The Ex-Soldiers: Butterfly Road by Jason Duke
Chapter One: Butterfly Road
The interstate west of Gila Bend, Arizona cut a wide swath through the vast Sonoran desert. There, the long road appeared to run on forever into the deep blue distance of the horizon under the thin sheet of gauze cloud in the azure sky. It was seven in the morning. Long-armed sprinklers were spraying what looked like alfalfa in the wide green fields each side of the interstate. Heat was already up, rippling on the air and turning much of the water into steam, rising, shimmering and, finally, scattering in the oven-heated wind.
The Sergeant gazed out on the wide blue heaven and baked landscape hell below. He wondered why Hensley had attempted to smuggle her across in the midsummer; the worst time. Desperation? If that was true, then his love for the girl had turned him into a desperate fool. Now Hensley was…well, the Sergeant was not sure exactly. He did not know what became of the ex-soldier. That was what he was here to find out.
He looked to the dashboard, rechecked the locator device. Then he saw them: the yellow butterflies in the busy road. Hundreds of ‘em. Bright yellow wings with intensely orange wingtips bounded by black markings, though from his vantage point behind the steering wheel of the Jeep, the butterflies looked all yellow. Hensley was the real sap when it came to animals and little creatures, like the butterflies of the Earth. Yet, killing a thing so beautiful hurt the Sergeant, too. He knew the world was getting uglier. It needed more beautiful things. In his heart, he was not cruel, was not a terrible man—although he’d done many cruel and terrible things. The Sergeant wished there were another road. But there wasn’t another road. Only this road. He had no choice. He needed to arrive at the coordinates in the desert; the exact coordinates Gun had given him. And before it got too dark.
Rechecked the locator device. The coordinates pointed far into the desert. He still had a ways to travel.
He had passed a giant cattle ranch a short ways back, and now the awful cow smell was leaking through the vents, filling the car. Finally, there appeared a dirt road past the farms, a road cutting through the dusty creosote and tall dry yellow grasses. The miles of creosote, dotted with copses of Desert Willow; Velvet Mesquite and Blue Palo Verde lining the dry, empty washes filled with sun-bleached boulders. The tall, proud Saguaro, and the Buckhorn Cholla on the hillsides, the Diamond Cholla away from the hills. The Compass Barrel, with their red and yellow tinged spines, added color to the otherwise drab gray sands of the desert floor. The Sergeant considered, this desert is bleak and desolate, yet also majestic, and beautiful. The road sliced through it, then evanesced into the haze-shrouded near distance and the deep blue distance of the silhouettes of the far off mountains.
The Sergeant turned onto the road, heading southerly. Continued rechecking the locator device. After a long time on the dirt road, he stopped the Jeep. A long cloud of dust billowed behind it, then slowly dissipated in green haze into the bright sky. He stepped out, air conditioning wearing off quickly, and next the heat dropped. Headfirst, shoved into the oven. That was how it felt. It wouldn’t get any better. He donned his ACU boonie hat and camelback full of water. Shouldered an assault pack. First aid kit, one MRE, compass, and e-tool. Fifteen extra magazines of 5.56 rounds for the Colt AR-15 Magpul rifle he carried at the low ready.
He began his long ruck march into the desert, following the coordinates. About three hours in, the desert narrowed to a small valley with a wash running through it. The wash was filled with Velvet Mesquite and, at the center of the valley, a small copse of dead Desert Willow. There, the body of Hensley was leaning against one of the dead trees, his gaping severed head in his lap. His open eyes—accusatory eyes—stared sightlessly up at the white film of clouds over the blue sky. The jaw dropped open in silent implication.
The Sergeant knelt.
“Why weren’t you here for me, Sarge?” The head came to life, eyes looking at the Sergeant. “I needed you!” The movements of the talking mouth teased the strips of meat hanging on the mangled neck. “I was always there when you needed me. How many times did I save your ass, Sergeant?”
A lot, Hensley. Many times. Too many.
“Where were you when I needed you? Look at what those bastards did to me! I demand vengeance. You owe me, Sergeant!”
You got it, buddy.
“I want you to make those bastards pay.”
You got it, buddy. Anything you ask.
The Sergeant spied truck tracks in the gray sand.
