The Long Road North
Hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and snakebite plague the journey of the wetback, but there’s only one danger that counts.
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When I asked Javier what it was like to be a wetback, he smiled at the implausibility of summing up five years of experience, and then he looked thoughtfully at his hands. We had just met and were sitting on a shady curb next to a hamburger stand in West San Antonio; it was one of those first hot weeks toward the end of May when you know it won’t be cool again till fall. Javier’s hands, I noticed, looked too old for his 24 years. The fingers were squeezed out of shape from heavy labor and the skin so thick it was like permanent work gloves. He absently rubbed a scar on the back of his left hand as if it might come off and said:
“Two years I worked on a roofing crew. I worked hard and the boss treated me like I was part of the family. His brother was my supervisor and we became compadres. I went to live in his house and shared a room with his son. His wife cooked and took care of my clothes like she did for all the rest. Every Saturday—we worked six days a week except when it rained—we got paid, and every Saturday the boss said he was holding my Saturday wages to save for me. After almost two years of work, I spilled hot tar on my hand. I went to the boss and said I need to go to a doctor, but he told me to just put dirt on the burn. I went to the doctor anyway and missed a day of work. Not too long after that, I got a cold. It was a bad cold, and I had to stay in bed for a week. When I went back to work, my boss was angry. He told me, ‘Javier, you’re no good and you’re lazy. Get out of here! Go back to Mexico where you belong!’ None of what he said was true and it made me mad. I told him I was leaving but I wanted my Saturday wages. That’s when he said, ‘What wages?’ He robbed me of almost two thousand dollars and there was nothing I could do. If I had complained too much, he would have turned me in to the Border Patrol.”
I commiserated with Javier and said that if I could spend some time with him in San Antonio, follow him around to see how he lived, I might be able to write his story. Javier shook his head and said he was getting ready to leave for Jalisco; he had just received word from his family that he was needed at home. Perhaps when he got back.
“How will you come back?” I asked.
“Swim the river and walk.”
“Then why don’t I go with you,” I suggested.
“Do you mean in a car?” Javier asked.
“No, swim and walk.” I explained that I didn’t want to alter the trip, but would just follow along and do whatever he normally did. “I’ll be your shadow,” I proposed.
Javier looked at me doubtfully. “It’s the wrong time of year. The grass is too high; too many snakes.”
“It would make a good story,” I countered.
Javier looked away, squinting as if to imagine the trip and then began to smile. “If you made the trip,” he nodded his head in approval, “then you would know what it’s like to be a wetback. Así podrías sacar el chiste: that way you could get the joke.”
And so two hours later we left for Mexico. Nonstop—except for sleeping on bus station floors—we traveled eight hundred miles to Jalisco, spent forty-five minutes with Javier’s family, picked up his younger brother, and started back to Texas. Both in Mexico and after we crossed the river and started walking toward San Antonio, I was struck by Javier and his brother’s attitude toward time and space. It is based on the active knowledge that distance—fifty to a hundred and fifty miles—breaks down into footsteps, which in time accumulate and overcome terrain. It is reinforced by a dependence on walking as a major means of transportation. Keeping up with them was one of the most strenuous things I’ve ever attempted.
While in Mexico, I achieved a surprising anonymity in the company of Javier. Unlike other trips I had made, no one treated me like a tourist or showed the least curiosity that I spoke Spanish. In Jalisco, none of Javier’s family asked who I was or why I was with him, nor did his brother during the entire trip. It was as if traveling with Javier, speaking nothing but Spanish, I had submerged my identity. By the time we were headed north, I began to feel that I was indeed Javier’s shadow.
When Javier woke, the bus was splashing slowly through water. It cut a wake that lapped at the houses along the street, and stranded cars rocked gently as the bus proceeded into deeper water. “Está hundido Nuevo Laredo,” a voice in the dark softly exclaimed the obvious. Looking at the flooded streets, Javier thought of the river. If it was flooding, they couldn’t swim. A smuggler would have to take them across. Too tired to worry, Javier leaned his head against the window and closed his eyes.
The bus pulled into the Nuevo Laredo terminal at 3 a.m. Javier shook his brother Juan to wake him, and they gathered their belongings to get off. Downtown, the water had run off into the river, and the streets were deserted. Momentarily lost, the two brothers stood in the milky neon glow in front of the Estrella Blanca bus station until Javier went inside to ask about a cheap hotel. He waited meekly at the counter for the clerk to notice him and finally reached out and touched his sleeve.
In Nuevo Laredo Javier and Juan were as easily identifiable as businessmen on a flight to New York City. Their congenital humility and fundamental silence mark them as campesinos. As does their appearance—strong white teeth from a childhood without Cokes and candy, and whites of the eyes slightly discolored form a lifelong deficiency of vitamins and minerals. An informed observer could accurately speculate that the two brothers were coming from an economically depressed agricultural area, probably from the Central Plateau north of Mexico City, and that they were going to cross the Rio Grande illegally. There would be no other reason for two campesinos to come to the border.
Directed toward a cheap hotel the clerk described as “baratito,” they started down the empty street, Juan carrying a small cardboard box tied with a string and Javier an orange canvas flight bag with black straps. From Javier’s clothes—brown-and-white-plaid double-knit trousers, a dark brown shirt, dark green velvet jacket trimmed with silver braid, and a black baseball cap—it is clear that he’s been to Texas before. On a white patch on the front of the cap, a red stitched caption demands, “What’s your handle?” and an imperative red thumb indicates an appropriate blank, which Javier left nameless.
