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With Preston Bates

This story takes place decades ago at a different time from now...

Names are omitted to protect the guilty. Believe the story or not... it’s your choice.

When I first came to New Mexico many years ago my first riding job was with a fella who managed a big ranch owned a “use-ta-have-money” family that had seen better days. Family squabbles had let the place kinda go to hell, and none of the family wanted to put anything into it, but they all wanted something out of it. I got the job through a friend and was only hired for the fact that I could stick to a horse. This fella had gotten a bunch of B.L.M. mustangs and needed some help getting them going. At 50 he was some years older than I at the time and wanted someone else to put the first ride on these mustangs. He wasn’t afraid to ride a bronc, but he liked to see how broncky they were before he forked one. He’d had a few wreaks in his time. This man I’ll call my partner ‘cause we quickly became just that, not in business but in the amigo sense of the word. He was a unique guy, college-educated with a degree in range management and in political science and philosophy. He was well-read and well-spoken and he never really stopped speaking. He was in great shape, with thick silver hair and sky-blue eyes, he could turn the ladies' heads and he knew it. He was a swashbuckler in the saddle and charmed all he came across. He knew horses, he knew cattle, he knew the range and the plants, and he knew more esoteric information than he should have. The long days we spent in the saddle together were dang sure never boring. As an uneducated man I learned a lot from him about all kinds of things. I had been there a couple of months and we had most of the 20 some mustangs going pretty good when one day he said that he was going to Albuquerque for a day or so to look at some horses. So, it was just me and Cholo on the place. Cholo didn’t ride, he fixed things. A chair, a windmill, a transmission, a clock, whatever he set his hands on it was soon as good as new. After nearly a week and no sign of my partner, I was getting worried. One morning I asked Cholo if we should be and he smiled and shook his head “No, we don' worry about him. He do it every time. Go to town and drink and chase the señoritas. He will be back when he is broke and wore out.” Cholo was right, a few days later he pulled in with horses on the trailer and looking a bit weary. When I looked in the trailer, I was surprised by what I saw, four Thoroughbreds, all over 16 hands and race track fit. “What the hell?” I queried. “Taking them to Mexico”. He said. “Why?” I asked. “These racehorses will bring good money there. Not fast enough for States racing but they will sell well down there” He replied. “When ya doing this?” I questioned. “We are taking them down tomorrow.” He answered. My heart jumped with excitement with the word that I got to go to Mexico. For months I had heard his tales of adventures in Mexico and was sure enough ready for some. I was up bright and early the next day and ready to go. My partner slept till 9 AM and when he finally roused up he saw I was chomping at the bit. But he told me “We won’t be leaving until midafternoon.”

“Why so late?” I asked.

“Timing is everything when it comes to crossing the border.” He replied.

I figured it had to do with traffic.

Midafternoon we loaded the horses, bedrolls, a cooler of beer and he told me to grab my saddle as well. I shrugged it into the back of the truck, and we headed out. We neared the border late in the day and my partner swung off the highway onto a small road.

“Where we going?” As I was looking around.

“Mexico!” He said.

“Why are we going down this road?” I wondered.

“Using a different border crossing” He replied.

This is when he filled me in on his plan. This was a long time before 9/11 and the border was a bit more porous than it is now.

“We are taking the back door into Old Mexico, my friend. We don’t have the time to get these horses through the front door. We will drive along the border to a place I know then you will mount up and push these horses across the border. I will meet you on the other side.”

“Damn,” I thought to myself “this is just like in the movies!” I had this thought many times over the next day.

A couple more turns over the next hour or so and we were bouncing down a worn-out two tract road then he came to a stop. As I reached for the door handle to get out, he told me to sit tight.

“We need to wait for the sun to set. Right now, with this low sun, the dust can be spotted for miles and the sun will reflect off the truck and trailer like a mirror. It’s all about timing.”

“How will I know when I get to the border?” I asked.

“There’s a fence out there along it.”

“A fence? How tall?” I was getting a bit worried now. In the movies, they always splashed across the Rio Grande and on into Mexico, but there wasn’t any river on this part of the border, and I had visions of a tall chain link fence.

“It’s not much of a fence, just a few strands of barbwire”

“Is there a gate?” I questioned again.

“Yep a few but if you miss ‘em in the dark just cut the fence”

“And where do I meet you?” I questioned yet again.

“It will take me a couple of hours, but I’ll meet you at some corrals you’ll come across. Should take you less than an hour. If it takes longer then you missed them, and you need to backtrack.”

I was really starting to get nervous now.

The sun was behind the horizon and dusk was getting deep when he started the truck and moved on down the road.

“Perfect timing,” he said. “Light enough for no headlights and dark enough not to be seen.”

Another half an hour of bouncing and he stopped again and cut the engine.

