The jeep bounced along the bumpy forest road, and Tom and Elias barely exchanged two words until they came upon a highway, and were able to speed along at a good clip, putting a more comfortable distance between them and their captors. As the sun rose in the east, it sent with it's first rays of light a pleasant breeze that cleared the sky of clouds and made the landscape all the more pretty and cheerful.
Elias proceeded to explain to Tom that they had been passing through the state of Guadalajara, which happened to be disputed territory between the two most powerful cartels, the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel. That was why the Zetas used such brutality to flex its violent muscles in an attempt to cash in on the migrants before they passed deep into Sinaloa territory.
They decided that traveling by car would soon draw the attention of corrupt transit cops looking for a bribe, so they ditched the Jeep and resignedly prepared themselves to ride la bestia, again.
Back on the hateful freight train, Tom, Elias, Claudeth and Maira were all rigid with nervous tension until they passed deeper into the heart of the country controlled by the feared drug cartel in Sinaloa.
The train came to a halt in the rail yards of the city of Culiacán, known as the cradle of the 'narcotráfico.'
As they scattered from the train to avoid the authorities, Elias laid out the plan. "First thing we need to do is find a Pharmacy for you. We need to get you some meds that will get you fixed up for the next fight. We got lucky back there at the prisoner camp. It's amazing we got out in one piece with you fighting like Betty White." Tom had been thinking that he had held his own and was not pleased with this assessment of his performance in the melee of their escape, but he was in agreement that he needed something to help him feel better.
They located a farmacia that had closed for the night and they were able to break in without too much difficulty. "What are we looking for here, Elias?" Tom asked.
Elias perused the shelves and cupboards. "On the island, we had observed that treatments normally used for Muscular Dystrophy also were beneficial in treating transgenics suffering from decay in the introduced DNA material. Look for Glucocorticoids, such as prednisone. Also maybe look for procainamide and quinine. They shouldn't conflict with the steroid."
"Here's one!" announced Tom. "Found it!"
"And I got the rest," said Elias. "Let's get out of here."
Their hurried closing of drawers and cabinets was interrupted by the sound of a door opening and then closing. "Hola!" was called out, causing Tom and Elias to freeze where they stood.
"Shh!" hissed Tom. "The owners are back. Kill the lights and let's try to sneak out of here!"
Unfortunately, the pharmacist was too quick for them, and he was soon facing his intruders, holding a gun in his shaking hands. "Leave the drugs that you've stolen. I'm serious! I can use this gun. If you don't give me back my things, I'm going to shoot."
"Está bien." Tom tried to talk in a calm, cool voice. His attention was captivated by the strange appearance of the chubby, sweaty little man that they now faced. Behind his gun that was ineffectually waving around, was a round face that had streaks of perspiration rolling down and dripping off the moustache, glasses with thick lenses of the coke bottle variety, and two eyes that appeared to suffer from a severe case of strabismus. 'Could he even see straight to be able to shoot us?' thought Tom to himself.
Their brief standoff was interrupted by the appearance of Claudeth in the doorway, who had seen the man open the door and had come to see if the boys had made their escape. At seeing the portly man shaking his gun, she let out a scream, which was a sufficient enough of a distraction for Tom and Elias to brush past the unfortunate pharmacist, knocking him to the ground while they made a speedy escape out the front door and into the night.
The little band of four unfortunate souls was in desperate need of supplies and rest. They managed to find an underlit smoky tienda where they could at least buy bottled water, sunblock, and other items for their journey. There yet remained 950 kilometres until their next stop in the state of Sonora, in the town of Altar, so they were facing what would be a very long and painful leg in their trek to the United States. As Tom tried unsuccessfully to not invite scrutiny from the coarse looking clientele, Claudeth drew especially uninvited attentions from one boorish drunk. Elias came to her defence, when the thug proceeded to draw a knife from his belt, and took a step back while grinning at Elias and Claudeth like a wildcat. Tom, who had had about just enough from these hooligans, ran up from behind, and forgetting everything but his anger, put aside the knife with his left, and dealt a jaw shattering blow with his right. The drunken sot went down to the floor very heavily, his knife clattering upon the tiles as he fell.
Tom and Elias and the girls now turned to look upon the rest of the room's occupants, who rose to face them, cracking their knuckles and reaching for weapons. That old feeling of nausea began to flare up from Tom's innards once again, as he contemplated what appeared to be impossible odds, when one big man stepped forward and waived all the other goons back to their places.