At 24, Javier is tall and rangy. Five eleven, he is easily the tallest in his family. He estimates he has between eight and eleven brothers and sisters, but he’s uncertain how many have died and been born in the five years since he first left Mexico. As to his exceptional height, Javier alternately attributes it to childhood “exercise”—his father took him out of school after the second grade to work in the fields—and to “medicine”—a car ran over him when he was four and he received considerable doctoring. Sparse black bristles on his face intend a moustache and goatee and recall Oriental villains. High sharp cheekbones, a long, slightly flattened nose, and acne scars contribute to the villainous impression, but it is quickly dispelled when he smiles. Juan, younger and smaller than Javier, wears sky-blue pants, a paler blue shirt, and has heavy black hair, fine features, and a resolutely impenetrable nature.
At the hotel, they got a small windowless room with a double bed for two dollars. Without bothering to remove his clothes or black boots, Juan pulled the green bedspread back and lay down on the spotted gray sheets. Javier took off his shirt and then his cowboy boots, which, to discourage scorpions, he propped upside down in the corner before switching off the bare bulb in the ceiling and lying down next to Juan.
Tired after the fifteen-hour bus ride from Jalisco they fell asleep and didn’t wake until late the next morning. Outside, when they left the hotel, it was already hot, and the humidity rose off the damp ground and pavement. Javier and Juan walked directly to the bridge and followed a chain-link fence west along the riverbank. Garbage thrown from nearby houses was scattered along the trail, and a sweet smell of putrefaction filled the air. At the river’s edge, they could see the results of the storm—dense brown water pocked by whirling eddies, and farther out, rafts of river trash and the stately progression of floating tree trunks that marked the current’s velocity.
“Can you swim?” Javier asked his younger brother.
“Some,” Juan answered.
“But not in this,” Javier said, and smiled. “You would get caught in the trash or a log would hit you. Then you would drown.” He squatted on his heels to watch the river. “I wonder how many have drowned here?”
Juan looked at him.
“No one knows what happens to the ones trying to cross. In the river, we’re neither here nor there, so no one counts.”
Juan shrugged indifferently and settled on his heels to watch the river. They turned in unison as a man came around a bend in the trail. His pants legs were rolled above the knee and his bare feet were stuck in an old pair of unlaced shoes. He was carrying his shirt. “Lots of water,” Javier greeted him.
“Enough,” the man agreed.
“How long will the river be up?”
“Who knows,” the man answered as he passed. “A week. Maybe more.”
They watched the man till he disappeared around the next bend, then turned back to the river. “What do you think?” Javier asked. “Will we make it or not?”
“Pues, sí,” Juan shrugged, unconcerned.
“We’ll see,” Javier said and stood up.
Climbing out of the river bottom, Javier indicated what appeared to be an impenetrable thicket of mesquite. Grass rose a foot and a half to an intricate crisscross of mesquite limbs that formed a green wall. “The first fifty miles,” he said, “it’s like this. Only worse.” He turned and climbed the bank to the railroad tracks.
In town, they waded through the jam of American tourists and Mexican vendors on the narrow sidewalks. Away from the bridge and past the market and curio shops, they found an inexpensive restaurant where each ordered carne guisada, tortillas, frijoles, and Pepsi Cola. They ate slowly, using pieces of tortilla to delicately tear the stewed meat into shreds, which they rolled with beans and salsa into small tacos. When he finished, Javier cleaned his teeth with a napkin and got out his cigarettes.
From the restaurant, they walked to a small corner grocery store. Javier selected two plastic net shopping bags: one blue-and-green plaid and the other orange and yellow. He asked the woman behind the counter for six cans of refried beans, six cans of large sardines, a small bottle of salsa picante, two loaves of Bimbo white bread, five packages of crackers, four packs of Parade cigarettes, several boxes of matches, and a bottle of rubbing alcohol. Javier distributed the purchases between the two plastic bags, tied the strap of his canvas bag to the plastic handles of one shopping bag, and draped them both over his right shoulder like saddlebags. Juan transferred the shirt and pair of pants from the cardboard box into his own shopping bag.
At a hardware store, Javier bought a compass for himself and a white straw hat for Juan, which, on closer inspection, turned out to be plastic. So equipped, they retraced their steps down Avenida Guerrero toward the bridge, turned west, and in the early afternoon sun, walked out past the railroad station and the cemetery into the slums of Nuevo Laredo.
On the low side of the streets, the soggy contents of houses were draped on fences and shrubs or piled on any dry surface to catch the sun. Block after block, the houses became poorer until the town finally petered out with one last corner grocery. Squatting in the shade against the wall, a man watched them approach. “Hey, where you going?” he called when they got closer.
“Más allá,” Javier evaded. Farther on.
“Toward Carrizo?” The man stood to face them. Beneath his straw hat, he had yellow eyes and a three-day growth of beard. “A truck is coming that will take you.”
“We’ll see,” Javier answered and they walked into the store. Inside, he asked the señora for a half-gallon plastic milk bottle and then bought himself and Juan a Pepsi. When they walked back out, a man was sitting in an old red pickup parked in the shade of the building next to the man with yellow eyes. The driver looked at Javier and Juan with their boots, hats, and plastic net shopping bags. “I imagine you want to cross the river,” he said.
