Originally published in the Spring 2006 edition of Hardluck Stories
“You’ll blow your cojones off, if you no careful.”
“Que?” asked Miguel. “You say something?”
The man behind the wheel adjusted his Stetson and flashed a third-world smile. His name was Cruz—no first name, just Cruz. “This road, she’s a bouncy one,” he said. “And you have that pistola in your lap. A good way to blow your balls off.”
“You don’t know nothing, loco,” said Miguel. But he stowed his Browning under the bench anyway and let his gaze return to the window.
The U-haul rumbled along a rough gravel road, kicking up waves of dust. It was dark out, the sky thick and moonless. A good night to be a coyote. A perfect night, if it wasn’t for the INS flood lamps, lighting up the desert.
Cruz yawned, puffing out his barrel chest. He made Miguel think of a bull stuffed in a flannel shirt. “So how many chickens we got back there?” Cruz asked.
“Ocho,” Miguel spat, disgusted with the number. Just west of Agua Prieta, he’d guided ten pollos—six men, four women—over a trampled length of barbed wire into Arizona. For almost a kilometer, they snaked across the desert on their bellies, hiding from the Border Patrol’s 4x4s. Somewhere along the way, two got lost. Miguel hated leaving them behind, but when he spotted Cruz waiting at the rendezvous, he knew the group couldn’t linger. So he herded his cargo into the back of the truck and jumped into the cab.
Now, the U-haul was headed for the interstate. For Phoenix.
Cruz had a boom box on the dashboard, spinning bootleg CDs. The raspy voice of Chalino Sanchez rang out mournfully, juxtaposed with happy polka beats and tooting horns. The song was a narcorrido, a Mexican drug ballad.
“I know that they’d like to kill me,” the boom box crooned in Spanish. “But let me catch them sleeping, two or three I will take with me, with this .45, I will demand that respect.”
Cruz drummed the steering wheel in time with the music. “Eight is okay. How much we charging? Nine hundred a head?”
Miguel nodded. “Si, that’s right.”
“And we got ourselves a little bonus,” Cruz said. He jerked his thumb at the back of the truck. “I saw that girl you brought in. Una chica bonita, even with dirt all in her face.”
“She’s only a child.”
Cruz flashed his teeth again. “Not for long.”
Miguel said nothing. He turned back to the window and peered out at the desert, trying hard to forget Cruz’s crooked smile.
“…first you must betray him, ” Chalino Sanchez sang from the boom box. “…chest to chest I guarantee you, your hands will perspire. ”
Fifty miles outside of Phoenix, Miguel spotted a rest stop and said, “I need to piss.”
“Sure, sure,” said Cruz, pulling the U-haul over. “I’ll stay with the chickens.”
Miguel reached under the seat for the Browning and tucked it behind his back as he dropped out of the cab. There was a time when coyotes didn’t carry guns. But that was before the smugglers organized into gangs, before the hijackings and the turf shootings. Now, Miguel went armed on every run.
The rest stop was graveyard quiet. Miguel took his time in the bathroom, splashing cold water on his face. In the mirror, his skin was sun-worn and wrinkled. Twenty-six-years-old, but looking forty. That’s what being a coyote did to a man.
As a child, Miguel’s family drifted the American highways like a feather on a quick running stream. They bent their backs in the fields. Picked citrus, lettuce, cotton. Always moving but never getting anywhere.
Back then, Miguel’s home was the rear seat of a rust-bucket Buick. He had no real possessions. Nothing to call his own but the clothes on his back and his sister’s smiling eyes. Now, even that was gone.
He splashed himself again, the water bringing his thoughts back to the world. His watch said it was 2:00 am.
Leaving the bathroom, Miguel felt the weight of the Browning tucked in his waistband, touching his skin.
“Mierda!” Miguel cursed.
His heart pounded hard against his ribs. Cruz was gone.
