His village sits at the mouth of the Touloukaera River. Touloukaera means life giving in the Tequesta language. Aichi is awake early this morn. It is still dark as he paddles his canoe across the short expanse of water that leads to the barrier island to the east.
Today he will build three fires on the beach for the purpose of giving thanks to Tamosi, The Ancient One—the God of his people. The fires must be lit before the dawn arrives. It has been a bountiful season. The men have caught many fish and killed many deer. The women of his village gathered enough palmetto berries, palm nuts, and coco plums to last until next season. There is an abundance of coontie root for the making of flour. Tomosi has been good to his people.
Tonight, the entire village will honor Tomosi. But this morning, Aichi will honor Him in a solitary way. Because tonight, at the celebration, he will wed Aloi, the most beautiful woman in the village. It took many seasons to win her heart, and now he must acknowledge Tomosi’s role in having Aloi fall in love with him.
He builds three fires to represent man’s three souls—the eyes, the shadow, and the reflection. When the fires are burning bright and the flames are leaping into the cool morning air in an effort to reach Tomosi, Aichi will face the ocean. With the fires behind him, he’ll kneel on the fine white sand and lower his head until his forehead meets the earth. He will then start to pray and will continue with his prayers until the sun rises out of the eastern sea. At that time, he will ask that he be shown an omen that his prayers have been heard.
The first rays of the awakened sun reflects off the white sand. Aichi raises his head and there before him is the sign Tomosi has sent him. Not a mile away, floating on the calm, blue ocean are three canoes of great size. He can see men walking on what looks like huts. He knows they are sent from Tomosi because they each have squares of white fluttering in the light breeze. White denotes The Ancient One. And if that were not enough, no men paddle the massive canoes. They are moving under their own power, traveling north to the land where Tomosi lives. The men upon those canoes must not be men at all. They are the souls of the dead being taken to the heaven of the righteous.
Aichi leaps to his feet and runs along the shoreline trying to keep abreast of the canoes. But in time, he falls behind and soon they drop below the horizon. What a wondrous day this is. He has communed with his god and tonight he will wed Aloi. With joy in his heart, Aichi runs back to his canoe. He must tell the people of his village what he has seen.
What Aichi has seen are not spirit canoes. They are three ships from the fleet commanded by Juan Ponce de León. He is sailing along the coast of a peninsula he has named Florido which means “full of flowers.” He is in search of gold to bring back to his king. He has also heard from the Indians to the south that somewhere to the north lies a natural spring that confers eternal youth to those who drink from its cool, clear waters. To bring a cask of that water back to Spain would make him a rich man indeed. The year is 1513 A.D.
Aichi and Aloi produce many children and grandchildren. But to no avail. The coming of the Spaniards has decimated the Tequesta. Most have died of the diseases brought by the white man. Others were captured and sold into slavery. By the year 1750, the village by the river that celebrated Tomosi’s largess in the year 1513 is abandoned and overgrown with plant life.
In the spring of 1788, the Spanish drive the Creek and Oconee Indians south to the land once populated by the Tequesta. The Spanish refer to the bands of Indians as Cimarrons, which means Wild Ones. The Americans to the north bastardize the name and call the Indians, Seminoles.
In 1789, a band of Seminoles, tired of running from the Spanish, inhabit the place on the river where the Tequesta once lived. They name the river, Himmarasee, meaning “New Water.” They live in relative peace for twenty-seven years. But at the outbreak of The First Seminole War, the Seminoles move their village farther west and into the Everglades to keep out of the white man’s reach.
In 1821, Spain cedes Florida to the United States, and the Americans begin surveying and mapping their new territory. Over time, the shifting sands of the barrier island caused the mouth of the river to empty into the Atlantic Ocean at different points along the coast. As the coastline was periodically charted, the surveyors—not understanding the effects of the shifting sand on the river’s behavior—thought that the various entry points were “new” rivers; hence, each time the land was surveyed, the map makers would make the notation “new river” on the updated chart.
The 1830 census lists seventy people living in and around the “New River Settlement.”
In the year 1838, at the beginning of The Second Seminole War, Major William Lauderdale and his Tennessee Volunteers are ordered to build a stockade to protect the settlers along what has become known as The New River. He selects a location of firm and level ground at the mouth of the river where once the Tequesta and Seminoles had built their villages.
The fort is decommissioned after only a few months. Two months later, the Seminoles burn it to the ground. The fort is now gone, but the name remains.
There are no roads into Fort Lauderdale until 1892, when a single road linking Miami to the south and Lantana to the north is cut out of the mangroves. In 1911, Fort Lauderdale is incorporated into a city.
During the 1920s, there is a land boom in South Florida. Everybody and his brother is buying land. When the most desired land runs out, developers make acres of new land by dredging the waterways and using the sand and silt thus obtained to make islands where future houses will one day stand.