“It is a possibility,” Javier admitted.
“I can take you both toward Carrizo where a man has a boat. Twenty dollars.”
“Ten each?” Javier asked.
“That’s right. Ten each.”
Javier gave him a ten and put his bags in the back of the truck. “What about your friend?” the man asked.
Javier looked at Juan and shrugged. “He doesn’t have any money.”
“You could loan it to him,” the man suggested.
“Not when I have barely enough to cross the river,” Javier answered and started climbing in.
“Fifteen for both,” the man offered.
“Leave him here,” Javier said coldly, and sat down in the back of the truck to indicate he was ready to leave. The driver shrugged and started the engine. As the truck drove away from the store, Juan and Javier looked at each other but made no sign. As the truck pulled onto the road, the driver glanced into the mirror and saw Juan standing forlornly with his shopping bag. He stepped on the clutch and brake, leaned out the window, and shouted angrily, “All right. Get in!”
The truck ran west along the gravel road a mile south of and parallel to the river. Where the land was low and flat, standing water came up to the truck’s axle and the flooded mesquite flats looked like swamps shimmering with heat, reflecting the blue sky with its stray white clouds. Speaking above the sound of crunching gravel and the partially submerged muffler, Javier touched Juan’s arm and said, “We may have to walk all of tonight in water.”
Impassive, Juan blinked once like a shiny black crow inwardly focused on not falling off its wire. “We cross today?”
“At sunset. If we can get away from the river at night, the little airplane won’t see us.”
“From emigración. They patrol with the airplane and in jeeps and trucks.” Then, pointing at the submerged pasture, “Do you think you can sleep in water?”
“I’d rather walk in it.”
“Walk enough, and you can sleep anywhere,” Javier assured him.
The truck faltered twice before reaching dry land and going on toward Carrizo. After fifty minutes of driving they came to a large white warehouse closed and overgrown with weeds and sunflowers. On the far side of the building, the driver stopped the truck in front of a solitary shack. “For ten dollars,” he complained when he got out of the truck, “this is as far as I can take you.”
As Juan and Javier climbed down with their belongings, an undernourished adolescent in a large cowboy hat and black jeans tucked into cowboy boots loped out from the shack and stopped before them. “You want to cross the river,” he said, his pale eyes tracking independent of each other. Not knowing which eye focused and which stared into space, Javier hesitated and the driver said, “Hector, where’s Rodrigo?”
“He’s coming now. Any minute,” the boy promised. He was so thin—a backbone inside a ragged white T-shirt—it appeared unlikely that he could propel the cowboy boots. “Three others are already waiting. We’ll take them all today.”
“Then I’ll leave these two with you,” the driver said, and got back in his truck. As he drove away, Juan and Javier followed Hector to the shack, which was circumscribed by a ring of trash as far as the arm could throw. Away from the road, the tin shack, its roof weighted down with worn-out tires, had been expanded by a makeshift awning covered with huisache branches and a lean-to kitchen. An old Formica-and-chrome kitchen table and chairs sat in the shade of the awning.
“Perhaps you have a cigarette you can give me?” Hector asked. Javier took out his pack, gave Hector and Juan each a cigarette, and took one himself. He started to sit down at the table beneath the awning after they had lighted the cigarettes. “Not here,” Hector stopped him. “Sometimes the federales come; you had better hide in the bushes.” He led them beyond the circle of trash and into the mesquite, where three men sat at the edge of a clearing around a washed-out campfire. Two of the men had paper bags at their sides and the third a black plastic shaving kit. “They’re going too,” Hector said by way of introduction, and the three men nodded. Javier and Juan dropped their bags in the ring of ashes and sat down on the ground in the long shadows of the mesquite trees. “Very soon and Rodrigo will be here,” Hector assured them one last time before going back to the shack.
They watched Hector leave and then Javier asked the men where they came from. “Veracruz—donde no vale la vida,” the round-faced man sitting in the middle answered for the three. “And you?”
“Jalisco,” Javier echoed. “Where life has no value.” Javier stretched out on the ground, put his canvas bag beneath his head, and pulled a weed to chew on. “How long have you been waiting here?”
“Since midday,” the same man answered. “What time is it now?”
Javier looked at his wristwatch. “Four o’clock.” To the west he could see cumulus clouds building as if for the sunset.
“Rodrigo is probably getting drunk somewhere,” the man speculated. “The skinny one with the eyes said they took nine this morning.”
“Nine,” Javier repeated. “That’s a good business.”
“Yes, but it’s not a regular harvest.”
“It never is,” Javier agreed. “You’ve been before?”
“Yes, but not the others,” the man answered.
“Then you’re the one that knows the way?”
“I can look at the sky and tell which way is north.”
“That’s good,” Javier said and pulled the long stem of the weed through his teeth to shred it. “The first time I went, one of us had a compass. We walked for three days and came to a big river. At last we thought we were getting out of the brush. We were so happy. We spent most of a morning looking for a place to cross before we realized it was the Rio Grande.”
“You walked in a circle,” the man said.
“That’s right,” Javier smiled. “The one with the compass didn’t know how to read it. Like idiots, we almost crossed back into Mexico.”
“But you made it.”
“Barely,” Javier sat up, stretched, and then propped up on one elbow. “Just barely.”
“How many days did it take?”
