GUTIERREZ WAS pointing to a much-used Pemex road map spread over an up-ended wooden crate. He said, "Now, pay attention. You will cross here late tonight. I will already have gone through customs and immigration. Look closely. Right here."
The heavy finger was at a place in California opposite the Mexican border town of Tecate.
Jose glanced over at the stranger from San Diego. He was a stocky man about forty. A pocho, an American of Mexican descent. He was speaking in Spanish because Jose understood very little English.
Jose nodded, but his legs suddenly felt weak. It was the same old problem. He knew he should be excited, but all he felt was fear.
Gutierrez went on as if he did this several times a week. "You'll ride in the trunk of my car until we are far away from the border. Many people make the mistake of traveling the big highway, and they are caught here at the checkpoint near Oceanside." The thick finger tapped again.
Jose thought about men in uniform holding a flashlight to his face; a ride to jail in a patrol car.
"We won't do that," Gutierrez said. "We'll go on the back roads. East to Jacumba, then north again up through Pine Valley, here by Escondido, taking a dirt road to skirt another roadblock, then on to Elsinore, and finally back on the main road here at San Juan Capistrano."
With the exception of that last place, where there was a famous mission, Jose had never heard of any of them. He studied the map and tried to make his voice deeper, more manly. "Is this the best way?"
Gutierrez nodded and removed his glasses, tucking them into his shirt pocket. He smelled of hair tonic. "Yes, Jose. Your father agreed. We'll pick him up in Oxnard tomorrow. All the arrangements have been made."
Jose wondered what the arrangements were; where Oxnard was. He wished he'd been able to talk to his father, though not much would have resulted.
"Except that you are skinny, you don't look like your father. You don't have his height," Gutierrez commented.
That was true.
Over six feet tall, Hector Maldonado Alvarez had very little meat on him. When he had his shirt off and was lifting something heavy, his ribs projected like steel rims. His face was sharp and bony, like his wrists. It was a mellow red-brown. He had told Jose that their blood was Spanish and Indian.
Jose was short, wiry, black-haired. His large, soft eyes were unlike those of his father. They were his mother's eyes. Long lashed.
Slightly embarrassed, and not knowing what else to say, Jose answered simply, "No, I do not." He reached down to scrub Sanchez's thick neck.
The big mongrel had been watching Gutierrez from the moment the old car had driven up. He was splotched black and brown and had one discolored eye. It was greenish. His coat was like a matted, worn shag rug. His head seemed oversized for his body, the nose flat like a cow's. His tail had been accidentally mashed off midway, so that it was neither long nor short. It looked strange, especially because hair refused to grow on the last inch of it. There was nothing there but gray skin.
Gutierrez shifted on his sandals. "The money," he said. "Half now."
For a moment, Jose thought about what to do. Then he said, "Go outside, please, señor."
Gutierrez laughed. "I am doing your father a favor. Don't be suspicious of me, boy." But he shrugged and waddled out into the sunlight.
Jose dragged the empty box to the rear of the room and stood up on it, feeling along the top of the beam beneath the tile roof for the stack of bills. He had counted them a dozen times. The other half of the smuggling fee, payable after Gutierrez delivered Jose to his father and then took them on somewhere else, was buried outside in a coffee can.
Dropping down off the box, he counted it once again and then joined Gutierrez in the yard.
The pocho was smiling, and Jose felt silly. After all, the money was for Gutierrez; his father had placed confidence in him. "Seventy-five dollars, American. Count it."
Gutierrez chuckled. "I don't need to. I'm sure you've done it fifty times."
Jose finally laughed. "A dozen, at least."
"How old are you?" Gutierrez asked, cramming the bills into his wallet.
"Twelve." He'd rather have been eight or six or five again.
Gutierrez nodded. "You've been here alone? How long?"
Jose shook his head unconcernedly. "I have Sanchez. I've been quite safe. I haven't even thought about it." That was a lie. He'd spent many nights on the straw matting, his throat tight, listening to every sound. Finally falling asleep, one hand dug into Sanchez's fur.
Gutierrez smiled, glancing at the mammoth dog. Then his face became serious. "Don't panic tonight. Maldonado said to tell you to keep your guts. Immigration would lock me up and throw away the key if they caught me with a child."
Momentarily resenting being called a child, Jose said, "I will try not to panic." There was that word again. Try. His stomach ticked at the thoughts of immigration, la migra.
"Good." Gutierrez turned and went over to the dusty Chevrolet. The starter ground as if it had a bellyache; then the engine caught and revved. "This time tomorrow, we'll be far past Los Angeles," he called out cheerfully.
Keep his guts! It sounded so easy.
Gutierrez waved and headed back up the bumpy dirt road toward Baja No. 1, the rolling blacktop that stretched from Tijuana south to Colonia Guerrero, a few miles below Cabo Colnett, the great blunt-headed cape. The pavement ended there. Beyond that there was little but wilderness all the way to Cabo San Lucas, at the tip of the peninsula.
Jose watched the car with U.S. plates bounce and rock around the bend, disappearing in a rattling plume of dust. He stood a moment longer and let the quietness of the land descend on him. Finally, shivering involuntarily, he went back into the house.
The neat adobe showed only traces of people having once lived in it. A calendar. Hooks where his mother had hung pots. Several oblongs where she'd hung photographs of her family. Pegs that once held clothes. Smoke stains on beams from lanterns. Lifetime scars of three people.
Jose had sold off practically everything to get the money for Gutierrez: the chickens, the goat, the cow, a pig, the old horse, several hand plows and some tools; the heavy rowboat, and a few pieces of furniture. It had been a responsibility that had caused him to vomit one morning. Was he getting enough for them? Would his father be pleased?
Their friend Enrique had borrowed a pickup and they'd taken the few things Maldonado said he wanted to keep, mostly things that had belonged to Jose's mother, over to the cousin at Camalu, down the road. Someday, Jose hoped, they'd return for them.
Now, with all the animals except Sanchez gone, the place seemed abandoned already. There had often been laughter here, especially while his mother was alive, and smells of pork and beef and chicken and fish cooked with lime and salt. Only Sunday past, neighbors and relatives had brought food and tequila and beer to wish him safety and good luck. Everyone was in good spirits. Some of the men got drunk; the women talked; the children played. Jose had felt very important, though he knew it was really a tribute to his father.
Maldonado was much admired around Colnett. If there was trouble out by the cape, everyone ran for Maldonado. Truck stuck in the winter mud; cow sick; two neighbors feuding; outboard motor busted. Call for Maldonado. They missed him, Jose knew.
THE LAST NINE MONTHS had been hard ones. In January, Jose's mother had died in Del Carmen hospital in Ensenada. She'd been ill with cancer for a long time. The doctor said there was no cure.
They'd buried her up by Baj...