A rusting early-sixties pickup truck with no tail-gait pulled up behind Lupe’s Market. It was an hour late. A window rolled down and the driver shouted, “Hurry” in Spanish.
They crowded into the back and then drove for thirty minutes over a rough, pot-holed road in silence. The headlights were off, and they moved slowly to avoid sending up a tail of dust.
There was a feint touch of glow of gray on the western horizon when the truck came to an abrupt halt. The passenger in the cab hopped out and said, “We’re here, move it.”
“See how easy this, I’m in America, now I’m in Mexico, America, Mexico, America, Mexico,” shouted the man they called Chacha, as he jumped back and forth over an imaginary line.
Daniel Rigaldo glanced at his wife Marlena and winced.
“You see, crossing the border is easy,” Chacha laughed, revealing uneven, yellow rotting teeth. He was thin, in his late twenties with a big hook nose and facial scarring from poor complexion. His clothes were ragged and dirty and he smelled like a sewer. He wore a green, sweat-stained Papas and Beer baseball hat backwards.
“The hard part is crossing the desert. My agreement was to get you to America. I did. I’m finished. Adios, mu chachos!” he said, walking away.
“Wait a minute, you’re a liar! You were supposed to take us to Tucson, that was the agreement,” Daniel yelled.
“Just kidding… of course we’re going to Tucson,” he said wheeling around. “Follow me.”
“Oh my God, he scares me,” Marlena whispered to her husband.
“Me too, how did we end up with this idiot?” he replied.
A rising, three-quarter moon allowed the group of four adults and two children to travel without a flashlight. The mid-August air was still in the low nineties, a dry sauna, harsh and unforgiving.
Chacha was a Coyote working for the Batista Cartel and he smuggled people and black tar heroin for a living. The going rate from Sasame, Mexico to Tucson through the Altar valley, otherwise known as Cocaine Alley was $4000 per person including children, paid in advance. Chacha kept $400 each. The Cartel got the rest. Groups were limited to ten or less. Anything larger was too easy to spot. The distance they needed to cover was over 130 miles. The border patrol was everywhere as well as a large, private American militia that called themselves the Minutemen Patrol. Getting caught meant losing their life savings and a handcuffed ride in a dirty bus to Nogales.
“Tonight we need to cover twenty miles. Do you see that humped ridge to the north west? That’s our destination. It’s an abandoned mine where we’ve stashed food and water. Watch your step, there are Barrel Cactus everywhere and if you get cut, the wound will become infected. There are also a lot of rattlesnakes and sidewinders out at this time of night; they lie near the Creosote and Mesquite so stay clear. If you get bit, you will die,” he said, with a menacing glare at the two children.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” Marlena whispered to her husband.
“Here — take a small sip but remember this is all we have until the mine.”
“Pappy, can we have a drink,” both girls pleaded.
“Okay, but just a sip.”
They walked at a steady pace, through the still, dry air that smelled of sage and mesquite. An owl flew overhead and coyotes yelped in the distance. Small animals raced into the creosote as the party’s footsteps drew near.
“Pick up the pace, the sun is only two hours away. We’re behind schedule,” Chacha said, prodding forward. “If we walk in the sun we die.”
In about an hour the trail headed up a slight incline.
“Good, we’ll be there in a few minutes” Chacha said, wheezing and out of breath.
The dark outline of a hole as big as a garage door appeared ahead on the side of the hill.
“We made it, but just barely” Chacha said, as the crease of light to the east began to grow.
They approached a small outcropping that was just a few steps below the mine entrance. Chacha beckoned the group to halt and climbed the last few steps that led to the opening.
“Jesus mother of God!” he shouted from above
“What’s wrong?” Daniel asked.
“Come here and look for yourself” he said while sitting on a rock, hands between his knees. Daniel raced up to the entrance. In the corner he could see six, gallon containers of water; all had been shot repeatedly and were empty. The only food that remained was a ten pound bag of dog food. A note was nailed to the side of the bag.
