(Note: This incident happened just before Thanksgiving 2014. I wrote the first draft November 21 and just rescued it from my pile of unpublished drafts.)
The bullets’ rhythms were similar each time: three or four shots closely but not evenly spaced. The first time was closer than I’ve ever experienced. I’d guess the shots originated a couple hundred feet away, behind my tent while I dressed for bed. It was close enough for me to jump and my brain to freeze into attention.
A few seconds later shots were fired to my right. I swore, then yelled “Hey, there’s people here!” I felt riled enough to shout but not brave enough to employ maximum decibels.
The dogs in the tent with me were wise enough to bark only a few times to announce their presence, and then join me in listening.
The third set of shots came maybe a minute later, much farther away and in front of me.
I called F (the man on whose land I camp) in his house up the hill. He’d heard it, too, and was standing in his back door looking. He was dismayed to learn how close to me the initial shots were.
I don’t know anything about guns, I told him, but it sounded like the same type of weapon each time. If it was one person, they were moving really fast. I’d heard neither running nor any kind of engine — nor did I hear horse hooves, but in retrospect that might be the most likely mode of transport if it was one shooter.
Or, it could have been three, using the same kind of guns. I assume Border Patrol agents are issued identical guns.
This is the Border Wars. I’m in it, right here, right now, 18 miles from the Mexican border (by road, less as the crow flies).
“I’m not going to be the one to report them, because I’m afraid of retribution.” I told F, talking excitedly. “No way. They find out who reports them, they retaliate. They don’t want anything to do with us anyway.”
That’s why I announced my presence tonight and did the same when gunfire got too close last year in the grasslands. That’s why in the two years of living outside, and many incidents, I’ve never contacted Border Patrol. And never will.
After hanging up with F, I heard the fourth and final volley much farther away — and to my right. So they’d moved in a circle. Or there were multiple shooters.
I’m no longer alone in the bush. Not only is F, the landowner who gave me permission a year ago to camp on his land, up his long rough driveway, but a man I’ve known a while moved his small travel trailer maybe 50 feet away from me. I quickly established that he has a gun. I have to admit that makes me feel more secure, even though I do not want to own a gun myself. Although when I called, I learned he and his girlfriend were watching TV and missed it all.
I’ve heard three stories of retribution, all three located in the town in which I now live, which is 12 miles closer to the border than the community in which I owned the home on which I foreclosed.
The first, told by bar buddies who were lifetime locals and work on the land, was told in the first person. He was out in the mountains hunting with a friend and a drone flew over. The idiot friend fired at the drone, which obligingly crashed. He ran in the opposite direction. My friend, curious, was hiking toward the crash site when he was overtaken by men in U.S. military uniforms. They ordered him to stay away from the drone and interrogated him.
“You mean these drones are monitored in real time?” I asked. A man at the bar table is a vet who worked with similar surveillance equipment. Oh yes, he replied.
This is the same man who said he and his Air Force buddies would come in to work and decide who they wanted to watch that day. He offered that tidbit after I told them that at my various car campsites, drones seemed to show up just as I started bathing.
The men in uniform asked my storytelling friend where they might find the drone shooter. “I don’t know, but he hangs out at the Wagon Wheel a lot,” he replied, referring to the much-storied local bar.
The man who shot the drone did not live locally but often came to town for various periods of time. My friend would often run into him. After that day, he never saw him again. Nor did he hear any news of why.
The second time I’d heard about retribution was less verbal and detailed. And scarier. Basically, someone who might or might not be involved in the drug trade advised me to never report drug dealers or migrant groups.
Why not? “People disappear,” he said. I gawked, not wanting to believe it but kind of already knowing he was right. He made vague reference to a couple instances. I didn’t press for details, but I thought about missing persons posters I’d seen over the years. Families plead for information about their loved one who was last seen in the border town Nogales, or leaving for a camping trip in the Santa Rita mountains, or whatever.
I’ll skip the third story for lack of time.
However, a few days after the gun volleys I witnessed from my tent, I talked with a local who usually has all the latest news and gossip. “Oh yeah,” he said. “I heard about it from two other people.” One lived a mile away at the edge of town, up the dirt road I drive to access camp. “He heard shots so close he hit the deck in his own house.”
My informant pieced together that the gunfight started near that man’s house and proceeded through the woods parallel to the dirt road up to my area.
“What do the police say?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he replied grimly. “Nobody knows nothing. The Marshall’s office claims to have no information about shots fired out there.”
“Out there” begins a three minute drive from the edge of town, and ends not much more than five.
So it’s not just citizens who stay mum about threats to life and limb. How many more incidents stay out of the news and away from widespread awareness?