Following his conversation with Jacinta Ruiz, Héctor took down from its shelf the statue of the Centaur that had been gathering a coat of the fine yellow dust blown in from the Chihuahuan Desert through chinks in the ranch-house walls and put it away in the closet, and he did not visit the Pink House again until after Jesús “Eddie’s” return from Belen more than a week later. Even then, he managed to find excuses to hang out at Geronimo’s in Deming instead, until Jesús “Eddie,” growing impatient, resisted.
“Listen, hombre, it is safer drinking in Mexico, away from the interstate where the terrorists are. Did you know that Indians—those black ones from India, not the Apache—own two motels in Deming? Not all Indians are Buddhists, compadrito. Millions and millions of them are Islamists, wanting to come here to this country to answer the phones for us! You can smell the curry from one end of the town to the o-ther! Who knows if Abdul Kahn has friends there to watch us, Héctor! Besides—the beer is cheaper at the Pink House, while Jacinta Ruiz—she likes us, compadrito!” Jesús “Eddie” finished with a lecherous smirk at his friend, accompanied by a dig in the ribs with his elbow. The fact was, he’d missed the presence of both Contracepción and Jacinta during his sojourn upriver.
So Héctor consented, with acute misgivings, to pay the Pink House another visit. He was in a grudging mood to start with, a reflection in part of his family’s simmering resentment at the Juárezes’ return to the ranch house. Héctor was too honest a man to overlook the fact that the place was, after all, the property of his friend, or anyway of the Juárez family, and that Jesús “Eddie” and Beatriz had shown the Villas an act of great kindness and generosity in allowing them to hide out here in a time of grave peril. Only, life had been so comfortable in their absence! Contracepción had appropriated to herself the second bedroom and carried the single TV in there, in the face of AveMaría’s and Dubya’s vociferous protests. (In this dispute, Héctor had taken his daughter’s part, inviting his wife’s sympathy on behalf of a preteen girl marooned on a frigid desert in winter and deprived of friends, school, and shopping, while promising Dubya access to Animal Planet for one full hour before bedtime.) It had not helped that the Juárezes had arrived without warning from Belen to find most of Contracep’s wardrobe, including a voluminous assortment of girlish underthings, mixed in with piles of CDs and magazines, spread across the bed and around the room. Though Jesús “Eddie” had been gratifyingly nonchalant about the mess, Beatriz had seemed somewhat miffed. And now the holiday season was coming, with the dismal prospect of the two families having to endure Christmas together under a single (and rather narrow, as well as leaky) roof. As Jesús “Eddie” had reported that Belen continued to be amok with rampaging A-rabs, the chances of their returning home for the holidays appeared less than nothing.
“OK,” Héctor agreed, “but only for a couple of beers. I need to be up early to drive to Silver City in the morning. Anyway, AveMaría doesn’t like it when I stay out partying until eleven or eleven-thirty at night.”
“Beatriz didn’t use to, neither,” Jesús “Eddie” told him. “Said she expected her husband to stay home nights and talk to her. I said, ‘When did I ever do anything when I’m home ’cept drink beer and watch TV?’ And what do you think was her answer to that, hombre? Said, ‘You know, you’re right. This way, I get to watch Seinfeld, ’stead of having to watch you watch sports programs!’”
Because Héctor’s van had just enough gas left to get as far as Deming in the morning and gasoline was at nearly $3.50 per gallon in Columbus, they took Jesús “Eddie’s” pickup. Héctor got behind the wheel, as Jesús’s license was suspended for weeks yet. He drove slowly—so slowly that Jesús “Eddie” protested impatiently.
“Compadrito, you drive like an old Anglo woman with blue hair! This is a Dodge diesel, not a Buick Park Avenue. I have a thirst, hombre! At this speed, we arrive at midnight and have to sleep o-ver!”