Because of its natural geography and the dredging that went on in the ’20s, Fort Lauderdale has become known as the American Venice. There are countless canals, both large and small. Most houses on those canals have a boat tied up behind it. And many of those who do not live on a canal have boats sitting in marinas or sitting on a trailer in their backyards.
In 1974, twelve percent of the population of Broward County, in which Fort Lauderdale lies, makes a direct living off the boating industry. Another twenty percent benefits indirectly.
Into this world Ellis Hodgkins descends … trailing Karla in his wake …
To those of you who have been following my hitching adventures, I want to thank you for reading my stuff. This is the last of those adventures I’ll be posting. There just ain’t that much more to tell. I wrote this in a rather flippant style, but I assure you, when it was going down, I was shaking in my boots. Also, now that the statute of limitations has run out on most of my crimes, I reckon it’s safe to tell you that Andrew Joyce is my pen name. In another life, I was known as Billy Doyle.
It all happened in a little café just across the border. The year was 1971 and I was twenty-one-years old. I was hitchin’ west and was let off outside of El Paso, Texas. It was just before dawn and I had not slept or eaten in a day. But at twenty-one, that’s not a big deal. This is a story of friendship, and how the length of the relationship does not matter. What matters is the commitment and intensity the participants feel for one another.
As I stood on Highway 90 waiting for my next ride, a little man walked up to me and said, “Excuse me, sir, but would you like to make some easy money?”
Now, if you know me, you know money has never interested me all that much. However, the unknown—something new—drew me as a moth to flame.
I said to the man, “Whatcha got in mind?”
It seemed that, because I was a gringo, he thought I might be able to help him. He then laid out the plan to me. His wife was being held captive for a debt that he owed. She was forced to work in a café just across the border in Juarez. He wanted me to go into the café and ask for her, and then pretend I wanted to go upstairs with her; but I was to bring her out the back door and walk her across the border. For this, he offered me the princely sum of twenty-five dollars. Son-of-a-bitch! Even to a kid who hadn’t eaten in a day, $25.00 was chump change.
But his story got me angry. How could those damn assholes keep a man’s love from him? It got my Irish up. And goddamn it, I was going to get that man’s woman out of that café if it was the last thing I ever did. And it nearly was.
But first things first. If this guy had money on him, then he could buy me breakfast and fill me in on the details at the same time. I suggested we adjourn to the nearest diner and he readily agreed. We walked a few blocks until we found a hash house that was open. We entered and made a beeline for the counter.
Because I had not eaten in a long while, I ordered the biggest damn breakfast you’ve ever seen. Of which I could only eat half. I don’t know how many of you have gone a day or two without eating, but a funny phenomenon takes place. The first day you’re hungry as hell, but by the beginning of the second day, the hunger, for the most part, is gone. Mentally you’re hungry, but physically you’re just fine. At the time, I was told it was because your stomach shrinks, but I don’t know how true that is. I’ve never gone a full forty-eight hours without food, so I don’t know what happens then. Anyway, that’s why I could only eat half of what I had ordered. But while I was eating, the little man, whose name turned out to be Miguel Delarosa, told me his story.
He was of Indian descent, as are the majority of Mexican people. There are two classes of people in Mexico: those descended from the Spanish who own most of the country, and those descended from the people who used to own the land, the Indians.
He came from a town in the estado (state) of Oaxaca, which is located in southern Mexico. The town’s name, which I never did learn how to pronounce properly, was Tehuantepec. He had been married about eight months by the time we met. Three months after getting hitched, he made the determination that he wanted a better life for himself, his wife, and any children that might someday come along. So it was decided that he would go to America to get work and get settled. When he had saved enough money so his wife could make the trip by bus, he would send it to her and they would be reunited. The reason his wife, whose name was Asuncion, or Asun for short, did not accompany him to begin with is that they had no money. Miguel would have to make the trek by walking and hitchhiking; and he’d be traveling the entire length of the country. Not the sort of trip a man wants to bring his bride of a few months on. The trip would be not only arduous but also dangerous. There were still bandits roaming the highways and roads of Mexico. A man and women alone could very easily find themselves in dire straights out in the countryside.
Now we come to the part of Miguel’s story where he fucked up. It seems he was homesick, so on Saturday nights he’d walk across the border into Juarez and hang out at this particular café. Of course, he was in the country illegally. And with all the hysteria today about the great horde coming up from Mexico to take our jobs, rape our women folk, and pillage our cities, it may be hard to believe that in those days the border guards where hip to the goings on. I mean they knew the guys going and coming on Saturday night were not kosher, but the local farmers and ranchers needed their labor, so everyone was cool.
