The miles drifted one into another, as Tom sat back to enjoy their road trip through the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Sonora. They enjoyed many wonderful vistas as they drove through incredibly pretty country, the highway hugging the Pacific coast and the Gulf of California like a long winding serpent.
Tom lamented to himself over his growing discontent that first with Australia and now again, he found himself travelling through a fascinating land that he had always wanted to explore and enjoy. But once he had made it there, he had only got to experience the gruesome underbelly.
"I'll be back, Mexico," he thought. "I promise you that."
The pickup truck started to slow down, as Miguel 'Rooster' Gutiérrez looked for a place to turn off. At first, Tom thought they were stopping for fuel but there were no gas stations in sight.
"This as far as I can take you," announced Miguel. Tom and Elias looked around. They were in the middle of nowhere.
"I thought you said you'd take us to Altar." Tom tried to control his annoyed tone.
Elias didn't worry about offending him. "I can't believe that you'd just abandon us in the middle of this god forsaken desert! We had a deal!"
"Relax, man. Rooster will take care you. I just mean that this as far as I personally can take you. You see that little building up there." They followed where Miguel's finger was pointing into the distance. "That's a Sinaloa cartel checkpoint. The cartel controls that town, and I ain't exactly on friendly terms with those assholes. They'd kill all of us."
"So you've arranged a ride for us?" asked Tom hopefully.
"Si hombre. There's a sacerdote that I called to come pick you guys up. Don't worry, he's the best guy to take you the rest of the way. So I'm not abandoning you, but it would be best for all of us if I got out of here right now. I don't want to draw no attention from the carteles."
Tom and Elias and their group of migrant friends stumbled out of the truck and waved goodbye.
"Good luck," called Miguel, as he drove away.
"So did he say a priest was coming to get us?" asked Elias. Tom shrugged.
They waited for a little while, when they saw a Toyota Hilux pickup driving towards them from Altar. The truck rolled to a stop in front of them, and the chubby driver rolled down the window to look at the raggedy group.
"He doesn't look like a priest," whispered Elias. Indeed he did not. He was dressed like a rancher, wearing jeans, cowboy boots and a big white Stetson hat.
"Padre?" asked Elias.
"That's right, I'm Padre Presciliano Pacheco. Are you fellas…" he looked down at some handwritten scrawl in a grimy notebook, "Are you: two Americans and a bunch of Latinas?" He slid down his sunglasses, giving them a quick scan.
Tom and Elias looked at each other sceptically.
"Thanks for coming to get us," said Tom, once they were on the road.
"It's my duty to the Lord and my genuine pleasure," the priest said cheerfully. "Altar is my parish, and is a major crossroads for the migrants. We can't just stand by with our arms folded in the face of such suffering."
"So a lot of people come through here?" asked Elias.
"Thousands," Pacheco explained. "And they need more protection. More rights. Once I took my own undocumented flock across myself. It's incredibly dangerous, that crossing, and it's because neither government wants to help. They just make it more difficult and thus hand more power into the greedy hands of the wicked."
They drove past another shady checkpoint. Like all the others, it was manned by roughnecks wielding big guns. The priest explained that they were cartel members, or people traffickers, and sometimes a hybrid of the two. Fortunately, the padre's fame in those parts meant that they were waved through without question.
"We should be very thankful for the migrants, we should protect them," Pacheco pontificated, stabbing a finger in the air. "We should embrace and celebrate them because ninety percent of our economy depends on what our migrant brothers spend here."
They could see what he was referring to. The town was full of shops and hawkers, selling everything the prospective border-crosser could need. He pulled into a store where they bought water in black bottles, so as not to reflect the sun and tip off the border patrol guards when they looked through their binoculars. They bought long-sleeved hooded shirts and trousers, the clothing and rucksacks all in camouflage to try to fool the border patrols. They also purchased thin blankets and meagre supplies of tinned food.
The other customers in the store didn't seem different than other rural workers in Mexico, but there was an air of weary melancholy that hung over them like a cloud. The women were dressed like the men, all in caps and jeans, and beaten-looking shoes.
"It's still a another hour journey along dirt roads to the border, and it's all controlled by the Sinaloa cartel. Did you need help finding a Coyote?"
"We have a name, but we could certainly use your help getting us there." Tom handed him the information of the Lebanese tunnel operators that he had got from Lydia.
The padre read carefully the names and then glanced back at Tom over his sunglasses. "You're sure that these are the people that you want to deal with? This is a rough crowd and once I leave you with them, you're on your own. I have no influence after that."
"We can be a rough crowd too," Elias piped up, gravely.
They loaded up the truck, as Pacheco stepped aside to say a prayer with a group of dirty, exhausted, traumatized looking migrants. "Jesús, take pity on them and protect them, as they are mistreated and humiliated on their path."
They got back on the road out of town, where they drove past some of the same men and women from the store, now dressed head-to-toe in camouflage wear. The weary souls were busy cramming themselves into one of the dozens of mini-vans that were lined up, waiting to take the migrants from Altar to the border.
"They'll have to wait for a Coyote to help them cross the desert. You can see Jesus Christ walking among us. 'I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.' Are you a believer?" he suddenly asked Tom, who looked to Elias.
Tom nodded. Then Elias said, "I believe that a thorough knowledge of the Bible is worth more than a college education."
Pacheco seemed to like that expression. "Good man! What inspiring thought can you share with us?"
"I uh…" Elias hesitated, looking back at Tom who was waiting in expectation with a smirk on his face. "Well it's just like you said, Jesus walks with these folks and I know Jesus walks with me. So I ask for God to show me the way because the Devil's trying to break me down. The only thing is that I pray that my feet don't fail me now. And I don't think there is nothing I can do now to right my wrongs. I want to talk to God but I'm afraid because we ain't spoke in so long. Know what I mean?" Elias looked at the priest, whose face was deadpan. Elias cleared his throat. "But Jesus walks with me."
Pacheco look intently at Elias. "That's deep, hombre." Tom looked out the window and tried to stifle a snicker.
At the edges of twilight, they drove past a cemetery, where a solitary figure kneeled next to a shallow grave. She looked to be a young girl about fourteen, whose large eyes welled with tears expressing the fear in her grief. Her dress drooped down from her shoulder, as she looked around at the approaching truck without really seeing them. She truly was isolated from unreachable hope, and unapproachable help.
"Stop the truck!" said Tom suddenly.
"What?" asked Pacheco.
"We have to see if that girl needs help."