The Texas ranch belonging to Col. David Carter was, for every possible denotation of the phrase, ‘in the middle of nowhere.’ The nearest town to the hundred acre site was Vancourt, but the border to the ranch was still a good hundred kilometres east of it. Very few signs along the highway gave indication that a traveller might be in proximity of Carter’s ranch. It didn’t even appear on some maps. Many passers-through just assumed that the ranch was abandoned, others that it was cursed. This was not unusual. The deserted wilds of Texas were apparently subject to all manner of supernatural phenomena, spawning dozens of myths, tall-tales and terrible horror flicks.
That it was so isolated was not, in fact, Carter’s own intention. The few small, homemade signs that pointed out the ranch from the highway, Route 87, he had fashioned himself, in an attempt to attract temporary cattle-herders and strong men. In fact, what he got were teenagers and young couples, all hopelessly lost, all asking would he please point them in the right direction. None of them, it seemed, were looking for jobs. For this reason alone, Carter found that had little sympathy with the youths. Okay, so you are on holiday. But why are you dressed like a punk, why are you hastily extinguishing that spliff as if I’m going to call your parents, and how in hell have you got lost on a road that was, still is and probably always will be nothing more complicated than a straight line through the desert? He didn’t say this to them, though. He wouldn’t give them the time out of his day. Instead, he smiled, all friendly like; sold them some gas, filled their water bottles, and offered to show them where they wanted to go. If they even knew where that was. But hey, he wasn’t some genetically-mutated man-hunter; Leatherface or whatever that guy was called. He was an old USAF man, just the kind of chummy sucker who can’t wait to give the next generation a chance to step up to the plate.
Occasionally, he did get ranchers, usually from neighbouring villages and farms, who drove beat up old pick-ups and sounded like hicks. Many took on work at Carter’s ranch. After all, he could afford to pay well, the land was good and there was relative freedom. Not every candidate took on the job though, as Carter himself had used to test each individual. That alone would be the beating of a few of these modern young farm-boys; to be mentally tested any which way. If they didn’t answer his simple questions, if they couldn’t string a sentence together, or they at any point called him ‘Granddad,’ then he would tell them to get lost. Perhaps he was harsh. All you really needed for ranching was a strong pair of hands and a good back. Out in the fields, an ability for answering questions was really rather unnecessary. The reason Carter did it, though, was in case he found himself in a position where he had to co-operate with one of the men in a particularly difficult job, ploughing the rocky North Field for instance, and not have them understand his instructions and advice. That really would put the wind up him. Therefore, other than to encourage or to advise, he now rarely communicated with any of the workers aside from Valdez.
Valdez, the only full-time resident of Carter’s ranch, was the undisputed second-in-command, and had been for twenty years, since Carter had taken it upon himself to purchase the land back in 2012. The man was likely Portuguese or Mexican; Carter had never found out, and was probably also an illegal immigrant. Nonetheless, he recalled the day that he had first posted job-vacancies signs in local stores and had even made up some flyers, and, not five or so minutes had passed, before this scruffy, smelly, beaten-up Hispanic stumbles in. Spoke perhaps five words of English, chewed the disgusting cuff of his shirt; Carter was all but ready to send the guy on his way. That was the moment when a huge beast of a man, likely the one who had beat up Valdez, had crashed through the door, a huge fist throbbing and shaking in the immigrant’s direction, a thick iron poker clenched in the other hammy hand. Carter, at his desk, had in his opinion reached for his gun commendably quickly, but he was out-stripped by this filthy, young Hispanic who, standing, smacked the brute something nasty in the mouth. It was a good punch, and the man had roared through a spray of his own teeth. By which time, Carter had a clear shot at the man’s head. The thug had never returned to pick a fight with Valdez, and died long after, unable to chew. After Carter had stowed the shotgun, Valdez had turned to Carter, apologised, and made for the door. In that instant though, his fate had been decided.
Carter spoke some Spanish. He was an educated man after all, and, with the occasional use of hand-signs, Valdez and he successfully negotiated a contract on that day. His first employee. He still remembered shaking hands with the delighted young man and that look in his eye, which betrayed the mother of all angels; hope. He hadn’t just secured work, he had secured a niche and perhaps just a little bit more safety. To this day, Carter was ready to admit that the young immigrant had taught him a thing or two about first impressions. He wasn’t a racist, like many Texans he could care to name, and he had no beef with illegal immigrants. He had always thought that America was supposed to be the ‘Land of Opportunity.’ Why shouldn’t this guy, who looked as if he had even been rejected from the back of beyond, get his chance at life? He had also discovered that Valdez’s apparent nonchalance had not been in any way disrespectful towards him; the man had explained in the aftermath that he had been so used to rejection that he had more or less given up on ever finding work. Appearances could be deceptive.
