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Racism is man's gravest threat to man—the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reasons.
—Abraham J. Heschel, rabbi and philosopher (1907–72)
Benita Sanchez was almost as afraid of running into a rattlesnake as she was U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The CBP would send her and her husband back to Mexico. But a snake… The way José said she should creep across the ground—always staying low, very low—made her feel so vulnerable. Snakes came out at night, when the temperature cooled. She could easily stumble into one. Maybe they'd hear a brief shake of the rattle, but they'd never see its beady eyes or sharp fangs before it struck. Since they'd lost their coyote, or smuggler, they had only the moon to help them. And it was barely a sliver—a sliver that looked like a tiny rent in a gigantic dome of black velvet, which was slowly turning purple as the night edged toward dawn.
Although they'd crossed the border with thirty-one other Mexican nationals, they were now alone. Everyone had scattered when the border patrol spotted them more than twenty-four hours ago. Had any of those people made it safely back to Mexico? Or were they in some holding cell? She and José had escaped "La Migra," but she was no longer sure she considered them lucky. Did José actually know where he was leading her? He said he did. He'd come to America once, but that was five years ago. And their coyote had promised they'd have only a six-hour walk. Even if she deducted for the time they'd spent sleeping, they'd been on their feet for eighteen.
As they came to a cluster of mobile homes, José whispered to circle wide and crouch lower. He'd once told her it was easy to sneak across la frontera. But it hadn't been easy at all. Although he'd insisted she wear several layers of clothing, the thorny plants that scrabbled for purchase in the rocky soil still managed to sink sharp spines through the fabric or scratch her somewhere she wasn't covered. Add to that the hunger, thirst, homesickness and fear— fear of snakes, dogs, drug-runners, thieves, unfriendly Americans, La Migra—and it was almost unbearable. The whole world felt hostile.
Tears began to burn behind Benita's eyes. She wasn't sure she could go on. She hoped the presence of these trailers meant they were on the outskirts of a town where she could at least get a drink of water, but even if they were close, two miles seemed like fifty when you were walking through the desert.
"José?" She could hear the determined crunch of his footsteps in front of her.
At the sound of her voice, he stopped. "You must be quiet," he replied in rapid Spanish. "Do you want the people in that trailer to hear you? If they do, they'll call the border patrol!"
The mobile home they skirted was one of the nicer ones she'd seen, a double-wide with a yard and everything. But its white paint seemed to glow in the dark, making it look like a giant ghost with flat, empty eyes. This was a soulless, godforsaken land. How could it be the paradise José promised?
"Maybe we could drink from the hose," she suggested.
He hesitated and finally agreed. He had to be thirsty, too. But as they drew close, a dog began to bark, so he grabbed her hand and yanked her away.
"Agua!" she begged.
"We can't risk it."
"Then let's try another place. Maybe the next one won't have a dog."
"We're almost there."
He'd been saying that for miles. Unable to believe him anymore, she stopped walking. "I'm scared. I want to turn back."
"¿Estás loca?" he said, instantly angry. "We've come too far. We can't go back."
"But…" She swallowed hard. "How much longer?"
"We'll be there soon," he promised.
But would she be any happier after they arrived? They were going to a safe house and then the home of his cousin, Carlos Garcia. She'd met Carlos on two different occasions and didn't like him. He enjoyed playing the big shot, pretending to be something he wasn't. She didn't want José to become like him….
Her husband was getting impatient. Benita knew how much this trip meant to him. He'd talked of it the whole time they were dating, painted appealing pictures of the opportunities to be found in America. But…
Gathering her courage, she started after him again. She wouldn't be a disappointment, wouldn't make him regret marrying her. Besides, as he said, they'd come too far to turn back. Surely the number of mobile homes meant they were indeed close to the safe house. Bordertown was as far as they had to go tonight. It was all arranged. They'd rest, then they'd call Carlos and he'd pick them up and take them to Phoenix. There, they'd live with him and two other roommates and, hopefully, find work so they could help pay the mortgage until they'd saved enough to afford their own place.