“Eleven to San Antonio. We almost starved in the brush before we got to Carrizo and had to stop at a ranch and work for food. They gave us each two dollars for three days of cutting mesquite posts and said if we didn’t leave they would call la emigración.”
“Be glad they didn’t need more posts. You would have worked more days for the same amount of money.”
“True,” Javier said and sat up farther. Gazing toward the man, he had noticed that beneath the cuffs of his green polyester trousers hung a set of plaid double-knit cuffs. The two other men also had double sets of cuffs hanging above their boots. “You’re wearing two pair of pants,” Javier observed.
The three men looked down at their cuffs and then up. “For the snakes,” the man in the middle explained.
“They must be bad now.”
“Perhaps the rain makes them crawl up in the trees to stay dry.”
Javier studied the mesquite around them for signs of snakes and concluded, “That way they would strike us in the face or on the arms, rather than on our boots.” Juan shifted uneasily, attracting Javier’s attention. “Are you frightened?” Javier asked.
“Psssh,” Juan exhaled genuine disgust and turned away.
“The last time,” the man in the middle went on, “we found a corpse. Snake-bit, we decided.”
“Many say they’ve seen bodies. Thank god, I never have.”
Hector reappeared to say that Rodrigo would be there any minute. Impatient, the man in the middle got up and said they would walk further up the river to see if anyone else had a boat. “Rodrigo comes and you’re not here,” Hector warned, “he won’t wait for you. He’ll be angry that you left.” The man shrugged; the three of them picked up their belongings and started for the road.
Javier watched them go, then lay back down, resting his head on the canvas bag. “If we cross by sunset,” he said, “that’s soon enough.” He pulled the brim of his baseball cap over his eyes and drifted off to sleep.
It was dusk when they heard the pickup. There was honking, then shouting and drunken laughter. Confident it wasn’t federales, Javier and Juan picked up their bags and walked out toward the road. In the half-light, they could see a blur of activity between the shack and an old truck. Hector, when he saw them, brought Rodrigo out to talk. Powerfully built, dressed completely in black, Rodrigo acted as surly as he looked. “You want to cross,” he said, and hitched his pants higher. When he opened his mouth, splayed, tusklike teeth sprouted from his upper gum.
Yes, they wanted to cross, Javier answered politely.
“You can pay?” he looked them over as if it might be by the pound.
Yes, Javier answered, they could pay.
“Tomorrow morning when it gets light, I’ll take you across. You can sleep tonight behind the warehouse.”
Javier and Juan sat on the warehouse loading dock and ate a can of refried beans. Above them they could hear bats swoop, and before them the tops of six-foot-tall sunflowers swayed at the edge of the dock. Juan reached for the empty milk container and started to get up. “Where are you going?” Javier asked.
“To ask for water.”
“Don’t ask them for anything. If they don’t rob us, we’ll be lucky. Let them forget we’re here.”
At the edge of sleep, Javier heard someone on the steps to the dock. Hector came toward them carrying a large bundle. “You want these?” he said and dropped a couple of blankets. They spread one blanket beneath them and pulled the other over. “Tonight,” Javier said happily as dirt sprinkled onto them from the blanket, “we sleep like the president.”
Javier woke with the first gray light. He sat on the dock and watched the shack. A rooster crowed, but the shack remained silent. The sun rose and Javier lay back down to wait. When he woke again, Rodrigo was climbing the steps to the dock. He squatted down in a friendly way at the end of their blankets. “How much money do you have?” he asked.
“Each?” he said and sucked his upper lip down over his teeth.
“Together,” Javier answered.
As if annoyed, Rodrigo ran a hand through his wavy hair. On his forearm, a lopsided “lov you” was scratched with blue ink. “You think I can take you for that?”
“It’s all we have,” Javier replied.
“You’ll have to give me more—a wristwatch or something of value,” Rodrigo said and left the dock without waiting for a response.
Thirty minutes later, Hector appeared to say they should follow him. Carrying their plastic shopping bags, they trotted behind him across the road and through a cornfield toward the river. Overhead, the sun had broken through the morning haze. The damp ground was steaming. They came out of the field onto a road that turned toward the river. From behind, they heard horses and saw Rodrigo approaching in a wagon, which contained a boat. Hitched to two red nags, the wooden relic, adapted with tires, was too large for the horses, but bolting, eyes rolling, they caught up with Javier and Juan and forced them off the road.
Hector led the two brothers down a path into a ravine where they could see Rodrigo waiting on a small knoll next to the now-empty wagon. The boat—which was actually two automobile hoods welded together—floated below in the water. As if barring their way, Rodrigo stood to face them. “How much can you pay me?” he started over.
“Twenty dollars,” Javier repeated.
“That’s not enough,” Rodrigo said angrily. “I take la raza across; I help la raza. It’s a good thing I do, but I must be paid. If caught, I go to prison and my family starves.”
“It’s all I have.”
“What about your wristwatch? What kind is it?”
Javier looked at the dial. “Timex. It’s old but I need it. I can’t give it to you.”
Rodrigo scowled at Juan. “What about you?”
“Nada,” Juan said and showed empty hands.
Rodrigo turned his back on them. Hector and the two men looked from Javier to Rodrigo and back to see who would give. The tension mounted until Javier repeated, “I promise, it’s all I have.”
“Then give me the money,” Rodrigo relented.
