They left Albuquerque at 9:00 A.M. sharp, getting back on I-25 north right after breakfast at the hotel restaurant. Brandon asked to get in the driver's seat of the Centurion, the bestselling SUV hybrid by Kia, 40 city/50 hwy. But Jack said hold off till traffic thinned out when they get clear out of the city. The kid was all excited about the trip This was his golden opportunity to really prove his driving skill since he obtained his permit two months ago. So far, he had logged in two hundred miles of the five hundred they drove the day before from the house in Tucson.

He drove forty of the 65 miles to Santa Fe before his father took over ten miles from the city where they, as agreed, took a short break to look around. It was a dry summer day in July, a perfect day for the long drive east of the Rockies. They got back on the road with Jack at the wheel till traffic again cleared a few miles out of the city. To the north and west of them on I-25 as it looped south before turning north again towards Las Vegas (New Mexico), their eyes feasted on the sight of the 13,000-foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It was an experience father and son felt glad they shared along with the rest of the long drive.

They had 365 miles remaining to get to Castle Rock. Jack figured they'd make it in under six hours, doing between 65 to 70 miles an hour and getting there no later than 6:00 P.M. He let Brandon drive the next 100 miles before he took over, right in the middle of nowhere it seemed in this part of northwest New Mexico. Desert wilderness, arid landscape serene with the occasional sight of a broken mesa and the distant mountain peaks.

He had been driving an hour just past the town called Springer when an old-model Toyota sedan pulled onto the highway a hundred yards ahead from a parallel county road. It picked up speed to keep pace with him for a few seconds then gradually slowed down. When he got close enough and it looked like it wanted him to pass, he stepped on the pedal to do so but as soon as he did, it sped up so that he had to fall back behind it. This went on several times till he got pissed and blew his horn at it.

A minute later, with his window rolled down and him yelling at the son of a bitch, another old-model Toyota that looked even more beat up got behind him from the side of the highway and tailed him within two car-lengths. He sped up and got close to the one ahead of him. He tried to overtake it once again and the same thing happened as before.

This time, he slowed down and as soon as he did, the one behind slowed down too till it was a good thirty yards back. The one in front maintained a distance closer than that. Fifteen, twenty yards. Finally, after about a mile in that situation, he pulled over and stopped without cutting the engine. The two cars did the same, keeping the same distance from them.

He sat for a few seconds, waiting to see what happens now, thinking fast what to do, if he had to do something. He was looking at the car in front while he had Brandon keep an eye on the one behind. Just as he saw them emerge from both sides of the car, Brandon tensed up, saying: "Dad, two guys from the car coming this way."

Jack turned around and saw them. One was about a foot taller than the other, at least six two, making the short one look like a kid, around fourteen years old. They looked like construction workers in their work clothes. Mud boots, soiled jeans, baseball caps, long-sleeved shirts rolled to the elbows. The tall one carried what looked like an antique 10-round semi-auto M1A rifle, the kid what's visibly a 9 mm handgun. They cast no doubt about their intent to use their weapons the way they held them dangling loosely at their sides.

In half a second, Jack reached over to the glove box and snapped it open to take out the Sig Sauer 10-round P229 he had in it and handed it to Brandon. "You know how to use this." Jack said not to question but to remind his son who had done target shooting with him several times using the gun. He took a quick glance at the car in front and saw the man who got out of it now leaning against the trunk looking at them, waiting for something to happen. Next, he hurried to reach far behind to the underside of the back seat and pulled out the Bushmaster M16A9 assault rifle he was issued by the office for use on special border patrol operations. 40-round magazine, effective range--500 meters (over five football fields).

Fuckin' bandidos, he thought. Shit! There was no time to panic or have any doubts about what's developing here fast. He told Brandon to keep an eye on the guy in front then got out of the car holding the M16, muzzle pointing thirty degrees down, with his right hand around its trigger grip.

"What do you want?" he called out in an iron-clad voice to the two men who slowed down their advance to half steps when they saw he was carrying too.

"Jus' a littol gas money senor," replied the tall one, deadpan, slowing down some more but still moving steadily forward with the little one.

"Hold it right there!" Jack now ordered. "I'm a U.S. federal Homeland Security officer. Stop now and put down your weapons!" With that, he raised the M16 muzzle horizontal at belly-button level.

