Maria rode in darkness, crammed between a wheezing old man and a woman with two small children. The cargo area of the panel van was stuffed with overheated bodies, all wanting a new life in the States. It was blistering hot and the stench of sweat, body odor and exhaust was overwhelming. The Coyote Ramirez told the group the ride would take three hours, then it was just a short hike through the scrub brush to reach the border fence. He demanded five thousand dollars each for the trip, no exceptions.
Maria had worked hard to get the money, selling everything including her dignity for this chance. All those nights pinned under tequila soaked men, groping her with their work calloused hands. She never once regretted the decision. It had to be done. The sacrifice for freedom.
The van lurched through a ditch and stopped. After a long pause, the cargo door ratcheted up letting in the blazing sunlight. The occupants slowly poured out into the open desert, stretching their legs and rubbing their eyes. Ramirez stood by a narrow path winding through the low vegetation.
“Everyone pay attention. This is the way. You must go two at a time, spaced out every five minutes. Stay low and conserve your water. Remember, La Migra is watching.”
The driver of the van, a bearded man in a cowboy hat, passed out small bottles of water to each person as they paired up and started down the path. Maria noticed he had a large wood handled pistol tucked in his belt. She moved to the back of the group, staying in the shade of the van.
Within an hour the crowd thinned out and the last pair of young men prepared to leave. The Coyote yelled at Maria.
“You, chica, go with these two. Time’s up.”
Maria took a deep breath. This was it, what she had been waiting for. Her dream. She closed her eyes and thought of her mother, tears began to flow down her cheeks. The bearded man held out the last bottle of water as she approached. Maria reached out, but instead of taking the water she darted forward and pulled the gun from his belt. She shot him in the chest before he could speak.
Ramirez bolted for the van at the sound of the gunshot, but stopped on his heels when Maria fired a round into the side panel near his head.
“What the fuck are you doing puta?”
“Get in the back.” She said.
“What? I delivered my end of the deal. I got you here.”
“Get in the back of the van or I will kill you right now.” She screamed. Her voice sounded shrill in the thin desert air.
Ramirez looked at the bearded man’s body bleeding into the cracked dirt and walked slowly to the rear of the van, his hands up like he was being arrested.
“You are making a big mistake puta.”
Maria fired the pistol at the ground near the Coyote’s feet kicking up orange dust on his boots.
“Get in. All the way to the back.”
Ramirez climbed slowly into the van and walked to the rear. He sat down with his back against the wall and took off his hat. Maria jumped up on the bumper and grabbed the roll door’s rope handle.
“Two years ago, my mother gave you three thousand dollars to take her over the border. You took her money and left her and the others locked in that tractor-trailer. You let them die like dogs. Do you remember?”
Ramirez sat perfectly still with his hands in his lap.
“This is a risky business puta. Things happen. If its money you want I can…”
“I couldn’t go with her because I was too sick to travel. It’s the only reason I’m still alive. But I’m here now Coyote. You know, I prayed for you every night. I prayed that you wouldn’t get caught by La Migra. I prayed I would find you, and I saved my money and dreamt of this day.”
Ramirez stared at the gun, sweat pouring down his stony face. When Maria started to lower the door, he jumped to his feet and lunged at her. She was just able to get the latch closed before his weight slammed into it.
Maria walked down the narrow path toward her freedom sipping from a bottle of water. She could hear the Coyote’s screams and the drumming sounds of his fists beating on the walls of the van behind her. She thought of her mother again, but this time there were no tears.