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Ben crouches down and leans as if peering into a vehicle to speak to a driver. Rugger stands on both legs and Ben holds him close. I watch in disbelief as Ben holds a conversation with an apparition. Rugger barks and pulls Ben towards our chase car. Ben yells to me, “Wally just received a radio call to respond to an overturned tanker truck at mile marker 4. I’m going to assist. Man the fort!” Wally and Rugger climb into the chase car and race down Interstate 8 with lights and siren going. I’m tense and confused. I radio Ben who doesn’t answer. Then to my relief I hear Ben request radio assistance from CAL FIRE Station 44, “Overturned fuel truck on fire. Driver trapped. Assisting CHP Officer Wally. Send fire engine and ambulance.” Within minutes, I see CAL FIRE Engine 44 and an ambulance race by the checkpoint. I run to our four-wheel-drive truck and speed towards mile marker 4 to assist.
Mile marker 4 is several miles west from the checkpoint. I see Ben’s chase car emergency lights flashing ahead. The car is positioned across the two-lane freeway as a safety measure to prevent other vehicles from approaching. A coyote darts from the brush, crosses my lane, and disappears into the wilderness. I swerve and narrowly miss the animal but at ninety miles per hour I struggle to gain control and keep from flipping. I maintain control of the truck and finally park it at the side of the road but I don’t see Ben or Rugger around. There is no overturned tanker truck. Fire Engine 44 is parked alongside the freeway with its emergency lights off. The ambulance is leaving empty. A calm male voice calls to me, “Up here on the bluff, kid.” I climb up onto the bluff and meet Captain Johnnie of Engine Company 44. He is tall, thin, with a thick mane of silver hair and handlebar moustache.
“Call it a night, fellas,” Johnnie commands his men who conclude their search for Ben and Rugger.
Johnnie turns to me and asks, “What’s your name, Agent?”
Johnnie places his arm around my shoulder and raises his head towards the sky. “You can practically count every star up there.”
I’m flustered and quivering. Johnnie looks me in the eye. In a hushed voice he says, “About thirty years ago, I responded to a tanker truck fire at this very place. Ben and Officer Wally were attempting to extricate the driver. Just as we began spraying the tanker with foam retardant, it blew into flames. The driver was pulled to safety. Ben suffered singed eyebrows. Officer Wally burned to death. There’s no earthly explanation for what happened here tonight but I’ve seen it before. Agents like Ben never forget losing a fellow officer. When their time to die comes, they prefer it occurs doing the job they love and they choose to vanish forever into the wilderness. The San Diego Commander of the Border Patrol and I go way back. I’ll call him tonight and explain everything. He’ll understand.”
Captain Johnnie and I walk down the bluff to our vehicles. He waves as he returns to the firehouse in Engine 44. I park Ben’s chase car alongside the meridian and will retrieve it later.
I return to the checkpoint, confused. I stare at the star-filled sky. I learned tonight that life holds many secrets. I miss Ben and Rugger and will never forget them. I hope they are together in a better place. Across the freeway a lone coyote exits the brush, sits and stares directly at me. Our eyes meet for a moment and the coyote belts out a howl before returning to the wilderness.