Luis slowed his car to better view the two walkers. From a distance one appeared to be an old woman but he wasn’t sure of the other. Neither could he be sure it was safe. If he stopped completely, a gang might rush from hiding and murder him for his car. He thought of the gold hidden within and realized how vulnerable he was.
He idled beside them. One was a woman, her face not as old as her gait, the other a young girl. He would offer help, he decided. Unconsciously, he’d been searching for such a situation.
He pulled ahead and stopped. He kept the doors locked for a few seconds, waiting for attack if it came. The woman spoke through the glass but he couldn’t hear her. The girl stood frozen on the side of the road, looking ready to flee at any sign of trouble, he guessed. Luis rolled down the window.
“Please, Senor,” the woman said. “Do you have water? Food? My child and I have walked many kilometers this day.”
“I have some water I was saving until the border. We will share. Where are you going? May I give you a ride?”
Luis unlocked the passenger door for the woman and the rear door for the girl. “I promise you will be safe.” They had every right to be as wary as he’d been. “My name is Luis.” He passed his canteen to her.
The pair drank, whispered and got in and Luis accelerated. “I am Elena and this is my daughter, Julia.
“You travel alone?”
“No, my husband and two sons follow by a few days,” she explained. “They were kept longer at the first harvest. We travel ahead to secure work in America for the spring. Before all the other workers think the same.”
“You are blessed to have three children,” said Luis. “Family is everything.”
Elena nodded, biting her lip.
Luis glanced in the mirror at Julia.
“I used to have another brother but he is dead. And a younger sis who left us.”
Elena silently sobbed.
“I am sorry,” said Luis. “I can understand how you feel being split up.” The hospital staff were the closest he had to family but they were hundreds of kilometers behind him.
After an hour of driving he said, “I used to work in a hospital. I saw many deaths and many births. There is tragedy and there is joy. I always tried to focus on the joy we helped create,” he lied to himself.
“You are a doctor?” Julia asked.
“No. But I worked with doctors.” He thought of the sorrow he’d created with his choices and his actions. This woman and girl had little freedom in their actions. “We near the border.”
Elena clutched her bag. “We will get out. Grab your things, Julia.”
“No,” insisted Luis. “Please remain in the car. I…I mean we might have a better chance to cross together. Put your bags on the floor in the back. We can pretend we are relatives on vacation. A little money in the proper hands will aid our story.” He moved the car into the appropriate line. “Now, this is what we tell them.”
It took more of his gold than Luis had guessed and longer explanations. But the women supported his story and fell resolutely silent while he finished negotiations. Two hours later, they were in America.
Julia stared back at the crossing buildings until a bend in the road hid them. She turned to Luis. “You are a very rich man, Senor. We are in your debt.”
Luis felt better than he had since he’d left Mexico City. He shook his head and smiled. “I was in your debt and now it is paid. I’m not a rich man. Everything I have is in this car. I would have given it all to see the looks on your faces when the final gate lifted. I am content and I thank you.”
They drove on a few kilometers until the passed sign reading ‘El Centro.’
“El Centro is where Carlos and the boys will meet us,” said Elena. “Senor Parescio, we will leave you here. I thank you also. You are a kind and generous man.”
Luis brought the car to a halt to let the women out, not without regret. They’d brought him luck as well as peace of mind. He waved and climbed back onto the highway. He did not notice the unmarked police vehicle closing in on his battered, gold-laden transport.
Night fell and he drove on. Few cars were on the road and finally there were none save the headlights behind him getting closer.
Northern Montana, August
Carlos covered Ramone and Higuero with a few branches and then hid himself in the dry irrigation ditch. Their dirty clothes aided the meagre camouflage.
Carlos whispered, “When the patrol passes, run for the fence. We can slip underneath with no water in the ditch. Be careful not to touch the wires.”
