Crossing Excerpt: Chapter One

                 


    The men were all there.  We had been told that we were

to meet at nightfall, near the railroad stop at the

slaughterhouse in Monterrey.  They were in a field.  I walked

toward them, stepping through the brush and around the

small Mesquite trees that crowded the stretch of land.


    There were thirteen, besides me.  Many of them looked

like criminals. They were dirty, seeming to me the kind of

men that stayed at the cantinas all night drinking and

causing trouble.  I did not want to talk to them, so I sat

far away, watching.  They did not act like ruffians,  They

were very quiet; some sat on the ground, a few even slept.

Two men, the two I later knew as Alejandro and Pablo, stood

under a small tree whispering. They seemed to be the only

men speaking.  I tried to listen to what they said but could

not make it out.


    One of them was tall and well-built.  I could see that

he had been a farmer or even a rancher.  He wore a straw

cowboy hat.  On his belt I could faintly make out the name

Alejandro.  The other man was shorter, but looked even

stronger than his friend.  He was dark, with a thin mustache

and small ears.  His hair was slicked back and he had a

habit of spitting constantly.  I heard Alejandro call him

Pablo. It was then that I noticed the old man.


     He sat alone, like me, far from the rest of the men.  I

could not make out his face, but in the dim light I could see that he had only half of a right hand.


    When Rosales got there he took our money and told us

that we were to be silent until we got off the train.  He

had three men with him, one of them wearing a uniform of a

federal. I don't know if he was really one or not.  I didn't think that a federal would get himself mixed up in such

a thing as this.  Rosales came toward me to take my money.

He told me it would be a difficult journey.


     "You will not like the train, boy.  It gets very

difficult.  Hot.  Men get ill-tempered.  You see that old

one over there."  He pointed to the man with the mutilated

hand.  "He is too old. He will probably die.  Does that

scare you.  To know that you will have to ride in the boxcar

with a dead man?"


     "No," I said, "I have seen dead men before, in my

village."


     "Well, we shall see.  You are young. How old are you anyway?"


"I will be seventeen at the end of the year," I told him fearing that he would think me too young for the trip.


"Well, you look strong. I think you helped your father on a farm."  He smiled, exposing a mossy set of teeth. "Your shoulders are broad. You will be able to carry large sacks of fruit and such.  I think you will make it very well."  He stroked my shoulder.  I drew back.  "Then again I do not know for certain.  Stronger men than you have failed to survive the trip.  Many have gone mad in the darkness, or with the thirst.  How you comport yourself within those walls means everything.  You are going back to the womb." He smiled again, this time with anger in his eyes.   "You must pay me now, just in case."


     I handed him two hundred thousand pesos, which he took

without counting.


     "The rest you work off.  It won't take a strong boy

like you very long.  Now remember, when you get into the box, don't make noise.  You must all be silent."  He smiled again.  "You do want to go to Texas, right?"  He then collected the rest of the money from the other men, and after telling one of his men something privately he left.


    For the next hour or so we walked. I did not know where

we were. I thought of my mother as we walked.  She had

begged me not to leave.  The night before I left, she had

cried.  "You don't have to leave, mijo.  I want my

handsome boy here."


    She held my face in her hands and for a minute I knew

that I should not leave.  I weakened.  "I know, mama.  I'll

stay.  I won't go.  I won't go."  But as the words left my

mouth I hated her.  I felt like throwing her hands from my

cheeks and running.


    Her face brightened at my surrender.  "I knew my boy

would not leave me alone," she said.  "Since your birth I

knew that you would always be here for me.  You are my

handsome, dark boy.  Every day you look more like your

father."  She ran her fingers over my hair.


    I left that night after she fell asleep.  I had to go.

Ever since my friend Jorge had told me of a man who would

provide a job and transportation in Texas, I had begun to

save and plan.


     "Yes, Luis, we'll go together.  This man told me that

in Texas we can go on the piscas.  We pick cotton in Texas.

Then we go to California for grapes.  In Michigan we pick

tomatoes.  He told me that in Texas there's a lot of gente.  'If you get into trouble, there's always someone to ask for help.  Every one of those Texas towns had a barrio.  All you gotta do is walk around till you find it.'  He says that when he was there he was young and stupid like us and that he found friends who showed him where to go and what to say to get work.  My tio, he's never gone, but he also has friends who've made the trip and they said Texas was the best place to start.  We'll find a place to live, maybe we can even get one or two other men to live with us.  That way we can afford to send more money home.  We'll learn Inglés like that cabrón Ernesto who went to California a few years ago.  We'll go, right?"


