Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Frontera Dogs by JD Smith

In Arizona we’d cleared Customs without a hitch, because the bill of lading said microwaves and not Mexicans, and we went offroad near Bisbee. I was looking at a sky full of stars, and I could already feel my hands getting chafed from handling all the cash. Things went to shit in a hurry. The darkness in the rearview mirror was broken by a flashing Mars light. In a flat piece of desert those lights could be a long way off, but they were coming for us. Fuck.

Of all the people who could arrest you out there - feds, highway patrol, reservation police - who had we forgotten to pay off?

It had to be state conservation. There were so few of them that we could hardly find them, and those fanatics would rather save a cactus owl than make a decent living. You can’t reason with people like that.

The Mars light was gaining on us, growing in the rearview mirror, and the siren got louder. If we went any faster than fifty we could wipe out or tip over, and that went against Chato's first rule: never die for a load. You can't turn a profit when you're dead.

The car behind us had balls like an elephant. We could see headlights now.

"What are you thinking?" I asked, looking back.

"Pull over," Chato said. "When they stop you can tell them you're lost."

"No way are they going to believe that."

"Tranquilo, buey. I'll take care of everything."

Things made sense now. For emergencies Chato carried a stack of C-notes in his breast pocket - thick enough to stop a bullet, he said - and that might be enough to make the granola rangers look the other way just this once. They could give the money to Greenpeace for all we cared.

I power-braked in a stretch without too many rocks, and as I flipped on the hazards Chato opened the door and dropped to the sand to set out a flare.

I thought that's what he was doing.

A minute passed, and I still didn't see him.

"Where you at, man?"

"Cállate. Tell them you're alone."

Whatever. Maybe I’d tell them I'd been eight days on the road and wanted to make it home tonight, just like in the song. Or maybe I could confess I was looking to run over a javelina, just tenderize it a little bit before grilling it. If anybody ate those things.

I had my license and papers ready and my hands up on the steering wheel as a white officer came up and a Latino hung back. It was café con leche night in the Sonoran Desert.

I was getting out of the truck just like the nice officer said when I heard a thud near the white man’s feet. He crouched. It was just a rock, but only one person could have thrown it.

The white man was still straightening up when the first shot blasted out from under the trailer and struck his shoulder. He was knocked back but started getting up as he reached for his holster. A second round turned his head to pulp and red mist.

The Latino started backpedaling and trying to draw his sidearm when round three hit him in the thigh. It started gushing. The slug had opened an artery. He might last ten minutes, but that was apparently too long to wait. As he rocked and moaned on the sand another shot tore into the space between his shoulder blades. He wouldn't be firing back.

He was still twitching when Chato crawled out and put a final bullet between his eyes.

He let his gun arm go slack and smiled. "I always wanted to do that."

My heart was thumping and I was taking quick breaths like a kid huffing glue. I didn’t even know he’d been carrying. By now there was thumping from inside the trailer, and shouts from our living cargo. Our livestock. They hadn’t paid for this.

"What in the fucking world are you doing?" I yelled. There was no point in not yelling. The dead wouldn’t mind.

"We're getting into the big time now. It's a cost of doing business."

It wasn’t clear how long we would stay in business. Backup could be on the way. I didn’t have to think of this when I was just going to play dumb on a traffic stop.

"Now what?" I asked.

"We go before somebody else catches up with us."

"How can we outrun anybody with this trailer?"

"We're not taking the trailer." Chato emptied his clip into the rear tires. The thumping and pounding from the inside got louder, along with the shouts.

"So we're just letting them out in the middle of the goddamn desert?"

"We're not letting them out, dude." Chato punched in another clip. "Our socios in Tucson might start thinking we cut them out of something." He loosely pointed the barrel at the trailer.

“Besides, they know too much."

"You mean . . ."

"We go and they stay. Sometimes you lose a load." He could have been talking about pallets of melons.

Chato was the boss, after all, and right now he was a boss with a gun. As we unhitched the trailer the commotion inside reminded me of crawdads in a deep pot.

We bobtailed the hell out of there.

In Tucson our socios gave us partial payment for our trouble. There was talk about investing in a good business relationship. Everybody was happy, or happy enough, that our secrets were still safe.

Back in Houston we saw the news at a diner. There was no backup. The officers had been found, less what the animals had eaten, and footage showed paramedics in facemasks carrying stretchers covered with white sheets.

There were twenty-seven. One was Mario, who had an engineering degree and still couldn't find a job. Another was Catalina, who wanted to join her sister in Denver. Somewhere in there was little Javier, who wanted to raise enough money to have his harelip fixed.

I kept down the chicken-fried steak I'd eaten so far, but pushed the plate away.

"You don't look so good, amigo," Chato said, in the way of someone who wasn't so much your amigo after all. "Maybe this is not the work for you."

"That could be true."

"Maybe you'll feel better after you put your face between your wife's big chichis."

That should have told me everything I needed to know, but I was used to nodding along with what he said. We needed the money.

After that I only got legit loads, and only on this side of the border. The company was building up its name, getting a respectable office downtown like Enron used to have, and didn't need somebody like me at Customs anymore. Fair enough. But I was getting longer and longer hauls: Idaho, Washington, California.

At the end of a ten-day run I came home to find Graciela crying.

"I won't have to be gone like this forever," I said, and figured I could make good on my promise.

Graciela lifted her head from my shoulder and looked up.

"That's not the problem."

"Then what is?"