“You fucking beaners need to go back to where you came from. This is our land and you have no right to just come and go as you please and fill our schools and our hospitals and take away our jobs. This is the United States of America not Mexico. Next time you come sneaking into our country we’re gonna hunt you down like animals and feed you to our hogs.”
“Daniel what does it mean, what are we going to do?” Marlena pleaded with her husband who was frowning and shaking his head.
“It means we’re dead you stupid bitch!” Chacha yelled from where he was sitting.
“Hey, don’t you ever talk to her again that way or I’ll rip your ugly head off,” Daniel yelled back
“That makes sense, then you would be really lost and in this country. I’d give you a day at best before you become vulture meat.”
Daniel walked towards Chacha but Marlena held him back.
“You scum bag, where is the next rest point?” he looked at Chacha.
“I’ve got a map but it’s not going to be any good to you. You’ll get lost.”
Daniel approached Chacha and yanked the folded paper from Chacha’s waist.
It was a map with destination points including the mine they were standing in.
“This is all we need. It says the next rest is twenty two miles at a spring near Apache Rock, which is slightly north east. From this viewpoint, I can see the curve of the hills where it should be.”
“I say we give it a try. I don’t trust this scum ball any more than I would a common criminal. What do you say? If we turn back now we’ve lost everything and might as well die right here.”
“I agree with Daniel”, Jorge Rosalles responded with an arm around his wife who was weeping “We travel at night and conserve the water we have. How is your family holding up?” Daniel and Marlena had about a half-gallon of water and Jorge and his wife had three, sixteen-ounce bottles in their backpack.
“Okay it’s settled. When the sun goes down we head towards the spring. For now we need to rest.” He walked over to the bag of dry dog food and opened it with his pocket knife, took a handful and put it in his mouth. It tasted sweet and feted but not horrible, like stale Chicharone.
“Here try some,” he said throwing the bag to Jorge.
The air in the mine was cool and bearable and they were exhausted so sleep was easy during the day. When the sun slid below the horizon, Daniel woke up.
Chacha had vanished.
“Probably for the better, He was Psycho.” he thought to himself. He would have gotten us killed anyway. We have a map and if we’re careful we can make it. He woke the others.
“Chacha has disappeared but I’m glad he’s gone, it’s probably for the best. We have a good map, and if we’re careful, we’ll make it. Tonight we just need to get to the spring.”
“Remember to conserve water.”
The outline of the Chirachaua Mountains was plainly visible to the north east. They would look for a notch just past the saddle in the crest of the rolling hills. According to the map there was a paved road that led to the pass from the west and if they could find that, they could travel parallel to the road which would lead them to the spring.
The group moved in a determined silence. Going back was not an option. They had sold everything to make this journey. Once connected in Tucson, they would find good work and rent a small place and the children would go to school and they would eat like kings.
After three hours the notch in the hills didn’t appear to be any closer.
“It hardly seems like we’re making progress.” Marlena whispered to Daniel.
“I know, the distance is deceiving, let’s take another swallow but that’s it. We only have enough for a few more drinks.”
They all took a small swig without saying a word.
“I really proud of you two,” Daniel said, looking at the girls.
“If you get too tired just tell me and I’ll carry you for a while.”
Marlena looked at her husband in admiration. “He’s a good man,” she thought to herself.
Several miles in the distance they saw the flicker of headlights of a vehicle bobbing along the undulation of the terrain heading northeast.
“That must be the road we’re looking for. Once we find it, we’ll have another five miles or so until the spring.” Daniel said
“God, I hope so I’m dying of thirst.” Marlena replied
“Daddy can you carry me for a bit. I’m getting really tired!” their seven year old daughter Katrina pleaded.
He knelt down and let her climb on his back. She wrapped her arms tightly around his neck.
They were walking slowly but it still didn’t seem like they weren’t making any distance.
