Don Miguel de Soto is lying there, exposed to the grilling Sonoran sun; brown legs bent like crabs scuttling the desert sand below him. A blistering breeze puffs at strands of dark, sweat soaked hair tickling him into wakefulness. He’s got a bandana with four days of grime and perspiration tied at his throat. Not yet fully conscious, he fantasizes about cold things, like the frozen fruit sticks he ate as a boy in Jalisco, icy, slowly melting into every pore of his bone-dry mouth.
Got to keep moving, he tells himself as he wakens. His muscles ache from recent beds made of gravel and the miles he’s walked over this violently void terrain. He grimaces and the skin on his lips begins to crack and bleed.
He hopes once he reaches Ajo in Arizona it will be easier. People he knows can help him make contacts, find a place to stay, find work. But right now, he’s just so god damned scorched and lusting for something cold, his final gallon of water boiling from the heat of the midday sun.
He rises to all fours and endeavors to stand, knees feeling uncertain, fawn-like as his legs slowly extend. He steadies himself, his sun chapped hands pressing onto his thighs as he rises up and then checking the sky and adjusting his wide-brimmed hat, turns to what he believes to be north and starts slowly walking.
A few hours later Don Miguel finds a huge saguaro cactus and takes shelter in its modest shade. He’s not hungry but he knows he needs to eat something, and rest. In his backpack he pulls out a bag of roasted nuts and eats a few. The salt is what he craves even as his stomach pitches, willing him to purge. He drinks some of his scalding water and then he reclines, rolling to his side and uses his pack as a pillow. He pulls his bandana up to cover his head and hears nothing but the slight movement of dry sand particles scratching the earth below him. He falls into a fitful field of restless dreams.
There is little movement during the day in this pitiful landscape. An occasional snake, scorpion, buzzard. Yesterday he watched a large Ironclad Beetle hurry along, admiring how it could keep moving in the suffocating heat, its hard shell keeping it safe while it dines on dead things.
The dead things.
Crossing this desert is a landmine of death. Thousands seeking refuge, freedom, and work have died, trying to cross these treacherous lands to security and opportunity, fleeing like Don Miguel. He has run across bones, unsure if they are animal or human, broken, scattered and cleared of fur and flesh.
He can see himself running across this godforsaken land, a million eyes from a million locations watching him, planning to capture him in the states and bring him back to Guadalajara, for the cartel to punish him, no torture and kill him, for bolting and disobeying plans they make for young men like him. He wants to crush them all with his fists, annihilate them into darkness.
Dusk arrives and he rises, following the desert floor first by the final vestiges of a melting sun, and then by moonlight. Picking through chollas and sharp, jagged things he resolves he will walk further tonight in hopes of reaching Ajo within two days. He’ll enter the city under the cover of night, hoping to remain unseen. He takes a sip water as the temperature finally dips below a hundred degrees. The water scalds his throat and offers no refreshment.
Except for an occasional owl hoot or yip from a coyote, the deep night is largely quiet. And then, he hears something and realizes that he has company. There is a man appearing before him, backlit by the moon. The man is older, a dark, deep-creased face, thick silver-grey hair pulled back, a large straw hat sitting on top that bears an eagle feather. He is carrying a rifle and a small pack.
“Hola,” the old man offers.
“Hola,” he calls back, pausing as he surveys the man and his weapon. “What has you out here?” Don Miguel asks warily through a scratchy, parched throat. “Looking for someone?”
“Rattlesnakes, mostly” the old man says. “I make tribal rattles out of them. And feathers, usually from owls, but sometimes I get lucky with gifts from other birds. I often find bones that I use too.”
“You American Indians then, huh?” Don Miguel asks.
The old man gestures in the affirmative. “Apache,” he says proudly.
“I’m trying to get to Ajo in Arizona. Know it?”
“Yes, I know it,” the old man says, “Meet lots of men like you headed there. It’s a popular entry point. Must be bad where you live if that’s where you’re headed. Not much there.”
“Well, it’s probably better than where I’m coming from,” Don Miguel offers. Then he gestures, “I’m heading in that direction, is that the quickest route?”
The old man nods. Something about Don Miguel reminds the old man of his son, lost to drugs many years ago.