The name of the café was “The Mouse Trap,” or as the sign above the door read, Café La Ratonera. It was owned by a man named José. He’s the villain of this piece. He was big and fat, but more big than fat. He stood 6’ 4”, wore a grizzled black beard, and had a large scar in the form of a lightning bolt on his right cheek. (No shit. This guy had the scar on his cheek just like I said. He was right outta central casting!) When he smiled, the gold front tooth that he was so very proud of shone brightly in the dim light of his café. He was a bad motherfucker. No … bad is not the right word. The man was downright evil.
José could spot an “illegal” a mile away. By illegal, I mean a man who was in the United States without documentation, without his “papers.” Most seemed to get homesick at some point, as Miguel had, and would walk across the border for a little bit of home. And the biggest, gaudiest place in all of Juarez was the Café La Ratonera, so naturally that is where most of the men ended up.
José’s choice of name for his establishment might have been a coincidence, or it may have been by design; but regardless of serendipity or intent, he did snare the weakest of men in his “trap.” His method of doing so was quite simple; once he had scouted his prey, he would befriend his intended victim in some small way. He might forgive that evening’s bar bill, buy the man a few drinks, or perhaps, if he was in an expansive mood, give the man a few pesos to put toward bringing his family to America. All the men José preyed upon were working, and saving for one reason, and one reason only, to be reunited with their loved ones. Of the men’s longing to be with their families, José was able to make a very despicable living.
This is how Miguel got taken. José scoped him out and did his usual bullshit, pretending to be his friend. Then when Miguel told him of Asun and how he was working to bring her to America, José laid out his trap.
The trap consisted of exactly what Miguel wanted to hear. José told of how he had connections throughout Mexico, how he could arrange to have Asun brought up to Juarez, and then he, Miguel, could walk her across the border on a Saturday night. Of course, Miguel wasn’t completely brain dead. He did ask, “Why would you do this for me, and will there be a cost involved?”
To which José responded, “Man, you are my compatriot, mi amigo, we are simpatico. Yes, there will be a small cost, not everyone thinks as I do. But we’ll work it out, mi amigo.”
And work it out ol’ José did. He did indeed bring Asun up from Tehuantepec and got her to the Café La Ratonera. But once there, Miguel was told the fee for bringing her up was $1,000.00. It might well have been $100,000.00 as far as Miguel was concerned.
That’s when Jose cut out the being nice crap—the “I am your amigo” crap—and let Miguel have it right between the eyes. He informed Miguel that until the debt was paid, Asun would work in his hellhole of a café. And then to emphasize his intent, he pushed a button that was affixed to the side of his desk (they were in José’s office at the time) and two men appeared out of nowhere. José simply said, “Eighty-six the son-of-bitch.” Eighty-six being a universal term used in the bar and liquor business meaning throw the bum out, and don’t let him return.
Miguel told me that was two weeks ago, and he had yet to set sight upon his wife. And he was beaten if he even walked by outside the café. Of course, he was not allowed in. He knew she was there because he had friends, or more like co-workers, go in and they had spoken with her. She told them that her job was to serve drinks, be nice to the men, and if things were slow, she was to help out in the kitchen. The damn place was open twenty-four hour a day. She had a small room she had to share with two other young girls who were in the same predicament as she.
If my Irish was up when he first told me of his problem, it was through the fuckin’ roof after hearing the details. I might not have seemed upset on the surface because I was so busy shoving eggs, bacon, and hash browns in my mouth, but I was. When I pushed away the remainder of my breakfast, and told Miguel to pay the man, I rose and walked to the door of the place, stretched, scratched my stomach, and looked at the brightening sky in the east.
As Miguel joined me at the door, I asked him if he would be so kind as to answer a few questions. He said he’d be glad to. So I asked the most obvious question first. “How come an illiterate bean picker like you speaks better English than me?”
I’ve got to admit he did have a ready and plausible answer. “The priest in our town was from your country. He taught me when I was very young, and we conversed only in your tongue whenever we spoke.”
Okay, next question: “What the hell day is it today?”
He had a ready answer for that also. “It is Friday, my friend.”
Wait one fuckin’ minute, thought I. I am now this little man’s friend. Then I thought I did have him buy me breakfast, and I did intend to help him out. But holy shit! If he was now a friend, that would mean there would be no pulling out if, or when, the going got tough. So be it, I’ve got me a new friend. What the hell.
Third and last question: “You got a place I can crash for a while? I’m not going to be good to anybody until I get some sleep.”
“Yes, my friend. There is a small shack that I share with other men who work on the farm with me. We will be in the fields all day. You will have it all to yourself.”