To Jack's utter surprise, the first to react to his command was the little one, not by obeying but by shooting at him. His own reaction was instinctive at the sight and sound of the sudden aggression. He flattened himself against the side of the car to dodge the bullet, bumping his forehead hard on the middle post. The slug whizzed by and shattered the driver-side rearview mirror. He responded by pulling the trigger while he had the M16 aimed blindside in their direction, giving out two bursts of three rounds. One round found its mark on the left thigh of the tall one. He cursed out loud in Spanish and let out a burst in anger, putting holes on the rear door and bumper of the Kia Centurion. Jack shot again making the two drop quickly and roll over to the roadside. For one moment, he had a thought about being back in the time of the wild, wild west.

More shots were fired, this time between Brandon and the man from the car up ahead.

"Get down!" Jack yelled as he jumped back in the car. He burned rubber to get past the old Toyota fast but several rounds that demolished the windshield forced him to drive straight over to the median. He kept his foot on the accelerator even as the car hopped up and down on the uneven grass surface. He got as far as maybe a hundred yards on the bumpy median before he slowed down and finally had to stop. It wasn't just the uneven ground that made for a rough ride on it. Some of the rounds that hit the SUV blew a wheel, the left rear, Jack found out when he got out, being careful to stay out of the line of sight of the bandidos.

Jack Harding wasn't new to the situation that now confronted him. A dozen years ago, while still doing patrol runs regularly along the Arizona border stretch between Douglas and Nogales, he had a similar stand-off with a bunch of illegals who had made it two miles into the state. He was with a senior patrol officer, his mentor at the time who had since retired. The illegals were armed and surprised them by engaging in a shooting match with them--the government.

But there was a world of difference between the two situations. Back then, they were the pursuers, and he was with a fellow federal law enforcement officer defending the border, the country, from foreign intruders. This time, they were the pursued, and he wasn't with a fellow law enforcement officer. He was with his son. Further, they weren't within a short distance from the border. They were hundreds of miles within the country, deep in the interior of the state, under siege.

While he assessed their situation quickly the next couple of minutes, the bandidos, in the meantime, took a few potshots at them, the rounds piercing the rear fender and the door of the SUV. Jack responded with a quick burst from the M16, Brandon with a couple of shots from the Sig Sauer, keeping the bad guys low behind the old Toyota sedan. They were all four men together now behind the car after the two in the back had crawled on the far edge of the road, the big one laboriously dragging the wounded side of him on the aggregate road shoulder. The two behind the Kia heard him cursing rapidly in Spanish. They sat back-to-back at the farthest place from the road behind the left front fender. Jack hated it when he felt he needed to but handed Brandon two fresh magazines for the Sig Sauer P229.

There were a number of possibilities Jack now saw the way things could go, not necessarily in the following order:

These chicken-hearted motherfuckers, he thought, the way he saw them behave just now--not willing or able to risk an all-out shootout, thank God, obviously scared after seeing the firepower he had, could simply give up and drive off. The best this could turn out. Or--

He could be wrong about them. They could turn out to be not just bandidos but desperados, crazier assholes than he thought they were and storm the two of them from across the street, in which case it would be an open shootout and either one or both of them ending up dead, or the other way around, or all of them either dead or badly wounded. The worst-case scenario. Or--

Both sides could stay put till they run out of bullets, and then what? A possibility but not likely, on account of any of the following--

Someone could come along on the highway and intervene. He could flag the next motorist or truck driver for help and hopefully someone would stop and see what's going on. A possibility, but a slim one. Several cars had gone by going at 70 or 80 miles an hour and hardly took notice of any of them. Or--

A local authority--police or state trooper--could come along and get these bandidos to surrender. The second best possibility Jack now hoped for, but not likely to happen. This is New Mexico, a state now ninety-nine percent Latino. Like most ordinary citizens or full-time residents of the country, Jack still didn't have a realistic idea of the true lay-of-the-land even as his job itself involved national security. To him, the map of the U.S., the lower 48, remained the same as it had always been. The only boundaries within it were those between the states. It's not his business to get involved or interested in any social or political climate of the nation. Federal employees traditionally had always been prohibited from 'getting involved' and displaying their political leaning. And he had done just that, keeping busy simply doing his job and, especially, raising a family.