Sonoyta was the name of the town. Was what Gun had told Sergeant. That was where Hensley had smuggled her across, a border town in the state of Sonora. And Sonora was disputed by the Sinaloa Cartel. Her name was Ana. She was the pretty, young girl Hensley had fallen in love with across the border. Getting that information from Gun was a risk. Just talking with Gun was a big gamble. This corridor was a pathway for migrants crossing illegally into the country, and many did not survive the brutal heat. Their sunbaked bodies were discovered rotting in the sun all the time out here. Also, this desert was where a lot of bad people solved their problems. A lot of holes dug in the desert, lot of unmarked graves left when the holes were filled. The Sergeant had dug holes like that before, buried his problems in the many holes he dug in the desert.
But all of them deserved it, were all bad hombres. Just like the ones who did this to Hensley. After what Hensley did for God and Country, he deserved a soldier’s death. The Sergeant knew whoever did this to Hensley did not shoot him in the back of the head first. In Iraq, the insurgents would shoot captured soldiers in the back of the head. A quick death. The way these cartels operated, he knew Hensley’s death was slow and painful—cutting with a big hunting knife, sawing and cutting around the neck and, eventually, after a lot of minutes of hard work, hacking at the rest of the neck until finally the head separated in a bloody, stringy, mangled mess. The poor bastards arms, body, twitching autonomically with every hack made into the neck.
Yeah, Hensley was the real sap when it came to animals and the little creatures. Like the stray dogs in Iraq he used to feed and name, even after Sergeant told him not to because most of them carried disease and that was Top’s order: not to touch them. “Don’t feed the fucking mangy things. I don’t want to see them inside the perimeter,” he would say. “I catch anyone doing it and you’re pulling extra duty in the tower with the Haj. And those motherfuckers STINK! The Iraqi Army don’t wash—EVER! They wipe their asses WITH THEIR HANDS.” They’d start laughing. Top always had that effect. “Then I’ll have your butts cleaning out latrines until those port-a-potties shine.” Always brought levity to every situation, every ass chewing.
Then First Sergeant would be ripping Sergeant a new one when he’d catch Hensley sneaking food to the stray dogs, because Hensley was a soldier in Sergeant’s platoon. First Sergeant would pull the Sergeant aside, always out of earshot of the others, and rip him a new one. But in the Army you learn very quickly to take your ass chewings—everybody answers to someone—and the ass chewings never cease. The Sergeant had tried everything with Hensley within legal authority as his NCO to get him to stop feeding the dogs. However, Hensley loved the dogs…and all the little creatures of the Earth. He’d saved Sergeant’s ass in Iraq more times than the Sergeant could count. So, the least Sergeant could do for Hensley was take an ass chewing now and then when he got caught feeding the stray dogs.
Just like hitting the yellow butterflies.
What else can the Sergeant do?
Yesterday. Two o’clock in the morning.
The Sergeant had tracked Gun down in Phoenix. Hadn’t seen Gun in six years, not since he’d pulled Gun from the burning, twisted wreck of what the roadside bomb left of the up-armored Humvee after it detonated. Had not talked to Gun in half that time, since Gun joined the DEA. Gun was surprised to see him.
“I don’t fucking believe my eyes. What are you doing here, Sergeant? You’re the last person on Earth I expected to ever show his face to me again.”
“I need your help, Gun.”
Nervously, Gun rinsed his hands in the filthy sink. The men’s room of the Cortez Room was a filthy closet. Laughter spilled in from the cantina. Gun looked to the door. Splashing water to his face, Gun continued, “I’m fucking undercover here, Sergeant. Deep cover. You know that. I told you, I can’t help you. Not can’t—won’t. The last time we talked, three years ago, I told you that. Nothing’s changed. I don’t want to know about whatever it is you and the other Joes are into. The arrangement’s still the same. Just stay under the radar, I won’t come after you. Tracking, Sergeant?”
“Tracking, Specialist,” Sergeant said, grinning.
Again Gun splashed his face. The sink was caked in bits of stale vomit. Gun was trying not to touch anything. The mirror was cracked apart, where a face had smashed into the glass. The latrine had a single filthy urinal, next to a filthier stall missing the door. The air stank of piss, and unwashed bodies.
“You were my best squad leader, Gun.”
Gun sighed. “Jesus Christ.”
“We share history, Gun. You can’t deny me. You owe me.”
“I don’t owe you shit, Sergeant—”
The Sergeant, grabbing Gun by the arm, spun him around. “YOU OWE ME, Gun.”