“How many days you been out here?” the old man asks.
“Four days. I hope to be in Ajo in another two,” Don Miguel says.
“In this heat, it might take you longer. How much water do you have left?”
“Less than a gallon, I’m conserving it,” Don Miguel pats his pack so the man can see he has very little.
“My home is in a nearby reservation, about four hours by foot from here, I come out here for much longer periods during the winter months, sometimes weeks, but in the early summer like now, I just come late in the evening, after sunset, and only for the night on full moons. If you want you can follow me to my home and I can take you by truck to Ajo so you don’t have to walk another two days,” the old man offers.
“Why would you do that?” Don Miguel asks with a combination of hesitation and interest.
“Let’s just say I know what it’s like to struggle for freedom,” the old man says.
The old man’s home is very modest. It has a little porch out front, two bedrooms, a bathroom, a small living room with a fireplace and an even smaller kitchen. Fortunately, it has electricity and indoor plumbing which means something cold to drink and a shower for Don Miguel.
The old man makes him feel at home, showing him to what had once been his son’s room so he can rest after quaffing an ample amount of liquids and eating a bit of food. The night is still oppressively sultry but at least he’s got a bed to lie in. A ceiling fan slowly circles overhead, clicking as it makes each round. He takes note of a cross woven from dried grasses nailed to the wall above the bed, and a snakeskin rattle on the dresser before closing his eyes. He can hear the old man snoring in the room next door as he drifts off.
In the morning, the old man serves him eggs, bacon, tortillas and coffee for breakfast. He is ravenous, his appetite having returned like an aggressive monster.
“You been out here your whole life?” Don Miguel asks the old man, surveying the place as he inhales forkfuls of food.
“Yes, I used to live on one of the other reservations, Fort Apache, but I came here when I married my wife. Her people are here, and my son was born here. They’re both gone now,” the old man says, his eyes seeing something long past these walls.
Don Miguel ponders this as they drink their coffee from chipped mugs at the kitchen table.
“Something forlorn and yet mystical out here. Feels raw and I don’t know how to quite say it, powerful I guess, like you could get lost in something brutal perhaps if you weren’t careful,” Don Miguel says.
“There are a lot of spirits, good and evil in this place. A lot of harm has come to many good people here.”
“Sounds like my home in Mexico. Our neighborhood in Guadalajara used to be so nice, lots of families and kids, but drug cartels moved in and started extorting everyone. Every store, restaurant, taxi driver, you name it are made to pay and if you don’t there is violence and death. The police and politicians are all bribed so there is no protection. Children have no future there. It’s really bad. I had to leave.”
“It’s interesting that you say this. My son ran towards drugs and they killed him, while you are running from them, and to a country that’s obsessed with them, to be saved. Isn’t that something,” the old man says thoughtfully.
“I guess it is. And I’m sorry about your son,” Don Miguel says with feeling. “You know, you never did tell me your name.”
“People call me Winston,” the old man says.
“Mucho gusto Winston. I’m Don Miguel.”
The old man smiles. “I’m proud of you son. It takes a lot of guts to do what you are doing. Leave your family and your country. My people were forced to leave, we had no choice. We had to leave our land, our language, our heritage, and I know it’s real rough. But I think you have made a wise decision to go and I wish you much success and happiness.”
Winston stood up then and said, “There’s something I want to give you, it was my son’s and it would make me right proud to let you have it. I’ll be right back.”
The old man returned and handed Don Miguel a Saint Christopher necklace. “My son overdosed more than once. The priest said it was but for the luck of Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, that Benjamin survived the first few times. On the night he died he wasn’t wearing it. So, who knows, maybe it was the spirit of this saint that protected him on those near-death journeys. All I know is that I’d like you to have it. Keep it as a little badge of protection.”
“Thank you,” Don Miguel says. “And I appreciate all your hospitality. I don’t know where I’ll end up but if I stay in Arizona, I’d like to stay in touch with you Winston.”
“I’d like that a whole bunch too. Well, we best get you to Ajo.” And with that Winston rose, put on his straw hat with the eagle feather and motioned for Don Miguel to follow him out the door to his old pick-up truck parked out front.