Border Crossed - Cover

Border Crossed

Copyright© 2023 by Lumpy

Chapter 5

Taylor and Whitaker’s black SUV pulled to a gravelly stop on the shoulder of the state road, dust billowing around it in a choking cloud as they both stepped out to look over the area.

They’d gotten an early morning start after a few hours of sleep, which made it midday when they reached their destination. The problem was, Taylor had only identified a section of interest on the map. In person, it was a desolate stretch of scrub brush and wire fences, for all intents and purposes a lifeless patch of earth that could have been on the moon as much as in west Texas.

On top of that, it was hot. It reminded him of being in Iraq, the way it felt like your skin was sizzling on a hot plate and your blood might boil any minute.

“So, what now?” Whitaker asked, looking over the hood of the SUV at him.

“I don’t know,” Taylor said, reaching into the vehicle and pulling out a pair of binoculars.

He scanned the horizon, searching for ... he had no idea what. Shimmering waves of heat made everything as far as he could see look distorted. He looked past Whitaker and the SUV, back the way they came, and down the path of the road, and saw nothing for miles. It wasn’t until he looked across the roadway that he thought he saw something. Far off in the distance, he thought he saw what looked like a few buildings. A ranch, maybe.

“Is there anything shown on the map in this area?”

“Yeah. Something called the McMertry Ranch is supposed to be out here somewhere. These guys have thousands of acres, although what the hell their animals could be grazing on is as much your guess as mine.”

“I think I see it. Maybe they’ve seen something.”

“Maybe. It’s that or we go wandering through the desert until we pass out from heat exhaustion.”

“Yeah, right,” Taylor said, climbing back into the SUV.

He hadn’t thought it out right when they left, but this really was their only play. Anything the cartels were doing out here would be obscured, or it would have been picked up by one of the drone or Cessna flights the border patrol did over the area looking for crossings and such. If it was more than a few guys, though, the locals would know it. These were people who lived in the middle of nowhere by choice. In a place like this, the only way that would work was if you knew your neighbors, the few there were, and you worked together. If something happened to one of them, the only help they would get would be from the rest of them.

Taylor drove until he saw an arch with an M in the middle of it, that he assumed stood for McMertry, over a dirt road that headed off in the direction of the buildings he’d seen. Turning onto the road, he drove slowly, partially because of the uneven nature of the roadway and partially because people in places like this tended to be suspicious of strangers.

Sure enough, an older man in a button-up shirt, well-worn jeans, and a cowboy hat stood at the end of the accessway, hands on his hips, watching them closely as they pulled to a stop in front of him. Although this wasn’t work Taylor would ever want to do, he’d grown to appreciate the type of person that did. Direct, blunt, and without time for small talk and nonsense, he found dealing with them preferable over most of the people he dealt with regularly in D.C.

The man looked them up and down as they got out of the SUV, taking in Whitaker’s no-nonsense pantsuit and Taylor in his dusty brown leather jacket and jeans, probably trying to put the two pieces together.

“Don’t you two make a pair,” he said, hands at his hips.

“Are you Mr. McMertry?” Whitaker asked.

“That’s right. State your business.”

“I’m Agent Whitaker and this is Taylor. We’re hoping you can help us.”

“Depends,” the man said.

Whitaker looked to Taylor. He knew she found his way of talking frustrating, and this guy had taken it to a science. Taylor actually thought he could learn a thing or two from him and knew it must be killing Whitaker. Of course, it was also his idea that brought them out there, so he was the more logical one to ask the questions.

“Sir, we have reason to believe there may have been increased drug or migrant trafficking in this area recently. Have you noticed anything unusual in the last six months? An uptick in large truck traffic, maybe heading to a particular location nearby?”

The rancher thought for a moment, shrugged, and said, “Not much in the way of large trucks, no. Nearest large state road is ten miles west and they hardly ever use that. Mostly stick to the ten if they’re going east or west. Anything going north or south would be out by El Paso. Not much out here but ranches and scrub.”

“So nothing you can think of as odd, out of place, or notable has happened over the last two or three months?” Whitaker asked.

“Things stay pretty much the same round here all the time. Only thing that I guess I would say is odd, is all the vehicles coming in and out of the old Ortiz place. I didn’t think of it right away, ‘cause you asked about large trucks, and there haven’t been any of those. Mostly it’s personal vehicles and smaller box trucks, like the kind folks can rent in the city. It isn’t constant enough to be notable, really. There’ll be nothing for a few weeks, then a wave of vehicles, then nothing for another stretch. I guess I assumed they were making something up there that took time to produce, or maybe they stored up something and shipped it out when they got enough. I’d say dairy, except this isn’t exactly dairy country, but there’s all kinds of stuff these days that we didn’t have when I was a kid. Hell, half my barn is robots these days, so I figure there are all types.”

