Sharon rode in Bernice's old Bronco as they headed up an overgrown dirt road that turned off Highway 94 a few miles closer to Campo. Carlotta followed in her SUV. It wasn't far off the highway to the house but they had decided it would be better to circle around behind it on a little used dirt road Bernice knew about. They stopped so Danny could use the telescope to see what was happening before going all the way in.
"I can't see any vehicles."
Andy looked too, "There are no animals in the corrals and the back door is banging in the wind."
"This place reminds me of the ranchos around a town in Baja California called La Misión for some reason. It's a one-blink-and-its-gone stop on the old road to Ensenada that sells great goat cheese and tortillas made right there." Carlotta was into one of her stories.
Lotta stood there on the ridge over-looking Mama Maria's abandoned ranch and it finally came to her. "It's the bells!" She exclaimed. "Can't you hear them?"
As they all listened they could hear tinkling little bells coming from up canyon.
"At La Misión the goats wore little bells around their necks to warn the goat herder if they strayed too far away. Maria Peña was originally from somewhere in Baja California so she might be using bells."
They decided to go up canyon to check it out - following the bells.
The road ended at the house. They could see a narrow path winding through the shrubland.
It headed in the direction of an old water windmill that they could just see the top of over a ridge about 500 feet ahead.
When they got to the windmill the goats were there, drinking from a welded sheet metal tub. There were only four goats including twin kids that were still nursing but around the smooth neck of the adult goats was a small bell.
"Somebody must have turned them loose." Danny said patting one of the frisky young goats. He licked Danny's fingers. The young goat just probably liked the salt on Danny's hands.
"Mama Maria!" Bernice was calling as she walked around the area. "She loves these goats and either she let them out or she's nearby."
Maria Peña must have recognized Bernice's voice because she suddenly appeared from behind a prickly group of scrub oak and cactus. "Señora Bernice," and that was all the others could understand for awhile as Maria and Bernice lapsed into Spanish.
Finally Bernice turned to everyone to explain. "She has quite a story but if you don't mind we may be in real danger here so I suggest we head to my house right away before I repeat all of it to you. We can put the goats in the Bronco."
They began to help Maria herd the goats down the trail toward the vehicles. Maria Peña also had some live chickens in a box by the old shack she had been using. Those went into the back of Andy's truck after one got out and flapped into the dense chamise. It avoided capture for several minutes and created an incredible noise while everyone chased it around with feathers flying.
Danny finally caught it with a flying leap. He put it in one of the cat carriers instead of opening the chicken cage and running the risk of letting out more of them. It poked its beak out of the slots in the carrier and pecked Danny's finger.
The noise bothered them all because even though no one said it aloud they all knew that the smugglers might return at any minute.
Bernice, Lotta, Sharon and Mama Maria left to head over to Bernice's house. The rest of them decided to take a chance to look at the house at least around the outside. They left the truck parked at a distance behind an old barn on the other road just in case. Everything was still quiet back at the house. They mostly looked around outside.
"Hey! Look at these large square bare places on the ground," Danny and Jamie were on the east side of the house.
"Yeah, the rest of the yard is overgrown with grasses and flowers but none have grown in the bare spots, " Andy added poking around in the debris in the yard.
"Which can only mean the containers were removed very recently," Ben suggested with a nervous glance down the dirt road.
"I'll bet it was those vans we saw on the desert, Andy," Danny was certain. "The squares look about the same size as those boxes we saw them loading."
They looked in a few windows. "Ben, we need to leave here. It's giving me the creeps." Andy could feel those guys in the vans coming after them.
"Lets go then." Ben suggested as he turned toward the truck. "I want to hear Mrs. Peña's story anyway."
"Quick! Hide! There's a van that just turned off the highway and is heading this way!"
Jamie was gesturing and yelling frantically at the others. She had wandered up slope to get an overview and turned around just in time to see the van turn the corner. They scrambled madly up the steep eroded slope, slipping and sliding.
Just as the van pulled into view they skidded behind the remains of an old wood fence to safety. "I don't think they could see us," Danny whispered out of breath. He dropped to the ground and leaned back against the old fence to catch his breath.
"They aren't looking this way," Ben added breathing hard and peering over the fence.
"We need to get that license plate number," Jamie suggested.
"I think I could hide in that large sugarbush, the greenest large leafy bush over near where the dirt drive meets the highway. See it? From there I'll bet I'll be able to see the license number if they leave soon," Andy volunteered.
"When they leave, I'll throw some dirt in the air near the corner of the barn to signal you. I don't think you will be able to see what's going on up here from down there," Jamie offered scooping some dirt into an old bucket that she found turned on its side and beginning to rust.
"What if they don't leave?" Ben wanted to know concerned.
"We'll just have to walk to a house and call the police," Andy suggested looking around. Houses are far apart out here but they had passed one not too far back along the highway before they turned off on the dirt road leading in here.