"Buenas noches señores y señoras. I am Carlos 'Lobo,' and I would like to offer my assistance, as you seem to be in need of a friend. Come to my office and we will sort out your situation." As he spoke, his pistol stuck out quite plainly from his pocket, and all could see the lights glint on the steel of the butt.
"I'm pretty sure that we don't have a choice in the matter," observed Tom to Elias.
"At least not until those drugs take effect on you," whispered Elias. "I think our next fight is almost upon us."
The group were rounded up, disarmed, and loaded up into the back of a van that didn't have any windows and was locked from the inside. Tom still hadn't regained his strength and was struggling to stay conscious, and Elias pounded on the door but it would not budge. Claudeth and Maira looked frightened, but after all that they'd already been through, they seem to resign themselves to their fate with remarkable stoicism.
After driving for what seemed like hours, the van stopped and hooded figures opened the door. Elias had to help Tom get out and they were led to a small, dirty cabin in the middle of nowhere. Tom blacked out once Elias helped him find a comfortable place inside the cabin.
Tom came to, listening to the horrible sounds of Elias being beaten. He felt his limbs, thinking that he was starting to find his old strength. He looked up, to see a tall figure leaning up against the wall, in the midst of lighting a cigar. He waved out the match, and calmly blew out a cloud of smoke.
"Buenas días, gringo. Your friend is not much of a talker. Why don't you tell me where you are from and who would like to see you alive? No doubt you have your loved ones. For your own good, tell me: who would pay for your lives?"
Tom took a deep breath, and shut his eyes for a moment. "I have a question for you. What is your name?"
"I am Eduardo 'Lobo,' " the kidnapper said without reservation.
"So, Eduardo, explain something for me: how is it that you have no fear that the people will rise against you in retribution for you cruelty?"
"That's your question? I am 'The Wolf.' I am the boss and nobody is going to rise against me because they are too afraid, and they have reason to be. Talking with you guys is a waste of time." Eduardo walked over to the tormentors and gave some orders that Tom couldn't hear. The men stopped delivering the beating, and looked like they were packing up. Tom looked at the other people cowering in captivity in the dark cabin. There were probably ten people in there including Claudeth and Maira. The kidnappers went over to one young girl who had a bandage on her head, covering her ears, and dragged her out of the cabin.
Tom whispered to a young mother sitting nearby, who was clutching a terrified little boy to herself. "What will happen to her?" he whispered.
The mother whispered back, "Seems like her family paid the ransom. We hope that she will return to her parents."
"Yes, definitely. We hope with all of hearts that we will leave this place together. You too."
"For this kind of hope, I do not have the luxury, not even for my son."
The woman's abject despair filled Tom with utter sadness. He became ever more determined to get them out of there. He tried to stand up, but he became light headed and fell back again. Two of the gangsters came to take the mother and son out. Tom looked up as the little boy waved goodbye, and then they were gone. He looked over to Eduardo, who was on his way out as well.
"Ándale gringos. This is when I say goodbye to you. Adios." And he walked out. After about fifteen minutes, the two gangsters returned and dragged Elias to his feet. Tom made a move to stand, but made eye contact with him. He stopped him with a hard look, and mouthed, "It's okay. Prepare yourself." They roughly put a black bag over his head and hauled him out of the cabin as well.
"I have got to get myself together and get us out of here," Tom said to himself.
As Elias was roughly prodded through what felt like the forest, he concentrated under the hood on focusing his senses. 'Whatever happens, you cannot panic, Elias.' he told himself. 'Calm yourself. Calm.' He talked to himself like he was talking to wild mustang. 'It'll be okay. Just stay calm and pay attention.' When they finally stopped walking, the hood was suddenly pulled off and Elias could see that they had led him to a big hole. Even as his eyes adjusted to the light, he could see that there were bodies already inside. He took a deep breath, but a switch went off inside his head on recognition that there, in the shallow grave, lay the young woman and her son. Unquenchable rage sent blood rushing through his chest and his temples went beet red.
"Póngate a las rodillas!" The man standing closest to him commanded. On your knees.
Elias took a step backward and saw the man casually trying to take his gun out of the holster. The young fools had made the grave error of handcuffing Elias in the front, but it was not a mistake that they would live to repeat. Faster than lightning, Elias clubbed the first man across the face with both hands, and as he was doubled over in pain, he grabbed the man's gun that he had tucked into his pants and then shot him down in the chest.