Gun stared into the Sergeant’s blue eyes. The Sergeant’s military cut blonde hair. Then back to the steel eyes…and the hard expression that said: beware this man. Otherwise, the Sergeant was plain looking. Unassuming. The Sergeant was not evil, was not a heartless man. Gun knew that. Not like the men in the cantina on the cartel’s payroll.
Sergeant released Gun’s arm. “It’s not for me, Gun. It’s for Hensley.”
“Hensley’s gone AWOL. Fell in love with a Mexican girl. Ana something, I think. Was going to smuggle her in.”
“Sonora, I think. Thereabouts. I told him not to, but you know Hensley. Just like those damn dogs—he never listens. Haven’t heard from him since. I think he’s run afoul.”
Gun sighed again. “Jesus Christ, Sergeant. Sonora? Really? That’s Sinaloa. Their playground.”
“Yeah,” said Sergeant flatly.
Gun shook his head. “That complicates things.”
The door flew open; in staggered a biker with a giant beer belly, long black beard streaked gray, and long salt and pepper hair tied in a ratty ponytail. The biker wore a denim over leather jacket. “Hola, Ricky!” The biker grinned, then blearily looked at the Sergeant, who was standing at the urinal taking a piss, his back to the biker.
Gun was amazed; in the time it took for the biker to walk in, the Sergeant had slipped into disguise: a white bandana around his head, attached lifelike mutton chops, Ray-Bans over his eyes.
The biker kept looking as the Sergeant finished, zipping up. Sergeant paused, taking off the Ray-Bans, and turned around. The biker’s face made an Oh, like he’d received a shock, then he nodded to the Sergeant. “Hola, hombre.” Turning quickly to Gun, he said, “Ricky. Que pasa, amigo? We got shots lined up. Everybody’s waiting on you, homes.”
The Sergeant walked out. Warily, the biker watched him leave.
Gun slapped the biker’s shoulder. “Let’s do it, amigo.”
Grinning again, the biker said, “Órale!”
The Sergeant yanked the dog tags from the bloody stump of Hensley’s neck. Then he dug a shallow grave to bury Hensley. When he finished, he looked up and saw the day was late.
The desert outside Gila Bend was littered with white wooden crosses constructed by the inmates of Tent City, which the Sheriff’s Department placed and marked the GPS coordinates of for the many sunbaked bodies found rotting in the desert. But for Hensley, no “Taps” played and no plot at Arlington—not even the plain white wooden cross afforded dead illegal immigrants. Hell with that, the Sergeant thought. And as late as the day was growing, he spent the extra time to find one of the crosses, uproot it, and mark Hensley’s grave.
Double-timing back, he made good time and covered the sweltering distance back to the car in half the time. He was dead tired and pouring sweat, his camelback bone dry. He had another gallon in the trunk of the car and rehydrated. Wringing out his boonie hat, he wiped his face with it and looked to the sky, now a reddish orange with veins of deep purple, as the sun fast dipped below the now midnight blue silhouettes of the mountains on the ever darkening horizon. The Sergeant entered the Jeep and sped away, the drab gray dust of the dirt road kicking up behind the vehicle making a trail of red haze in the dusky sky of the setting sun.
He opened his iPhone, calling Gun. When the man wouldn’t answer, Sergeant texted. Found Hensley… lost his head… need his friends to help him get it back on straight! SOON!!
The interstate was filled with the yellow butterflies still, even at night and in the waning light. It looked as though embers of yellow burning ash were striking the bumper, the glass, of the world of giants.
The main road through Gila Bend was well lit and lined with gas stations and cheap motels. The moribund fronds of wayward palm trees leaned hunched along the broken street like the bowed backs of old, tired men. Big rigs rumbled up and down the main road. But the sidewalks were empty as ghosts, the gas stations strangely vacant. The Sergeant pulled into the Yucca Motel, a horseshoe of white row houses with flat roofs. The neon glow of the orange letters in white boxes on the tall sign. The Yucca was across the street from a public storage, the large, barbwire fenced yard filled with diesel trucks, cranes, tractors, bulldozers. The Sergeant paid cash for his room, then ate his supper at Sofia’s Mexican Food, a taco stand down the main road. The carne asada burrito—his favorite.