There he goes with that friend shit again, but I had resigned myself to that. What touched me, though, was the way he offered his humble abode. He seemed to imply having what I was sure was a shithole all to myself was a high honor. Nothing against my little friend. My point is that the assholes who employ men like Miguel house them in conditions that, if you housed your dog in like manner, you’d be arrested for cruelty to animals.
So, the two new friends turned their backs to the rising sun and Miguel walked me to his domicile. By the time we got there, it was empty of inhabitants. He showed me which bed was his, and told me he would see me at the end of the day. He was late to the field and said he had to vamoose. I dropped onto his bed, and I was so tired I think I was out before Miguel hit the door.
I woke up a few times throughout the day, but thought it advisable to keep a low profile. I didn’t know how the owner of the outfit would take to a gringo, a non-working gringo at that, hanging out in his shithole of a shack. So I went back to sleep to await Miguel.
I was awakened by Miguel shaking my shoulder. When I opened my eyes, I beheld Miguel and three other men standing over me. When Miguel saw that my eyes were open, he said, “Mr. Billy, these are my friends, and I have told them that you are here to help me. They are now your friends also.” There he goes with that friend shit again. I rubbed my eyes and yawned before saying in my best American accent, “Hola.”
I know I’ve used this phrase before, but it is so apt. First things first: “Miguel, I need a shower. Whatcha got?”
He, as it turned out, didn’t have much. I’m not even going to tell you how these people were forced to wash themselves. No, the hell with it, I’ll tell you. There was a hose outside next to the shack and you had to stand there holding the damn thing over your head while cold water poured down on you. The owner of that place, I am sure, is roasting in hell as I relate this tale to you. So everything works out in the end.
After my “shower,” I dressed in the best clothes I had with me, which ain’t saying much. And even though the sun had just sunk beneath the horizon, I asked Miguel to buy me another breakfast. In my mind, I planned it more as a council of war than an eating experience. Miguel and I had to lay out our strategy. His original idea of me just waltzing into the café and walking out with his beloved, I was pretty sure, was not going to work.
As I shoveled my second meal of the day into my mouth, I told Miguel that the “extraction” would take some planning, and most importantly, some reconnoitering. I thought it good that it was a Friday night. If the café was busy, then I might have a chance to talk with Asun. Then it hit me, Does she even speak English? So I asked Miguel, and his answer was a simple “No.” That was going to make my job a whole lot harder. I couldn’t see her just walking outside with a perfect stranger, especially one babbling in a foreign tongue.
We dawdled at the hash house until just before midnight. I figured that the café should be getting up a good head of steam right about then and I wouldn’t stand out as much. But first, I needed Miguel to tell me something I could tell Asun so she would know I was a friend. I had the “Mi amigo … Miguel” down pat, but I thought I should have a closer, just to make sure that if the chance presented itself, she would leave with me.
Miguel thought for a moment before saying, “I gave her a ring for her birthday last year when she became a woman; it was her eighteenth year. No one ever knew of it but us.”
“Okay, Miguel, lay it on me. Teach me to say, “Miguel gave you a ring for your eighteenth birthday.” It took a while, but I finally got it down, “Miguel te dió un anillo cuando cumpliste dieciocho años.”
To quote a man I am not too familiar with, but he did come up with some good lines now and then: “Once more into the breech. Cry havoc, let slip the dogs of war.” Man, I love that quote. I use it whenever I can. But in simpler terms, I merely said to Miguel, “Let’s boogie.” Yeah I know, very archaic, but hey, so am I.
We walked into town and crossed the border without incident. There was never any trouble going into Mexico. They were damn happy to have you and your gringo dollars come into their country. Miguel led me to the café and said, “I better not go any farther. They know the sight of me. It would not be good for us to be seen together.”
Well damn, why hadn’t I thought of that?
Miguel had already told me what Asun looked like, so now it was up to me. I pointed to a little bar down the street and told him to wait for me there. I walked the half a block to the front door of the café and entered.
From the outside, the Café La Ratonera didn’t look half-bad. But once inside, what a fuckin’ dump. You entered, and through the haze of cigarette smoke, the first thing you saw was the bar. It was a massive thing; it stood against the far wall, and ran the entire width of the room. Of course, at that time of night every stool was taken. And there were men and women standing in between and behind every stool. Between the bar and the front door were tables, maybe thirty. They were not set up in rows or anything like that. No, they were haphazardly strewn about, and they too had people sitting at each and every one of them. There was no band, but some kind of noise (some, not many, might call it music) was blaring out of a single speaker situated over the bar.
Running back and forth from the bar to the tables were girls—young girls—serving drinks and talking with the men sitting at the tables. Then I noticed something I’d missed when I first entered. The place was all men, the only women I saw were the ones serving the drinks and the few at the bar who I was sure were “working girls,” if you know what I mean. To me, they—and the drink servers—all looked alike. How was I to tell which one was Asun?
