Short Story by J.S. Kierland

It happened in an off-life year of mine when I crossed the California border one morning with a patrol car in my rearview mirror. I’d 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; I’d rolled in from California with the border patrol in my rearview mirror.
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 wasn’t 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 that’s considered “internationally complicated.” What’s more, you’re Luke Benton. I should’ve recognized you, but I didn’t.”
“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. Impressive.”
“Lord knows I tried. Any work around here for ex-cowboys an bull riders?” I asked, and figured he’d shake his head and walk away, but he didn’t.
“You quit riding?”
“Yeah, not much in it these days except more pain. I’m 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.”
“Politics, eh?”
“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. I’d 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 didn’t 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.” I’d been assigned the operation’s 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 night’s operation like this usually involved headquarters, and the gold badges must’ve 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 didn’t give him any. “He’s already on his way out so take what you need, set up, and make radio contact. Tortilla chip is still the code. The new recruit’s 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. “I’m Billy Satterfield, sir. Nice to meet you.”
“Good to meet you, Billy,” I said, and we shook hands.
“I’ve been looking forward to working with you, sir.”
“You can start by checking out a couple of heavy jackets. We’ll probably need them tonight. Just sign my name. I’ll inspect the car and get it ready.”
“I just filled it, sir, and checked the tires. The rest looks pretty good too.”
“Great. Then let’s 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 hadn’t talked to her in weeks.
“Luuukey?” she said, in that slight accent.
“If you’re 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.
“We’re both on assignment tonight.”
“He told me. But it was the way he said it, Luuukey.”
“I’ll call you later,” I said.
There was a pause, and she said, “I’m scared.”
“Don’t 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. “I’ll go see if I can dig up something warmer. Besides, they’re too damn bright,” I told him, and headed back into the building. We’d 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 hadn’t 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.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“It was the way he said it. He’d been drinking.”
“Go visit your Mom, Lupe. You’ll feel better.”
“I never saw him like this. Full of booze.”
“Did you mention anything else?”
“You mean about the divorce?” I didn’t answer. “No, I haven’t told him yet.”
“Did you talk to the lawyer?” She didn’t answer. “I’ll 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. We’ve got borders on three sides, and are always aware of it. We also have “invisible borders,” and they’re 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 back.
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 it.

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 government’s 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. They’d 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.
“I’ll show you where we’ll set up,” I yelled.
The sun was dropping fast and I wanted to find a spot where we’d be able to see out over the desert when that sliver of moon came up. I looked eastward for Miguel’s 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. They’d lower me onto a ton of wild-eyed bull, I’d 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 it’d 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. I’d just got off a train-wreck-marriage that had never left the station, and didn’t plan on another ride to nowhere.
It started innocently at a “get together” that the cop’s 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 Cardenas.
Lupe was spooning out the chili and enchiladas. She looked nervous and unsure, and you couldn’t 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 bulls?”
“I used to,” I said. “That’s 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, there’s 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 Yuma’s 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 we’d 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 he’d 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. She’d 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 don’t think you like my husband too much, eh?”
“I don’t even know him,” I answered in surprise.
“Makes no difference. I could tell by your eyes. They give you away.”
“I didn’t 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.
“I’m like the rest. I don’t have any,” she said. “And Miguel was right, I don’t have any future either.” I wasn’t expecting that and must’ve 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 you’re looking for a future around here, I think you’re 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 didn’t 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 she’d 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 Rogan’s 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.”
“What’ve they got planned?” I asked.
“I don’t 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 doesn’t 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.
“That’s about it,” I said, and handed him the glasses so he could look out into the darkness.
“There’s something moving down there, but I can’t make it out. Probably coyote,” he said.
“Won’t 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. “Whoever’s coming across the border tonight will use that little bit of moonlight and hope we don’t see them,” I said.
“Why don’t they come across in the darkness and try to get by us while they’ve got the chance?” the kid asked.
“Either way the radar will pick them up if they’re in range. That’s the way the tortilla chip works. Once they’re 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 her blouse.
She ran into my arms and I held her close for a moment. It’d 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 we’d 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 I’d meet her there.
“I don’t like this, Luuukey,” she said. “I didn’t think it would be like this. You want me to leave him and I want to leave him and be with you. It’s worse than ever. He’s 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”
“Could’ve been worse,” I said.
“No, it couldn’t, 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 didn’t go grocery shopping. Those were the days he’d ask where I’d 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 I’d 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.
“I’m afraid, Luuukey.”
“It’s done every day.”
“Not by Latinos. My whole family would disown me. Especially if they found out I’d been with you. I crossed a line with him, and crossed another line with you. You know what they’d say. Besides, you won’t 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. He’s a friend of mine. I’ll take care of whatever it costs. You’ll be all right. After you call him, go to your mother’s and stay there until it’s over.”
“She won’t let me stay with her.”
“Have you ever told her about the credit card?” She shook her head. “Tell her now. She’ll help you.”
The AC came on and a cool breeze enveloped us and seemed to shake the room. Lupe’s desperation had gotten worse since the last time I’d seen her, and it felt like we’d 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. We’d 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 to report?”
“Nothing, sir,” I said, and he was gone.
Satterfield looked over at me and asked, “How far away is tortilla east?”
“About a mile, depending on the terrain,” I told him.
“I better get the night-vision equipment,” he said.
“They’re under the blankets...not much to see out there except for the marijuana boys. They never stop. Marijuana’s a quick sale for them. When we catch them they just show up a few months later with more of it.”
“But we’re waiting for something bigger tonight.”
“That’s 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 van’s back wheel. The gunshot echoed off the mountain, and I threw myself toward him. He’d 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 down.”
“What the hell’s going on?” Rogan demanded.
“Someone shot Satterfield, sir.”
“Is he dead?”
“Negative...but needs immediate attention.”
“Prepare for a copter arrival. We’ll be right there.”
I crawled back out and peeked at the shot up raincoat I’d thrown in the air. It’d 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.”
“They’ll 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.”
“Let’s get the two wounded into the copter. This Officer in the perimeter is dead. He must’ve been shot when he lit the flares. We’ll take his body back with us.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Are all these your men, Rogan?”
“Yes, sir.”
“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 doesn’t look like he has much of a future now.”
“No, sir.”
“I’m 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 we’ll 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.