"Andy, be careful," Ben was worried. "Don't let them see you. These guys mean business."
Andy smiled confidently and crept along the side of the fence to the nearby bushes.
She made her way slowly down to the edge of the highway behind the Sugar Bush. The slope there was not as eroded or steep and there were some boulders and buckwheat bushes to provide a better footing. She managed to get there without making much noise.
In position behind the sugarbush, Jamie was right, Andy could no longer see anyone behind the fence. She kept her eye on the place where Jamie said she would throw the dirt but nothing happened for quite some time.
All of a sudden, someone began to yell. A house door slammed and a car alarm began honking the horn. Andy glanced up slope hoping that it was their van and not Lotta's truck alarm!
There was a scramble and more yelling that she couldn't understand and then the alarm stopped. Andy barely caught what looked like dust in the air from Jamie's signal at the edge of the fence as she turned around and hunched down further into the protection of the bush. Her heart pounded as the seconds ticked off and then they were on her instantly!
Andy just had time to see some of the license number before the van screeched onto the pavement. It skidded sideways on the sandy dirt that had probably washed out onto the paved road during the last thunderstorm but the vehicle managed the turn and accelerated off down the highway racing west.
As soon as they were out of sight Andy ran back to the fence. Everyone was piling into Lotta's truck.
"I think they saw me! What happened over there?" Andy asked.
"Did you get the number?" Jamie insisted.
"Most of it. The first number and the last number I'm not sure about." Andy wrote them down and Danny compared them to those they had from the desert van.
"Alright! It's got to be the same guys!" Jamie exclaimed.
"Now tell me what happened," Andy demanded.
"The one guy stood around talking on the cell phone while the other guy went into the house," Ben began, "and then the guy on the cell phone started yelling at the other guy when he came back from the house - something about a box. The second guy ran for the van. It must have been locked because when he tried to open the door it set off an alarm. So then they shoved each other around some and yelled some and then both got into the van and tore out of there."
"Sounds like they got a message from someone to clear out fast," Andy suggested dusting herself off.
"Yeah, and it must have been bad news," Danny added putting the paper with the license numbers on it into the glove compartment. "I'll give this to the sheriff."
"Why would they suddenly attack each other, though," Andy wondered wiping her face with a wad of damp tissues from the truck.
"Maybe the cell phone guy wanted to leave the other guy behind," Jamie said climbing into the truck. "Did you see them burn rubber? That van nearly rolled over! It was really top heavy like it was loaded or something."
"I was too busy being showered with the dirt and rocks from the road when their tires were spinning without traction," Andy complained, but they were all relieved that those guys were gone.
"Well, I don't know about anyone else but I've had enough excitement and I'm hungry!" Ben complained as he started the engine and put it into gear. "Read those directions to Bernice's place will you Andy? I want out of here, now!"
"It says take Highway 94 to Buckman Springs Road and turn left," Andy read as the truck rolled onto the highway carefully avoiding the sandy section.
They didn't see anyone coming up the road on the way out but none of them were breathing easy until they had put some miles behind them in the opposite direction from those guys in the van. Andy suggested they stop at the convenience store at Cameron Corners before heading up Buckman Springs Road and out Cameron Truck Trail to Bernice's. It would be nice to pick up something to help out with dinner and to drink just in case Bernice asked them to stay for dinner.
"Wow! Look at that!" Danny said as they left the store. He pointed to a shiny black car whose driver was looking at a map held up in front of him. It had pulled in shortly after they had.
"That's strange," Andy said. "Mostly you see pickups, 4-wheel-drives and junkers out here but all kinds of people go out for a drive in the backcountry."
"Too bad it's so scratched up on this side," Danny added. "It looks like someone threw rocks at it."
Afterward, they all remembered that the black car left the lot just after them but no one was thinking of anything but vans and food at the time.
They followed Sharon's directions and were there a few minutes later. It was an incredible place, surrounded by a dense stand of tall old Red Shank Chemise bushes with their red bark. Bernice's two tall, teenage grandsons were cleaning out the duck pond in front of the house. They were wearing rubber hip-wadders and were up to their knees in muck but didn't seem to mind.
"Nice looking guys," Lotta said to Bernice as they were invited into a very cool living room furnished with beautiful woven Mexican tapestries and pottery with a floor of light orange handmade Saltillo tiles.
"This place is not going to be the same when they are both off to college in a couple of years." Bernice was obviously fond of her grand children.
"They stay with me summers and get the place in shape. Mostly, I just let them take over. These past few years they have come up with all the neat projects around here. The windmill was their idea and so was the solar water heater."
Unbelievable smells were coming from the kitchen. Mama Maria and Bernice were cooking and they all realized how long it had been since lunch.
Andy tried to be helpful but her skills in the kitchen were limited. "Who has time to cook?" she said to Sharon who laughed.
Ben ate. "Mama Maria you should open a restaurant but first I want you to teach me how to make this."