As Elias whirled around to face the other man, he was still struggling unsuccessfully to pull his gun out of the holster. "I see you stole my Walther P99," observed Elias. "But a gun will get stuck when you force it into a cheap holster that it wasn't designed for." The man looked up as Elias raised his pistol and shot him several times.
Elias looked around. Surely he had drawn attention to himself and trouble was on its way. To his left was a cluster of trees. He started running towards them, and had made it about twenty-five meters when he heard the report of guns firing. He hurtled himself into the woods, as he could feel pieces of bark from the ricochets bounce off of his face, he didn't allow himself to slow down. He zigzagged through the tree cover, trying to work out some sort of a plan.
He circled around, finding a spot behind a huge log, he hid himself and waited, watching the direction of the cabin. After fifteen minutes or so of waiting, two gangsters walked into the trees, pointing their AK-47s. Elias waiting until they were in range of his pistol, and for an opportunity when they were both facing away from him. As they tried not to trip over the rocks and roots, they both glanced away and Elias stood up to throw a stone to the side of them to draw their attention. The stone bounced off a tree and they both turned their rifles. Elias jumped out and started shooting. He killed one immediately but the other one managed to fire a few rounds in Elias' direction before he too received a fatal shot to the neck. Elias was sent back spinning by one lucky shot that winged him in the shoulder. As he felt the blood pouring down his side, he thought to himself, 'When is this going to end?'
"That's enough!" Yelled one of the guards to Tom, who was on the floor doing push-ups to test his returning strength. Tom paused, his ear detecting the sound of gunfire in the distance, and he silently prayed that Elias was alright. The abrasive noise was not lost on the guards, as they all ran out to see what was happening. Tom decided that this was the perfect opportunity to test his abilities. While the remaining gangster stood in the doorway, Tom leapt to the ceiling and clung there, hanging upside down from the rafters. When the guard turned around and walked back into the cabin, he immediately noticed Tom's conspicuous absence. As he frantically looked from side to side, flummoxed as to where Tom could have gotten to, Tom himself swung along the rafters and wrapped his legs around the unwitting youths neck. Releasing his weight from above, be flipped the guard over, maintaining a chokehold that soon rendered him unconscious.
Tom rushed over to a table where a cell phone was lying next to a SIM card. Assembling the device and flipping it open, he pressed redial.
A very nervous sounding voice answered, "¿Bueno?"
"Buenas días, señor. I don't know if you happen to be waiting for a call from some kidnappers?"
"Si, si. What happened? We are going to cooperate. So please, don't hurt my daughter."
"Don't worry, señor. I also am kidnapped, but for now, your daughter is safe. What is your daughter's name?"
"Uh, her name is Liliana."
"¿Liliana?" Tom looked around the room, to a young girl who raised her head from her knees. Tom waved her over. "I will pass the phone to Liliana, but first I need a favour."
"Sure. Just say it."
"Are you in contact with the authorities?"
"Tell the police to put a trace on this call so that they can find our location."
"Si, of course. Now can I speak to my Lilianita?"
"Of course you can."
Tom went out to find Elias, and it turned out that he didn't have to look very far. He found him kneeling beside the grave, staring down at the poor but restful bodies. He looked up to the sky, and his lips quivered as if he was requesting something.
"Elias! Are you okay, man? You look like you've been through the ringer." He turned to look at Tom with a questioning look, and Tom could see that his face was streaked with tears. He gave him a confused expression, like he was mystified as to why Tom was there, and why he was interrupting his sorrow. "Come here. Let's take a look at you," Tom said. "Have you been shot?"
"It's just a through and through."
"But still we should try to stitch you up."
"Would you quit fussing over me!" Elias suddenly shouted. "Can't you see I don't need your help?" They both looked down at the grave and it's seraphic occupants. "Can you believe that I actually prayed?" he asked. "I've never believed much in heaven and I'm not sure that I do now, but I asked the Holy Father that if he is there, to at least receive these ones to Him, and to take better care of them than what they received here."
Tom looked down, and then at Elias, but was at a loss as to what to say. "At all events, they are at peace now," was all he could come up with. Elias reached for the shovel. "Let me stitch you up first."
"I need to bury them! No way in hell will I just leave them like this!"
"Look, Elias. Just give me the shovel. You'll do more good if you sit and pray, and I'll talk care of them, okay? Come on, give me the shovel. Please?" Elias gingerly handed Tom the shovel before weakly squatting in the dirt.
