ahead, a stone’s throw over the Mexican borderline. Vin squinted and studied the roadway ahead, searching for a particular marker. Finally, he saw it and a sense of accomplishment replaced regret.

Vin’s growling monster slowed and he steered off-road onto a hard, worn dirt trail not intended for an asphalt eating Hog. The machine bucked and fought him until his wrists and back ached, adding dust to the attention grabbing noise of the bike. A wash of relief came over him when he saw his final goal: The Rio Grande, which separated the U.S. from Mexico. Usually heavily patrolled where it marked the international border, Vin knew all eyes here usually sought individuals traveling south to north; going the other direction was easier.

Vin shut the bike down and sat for a moment, the engine popping as it cooled. Dusk was minutes away and the quiet was deafening. He surveyed the terrain beyond the river, searching for the one spot he knew would be safe for the night. The last light of the day finally highlighted the unique rock formation and he dismounted.

Vin slung his compact backpack over his shoulders and walked to the edge of the water. The tugs and aches of his trip so far were tolerable as he slowly entered the water and checked both his footing and the current. Wading in to his knees, he turned and gave his beloved Harley a long, final look. It surprised him that he felt no sadness at leaving it behind because the sacrifice's reward would be well worth it. He dug the key out of his pocket and regarded it in his palm. The chrome “7” on the key ring flashed gold in the disappearing light and his heart skipped once. Vin separated the “7” from the ring, tucked it into his pocket, and threw the rest toward the Harley parked on the American side, turning to complete the crossing before they struck beach.

The warm desert night dried his clothes by the time Vin made it to his makeshift camping spot. He circled it slowly in the darkness to ensure no one else claimed it, and settled in with a weary sigh. His brain automatically switched to survival mode and he ran down a mental list of tasks as he prepared his bed. The Army Ranger skills had never really left him, and it saddened him for a moment at just how easy it was to get back into that frame of mind. This was a mental place he'd hoped never to revisit, but he knew it was the only thing that would keep him alive during this self-prescribed mission.

Vin spent the night in a cold camp, dozing and preparing his mind for the work ahead, warmed by the remaining heat of the rocks. His last pang of real feeling struck him when a cluster of flashlight beams danced on the horizon in the area where he left the Harley. As he watched, feelings trickled away and when the lights eventually danced to the throaty sound of the Hog, Vin watched them fade away through the icy eyes of the predator.

When the rocks cooled, he knew dawn was near so he gathered his scant possessions and struck out, settling into a steady rhythm that ate the miles and maximized his energy reserve. His recent wounds prickled occasionally, especially around the cracked vertebra, but his mental discipline filed everything away until only a bare framework of fight - or - flight responses and hyper-vigilance remained.

When he was a boy, a journey like this was second nature. Orphaned at a time when most children entered kindergarten, Vin found the foster system too suffocating and violent. His peers carried most of the blame for his negative experience. That had been in a small, west Texas town called Tascosa. Across the border In Mexico, just a stone’s throw from Tascosa, food was easier to steal and hiding places easier to find. Vin learned a lot by watching the Mexican coyotes - men hired to lead Mexicans illegally to America - from afar, and those skills proved valuable in his Army Ranger days and later during his bounty hunting career.

When the sun pushed over the horizon, he picked up the pace and pounded on, his feet rising small plumes of dust with each print. For now, it did not matter, but as he got closer to his goal, his method became covert. As the sun chased away the night's chill, Vin, in a hypnotized pace, barely felt the light, cooling sweat covering his skin. His arms pumped in concert with his corded legs, and his chest rose and fell in a controlled rhythm as he inhaled through his nose and exhaled through his relaxed jaws. A finely tuned machine after months of physical therapy and a single-minded training regimen, Vin started down a pre-determined path whose purpose was to maximize stamina, build contacts and gain a reputation. It ended in Tijuana. Beyond that - well, if he lived that long - he'd would play it by ear.

The intelligence he'd gathered that sent him south came from keeping his eyes and ears open while biding his time and building his physique in and around Purgatorio. Neighbors had children, who knew people, who knew gang members and, eventually, he picked up a piece of dirt regarding Munos’ murder: It hadn't been a contract kill.

Munos' execution had also been a complete surprise. Someone wanted something so valuable that retaliation from Munos’ cartel was an acceptable risk. If anyone knew retaliation, it was the Mexican drug cartels. Anyone going against them was either incredibly stupid or incredibly greedy. Vin voted for the latter. So, all he had to do was find out who gained the profits from the murder and that would lead him to the exceptional shooter that ruined his life.

It was full daylight when Vin slowed his pace at the first sign of civilization - a hard-packed road. He searched for an aerie in the stark rock formations that surrounded him. He spotted what he needed and trotted to the base of a granite hill, climbing easily to a good perch. From here, using his binoculars, he spotted a small village ahead and observed the movements in and around the gathering of buildings. It wasn’t long before he caught his breath, finding the woman he sought. Vin smiled as he watched her though the glasses.

Celia Nova Guerrero, now close to seventy years old and as round as a whisky barrel, shuffled out of her small, dirt-roomed house waving away a pair of small children from her front porch. The woman’s yellow-toothed smile dispelled any semblance of anger. The children raced away and joined a small group walking into the heart of the village.