     I agreed readily.  Even though we disliked Ernesto, it was an opinion rooted in envy.  He had gone to the U.S. early and found work as a machinist.  He sent money home and his sisters would sneak to see him as well, always coming back with good clothes and enough money so that their parents wouldn't have to work as hard.  Ernesto had come back two years before, wearing a golden wristwatch and spectacles which looked expensive.  He told everyone that he had his own automobile in Los Angeles, describing the highways and the tall buildings.  When one of the old men told him that Los Angeles sounded like Mexico City, he laughed.  'It's nothing like Mexico City.  In "Elay" everything works right.  You don't have a bunch of kids hanging off of the back of every bus.  The cops there keep order.  It's true they don't like Mexicans or blacks, but things are orderly.  You can get anything to eat, any time of night or day.  They have movie theatres everywhere and you can choose from dozens of flicks.  That's what they call them there.  You can even watch the corny Mexican stuff if you want."  Ese cabrón se cree muy americano, went the gossip around our village.  That didn't deter us.  From then on, Jorge and I began to plan our own move norte. But in the end it had been just me.


Jorge came over the morning that I left.  He couldn't say what he wanted.  He wanted to say that he was ashamed and

that he knew he was a coward.  But he only wished me luck.

He tried to give me a few pesos but I turned them down.


     "Look Luis, take them.  You pay me back when you start

making money in Texas."


     "I won't need pesos in Texas.  They  don't take those

there. There they have real money.  There you get paid and

you get paid American money."


     I refused to use his name.  When he said goodbye, I

nodded but didn't shake his hand.  He left.  I felt sorry

for him because I knew that he would never leave this little

village, and I was going.


                          * * *


    Soon I could smell the sweet-rotted stench of the

stockyard and knew that we were near the place where the

train would pick us up.  When we were in sight of the

tracks, the man dressed like a federal told us to stay

back.


    Within a few minutes a train pulled into the stockyard.

The train was very long.  I could not see the end of it.  It

seemed to stretch endlessly into the darkness.  The federal

waited for a few minutes until a man who had been in the

train got off.  He stood there until the federal went to

him.  They talked for a few seconds and then the man got

back on the train.  I became scared that something had gone

wrong and that we would not be going after all.  But then

the federal waved to the two men who were still guarding

us.


    "Shut your mouths and follow us," one said.  They led us

to one of the cars towards the end of the train.  It was a

large wooden boxcar.  They unlocked the large door, sliding it open noisily.  The screech made us hover around its mouth nervously.


    "Pendejo," cried the larger of the two men.  "Do you

want someone to hear?"  He then turned toward us.  "Hurry up you idiots.  And remember you all have to keep your mouths shut."


    As the men started to enter the car, the one that had led us to the train told Pablo and Alejandro to stay back. He took them aside, explaining something to them in quiet tones. Neither of them said anything in reply, although they nodded often.


    As I approached the entrance I leaned forward, trying

to glimpse inside the chamber in which I would ride to my

freedom. The old man stood behind me.


    "You seem very anxious to enter," he said.  "Don't get too excited now, I think you may be in much more of a hurry to get out by the time its over."


    I did not say anything.  I only craned my head farther

so as to see the interior before I entered.  A lightpost

nearly one-hundred yards away, hanging in front of a

tool shed, threw a dim light with which I could see inside.


    "It's not such a bad idea to look now," the old man

said.  "You won't see anything once they close those

doors."


    The chamber was cast in shadow, but I could make out a

haystack in the center of the floor.  In one of the corners

stood a small metal barrel.  I could not see if there was

anything inside it.


    The man in front of me climbed up into the cart.  I

stood in front of the door for a moment, unsure.


    "Andale," someone snarled from behind me.  I slowly

lifted my knee onto the floorboard of the train car.


    "Go on," the old man said, this time gently.  He put his

hand under my arm as if to lift me up.


    I pulled away roughly.


    "I can do it myself," I said, and then I jumped quickly

inside.  The floor was made of old unpainted wood.  It

creaked as I made my way to the farthest corner.  I threw my

bedroll down, but did not unroll it.  I sat on it instead

and leaned against the wall.  It was also made of rough,

splintered wood.  It had been painted, but long ago.  The

paint had come away in large strips exposing ancient planks.


    The old man sat down against the same wall, about ten

yards away.  The rest of the men entered and took their

places.  They sat as far away from each other as possible

unless they had come together, so that all four walls had

men leaning or sitting against them.


    "This barrel has water in it," said a long-haired man

tapping the barrel with his finger.


    "Leave that alone," said Pablo climbing into the boxcar.

Alejandro followed him inside.  "That is for later.  I will

tell you."  The long-haired man pulled his hand away from

the barrel and sat down without a word.


     After everyone was in the car, Rosales's men slid the

door shut from the outside.  We all listened as they they

latched and then padlocked it.  The click of the padlock

echoed in the darkness.