in an off-life year of mine when I crossed the California border one morning
with a patrol car in my rearview mirror. Id drifted about as far
as sixty-two bucks could take me, and had ended up in three-sided Yuma,
Arizona, with California to the north and the borders of Mexico running
south and west on either side.
Ahead were slim roads, scanners, an occasional barrage balloon, and razor-wired
walls supposed to keep out illegal drugs, sad-ass stories and empty pockets.
To the east was nothing but miles of raw desert, predators, a Papago Indian
Reservation, and the vicious heat.
None of it kept out the cocaine, heroin, marijuana, or millions of hungry
Latinos on the other side looking for work. They poured across the border
at all hours of the day and night. And in a jumbled life like mine, the
only difference between hungry Latinos and yours truly was that they came
in over the razor-wired walls and down through dangerous makeshift tunnels;
Id rolled in from California with the border patrol in my rearview
I turned off the road to let the cop in the cowboy hat go by, but he pulled
in behind me and stepped out. Need any help? he asked, staring
down at me through aviator sunglasses that reflected my sleepless night
and made the bright morning sun rougher than usual. Added to that, every
joint in my tired body ached.
Hi, I said, with the biggest smile I could muster and caught
his nametag. Sergeant Rudy Rogan. Just looking for some breakfast,
sir, I pleaded.
License and registration, please, he said.
It was the please that got me and the Where the fuck
did you come from? behind it. I dug for my near-empty wallet, gave
him the papers, and he headed for his nondescript border patrol van to
check me out.
It wasnt long before my papers were back. You can find a good
breakfast a few blocks up ahead on your left. Eat there myself,
he said in a friendly way.
Was it the dirty Mustang, two-day beard, or the bloodshot eyes,
sir? I asked.
None of the above, son, he said. You were coming into
Arizona from California, headed toward the Mexican border with Texas plates.
Around here thats considered internationally complicated.
Whats more, youre Luke Benton. I shouldve recognized
you, but I didnt.
You a rodeo fan?
Only thing we get down here, he said. I saw you ride
a bull up in Prescott. 8 seconds of pure beauty. Ninety-eight points.
Lord knows I tried. Any work around here for ex-cowboys an bull
riders? I asked, and figured hed shake his head and walk away,
but he didnt.
You quit riding?
Yeah, not much in it these days except more pain. Im tired
of bad motels, fast food, an leaving good women.
Well, this is an Army town, but you should be able to pick up something,
he said. Not enough able bodied men willing to hang around border
towns these days.
You got it, he muttered. If you do hang around you better
get an Arizona plate for that Mustang. He smiled and tipped his
ten-gallon in salute. I was touched.
First thing I did after flapjacks and sausage was grab a haircut and shave
and go down to the border patrol office to fill out an application.
Nine months later, I was listening to Sergeant Rudy Rogan drone on about
the police maneuver we were about to execute that night. Id already
been through it several times, but patiently listened as he explained
the drug-trap we called the tortilla chip, and how we were going to set
up on the other side of Sheep Mountain and catch whoever was going to
make a run across the border that night.
My cell phone began to vibrate against my leg and I let it do its thing.
I didnt dare interrupt Rogan from explaining how he was personally
going to oversee the whole operation from the southern end with the Captain
at his side. They were going to be smack up against the border in a copter,
making sure the show went according to plan. Id been
assigned the operations west wing and given one of the new recruits
to assist me. Of course, I was also expected to teach the recruit the
particulars of the operation while in progress. A nights
operation like this usually involved headquarters, and the gold badges
mustve had info on whatever was coming our way.
Any questions? Rogan asked.
Whose got the east wing?
Miguel, he said, and looked up to get my reaction. I didnt
give him any. Hes already on his way out so take what you
need, set up, and make radio contact. Tortilla chip is still the code.
The new recruits waiting in the garage for you.
Thank you, sir, I mumbled, and moved quickly down the hall,
checking my cell phone as I went.
The kid was waiting at the patrol van and I remembered seeing him around
the station. Hi, he piped, extending his hand. Im
Billy Satterfield, sir. Nice to meet you.
Good to meet you, Billy, I said, and we shook hands.
Ive been looking forward to working with you, sir.