“I see the road” Jorge proclaimed, walking a hundred feet or so ahead of the group.
“Are you sure” Daniel cried out.
“Yes, it’s paved and it’s heading northeast. It must be it.”
In a minute the group caught up and they stopped at a one lane road headed up towards the hills.
“We’ve got about three hours of darkness left.” Daniel said
“Let’s stay parallel and follow it. It should lead to a parking lot and then it’s only a mile walk or so to the spring. Once we reach it, there are supposed to be many large boulders in the area that make nice places to camp and we can hide there during the day.”
They continued walking up into the foothills towards the “V-shaped” notch that began to appear more clearly in the morning sunrise.
Two more hours passed and still no sign of the spring. It was almost 9:00 a.m. and the sun was well above the horizon.
“What should we do?” Jorge asked, while looking back at Daniel.
“The worst mistake we can make is trying to walk in the daylight. Not only will we become dehydrated but there is a greater chance that we’ll be seen. There’s a ravine to our right. Why don’t we find a place to hide and rest until the sun goes down? We’ll drink the last of our water and start again in the evening.”
“I hope you’re right,” Jorge replied.
Under the cover of a ledge formed by large granite outcroppings, the group settled in for the day. They passed around the bag of dog food and joked about how pathetic they were. The girls made barking sounds and the adults just smiled. They finished the last of the water and tried to sleep. Thirst made it difficult.
“I’m having a hard time swallowing, my mouth is so dry” Marlena said, quietly as she lay close against her husband.
“Me too,” Daniel replied “The girls have been amazing.”
“I know; I am so proud of them. Do you think we’ll make it?” she asked.
“We have no choice my love. God will guide us,” he said, hugging her.
The sun’s anvil bore down and they had to keep adjusting their position to stay in the shade. Sleep was an illusion and they tossed and grumbled as the heat seemed to increase with every call of the crows that roosted nearby.
“Daddy, it’s like an oven down here.” the youngest cried
“I know, my angel, just close your eyes, the heat will pass.”
“Oh my God, Oh my God! — Something bit me — it bit me two times!” Marlena screamed.
“What is it! Can you tell?” Daniel shouted, pulling her next to him.
“I think it’s a baby rattlesnake, it’s only got two rattles. It’s in the corner curled up with several others.”
“I didn’t even see it; I just rolled over and felt it strike my shoulder. I was half asleep and didn’t know what was going on. My God, it hurts. I can feel the swelling already. I can taste the poison in my mouth. What are we gonna do?”
“Jorge, do you have a knife in your backpack?”
“Nothing! I’ve got a small mirror,” he said, emptying his backpack.
“I’ll break it on a rock.”
“Try and hit it on the edge, don’t let it shatter,” Daniel shouted.
Jorge placed the mirror on a large piece of granite and hit the edge with a quick strike.
“Use this!” he said handing the fractured piece to Daniel.
“Marlena, I’m going to cut the wounds and then try and suck out some of the poison.”
She closed her eyes and nodded.
He made small X incisions over each bite mark as Marlena grimaced.
He put his mouth over each cut and sucked frantically.
He tasted the sour poison and spit it out repeatedly. He knew that baby rattlers where the most deadly, that they injected more venom than mature snakes.
“That’s as good as I can do. We need to kill the snake and I’ll take it with me. You have to stay calm and try not to move. Moving will only make it worse.”
“I’m going to go west on the road and try to find someone who can get us to a doctor. It’s our only choice.”
Daniel found a long twig and used it to move the snake from beneath the cover and then smashed its head with a rock. He stuffed it into his back pack.
“Go Daniel Go!” Rosolvo shouted
“We’ll be okay, take the water” he said handing him the last of their liter bottles.’
“Marlena, my darling, I’ll be back.”
Daniel climbed up to the road and headed in a slow trot in the direction of western sky.