They slid slowly down the bank on their heels to the boat, which had three crossboards for seats. Rodrigo stationed the two brothers and their belongings at either end and climbed into the middle seat. Before telling Hector to push them out, he studied the dense trees and brush on the opposite bank for movement. The mile of river they could see from bend to bend was clear, and the silence revealed no warning hum of Border Patrol surveillance plane or patrol boat. Hector shoved the boat into the swirling brown water, and Rodrigo dug in with oars made of plywood squares nailed to long sticks. With each heavy stroke, the two ends of the boat twisted at the welded seam, but by keeping within shelter of the bank, Rodrigo managed to row against the current without the two hoods splitting apart. The boat moved laboriously upstream until Rodrigo lifted the left oar and dug hard with the right to swing the boat into the current, and then dug with both oars to propel them across the forty yards of river before it could sweep them too far downstream. Javier started to speak, but Rodrigo hushed him—a voice carries too far on water—and there was only the steady thunk of the oars in the notches cut into the side of the boat.
The prow of the boat hit bank at the edge of a canebrake and the two brothers scrambled out into ankle-deep mud. Rodrigo handed up their bags and Juan shoved the boat back into the current. Staggering from the weight of the mud on their boots, they crashed through the cane to dry ground and pushed their way up an overgrown ravine to a dry bank, where Javier sat down to slice thick wedges of mud off the bottom of his boots with a stick. He handed the stick to Juan and, breathing hard, whispered, “We have to get away from the river fast. No more noise.” He stood, swung the plastic shopping bag counterbalanced by the weight of the canvas bag over his shoulder, and started north.
The heat of the river bottom was oppressive. The trees and brush gave off more humidity than shade, and the lack of breeze was claustrophobic. Following behind, Juan noticed Javier’s dark brown shirt beginning to soak black and the empty water container bouncing loose in the plastic shopping bag. From the top of a steep dirt bluff, beyond a barbed-wire fence and dirt road that ran along the rim, they could see flat pastureland, and below, a curving sweep of river and the lower Mexican bank. Javier stepped on a fence wire and jumped over. Juan followed and they sprinted across the road and through the open part of the pasture to the cover of a clump of mesquite trees. The ground was clear and they wove quickly through the mesquite until they came to another fence that separated the pasture from a field of corn. Again they jumped the fence and ran crouching between two rows of corn to the next fence. The midday sun was fierce in the open field and they were both covered with sweat and panting for breath. The next pasture, where they spooked a small herd of cows, brought them uncomfortably near a farmhouse. They circled away through the mesquite, crossed another fence, and kept going until they heard the clear whine of pickup tires on hot asphalt.
Breathing hard, Javier came to a halt beneath a large mesquite tree where he dropped his bags and sprawled on the ground. “Carretera,” he rasped, and nodded toward the highway when Juan dropped beside him; he was so dry, the cotton was edging out in gray flecks at the corner of his mouth. Juan sat fanning himself with his white hat and staring as Javier rummaged in his canvas bag and took out the compass to check directions. Sure they were going north, Javier climbed the mesquite as high as its limbs would take him and looked out toward the road. A car whined past and when it disappeared, he dropped back to the ground. “We have to cross a bridge,” he said, and swung his bags over his shoulder.
Through the tops of the mesquite they could see a taller line of cottonwood and sycamore indicating a creek. Thick brush protected their approach to the bridge and from its base they saw the water still running muddy from the storm. Javier dropped his bags at the foot of a concrete rampart. “Stay here,” he whispered when Juan started to follow him down to the creek. Juan sat down and watched Javier crouch beyond a clump of willow to fill the water container. From above, he could see a large black water moccasin uncoil in the willow and slide into the water.
“Did you see the snake?” Juan asked when Javier handed up the jug.
“I wish it were the last!” he answered. His baseball cap was tilted back, his face was wet, and drops of water hung in the sparse hairs of his moustache and goatee. He watched Juan drink the brown water from the jug. When Juan finished, Javier refilled the jug and put it in his shopping bag. “One at a time, we cross the bridge,” he instructed. You come. Listen for cars.” On all fours he crawled up the rampart to the bridge. As he was about to haul himself over the concrete railing, they heard a diesel semitrailer. He squatted down and waited for the truck to swoop thunderously past and drone into the distance. Grinning at Juan, he pulled his ball cap snug, climbed over the railing, and ran crouching across the bridge. In turn, Juan did the same.
On the far side of the bridge, Javier was waiting out of sight at the bottom of the road’s embankment. Juan waded down through knee-deep grass, they crossed the fence, and started through another pasture. The grass gave way to a hard sandy crust shaded by mesquite trees where they picked up the parallel tracks of a road. Javier looked back and stopped when he noticed Juan walking in one of the sandy tracks. “Step on the grass,” he said. “You won’t leave footprints.” He turned and walked on.
The terrain began to change to hard rocky ground cut with shallow gullies and covered with low-lying scrub brush. Without the cover of mesquite trees, they were exposed to the hot sky. Looking for relief, Javier cut away from the road through the thickest stand of brush until he came to an eroded ditch. At a clump of scrub oak that spanned the ditch the two men dropped in, crawled in the shade, and got out the water jug. By now it was midafternoon.
“What do you think?” he asked his younger brother.
“It’s not so bad,” Juan answered.
“We haven’t begun.”