You can start by checking out a couple of heavy jackets. Well
probably need them tonight. Just sign my name. Ill inspect the car
and get it ready.
I just filled it, sir, and checked the tires. The rest looks pretty
Great. Then lets get started.
Yes, sir, the kid said, and went for the jackets.
I hit the redial and listened to the phone burr on the other end. I hadnt
talked to her in weeks.
Luuukey? she said, in that slight accent.
If youre busy I can call back.
Miguel just came home for his rifle and said he was going out to
shoot rabbits, she said, and sounded like she was about to cry.
Were both on assignment tonight.
He told me. But it was the way he said it, Luuukey.
Ill call you later, I said.
There was a pause, and she said, Im scared.
Dont be, I told her, and hung up.
The recruit came back into the parking lot carrying a couple of bright
yellow rain jackets. That all they had? I asked. The kid nodded.
Ill go see if I can dig up something warmer. Besides, theyre
too damn bright, I told him, and headed back into the building.
Wed need warmth out there tonight, even if it was just some blankets.
And if Miguel had gone home for his rifle than we probably needed one
of those too. Rogan hadnt really said much, so I figured Miguel
might have been the one that had come up with the inside info on what
was coming across the border tonight. Lately, Miguel had been talking
about retiring and we all knew he was looking for a promotion so he could
keep his son in college.
I stepped into the supply room and checked the shelves. The recruit was
right. The heavy coats were gone. I sat down on a bench and dialed Lupe
again. She picked up on the first ring.
What happened? I asked.
I thought we were going out to eat, but Miguel said he was on duty
and went to the garage to get his rifle.
Whats wrong with that?
It was the way he said it. Hed been drinking.
Go visit your Mom, Lupe. Youll feel better.
I never saw him like this. Full of booze.
Did you mention anything else?
You mean about the divorce? I didnt answer. No,
I havent told him yet.
Did you talk to the lawyer? She didnt answer. Ill
call you later, I said, and hung up.
Satterfield was waiting for me at the van. Want me to drive?
he asked. I nodded, threw the blankets in the back, jammed the rifle onto
the rack, and we took off.
In Yuma we border-cross all the time. Weve got borders
on three sides, and are always aware of it. We also have invisible
borders, and theyre the worst kind. Officer Miguel Cardenas
crossed an invisible line one warm evening when he saw a beautiful
young Mexican girl walking on the other side of the border. He made the
mistake of waving to her, and she made the even bigger mistake of waving
Officer Miguel Cardenas was more than twice her age, but he married her
anyway. And through that odd meeting across an actual border, a beautiful
young Mexican girl called, Lupe, crossed an invisible border
that lifted her out of a life of poverty and squalor.
A few years ago Miguel Cardenas turned sixty, but his wife still acted
and looked like she was in her twenties. They had crossed a real border
and an invisible one at the same time. And now, they were living with
Satterfield turned off the highway and we headed out between the mountains
where a flat makeshift road had formed from all the illegal traffic that
had gone through it over the years. The governments out of control
policy on immigration now demanded that the entire area be patrolled.
Senators and Congressmen showed up, border corruption was found, and prison
sentences handed down. Theyd estimated twelve million had come through
illegally, and that over two thousand had died from dehydration in the
unrelenting heat. Budgets climbed, more guys like me were hired, but they
still kept coming. Nothing seemed to work.
Ill show you where well set up, I yelled.
The sun was dropping fast and I wanted to find a spot where wed
be able to see out over the desert when that sliver of moon came up. I
looked eastward for Miguels patrol van but there was nothing in
sight but empty desert.
The kid and I were alone, and it felt like those uncertain moments in
the chute before the gate opened. Theyd lower me onto a ton of wild-eyed
bull, Id glance up to make sure the barrel man was ready, and set
myself for an insane eight seconds. The bull knew it too, and we both
waited for that gate to open so we could hurtle out across that line,
and for all Hell to break loose.
I saw the spot I was looking for up ahead and pointed toward a short rise
near the bottom of the mountain. Satterfield nodded and headed for it.
He saw the path, and pulled in next to a boulder where we could look out
on the desert floor below. It gave us a better view of whoever tried to
pass between the two mountains. We were at the bottom of a stark 3500-foot
monolith growing darker by the second in the fading light. I reached for
the phone and dialed command. A voice came on asking for our status.
