Tuesday morning in Shreveport, after he talked on the phone with Lawrence Casey, Paul Hastings with Father Francisco Zamora in the passenger seat of the H-car drove east on I-20 across the state of Louisiana. Two and a half hours later, some ten miles before the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi across the (Mississippi) river, armed men dressed in some kind of law enforcement khaki uniforms stood in the middle of the road and pulled them over. Two men directed Paul Hastings to park on the road shoulder behind four other cars. They were ordered to get out of the car at gunpoint and join a line of seven people facing a row of shrubs alongside the road away from the cars, hands clasped behind their back.
Paul Hastings came close to asking one of the men who they were, what they were doing, although he had a pretty good idea at this point what was happening. But he held himself when somebody else down the line did just that and got the butt of a handgun on one side of his head from one of the four other men.
"Don't do anything, Paul." Father Zamora cautioned him, whispering through the left corner of his mouth. "I've seen this happen before. They won't hurt you if you just do what they say."
Now they both realized what they were in for. They'd heard and read about it many times over for many years now--highway robbers. Bandidos. Just as Paul's wife had worried and warned him about. In Oklahoma, Arkansas, here in northern and eastern Louisiana, and the western regions of Tennessee and Mississippi.
There were six of them, all with handguns, a couple with semi-automatic short muzzle light machineguns. Four were now going through the cars, collecting things they stole from them into a heavy-duty plastic bag. The other two were doing the same with their hostages, ordering them to empty their pockets, toss their personal belongings into a smaller-size plastic bag.
One of them, a young man about eighteen years old, lifted the baseball cap he was wearing to wipe his forehead of the sweat from the heat of the July weather. Here, something happened so unexpectedly that it nearly frightened Paul Hastings to death when the young bandido, standing behind the line, turned Father Francisco Zamora to frisk him. As he beheld the young man's face, the priest suddenly turned livid, a look of anger, disappointment and disdain darted thru his face one after the other. Likewise, the young bandido's face lit up in surprise before it quickly turned into a look of great embarrassment and fear,
Before Paul and even the bandido saw it coming, Father Zamora's right hand came up in the air and landed a resounding slap on the face of the young man. Paul Hastings was so frightened he knew the bandido would simply aim the gun in his right hand and empty it on both of them. But, instead, the young man cowered before Father Zamora, feeling with his other hand the side of his face that received the stinging blow.
"Pablito!" Father Zamora yelled at the young man. "What are you doing? You told me you won't have anything more to do with these men! What are you doing?"
"Sorry, Padre Kiko, sorry--" the bandido stammered first in Spanish then in English with thick Hispanic accent, backing up a slow step at a time from the advancing priest. When the priest made a move to grab him by the arm, he stepped back faster and bumped into the other bandido who had now stopped working the other hostages and watched what was going on. This one, about the same age as Pablito, likewise, recognized Padre Kiko who immediately pointed at him with a finger that warned of burning hell, saying: "Andres! You too? Come here! Come here both of you--"
He went after them as they fled as if the fire of hell truly was after them. Then, suddenly, hell indeed broke loose, so it seemed, when two vigilante humvees came speeding from some two hundred yards on a narrow dirt road towards them on the highway, automatic weapons blazing from both vehicles.
The bandidos, reacting quickly at the surprise attack, scurried to positions behind the hostage cars and returned fire, holding the vigilantes at fifty yards away. The line of hostages dropped to the ground, some scrambling farther away from the highway to a row of bushes at the edge of the shoulder. But not Father Zamora. He kept going after the young bandidos, yelling at them as if he had no concept of what the consequences of his action could be to himself.
Pablito and Andres turned briefly and told him to get down, waving their arms frantically at him while the bullets flew in their direction. Then they dove behind one of the cars when they saw Padre Kiko finally drop on his hands and knees on the ground, but not before Pablito took a bullet at the base of his skull. He was dead before he hit the ground.
Paul Hastings, now watching from a short distance among several of the other holdup victims by the bushes, saw Father Zamora suddenly fall on his face from his hands and knees. The shooting, meanwhile, slowed down to intermittent bursts from both sides.
"Father!" he called out. "Father! Get over here!"