“Here we go, let's unload and you get saddled up”

I knew nothing about these horses having done no more than put a halter on them and load them on a trailer. They were snorty coming off the trailer in the near dark. They looked around and realized they weren’t at the racetrack anymore and got more fidgety.

“Which one you think I should ride?” I asked.

“Tallest one, so you can see where you’re going.”

Made sense. I threw my rig on a big bay, my partner handed me up the leads of the other three and I nudged him off. Right away one of the others set back and wouldn’t lead. I’m sure they had all been ponied before, but I figured not in a group.

That stubborn fool of a horse stretched me out as I desperately tried to hang on to all of them. He grunted out a big pull and ripped the lead through my hand and ran off. The others tried to go with him but I dallied hard and after they twisted my saddle sidewise they gave up. The loose horse was a shadow about 50 yards away jumping around over his lead rope on the ground. My partner walked out and tried to get a hold of him, but he moved off and stayed out of range.

“Just go on with the others, he’ll follow along,” my partner told me.

With some nudging and cussing, I got everyone moving and headed South. The loose horse came along keeping a distance from us but at least he was following. We were all on edge. Here I was riding a horse I had never been on, heading off in the dark into country I didn’t know and going someplace I had no idea where it was. I was sure these racehorses had never been ridden in the dark, I was sure they had never had a fence out of their sight and damn sure they had never been to Mexico, so we were wound uptight.

I found the dark line of a trail and followed that, seeing it was headed my way. The loose horse stayed off away from us but every time he rustled the brush the others would spook and dash to the end of their leads. This wasn’t as much fun as I had imagined.

After about half an hour just as a sliver of a moon was rising, I came across the border fence, or what there was of it. It was ripped apart and we just happen to hit a spot clear of wire and made it through with no problems but had to hold up for the loose horse who didn’t find a clear spot. I could hear him trotting along the fence and just as I was hoping he wouldn’t sound off he did. His whinny was loud and clear and quieted all the other night sounds. I cussed him as I rode back to where he stood stupidly ten feet from a big gap in the fence. Back and forth I rode trying to lure him to the gap but it took ten minutes before he finally saw it. I cussed him and the fool that had bred him!

We got lined back out and headed South again. Nothing settled down though, as we went along. I was jumpy, they were jumpy… I couldn’t get to those corrals soon enough, wherever the hell they were. Sometime later, not real sure how long it had been, as my mind was occupied with more than keeping track of time I saw headlights way off in the distance. After a while, the lights turned off. That must be my partner at the corrals I thought to myself. It was longer than I thought to get there but when I neared the area the corrals took shape in the dim moonlight and I saw the dome light of a truck and heard music. Relief swept over me. I heard quiet voices and wondered who my partner had with him. As I came around the corner of the corrals the voices stopped, and I heard a voice yell out in Spanish. I had no idea what they said so I just yelled back a hello. The night went dead quiet, the dome light went out and the music stopped. I got a prickly feeling down my back. Right at the corner, there was an open gate into the corrals and in I went. Luck was with me at that moment cause the loose knot headed horse somehow found his way in right behind us. I could see silhouettes of three men moving my way. I swung the gate shut and stayed mounted; I always feel safer on horseback no matter what the situation is. I dropped the leads of the horses and let them snuffle around as I sat and awaited whoever was coming down. I’ll admit I was scared. I pulled my pistol from my chaps’ pocket and held it in my lap. They climbed the fence but not over it which I was glad for. One started talking in Spanish to me. At the time the only words I knew in Spanish were “yes, no, horse, cow, beer, and water”. At the end of a bit of talking he stopped obviously waiting for my response. “No hablo español.” I announced. That set them to talking amongst themselves. Then with a chuckle one said “No hablo americano.” I realized it was a Mexican standoff. To settle myself I pulled out a cigarette and lit it up. They did the same, but they weren’t smoking tobacco. They quietly talked and laughed with each other, it sounded threatening to me and my skin prickled a bit more and my hand sweated on my pistol handle. I was scared. Just then headlights hove into view in the distance. I hoped to hell it was my partner!