Javier took a can of sardines out of the net shopping bag and cut it open with a pocketknife. He put a piece of white bread on his palm, laid a large Mexican sardine on the bread, poured a little tomato sauce from the can, and rolled it up like a tortilla.
After they finished the sardines and half the loaf of bread, they drank more water and smoked a cigarette. Javier took the dark green velvet jacket out of his canvas bag and draped it over his head and ball cap to keep off the black flies, then leaned back against the ditch wall. “Rest!” he said from behind the dark veil and snuggled his body against the ground.
Juan tilted his white hat over his eyes and crossed his arms, but a rock beneath his shoulder, then the flies, and finally Javier’s heavy breathing distracted him. He crawled up on the edge of the ditch to stretch out flat, found that more comfortable, and dozed off. He woke to the sound of a four-wheel-drive vehicle winding through the brush. Not thinking they could have been seen in the brush, but remembering his footsteps in the road, he cautiously slipped back into the ditch where Javier slept soundly. A pickup door slammed, a dog barked, and he heard a man’s voice. In the ensuing silence, Juan sat in the ditch and stared down at the ground before him. Next to a dry leaf on the sand, movement focused his eyes on a scorpion scuttling his way. Meditatively, listening to the silence, Juan picked up a twig and stuck the end of it in the scorpion’s path. Violently, the scorpion swung the stinger at the end of its long tail over its back at the twig, turned and crabbed in the opposite direction. Again Juan blocked it with the twig, and again the scorpion swung its stinger and turned. Each time intercepted, the scorpion ran back and forth in the silence, back and forth as the truck started and wound away into the brush, back and forth across the sand until Juan crushed it with the twig.
Javier breathed more deeply beneath his dark veil until abruptly, he pulled away his jacket and blinked.
“I dreamed I was snoring and the dream woke me up.”
“It was no dream,” Juan said.
Javier shook his head with sleepy amusement and then noticed his wristwatch. “Four o’clock! Two hours I slept!”
“You’re sleeping a lot,” Juan commented.
“I wonder why,” Javier said as he sat up. And then with irony, “I guess because it’s my vacation.”
Javier checked the compass, and they drank more water before crawling out of the ditch. Beyond the fence, the land turned stony and the low rolling hills were covered with an unbroken thicket of brush. Parting the way with a cedar stick he had picked up at the fence, Javier waded in, Juan following. Thorns snagged each step, and stones, unseen beneath the foliage, staggered them. The brush rolled from swell to swell; the dark green troughs of blackbrush and ironwood were dappled with ashen ceniza and reefs of pale prickly pear, and the crests were light green with fernlike guajillo. Above, white blocks of cumulus marched east toward the Gulf and a late afternoon breeze rippled the surface of green.
Within the brush, the ground held the afternoon heat. Javier’s shirt soaked black with perspiration; their accumulated scratches stung with sweat. They held the shopping bags before them like shields, but the constant nag of thorns was inescapable. The first variation in the landscape, a short caliche ledge, forced them down into a trough of huisache. In the pallid light below the bushes they saw a skeletal lattice of pale branches and a long ditch of stagnant water. The ground was sodden caliche, and white clay clung to their boots miring each step. Slipping and staggering, goaded by moist suffocation, they forced their way through the thicket until the ditch dried and they were able to climb the opposite bank.
Climbing out, Juan stumbled and grabbed a bunch of blackbrush, driving three of the long straight thorns into his palm. He gave the branch a careful yank to pluck out the spines and then watched as three drops of dark blood formed at the punctures.
Thirsty, tired, red in the face, they pushed through the brush. At the top of a swell, they saw a small cloud of dust moving along the ground from east to west and, as it came closer, heard the crunch of tires on gravel.
The ground had been cleared for fifty feet on either side of a dirt road, increasing the danger of exposure. At the edge, they listened for traffic before dashing across the open space, crossing the fence, the road, another fence, and back into the brush. They kept going through the thinner secondary growth until Javier dropped his bags in a clearing on a slight rise and sat down in the evening shadow of a mesquite tree. Juan sank to the ground, Javier took out the jug, and they both drank. Due east on the horizon, near the road, they could see a windmill. Javier unbuttoned his soaked shirt and flapped the breeze to dry it. “This is going to smell,” he grimaced. And then noticing that Juan was relatively dry, “Why don’t you sweat?”
“Too thirsty,” he answered.
Javier handed him the jug and watched him tilt it for another swallow. A layer of silt approached the neck of the jug as Juan drank. Javier asked him, “Now, what do you think? Think we’ll make it?”
Juan handed him the jug and shrugged.
“At any rate, we’ve had luck,” Javier said. “The little airplane hasn’t seen us.” He took another swallow of the water and then handed it to Juan. When Juan finished, the jug was essentially empty.
“Where do we get more water?” Juan asked.
“Windmills,” Javier answered.
“That one?” Juan pointed to the one in view.
“It’s too far out of the way. We’ll come to others.”
“There are thirteen before Carrizo. With luck, we will sleep next to one tonight.” Javier took the compass out of his bag and checked directions. A light evening breeze had begun to blow and the sun’s rays were beginning to lose their intensity. “Let’s walk,” Javier said, and got to his feet. “These are the good hours.”
And on they went, one step after another, Javier always in front carrying a cedar stick he’d picked up, Juan just behind wearing his white plastic hat. They never complained and rarely remarked the armadillos and rabbits that crossed their path.
