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In The Beginning . . .

The battered Jeep Station Wagon rolled to a stop at a gate. Three strands of barbed wire hung in long, irregular sags between crazyleaning wood posts, stretching from north to south across the desert. The fence looked as though it had been there since the Apaches left.  The Jeep, too, had been aged by the desert.  Its pale green and white paint was faded by years in the southwestern sun and the round blue and gold decals on its doors had been scratched and torn by thousands of miles driving through the thorny borderlands of west Texas.  The cloud of dust it had been dragging along the desert trail rolled forward to add yet another layer to the rig and its occupants.

The tracks of five people continued on the other side of the gate, shining like faded mirrors as the sand, pressed smooth by the feet, reflected the morning sun that was coming up in the men’s faces. To one side, the wire was pressed down where the walkers had climbed over it.

The balding man in the driver’s seat squinted into the dawn glare with eyes the color of old denim, bleached out in the raw climate.  The wrinkles around his eyes and on the rest of his hatchet face betrayed a lifetime of sunglare and hot wind. 

“Open the gate, kid.  We’ll find feet in these tracks pretty quick.”

Ken Travis stepped out the door of the old Jeep.  He stood for a moment looking around before he reached high over his head and then bent from the waist and touched his toes. He stretched his six-foot frame to straighten out the kinks put in his back by hours of rough riding on the desert trails.  His stiff, new gunleather creaked in protest at being reshaped.

He didn’t like being called “kid”, but at twenty-two and looking eighteen, brand new to the Border Patrol, and on probation for another eight months, he didn’t think he was in a position to object to anything somebody wearing tin wanted to call him.

  After an hour of promise the sun was above the horizon at last.  It lit the surrounding barren mountains clear to their bases on the desert floor.  Ken had watched as dawn pinkened their crests, then as the light grew brighter and brighter it flowed down the mountains like paint splashed on a wall.  The countryside, wrinkled and torn as a discarded bandanna, was lit in outrageous shades of purple and gold and red that would look gaudy if done by anyone but God. 

The passage of a cold front in the night had brought showers that washed away the dust and smog.  At dawn, now, the sky was a deep, unrelieved blue and the air was chilly. Later, the heat would return, the sky would look like a sheet of polished stainless steel and the sunglare would sap any beauty from the scene.  Now, though, this late September day of 1968 was gorgeous.

He shivered quickly in the dawn breeze.  It had been in the 40’s overnight and the sun had not yet warmed things.  He unsnapped a ring of keys from his gun belt and opened the Border Patrol lock on the chain that secured the gate.  After sliding a wire catch loop up off the post he walked the three strands out of the way while the jeep passed through. 

How the hell does he have any idea of how far behind those five we are?  He’d wondered a lot of things since he had come back from the Border Patrol Academy a couple weeks before, wearing his shiny, new Patrol Inspector’s badge. This was his first day on the sign cutting detail, but he’d heard about how “The Real” Diehl could track a snake across a rock ledge. 

At the Academy he’d learned some of the basics of tracking men across the desert but there had been nothing that would explain much of what he’d seen in just a few hours with Diehl.  The instructors had told them it wasn’t a skill you could learn in class; you had to be out there and do it. He hoped that despite Diehl’s reserved attitude he’d pass some of the information along, but Ken didn’t want to be pushy with his questions or too talkative.  Diehl seemed given to silence, so it had been quiet in the vehicle since the shift started at 2:00 a.m. 

God, but it’s beautiful out here this time of day. The Jeep passed through the gate.  He closed it and locked the chain, and then got back in. 

 “That’s one of the few good things about working with a trainee, not having to get out and unlock gates.” Diehl said.  “Did you lock it again?”

“Yes, sir.”   Ken had been raised to be respectful of his elders, but even allowing for that, “sir” seemed a word you’d naturally use to Diehl.  

The old slab-sided Jeep ran along the sandy trail, bucking and rattling as they followed the footprints.  A haze of dust hung constantly in the air in the vehicle, brought up from the sand and dirt on the bare steel floorboards by the pounding of the trail.  Dust was a fact of life everywhere in the southwest, Ken had noticed.  It sure was around El Paso and he hadn’t even been here yet for the spring dust storms that arrive in April and May.

They’d found the tracks about 3:00 a.m. just north of Interstate 10 as they drove slowly along the drag road, looking for fresh footprints headed north.  About midnight the evening shift had pulled a drag along that sandy road.  He’d seen the drag when they turned onto the road, a gadget made from an old set of tractor tires chained side-by side together and laid flat.  When pulled along the road by a jeep it knocked out all the old sign, marks left in the dirt by whatever passed that way, leaving a fresh, smooth surface for intruders to leave tracks in as they headed north.  Like everything else that moved in the desert, the drag generated vast clouds of dust. They inevitably blew forward into the rig, too thick to breathe but too thin to plow.

Let’s see . . . the drag was pulled about eleven o’clock last night and the tracks are on top of the drag marks, so they must have been made sometime after then.  That means they were no more than three or four hours old when we found them. 

Applying what they’d told him at school, he guessed that meant the group probably had developed as much as a seven or eight mile lead by the time he and Diehl got onto their trail.  Maybe more, though.  Usually, the larger the group, the slower they went, but this one was moving right along, not real fast, but steady.  There had been no sign of stops to be found in the sand, beyond a place or two where one or another of them had stopped to take a leak.

The tracks had wandered back and forth through the brush, heading generally north, then they hit this sand trail and lined out, headed northeast . . . to what?  From the beginning, Diehl had leapfrogged ahead on the trail, not looking for tracks every inch of the way, but just stopping now and again for a quick glance.  Ken was sure they must have gained quickly on the group by doing that, but he wasn’t sure how Diehl knew they continued from one place to the next.