"Aren't you worried about snakes?" she grumbled.
"Snakes will be the least of our worries if you don't keep moving."
Sighing, she tried to move faster, but with every step she wished she'd been able to talk José out of this. They were young and in love; they could make a living in Mexico somehow, couldn't they? She didn't want to go to America. Maybe he could make more money here—big money, like he said—but would they ever be happy living in a foreign land? A land that didn't want them? And what if they were caught and deported after they'd begun to build a life here?
It was a risk Benita didn't want to take. "José, I really, really want to go home." The tears she'd been holding back began to stream down her cheeks.
He didn't even turn around. "You'll be glad we did this. Just…trust me."
She thought of the water bottle they'd finished hours ago. Would they find themselves lost in the desert when the sun came up in less than an hour? Would they stagger around in the one hundred and fifteen degree heat without food or water and eventually die a terrible death?
The mere possibility made her shudder. All she had left was a pocketful of nuts. And they were covered with salt.
"We shouldn't have crossed," she said. "We should not have done this."
A gruff chuckle alerted them to the presence of a third party. "Well, well…what do you know? It sounds as if someone is coming to their senses."
Benita squealed, then clamped a hand over her mouth. A dark amorphous shape stood in front of them, blocking the faint light of the moon. She couldn't make out specific features, but she knew he was a stranger. And she was pretty sure he was wearing a cowboy hat and holding a gun. He had something in his hand….
Was he white? She might've thought so except he spoke perfect Spanish.
Her husband inched toward her, placing his body in front of hers, and she let him. She hadn't yet told José, hadn't wanted to worry him before their trip el norte, but she'd just found out she was pregnant.
"Disculpe, señor," he said. "We—we mean no harm. We are passing through, that is all."
The stranger switched to English, which seemed to come as naturally to him as Spanish. "What you're doing is illegal, mi amigo."
Although he knew bits of English, much more than Benita did, José wasn't fluent. He stuck with his native tongue. "But we are just visiting family. We mean no harm. We plan to go back to Mexico after two weeks. We stay only two weeks."
It was an obvious lie, and the man was far from fooled. "Shut up." Again he spoke in English but even Benita understood the meaning of those sharp words.
"Señor, please." José edged closer to her. "It is only me and my—my little brother. We have no drugs, nothing."
This time, the response came in Spanish. "Your brother."
He'd heard her speak, which made this another transparent lie, but Benita kept her mouth shut, in case he believed José. Some boys had high voices, didn't they?
"Sí. He—he is frightened. Por favor…please, do not hurt him."
Benita could hardly breathe. The stories of rape, beatings, robbery and other abuse that occurred during border crossings had circulated throughout Mexico. Parents used them to warn their children to stay home, as her father had warned her. But, other than to insist she chop her hair short and wear a baseball cap and men's clothing, José had shrugged off her parents' concerns. He said they worried for no reason and promised her everything would be fine.
"Stop groveling or I'll shoot you both right where you stand."
Those words and the disgust in the stranger's voice made Benita start shaking. Who was this man? What was he doing out here? If he was a border patrol agent, he would've told them by now, wouldn't he? Had they interrupted a drug run? Or was this a local farmer who didn't want them on his land?
"I—I have money," José said.
They didn't have a lot. It was Carlos who was supposed to pay their coyote once they'd made it safely across. But at this point Benita was ready to turn herself in to the authorities. She didn't care if he sacrificed every peso.
The man laughed. "You think I'm a dirty cop—like the kind you have in Mexico?"
José didn't answer. "Forgive me. I am not trying to offend you, señor."
"Your smell offends me, amigo. You being where you don't belong offends me. And the fact that every word out of your mouth is a lie offends me."
