As the train ground to a halt, fearsome looking men surrounded the train, shouting orders and wielding an excessive amount of automatic weaponry. Tom was rounded up with the rest of the passengers as they were separated into groups. Tom tried to not draw attention to himself, even taking off his mask, but try as he might, he could not blend in with the other migrants on the train. Soon he was padded down, frisked and robbed of the cash he was carrying, and bound with his hands behind his back.
He was marched down a rugged path into the woods along with a group of about ten other frightened wretches, to a clearing in the trees where they were ordered to sit. One especially hostile gangster slammed the butt of his rifle into Tom's shoulders for good measure. Tom collapsed and lost consciousness.
When Tom returned to his senses, he looked around at his little group of unfortunate souls that had been divided off from the others and was being kept under guard by the constant watchful eye of many of the Zetas and their soldiers. Tom looked over to one of the young girls, Claudeth, to ask what was happening.
At first she just buried her face in her hands, but finally she told him that they were being separated into groups, some were to be forced to work in the drug fields; others were being recruited as drug mules; while still others were being drafted as gunslingers, or soldiers to take the most dangerous jobs. "I wonder which is the disagreeable occupation for which our lucky group has been selected."
Old and mouldy tortillas were distributed among the prisoners, along with some pongy water. Tom refused to eat, and when commanded to by the guard, he responded by throwing up on the ground. Soon, he had garnered the unwelcome attention of the gang members. As they examined him, they started discussing amongst themselves what they should do with him.
"Look at this gringo. He's sick and weak. He's already full of parasites."
"Leave him to die. He's not good for anything."
"¿A poco? Of course he's good for something. We'll get his contact information and then demand a ransom for this gringo. When we have an address we'll send them a finger so that they know we're not playing. There's no doubt that this bag of bones is worth a ton of money."
After this exchange, the first one who spoke and seemed to think that Tom had a bacteria, kneeled down and looked into his eyes and poked his skin. Tom felt like he was cattle on the auction block, while the third gangster and one who seemed to be in charge, looked on with a cold, black look.
"Look, Arturo," he said to the leader, "he's got a fever and he doesn't eat. You know what that means."
"Ramses, I'm not a fortune teller."
"What I'm trying to say is that we should move him to the house, so that we can keep him alive until we receive the ransom."
"I guess that would be fine if he really is fixing to die."
"¡Oh sí! Eso sí."
"He looks really bad so, put him wherever you want. And keep the rest of this pathetic group with him."
Soon Tom was dragged, along with the rest of his companions to a rotted and busted down house that was inexplicably managing to support a roof. But it still had four walls, leaning as they were, that managed to keep out the wind and the sun.
In the house, Tom slept a lot, and began to feel somewhat recovered, while he also had the opportunity to observe the Zetas in their comings and goings. They were unsurprisingly a rough bunch of characters, inhabiting one of the most violent and cruel worlds known to man. Some of them were former Mexican military and Special Forces, even having been trained by the CIA to fight the war on drugs before throwing their lot in with the cartels. But after a couple of days in these circumstances, Tom realized he did not wholly agree with Elias' assessment that anyone associated with a drug cartel deserved the gibbet. Tom believed that no class of men is altogether bad, for each has its own faults and virtues; and these narcos were no exception to this rule. They were rough and were willing to resort to depraved brutality; but there were visible glimmers of their virtues. Some of them displayed kindness, especially to women that were of the age that could their mothers; and most were simple, coming from poor backgrounds with little education.
There was one man named Hector, who looked like he could have been in his sixties, and for some reason took a liking to Tom. He would actively seek out opportunities to talk and regale him with his life story. He had been a drug smuggler for the Sinaloa cartel for many years, and was not what you might expect a hardened narco to look like. But despite his grandfatherly aspect, he was the real thing. In total, he had been a narcotraficante for more than fifty years. His father had been a typical poor farmer, growing corn and beans, just like the majority of farmers in Central America, but then, when Hector was in his teens, he started growing marijuana and smuggling his crop into the US, where he could get a much higher price.
He said that he survived all this time by being smart, and keeping a little shop as his alibi. He made a lot of money over the years, but now what he valued more than anything is that he can live out in the open and not hide who he was.
He talked of his regrets, including the loss of his son, who was killed carrying on the family business. "I am a pioneer in this business, but the business has changed. The people have changed. There's no respect, no nobility, no friendship. And there is no hope. Before if you owed somebody, your word was good. Nowadays, they will kill you if you don't pay right away. This is because of los sicarios that protect the money and the drug shipments, guard the cartel's territory, and are sent out for assassinations. This is not how it was before."