Two more roads and they came to a windmill. They opened the tap beneath the storage tank, let the water run clear, and Javier leaned down to drink. Juan drank as much of the salty water as he could and they took turns holding their heads beneath the stream and running the cool water over their hands and arms. Javier took off his soaked brown shirt, rinsed it, and stored it in the net shopping bag. He put on a dark green shirt he’d been carrying in his canvas bag, they filled the jug with water, and, as there was another hour of light, checked the compass and moved on.
The sun neared the dark horizon, its long rays refracting pink on remnants of cloud: the sky turned an intense and late blue. In the last light, they crossed another dirt road. In the secondary growth of mesquite beyond it, Javier picked out a cleared spot that looked relatively snake-free. The sun touched the edge of the horizon and abruptly, as at sea, was gone.
The two brothers sat on the ground beneath the lilac sky eating refried beans spread thick on pieces of white bread. Juan had discovered that either the jug of water had leaked or Javier’s wet shirt had soaked the bread, but after considering spreading the slices out to dry overnight with the shirt, they went ahead and ate the bread wet. With their boots they stamped out places on the ground to sleep. Javier put on his velvet jacket and they both lay down on the ground, their heads resting on their bags. In the dark, his back to Javier, Juan asked, “The life in San Antonio: is it a good life?”
Javier thought a moment before answering, “It’s work.”
“But it’s better than Mexico.”
“Harder than Mexico. More work. That’s all it is—work.”
“But you have a car.”
“To go to work.” Javier raised himself on one elbow to speak more clearly, “Everyone who goes thinks he’ll make lots of money; that he’ll have a chance. But you never have a chance.”
“Then why are you going?”
“Who knows,” Javier said. “For the chance.”
Javier lay back and didn’t speak again. After a moment, his body jerked once and Juan could sense his falling asleep. In the night air, after the day’s heat, it was suddenly cool, and Juan pushed his back to Javier’s for warmth. The last thing he heard before dropping off was a high-pitched chorus of coyotes singing in the brush.
A quarter moon rose at eleven. At twelve, they started walking again. The dark shiny leaves of the blackbrush and ironwood reflected the pale light, and the ceniza stood spectral. From the contour of the brush and the feel of the cedar stick, Javier was able to guide them through. When the ground was rough, he warned Juan. When the brush was eye-level thorny, he held it back with the stick. They watched the sky to set their course and stopped often to light matches and look at the compass. What relief there was from the heat was negated by the insecurity of each step.
At a thicket of prickly pear, they veered to the east to try to outflank it, but, after pushing through dense brush, were stopped by an arm of the thicket. They backtracked and forced their way to the west, but again found themselves outflanked. The prickly pear appeared to encircle them, as if like fish they had swum into a trap. Within the thicket, the brush and the dark prevented their seeing where they had entered, and they were unable to gauge the depth of the prickly pear they would have to penetrate. Slightly disoriented, Javier checked the compass and then sighted a narrow indentation to the north. He placed the end of his cedar stick against a branch of the obtruding cactus and pushed until it broke with a vegetable crunch and fell out of the way. With the end of the cedar stick, he slowly and patiently punched a narrow hole through a four-foot-high wall of prickly pear and on they went.
Coyotes sang in the night, the sky turned gray, they lay down to sleep again. By eight o’clock the next morning it was hot in the brush and again they were walking. By noon, they had all but depleted the salty water just to keep their mouths wet. Their faces were a perpetual shade of red beneath their hats; their clothing soaked with sweat; their eyes stinging with perspiration. They stopped to rest beneath a mesquite, and, too hot and too dry to want them, ate beans spread on soda crackers, which, since they had no saliva, stuck to their teeth and gums.
They rested till two before starting again. The brush quivered with heat under the afternoon sun, and the sky was devoid of clouds. Though they had crossed two dirt roads, they hadn’t come to any more windmills and began to think they’d passed them in the night. From the sun and sweat, Javier’s left eye started to itch and turn red. Occasionally, when they stopped to wet their mouths—an act that only defined the thirst—Javier would look up at the blank sky and shake his head. “No quiere nublarse.” It doesn’t want to cloud up, he would say, and smile sadly as if it were a small favor that he was being senselessly denied.
One sip after another of the water which, at the end, was merely provocation, and finally the jug was empty. Their lips burned from the sun and they became acutely aware of their thirst. Tongue, palate, lining of the mouth: it felt as if they would slowly swell and stick together. What wasn’t the heat, a branch in the face, or the next footstep was beyond their attention. Twice they saw rattlesnakes—one coiled and one moving through the grass—and twice ignored them.
At five they came to a windmill. The water was salty, but they no longer cared. It freed their mouths and they took off their shirts to soak with water and sponge themselves. After they had slaked their thirst, they sat beneath the water tank to rest. “How far?” Juan asked.
Javier thought of how long they had walked before saying, “Tomorrow we come to a highway not far from Carrizo, from there, it’s ninety miles to San Antonio.”
“Ninety miles,” Juan repeated.
“But who knows,” Javier consoled him. “Perhaps someone will give us a ride.”
They walked till sundown, ate, and slept. When the moon rose, they walked. At dawn, they found a windmill where they rested until the morning heat drove them on. Again the sky was cloudless; the heat, visible, audible. The brush trembled with the transmission of the sun’s rays passing through, rebounding up from the ground, and shimmering humidly above; the heat’s reverberation climbed slowly, reaching higher and higher cycles, yet hitting no limit.