“You never give up, do you Mamacita?” Vin chuckled, remembering being one of those children. From his vantage point, he watched Celia stop with her hands on her hips to watch the rambunctious group. He pocketed the binoculars when the woman stepped back into her home and prepared to descend. From what he just saw, the rhythm of life here had not changed in his years away. This was a good time to call on his long-ago friend.

Vin instinctively circled wide on his approach to the tiny house. Dirty, disheveled and toting a backpack, he kept his blue eyes averted and walked as if he belonged, but he did not pass anyone. It wasn’t long before he tapped on the doorway frame with a knuckle.

“Celia?” he called.

“Yes? Who is there?” The woman stepped into view, holding her broom in an unfriendly manner.

“Whoa, I didn’t mean to scare you.” Vin took a step back, put up his hands and raised his chin, smiling.

Celia blinked at him for a moment then lowered the broom with a gasp. “Vincente! Oh, my, look at you!”

Vin just laughed, dropping his arms around her as she swooped in for a hug. He could feel her breath warm his chest where she laughed. “How are you, Mama?” he asked quietly.

Celia stepped back, eyes shining and hands latched to his arm. “Better now, little one!” She tugged him inside. “But you are not so little anymore. Please tell me how you are? Are you here to tell me you are getting married?”

Vin allowed her to tug him into the cozy house he remembered from his youth. Concrete replaced the hard-packed dirt floor he remembered and colorful rugs brightened the interior. It was neat and clean, but seemed so much smaller than he recalled. “No, no, not anything like that," he chuckled. "I am sorry to say that I can’t stay long.”

Celia pushed Vin into a chair and she bustled into the kitchen, immediately organizing a small meal. Vin knew better than to refuse - and the hunger-awaking smells of roasting onions and peppers couldn’t be ignored. He shrugged off his backpack and watched her work.

“I’ve missed you, Celia. I’ve been doing well. I have some good friends in Colorado.”

“Colorado?” she said as she added spices to the cooking vegetables. She glanced up at Vin with a look that he knew well - Celia could read him nearly as well as Chris Larabee. “But there is more. You are not happy.”

“I was, but something happened.” Vin paused and regarded his fingernails, picking at a chipped spot on one edge. “I can’t tell you any details, Mama. For your safety.”

She smirked at him and cracked two eggs over the pan, whipping them into the mix as they cooked. “My safety? That must mean that you are in jeopardy. What can I do?”

“I need to go west. I need to get to Tijuana, but not too quickly. I need to gather information as I go.”

“If you are the Vincente I remember, you walked here. You need a ride, yes?” She summed up as she slipped the plate of hot food in front of him along with a small bowl of her home made salsa and a roll of fresh tortillas.

Vin nodded, “Yes,” then he tucked into the offering like the starving man he was. Celia came over and placed a glass of water near his plate and then sat across from him. “And thank you for this. I’ve missed your cooking. And you.”

"I still hear Texas in your Spanish", she teased. Celia studied him for a minute, smiling, before her expression turned serious. “Is the happiness you lost in Tijuana?” she asked somberly.

Vin met her eyes and after a moment and shook his head, his mouth too full to speak. He chewed and swallowed, then drank the water, watching her watch him. “No,” he finally said. “I have to right a wrong first. After that -” he shrugged, and picked at the food. “Happiness may follow. I have to take the chance it will.”

She sighed and sat back in her chair, her large frame making the wood squeak in protest. “I will help you, but you must promise to come back to me. I need to know you are happy. Now tell me about Colorado.” Motioning him to clean his plate, Vin started to eat again and told her all about the six men that made up his family. His descriptions were brief, but as he spoke of each one in turn clear memories cluttered his mind. He felt closer to them as he spoke but Vin knew he couldn’t think of them again after this day if his vague plan had any chance of working. They had to be his secret.

Celia knew exactly what was going through his head and Vin knew his secret was safe here. They then talked of the past, of Vin’s sporadic appearances at her home and the mischief he got into, until his plate was clean.

She snatched up the dish and deposited it with a few others in her dish pan and wiped her hands on her apron. “I suppose you need to go right away,” she pointedly asked. Vin nodded. “Then I will be right back.” When she passed Vin she ruffled his hair and disappeared out a side door.

Vin took the time to wash the few dishes and then dry them. He just hung up the dish towel when Celia returned with a skinny, older man trailing behind. “This is Tomas and he agreed to let you have his son’s motorcycle. Ramon went north last year and has not returned. Tomas says he does not need it anymore. I hope it will do.”

Vin nodded a greeting to the man and stepped around them. Parked next to the house was a grey and black dirt bike. It was older, but exceptionally well cared for.

“I owe Senora Celia much,” Tomas’ hoarse voice scratched. “It is yours as a gift.”

Vin smiled. “It’s perfect,” he said. “Thank you.” He pulled some money from his boot and insisted the man take some of it. When he refused, Vin suggested that he donate it for school supplies and Tomas took it with a smile before shuffling away. Then, Vin turned to Celia. “Thank you. I will pass through here again, I promise.”

Celia patted his cheek, her eyes shining. “I will pray for you, my Vincente.”

Vin donned his pack, pecked her on the cheek and mounted the bike. It started with ease. He waved farewell and pointed the machine west, leaving a long tail of dust behind. Ahead, miles of deadly desert waited.


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