The Sergeant was wary seeking Gun out. He had recruited strictly ex-military. The men from his platoon, like Gun. The Sergeant’s generation of veterans was putting pistols to their heads. His brothers were killing themselves, more than had died in the wars. The government wasn’t doing enough to help his brothers and sisters, and veterans were dying under the VA’s negligent watch.
Hell, the government couldn’t keep itself running. It was cutting the military budget back to pre-WWII level, for which it couldn’t have picked a worse time. A time when the country was coming off more than ten years of war and thousands of his generation of veterans would need help the most, and for years to come.
They’d sold him on “the dream” with words like patriotism, national pride. Masterfully, it played at the heart strings with tired rhetoric, tried and true, that to a young man was fresh and new—and the Sergeant was a patriot, borne of proud tradition; a long, proud line of military service. His family had fought, bled and died in every war dating back to his Great Grandfather and the first World War. Sergeant had carried the torch of honorable service to God and Country, discharged honorably and, just like that, his beloved government was through with him and wanted to deny him VA benefits—when he was out of sight, out of mind, he’d be forgotten.
But the Sergeant would not go quietly. He gathered the soldiers the government wouldn’t take care of and wanted to forget. Battle-hardened soldiers, like Sergeant, the beloved government wasn’t helping enough. Men who self-medicated and ran afoul of the law. And he got to them before they put the guns to their heads and checked out. Soon, the Sergeant had his army.
He and his men targeted the cartels, intercepting them at the border. Robbing cartel stash houses across the Southwest states. If intelligence gathering showed the reward was lucrative enough, Sergeant and his men even crossed south of the border. They had the experience, combat training and operational skills to pull it off. It was a deadly game of cat and mouse, but no more dangerous than years of war, and the Sergeant and his men felt right at home with that.
They were careful, too. The violent nature of that world—cartels ever at each other’s throats—it was not hard to play one against another. The Sergeant stayed under the radar that way. Not only the radar of the cartels, but also the radar of the United States government. Agencies like the DEA. Agents like Gun.
Gun knew what the Sergeant did. The Sergeant only targeted cartel. If he could help it. But if backed into a corner, Gun knew that’d change in a heartbeat. Kill or be killed. The Sergeant wouldn’t hesitate. At some point the Sergeant would run afoul, show up as a fat blip blinking on the radar, and Gun would have no choice but to take him down. It was inevitable—Gun knew that. However, he’d would worry about that later. Right now, he owed the Sergeant; Sarge was right about that.
The Sergeant was lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. His hands rested behind his head, on the pillows. The white paint on the ceiling was speckled with yellow mold and the dark stains of cigarette smoke. And the small patches of blood spray, left, Sergeant guessed, by the needles of drug users.
Finally, Gun texted. Ana wants to meet at 32.463329-112.680013.
The Sergeant texted back. Set it up.
He swallowed a third gulp from the fifth of Maker’s in his hand. He’d finish it soon. It helped him sleep at nights when he dreamed of the war. He opened his iPhone and looked up the coordinates on the Internet. The location was outside the small town of Ajo, a ways off Pipeline Road out in the middle of nowhere—another cartel stash house. This location hid the latest slave labor. Latest girls employed for sex. The ‘human merchandise’ smuggled into the States, sold to the American Dream.
Gun texted back. Tomorrow, 6 a.m. It’s done.
The stash houses don’t remain long. The cartels switched locations, sometimes after day, a week. The Sergeant suspected Gun had not reported this house—yet. However, Gun was no fool. Gun knew the SOP as well as the Sergeant. The Sergeant guzzled the rest of the bottle.
The terrible sounds of the war raged all around on the dusty air. He heard the blade slap of the Black Hawks overhead. The rumble of the up-armored Humvees, Strykers, and M2 Bradley from the south. Heavy vehicles, fast moving across the scorched earth.
The Sergeant checked his three and nine, and there were the faceless soldiers, again hiding within the defilade behind the ruined walls of the villa. Those same faceless soldiers firing their M4 rifles that never ran empty of ammunition. 25th Infantry Division patches Velcroed to their upper left sleeves. Taro leaf with the lightning bolt down the middle, lovingly called the Electric Strawberry. But their faces are blurred out, their names and ranks removed. All in heavy body armor, MICH helmets, and standard tactical load for combat. A minimum of seven magazines, with 210 rounds of 5.56 caliber get some motherfuckers, time to light ‘em up and kill some shit stopping power fun. On their upper right sleeves, some faceless soldiers wore other combat patches—1st Cavalry, 1st Armored “Old Ironsides,” 101st Airborne “Screaming Eagles,” 10th Mountain “Climb to Glory”—but most wore 25th Infantry “Tropic Lightning.” Blurred out eyes masked behind the dark lenses of protective ballistic eyewear.