Héctor, goaded by even the thought of such a catastrophe, goosed the engine to 70 mph, so that, less than a quarter of an hour later, the truck rattled across the final cattle guard and was waved through at the border crossing by the sleepy Mexican officer seated before a flickering portable TV set.
“He knows us by now,” Jesús “Eddie” boasted. “We could bring a load of guns through here, no trouble—start our own Mexican Revolution! That would get the Anglos’ attention, hombre!”
At the Pink House, Jacinta Ruiz acted very glad to see them again.
“¡Ah, Señor Jesús!” she greeted Jesús “Eddie.” “I am glad you are back with us! It is so good to see you again, and now Héctor’s wife will not worry when he is out late alone at night!”
There were fewer drinkers than usual in the restaurant, allowing Jacinta—to Héctor’s painful discomfort—plenty of time to sit with him and Jesús “Eddie.” While being pleasant to both of them, her manner with Héctor seemed special, combining coyness with a feline concentration Jesús “Eddie” failed to observe but that flattered and excited Héctor, in spite of himself. He had never known a woman like Jacinta Ruiz, he thought—at least, such a woman had not shown such interest in him in a long, long time; not, so far as he could remember, since before his marriage. Reminded in this way of his marital vows, Héctor felt very guilty indeed.
To rid himself of the bad feeling, he drank more beer than was good for him and made no protest as Jesús “Eddie” ordered one round after the other. They sat later than usual. It was a quarter to midnight when they told Jacinta good night and wandered out into the cold desert in search of the pickup. Héctor offered to drive, but Jesús “Eddie” said it was all right, he felt sober as the Pope and knew a detour by back road through the desert that would take them home safely without risking an encounter with State Patrolman Rudy Cabeza de Vaca along Highway 11. “We can’t afford to both of us lose our licenses,” he added; and Héctor, who was seeing double, felt content to let his friend have his way. The truck swerved unintentionally as it passed through the border crossing, but the guards on both sides of the international line appeared to notice nothing amiss and allowed the Dodge to vanish into the darkness beyond the pooled light of the arc lamps. When Jesús “Eddie” had driven only a couple of miles toward Columbus, he hit the brakes hard and brought the truck to a stop, cursing. Twisted round in the seat to stare behind himself through the rear window of the cab, he backed rapidly past two blizzard posts to a Powder River gate set into the barbwire fence at the head of a two-track dirt road.
“Here we are, hombre,” Jesús “Eddie” said. “Hey, I almost missed the damn turn. The gate ain’t locked. Just lift the catch and swing it wide enough to let the truck through. We’ll be home in forty, forty-five minutes, and f–k Cabeza de Vaca. He’s the one got my license pulled in the first place.”
The road, which was narrow and badly rutted, cut west into the desert among a nearly unbroken expanse of creosote bush and mesquite thickets that closed in in places to scrape the panel siding of the pickup and snag the tow mirrors. The ruts shunted the truck back and forth in the track while canting it steeply over, on one side first and then the other, as the headlights, after heaving up toward the night sky, plunged again to illuminate the bottom of a dry wash or hollow. Jackrabbits tore across the pale ribbon of frozen clay, and once the white belly and underwings of an owl swooped low ahead of the windshield, then merged with the shadows where, less than an instant before, a rabbit had vanished. Jesús “Eddie” drove very fast, prompting Héctor to take a tight grip on the handle mounted above the door. A thousand galaxies of stars, brilliant enough in the black sky to be visible above the light path cut by the headlights, wheeled overhead as the pickup, locked into the ruts like a train between the rails, followed the turning, twisting road. Here and there, a solitary ranch light burned far out on the desert, riding the darkness like a distant ship on a nocturnal sea.