The priest lay still for a few moments before he turned over on his left until he was flat on his back, looking at the sky, breathing heavily. It was then that Hastings saw that he was bleeding, the shirt soaked in blood from the chest and shoulder down to the sleeve. Without a moment's hesitation, he crawled out to the priest and found that he had taken a bullet just above the right collar bone. The seventy-two-year old priest had weakened from the shock of the wound but Hastings managed to help him move, inch by inch, to the cover of the bushes among the others.
The shooting continued sporadically. Then the vigilantes, later on, demanded over a loudspeaker mounted on one of the humvees, first, to let the victims go unharmed, and then lay down their arms and surrender. It would take nearly an hour before the shooting stopped completely, the bandidos gave up and released the hostages to the other side. Shortly after that, local and state law enforcements arrived. County deputies and state troopers from both sides of the Mississippi.
Father Farncisco Zamora was taken to nearby Madison Parish Hospital in Tallulah, Louisiana. Before he got in the ambulance, he asked to see Pablito as they were about to put the young man in a body bag. With the rest of the bandidos now cuffed and chained together standing in silence along with the law officers around them, Padre Kiko took a couple of minutes to say a prayer for the slain young man. Pablito and the other boy, Andres, were his students most of their childhood school days in his parish in Longview, Texas. And in recent years, he had counseled them in church as he had since they were young boys to respect and obey their parents and stay out of trouble, like getting involved with bad people, the very same kind that brought them all together here today.
The rest of the day was mostly lost as far as their travel plan was concerned. Father Zamora's injury, luckily, didn't involve more than a flesh wound from the slug that ripped through his trapezius muscle and exited at a lower angle in his back without touching any bone. It was close to five o'clock when he was discharged from the hospital and they resumed their journey.
They got as far as Tuscaloosa, Alabama, before they decided to call it a day, resigned to the idea that Nashville, Tennessee, where they were supposed to be laying over tonight, was lost. It was eight-thirty at night and getting dark fast when they checked in at a hotel right off the McFarland Boulevard exit from highway I-20.
The following morning, the priest was slow rising with a gnawing pain from the wound. He thought he could use twice the strength of the painkiller the hospital doctor gave him so he doubled the dosage. Paul Hastings thought perhaps the priest needed more rest so he called for room-service breakfast. Afterwards, he suggested that since checkout wasn't till noon, they stay in the room till then. They were still looking at 780 miles to get to their destination. Unless he could average a hundred miles an hour for eight hours, nonstop, Paul Hastings said they might as well take it easy and not push to see Detroit till the next day, Thursday.
Father Zamora was feeling better when they got back on I-20 after checking out of the hotel at noon. Once in a while since they came out of the hospital the day before, they took turns expressing what went through them during the event, what they thought might happen to them, especially Paul Hastings who never imagined what his wife had warned him about might actually happen. Every hour, every minute now, he felt the urge that he must be fair and call soon to tell her. On the other hand, Father Francisco Zamora's thoughts presently dwelt on another aspect of what they went through.
He was quiet for the most part of the hour since they got on the road and Paul Hastings thought the man of the cloth was meditating or doing something Catholic priests do at certain times of the day, especially at a time like this.
"How you feeling Father Frank?" Paul asked after he saw the priest stir from a long deep thought, or what seemed a shallow nap.
The priest cleared his throat, sat back more on his good side, said: "Better. That was a good idea--staying late in the hotel for some extra rest. We don't need to get there today, do we? I'm not expected at the conference till Friday."
"Same here, at the reunion. We'll make it early afternoon tomorrow, no later, assuming we don't run into...any more delay."
The priest sat in silence for a moment then suddenly spoke what apparently had been on his mind all along. "I feel like I've failed those boys," he said, eyes hovering miles ahead on the highway. "And how many others like them might be out there, I'm afraid to think of."
"I don't think it's fair that you should take it all out on you." Paul Hastings said, eyes likewise steady on the road. "For one thing, they have parents who are responsible for bringing them up proper."
"You know that's not always the case. But even if they do their job as parents, there are elements out there not just at school, the neighborhoods, but everywhere constantly working the kids against them. Satan never sleeps."