With the government continuing to cover up the true demographics of the country from the nation's consciousness, nobody recognized any dividing line, any boundary that now separated the population regions of the country and defined the quality of life, the true character and dominant culture of each of them. Here in this part of the country, for instance, the Hispanic/Latino region now extended from New Mexico to fifty miles up north into Colorado. English was now hardly spoken in these parts. From the point of view of a well-honed statistician like Richard Casey, this chunk of the U.S., demographically, was now more a part of Mexico than America, or what was America.

Thus, Jack Harding's chance, unknown to him, of seeing a state trooper on the road stands at as low as one percent versus ninety-nine percent seeing them in a cantina or a whorehouse. The only other possibility the way things could go, he now considered, was:

He could call for federal help from, or through, the office in Tucson. His best bet and the one he felt most comfortable with for a number of reasons. The federal law enforcement was still essentially intact mostly because of the composition of its armed and intel manpower assets--mainstream professionals, vetted specialists and multi-lingual. They're fast, well-trained and had a lot of firepower. Only thing was--on a situation like this, how fast could they really be? Tucson could request assets from Albuquerque in the south or Denver in the north. Both were at least an hour by air to where they were. Santa Fe is a little closer. Colorado Springs even closer.

It's a bit of a long shot but he's a federal officer, a mid-level one in command of at least three dozen uniformed law-enforcement personnel specialized in, heck, just this kind of situation. He got on the phone instantly and called his ICE office in Tucson. A guy he knew well, name of Ed Conley, a CBP officer who seesawed between CIS and ICE stations along the Arizona border from Yuma to Douglas told him to hang on, keep low, stay alive, DHS ICE has assets in Colorado Springs he had used in the past for just this kind of operation. They could get to him in less than an hour.

The next forty minutes would drag forever. First, Brandon finally let him know he was wounded and bleeding, but not seriously. During the exchange of shots earlier with the bandido in front of them, a chunk of glass sliced through his right arm when the windshield shattered and he tried to cover his face with the arm. Then, every few minutes, the bandidos took turns demanding they throw down their arms and give up and they'll let them live. Jack responded by telling them again who he was and that they do that instead and save themselves. The result--more exchange of rounds.

It was 1:15 P.M. when his phone rang and a voice rising above the noise of a machine in the background asked for Officer Harding...Jack Harding. He responded as clearly as he could and once identities were confirmed, he directed them to their location on I-25. The co-pilot with whom he spoke, a USCG personnel currently assigned inland, name of Todd Banks, told him to stay with him on the phone throughout the operation after they talked about how to carry it out, what to do.

He first heard it coming from the north, its rotors breaking through the wind barrier above two thousand feet. When he finally saw it cruising at 140 knots, a fully armed MH-90 Jayhawk chopper carrying four crews and three AUF (airborne use of force)-capable personnel, he turned to his son and told him to move farther back away from the road and behind him. Then he got back on the phone with Todd Banks and told him to commence operation. Everything from then on happened very quickly.

The MH-90 swooped down to seventy feet above the bandidos and turned to hover a hundred yards past them at that altitude. The bandidos didn't think anything of it when they first saw it in the sky. Now they realized it came to deal with them and more clearly when they heard Todd Bank's voice from the loudspeaker. First, he ordered them to drop their weapons, move away from the car, hands up in the air, and kneel. He gave it to them first in English, then in Spanish.

The first one to respond was the tall one with the wounded leg, cursing in Spanish.

Hijo de perra! Vete a la mierda! (Son of a bitch. Fuck you!).

With that, he aimed at the helicopter and fired three shots. Two rounds grazed the nose of the aircraft. That was enough for the pilot to pull back as far as another hundred yards in the air and reposition for an attack maneuver. Todd Banks then gave the go ahead for the gunner crew to fire when ready. The bandidos, all four of them now, kept shooting at them with their handguns and rifles.

The pilot maneuvered in a half-circle around the bandidos to give the AUF personnel a clear shot at the target below. Once in position, the trigger gunner aimed and fired the .50 caliber machine gun in three-second sprays. Todd Banks watched the bandidos scamper for cover around the Toyota. But the gunner didn't let up till the car was burning and, less than a minute later, everyone around it lay motionless on the ground. The helicopter then descended nearby and Todd Banks together with two armed gunner crews on each side of him emerged to inspect the scene.

Jack Harding waited a few seconds before he got out to the road, telling his son to stay back for now by the Kia, see how bad the damage was on the car with all the bullet holes in it and check the spare tire as well.


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