Muertos En Mexico

By Mike Schoby

It was long before dawn when I walked across the dirt courtyard to the hacienda’s kitchen. The adobe bricks were as cracked and scarred as Diego who stood there fiddling with the ancient transistor radio, a cigarette hanging from his lips. A mariachi song quavered in and out of reception as he twisted the tinfoil attached to the broken antenna. On the old stove sat a battered aluminum coffee pot, percolating with steam roiling from the spout. The sound reminded me of my childhood, of deer camps, and duck blinds and my father.

Diego nodded and chinned to the open pack of Pall Malls on the counter. I shook one out, fished a wooden match from the box and scraped it along the side. The head popped and flamed as I put it to tobacco. Inhaling the slightly sulfurous blue smoke, I coughed. I knew I should quit, but nothing tastes better first thing in the morning. 

I exhaled before asking, “What’s for breakfast?” 

I had been here the better part of a week, and I was in love. The country was gorgeous. Untamed, wild, uncivilized … right out of a 1950s Hollywood western set—decrepit old ranch buildings, scrawny cattle, vaqueros and all. Old Mexico was still Old Mexico—full of smugglers, narcos, and plain criminal opportunists. We ran into a band of illegals walking to America, which upon second thought, we renamed “soon-to-be illegals,” as they were nothing but camo-clad hikers carrying all their worldly possessions on their backs and jugs filled with water until they crossed that fence. 

We also saw the unspeakable: shrines set up in the desert with piles of votive candles—some for luck along the dangerous roads, some for the memory of those who didn’t make the crossing. A tree festooned with bras and panties was a grotesque reminder that some here must pay for the crossing with their bodies instead of cash; one abandoned shack that was inscribed with drawings so dark we didn’t want to dwell on what happened there. Mexico is hard, but the country, aside from its human problems, is enchanting. 

The rust-colored basalt ridges, cliffs and columns gave way to sage valleys pocked with saguaro cactus that were large when Pancho Villa rode these Chihuahuan hills. Not everything was harsh; there were stunning golden grasslands and some irrigated farm ground. All together it was beautiful. It was also full of game.  

It’s hard to drive one of the many dusty two tracks without seeing a huge flop-eared mule deer stand from his bed or a covey of quail flush from a bobcat sneaking through the cholla. The Coues deer, what I was looking for, were plentiful and those far more experienced than I described the hunting as “incredible,” “the best we’ve ever seen,” and “phenomenal.” I had no reference, and no choice, but to believe them. I was with a group of buddies, nearly all of whom were experiencing this spot for the first time, which always makes the memories richer. 

I had been in this lovely place long enough to establish a routine, a ritual if you will. Start the day smoking with Diego. Have a light breakfast of chorizo tortillas. Jump into a truck, cue Tom Russel’s Tonight We Ride and drive around the ranch. Park at a prominent peak, glass and always spot deer. Someone may or may not shoot the deer, then we’d head back for lunch. Drink a couple of cervezas while carb-loading on hot buttered tortillas. Take a siesta through the heat of the day. Go back out as the sun sank low in the sky. Return to the ranch house after dark, stand around the courtyard, eat meat grilled over the fire. Smoke more cigarettes, drink bourbon and tequila, clean deer skulls and, most importantly, laugh and swap stories until passing out. Then repeat.

It was a good routine. I liked my routine. But today’s routine was interrupted when we came around the corner of a particular two track only to be met by three Mexicans, wearing military attire, toting machine guns and not really caring where they pointed the muzzles.

“Ahh shit.” Steve, my guide, said through clenched teeth. “Army. They are going to want to see our gun permits. Leave your rifle in the truck. Just bring your gun papers,” he said, stopping 20 yards from them. I assume he didn’t crowd them lest they think we were trying to run their makeshift checkpoint and get twitchy with those rifles.

