SATURDAY, 25 MAY
Luis Ojeda scanned his binoculars along the rusty sixteen-foot fence to the dirt road’s visible ends. Nothing. A dead floodlight at the curve over the arroyo left a patch of twilight in the line of artificial day. The lights on either side leached all color from the night.
The patrol was late. He’d been out here face-down in the dirt for over an hour, waiting for the right time. These desert mountains turned cold after sunset, even this late in a nasty-hot May. He was prepared for it. Army field jackets and winter-weight ACU trousers like he wore now got him through January in the ‘Stan all those years ago. He could wait all night. Usually, the travelers couldn’t.
He glanced downslope over his shoulder. Five brown faces stared back at him, their eyes glowing orange in the floodlights’ glare. This run’s travelers. Each wore a backpack holding everything they could bring with them from their old life to their new one.
The young mother lay at the group’s left edge. Her dark anime eyes stared at him from under a road-weary hoodie. Her little girl—four, maybe five tops—pressed her face into her mom’s shoulder, the woman’s hand wound through her tangled black hair. Luis usually tried not to bring kids this young, but they had nobody else anymore, and when Luis looked into the girl’s eyes he saw his daughter at that age, scared, sad and trusting. So here they were.
Back to the binoculars. Dust shimmered in the floods to the west, then a whip antenna, then a tan cinder block on wheels crawled up the rise. The BRV-O’s six-cylinder diesel clattered off the rocks around them. It swung around the dogleg over the arroyo, chunked along at around fifteen, then trundled east.
Two men heaved out. Tan utilities, helmets with no covers, desert boots: contractors. Mierda. They strolled back the way they’d come, M4s slung across their chests, hands resting on the grips. One lit a cigarette. They stopped at the edge of the pool of dark to look up the pole.
The one not smoking leaned into the radio handset on his shoulder. Then he turned to look straight at Luis.
Luis became a rock. The guard was probably half-blind from the light; Luis doubted the guy could see him in the semi-dark, even if he knew someone was out here. Chances were the gringo was going to take a leak. Then the guard’s hand went for the tactical goggles hanging around his neck.
As the guard seated the goggles over his face, Luis went flat. As long as he didn’t move, his infrared-suppressing long johns and balaclava would defeat the goggles’ thermal vision and make him fade into the petrified sand dune under him.
The travelers didn’t have that gear. Luis peered back into the dark. All five travelers should be shielded by the ridge, but “should” didn’t mean shit if the guard caught the bright-green return of a warm human body on his scope. If he did, they’d all find out at 2900 feet per second.
The area around them hushed, letting the little sounds fade forward. The breeze rattled the creosote and pushed pebbles around. Luis could hear the contractors’ voices—an off note in the wind—the shush of rubber boot soles on gravel, his heart going crazy, his sweat plopping on the sand.
Fucking contractors. Border Patrol agents had a code, they were civilized, they had to be nice and usually were. These contractor assholes shot people for fun, the way he had in the ‘Stan before Bel reformed his sorry, angry ass. A month ago, these idiotas were probably losing hearts and minds in the Sudan with every full magazine. Now they were doing the same thing here.
A whimper. Luis cranked his head back to check the kid. She squirmed, a little dark bundle rocking against a dark background. The mom forced her daughter’s face tighter against her shoulder. Her big, terrified eyes found Luis.
Chill, he told himself. Be the rock. The travelers could smell fear. If he was calm, they’d be calm; if he stressed, they’d scatter like sheep. He tried to smile back at the mom, hard as it was to do with crosshairs on them all.
Boots scuffed gravel at his ten o’clock, then at nine. Voices mumbled a few yards off. Somewhere out there, the sound of a huge mosquito buzzed the border. Had they called in a drone? If they had, game over. Dirt lodged in Luis’ nose and mouth, ants crawled on his right hand, something sharp dug into his hip. Twenty-plus years after Afghanistan and here he was in the same shit, just with different players. Be the rock.
A laugh. Then the night exploded.
The first bursts were recon-by-fire, looking for what came bouncing out of the dark. Disciplined soldiers know to hunker down and wait it out, but the travelers weren’t soldiers, and they weren’t disciplined. Two of the men broke and ran the instant bullets sprayed off the ridge top. Luis yelled “Get down!” but it was too late. He jerked his face back into the sand at the next burst, but not before he saw a runner throw up his hands and fall face-first.
The little girl started screaming. Her mother’s eyes went all white and she tried to stuff her sleeve into the kid’s mouth, but the girl wouldn’t stop shrieking. Bullets churned the dirt in front of them.
¡Mierda! ¡Chingado! “Don’t do it!” Luis hissed to her. “Stay there!” His voice sounded like he’d huffed helium. He didn’t care if he drew fire as long as that pretty young mom with that sweet little girl kept her head down—
The woman bolted.
He screamed “No!” and before he could think, he was charging toward her. More shots. Dirt kicked up around his feet. A line of bullets tore across the woman’s back, each one marked by a splat of blood. She let out a little “Ah!” and went down hard.
A burning-hot something slammed into his back, knocked him ass-over-heels down the slope and hijo de perra, it hurt. He spit out the sand he’d eaten and rolled onto his back. A bloody hole in his chest on his right side, a weird noise when he breathed, pain when he did anything.
Luis tried to catch the breath running away from him, but it was hard and it hurt and he wanted to just lie there. Little sharp spikes of fear stabbed at him. The gunshot echoes faded away into the breeze. Those animals up there would come out to see what they’d shot. If they found him they’d arrest him, or maybe just shoot him again. Or they’d call in a gunship drone and kill anything bright green. Any way this went down, he’d never see his wife or son or home again. That thought hurt worse than being shot.
He wrenched his head to his right. The mother and her child lay roughly twenty feet away, two dark, still shapes against the sand. You cabrones, he fumed. You killed a baby.
Or had he killed her by bringing her here? Get away. Think later.
The oldest traveler—slight, late fifties, his hair mostly gone to silver—took Luis’ hand in both of his. He had dark smears on his face and upper arm. “Mister? We go.”
Go? Luis could hardly breathe. He waved toward the lights and fence. “You go. Keep heading south. Mexico’s that way, you can still make it. Go down the arroyo, through the culvert. Understand?”
The old man nodded. The floodlights glimmered in his eyes as he looked toward the two dark shapes just upslope. He’d protected and comforted them even though they weren’t blood.
“I’m sorry,” Luis said.
The old man nodded again and shook Luis’ hand hard. “As-salaam alaykum.”
Then he was gone.
Luis managed to get two magnesium flares out of his pack. They might blind the guards long enough for him to get over the next rise and for the old Arab to make it down the arroyo to safety. Just before he popped the first flare, his eyes snagged on the mom and her daughter. So small, so dark, so still. Another bad picture to add to his collection.
This used to make sense. This used to feel worthwhile. He used to be able to tell himself it was worth the risk to stand up to the locos who’d wrecked his country and caused all this—risk to himself, to his family, to the travelers. But the camps filled and spread. It was all so futile, not worth that little girl’s death, or his own.
If you let me live, he told the sky, I’ll stop. I’m done.
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