Omar, the young guy from El Salvador, had been pressed into service by the gangsters as an errand boy, and soon was the unfortunate recipient of the cruellest of treatments. One day he came into the house to distribute the daily ration of tortillas while nursing a bruised limb in silent agony. At first he resisted complaining but after some slight prodding on the parts of Tom and Maira, Omar was raving against the cruelty of Francisco, his chief tormentor, who went by the nickname 'Pancho.'
Tom felt something die inside of him as he heard Omar's accounts of abuse, made all the more painful to digest with the recognition that he no was longer capable of superhuman feats that he so badly wanted to use to right these wrongs. The sheer powerlessness that he felt in the face of these miscarriages of justice made Tom feel very low indeed.
He soon observed the irony of the personality of the gangsters tasked with guarding them. Pancho was lieutenant to Arturo, the captain, and was a seasoned and capable soldier; and a bona fide demon when drunk. Indeed there was a peculiarity with the two main men to Arturo; Ramirez, or 'Ramses' was a mean, son-of-a-bitch when he was sober, and Pancho would not hurt a fly except when he was drinking. Apparently Arturo was the same heartless scoundrel with drink or no.
Tom tried to give moral support to Omar, but there was little reason to be optimistic and Tom was beginning to despair himself of any possibility of hope. He was left with less than a week in the diagnosis of how long Mariah was expected to live, and indeed he had had no communication with her. How he could possibly get to her in time to perform the heart surgery to save her life was beyond his imagination.
In a moment of desperation, and inconceivably finding himself with Pancho in a favourable stage of drink (for he indeed only was in the mood for conversation after having one shot but only up to that point of drunkenness), and while pledging him to secrecy, Tom told him his whole story.
Pancho declared that it was like a ballad; and that he would his best to help him to save the poor young woman's life. "In the meantime," he said, "Take courage! You are not the only one in the world that is in a place far away from their loved ones. There are many that are living in a different country when they should be with their children. So many, many! Life is an assortment of things at the best of times. Look at my case. I am the son of a gentleman and practically a doctor but here I am: working with Arturo, the Narco!"
Tom thought it would be civil to get Pancho to tell his story of how he ended up working as a soldier for the cartel.
Pancho just whistled and said, "Reasons, reasons I never had. I like to enjoy myself. That's it." And with that, he left.
The following night, around eleven o'clock, one of the guards came by and whispered to another of the soldiers, "Pancho has finally finished him." Tom didn't need to hear the name. The sick feeling of dread in his stomach explained to him the rest of the situation. But he did not have a lot of time to dwell on what happened and sort the matter out in his head or far less to whisper it to one of his companions, when the door was flung open and Arturo came marching into the house. He looked around the bunks and shone his torch at the bewildered occupants until he located Tom, walking straight up to him when he did.
Arturo actually adopted a kindly tone, to Tom's surprise, "Buenos días, amigo. Sorry to bother you, but we need to swap your accommodations with that of the boy. Go to the kitchen to help with the work."
As Tom stumbled in his groggy state out of the little run down house, he brushed past two soldiers who were caring Omar, who neither spoke nor moved.
Tom entered the rustic structure that served as a kitchen, where he was instructed to boil beans and heat tortillas for the Zetas.
While Tom put forth his best effort to attend to his new duties, he observed the arrival of Ramses in the patio in front of the kitchen, where the men would eat their meals. He gave Arturo a glance with a disappointed expression that meant that Omar was dead as plain as speaking, and then he sat with the rest of the men, shooting glares at Pancho. Pancho for his part, sat without a word, looking hard at the ground.
When Pancho picked up his bottle of rum, Ramses started forward and stole it away from him, crying out that, "You have already had enough."
Pancho leaped to his feat in a flash; looking dazed, but he meant murder, and certainly was prepared to do it for the second time that night, had not Arturo stepped in between them.
"Sit down!" Arturo roared. "You drunken pig, do you realize what you've done? You killed the kid for no reason and for no benefit. What a waste!"
Pancho seemed to understand; for he sat down and put his hand to his brow.
"Bueno," he said, "I did it because he gave me a burnt tortilla."
Tom was filled with rage at this response, and the others looked at each other with some concern, when Arturo walked up to Pancho and convinced him to go to sleep, as you might speak to a bad child. The murderer crossed himself, and went over to a wall where they kept their icons and lit a candle to Santa Muerte, reciting prayers with trembling lips in front of a terrifying depiction of a skeleton in a wedding gown. Then he retired for the night.