I was conspicuous enough being the only gringo in the place, so I thought I had better order a drink and go into my dumb and stupid act. I saw that the girls were getting their drink orders filled at the far right-hand end of the bar, so that is where I headed. I figured at least there I’d get a chance to ask each girl, “Asun?” When I got an affirmative answer, then I could use my code phrase.
As I stood at the bar waiting for the bartender to notice me, I made another observation of something that had escaped my attention previously. Against the far wall was a staircase that led to a balcony that ran around the entire room. It was hard to see in the dim light, but it looked like there were rooms, one every twenty feet or so. I counted ten doors. That meant that if the layout was the same on the other three sides, there were forty rooms up there. What the hell took place up there, as if I didn’t know? I didn’t think Asun had been there long enough to be indoctrinated into that part of José’s scheme. But, We better get her out of here quick before a fate worse than death befalls her, I thought as I surveyed the upstairs.
As I was thinking the worst, I was asked something in Spanish by the bartender. I guess he wanted to know what I wanted to drink. So I said the first thing to come to mind, and the only drink I knew how to order in Spanish, “Tequila, por favor.”
After being served, I paid for the drink, with a healthy tip for the bartender so I’d be left alone for a while. Hey, it wasn’t my money. Miguel had given me all he had on him, which wasn’t much. But I did need a front, no matter how meager.
As I stood there, the girls, one by one, came up to the bar to order their drinks. I was less than three feet from the serving station. And as the bartender left to fulfill an order, and the girls stood waiting, I’d lean into them and say, “Asun?” The first two ignored me completely; the next three shook their heads, and then ignored me completely. On my sixth attempt, the girl turned, looked at me, and then nodded towards the girl standing behind her.
So it was to be lucky number seven? When number six had departed, and number seven took her place at the serving station, I did my usual, “Asun?” The startled look told me that I had finally hit pay dirt. Before the bartender returned, I went into my act, “Miguel mi amigo. Miguel te dió un anillo cuando cumpliste dieciocho años.” Just then, the bartender walked up and she gave him her drink order. He saw that I had spoken to her, but it looked like he thought I was just hitting on her, which was cool with him. Asun played it cool too. She turned away from the bar, so no one could see, and winked at me. Hey, Miguel got himself a smart one!
Now that I knew my target, I thought I’d get a better lay of the land, so to speak. If there was a back door, I sure as hell couldn’t see it. What the hell was Miguel talking about? Also, José was nowhere to be seen. As I scoped out the skinny, I came up with a plan. Admittedly, a simple plan, but a plan nonetheless. I ordered another Tequila, so not to arouse suspicion, drank it, and left.
Once outside, I proceeded to the bar where Miguel was waiting for me. He was standing outside looking forlorn, like he didn’t have a friend in the world.
“Whatcha’ doin’ out here, amigo? Why aren’t you inside?” I wanted to know.
“I gave you all my money and they won’t let me sit in there unless I buy something.”
“Okay, mi amigo, let’s go in. I’ll buy you a drink … with your money.”
“Si, mi amigo.” We went in, got a couple of beers, and I laid out my plan of action.
“First of all, I don’t know what fuckin’ back door you’re talkin’ about, pal, but if there is one, it’s gonna be locked up tighter than Kelsey’s nuts. Next, the only plan I can come up with is just getting Asun near to the front door and then we make a run for it. It might work if there was some interference put in place as we hauled ass. Or more to the point, as you and Asun haul ass. I plan on being the interference. And by the way, that’s one smart broad you got hooked up with. No offense.” Fortunately, Miguel did not understand the lexicon of 1950s America. He took no offense of me calling his wife a “broad.” Then I said, “Miguel, any chance of us getting a firearm?”
“You mean a pistola?”
“Yeah pal, a fuckin’ gun. You know … boom, boom! And don’t worry; I’m not gonna shoot anyone. I just want to use it as a persuader.”
“Yes, one of my amigos I live with has one.”
“Well, go get it, boy. I wanna’ finish this up tonight. I was California-bound when this little detour came up. Comprende? I’ll wait for you here, now git movin’.” I always drop my g’s and talk like I was in a Gabby Hayes movie (look it up) when I’m nervous. And nervous I was. But I said I’d help the little guy, and after getting an eyeful of his wife, it was my mission to get her outta that hellhole.
Miguel was gone two beers’ worth, and returned with a bulge under his shirt. I thought it a good thing he was coming into Mexico, and not going out, looking like that. I told him to sit down, and went to the bar and got him a beer. After we were settled, I asked him to hand me the gun under the table, which he did. Once I had it in my hand, I sneaked a peak at it. It was an old Colt .45, the kind you see in cowboy movies. While still holding it under the table, I checked to see if it was loaded. It sure was—every chamber filled.