The terrible sounds continued.
Of faceless soldiers engaging the enemy: Al-Qaeda (AQI), Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM), Ansar al-Islam (AAI). But to the Sergeant, his enemy was nondescript. Faceless as the soldiers around him. The poor and the expendable. The men who do the grunt work. The ones who dig the holes. The ones who buried the IEDs. The ones who detonated the roadside bombs. The ones who laid in wait inside the trunks of cars. Who took the sniper shots. Who waited in the crowds at the side of the road. Or who tossed the grenades from the crowds, Russian RKG-3 model anti-tank parachute grenades. Little, brown-skinned men with funny beards and talk who performed the bidding of whichever foreign fighter paid them the most. It was always for a meager sum.
But the Sergeant did not care. Neither did the faceless soldiers. The who, what, why do not matter. Not really. Only that they were ‘over there.’ It was their job to kill the enemy. To ‘stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States in close combat.’ They were ‘guardians of freedom and the American way of life.’ Their job was to keep “the dream” alive for another ten to twenty years…until the next war. They were compensated with extra combat pay, money that amounted to a few hundred extra dollars in their paychecks. What really mattered to the soldiers, and the Sergeant, was keeping each other alive, making it home in one piece to pick up the pieces of their lives.
The terrible sounds continued.
Large-caliber rounds on the oven-heated air. The explosions large caliber rounds make on the air—you feel that sound. That fifty-caliber sound was unmistakable. You never forgot that sound. Or the sound of landing mortars and rockets. Even when you forgot all else. Then, above the boom of the fifty cal, he heard the dreaded singing. The Moirai were singing. The fine-armed daughters of Night. Singing with the bullets whistling through the air. Clotho, Lachesis, would pluck at the threads of life: our fates. Then Atropos cut the strings with her abhorred shears.
The Sergeant couldn’t run from this. Or get away.
There was no running from it. The Sergeant was stayed—by: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage. Then Sergeant felt the dry oven heat on his face. The heat of the Iraqi desert. But his eyes were closed. He couldn’t open them, only feel the heat on his face. Fire burning his skin, through flesh, meat, and bone.
And he’d know his truth: They were all MEAT FOR THE SANDBOX.
The United States, greatest nation on Earth, needs meat for the sandbox. Keep that money flowing into corporate hands. So when he was in the middle of a firefight, the target of a sniper, or roadside bomb, he remembered why he and the faceless soldiers were ‘over there.’ But you did not think on it too hard. Not there. When the fighting was over, then you would have plenty of time to think.
The rest of your scarred life.
Only, by then…you will not want to.
The Sergeant bolted upright in the hotel bed, his hand on the trigger of the Colt AR-15 Magpul rifle in the bed next to him. Realizing where he was, he set the rifle down. He took a piss, then drank his morning two cups of coffee. When the coffee worked through him, he took his morning dump. Sergeant ate his breakfast at the Space Age diner off the main road—plain oatmeal, two hard-boiled eggs—then drove to the coordinates Gun had provided outside the small town of Ajo, 43 miles away.
But instead of a stash house, there was only a dirt road through empty desert…and a waiting SUV. The three cartel waiting inside the vehicle stepped out, and the man of importance among them waved Sergeant to them. The men looked like modern day Mexican cowboys. The three men were dressed in cintos piteados cowboy boots made of exotic animal skin, Gucci shirts, belts, and baseball hats. The man of importance was wearing a black Stetson with a thin silver band—the idolized fashions of Narcoculture.
The man of importance, the caballero, ordered, in Spanish, the vaqueros to bring the Sergeant to him. The Sergeant pulled to the side of the dirt road, stepped out, and the caballero yelled, “Que pasa? Hablas español?” The Sergeant stared at them. The vaqueros moved behind the Sergeant and followed him to the SUV. The caballero smiled. “Good morning,” he said with an accent.
“Good morning,” said the Sergeant flatly.
