The gravel tracks through the hills northwest of Menard, Texas, seemed to go on forever. Mile after mile went through stages of cedar breaks on hillocks with interspersed persimmons to more open steppe fields with forbs, scrub oaks and woody plants. The faster an area began to give a distinctive feel to it the quicker it started looking exactly like every other mile of Hill Country the two men had already been through. They saw so many deer, snakes and armadillos that within hours they hated the sight of them.
Nestor and Mark were looking for a specific road where they would find a specific driveway leading to one very specific ranch. They were seven hours late when the sun began slipping below the horizon during their twists and turns. They had backtracked a half dozen times. The hand scrawled map had provided a clue in the last hour that made them think they may be on the right track.
The purple and metallic lavender Cadillac they rolled down the roads in was never intended to be used on such primitive surfaces. High praise had always been heaped on Cadillacs, but the one Nestor drove began squeaking like a dying titmouse every time they hit the smallest bump. Taking curves too fast had removed half a dozen crescent moons from the glass of the windshield. The windows kept building up dust to the extent that they had to roll down their windows sporadically in order to be able to see through them. Neither one of the two men were enjoying the experience.
Before leaving Austin they sat around in a private office for four hours waiting for Nestor's second cousin and one of their employer's close friends from Brownsville. The office contained nothing but fine antiques. The chair behind the large mahogany desk had been made entirely from polished longhorns with the utmost clarity of color. An ornate brass clock on the desk was supported in the right hand of a robed Venus coming out of a shell, on a pink marble stand. Even the walls of the office reeked of money, covered in finely jigged cherry panels and trim.
Nestor did not look out of place in the room, even though he was dusty and wearing old, thin farm blue jeans and cowboy boots and the simplest of white button up shirts. Mark had dressed for the occasion. He was wearing brand new, gaudy cowboy boots with rhinestone and fancy stitching. Lots of stitching and patterns also adorned his light blue dressy cowboy pants and cream and beige cowboy shirt. He kept a big white hat on his lap. As well as he blended in Mark may as well have hatched from an alien's egg in the room.
Sitting in chairs next to each other the minutes had passed slowly, especially since the only person keeping any conversation alive kept leaving the room. Their employer, William Collins, had prostate and kidney problems. He had no alternative but to attempt to use the bathroom on a regular basis. Every trip Collins returned looking more miserable and upset. Nestor wondered how serious the condition might really be. The story that it was not a big deal was obviously untrue.
Mark Tucker once or twice mentioned the weather. Mark grew up and spent the earlier part of his life in the big farm areas of central northern Texas. He was no less intelligent than most men, but he never had any reason to improve his mind. He made progress in life through perseverance and loyalty to the people who gave him breaks. It had worked for him so far. He didn't have the best fashion sense, but he was easy to get along with.
Nestor never told anyone his real last name. He learned early in his first years away from Michoacan that the less people knew about him the safer he was. William Collins knew him as Nestor Alvarez, because that's what it said on the work permit. Nestor was no more an Alvarez than he was a Breckenridge.
It cost three weeks of hard work to get identification and a work permit with the name Alvarez on it. The expense spared him sleepless nights and days spent glancing over his shoulder. Too many people from back home knew his family name. There were people would do harm him, or worse, harm his family, simply out of jealousy and spite. Enough could not be said in support of remaining inconspicuous and soft spoken in a position such as his.
The men finally knocked on the door for the appointment with William, Mark and Nestor. An obvious look of relief passed over Mark's face, but nobody noticed. Nestor addressed his relative only as 'Migo. The other man was called Taylor. Taylor and 'Migo were carrying one duffel bag each. Small talk was exchanged. They left the duffel bags with barely any conversation and went beck out of the building the way they had come.
"Okay, gentleman, you know what to do," Collins told Nestor and Mark.
Mark and Nestor respectively said "Yeah, don't worry about it. We know what to do," and, "Si, entiendo," at the same time.