Other roads—some hardly more than parallel scratches between the sotol cacti that stood up like suddenly alerted men in the twin light beams; the rest barely distinguishable, if at all, from the one they were following—diverged at intervals to the right and left, causing Héctor to worry that Jesús “Eddie” would lose his way among them, if indeed he had not lost it already, and that the two of them would freeze to death overnight in the desert wilderness. Jesús, however, seemed confident of his direction, and presently they came to a sizable dry wash, fifty feet across and ten or fifteen deep, coursing between vertical banks of clay overhung by brush. Here the track, descending by a steep ramp of dirt and loose gravel, joined the wash and commenced to run along its sandy bottom, following in the wide meanders. Héctor did not at all like the look of this wash, inescapable from within its sheer earthen walls, but he had no choice but to hold his peace and trust in God—and Jesús “Eddie.” He was wishing that it were God who was driving, and Jesús looking down benignly from behind the starry firmament overhead, when the truck rounded a bend and the lights, reaching two hundred yards up the narrow canyon, revealed a dozen or so figures ahead entering the next bend in the wash. Héctor’s immediate thought, that these people must be bandits, was corrected on the instant by the realization that he was not in Mexico and that, in any case, bandits do not hunt their victims in the bottoms of dried-up creek beds in the midst of unpeopled deserts. As he watched, the figures, acting perturbed, turned to glance behind themselves before disappearing around the bend at redoubled pace.
“Illegal aliens,” Jesús “Eddie” said tersely, stepping on the accelerator. “We’ll be on them in no time—ain’t no way they can climb out of this wash. It may be I’ll just have to run them down—eh, hombre?”
From past the bend, they saw the aliens ahead of them once more, much closer now and already running, spread out across the bottom.
“What if they’re armed?” Héctor asked nervously. Many years ago, as a young man, he’d been compelled to accept the fact that, in spite of being a descendant of General Villa, he was not, by nature, a brave man.
“I got a pistol under the seat,” Jesús “Eddie” assured him—as if, Héctor thought resentfully, that was a satisfactory answer to his question.
They were less than a hundred yards from the group when it broke suddenly, scattering across the creek bed to take cover behind boulders, pieces of driftwood, and clumps of brush. Some of the figures moved with the lithe, muscular athleticism of men, others with a woman’s slower, wide-hipped gait. These appeared also to be dressed more warmly against the cold, the heads well covered with what looked to be dark woolen hats.
“They’re A-rabs!” Jesús “Eddie” shouted. “Islamists! Terrorists! Not Mexicanos at all! Some of them have beards, and the women are wearing burgers over their faces, just like on TV! Hombre, it is a trap Abdul Kahn has set for us! Of course, they are heavily armed. Now is no time for foolish bravery, compadre! We must escape with our lives and warn the Border Patrol in Deming.”
He gunned the engine, and the truck surged forward in the sandy track, fishtailing, its tires spinning. Héctor sat stunned, watching the canyon widen gradually ahead. He’d had no idea coming across the border was so simple, so easy a thing—for Mexicans, claro, but not for Islamists. Should he alert the White House, where he still had name recognition? By this time tomorrow, the gang he and Jesús “Eddie” had encountered in the wash could be in Albuquerque—or on their way cross-country to Washington, D.C. Fortunately, Jesús “Eddie” had recognized the terrorists at once for what they were. To Héctor, they’d appeared similar to the group he’d encountered near the ranch house not long before, except for these women wearing their hair tied up in dark kerchiefs.
“What can the Border Patrol do?” Héctor asked doubtfully. “Illegals come through here all the time. I saw a bunch myself when you were in Belen.
“Of course,” he added quickly, “those ones were Mexicans, not Mohammedans.”
Jesús did not answer straightaway. At last, he said, in dramatic tones, “Compadrito—it is time for Jesús ‘Eddie’ and his friend Héctor Villa to take action! Together, we will defend our beloved country—the Rio Abajo!—against the foreign enemy.”
But Héctor was not really listening. How, he wondered, had Pancho Villa managed to make it across the border to attack Columbus? There had been a Border Patrol in 1916, hadn’t there? He couldn’t recall having ever read anything about it.
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