While Miguel was gone, I had formulated my plan. I told him to go to the bar and get a piece of paper and a pencil from the bartender. After he returned with said items, I told him to write the following (I didn’t have time to learn any damn Spanish):
“This is a friend. Get near the door, and when he tells you, run out into the street. I will be there waiting for you. Miguel”
Of course, it was written in Spanish.
The plan, as I’ve said, was simple. I’d get Asun out the door, and then the two of us, me and Mr. Colt, would try to dissuade anyone from following her. “The best laid plans …” Another favorite quote of mine, though one I don’t like to use often. It usually means that I fucked up.
“Okay, amigo; let’s get this circus on the road. When Asun flies through the door, you grab her and haul ass.”
“ ‘Haul ass’? ”
“Yeah, run for the fuckin’ hills. Get your asses across the border; I’ll be right behind you. Tell your friend you owe him a gun because no fuckin’ way am I bringing this monster across any border, let alone into the United States.”
Before getting up, I slipped the gun into the waistband of my pants, and covered it with my shirt. Now I had the bulge. When we got back to the café, I told Miguel he better keep a low profile to ensure his being there when Asun exited. It wouldn’t do to have some of José’s bouncers see him and drive him off … or worse.
I left him standing on the street, and that was the last time I saw him until he rescued my ass. But I’m getting ahead of the story.
I went into the café and proceeded to my usual haunt right next to the service station. When asked, I ordered my usual Tequila; everything was as usual. Except for the gun under my shirt. It wasn’t too long before Asun came up for a drink order, and I was able to slip her the note. She, as I’ve stated, was one smart cookie; she took it in stride without even looking at me. I had no doubt she would read it the moment she had a chance. So I thought I better position myself by the door and be ready.
I moseyed (more Gabby Hayes talk) toward the door and stood by the table that was closest to the exit. I stayed there pretending to listen to, understand, and enjoy the conversation at said table, all the while praying that Asun would make her move soon. The guys at the table kept looking up at me, wondering what the fuck I was doing.
It wasn’t long before I saw her come out of the back. I reckon she had to go someplace private to read the note. She went from table to table taking drink orders. All the while working herself closer to the door. When she got to the table I was at, she took the boys’ orders, and then looked at me. I nodded, she nodded back, and then all hell broke loose.
She dropped her tray with the glasses still on it, and made a spectacular dash for freedom. I didn’t, at that stage in my life, know a woman could move so fast. I stepped into the space Asun had just vacated as she went through the door, pulled out my partner, Mr. Colt, and fired a shot into the ceiling. I hadn’t planned on discharging the weapon, but I saw two burly types come charging toward me. They were obviously bouncers, and girl wranglers. The shot stopped them in their tracks, but only momentarily. Then both of ’em pulled out their own version of Mr. Colt and started firing right at Yours Truly. I think the only thing that saved my ass was a conk to the back of my skull. All I remember is seeing stars.
I don’t know how long after all the excitement that I came to. But I found myself in a dark room lying on a bare mattress, which was on the floor. The only light was the light that came in from under the crack at the bottom of the door. My head was pounding. It was worse than the worst hangover I’ve ever had. Before or since, and I’ve had some doozies. I knew I was still in the café because I could hear that goddamn noise they took for music.
When I got around to thinking about it, I figured it must be early morning because the din of drunken revelry had diminished considerably. So there I sat, or more to the point, that is where I lay for what seemed like hours. And it seemed like hours because that’s what the fuck it was.
I know as I relate this to you years later, I may come off as glib at times, but I assure you, I was one scared motherfucker while all this was going down.
Finally, a little action. I heard someone at the door, I guess unlocking it. Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you, I did try the door shortly after regaining consciousness. I’m not a total boob, just a partial one. Anyway, the door swings open and in walks the big asshole himself, José, followed by a man in a lime green suit with no tie. He looked like a bookkeeper, which was a good thing, because I was shortly to find out that’s exactly what he was. He wore horn-rimmed glasses and stood a little over five feet in height. And he turned out to also be José’s interpreter.
I was lying down when I first heard them, but I made sure I was standing when the door opened and they walked into the room. José says something in Spanish to the little guy, and he in turn tells me that the man before me holds my life in his hands. Wow, no preamble, no how do you do, no nothin’.
I told you what the bookkeeper was wearing, so I guess it’s only fair to tell you of José’s taste in clothing apparel. From the ground up: cowboy boots, jeans, and here’s the kicker, an oversized Hawaiian print shirt. I reckon he thought it would help cover his bulk. It didn’t.
Now, down to business. José, through his interpreter, tells me that I stole one of his women. His women! I thought, Jesus H. Christ! What fuckin’ balls on this asshole. He then goes on to tell me I have two choices. One, I can be driven out to the desert and have a bullet placed in my head. Or two, I can work off the debt Asun was working off.