Valdez, it turned out, was intelligent and adaptable, quickly mastering the farming machinery that Carter himself was yet to fully understand. At first, Carter was unsure how best to employ Valdez. He had the guy running errands, picking up machinery parts and oil and other necessities for a few months, before realising that the man now probably knew the ranch better than he did. Whenever he was not picking up goods for Carter, Valdez disappeared off into the vacant fields and, as his English quickly improved, he was even able to point his boss in the right direction, when they had once stumbled across a small copse of bent-over trees, which Carter had had no idea he even owned. So far, no other candidates had matched up to Valdez under questioning, and Carter was starting to realise that his first find may well turn out to be his best, and that he could well be asking too much in attempting to employ others in the mould of Valdez. So, regretfully, he eased up on the interrogation, and started employing drifters, hicks and farm-boys, provided they could keep their spittle in their mouths and could speak for longer than four seconds without stopping to think. He also promoted Valdez to a position of power; his right-hand man, someone who could tell the workers what to do, keep them organised, and of course, lead the annual herding of the cattle. But still, even now in the present day, where he rode a motorbike and wore a flashy leather jacket, he would make his way to the post office after Carter had paid him, address a package to his homeland, and send half of his wage packet to his family.
Carter paid Valdez a lot now, probably too much for a cattle-herder and cultivator driver. Even with half of his pay going back to his family, Valdez was still able to acquire his motorbike, a Chevy pick-up and even some of the machinery for the ranch that Carter had neglected to buy himself. He also spent the lonely winters, when the workers went home and Carter was with the USAF or NASA, tending to the desolate ranch, making sure it remained in a respectable state, that the soil remained rich and fertile, and that he had enough flyers for future job vacancies made up for the summer. What Carter didn’t understand was why Valdez didn’t take a holiday, and go check up on his family. When Carter offered, one humid summer evening, whilst enjoying a cold beer with his right-hand man, to employ a temporary rancher to overlook things while the guy took a break, Valdez had shaken his head. He had then shown Carter one of the responses to the constant stream of packages he sent back to his family. It was not, as Carter had himself surmised, his wife who had written the response, but a young girl; Valdez’s daughter.
“My wife left me long time ago,” Valdez had explained, staring into the distance, the beer bottle loosely clasped in his left hand, “before I come to America. We married when we eighteen, but split when we twenty-one. I make… mistake. Very bad mistake. Nina was pregnant also, when I make mistake, and she told me to make it up to her and the baby. This the only way I know how. Honest, hard work. At first, my money was for Nina, to support her, but now it is for my daughter, child-support and her allowance. She is teenager now, seventeen. She’s never seen me. But she writes every week. Every week, Della writes…”
It seemed that Valdez’s daughter was saving the money he sent, in order to travel to America herself one day, to find herself in the same way that her father had done. Some time after this, when Valdez had a mobile phone, he had spoken of conversing with his daughter for the first time. Now he worked away, doing everything that there was spare to do on the ranch, all for Carter’s money, all so that one day he could see his daughter.
Carter had, not long after, taken time to consider this. He had hiked out across his acres, leaving behind the stores, his home, Valdez’s lodgings and the worker’s cabins, taking with him his rucksack and hiking poles. The exercise had been important too, for it had been a long summer, and Carter had lost some of his once steely will-power under the ever-deadening glare of the Texas sun. But mainly, Carter had wanted to think about what Valdez had told him. There had been so much in the young immigrant that Carter had recognised had once been in himself. Integrity, mostly, a willingness to be the best one could be. But at the same time, he realised that there was a major difference between them, something hidden in Valdez that was not, in fact, hidden in Carter. Valdez did not blame his wife for not allowing him to see the daughter, as a man like himself may well have done. Instead, he looked to make it up to her by providing for the daughter. The man was humble; he didn’t think of himself as the big-shot who went to America and found his place. He was the labourer, pounding away in the fields, cracking his whip at the cattle, all for that faintest hope that one day there could be a reprieve. In his prime, Valdez had once reminded Carter a little of the character Slim in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men; the emotionless, God-like master of the ranch and its workers. But he couldn’t have been more wrong. Valdez willingly gave this sort of impression, but Carter had been too blind, too insensitive, to realise that the man had a deeper, burning, emotional sense of purpose. He hadn’t found his niche at all. He was still digging one out of the wall. How and in what manner he did this were not relevant. It didn’t matter how generous Carter was, how much he paid him, how much power he let him have over the running of the ranch. This was all still punishment.
Carter did not have this burning sense of desire that Valdez kept hidden. If you were to remove his hard-bitten exterior you would find… what would you find? Not much, in all likelihood. Carter’s own daughters, of two different wives, were Lucy, Sara and Jodie. He prided himself on remembering all of their names, Indeed, he had one young son somewhere whose name he did not, in fact, know. None of his daughters had ever written to him, not even to ask for money. They had probably forgotten that he was their father, and settled down to accept the replacements enlisted by the two ex-wives. And the thing was, he didn’t mind about it all that much. His attitude to his offspring was quite simple. Fuck it. There, that was it. And that was how he was different from Valdez, and what made him respect the man all the more.