She started crying again, then caught her breath. "I didn't want to tell you over the phone. You would have gotten worried. While you were gone Chato came over." She hesitated again. "He wanted to be with me."

"Damn right I would have been worried." She didn’t like my swearing in front of her, but we had bigger problems. "What did he do?"

"He told me he could give me a lot more than you could," she said. "He said you were a dumb redneck who wasn't going anywhere."

I was a redneck, and I wasn't all that smart. I sure as hell wasn't going to light the world on fire. Chato was kind of right, but nobody likes having his nose rubbed in it.

"What do you think?"

"I'm with you."

That should have been enough to shut me up, but now I had a head of steam.

"What else did he do?"

She spat out the words like spoiled food. "He tried to kiss me on the mouth, and he put his hand here." She put a hand under her blouse.

"He was an animal. Before he left he threw money on the floor and said there was a lot more where that came from. I told him I was nobody's puta, and when I tried to throw the money back at him he walked out."

Graciela took me to our office - a large closet with a lightbulb overhead - and took out of the desk a folded stack of hundreds held together by the silver money clip Chato gave new customers. No one else got to give them out.

"What do we do now?"

"Keep the money. You're going to need it."

In ten minutes she had a bag packed and the cash rolled up with a rubber band, and she was on the road to her parents in Corpus. She could lie low without watching her back all day until it was safe to come back. I'd seen Chato get bored waiting for one woman and take a shine to another. If he didn't, I could join her down there.

I stayed home that night and all the next day. Anybody who just happened to be in the neighborhood would see my truck out on the street. When I got back to the garage, Josie at the front desk told me Chato and one of the new guys were on a run between Nogales and Tucson. With any luck they could deliver the load this time.

I slipped the empty money clip into his pigeonhole on the wall. He’d have something to think about. As I sorted through my own mail Josie told me another run had come up on short notice, a flatbed of steel pipes to Laredo, with a chance at a reefer car of mangos on the way back.

This would be one way to pass the time. I washed down a yellow jacket with a swig of Dr Pepper and went to pick up the flatbed.

God must have loved Texas, my daddy said, because He sure made a lot of it.

I had time to think about that, and a lot else, as the drive went on and day turned to night. The image of Chato coolly unhitching that trailer, and the stretchers, twenty-seven of them, followed me around now.

I followed the directions to a job site on the edge of town, but I was thinking - who paid for a rush delivery of pipes? They're not the kind of thing that catches you by surprise. I came to a steel skeleton and a construction trailer with a light on inside. In the headlights the beams and girders showed streaks of rust, as if there’d been a long break in construction. This was definitely one screwed-up company. I got out of the cab with a clipboard in my hand, and the watchman answered on the first knock. He signed the paperwork and tore out his copies before walking down the steps behind me as we went to look over the load.

Once I stepped into the open he gave a whistle that pierced my ears. Then came the snarls and barks without a warning. Frontera dogs don't wear tags. I was surrounded by a Rottweiler mix and a pit bull, a couple of seriously badass German Shepherds, and a skinny Doberman that hung back and looked a little dull in the eyes. Before I could move I was wearing those dogs. Long teeth sunk in and took out skin and meat from under my clothes, and the blood seeped out of me until I smelled like the start of a pig roast.

Throwing knees and elbows didn't slow the dogs down. Kicking and punching left me exposed. I rolled up like an armadillo to protect my throat and my nuts, then jerked a knife out of my boot and slashed when I could.

Now the dogs were bleeding, too, but they weren't impressed.

Finally I played possum, or got too weak to do anything else.

Sunburn on open gashes woke me up. The dogs were gone, except for the Doberman, bled out and drawing flies a few feet away, but my cab was still there. I crawled over and pulled myself up by a lugnut to look around. No one else was there.

It was strange enough to still have the truck, but my keys were in one pocket and my wallet still at the end of its chain in another. I dry-heaved myself awake and started to put things together: the cheap bastard wouldn't even pay enough to have me killed right.

I gave the first aid kit a workout and pointed the rig to Corpus so Graciela could take care of me.

In a few days the scabs started to flake off, but a narrow U on my left arm swelled up and started hurting again. Four of the dogs had wide jaws, so this bite must have come from the Doberman that wasn't acting right.

I started to put things together. That fucking dog had been rabid, and now I would be, too.

I rolled down my sleeves and borrowed Graciela's car. It would feel good to get out a little, I said. At the health department office near the house I picked up a pamphlet that said shots might work at this point, and then again they might not. If things got worse I could try to ride out the fever in a hospital bed, but there was no guarantee I’d live through that, either.

For once, I would get something right.

The next morning I took off again and swapped out the car for my rig at the body shop that Graciela’s cousin runs. I saw Houston's skyline before noon.

I worked out the next play. In a minute, or an hour, Chato greets me like a long-lost brother and asks where I’ve been. It’s not a shallow grave like he expected. Then he tells me I’ll be paid for the days I was gone, no problem, and he shakes my hand.

I shake his hand, too, then jerk it up quick up to take a deep bite, then go for his arms and his neck if I can get to it before his gorillas break in. I keep biting until they pull me off and maybe take a piece out of them, too.

My problems will be solved by a bullet or a chokehold. I’ll just be the office rampage of the week. Graciela will get some insurance money and a chance to start over.

Chato’s problems are just beginning, if he lives to have them. His friends in Tucson aren’t the kind that like publicity, and I don’t see him thinking to get shots, either.

As I go through the steps one more time the receptionist looks up from her desk and points a red-nailed hand toward the office.

"Mr Godinez will see you now."

Damn right he will.