“La primera regla,” Lalo started, then paused, regrouping. “La unica regla es,” he said again for emphasis, “we don’t stop for no one. ¿Entienden?”
He surveyed the group standing before them, beads of sweat cutting rivulets through the dust coating their faces. Many huddled close to loved ones, mothers holding children, grandparents and their grandchildren making an already-dangerous trip even more so. A small girl, not more than two, kept her eyes pointed down, her arms wrapped around her father’s leg as if that would protect her from whatever awaited them on their trip across la frontera. The father cleared his throat, calling for Lalo.
“No me importa la puta migra, eh?” Lalo made a point to look down the line again, ensuring everyone was paying close attention. “You see la migra, you hide. If you can’t hide, you run.”
“Pero,” the father said again.
Lalo whipped his glare toward the father. He could feel the sun beating down with a hundred small razors, pummeling the crown of his head, splitting his skull as they remained hidden behind a rock outcropping five kilometers from the shallow river they’d cross to reach el norte. He’d barely slept the last ten days, what with Pilar’s sickness getting worse. His abuela told him the first trimester was always the worst and it’d get better, but it seemed like the opposite: They didn’t even realize she was pregnant till she was nearly twelve weeks. But as she got closer and closer pa’ dar la luz, she seemed to be getting more and more nauseated.
And answering all these pinche questions was making Lalo even more irritable. He just wanted to get these people across la frontera, get his money from el Tuerto’s man, then get back home to el Llanto and be with Pilar. Just a few more hours till dark then, they’d be on the move.
The father cleared his throat again.
Lalo exhaled hard. “¿Qué?”
“Pues,” the father stammered. “What about los Cazadores?”
Lalo swallowed, setting his face to remain stern and maintain the group’s confidence. El Tuerto’s people had people inside la migra, so they could get their patrol schedules and reduce the chance one of their coyote groups ran into armed agents. But los Cazadores? Those crazy-ass redneck gringos who couldn’t get it up without holding an AR-15? Hell, they called themselves the Hunters, which was all anyone needed to know.
The father fixed his gaze on Lalo while he waited for an answer, his nervousness seemingly awakening the daughter, who finally raised her head, making Lalo’s hair stand on end. Her eyes were impossible, an aberration, like the entire sky above el Llanto compressed into two bright dots in her cherubic face. They were the same color as Pilar’s, the same color he imagined his daughter’s would be. He felt a pull inside him and considered walking away from this whole thing for a moment, heading directly home to Pilar and resting his head on her stomach to listen to his daughter’s heartbeat. But as soon as the thought arose, it passed. He wasn’t helping people cross to score points with el Señor. He did it to earn money for his family.
“Si tú ves los Cazadores,” Lalo said, “reza.”
Because praying was all they could do.
Debris pocked the river bank. Clothes tossed aside to cut weight during previous trips. A rusted propane tank. Metal scraps fashioned into weapons to defend against desert predators of various species, some on four legs, others not. The wallet of someone who had underestimated the current.
From where they crouched behind scrub brush, it appeared as if the water was lapping low against the soil, which was a good sign. The river was less than two meters at its deepest, enough that an adult could normally cross it with their head held up. But when a freak storm hit the mountain range a few kilometers miles upstream, water would rush down the gully fast enough to catch even a strong swimmer unaware and sweep them into a muddy abyss.
But tonight, Lalo watched the moonlight glitter on the surface like the tiara he’d place on his daughter’s head at her quince in fifteen years and hoped it was a portent tonight would be uneventful. He crept toward the edge of the brush, reminding the group of the plan as he passed, then peeked through an opening, up to where his partner Sergio waited, surveying the area with binoculars.
From this point, they could see faint headlights tracing up and down Route 9 in New Mexico. After Lalo led the group across the river, they would run as fast as they could to a small hideout on the US side el Tuerto’s people had dug in the sand where they could regroup, drink some water, address anything that needed addressing before making the last push across the highway to a truck stop where they’d be loaded into a produce truck and taken to wherever Tuerto said to take them.
“Estamos jodidos,” one of the group said.
Lalo came back around. “What’d you say?”
Everyone in the group looked at each other, a combination of shrugs and unwillingness to snitch on another.
“You.” Lalo pointed at the man, a scar running from his temple into his hairline, where it disappeared. “What’d you say.”
Not a question.
“Dije que estamos jodido.”
“Why are we fucked?”
“Should’ve done like my nephew. Got a visa and just never left.”
“He get a student or worker visa?” The man hesitated. “Student.”
“For what university?”
Again, the man hesitated. “Stanford.”
“Could you get into Stanford?” Lalo said.
The man didn’t answer.
“Then shut the fuck up and get ready to run when I tell you, ¿vale?”
He pulled back his shoulders, looking around for support from the others, but quickly crouched back down when he found none. A quiet moment passed, the group either whispering novenas or watching Sergio or seeing whether Lalo would strike out against the dissenter. When nothing happened, the man felt confident enough to speak up again.