Steve, a couple of hunting buddies, and I climbed out of the truck, all big grins and waving hands, like we were plaid-shorts-and-knee-length-black-sock-wearing tourists just stopping to ask for directions at a visitor bureau instead of striking up a convo with seedy-looking dudes armed to the teeth. The three stared back. Not smiling, not scowling, just non-committal, blank stares. As we walked toward them my guide whispered under his breath, “Not Army. Narcos.”  

A closer glance made it evident. Old sneakers instead of boots, a hodgepodge of non-issued, non-matching military garb and no standardized firearms. One had what looked like a Sandinista battle pick up AK, one had a select-fire M16, the other toted a short-barreled pump shotgun. Cue central casting 80’s armorer.

“Hola,” Steve said.

“Hunting deer?” The leader of the group asked.

“Yes,” Steve replied.  

“Kill any?” 

“Not yet.” 

“How long have you been hunting?”

“A few days.”

“How much longer are you here?”

“A few more.”

I stood off to one side closest to the one carrying the M16. He took a pull from a joint. The smell of the rank ditch weed rolled over me. Noticing me noticing him, he held out the slimy joint pinched between a stained finger and thumb. I took it. I pulled off it lightly and handed it back.

“Do you have any cerveza?” the leader asked Steve.

“Si,” Steve said smiling and turned back toward the truck.

I followed, even though it was terrifying turning my back on them. Up close, within grabbing distance, I felt we had a fighting chance if things went sideways. They weren’t large men. In fact, they were on the small side—but then again so is Julio Cesar Chavez. I was confident we could take them or at least had a chance at hand-to-hand range. With our backs turned, there was no chance. The short walk to the truck seemed miles away.  I wondered if my new pot-smoking friend had his safety engaged. Would I hear the snick of it being taken off? Would he shoot me in the head? Would I feel anything at all or would it simply be lights out and whatever followed next? Would he fuck up and wound me, hitting ankles, knees, femur, sinew and muscle as the muzzle climbed from the dirt upwards in a full auto strafing run?

When we reached the cooler in the bed of the truck, the leader tensely exclaimed, “Hey!” 

Here we go, I thought. He has to say something before he shoots us. Just couldn’t do it all quiet like.

“Grab a beer for him too,” he said, pointing with his muzzle up to the little rise overlooking the road. 

On a small peak 100 yards away was a fourth previously unseen narco, this one prone in a rudimentary sniper’s hide with camo netting stretched out between rocks and sage, providing concealment and shade. The rifle rested on a bipod and was trained on us. 

Grabbing a couple handfuls of cans, we walked back to the group. Handing them out, we cracked some ourselves. Normally, I would wait until lunch, but the situation seemed like a good excuse to morning drink. If I’m gonna die, I’d rather die at least buzzed, I remember thinking.

“If you get a deer can you leave some here?” Not so much a question from the leader as a directive. “Tie a plastic bag to that tree. We will spot it and come get it.”

“Sure thing,” said Steve, taking a pull from a proffered joint.

With that we climbed back into our truck, and they drifted back into the sage and rocks and disappeared. You couldn’t see them, but they were still there. Watching. Their guns maybe trained on us or maybe not. Who knew? 

We hunted four more days, but never saw them again, even though we drove through the  same area several times. They were there, but never visible

Over the remainder of the week, we convinced ourselves they were fine. Harmless in fact.  Just guys doing their job, even if it was illegal. We told ourselves the world is about live and let live. We convinced ourselves, if we didn’t bother their operation, they wouldn’t bother us. Heck they couldn’t care less about us, we were just hunters … not the law, not the military, not a rival gang. Just fudds looking for deer. Yeah, we convinced ourselves on the surface, but it was really just whistling past the graveyard. We knew better. 

Two weeks after we were home, a buddy from the trip sent me a link to a news story from a border town newspaper. On a ranch not a stone’s throw away from the one we were hunting, narcos showed up. I don’t know if they were our narcos or a different band, but they killed everyone at the ranch … including the hunters. 

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