There was a click, and a brief flash of light. Benita covered her face, bracing for the worst. But he was only lighting a cigarette. She caught a brief glimpse of his chin, which was covered with dark stubble, before he closed his lighter.
"I'll make you a deal," he said, blowing smoke in their faces.
"Sí. Money. You want money?" José bent to get the cash hidden in his sock.
"I don't want your lousy dinero. You couldn't have enough pesos to buy me a new pair of boots, amigo. What I want is for you to undress your little brother here. I'll use my night-vision goggles to take a peek at his chest. If he is, as you say, a boy, I'll let you pass. You can head on to Tucson or L.A. or wherever else and bleed this country dry just like all your wetback relatives who've snuck over the border before you. But—" he took another long drag on his cigarette "—if she's got tetas…" Another blast of smoke hit Benita in the face, making her cough. "I'm going to punish you for being the lying sack of shit you are."
José didn't move. Benita could feel his tension, could tell he was weighing his options. What had the man said? She'd recognized only a few words. Would José decide to run? They couldn't. They'd be shot.
"Okay, I—I admit it. This is my wife, not my brother." José's voice was raspy with desperation. "But…she's barely twenty, señor. And she's frightened. Please, I beg you. Let us go. We will head back to Mexico. Right now."
The man took another drag. "Until next week or the week after. Then you'll come creeping across the border again." He switched to Spanish, no doubt to make sure she'd understand. "I read an article that said you wetbacks try at least six times before giving up. Takes some pretty big balls to be so bold, you know what I'm saying? Besides, someone's got to die. Might as well be you."
Die? Benita sank to her knees. "No, por favor! I—I didn't even want to come here. I'd rather go home. I'll stay home. Don't hurt us."
He made a tsking sound. "How could you put your wife in such danger, Pedro?"
He had never asked for José's name. He was using "Pedro" as a racial slur. She could feel this man's hatred as palpably as the heat of the sun when it beat down at midday. But she was glad José didn't complain. He squeezed her shoulder. Probably to comfort her. Maybe to convey an apology. You were right. We should've stayed. "I was just…trying to give her a better life," he said.
A light went on in the closest trailer. When the man turned to look, José grabbed a handful of Benita's shirt and jerked her forward. He wanted her to run, but she couldn't get up fast enough and they lost the precious second that might've allowed them to escape.
The cowboy swung back, and they both froze with fear. Thanks to the light coming through the trailer window, the barrel of his pistol was outlined in silver, and they could see that it had something on the end.
Benita knew what that something was; she'd seen a silencer before. Her brother hadn't always lived the kind >of life he was living now that he'd settled down and had a couple of kids.
"Someone's awake," José said. "They'll see you. You'll get caught if you shoot us. Let us go."
The stranger didn't seem the least bit worried. Chuckling deep in his throat, he tossed his cigarette on the ground and fired so fast Benita didn't realize he'd pulled the trigger until José collapsed. Her husband's hand clenched, dragging her to the ground with him, so the shot intended for her went over her head. But that was all he could do to help. In the next second, he made a funny noise and went still, and she knew the man she loved, the father of her unborn child, was dead.
"You killed him!" she wailed, crouching over his body. "You killed him!"
"Hey, what's going on out there?" A woman had opened the door of the trailer and called out in English. Although Benita couldn't understand her words, she thought the interruption would make the man run away. But it didn't. With a curse, Cowboy brought up his gun and aimed again.
"This oughta teach you spic cockroaches to stay in your own damn country," he ground out, and pulled the trigger.
Benita felt a flash of pain between her eyes. Then she felt nothing at all.
The sun was just beginning to creep over the horizon when Sophia St. Claire brought her cruiser to a skidding halt at the dusty group of drab to not-so-drab trailers a mile outside of town. She'd thrown on her uniform and dashed out of the house as soon as the call came in. But she was too late. The people who lived here had abandoned the comfort of their homes to gawk and were standing in the middle of the crime scene.