Taylor and Whitaker exchanged a glance. While the farmer’s explanation made a kind of sense, the activity also fit pretty close with shipments over the border, and the time frame was just right. The only part that didn’t fit was that they were pretty far inland, and Taylor had never heard of a tunnel this long before. It would have taken some pretty impressive engineering and even more impressive spycraft to keep the border patrol, who constantly looked for signs of tunneling, from noticing.

“You said this was owned by someone named Ortiz?” Taylor asked.

“Not anymore. They sold, ohh, eight or nine months or so ago and headed back down to Mexico. They were both getting on in years and I think, the way the ranching business has been gettin’ lately, they just didn’t want to do it no more.”

Taylor and Whitaker exchanged a glance for the third time. A couple with ties to Mexico would fit into the puzzle they were building.

“Did you know them well?” Whitaker asked.

“Sure. Emanuel was older than me by about fifteen years or so and was running their farm when I was still in grammar school, so he’s been around basically my whole life. His father moved up in the late fifties and bought the place, but the cancer took him when Emanuel was about twenty-two, leaving the place to him. He married a girl from back in his parents’ hometown, and she immigrated in the eighties, then they got married. They started looking for buyers almost two years ago, but as you can imagine, there isn’t a lot of demand for this kind of land. Only people who ever really want land around here’s the government, and they usually try to just take it through eminent domain, rather than buy it at a fair price.”

“So after several years, a buyer just popped up. Do you know anything about this buyer?”

“Not really. Never met them. Hell, I don’t even think it’s a them. I think it’s some company or another. Emanuel said they sent some fancy lawyer down here to negotiate. Their money was good and it wasn’t like he had any other offers, so he sold. I guess I woulda done the same in his place. They left it empty for a while, then we started seeing the trucks and what not coming and going. Never did see no one moving in though.”

“So you haven’t talked to them?” Taylor asked. “What about any of your other neighbors? Maybe over the phone?”

“Nope, not a peep. It’s kind of a mystery, really. We’ve all been wondering. I mean, it’s not that unusual to have a corporation buy up property when you’re a farmer or a rancher, but usually, you at least get to know the managers they send down. But nope. No one ever came out to talk to us, and without an invitation, you don’t just walk onto another man’s land. Even if that land belongs to shareholders or whatever. It’s just how things are done down here.”

“Could you point out where their farm is located,” Whitaker said, handing over a road map of the area.

This area of the map was pretty barren, but at least it showed the state road they’d just been on, which was good enough to find another farmstead like this one.

“Sure,” the farmer said, sidling over and taking the map from Whitaker. “The road onto their property is about five miles this way and the farm itself is set back about half a mile or so from the road, a lot like mine is. There used to be a stand of mesquite trees right at the turnoff, but I haven’t been down that way in a few months, so don’t take my word on it.”

“That’s good enough for us,” Taylor said, giving the man a sharp nod. “Thanks for your time.”

“Sure. If you folks figure out what they’re doing over there, maybe come let us know. Give me something to share with the wife, make her feel important next time she talks to the other old biddies.”

“We’ll try,” Taylor said, giving the man a smile and climbing back into the SUV.

“Sounds promising,” Taylor said, as he swung the SUV around and left the rancher behind.

“The Mexican couple may be nothing. They might be Mexican, but if they were born here and lived here that long, it doesn’t strike me as all that likely that they were some kind of cartel plant or anything,” Whitaker said.

“No, they probably weren’t, but that doesn’t mean the cartel couldn’t have bought the property. The fact that they were still in touch with relatives back in Mexico gives the cartels a way to hear about the property, and the timeline fits. Yeah, it’s not big trucks, but personal trucks, SUVs, and box trucks could do the job of driving contraband out here. They’re also off the beaten track and well away from the border, so it wouldn’t be hard to skip border patrol, making this a lot safer and more profitable way to smuggle in drugs.”

“That tunnel would have to be miles long and pretty deep to reduce the chance of a cave-in on some farmer’s property. They wouldn’t know if a rancher might dig a well or anything.”

“It already has to be deep to get under the Rio Grande. Just have to dig it further in a straight line. Just because the cartels aren’t a government, don’t doubt they could pull something like that off. You should have seen some of the built-out cave networks the Taliban and Al Qaeda built into the Afghan mountains, and they didn’t have anywhere near the kind of funding the cartels have. This is completely within their ability to do.”

“Maybe,” Whitaker said. “But I don’t see how they could do it without anyone noticing.”

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