I was told José was going to have his noon repast. That’s not how it was phrased, but that was the general idea. And afterward he would come back for my answer. Yeah, let me think about that. Death or servitude? That’s a hard one. Take your time, José ol’ buddy. I’ll wait for you right here.
José and his toady left and locked the door behind them. I sat back down on the rank mattress and thought, Billy boy, how do you get yourself in these messes? Or better yet, how the hell ya gonna get yourself outta this one? Well, at least I made a friend. One who is probably getting laid at this very moment. I know I’d be, if I hadn’t seen my woman in three months. Friend, smend, I hope I never hear the fuckin’ word again.
I was thinking those negative thoughts when all hell broke loose downstairs. At least that’s what it sounded like from my vantage point. I listened with keen interest. Had the Marines landed? What the hell was going on?
Within a very short time, there was a crash on the door, then another, and finally a third. That’s when the door gave way and fell from its hinges. And guess who comes in carrying the leg that used to be on a table? My old amigo, Miguel. He was followed by a few others, but I only had eyes for Miguel.
“What the fuck is going on?”
“We are here to rescue you and the women,” was the simple answer to my simple query.
Because you and I were both out of the loop on this one, I’ll fill you in on what I later learned. When I didn’t return by daylight, Miguel got his housemates to forsake work for the day, and instead they went into the fields and told the men how Asun had been freed. But the man responsible for her freedom was now being held a prisoner at the same location. Word spread as the morning progressed. Somehow word got to the neighboring farms, and some of the men who heard the story also had women held at the café.
Without anyone actually suggesting it, as the noon hour approached, the men walked out of the fields and met at Miguel’s shack. They were about fifty in number, and it was decided that they would do something about the café and its owner once and for all. The men who had women there—and they were the majority—were going to free their women now that they knew it was possible. The others were outraged that the gringo boy who had freed Miguel’s wife was now in José’s hands.
Miguel took charge. He told the men to cross the border in groups of twos and threes and meet up at the little bar down the street from the café. Once they were all there, they simply walked to the café and stormed its battlements. Because the placed never closed, gaining entrance was no problem. And they got lucky in the fact the gunmen were off duty. José probably didn’t think the expense of gunmen was necessary in the middle of the day.
When inside, they broke up the tables and chairs to use the legs as clubs, just in case anyone got in the way. Clubs weren’t really needed. The sheer force of their numbers kept any would-be heroes at bay. As soon as the ground floor was secured, the men, both patrons and employees, were herded to one side of the room. The women were put in a protective area near the door, and while half the men stayed downstairs to keep an eye on things, the rest charged upstairs and went room-to-room freeing women who had been locked in. Oh, and by the way, they also freed me in the course of events. Unfortunately, José was nowhere to be found. Or fortunately, depending on your point of view. I’m sure José found it quite advantageous not being on the premises that afternoon.
Now that the men had me and the women, Miguel issued his marching orders, “Back to America!” It was said in Spanish, but I got the “America” part. We left the café as a conquering horde, but soon split up into twos and threes. Each man with his woman, and those who didn’t have a woman, paired up with the guy or guys nearest him. Miguel was my date.
When we got close to the border crossing, we held back, out of sight, so two of our little group could cross at a time. We spaced it out. Because even though the border guards were hip, they were not going to let almost eighty illegals cross in one fell swoop. Miguel and I were the last to cross. When we got back to the shack, he formally introduced me to his bride. Not being able to speak English, she thanked me in her own way. She put her arms around my neck and gave me a big kiss, one on each cheek.
Asun told Miguel that while he was gone the foreman had come looking for the missing men to find out why they were not in the fields. She told him her story, and he being of Mexican descent, told her to tell the men they all better be in the fields first thing Monday morning. He also said that she could not stay in the shack, that was for single men only. She and Miguel would have to move into one for married couples. He then smiled at her and said, “Welcome to America.”
I didn’t stick around either. I gathered up my stuff, put it in my suitcase, and turned to Miguel and said “Gracias, mi amigo.” He started to say something, but I held up my hand to stop him. “There’s nothing to say. I’ve gotta go.” I turned to Asun and said, “You are beautiful.” She cocked her head to one side, indicating she did not understand. And as Miguel turned to her to translate my statement, I walked out of that shithole of a shack and into a new life, one where I took a man’s friendship to heart.
Well, that’s my story of how I came to believe in friendship. Miguel had what he wanted, but he organized and led the revolt to free me because he had said he was my friend. It was as simple as that.
If anyone feels so inclined, I’d appreciate it if you’d like my Facebook page. You can click on the button on the right side of the page. Thank you.