This is tortilla west confirming arrival, I said.
You have been noted tortilla west. Hold position until further notice,
the two-way croaked, and shut off.
The darkness hit suddenly and itd be an hour before the slim moon
rose to let us see some of the desert below. I tried calling Lupe on the
cell phone but reception was dead because we were too close to the mountain
and out of contact with the rest of the world. All we could do was sit
and wait for all Hell to break loose.
The last thing I wanted when I crossed the Arizona border was to get involved
with a married woman. Id just got off a train-wreck-marriage that
had never left the station, and didnt plan on another ride to nowhere.
It started innocently at a get together that the cops
wives threw for new recruits who were about to join the Force, the Police
Benevolent Association, or anything else that smelled like a uniform.
The buffet table was stocked with enchiladas, corn bread and chili, cold
beer, chocolate cake, hot coffee...Lupe, and her husband, Officer Miguel
Lupe was spooning out the chili and enchiladas. She looked nervous and
unsure, and you couldnt help noticing her bright green-flecked eyes,
long black hair, and dangling silver earrings that seemed to whisper at
you when she moved. I noticed her flashy red dress under the full-length
apron she put on to work the buffet. Her freshness and quick beauty staggered
you, and sent you reeling to a neutral corner when the high polished diamond
ring flashed on her thin left hand. Miguel stood next to her giving orders,
and making sure the men behaved themselves.
Luke Ben-tone, she said, reading my nametag and pronouncing
it in her way.
The vaquero, eh? Miguel asked. Rogan said you ride the
I used to, I said. Thats all in the past now.
At least you have a past, he said, with a laugh.
Everyone has a past.
No, he said, leaning over the serving table. When these
people turn around to look for the past, theres nothing there.
I smiled into his angry flashing eyes and thinning gray hair. And
if you came here for a future, amigo, you came to the wrong place.
I nodded, picked up a Pepsi, took the plate of chili from Lupe, and headed
for the makeshift table that covered the foul line on Yumas High
School basketball court.
They had rushed us through a fast few weeks of desert training, and I
began to wonder if I looked as raw in my new uniform as the rest of the
recruits. None of us said much, just ate off the paper party plates and
waited for something to happen like wed been trained. One of the
gold badges sat down at the head of the table and welcomed us into the
program. I noticed Miguel watching with a blank expression on his face
as if hed been drinking, and Lupe standing next to him taking her
wedding ring on and off like a child not quite sure what to do with it.
The dull meal ended and the few officers that were there moved out to
start the new shift and Miguel went with them. I downed half my chocolate
cake and headed for the restroom with my unfinished cup of black coffee.
On the way, I caught the red dress bending over the water fountain. Shed
taken off the apron and turned to catch me looking at her. Vaquero,
you want more coffee, or something else? she asked. I nodded at
the restroom door, and she laughed. I dont think you like
my husband too much, eh?
I dont even know him, I answered in surprise.
Makes no difference. I could tell by your eyes. They give you away.
I didnt mean to give the impression-
Maybe you could tell me about your past, eh?
Just a lot of cows, horses, and bulls, I said, and she laughed
again. What about your past? I asked.
Im like the rest. I dont have any, she said. And
Miguel was right, I dont have any future either. I wasnt
expecting that and mustve looked surprised because she smiled. What
about you? she asked.
What about me?
Do you have a future?
I thought I did until just now, I said.
If youre looking for a future around here, I think youre
in the wrong town, she said, opened her purse, and began to write
with her eyeliner pencil on a crumpled piece of paper. I like cows
and horses, even bulls, she said, and handed me the piece of paper
when she finished.
That was the first time I met Lupe, and she didnt go away. She lingered
like a song that keeps playing over and over in your head, until I finally
gave up and called the number shed written on that crumbled piece
of paper. At that moment, I crossed an invisible border in
a border town, and I was in big trouble.
The phone buzzed and I picked it up. Tortilla West, I said,
expecting Rogans voice to come back at me.
Hey, Gringo. You finally got here. It was Miguel.
Que pasa? I asked.
Just wanted to make sure you were in position.
Whatve they got planned? I asked.
I dont know Senor. What have you got planned?
Nada, I said.
Sounds promising, he said, and hung up.