“Mister Joyce?” The men laughed. In Spanish, the caballero said, “A woman’s name.” Again the vaqueros laughed. The Sergeant wasn’t amused. The men stopped laughing. The caballero gestured to the SUV. “Get in the car Mister Joyce.”
“I came here to look at merchandise.”
“We have protocols we must follow. You understand, sí?” The caballero motioned inside the SUV. “Por favor.”
The Sergeant heard a dull buzzing in the air as he climbed in the SUV. The vaqueros sat on each side of Sergeant. The caballero drove for a while. Over his shoulder, he said to the Sergeant, “So? How do you know Ricky, Mister Joyce?”
“We served in the Army together.”
“In Afghanistan, too?”
“I didn’t know Ricky was in the Army.”
“Look. Are we going to do business, or what?”
“What do you need the merchandise for, Mister Joyce?”
“I do landscaping and I need more help mowing the lawns.”
The caballero slammed the brakes. The vaqueros sitting left pulled a .45 and pointed the gun into the Sergeant’s chest. “This is no laughing matter,” the caballero said. “What do you think? This is a game we are playing?”
The Sergeant glared. “I don’t play games.” His heart was the same steady beat it had been before the gun was pulled. The man of importance nodded and the vaqueros checked the Sergeant’s chest for a wire. The vaqueros felt the steady beat of his heart and, in Spanish, said, “He is not nervous at all. He is a cool customer.”
The dull buzzing arrived in the air again.
The man of importance laughed. “Mr. Ice!” The caballero drove again. “Okay, Mister Ice, you stay cold for a little while longer. Comprender?” The Sergeant nodded. The caballero drove into the small town of Ajo, to a mixed chain link and wood fenced lot between three ailing manufactured homes at the outskirts off the main highway through town.
Pulling behind the homes, the SUV stopped. The vaqueros stepped out, opening the gate. The caballero drove in. The yard appeared as a landfill, and stunk of more than just festering trash. Immediately the Sergeant recognized the smell. Had detected rotting bodies enough to know. Particularly the 2007 Troop Surge and the many bodies, bloated and rotting in the streets of Iraq. Mostly the victims of the sectarian violence of that bloodiest year of the war.
The three cartel led the Sergeant into a manufactured home. Inside was cobwebbed and dusty; full of old furniture—tacky and broken. The caballero flipped on the light switch. Good, there was still electricity. The Sergeant had guessed the place was derelict, just another deserted manufactured home in the desert. Another crack house for the junkies.
“I must apologize for this inconvenience, my friend. But if you will bear with me this last part, then we will be satisfied and we can take you to the merchandise you seek, and there, conduct our business.”
“I’ve come this far,” said Sergeant, nonplussed. “What is it?”
For a moment, the vaqueros exited. The caballero said, “Empty your pockets, please.” The vaqueros returned with a silver metal case. He opened the case and began using the surveillance countermeasures inside the padded case. “Remove your shoes.” The Sergeant emptied his pockets: thick roll of money, his keys, wallet, iPhone, and Gerber. The caballero inspected the Gerber. “What is this?”
“A Gerber. Kind of like a Swiss Army Knife, but better.”
“Your belt, too.”
The Sergeant removed his shoes and belt, and the vaqueros waved the devices over him a few times. The vaqueros checked the shoes and belt and nodded to the caballero, who seemed satisfied. The caballero was looking through the wallet. He read from the driver’s license. “James Joyce.” He looked at Sergeant, turned the wallet upside down. Nothing fell out. “What? No credit cards. No Costco membership?”
Louder, the dull buzzing arrived. Like a far off weed whacker. Now the men heard the strange sound. Curious, they glanced about.
“I can’t afford the fees.”
The buzzing was gone, again.
The caballero handed the vaqueros the license. Again the Vaqueros exited, returned a moment later, and in Spanish said, “It checks out.” The caballero said, “Excellente. Okay, Mister Joyce. Now we take you to view the merchandise. However, you must be blindfolded first. Your possessions stay here. The shoes and belt you may put back on. We will return you here once you are satisfied viewing the merchandise. This is, how you say it, nonnegotiable. Do you agree?”
“I know exactly how much money is in that roll. It better all be here when I get back.”
“We wouldn’t dream of taking your money, Mister Joyce.” The caballero laughed.
Somewhere. 30-40 minutes later.
