They called him Navajo Joe and he had been tasked with getting them safely through the Indian nation.
The fire lit up his dark eyes and his hooked nose, but much of Joe was cloaked in darkness. It was how he liked it.
“Rule 1. Don’t trust anyone,” he hissed. “The Indians get given food if they can capture a Mexican. They’ll offer you the earth but turn you in for a bag of rice,” he said.
“And why should we trust you then?” asked Estavez Estralla.
The erstwhile engineering genius had fallen on desperate times like the rest of his country, but his natural suspicion that had got him this far with his family was still intact.
Joe shrugged. “Because you have no choice. As Indians we are low but as outsiders, you are even lower. Believe me – I have seen some terrible things. When the animals are all gone what do you think they roast on the spit?”
Estavez moved to cover the ears of his children – Emmanuel and little Calista; kids who should be playing with dolls and superhero action figures who were living every day in the specter of death. Estavez himself feared the unknown as much as the known. He wondered if Oregon was really so much colder and if the whole of Mexico was heading to the Pacific North West after wrecking the wall, what sort of welcoming would await them?
Joe drank a strong local beer to fortify them. Once the sun went down, they would go out on the trail. The roads were guarded so they would take dark paths across the hills. It was too hot and dangerous to travel by day. Joe hoped to reach the cave before the sun came up again.
The family joined another group of Mexicans on a trek across the hills that gave off some of their bloody redness even in the dark. They held hands as Joe took them over high ridges overlooking the plains of the Navajo nation. The hills were teeming with crickets and more ominous sounds like the howling of wild dogs. Above them the stars opened up in a vast and incomprehensible, twinkling canopy, hinting of far off places that were cold and serene.
Their route through the Indian lands was at first wonderful and later exhausting as their legs became heavy and they slipped on rocks. The other family was from a poor agricultural region of Mexico. They had worked on the land until it burned up and came close to starvation on their route north. They seemed to accept their fate as pre-ordained and crossed themselves silently in the darkness at every obstacle on the trail.
They walked until a faint light appeared on the edges of the massive buttes in the distance. Joe stopped and solemnly dished out packets of Lays and bottles of water from his backpack.
He was apologetic about not having anything more nutritious. They sat on the smooth sandstone when suddenly a series of sharp blasts echoed around the canyon. Estralla instinctively grabbed Francesca, who, in turn, pulled the boys to her.
They huddled under a large rock until there was a silence for about two minutes. A ghastly grey light was opening up on the canyon.
“Come on. We need to go,” said Joe. “If we stick to the high ground we should be OK. The shots were in the canyon.”
Half an hour later, they came to a spot where the dense thorned bushes they had been navigating gave way to a view of the canyon road where a road snaked like a silver river. Below them, they saw a huddle of about 100 small figures, corralled by a smaller group.
“It’s the feds,” hissed Joe. They’ve captured a group of refugees. I can’t believe they were walking down the road.”
He was cut short by the sound of another barrage of gunfire. The tiny, dark figures were collapsing to the ground one by one. Estralla again pulled at his wife, covering her eyes. She removed his hand in an angry, snapping motion.
Then Joe was pulling at both of them. “Get out of here, before the helicopters arrive.”
Half an hour later, the morning was upon them. Joe pointed to the mouth of a cave a few hundreds of yards above them. This is where we stay for the day and snack on more Lays,” he said grimly.
Then he turned to the red earth and covered up his footprints. “My people would always say we should tread lightly on the earth and leave no trace,” he said mournfully.