“Goddam rigs” Diehl growled.  “Somebody’s gonna get killed in one if the outfit doesn’t get us some new stuff.  And some decent mechanics.” The steering gear was so worn and loose on the ten-year old Jeep that that Diehl had to saw the wheel back and forth in quarter-turns just to stay between the bushes on either side of the trail.  They were a thrill a minute to drive on the highway.

Suddenly a roar filled the Jeep, accompanied by a hard ‘thud” on the roof.  Ken ducked away from his window and Diehl swerved violently off to the left, bouncing over a mesquite bush, launching Ken up against the roof.  A manic laugh, followed by “Gotcha, gotcha, gotcha” came over the two-way radio as a small green airplane flew away, low over the brush.  Diehl snatched up the mike, twisted the freq knob on the Motorola two-way to the local channel and said “Wagner, you sonuvabitch, I’m gonna shoot your ass for that some day!”  Then he hung the mike onto its dash clip with a grin, the first emotion he’d shown all night. 

“Kid, that’s ‘Wings’ Wagner, the craziest man in the whole Border Patrol.”  He braked the Jeep to a halt.  “Get out and have a look at the roof.”

Ken opened the door and stood on the sill, looking across the dull white roof.  There, just off center, was a black tire mark a couple feet long, obviously left there by an airplane.  And it wasn’t the only one; the roof looked like the landing threshold of a runway.  He’d wondered why so many of the desert rigs’ rooftop antennas were bent forward; now he knew.  His determination to stay quiet was blown away by his shock.

“Jesus H. Christ!” he swore aloud as he got back into the vehicle.  “What’s he trying to do, kill us and himself too?  That’s the craziest thing I ever saw!”

“What’s the matter, kid?  ‘fraid you’ll be in an airplane wreck?  He’s been doin’ that for years and so far he hasn’t hurt nobody.  Could, I suppose, but it don’t worry me.  He’s as good as they come, but he does think he has a license for crazy.” 

The radio spoke up again as Wagner sang out “Here they are, boys!  I can’t see ‘em, but the tracks stop in this old adobe jacal about a mile ahead and off to your left.  I’m staying a ways out so they’ll think I’m still looking and not take off outta there running, but you oughta be able to see the busted windmill in the yard.”   Ken saw the pale green Super Cub flying a low, lazy circle a half-mile away.

 “Do you mean to tell me he can actually track them from the air?” 

He got no reply, just a glance that said “dumb shit” in all capital letters and he kicked himself for asking a question that had such an obvious answer.  Sure he can.  He just said that’s what he was doing. 

When Diehl had said earlier that they’d have an airplane at dawn Travis had assumed that it would just fly around looking for people walking in the desert.  It never occurred to him that the pilot could read sign from the air, actually tracking the aliens himself.

Diehl cut off the trail, and bouncing cross-country, they quickly came to an abandoned adobe shack. Out back was an old corral.  Its posts still stood like rotted teeth, but the rails had surrendered to gravity long before.  The rusty, tin water tank was as dry and sandy as the desert around it and the windmill’s fan was a crumpled mess of sheet metal and wire in the tank.

As they drove into the yard Wagner flew in low and fast from the north, the 150 horsepower Lycoming roaring as he pointed the Super Cub’s wing at the ground and pulled the little two-seater into a tight orbit a hundred feet up.  As the jeep slid to a stop four Mexican men and a boy fled, running in different directions for the brush from the shadows on the west side of the building. 

Diehl ran after two of them, an old man accompanied by a youngster.  He yelled, “Don’t get stupid, Travis!  We’re miles from the border and they got nowhere to go, so they’ll lay up pretty quick.”  Ken picked one out of the group and headed after him, drawing his gun as he ran.  Then he remembered his Academy training and put it back, losing time while he snapped the holster’s safety strap over the hammer

He dropped into a long-legged lope, the sun warm on his face.  Through the brush ahead he could catch glimpses of the fleeing alien.  He’d catch this one and then he and Diehl could go round up the other two with the airplane guiding them in.

Overhead, Wagner continued his orbit, closely watching Travis.  He didn’t like how the chase was shaping up.  He picked up the microphone and switched it to broadcast over the P.A. horn mounted outside.  “Watch it!  He’s doubling back on you!”

Ken heard it, but he was unaccustomed to voices from the heavens—he  didn’t understand a word.  He stopped for a moment, puzzled at the voice, and looked up at the plane.  Wagner waved and pointed, but Ken could make no sense of it.

“Where the hell did he go?” he asked himself aloud.  He hadn’t seen the runner in the last minute or two.  The tracks had wandered, and then began to curve back toward the jacal.  He looked back and forth, wondering.

WHAM!  He was violently bowled off his feet by a stunning blow to his back.  As he flew face-first to the ground events seemed to go into slow motion and his senses were suddenly sharp.  He could see each individual grain of sand in front of his nose and taste the dust that rose from the impact of his body on the sand.  He could feel a weight on his back and hear harsh breathing near his ear, and he could smell stale tobacco and onions on the breath.  His neck hurt and he had lost his breath at the impact.  And he could feel hands fumbling at his holster.

The mind takes a moment to decode a sudden, shocking sensory overload and sometimes a man dies while his brain deciphers the sensations.  Other times, through training or experience—or sometimes dumb luck—he responds to the right signal, quickly.  Ken . . .






To find out what happened, read
Tracks in the Sand - A Tale of the Border Patrol
by Kent Lundgren.
ISBN: 978-0-6151-8430-2


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