Elena and Julia waited on the other side of the Canadian border with friends. Traveling separately worked months ago crossing from Mexico into America. A kind man had helped the women while Carlos and the boys made it through in a boxcar. The train crossing had been lucky, it only cost them everything. Carlos had heard many stories of locked boxcars never opened until the passengers were all dead from heat and thirst. Carlos burrowed his head lower, trying not to think of Angelina and the price she had paid, the price to pay the smugglers. He kept telling himself she was better off now, wherever she was.
A motor’s roar chased his regrets into momentary fear. The sudden illumination from a searchlight stung his eyes. He lay silent and still, trusting the boys to do the same. They’d walked and run far this night. The motor idled down and the low murmur of voices carried to him, too faint to distinguish the words. The searchlight shone on the opposite side of the ditch, then swept on. He heard the voices again, louder this time but then the motor revved and the vehicle moved away. Carlos grabbed the boys on the run and the three of them fled down the ditch. They crawled in turn under the fence to their goal. They skulked through the darkness, following the directions he had memorized. By dawn the remainder of his family would be reunited.
Carlos spoke to his sons as they ran. “The air is not too bad here, just as I told you. The sugar beet crops are good this year. Many pickers will be needed.”
The night air was bracing but he knew it would be colder than they were used to by harvest’s end. He had a feeling the patrol had seen them but were more interested in illegal aliens returning to America, not fleeing. They were in Canada and could never go back south.
Julia tended to her mother in the worker hut while her father and brothers pulled extra shifts in the fields. The Japanese foreman had warned of an early frost and the beets had to be out of the ground ahead of the usual backbreaking schedule. The long, hard hours and insufficient heat in the hut had made her mother too ill to rise from bed. Now, with Julia unable to toil while she looked after Elena, the men had to work even harder to justify the added burden on the farm’s resources.
Elena cried out again. Julia draped the wet cloth across her mother’s hot forehead. “It’s all right, mama, you’ll feel better tomorrow.”
“The man who gave us a ride today,” said Elena, “he was a doctor. You must ask him to come.”
“No, mama. That was months ago. And he wasn’t a doctor, he worked in a hospital for doctors.”
“He was kind. He could come now and help us with his gold.”
“He’s dead, mama. Remember? They found his car wrecked with him inside. The troopers said it was an accident but the gold was all gone. That was in America. We’re in Alberta now.”
Elena continued to babble. “Alberta? Wasn’t that the name of the nurse who saved Rafael?”
Julia didn’t have the will to lie. “No. Rafael is dead too. The nurse couldn’t help him.” She bit into her trembling lip to keep her hand steady as she mopped her mother’s brow. She thought too of Angelina, taken sick and passed on to a wealthy American in Mexico for adoption. The money helped bring them this far, she knew. Her parents had never admitted it but Julia was wise in the world’s ways. “Rest, mama.”
Elena lapsed into sleep. Julia wanted to warm herself against her mother but she feared the sickness. She lay down exhausted on the floor and tried to sleep with her guilt.
Carlos bowed his head for a moment. A few of his fellow pickers touched him and mumbled their sorrow. He thanked them and turned his gaze from the grave to the foreman waiting for them all to return to work. They had less than a week to go before harvest finished. Elena would not see the end of it, or their journey.
Carlos put his arms around his children as they walked to the truck.
The foreman pointed to Julia. “She can work now, can’t she?”
Carlos nodded. If there was anything in the man’s tone suggesting alternatives to the field labor Carlos ignored it. Julia climbed aboard with the others and looked straight ahead.
“Where will we go next, papa?” Ramone asked. “I hear there is winter work at a meat packing plant north of here.”
Carlos did not want to plan anymore. He had no one to plan for, he thought. The children had lost their childhood since they’d left the farm. Perhaps they were better off without him. “If that is what you want, we will go,” he said.
“I thought Higuero or I could go ahead and make arrangements before everyone here is done.”
“That is a good idea, papa,” said Julia. “I can work twice as hard. The foreman won’t worry about one less brother.”
Carlos nodded. “Ramone, you will go. We will meet up in two weeks or less.” He didn’t know what the inside of such a plant was like but it couldn’t be worse that any work they’d done so far.
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