“Should just go over and claim asylum. Demasiada violencia. Enough of us seen heads in our pueblos to claim that, ¿no?”
Lalo sighed for what seemed like the thousandth time, then crept back over to the man, staying low and out of sight. “You want go over there and claim asylum with those Nazis lording over them?”
The man started to argue, but Lalo cut him off.
“How’d you get that scar? Cartel fight? Smuggling drugs up your culo?”
“Someone doesn’t know how to use a scythe, how I got it.” The man postured like he was indignant.
“And you think that’ll matter to them?” Again, Lalo gestured toward el norte. “They see a scar, they think criminal. They’ll put you and any chamaco near you in a cage as quick as they say freedom fries, ¿entiendes? So you want to claim asylum? Hágale, pues. Buena suerte con ese.”
The man snuffed from his nose a few times, trying to save face before settling down, resigning himself to the situation. Lalo didn’t like working like this, for a man like el Tuerto, but what kind of choice did he have? A degree and work experience didn’t mean shit when there was no one to hire you. And as much as he hated herding these people across, the idea of them hauling their kids over a thousand miles of jungle and desert in order to get away from heads tumbling through the streets of their aldeas only for them to rot in cages like discarded fruit nearly brought him to tears. All he could envision was his future-daughter duct-taped to his back as he slogged across the barren land.
A sharp whistle cut through the night. Sergio waved his hand.
“Chicos. Vámanos,” Lalo whispered, motioning toward the river for the group to follow.
Sergio helped lead everyone toward the safest place to cross, a thin sandbar that only reached waist-high. It wouldn’t be quite as easy for the ones carrying small children but was better than any alternative. He stood in the middle of the river, herding everyone across as Lalo brought up the rear, keeping everyone together. The man who’d challenged him passed by, not raising his eyes and gladly accepting Sergio’s help when he stumbled on a rock or something hidden beneath the surface, as if by profusely thanking one of the coyotes, the other would also receive gratitude. Lalo didn’t care; he just wanted this night over.
The father was one of the last ones to come to the river’s edge. His daughter hesitated, testing the water then jumping back as if something had bit her toes. Lalo felt the night tilt around him. Then the father snatched her up and carried her, which Lalo was infinitely grateful for. He followed them as they crossed, the others on the far side already making their way toward the dugout.
Then the father slipped.
It wasn’t much, more like being knocked off true-north than slipping on a banana peel, but it was enough to make him throw his arm out to keep from falling, which threw off his balance on the other side. His arm swung out, dislodging the daughter just enough for her to slip from the crook of his arm.
She yelped as she touched the warm water, as much from surprise as her being two-years-old.
The father reached for her but wasn’t quick enough to stop her from splashing.
She fell to the side, away from her father. She yelped again, this time worse, the tone of her voice sharpened.
Her father lunged over at the same time as Lalo, the father falling into the water to make sure he reached her. Lalo, still upright, missed. The father rose, water cascading off him, his daughter held tight in his arms, protecting her from all else unseen as Lalo shepherded them across the last part of river.
On the other side, dripping but safe, Lalo finally exhaled.
“Por fin,” he said, then pointed at the rest of the group heading toward the dugout. “Vámanos.”
“Espera.” The father was knelt down, tending to his daughter, who was babbling something Lalo couldn’t understand. Zapotek or Lacandón or something from much farther south, the words smothered in wet banana leaves and dense moss.
Lalo cursed under his breath. He thought babying children was an American thing, not wherever they were from. After all, she was just wet. Lalo and his brothers spent most of their free time in the river near their house.
The father looked up and caught Lalo’s gaze, his eyes conveying something paternal that Lalo had never felt before: the urgency of an injured child.
“What’s wrong?” he said.
“Ella está herido.”
“Hurt? She’s just wet. Muévete ya.”
The father lifted up her leg, displaying a gash on the back of her calf, the blood now glimmering in the moonlight.
“Ella tiene hemofília.” His voice was thick with fear for his daughter.
Lalo felt the air tremble around him, the humidty pass over him. “So stop it.”
His hand shook as he pulled a small tube out of his pocket and held it up. Lalo didn’t know what he was looking at, especially not with the moon as the only light.
“Este es desodorante pero solo lo funciona para heriditas.”
It only worked on small wounds? Lalo fought the urge to scream. The cut wasn’t huge, but her skin was wet, making the blood flow more easily. And if the deodorant wouldn’t stop the bleeding on a wound so large, they were going to have to make the wound smaller because Lalo couldn’t let this girl who had his future-daughter’s eyes bleed out in the middle of the desert.
Think think think think.
Lalo had an idea. He called out in whispers. “Sergio, ven acá.”
“Nadie pare,” Sergio called back.