The midday sun pounded the black asphalt. The surface temperature was a hundred and thirty degrees. The asphalt gave-in with each step like walking on hard pressed sand. His last drink of water which was hot out of the bottle ran out in two hours. He saw the shimmering lines of heat waves in the distance and he began to stagger and lose his orientation. He pulled off his shirt and wrapped it around his head. He started whispering “Marlena, Marlena”. He turned an ankle and fell to the scorching pavement, which blistered his hands. His ankle was swollen but not broken so he continued. After another five miles or so he came across a coyote carcass which had been dead for maybe a day. There was coagulated blood under the body and Daniel knelt down and sipped the fecund liquid. It tasted hot and sour but it gave him strength.
After another hour, a lone movement was discernible in the distance. He sat down exhausted and waived his hands in the middle of the road. Cresting the slight incline in front of him, a vehicle approached. As it got nearer it had the look of an expensive, late model SUV, like a Cadillac or Navigator. Two men got out of the truck, both wearing cowboy hats and holding rifles. One was chewing tobacco and spit as they approached.
“Speak English?” the tobacco chewer asked.
“Yes, my wife and children and friends are several miles back. This morning, my wife was bitten by a rattlesnake.” He pulled the carcass from his backpack and laid it in front of him.
“Yea that’s a D-back alright, and a baby at that,” the other said. “You say she was bit — how long ago?”
“Probably four or five hours,” Daniel replied.
“We were trying to come into the country for work and were betrayed by our Coyote. I have two daughters and a wife and we gave up everything to come here. My wife will die if she doesn’t get help,” Daniel pleaded.
“Jesus Christ, do we call it in?” the tobacco chewer said after spitting.
“Shit, look at him, he’s gonna die and if what he says is true and so are several others. Fuck protocol, I say we take a look,” the other man said.
“Okay amigo, hop in back — let’s go find your family. Name’s Bob and this is Jesse. We patrol for the Minutemen. We’re supposed to report people like you that enter this country illegally. Why does a man bring his family across a desert like this? You’re choking our schools, raiding our health care and taking our jobs. We got a depression right now in this country and can’t afford the likes of you,” Bob said.
“I understand — jobs are scarce where we live too and we live among evil men. Cartels will kill you if you look at them the wrong way. All we want is simple work, I’ll do anything — so will my wife — anything is better than what we have and where we come from.”
“How much further?” Jesse asked.
“That’s Rosolvo up ahead waving at us.”
They pulled up beside him.
“The poison is spreading quickly. The bite was just below her jaw and her whole face is swelling,” Rosolvo said.
Daniel ran down the embankment to the rock overhang. Marlena was conscious but swelling badly. She couldn’t talk. The girls were crying.
“Please Mr. Bob, Mr. Jesse, I need your help, she’ll die if we don’t get her to a doctor.”
Bob looked at Jesse, rolled his eyes and shook his head.
“Goddamn, I never thought it would come to this. Let’s get em in the truck.”
They all went down and lifted Marlena and placed her in the back of the SUV.
“Got any clever idea’s?” Jesse asked Bob.
“We can’t go to Wilcox — those yokels would stick em in a trunk and drive em to the border.”
“There’s a clinic in Tucson — my ex, Sara used to work there, and I can use her name,” Bob replied.
“Okay, it’ a solid two hours, she gonna make it?” Jesse asked staring at Bob.
“It’s a lot of poison, baby snakes are deadly, but if we make it in two hours, she’s got a chance.”
“I don’t know why amigo, but this is your lucky day. We’re gonna try for Tucson, there’s a clinic there that will know what to do.”
“Thank you sir,” Daniel replied, grabbing Bob’s shoulder.
“She’s going into convulsions!” Rosolvo screamed.
“There’s ice in the ice chest, keep her cool. She needs anti-venom.” Jesse said.
Bob was doing 100 miles an hour up the deserted highway. When they turned onto the Interstate, Bob said, “Okay man, keep your eyes peeled, if we get pulled over we’re fucked.”