The Sergeant made a silent count and approximated the drive took forty minutes, which placed the stash house far outside the small town of Ajo, somewhere deep in the middle of nowhere…perhaps even south of the border.
The dull buzzing arrived in the air again, though the men did not hear. The stash house was a white fabric Rapid Deployment Shelter inside a perimeter of concertina wire. The cartel man at the door of the RDS also did not hear the strange buzzing noise in the air. But the Sergeant heard it. He also heard, coming from the shelter, the smuggled immigrants—coughing, and some were moaning. The men inside the small ranch house one hundred yards north had not heard the strange noise. The Sergeant guessed there were at least three more cartel men in the house.
Right side of ranch house, a Chevy Duramax was parked under a sunshade shelter of the same white fabric. The Sergeant’s keen situational awareness absorbed the details in a few seconds. The caballero led him to the RDS, the vaqueros following. The cartel at the door unlocked the chains on the door. Opening the door, the awful smell rushed out—the stink of one hundred plus prisoner immigrants packed in squalor. Immigrants stacked on top of immigrants, fed a couple of eggs and tortillas a day.
Any one of them could be Ana.
The caballero ordered the man at the door to empty the waste buckets in the corner and replenish the water bucket. The man jumped to it, and as he did the Sergeant heard the crying near the RDS. “How many?” Sergeant asked grimly.
“113. Be honest. What do you need them for?”
Sergeant looked them over. “Meat Packing.”
“Sí. I understand.”
“I represent certain meat packing companies looking for low wage workers…the lower, the better. My commission depends on that.”
The caballero smiled. “Sí, sí. Bueno.” Patting Sergeant on the shoulder. “That is good you say that, Mister Joyce. Because that is exactly what our check on you turn up.”
Again the Sergeant hears the soft weeping.
“There is plenty more where they came from. You pay their fees and they are yours.”
The Sergeant walked around the side of the shelter, where a woman was crying inside a large steel box with holes in it. “Her?”
“She is not part of the merchandise. She is a special case.”
The strange buzzing noise in the air returned, passed, and faded.
“You got too close.”
The Sergeant assumed the worst and prepared for every contingency. Being prepared was the key and the military taught always be prepared. This was not paranoia, this was a life matter of avoiding complacency and not dropping your guard even for a second. If, when the moment of truth arrived, you were not prepared, at that point it was too late—there was no going back. There was no reset button; no do-overs. Only the victor and the loser—the dead and alive. The Sergeant knew this lesson well, as did the men under his command.
“I nearly lost you a few times,” said Boothe. “We need a ‘real’ UAV. I’m used to working with Ravens and Shadows, not fucking model airplanes.”
“Keep trying to improve the range.”
“You did good, Boothe.”
“Hooah.” Boothe paused. Then, “You sure you don’t need more support?”
The Sergeant wanted to handle this on his own. He owed it to Hensley—this was personal. “I’m sure. I’ll call it in if I do.”
“Good hunting, Sergeant.”
The phone call terminated.
The oven heat undulated palpable ripples in the air across the desert. The thirsty ugly brownish carpet of the mesquites, creosote, cactus, and the dry tall yellow grasses over the gray wastes. The bright yellow sun cradled, cruel and magnificent, in the clear blue sky. The baked land was equally effulgent under the sun—the giver, and taker, of life. The cartel man at the door of the stash house switched out with a man from inside the ranch house one hundred yards to the north. The changing of the guard was sporadic: sometimes an hour, sometimes three—the heat decided when.
The men unshackled the door twice, and each time fed the immigrants, emptied the waste buckets, and replenished the water bucket. The men fed and watered the crying woman in the padlocked metal box at the same times. They sat on folding chairs, next to the chained door. There were three men total inside the small ranch house. Include the caballero and his two vaqueros, the total was six. Those three conducted the business, and they came and went. The number of vehicles was two—the Duramax and the SUV. The location was deep into the desert wastes, far from the towns, the border patrol checkpoints, and their calculable patrol routes.
At 8 p.m., the caballero and his vaqueros returned for good. The six men drank and smoked the rest of the night and, after midnight, the men discontinued guarding the stash house door. The men slept it off until the morning. Predawn, the Sergeant slipped away in the darkest hour. His fatigues were muddied from sweating and laying in the gray sand beneath a bushy mesquite tree a half mile out. An EOTech monocular was mounted to an NVG bracket strapped to his boonie hat. He raised up the monocular off his camoed face. The monocular was fitted with an ARD (anti-reflection device) called a killFlash flip-cap cover.