As it got closer I heard the familiar sound of a Ford 460 V8 with a bad rod. Yes! The men stopped talking and watched as the truck bounced our way and finally lurched to a stop. “Ola!” My partner shouted with a hint of caution in his voice. The men responded in Mexican and a conversation ensued that I quickly got the gist of as it suddenly had a tone of that of old friends glad to see each other. The shadows walked to each other and soon there was handshaking and back-slapping and laughter. I wasn’t scared anymore. I put my pistol away and swung down meeting the bunch at the gate as they came my way. “You made it I see.” My partner said giving me a handshake. “Any problems?” he asked. “Not a one, easy-going.” I lied. He continued talking to the men a few minutes more then turned to me, “Let’s get loaded up and get the hell out of here!” he said quietly but with urgency. “Why? What’s going on?” I asked. “You ask questions all the time and always at the wrong time! Get goddamn loaded up!” he hissed. My partner had NEVER talked to me in any sort of harsh tone. I knew there was something serious going on, so I shut up and hustled up. Fortunately, the horses offered no problems loading in the dark, they were happy to be back in our trailer. Not a word was said till we were well down the rutted road, then my partner said one word with disgust in his voice. “Smugglers.” I let it sink in a moment… “And you know them?” “Yes, I know one, his father is a good friend of mine. Kids gone bad I guess.” He said. After that, we traveled along in silence. I was coming down from my adrenaline buzz and crashing pretty hard. I melted into the seat of the truck as we turned onto the highway, soon the hum of the tires on the pavement lulled me to sleep. I woke up when the truck bounced and jumped into the potholes of a dirt parking lot. Looking out the window I saw we were stopping at a truck stop of a sort. The old florescent-lit plastic signs on the adobe building advertising beer, Coca Cola and food put there to attract travelers were having little effect on me. “Hungry?” my partner asked. “You eatin' here before?” I asked with obvious concern in my voice. “I have, let’s go,” he said as he shut off the engine and swung out of the truck. It was about 9 PM, well past the dinner hour but the place was pretty full as it doubled as a bar, and I think perhaps a few other things.

We seated ourselves and in moments a woman came over and it was clear she and my partner were acquainted. She gave him a hug and they rattled on for a few minutes, then she turned and rushed off shouting orders to the bar. “Another ex-wife?” I asked with a grin. “Not a wife and not an ex dear sir, and that’s the way to always keep it.” Constant words of wisdom flowed from this man. A young boy of about seven brought us a couple bottles of beer that were cold and sweating in the hot stuffy bar. It was about the best beer I had ever had. I sipped it as I looked over the crowd. Lots of cowboy type truckers, you know the type - guys with loud colored polyester shirts, hats that had never slapped a cow and boots with no shit on them. I was surprised I saw no real cowboys. About that time our food arrived, I had no idea what it was. It was big, meaty and red and damn delicious! I was just sopping up the last of the red sauce with a tortilla and sluicing down my third beer when the door opened and like everyone in there, I looked to peruse the newcomers. They were two real cowboys. Beaten up hats, denim shirts and jeans, dirty boots that had the shine inside the calf from rubbing on stirrup rigging. They looked the crowd over then made a beeline our way. Coming up behind my partner one winked at me as he got right behind him and then just as my partner was starting on a long pull off his beer the guy jabbed him in the ribs with his thumbs on both sides… hard, and laughing as he did it. My partner jumped up from surprise and pain, spewing beer like a Roman fountain. He turned ready to wildcat on someone then he saw who it was, and he too busted out laughing and they bear-hugged like lost brothers. These men, both in their 40’s, pulled up chairs and hollered for Cerveza. They carried on a loud and good-natured conversation of too long absent friends while I licked my plate clean, finished my beer and leaned back and let my belt out a notch. Half an hour later and another beer for me and two more for them the talk stopped. “Let’s go.” my partner said getting up and throwing some bills on the table. As we all tromped towards the exit he waved and yelled something to the woman across the room and she said something flashing him a big, sweet smile and blowing a kiss. Outside the two men peered through the slats on the trailer and I could tell my partner was really talking up his merchandise, no telling what story he was laying on them. I’d bet there was some mention of Kentucky Derby winners and big dinero. “Unload ‘em and tie ‘em up to the trailer - they want a better look.” My partner ordered. “Right here?” I queried. Highway traffic thundered by just 30 feet away and semis were bouncing through the parking lot banging, clattering and roaring. “Yep, good a place as any around here.” He said. This might not be good, I thought to myself.

I handed them out to him, and he tied them off to the trailer. One stood still as a statue, the others trembled and fidgeted. I just hoped he would not ask me to ride the damn things here in this lot. Lucky for me I heard the money negotiation start… body language, tone of voice, horse-trading looks and sounds the same no matter where ya are.

After a few minutes, one of the men took out a fat roll of bills, counted some off, handing them to my partner as his partner untied the horses and led them off into the dark around the building. I hoped that was the last I would ever see of them. We climbed back in the truck and my partner was sure feeling good about himself and life. I could tell he was pretty lit up and I asked If maybe he wanted me to drive.

“And just where would you drive us to?” He questioned.

“Back to the border, I guess,” I said.

“Then you would be driving us the wrong direction,” I replied.

“Where are we going then?” I asked.

“We are headed to see a man about a horse!” He exclaimed laughing at his joke as he pulled out onto the highway.

Read Part II

Preston Bates is the proprietor of N Bar Ranch in New Mexico – these are his own photos, but none are from the story... No fool would keep evidence from such a tall tale!


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