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«The Rules of Silence», David Lindsey

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Chapter 1

Benny Chalmers stared through the opened window of his pickup. He wore a soiled and sweat-stained khaki shirt with long sleeves, dirty jeans, and beat-to-hell cowboy boots with tops that reached nearly to his knees. He was red-faced from forty-one years in the searing border country sun, and his forehead was as white as a corpse where his Stetson had protected it.

It was four-thirty in the afternoon, and Chalmers was sitting in the middle of twenty-one million acres of rugged terrain known to ecologists as the South Texas plains and to everyone else as the Brush Country. They were fifty miles from anything other than an isolated ranch house every twenty or so miles. But they were only two hundred yards from Mexico. The sun was white. As far as you could see in any direction was an endless parched landscape of head-high thickets of cat claw and black brush interspersed with prickly pear flats and mesquite.

Chalmers was watching a rancher's vaqueros load 126 head of mixed-breed cattle into Chalmers's cattle truck. He had been hired to take them to another ranch near Bandera two hundred miles north. The cattle were being held in a sprawling maze of pens made of rusty oil rig drill pipe. A long iron-and-wood ramp ran from the pen's chute into the back of the trailer, a massive twelve-wheeler, triple-decker Wilson.

Fifty yards to Chalmers's left, a helicopter had just landed in a tornado of dust. The‘copter had disgorged three men wearing guns, boots, and the familiar deep green uniforms of the U.S. Border Patrol agents. They were interested in watching the vaqueros load the cattle, and they were interested in Chalmers's big rig.

“Goddamn it, ”Chalmers muttered, squinting into the sun. The cattle were bawling and rocking the huge trailer as they clambered up the ramp and into the cavernous belly of their transportation. The cattle that were still in the pens milled and shuffled around in the hot dirt, kicking up dust that hung heavily above the whole operation in a rusty haze.

Chalmers had trucked cattle for border ranchers for twenty-two years. He knew more backcountry roads through the remote border ranches from El Paso to Brownsville than any man alive. And he knew about the hidden airstrips, too, and about the stepped-up Border Patrol activity because of the increase in smuggling of drugs and humans. He also knew that the odds were getting shorter against him.

He watched the three Border Patrol agents huddled at the rear of the trailer, looking in three different directions from behind their sunglasses. They were talking among themselves without looking at one another, the dust from the loading operation drifting over them and sticking to the sweat that stained their dark uniforms.

Then the agents disappeared around the side of the sixty-five-foot-long truck and trailer, and when they emerged from behind the cab of the red Mack tractor, they looked toward Chalmers and waved. He waved back, sticking his beefy arm out the pickup window.

“Adios, boys, ”he said under his breath. He turned back and looked out the windshield again and stared at the rusty fog and the cattle and the vaqueros. But he didn't relax until he heard the chopper's engine start, its low whine cranking up slowly, revving to lift.

He wiped his forehead on the sleeve of his shirt.

Chalmers smuggled people, but his operation was more than just a little special. To frustrate the noses of the Border Patrol dogs, he built two cubicles in the curved top of his trailer right in the middle of a big bunch of stinking, shitting cattle. The cubicles were twenty-four inches high (a little more than the thickness of a man lying flat on his back), sixty-two inches long, and twenty-four inches wide. He piped air-conditioning from the cab into the cubicles and put long, narrow water tanks in there with hoses to drink from. A man could live three days in there easy and hardly feel it.

Two people only. Delivery guaranteed. But the fee was high. And Chalmers knew damn well what that meant. Whoever came to him willing to pay his price had to have something more waiting for him in the States than working on a framing crew or wiping tables in a fast-food joint. This was elite human smuggling he was offering here.

And it worked. He'd made nearly $750,000 in six months. Cash.

At dusk Benny Chalmers finished up the paperwork with the rancher, using the hood of the rancher's pickup as a desk. They shook hands, and he said that he was going to get a bite to eat right there in his truck and then head out. Leaning on the front of the truck, he watched the rancher and his vaqueros drive away from the holding pens in their pickups, pulling horse trailers.

Half an hour later Chalmers stood at the edge of the brush, having a serious conversation in Spanish with four Mexican coyotes. His truck idled in the dying light behind him, its tiny amber lights glowing like long strands of embers. Real coyotes yipped and keened out in the endless night of desert brush.

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