Billy Satterfield looked over, waiting for me to explain what had just
happened. That was Officer Cardenas on the east wing, checking to
make sure we were set for the operation, I told him, and got out
the field glasses.
Officer Cardenas doesnt say much, does he? It must be rough
for him being a Latino and a border guard at the same time. You know what
I mean? I nodded back at the kid. Now I guess we just sit
and wait, eh? he asked.
Thats about it, I said, and handed him the glasses so
he could look out into the darkness.
Theres something moving down there, but I cant make
it out. Probably coyote, he said.
Wont be able to see much until that thin-assed moon comes
up in half an hour. He handed me back the useless glasses, slipped
into one of the yellow raincoats, and sat on the edge of the open van.
Whoevers coming across the border tonight will use that little
bit of moonlight and hope we dont see them, I said.
Why dont they come across in the darkness and try to get by
us while theyve got the chance? the kid asked.
Either way the radar will pick them up if theyre in range.
Thats the way the tortilla chip works. Once theyre located
we move in and surround them. The kid nodded and I remembered how
Rogan had taught me the ropes. It was harder than it looked.
Two weeks before I had gone back to the motel where Lupe and I would meet.
A Motel 6 that sat back off South Street on the way to the airport. I
pulled my Mustang into one of the shady spots in the far corner, walked
past the long row of doors, and opened the last one with the key. There
was a faint smell of pine needles from the spray the maids used, and I
noticed a light in the bathroom.
Luukey, is that you? she called, and came into the room buttoning
She ran into my arms and I held her close for a moment. Itd been
weeks since we touched or even talked to each other. Her perfume drifted
through the room and it reminded me of all the other times wed been
there, and when she lifted her head I wanted to kiss her, but instead
I just muttered, Que pasa?
The last time we had been there was when we decided to end the affair
and go on with our boring lives without each other. Then she called and
asked if we could meet at the motel again. Her best friend was the manager
and had made the room available whenever we wanted it, as long as we left
before five with the rest of the hot sheet trade. I had kept the key and
told her Id meet her there.
I dont like this, Luuukey, she said. I didnt
think it would be like this. You want me to leave him and I want to leave
him and be with you. Its worse than ever. Hes drinking again.
I stepped back and sat on the bed. You know what this man gave me
for our first Christmas together? she asked. I shrugged. A
big box with fancy Christmas wrapping. Inside the big box was a small
box...and inside that was another tiny box with a shiny new Visa credit
card with my name on it. Lupe Cardenas
Couldve been worse, I said.
No, it couldnt, Luukey. I was only seventeen, and at the end
of every month he would sit down with me and go over the bill. It told
him everything. Where I went, how much I spent, and on what day I spent
it. That piece of plastic became my private prison. God forbid there were
blank days on the bill when I didnt go grocery shopping. Those were
the days hed ask where Id been. Who I was with? What was I
doing? I hated him for it and thought people were following me. And the
first time I saw you I knew what Id missed. What I really wanted.
It was those eyes of yours that tell me everything.
So you wrote down your number and gave it to me.
I was trying to find a past and a future at the same time, and wanted
to be out of his credit card prison. I had that cell phone for one week
when I met you at the buffet. I got it with the credit card. After twenty
years it was my way out, and I took it.
File for divorce, Lupe, I told her again.
Im afraid, Luuukey.
Its done every day.
Not by Latinos. My whole family would disown me. Especially if they
found out Id been with you. I crossed a line with him, and crossed
another line with you. You know what theyd say. Besides, you wont
even go to Church with me. It would make it easier-
You think the priest is going to take your side? No, Lupe. If you
really want out then you have to go all the way. She began to sob,
and I held her in my arms.
What am I going to do, Luukey? Help me.
Call the lawyer and mention my name. Hes a friend of mine.
Ill take care of whatever it costs. Youll be all right. After
you call him, go to your mothers and stay there until its
She wont let me stay with her.
Have you ever told her about the credit card? She shook her
head. Tell her now. Shell help you.
The AC came on and a cool breeze enveloped us and seemed to shake the
room. Lupes desperation had gotten worse since the last time Id
seen her, and it felt like wed come to the end of the road. I had
even offered to drive her to Tucson so she could see her son and explain
the situation to him. Wed gotten ourselves surrounded by borders,
and were lost somewhere between them. She looked up at me with tears in
her eyes and I kissed her.