Paul Hastings thought how he came to know that only so well back in Rochester, Michigan, where he and his wife raised their kids, a girl and two boys. But he only wished he had known and believed it sooner than the day one of the boys, Drew, got killed in a gunbattle during a drug deal that went bad. He knew the kid, going on seventeen at the time, was hooked on drugs, but he had no idea how far along. He found out too late, the same day he identified the boy in the police morgue, when he read the report on the interrogation of the captured drug dealers how they had used his son to peddle drugs on the street and at school in exchange for a supply of cocaine for his own personal use.
"I know what you're saying, Father Frank," Paul Hastings uttered mostly to himself. "It's a constant battle. And it never stops."
"That's one thing--what kind of environment kids grow up in, the kind of parenting they're getting. But what happened yesterday, to us and countless other people is really quite another matter now, with or without those boys in it. It has more to do with law and order in our society. Back in the northwest where I lived most of my life, this sort of thing--highway robbery--was unthinkable."
"Times have changed," Paul Hastings said rather abruptly.
"It sure has. And it looks like it's continuing to change--for the worse. It used to happen only in the southwestern region of the country. Now you hear about it, and see it happen, as far as here in the south and the midwest."
A few moments of silence fell between them with nothing more than the low hum of the hydrogen fueled engine of the car revisiting their awareness of their whereabout. Father Zamora changed position in his seat to help his ailing side so that he was facing the driver seat but kept his eyes on the road as before. He was fifty-two years old, twenty years ago, in the prime of his career in the priesthood, when the church sent him to Texas from Seattle, Washington. Those had been rewarding times, earlier. But as the years went by, life took a different turn from how he first envisioned it, or maybe even only imagined it. From the expectations he held of the spirituality of the region, being more Christian oriented than most other parts of the country and the resulting cleanliness of its social and economic life, to the orderliness of its governance and political life.
Actually, the change began with the mass migration of the Latinos from the north and the east--along with the continued flow of illegals at the border--years before he arrived. Pablito and Andres were just two of the many children born to become prey to the many predators spawned by the events. He now realized that as far as the task of leading the young in the right path, he had no more power than did their parents or teachers or even the government, the entity that in a span of the past two decades as he saw it happen had become less and less of what it is supposed to be in terms of social order and governance.
America was now a completely different country from what he saw of it when he was growing up first in southern California and later as a young adult in Seattle where the family had moved after the burning of Los Angeles in the big riot, and where he soon resolved to enter the seminary. The year was 2062. He had just turned twenty-three, almost fifty years ago. The thought of this just now brought back to mind what he had begun to think of early in the year. He had done his part, he didn't have much else to give, not with what had become of the country, most of it. Perhaps it's time to go back to where he came from. Perhaps, at least in that part of the country, the northwest region, life--as he knew it from the old days in a society of peace and order, where honor, trust and respect are valued more than any written statute of the land--may still be found.
During the three-hour stretch, at around five o'clock, between Nashville, Tennessee and Louisville, Kentucky where they had planned to end the day's journey, Father Zamora finally decided to let it out of himself for the first time.
"I'm going back home next year," he said to his friend Paul Hastings. "To retire."
Paul Hastings turned to him and their eyes met only for the second or third time since they got on the road four hours ago. They'd been friends since they first met years ago when Father Zamora was assigned a temporary ministry in the Shreveport parish church the Hastings attended. The connection was quickly established when the priest who was a son of Filipino immigrants learned that Mrs. Paul Hastings was half-Filipino, on the father side. The 60-mile drive on I-20 between Longview and Shreveport then soon became a well-trodden path in their friendship, holidays and certain ordinary weekends.
"That sounds kind of--sudden," Paul Hastings stated, his eyes now alternating between the road and his passenger. "What brought you to the--?"
The priest cut him off, saying: "What happened yesterday--well, it had something to do with my decision but it's been on my mind for quite sometime now."
I've wondered a few times if you had thought about it. How long has it been since you went in the seminary, Father Frank?"
"Fifty years. I'll be seventy three this December. It's time for me to go home."
That stalled Paul Hastings for a moment, feeling the unexpected effect of it on himself. There was a longing that came to his heart along with the long memory of life in the old hometown. Rochester, Michigan. A whole cycle of life, it seemed--childhood, college, marriage, family, Drew, and then the uprooting during the great racial upheaval a quarter of a century ago that brought him and his family to Shreveport, Louisiana.
Now, without turning to Father Frank, eyes fixed as far as he could see of the road ahead, he said: "You're lucky. You could go home again."
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