It was daybreak and the rancher, standing at his kitchen window, watched two silhouettes stagger forward through the desert scrub. One clutched the other but they both seemed hurt. The porch light, the rancher thought, that's the thing they been walking toward all night. See it for miles. All the way from the footpaths snaking through the mountains out of Mexico.
Rooster lurched at the end of his chain, hackles up, that snarl in his bark, trying to warn the strangers off. They just kept coming. All right then, he thought. Not like you wanted this. He set his coffee in the sink and went to the door leading out to the porch and collected the shotgun kept there, racked a shell into the chamber, stepped outside.
Streamers of winter cloud laced the sky, pale to the east, purplish dark to the west. A cold parched wind keened in the telephone wires. The landscape bristled with nopal, saguaro, cholla. Black ancient ironwood cropped up here and there among the mesquite and Joshua trees.
Before he could close the door behind him, his wife called his name. She eased forward unsteadily out of the hallway shadow, robe cinched tight. The gaunt face, once framed with steel—gray hair pulled back and braided into a rope, now seemed all the more stark with her pallor and the stubbled baldness. The treatments were savaging her bone marrow too. He wondered sometimes whether the cure wasn't worse than the disease—wondered as well whether he'd be anywhere near as brave when his time came.
Where does the promise go when it leaves you, he wondered. He wished the years had made them calm and strong and wise, but here they were, her sick, him afraid, trying to protect each other—their stake owned free and clear but now little more than a borderland throughway, shadows scurrying past the house at night, sometimes trying the door, shattering a window, hoping for shelter or water or food. Same problem everywhere: the Stanhope girl—raped last spring. Old woman Hobbes—robbed at knifepoint, truck stolen, the fridge ransacked and the house turned upside down for cash before the culprits scurried off, leaving her tied up in her garage. Enough, everybody said. Things're only getting worse across the border. We'll form patrols. We'll make an example out of every goddamn tonk we catch.
But there's more to "enough" than the saying of it, too much terrain to patrol and too many who still slip through to make an example mean anything. Ask the two lurching forward. The promise hadn't left them just yet. It was as simple as a steady light glowing at the foot of a mountain pass with the black desert floor beyond. He felt the pump gun's weight in his hands, a commensurate weight on his soul. It was that second burden that haunted him.
"They don't look too good," she told him, feeling her way forward, hand to the wall.
He met her eyes. "They do that sometimes."
"Is that how we think now?"
"Not because we want to. Remember that part."
He turned away and marched across the porch onto the hardpan, telling the dog to be still. The two figures—the one being dragged, on closer inspection, appeared to be female—staggered past a line of cholla with their huge bulbs of barbed spikes. God only knows what they suffered in the night, he thought: sidewinders, rattlers, scorpions. Thieves. But pity won't help. Pity's the problem.
As they came within twenty yards he saw it, stuffed into the man's pants. A pistol. It happened of its own accord then—shotgun raised, tight to the shoulder, barrel aimed straight at the armed man's midriff.
"¡Alto! Tengo una escopeta. Esta es propiedad privada."
It was half the Spanish he knew—Stop, I have a shotgun. This is private property—but he might as well have shouted it to the wind. The man just kept coming, one of the woman's arms hooked across his shoulder. The other hung limp at her side. Her steps were ragged, she looked barely conscious. The rancher felt his finger coil tight around the trigger.
"I said stop! Alto, damn it. Won't say it again. Next thing I do is shoot."
As though rousted from a terrible dream, the stranger glanced up, still shuffling his feet, dragging the woman.
From behind: "He's barely more than a boy."
"Stay in the house!" The guilt and fear, knowing she was right—knowing too that he was all that stood between them and her—it quickened into rage and the impulse quivered down his arm into his hand.
Then the young half—dead stranger with the pistol called out in a dust—dry voice, his wrds a challenge and a plea and a cry of recognition all in one. "Don't shoot! Help us . . . please . . . I'm an American . . ."
The rancher tucked the gun butt tighter into the clenched muscle and aching bone of his shoulder. Don't believe him, he told himself. Don't believe one damn word.
© David Corbett