El amanecer. Dawn.
Teófilo rubbed his eyes awake in the dry arroyo shielded by tarbrush where he and Rogelio, the smuggler he hired to get him into Texas, hid from the border agents.
Teófilo pulled a milk jug of water from his backpack and took a measured drink. It didn’t slack his thirst, but he needed to conserve water in the desert. Rogelio lay curled up in a tight ball. Teófilo shook him, but the man cursed and rolled over in his sleep. Teófilo capped the jug and placed it with the rest of his gear. He spat remembering the smuggler had drunk from the jug earlier.
There was little to like about Rogelio, but Teófilo needed him to get him into El Norte. The man had ties with a cartel in Mexico and moved everything from human flesh to crystal meth and guns across the Rio Grande Valley using old Apache raiding trails. He also knew which palms on both sides of the border to grease.
But finding Rogelio wasn’t easy. Teófilo spent a month in Juárez hitting dives where the bands played Narco Corridos and young girls with grubby fingers and coke-inflamed noses danced for American dollars and whatever they could snort.
Teófilo finally tracked him down in a dingy cantina on the outskirts of Juárez, the kind of place where coyotes like Rogelio did business with Mexicans wanting to cross the border. Teófilo told him he was in trouble over an affair gone sour with a rich man’s wife. Rogelio cackled at the tale and bought a round of tequila.
After three more rounds, this time paid for by Teófilo, a deal was struck. Rogelio would get him to San Antonio where Teófilo could hop a train to Houston. Rogelio wanted $10,000 for the trip, triple the going rate. Teófilo paid him. He knew this was his only chance to get Rogelio to guide him.
They crossed the Rio Grande with a group of other mojados at darkness. Even in the moonless night, Teófilo could see how the desert looked like the route of an army fleeing in defeat: Lost shoes, tattered blankets, discarded water jugs and abandoned backpacks lay scattered among the mesquites.
They were moving deeper into Texas when Rogelio whistled and motioned for Teófilo to break away from the others. Two hours later the men slid into the dry wash as the border patrol swept the desert night with searchlights, rounding up the others from the group.
With sunrise creeping over the land, Teófilo thought he heard hoof beats. He peeked over the edge of the gulch, but saw nothing, except rolling desert bristling with whitethorn acacia and paloverdes in the golden aura of first light. In the distance, vultures ascended on the horizon in search of scavenge. Today, the birds would pick the bones of those who died trekking north in the waterless wastes of the desert.
Teófilo shoved Rogelio again, but this time harder. The smuggler grunted and rose. He stood beside him now. The man pulled a flask out of his pack pocket and took a swig. Rogelio smiled. A gold tooth glistened with liquor. Teófilo saw the crude Santa Muerta tattoo on his hand.
“Almost home free,” Rogelio said.
Teófilo hitched his backpack on his shoulders, pulling down the shirttail of the red flannel shirt he wore to hide the .44-caliber Magnum tucked in the waistband of his jeans. A weapon with the serial number scrapped off that he bought in Juárez. He slipped a baseball cap on.
Rogelio stretched his arms. The smuggler traveled light, carrying only a rucksack. He threw it over his back.
“You’re not much for conversation, are you?”
“I just want to get out of here,” Teófilo answered. He looked out into the desert.
“Are you afraid that the jilted cornudo you shamed is on your tail? You have no need to worry. No one else knows about this trail.”
Teófilo turned to him, staring at the man point-blank.
“You’re sure about that?”
“Yes. Ahora vamos,” Rogelio. said.
They started down the arroyo, moving at a quick pace for about ten minutes before Rogelio stumbled over a patch of uneven terrain, tumbling face first into the dust. He raised himself up and looked at the arroyo bed. The smuggler kicked at what he thought were tree roots at first. But they weren’t. At his feet lay a scattering sun-bleached bones. They were human.
Teófilo stood behind him.
“You said no one else knew about this trail,” he said.
“Probably just someone who got lost out here and died,” Rogelio said. He was shaken, but he tried to blow it off. “Just a lost wet one.”
Teófilo shook his head. He walked a few feet over and scraped the red dust of the creek bed with the toe of his boot, exposing another set of barely buried bones. There were still shreds of rotted cloth clinging to them.