During the night, Javier’s eye had continued to itch, and with the renewed heat and sweat and rubbing, started to swell closed. By midmorning, his eyelids had swollen into a puffed slit through which Juan could see bloodshot veins radiating out from the black iris. When they stopped at noon, the eye was sealed shut, they were low on water, and they discovered a new torment. Black lusterless flies, small and flat, clung to their pants legs and rode along peacefully until they came to a halt. Then, in a swarm, they attacked hands, faces, and necks, sending the two brothers into a slapping frenzy. Spurred by the flies, the moved on through the heat of the day.
After more than an hour without water, Javier and Juan saw a windmill on the horizon. Their relief, however, slowly turned to despair when, goal in view, they saw how tedious their progress was. With the afternoon heat growing to a crescendo, in their thirst and exhaustion, the windmill appeared to advance before them on the horizon.
The windmill, they found, was surrounded by a deer-proof fence; large mesquite trees drooped around a dark pond of motionless water. The gate to the enclosure was padlocked, and within was a silent and ungrazed sanctuary of green. Javier climbed the gate, then Juan, and they jumped into the lush grass. Like shadows, black peccaries moved away from the far side of the pond. Midway to the windmill, knee-deep in grass, a deliberate and unequivocal rattle struck them like a current of electricity. Rooted to the ground, statues in the glade, they listened to the warning fill the enclosure. Pulse hammering, breath shallow and constricted, neither could see the snake or locate the sound. When it stopped, the silence was absolute and alarming.
They stood paralyzed for a moment, then Javier lifted his cedar stick and tapped the ground before him. When there was no response, he continued to try the grass until sure there was no immediate danger of being struck. They moved forward two steps, prodded the grass, and continued the procedure until they reached the windmill. Still shaking, they washed their hands and faces, ran water over their heads, filled the jug, and left the enclosure.
Hastened by the thought of the road, goaded by their nearness to complete exhaustion, they plodded on. The heat broke at five and there was a light breeze, but by then each step forward was punishment, and Javier’s eye was red and swollen. At the top of every crest, they thought they would see the highway. Each time they saw more brush.
The sun set and they stopped. Javier opened a can of sardines, which they ate with the last of the crackers, and sipping the water like expensive whiskey, they sat in the dusk and smoked a cigarette. Juan stood up to kick out a spot to sleep and look north. “Qué es eso?” he asked, and pointed toward a red blinking light.
“What?” Javier asked with vague interest.
“There’s a light.”
Javier raised himself to his knees and sighted north through his good eye. “Carrizo! It must be the radio antenna at Carrizo. Come on,” he said, getting to his feet, “we’re almost there.”
The red light winked at them as they walked, telling them how far they had to go and how slowly they had traveled. At the top of a hill they could see a set of white headlights flash intermittently through the brush as a vehicle moved east to west. The next time they saw headlights they could hear the faint, mournful whine of a truck approaching and then receding in the night. The two brothers came to a pasture where the underbrush had been cleared and they walked quickly toward the road. At a fence, outside the possible sweep of headlights, they sat down on the ground to watch the pavement. “What do you think?” Javier asked. “If we ask for a ride, we might be in San Antonio tonight.” He savored the idea. “Or la emigración might catch us.”
“And if we don’t ask for a ride?” Juan asked.
“Then we walk another seven days. More, if we have to work for food.”
Juan looked straight ahead at the road and didn’t answer.
“There are always risks,” Javier decided and started for the fence.
The first car caught them in its headlights—Javier with his swollen eye, and black baseball cap; Juan with his white hat—and speeded up. A pickup passed and then a large Oldsmobile sedan hit its breaks as soon as they appeared in the light. They picked up their bags and ran toward the red taillights. A man on the passenger side leaned out and shouted in a friendly voice, “Vámanos a San Antonio.”
Javier and Juan stopped running.
“¿A dónde van?” the man called, “Quieren un ride?” Where you going? Want a ride?
“¿Van a San Antonio?” he asked again.
And then, “¿Son de México?” Are you from Mexico?”
“Sí,” Javier answered, knowing that it was too late. “Somos de México.”
“Bueno, vámanos a México,” the man said and got out. “Somos de la emigración.”
Within two hours, the car erased what it had taken Javier and Juan three days and nights to do and they were back at the border. The next morning they were processed, and in the afternoon they were put on a bus with other illegal aliens and driven across the bridge to be let out in Nuevo Laredo. Between the two of them, they had five dollars that Javier had held back for an emergency and a couple of cans of food. They stood for a minute watching the people stream back and forth across the bridge, and then Javier turned and started west, retracing their steps to the railroad trestle, over the embankment and through the brush, until he came to a stop beneath a large oak next to the river. “Here we rest,” he said, and set his bags down.
“Then what?” Juan asked.
For once not impassive, Juan allowed a flicker of surprise to cross his face. “How?” he asked.
“That we’ll think about while we rest,” Javier said, and squatted down to watch the river. “But we’ll make it.” He looked up at Juan. “Do you know why?”
Juan shook his head.
“La necesidad nos obliga,” Javier said.
Javier and Juan arrived in San Antonio thirteen days later on Sunday morning; on Monday Javier went back to his roofing job, and Juan began as a carpenter’s helper on Wednesday.