Ten minutes later, the red lights of a highway patrol were flashing in the rear view mirror.
“Fuck, Jesus H. Christ!” Jesse said.
“I got it, be cool,’ Bob said.
The officer exited his car and walked around to the passenger window where Bob had already rolled down the window.
“Sir I had you clocked at 110 miles an hour, you’re either drunk or crazy or both. License and registration please. Do you realize anything over 100 is a felony in this state?”
“Yes sir, listen, I don’t know where you’re from and you don’t know me from Adam but I served in the 101st Airborne division in Iraq and I’m asking you to cut me some slack. My wife in the back is snake bit and if I don’t get her to a hospital within an hour, she dies. Bother to brother, man to man, I need your help.”
The officer looked at the license and the VFW card which sat next to it.
“Forget it brother, I’m callin in a medevac — we’re gonna stay right here so you don’t kill anyone on the road because I know you rangers, as soon as you’re back on the road its 110 all over again, this way we don’t kill anyone in the process and maybe we save your wife, and by the way, I did two tours in Air Cav in 96.”
The officer ran back to his car.
“Daniel it will be alright, I’m gonna make the chopper ride and tell em she’s my wife. My wife left me two years ago but they don’t know that. Her name is Cathy and we’re gonna make it, you here?”
“When the chopper gets here, head for Tucson, I’ll call you on the cell phone,” Bob said to Jess.
Marlena was passed out but still had a pulse. After thirty minutes, a chopper approached from the northwest and landed on the freeway which was blocked off by six highway patrol cars and several sheriffs.
The medivac paramedics ran to the SUV rolling a fold up gurney, with the blades still spinning.
“Who’s the husband?” the paramedic asked the group.”
“I am,” Bob said.
“We’ve already been cleared to Phoenix General where they have a treatment center for snake bites, do you know what kind of snake it was?”
“Yea here it is, looks like a young Diamond Back. She took two bites in the neck.”
“Doesn’t look good, bad place to get bit,” The paramedic said, looking closely at the wound.
“Yea I know, I’m ready when you are. Jess and her brothers and nieces will drive to Phoenix and meet us there. Jess, type the Hospital on the On-Star Navigator
I’m guessing maybe a three hour drive,” he said walking towards the chopper.
Daniel ran to his side. “Mr. Bob, I can never repay you for this, God bless you.”
“Let’s get her some treatment. We’ll meet in Phoenix.”
As he started to walk away, Daniel hugged him from behind, tears falling to the ground. Bob reached around and patted him on the shoulder.
Two and a half hours later Jesse pulled into the emergency parking of Phoenix General Hospital where they were directed to the west wing and Snake Bite ward.
Marlena was alive but connected to an intubation tube and unconscious. Bob was sitting at her side, reading the paper.
“Okay, her name is Cathy Rollins and we left her ID at the house where she was bit. Insurance has it covered, at least for now, I’m sure I’ll be in the shithouse in a month or two. “
Daniel was at her side stroking her hair. He kissed her forehead and cheek. The girl’s eyes were red but had run out of tears hours ago.
The vitals monitor started a loud chirping sound and the green line went flat. Bob saw it and screamed for help. A nurse and then doctor were at her side in less than a minute.
“Two CC’s of Benzo. Get the pads!”
The pads thumped their electric charge to the lifeless body; still flat line.
“Clear!” …another shock….Nothing.
“Common Cathy come back,” the doctor pleaded.
“Clear!” another shock, same result.
The doctor started mouth to mouth. “Jean…pressure while I try resuscitation.”
“The vitals monitor kept its steady hum and a straight green line.”
Doc had tears in his eyes. “Time of Death 5:46 p.m.” he said to the nurse who was across from him.
“Daniel was at her side holding her tightly crying a river. The girls were holding on to each of his legs in silence.”
The Doctor looked at Bob.
“I’m so sorry sir. How long were you married?”
“About five hours,” he said.
Audio rendition of the above story