Dos Burros is a tiny Mexican village with a population of less than one thousand and has no claim to fame or notoriety. It is never the less, one of many stopovers for a tourist coach company part owned by the alcalde or mayor. It was this regular flow of American visitors that provided a source of income for Miguel.
Miguel was twenty years old and had, from an early age, discovered the tourists’ love of ancient artefacts. Dos Burros had, in point of fact, no history whatsoever. Newly made trinkets created from cheap metal alloy were buried in the ground at a point where the coaches drove past. Worn down in the sand by those heavy wheels, those items soon became ‘ancient’ and somewhat plentiful. They varied from ever-popular crosses to broaches and medallions that each bore mystical symbols copied from a book in the local library.
Miguel’s home was a tiny adobe one-room affair with a bed, a table and a hole dug in the earth floor. That hole was covered with several wooden planks and an old rug. The table sat over it, keeping it hidden from sight. That small cavity held all of his possessions, including a sizable wad of American money, mostly dollar bills.
Even as a young boy, he determined to follow the paths of others in the village and make the long and hazardous journey to California. That was the only place he knew or thought he knew anything about. Images and impressions gleaned from American movies had painted exciting images in his young mind, which was devoid of any suggestion of fantasy. He’d seen those things and so they must be real.
The village’s income, such as it was, stemmed from the local tequila industry and the fact that everyone had a one-dollar charge for photographs. The more attractive senoritas could and did charge five dollars, even more if clothing was dispensed with. This was not an approved activity and took place on the far side of a small hill at one end of the village. Apart from the paying clients, some of the younger boys found a convenient place to hide and watch those illicit photo shoots.
An arrangement with the coach drivers provided empty bottles to be re-labelled with the tequila brand; a picture, of course, of two dopey looking donkeys. The process, requiring a speedy completion, rarely included the washing of the bottles. This tended to give the local product several unique flavours.
La Dia de los Muertos was an annual event that took some residents to other towns and even attracted a few to Dos Burros, together with a coach load of tourists, attracted to those macabre vents. It was that approaching day that Miguel chose to start his long awaited journey.
The coach driver would carry him to a place near the border from where he would cross, unseen in the dark. Moonlight was usually sufficient to see by while a pair of robust sandals would protect his feet from the inevitable cactus thorns. For the third time, Miguel counted the money as he sat on the edge of the bed. Three hundred dollars was a great deal of money, enough to make him a target for thieves if its existence were known. A rucksack traded from a tourist held three bottles of water, a quantity of food and a scrap of thin leather, in which he wrapped the money. The water was relatively heavy, but it would be foolhardy to make that journey without it. When night had passed, he would have to survive the desert heat.
There had been a great deal of talk about a wall that the new American president was going to build. It would, they said, extend across the entire border. Miguel was determined to make the crossing before that wall appeared. Apparently, the president didn’t like Mexicans; in fact he didn’t seem to like a lot of people. Orange County, he’d been told, was where most of his people had settled. An orphan, Miguel had no family and his friends, such as they were, wouldn’t miss him. They too had plans of their own.
Perched on the edge of the bed, he waited patiently until he heard the coach engine as it idled close to his door. Dismissing his familiar surrounding with a slight shrug, he went out into the darkness and made his way to the coach. The air was heavy with the fumes from the coach’s exhaust. Maintenance was never uppermost in the owner’s mind and the engine rattled and protested as the speed varied continuously. Excited by the thought of leaving all that poverty behind him, Miguel paid the driver the agreed price and dropped into an empty seat.
The scene outside was so familiar now that he smiled at the sight of tourists and visitors staggering under the influence of that highly potent local brew. There would be innumerable hang-overs in the morning and under the advice of locals, more tequila would be drunk. It was considered fortunate if none died that night. Those that did were considered participants in The Day of the Dead.
An hour later, the coach stopped and the driver nodded to Miguel. “Good luck, my friend.”
As the coach drove slowly away, the landscape fell silent. Nothing moved among the shadows cast by a bright moon. Tall cactus stood like immobile figures while their flowers sent their faint perfume into the night air. The trick then was to travel in a straight line and avoid slowly wandering in a huge circle. Keeping the moon in a position over his right shoulder Miguel set off, picking his way between the stunted bushes and towering cactus forms. The need to cover as much distance as possible before dawn was uppermost in his mind.
A rogue cloud appeared from nowhere and for a few seconds, the night became dark as the moon’s brilliance was dimmed. He stood motionless, listening to the myriad sounds of insects as they flew to and from the cactus flowers and became an annoyance around his face. The cloud slowly continued on its journey across the sky and moonlight flooded the landscape once more. That short hesitation seemed like an age and Miguel hurried his footsteps in disregard of anything on the ground.
The moon slowly slid out of sight, replaced with a steadily growing grey dawn. It was easier to see and Miguel broke into a slow run. When would he cross that mystical line? Where does America start? His heart beat faster, pounding in his chest as excitement massaged his mind.
The sound of a harmonica brought him to a stop. He tried to control his loud breathing as he listened to the sound. It stopped suddenly, leaving him with no idea from which direction it came. He waited, too afraid to move yet determined to finish his journey. Sliding the water container from his pack, he drank in gulps.
“Okay, feller. Who the hell are you?”
A man dressed in khaki stepped into view from behind a clump of bushes. The unmistakable southern drawl identified him as one of the many border guards. Ruthless and unsympathetic, they were known to shoot people from the Mexican side of the border and leave them there for the buzzards. Men, women or children, they didn’t seem to care. Miguel didn’t really know if that were true, but he’d heard those stories many times and suddenly felt terrified.
“What’s your name, boy?”
Miguel adopted his practiced American accent, learned from his dealings with the tourists. “Name’s Billy.”
The guard laughed. “That so, Billy? Take another step and I’ll have to shoot you. This is American soil from here on.” The man was giggling and Miguel realized that the man with the gun was not an overly intelligent citizen.
“If you shoot me, all the others will move away to another crossing point and you won’t see them.”
The man stared past Miguel and stood on tiptoes to gain some height. “Where are they? How many?”
“Twenty. They are coming behind me, a little way back. They are slower because of the old ones.”
The guard hesitated before lowering the rifle. Here was a chance to make a name for himself. No border guard had ever captured twenty on his own. Reluctantly, he pointed the way with the barrel if the rifle. “Okay, boy, get going but if you call out I’ll shoot you for sure.”
Miguel walked as fast as he could and came across a truck parked on a roughly formed track. There was nobody else in sight. Within one minute, Miguel continued on his way into America, carrying a small but vital part of the truck’s engine. He laughed at the thought of that man waiting and waiting, for people who would never arrive.
Peter Rondel lives in Western Australia. A prolific writer of short stories and poetry, he gained a degree in writing from Edith Cowan University at age sixty. A Magpie called Will is published by IFWG Australia. In the heat of the day was released in December by the same publisher.