“There’s more than one,” he said, but his voice was flat. There was no hint of surprise.
Rogelio rose, his face blanched. He saw a bullet hole in the skull. He’d heard that Minute Men were patrolling new areas along the border, taking pot shots at lost mojados in the desert. Maybe there were some around here now.
“We should go,” he told Teófilo.
“Hold on there son.”
This voice was in English, and it came from behind Rogelio. He turned. An elderly Anglo stood on the edge of the arroyo with a high-powered hunting rifle pointed at him. The man wore a rancher’s wide brim hat and flowing duster.
Rogelio raised his hands.
“I don’t want any trouble,” he said lowly.
“That’s good to hear,” the rancher said.
Rogelio bit his lip. He was trying to read the old Anglo.
“Maybe you’re mad because I’m trespassing. I promise I won’t come back through here,” Rogelio said.
The rancher responded in a matter-of-fact way.
“Oh, so you been through here before then?”
Rogelio considered his words.
“Maybe a long time back, I don’t remember.”
“I bet so.”
Rogelio nodded to his pants pocket.
“You want money? I can get you money.”
The rancher shook his head.
“What I want, money can’t buy.”
“Maybe you want something else?”
The rancher shrugged.
“Then what do you want mister?”
“The truth,” the man said.
Rogelio heard a pistol cocking. It came from Teófilo’s direction. The man he thought was on the run from a cuckold in Mexico was pointing a gun at him now. The rancher read the confusion in Rogelio’s face.
“Teo there was the deputy sheriff around here for some time,” the rancher said. “Good investigator at that, but he’s been down in Me-he-co looking for that crew of malos hombres that robbed a ranch and murdered a young woman just west of here over a year ago.”
Rogelio shook his head.
“I don’t see what that has to do with me sir.”
The rancher ignored the statement.
“Like I said. Teo was a good cop. Real dedicated. Even quit his job to track ‘em down, all three of the killers.”
The sun was barely up, but there was sweat on Rogelio’s forehead.
“The earth is full of bad people,” he said, hoping to placate the old rancher.
“I’m glad you recognize that,” the Anglo said. “Because two of those men, and I’m stretching it by calling them hombres, are lying right your feet waiting for Christ to call them to judgement. Now I’m waiting for the third.”
Rogelio smiled sheepishly with his hands still in the air.
“They deserved it, I’m sure. Let me go and if I hear anything sir, I promise to let your know. You have my word.”
The rancher feigned surprise.
“I can trust you?”
“Problem is, Teo tells me you were the boss of that crew.”
Rogelio waved his hands.
“He has it wrong.”
The man on the arroyo edge motioned to the pile of bones with his rifle barrel.
“So you’re saying I should believe you instead of Teo? Because one thing I should tell you about my friend over there. He may be a little unconventional when it comes to detective work, but he’s good about getting the truth from people.”
Rogelio knew he couldn’t wiggle out so easily.
“Okay mister, I’ll tell the truth. No more lies. I was there, okay, but I did not do anything. I was, what do you say, the look out. I was far away from the house. The men told me about it later. That they killed the girl. I’m a stupid coward. I should have told the police.”
The rancher shook his head when he spoke.
“Your friends were facing eternity when they stood on the same spot where you stand now. They had no reason to lie. They both said it was you.”
Rogelio shook his clasped, pleading hands at the rancher.
“Se lo juro. I swear.”
The old Anglo’s face hardened.
Rogelio turned to Teófilo now. He knew border cops who would sell their own daughter for enough money.
“Shoot the old man,” he told Teófilo in Spanish. “Whatever he paid you, I can double it, triple it, whatever you want. Just kill him and let me go.”
“You just made a bargain you’ll never be able to fulfill,” the rancher said in Spanish. “See, that pretty girl you raped and killed was my baby daughter…and Teo’s wife.”
Rogelio eyes widened. The rancher pushed the bolt forward on the rifle to feed the bullet into the barrel and Teófilo aimed the Magnum at Rogelio, but all the smuggler saw were vultures circling in the brightening sky above him.
El amanecer. Dawn.