The sliver of moon rose low in the east and turned the desert into clumps
of odd shadows that extended out beyond the rocks below. I tried to concentrate
on the darkness and put Lupe out of my head. The kid buttoned the yellow
raincoat against a sudden cool breeze and I looked south for a cloud of
dust that might tell us if anything was headed our way, but nothing on
the desert seemed to move. It was the time when desert predators caught
a quick meal after a long hot day under the sun.
The phone buzzed. Rogan was on the other end. Tortilla west...anything
Nothing, sir, I said, and he was gone.
Satterfield looked over at me and asked, How far away is tortilla
About a mile, depending on the terrain, I told him.
I better get the night-vision equipment, he said.
Theyre under the blankets...not much to see out there except
for the marijuana boys. They never stop. Marijuanas a quick sale
for them. When we catch them they just show up a few months later with
more of it.
But were waiting for something bigger tonight.
Thats about it, kid.
He nodded, and went to the back of the van to get the night vision equipment.
There was a sharp crack and two quick thuds, a flash of yellow, and the
kid was thrown down against the vans back wheel. The gunshot echoed
off the mountain, and I threw myself toward him. Hed been hit in
the shoulder and blood rushed across the yellow raincoat. I felt for his
pulse and he moaned.
I snaked back along the rocks and pulled the rifle down off the rack in
the van, loaded it, grabbed the other raincoat, and crept to the front
wheel. It would happen fast, if it happened at all.
I threw the yellow raincoat into the air and raised myself up at the same
time. Another crack came from the flats and the raincoat fell like a broken
bird. I caught the flash from the barrel, and fired directly at it.
After a few soundless seconds I crawled over to check the kid again. I
cradled the rifle and rolled back to the open van to call command. The
phone crackled, and I said, This is tortilla west. I have a man
What the hells going on? Rogan demanded.
Someone shot Satterfield, sir.
Is he dead?
Negative...but needs immediate attention.
Prepare for a copter arrival. Well be right there.
I crawled back out and peeked at the shot up raincoat Id thrown
in the air. Itd been shredded.
Edging back to the open van, I grabbed a couple of flares, reached under
the blankets for the night vision goggles, and went back to check the
kid again. By this time he was soaked in blood and I took off my belt
and tied it across his shoulder to make a tourniquet. He grunted in pain
as I dragged him up into the van.
I crawled across him and started the motor, edging back down the rise
with the headlights off, expecting a bullet at any moment. I slipped on
the night vision goggles but whoever had shot at us seemed to be gone
so I headed for a large open area, turned the emergency lights on, and
the van began to blink in a steady desperation.
Billy, I said to the kid. Keep talking to me,
but all he did was nod. Are you in pain? I asked.
Not much, he hissed. Just weak. Really weak.
Theyll be here soon.
I grabbed the flares and slid out, staying as low to the ground as I could.
Twenty yards away I lit a flare, crawled another twenty, and lit the other
one. I could hear the thump-thump of the copter through the reddish glow.
I stood up to look for its lights and give them a reading for the landing.
That was when I heard the crack and felt the jolt in my left shoulder
and down my neck. A warm, wet feeling ran across my body. I hit the ground
and bounced, and when I tried to get back up nothing happened.
The copter landed between the flares and two men jumped out. One of them
ran to the perimeter of reddish light and the other hung in close.
What have you got, Sergeant? he yelled.
Two officers down over here, Rogan yelled back. One
is hit in the arm and has a tourniquet. The other has a head wound and
is holding a weapon. Both vans are in the vicinity.
Lets get the two wounded into the copter. This Officer in
the perimeter is dead. He mustve been shot when he lit the flares.
Well take his body back with us.
Are all these your men, Rogan?
Jesus, what a fucking mess. For some goddamned reason all Hell broke
loose out here.
The deceased is the cowboy that called this in, sir.
It doesnt look like he has much of a future now.
Im putting you in charge, Rogan. I want an investigation started
first thing in the morning. Something tells me that if another one of
these men dies on us well never know what the hell really happened
out here tonight.
The copter lifted off the desert, turned in a wide circle, and disappeared
into the night. The two men walked back into the darkness to get the vans
and head for Yuma.