Bernice was translating Maria's broken English and soon Maria Peña's story came out. "Apparently, she doesn't like Julie's brother, Juan," Bernice began. "As it turns out he isn't even her brother. Maria found him on the streets of Tijuana when he was about 13, just as the police were about to nab him for some petty crime."
He's a very slick character and is good at looking innocent. She protected him and then couldn't stand to just watch him go back to the streets. She took him home and right away regretted it."
"He was always in trouble and managed to talk Julie's other brother Richard, who she calls Ricardo, into some problems as well. Julie married an American and came to live in the States. When Maria's husband got sick they emigrated, too, and then she stayed on at the ranch after he died. Julie's husband is in San Bernardino on a temporary assignment in an oil field. He works for the government."
"Juan was never able to get a permanent resident green card because of his record in Mexico. He came up here as often as he needed to illegally. Richard came sometimes too but mostly stayed in Mexico after he married.
"Richard's wife left him with their son, Jorgé, when he was just a baby to go back to her family in Guatemala and that made things even harder. Richard cares about Jorgé but lets the wrong things get in the way"
"A few years back Richard brought Jorgé to live with Julie so he could have a better education. Richard is a nice guy but easily gets talked into things. Maria blames herself for his problems because she brought Juan into their family."
Bernice paused for a minute because Mama Maria had tears running down her cheeks. They felt sorry for her. She seemed to be such a nice lady who got caught in too much sadness in her life.
Bernice continued, "The night that Juan showed up recently at her place, Maria was down the trail with the goats. As she was returning she saw him out in the yard inspecting some wooden crates that he had a couple of other guys put there a while back for storage, so he told her. There was a man who watched over them all the time and odd bird sounds came out of the crates. When she saw Juan arrive she went back and spent the night in the shack where we found her."
"She says she saw two other men putting the crates into a big van with someone else helping. She thinks that she saw Richard in the van asleep in the seat. She stayed in the shack after that for a day and a half.
Then she hiked up the hill behind the house to see if they were gone. When it was obvious that they had left she got a few things from the house but continued to stay in the shack in case they came back. That's when we found her."
"So where do we go from here?" Sharon wanted to know.
Maria and Bernice had a lengthy conversation in Spanish which looked like Bernice laying down the law about something and finally putting her arm around Maria when she started to cry again.
Trevor, Jason, Andy, Ben, Danny and Jamie were having a conversation in the next room. "Let's go out and get the animals put away somehow," Jason suggested.
"Don't they sort of have to be in pens or something?" Jamie asked.
"Yeah. We especially have to find a way to keep the coyotes from getting the chickens and the kids," Trevor responded.
Kids?" Danny gave Trevor a funny look. "Coyotes eat kids?"
"Kids are what baby goats are called," Jamie put in, "and the moms are ewes and the dads are bucks. Only the bucks smell but Mama Maria didn't have any bucks."
"So where did the kids come from?" Danny grinned.
"Maria probably borrows a buck once a year. Because of the smell the bucks have to be far from where people live." Jason made a face, "It's really bad!"
"Worse than the duck pond!" Trevor added. The pond is pretty but cleaning it out really stinks!"
Back in the kitchen, Bernice was speaking in English again. "Maria is going to stay here for now. She's afraid that being here will put me in danger but I think I finally convinced her there is no way she can go back to her house yet. This will give the guys another project."
She turned and called to her grandsons, "What do you think guys? Can we figure out a way to keep the goats from eating the garden?"
Trevor and Jason stood up. Trevor, said, "There's still a lot of that pipe left over from building the windmill and solar heater. We think we could make a great corral out of it with a few connecting pieces and some field fencing. We're going out now to look at the junk pile to see about a chicken coop."
"Go to it. First thing in the morning you can run over to East County Lumber and see if they have the rest of what you need." Bernice encouraged.
"What we want to do is drop by home and pick up the water trough from when we kept our cows for 4-H. We're down to one heifer so there are a couple extra troughs." Jason said. "We'll pick up the truck and come back out in the morning if we can get a ride in tonight."
"I can give you a ride," Ben suggested.
"Danny and I could come over tomorrow and help you guys with everything," Jamie volunteered and Danny agreed enthusiastically.
It was getting late so they thanked Bernice for her help and Maria for the great meal.
"I'll take Sharon home in the morning before I open up the cafe." Bernice offered.
"I'll call later, Sharon. Would you mind sitting on the story until we can protect the people involved?" Lotta asked. Sharon quickly agreed and said she would try to find out what she could about the possible connection with Larry.
"I'm glad you guys wanted us to help, it'll be fun," Jamie said on the way home.
"We'll have to call your Mom, Jamie, and tell her you need to stay awhile longer," Danny said.
"She won't care," Jamie responded, "She's fine with what ever I want to do as long as it's safe and all."
Her words would soon come back to haunt them!
©Copyright - Ann Wellhouse 2015