The two walked down the hall and out to the small inside garage just down the hall. The garage door was closing just as they mounted the stairs to descend to the Cadillac. They threw the duffel bags in the trunk before they got in the car. Thegarage door opened again, and then they too drove away.
As the guys left the room a small microphone hidden behind a painting on the wall transmitted the door latch clicking closed. Three blocks down, in an abandoned church school house, a couple of federal agents were sitting behind a desk listening to the transmission. One of them was rubbing his temples. The other guy threw a pencil over his left shoulder. It clattered on the floor to their rear.
"That was it?"
"Yeah, that was it."
"We just spent six hours on high alert for three sentences."
"And no video feed from the garage?"
"You're sitting right there. Do you see any video feed on the freaking monitor? Why do you do this? Every time we go out on a job and don't land some major bust right away you bitch and moan about every single thing. I'm telling you, if you keep doing this I'm going to ask for another partner."
"You just do that, Steve. You just do that. We'll just see if you can find anybody else who'll put up with the way your breath stinks after you eat your Reuben sandwich and drink your prune juice every afternoon."
In the office down the street William Collins stared up at the painting with the hidden microphone and smiled. He hadn't even begun to play his hand yet, but he knew that he had almost won the entire game already. "The feds are so handicapped by procedure. It makes them entirely predictable," he had thought to himself.
And then it was that the day crept closer and closer to darkness in Hill Country as Nestor continued to try to find the ranch house with Mark in the passenger seat. By that time they had both let loose a couple of quiet barrages of cursing, not so much at each other as out of frustration. They got along a lot better than most people would under the circumstances.
"Hey, Alvarez. I've got to go to the bathroom."
Nestor sighed. "Me too. I'll pull over."
The Cadillac kicked up little clouds of dust even at very slow speed as it slowed to the side of the road. The two men got out. Mark was urinating before Nestor could get around to the passenger side of the car. It was so dry that the yellow liquid just glided over the surface of the dust without sinking in.
A scorpion with an obvious mental impairment got too close to Nestor. Nestor peed all over it. It scuttled away into the undergrowth. That was when Mark spotted a falling apart old white sign barely hanging from a fence on which could barely be read letters saying "Tractor Repair." It was the last landmark they needed to get to their destination.
"Nestor! There's the sign, man! We found the sign!"
"Hey, look at that. I was beginning to worry, Mark. I'm very glad we have found this sign. This has been a long day." The time read five minutes to 8 P.M.
The two men got back in the car. A barely noticeable track between two fence posts next to the wooden sign led off the little gravel road. Nestor turned the Caddy down the little driveway and sped up.
"Next time we should tell William we need a truck for this run."
"There's never going to be a next time."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Oh, it's nothing. I just don't think we do this again."
"If you say so, Nestor. If you say so. I've never known William to turn down money though, especially not good money."
"There's the house," Nestor pointed to two o'clock.
An old white farm house situated in a narrow clearing between tall trees greeted the car as it reached the end of the driveway. The shaded area was easily fifteen degrees cooler than the road they had been on for hours. A simply dressed, very old man was sitting on a swing on the wide porch, watching them as they approached the house. He watched as they drove up. A dog ran out from a small shed adjoined to the eastern side of the porch, barking at the tires of the stopping vehicle.
Mark and Nestor got out of the car. Neither one of them made any moves to leave the sides of it though. They just stood there waiting for the old man to say something. Their stances revealed a humble and respectful repose on both of their parts.
"Good evening, you men," the old man said. "It's good to see you both. You're going to need freshening up and some supper. We'll get you fixed right up."
"Thank you, Mr. Collins," they each said in turn.
"Don't you men worry about it," he groaned slightly as he stood up. "Why don't you come in. I'll get Maria to set the table."
"What about the bags?" Mark asked.
"Don't you worry about that. We'll get to that later."
"Gracias, señor," Nestor said as he went up the steps to the house.
"Was mighty hot today," Mark said as he went inside.
"Yes, yes it was," Mr. Collins said as the screen door banged behind him.