Tom had just finished covering the grave, and both of them were lost in their own thoughts when they were interrupted by the sound of the exchange of gunfire from far off. "Looks like the cavalry has arrived."
Elias squinted into the distance. "Are you sure that these are cops? They're all wearing masks and white shirts that say 'autodefensa.'"
"Autodefensa?' That means that these are the vigilantes."
"Is that good or bad?" asked Elias.
"I feel like I don't what to expect anymore," sighed Tom.
The vigilante who seemed to be the leader jumped out of a pickup truck, and walked up to Tom and Elias, holding his AK-47 down as it hung from the strap around his neck. As they approached him, he pulled off his sunglasses. "You guys Americans?" he asked.
"Yeah," Tom replied, "and you? You sound American."
"I grew up in L.A," he said. "My name's Miguel Gutiérrez, but everyone calls me Rooster. Was it one of you that made the phone call?"
"That was me," said Tom. "So are the regular police coming as well? These people need medical attention and help getting back to their families."
"The cops were contacted, but all they did was tip off 'Los Lobos' that you guys were escaping. They're all paid up with the police here in Culiacán, so there's no point in going to the cops for anything."
"Well if you guys are here to bring the law and order back to Sinaloa, then we appreciate it and we'll gather up our people and we will be on our way."
"Well hold on just a second, guys." Miguel held up his hand. "What are two gringos doing here anyway? And where are you going with other people? Are you running some kind of human trafficking ring?"
Tom chewed the inside of his cheek. "Look, Rooster. We'll be as honest with you as we can. Our reasons for wanting to get across Mexico and into the U.S. without any official involvement are our own. But we've picked up some compañeros here and there. We were captured by the Zetas near Guadalajara, and there we met up with those two girls there." He pointed at Claudeth and Maira. "And I think there's a couple of other young people in that foul cabin that wanted help getting to Altar where we can hire some Coyotes to take us across the border. By the way, there was a girl who had been taken away this morning. Is she alright?"
"She was reunited with her family, yes."
"She had a filthy bandage around her head. What was that?"
"That's the 'Lobos' trademark. They cut off the captives' ear with a scissors and then mail it to the relatives to terrorize them."
Tom shook his head in disgust. "You're right, the 'Lobos' brothers are real monsters. So now if you can just point us in the direction of the railroad, we'd be very much obliged."
"You're lucky your story checks out, amigo, or you'd be enduring some autodefensa justice right now. But tell you what, we'll make you a great deal. You just help us with one little thing, and we'll take you guys to Altar. What d'you say?"
Tom and Elias looked at each other. The truth was they were a very long way off from Altar, and to go with armed escort was extremely tempting. But you don't get something for nothing. "What is this thing that you want help with?" Elias asked.
"Don't worry, amigo. You'll enjoy it, I can tell. We want to take down the 'Lobos' brothers, once and for all. Although they walk around Mexico like cocky bastards, they're very elusive because the dirty cops and politicians protect them. So you guys can help us because you've seen their faces and heard their voices. You've seen how they operate. What d'you say? We take 'em down and you get your free ride to the border."
Elias balled up his hands into fists. "I want to kill those scumbags. You got yourself a deal."
After Rooster walked away, Tom turned to face Elias. "I know we need help getting to Altar, but I'm not sure throwing in with these vigilantes is such a great idea. You know that we can't trust these guys."
Elias focused on cleaning and loading his recently reacquired .44 Magnum. "I don't care. I want to make those devils pay."
"Elias, we're doctors. We help people."
"This is helping people. Imagine how many people we save every time we take out a gangster or cartel soldier."
"That's not saving people. There are always more bosses who corrupt the youth and can make more soldiers, thus damning more people to suffer on the path to hell. We have to really save them. Get people to stand up to corruption, and save the kids from turning to gangs in the first place."
"Now you're talking of the impossible. How do you propose that we save the youth from the gangs?"
"I don't know. It was just a thought. How did you escape from your execution, anyway?"
Elias stared off into the distance. "It all seems like a dream now; a waking nightmare. I remember that somehow I got a hold on the one chap's gun, and I yelled something like: 'Stand and deliver! Or the Devil he may take ya.' Then once I had my pistols, I shot them with both barrels. But at the end of the day there's whiskey in the jar."
"Speaking of which, that's a great idea. Let's see if we can trouble our vigilante cohorts for a drink."
"Let's do, and then I need a nap."