He slipped into the Dragon Skin body armor and secured the Colt AR-15 Magpul rifle he’d laid next to him under the mesquite tree. Then quick-timed to the ranch house, fast closing the half mile distance to the door. At three hundred meters out, Sergeant spied headlights in the desert moving quickly toward the ranch house. Dropping prone inside an empty boulder-strewn wash, he removed the EOTech and mounted the monocular onto the rail system of the rifle. He waited as two more cartel men, in a truck, drove up to the ranch house.
He thought on what he’d said to the Caballero. That he had served with Gun in the Army. The caballero had been suspicious that Gun’d never mentioned serving in the military. The two men stepped out of the truck and hurried to the front door. Two quick shots cracked the air and echoed over the cold blackness of the desert.
The world through the night vision was an eerie green glow, with the thin red laser punching through the bloom. The two men were quickly eliminated, but now the other six men inside the house were stirring like a nest of angry hornets. He sighted the PEQ-2 laser pointer on the front door of the ranch house.
He sprinted to the truck and, fifty meters out, the door of the ranch house threw open and two of them stepped out. The men saw the Sergeant rushing the house and took cover behind the walls next to the door—a fatal mistake. He riddled the walls with bullets and the men spilled dead into the doorway.
The Sergeant reloaded. Spied the truck keys in the ignition. Started the truck, grabbed up a big rock off the desert floor, and set it on the gas pedal. The men in the house opened fire from the windows and the doorway—’spray and pray.’ The men ran empty and the Sergeant, throwing the truck in drive, steered it at the front, where it smashed into the house. The front half of the roof collapsed and sent up a giant dust plume covering him and house.
He rushed to the back door, entering the house. He knew this was the most dangerous time. First man in the stack clearing a room is always the most likely to be shot. And Sergeant knew this. Walked straight in with his body and weapon forward facing and slightly hunched, not angled in a side silhouette. That way he was more likely to take hits to the armor should he be shot.
He spied one man crushed beneath the truck, another pinned under the roof debris, bleeding out, and the third picking himself up, trying to recover his weapon. Sergeant caught a bullet in the rib, knocked the wind out of him, and he fell back. The armor had done its job.
Across the room, the caballero was kneeling, trying to fight the dust in his eyes and aim better. And then the third man was up. Kneeling, the man sprayed his AK across the room and hit the Sergeant, this time in his left shoulder, clean through, knocking him back. Both men were to their feet, trying to fight the dust in their eyes and the dizziness from the roof collapsed on their heads.
Sergeant was slipping in and out of consciousness—his world dulled black, then brought into the light again. He flipped the selector to three-round burst, fired and emptied the magazine.
The receiver—clicked! The Sergeant was hiding behind the ruined walls of the villa. The fighting in the war-torn streets and buildings still raged. May 3, 2008. The battle to retake Sadr City had lasted nearly two long, bloody months. The faceless soldiers to the left and right of the Sergeant fired their M4 rifles. The militia of the Mahdi Army ran out into the middle of al-Quds street, sprayed and prayed with their AK-47s, and sprinted to retake cover when they ran empty of bullets. RPGs whistled like streaks of fire from the gutted high-rises along the street. Apaches and unmanned Predators in the air retaliated with hellfires. The Sergeant heard the screaming civilians trapped in the crossfire along al-Quds street.
Sergeant was in the ranch house. Dead cartel on the floor. But the screaming was real. The immigrants were screaming. Screaming for release. He freed them from the stash house. As he did, he spied more headlights appear in the desert. A lone border patrol truck pulled up to the house. In Spanish, he yelled, “Run! You are free!”
Fleeing into the desert, the immigrants were pursued by the truck.
He bashed the lock from the metal box. “Ana?”
She nodded her head.
He looked at Ana, who was staring at the dash. “You’re safe now,” he said in Spanish.
She did not acknowledge him. He knew she was in shock and it would take time. Then she would tell him her story. He would find out the rest from Gun.
The Jeep traveled through the small desert towns.
Through Ajo, Gila Bend.
Along the interstate.
Down Butterfly Road, where the yellow butterflies dart across the busy highway and many do not survive the world of giants.
The yellow butterflies that will never know how beautiful they are to him.