“Ya sé,” Lalo said, trying to convey the urgency of the situation without shouting at Sergio to get his ass back here so they could fix the girl and get gone. “Pero ven acá, ¡ya ahora!”
Sergio told the rest to wait a second while he scurried back to Lalo.
“Gimme your needle and thread.”
Sergio didn’t ask, just dug into the breast pocket of his shirt and pulled out the contents, dumping it in Lalo’s palm.
“You take them to the spot,” Lalo said. “I’ll take care of this and we’ll meet you.”
Sergio nodded, hurried off without another word.
Lalo held the needle up to the moonlight and slid the thread through, then looked down at the father.
“Tapa su boca y sujétela fuerte.”
Even in the darkness, terror radiated across the daughter’s face. Lalo averted his eyes and focused on the cut.
The skin puckered as the needle touched it, bouncing back when the sharp point slipped through. She gave a muffled yelp and bucked against her father’s firm grip, then jumped again with the needle’s next pass, over and over. Tears glimmered down her cheeks, down her father’s.
Lalo worked his way up, clenching his jaw harder and harder as he cinched the cut further closed, the needle flashing in the moonlight.
He repositioned himself, trying to keep the wound in the light to make sure it was completely sutured. But the father took the movement as his being finished and relieved the pressure on his daughter’s mouth, just as Lalo shifted her leg, inadvertently pulling the thread tight.
The daughter’s eyes went wide, almost as big as the sky over el Llanto. Her yelp echoed through the darkness, across the sand, before the father could clamp down on her mouth again.
The father and Lalo froze.
Breath crashed against the inside of his mouth. Blood thrummed through his veins.
A desert rat shuffled through the brush to the west, its feet scrabbling over the hard dirt. A bat flapped overhead, chittering as it chased bugs across the sky. A cereus not ten meters northeast from them breathed a sigh of relief, its blooms opening for nocturnal pollinators. The wind shifted, carrying the faint smell of cigarette smoke.
Lalo scanned the area. No one in sight, not even Sergio and the others.
Then another shuffle, due northwest, maybe fifty meters away. Not a rat. Not a snake either. Bigger.
“La migra,” the father whispered.
Lalo pushed aside a quick thought, looked around frantically, though he knew there was nothing to hide behind. They were caught in the open. The scrub brush would only give them momentary cover. Only real options were to run north or head back across the river, across la frontera and out of la migra’s jurisdiction. Dile a Dios, he thought. “When I say, you grab your girl and you run.”
The father nodded.
Then the heavens opened, bright white light raining down, blinding them.
A bolt of cold shot through Lalo. La migra would call out, tell them to freeze, put their hands up, all that shit. But now: nothing.
“¡Los Cazadores!” the father yelled, already scooping up his daughter in his arms.
Lalo shoved the father northward then took off, feet pounding on the desert floor. Puffs of sand exploded behind Lalo as he ran in the opposite direction, drawing fire away from the father and daughter. He zigged and zagged, cutting across the land, but the puffs drew ever closer. Lalo faked right, then bolted left, toward the river. It wasn’t deep, but maybe he could bound out to the middle, baptize himself in el río, hold his breath tight and let the current take him down—
Lightning tore through his calf. His face slammed into the desert, sand coating his mouth and face as electricity eviscerated his muscle.
His fingers clawed at the ground, pulling his body toward the river. Twenty meters. Eighteen meters more. Fifteen—
A foot smashed against his spine, pinning him in place.
“Looks like you caught one.” The hunter’s voice was thick with smoke.
“Not the one I was aiming for. Them tiny ones are faster than they look,” another hunter said.
“That’s why they’re a good challenge.”
The foot relented, but only to flip Lalo over. The two faces were backlit against the moon, only moving shadows where features should’ve been.
The first hunter said, “Pegged you as the soft touch, stopping to help out that little girl and all. That’s y’all’s rule, right?”
His words had too many vowels in them, distended them, so they became hard to understand.
“‘No stopping,’” the other hunter said, readjusting the rifle slung over his shoulder. “Not for no one. But wherever the cargo go, the boss ain’t far behind.”
“Yeah, I’ve had my eye on you a spell. That bounty on your boss’s head’ll set me right for a long time.” The first hunter crouched down, took a long drag on his cigarette, held it for effect, exhaling only when he spoke. The air shifted around him. “So I’m gonna ask you once, and only once: where’d your friends go?”
Lalo sucked in his breath, steeling himself, staying quiet. Wondering how far away the father and the girl were, if they were hiding, if there were more hunters in the area.
The first hunter laughed to himself. “One of the strong, silent types, huh?” He pulled the cigarette from his mouth and regarded it for a long second. “Okay, then. I think I can help with that.”
And as he lowered the burning cherry down to Lalo’s eye, all Lalo could see was the part that burned hottest, the bright blue part, the same as the sky above el Llanto, where Pilar was waiting for him, pacing their bedroom with a hand on her stomach, counting the seconds between contractions.