Circling the truck, Miguel checked the cab again, thinking maybe the bastard was lying down across the bench seat. That would be just like him, taking a siesta in the middle of a run. But the cab was empty.
This can’t be happening.
He pulled the Browning out and ran to the back of the truck, scanning the locks. That’s when he spotted Cruz on the fringe of the parking lot, the big man stomping through some bushes, buttoning up his jeans.
Miguel jogged to meet him, the pistol low at his side. “Where’d you go?”
“Relax, amigo.” Cruz bowed his head to put on his Stetson. “Just taking a leak.”
“A leak, eh? Why didn’t you use the bathroom?”
“Soy un ranchero. A farm boy from Sinaloa. I like giving the earth a little something to drink.”
Miguel grit his teeth. He’d heard Cruz’s voice crack, saw his brown skin go pale. No, thought Miguel. Please, not this again.
He marched to the edge of the lot, to the bushes Cruz had trudged out of. It didn’t take long to find the girl.
She was sprawled across the hard desert floor, a few yards from the blacktop. Her skirt was torn. Her panties were around her ankles like a white flag of surrender. The soft flesh of her neck had gone black, squeezed by strong, rough hands. In Agua Prieta, the girl’s eyes had reminded Miguel of his sister’s, somehow filled with both sadness and joy at the same time. Now the girl’s eyes were like dusty glass.
“Hijo de puta.” Miguel’s swear was snake’s hiss. But Cruz wasn’t there to hear it. The big man was already heading for the truck, hands in his pockets. Slinking away like a guilty child.
“Why?” Miguel shouted, catching up to him. “Why’d you do this?”
Still walking, Cruz shrugged. “Lo siento. I’m sorry, Miguel. I don’t know what came over me.”
“Not good enough.”
“Calm down,” said Cruz, facing him now. “I’ll pay you for her, okay? We’ll still get plenty for the rest of them. I’ll give you part of my cut when we get paid.”
“No, you won’t,” said Miguel. And he brought the pistol up and fired.
The bullet caught Cruz high in the chest and spun him around. The big man stumbled, almost falling to his knees. Then he caught his balance and frantically ran for the truck.
Miguel stood his ground and pulled the trigger twice more—loud “pops” that broke the desert’s silence. One shot nailed Cruz in the kidney. The other caught the back of the leg. The bullet passed through the kneecap, blowing out chunks of muscle and bone.
Cruz howled like a dying dog. He pitched forward, finally losing his stupid hat, and skidded face first across the blacktop.
By the time Miguel reached him, Cruz had rolled over to his back, desperately trying to draw a .38 from an ankle holster. But it was no use. Cruz couldn’t make his body work. Too much blood had escaped.
Calmly, Miguel stood over him and squeezed on eye shut to take aim.
“No,” Cruz pleaded. Blood and saliva bubbled from his lips. “You can’t do this. Not over one little puta. There’ll be a thousand more crossing over tomorrow.”
Miguel shook his head. “I wish that was the reason. I wish this was for her. Maybe then God would forgive me.”
The Browning bucked in Miguel’s hand. Cruz’s head jerked as the bullet punched out the back of his skull. Blood and gray matter followed in its wake, spraying the air with a red mist.
For a long time, Miguel stood there motionless, peering down at the slab of dead flesh that had been his partner. In his head, he could hear Chalino Sanchez again, singing narcorridos. Songs of bloodshed and betrayal. As hard as he tried, Miguel could not shut them out.
The yellow Ryder finally rumbled into the lot, two minutes behind schedule. The truck belonged to the Santos brothers, rival Coyotes with fat wallets. Its reverse lights lit Miguel’s face as it backed up towards him.
Miguel walked to the U-haul and unlocked the rear gate. One-by-one, the pollos hesitantly climbed out. Their faces were etched with fear and they clutched their possessions like a drowning man clutches a life preserver.
“Bienvenido a América,” Miguel told them, as he opened the back of the Ryder. “Welcome to America. Now get in the other truck.”