When I got into the car, he told me to call him Teddy Bear. It was 3:00 a.m. and I was hitchhiking. I was grateful when I saw the brake lights come on and the car stop about thirty feet from where I was standing. The car itself was not visible because the fog at that time in the morning was so thick.
As I’ve said, I was to call the driver Teddy Bear, which didn’t strike the seventeen-year-old boy, which I was at the time, as a strange or unreasonable request. The road was a deserted two-lane affair that ran right through a swamp, which accounted for the excessive fog. I was damn glad he had happened along. It was mighty wet and cold, standing out there on the side of the road.
Because of the low visibility, we were going about twenty miles per hour and Teddy Bear was in an expansive and talkative mood. He told me in great detail of his job as an ambulance driver. He especially enjoyed picking up and transporting dead bodies. Still no alarms went off in my head. As he talked, I noticed he was slowing the car down even more than was necessary, given the conditions. As he spoke of his fascination with death and dead bodies, I just sat nodding my head and agreeing with whatever he said. I was not about to be put out into that inhospitable climate again for being an inattentive guest. I had been let off from my last ride about four hours earlier, and in those four hours, I had not seen one car until Teddy Bear came along.
We traversed the winding road through the swamp at an annoyingly slow pace as I learned of the joys of being in close proximity to the dead. About fifteen minutes into our time together, Teddy Bear started fishing around in the console that separated us. He did not seem to be trying very hard to find whatever he was looking for; his eyes never left the road and at times his hand would stop moving and just lay there in the console. Then he said, “You know, I could kill you, throw your body into the swamp, and nobody would ever find you.” That got my attention! However, before I could digest the statement and make the appropriate reply, his hand came up out of the console and made for the area of my neck. He was holding the largest damn hunting knife I think I have ever seen—before or since.
When you are inside a car that is traveling at about ten miles an hour, it does not seem like you’re going very fast. However, if one tries to exit a vehicle while going at that rate of speed, that’s a whole different story altogether. And that is exactly what I did as that knife came up to my throat. I grabbed the door handle and yanked as though my life depended on it, which it did. I meant to put one foot after the other onto the pavement and run like hell. But that is not what transpired. Before I could get my other leg out the door, I found myself falling, with the asphalt coming up to greet my face with an alarmingly alacrity. I had just enough time to get my hands out in front of me before my face met the road. It sure wasn’t like in the movies; there was no tuck and roll—just spastic clown time.
The car had continued forward as I was doing my little ballet, and as I lay prone on the ground, all I could see were the red taillights slowly receding into the fog. Then my heart jumped straight into my mouth. The brake lights came on, and if that wasn’t bad enough, the white backup lights came on immediately thereafter. I did not wait around to see what further mischief Teddy Bear had on his mind. I raised myself to a standing position, turned, and took off in the opposite direction. Remember, I was seventeen, and like all seventeen-year olds, I was in top condition. I was a quarter of a mile down the road before I realized I was even running. Having covered such a fair distance, I thought it might be safe to stop a moment and see if I was still being pursued. I turned to see those goddamn taillights still slowly coming my way. I could not make out the outline of the car through the fog, but those lights seemed to be the red eyes of a demon that would not be satisfied until I was run to ground and devoured.
As I stood there contemplating those red orbs, I became cognizant of my folly. Staying on the road was a mistake. Teddy Bear could follow me at his leisure. There sure wasn’t any other traffic to impede his amusement. If not for the lights, I wouldn’t know his location, which also meant he could not see me. That son-of a- bitch was toying with me! He must have thought that with nothing but swamp on both sides of the road, I had nowhere to go and he had ample time to catch up with me. That pissed me off, though not enough to confront that oversized knife. As I pondered the best course of action, I wondered if I was the first of Teddy Bear’s playthings. Had he done this before? Did he indeed throw dead bodies into the swamp, never to be seen again as he’d told me he could do with my deceased carcass?
Well, there was only one thing to do; get off the road and into the swamp. When you’re running for your life, you don’t sweat the little things, such as snakes and alligators. I turned to my right and proceeded to the tree line, which lay about fifty feet from the road. I could not see the trees, but I knew they were there, having seen them earlier in the night before the fog thickened.
I ran in a straight line, perpendicular to the road. A few feet after leaving the pavement, I stepped into a foot of water. My initial reaction was to halt and take a step backwards. But as I did, the car pulled up level with my location and stopped. This propelled me onward. The only problem with this strategy was the noise I made as I blundered through the slough. But I kept moving. Fear had a vice-like grip upon my psyche.
After what seemed an inordinately long time, I reached the tree line, stopped and listened for sounds of my nemesis. He did not disappoint. From the sound of his splashing, he was close on my heels. Then all of a sudden, the splashing stopped. We were no more than fifty feet apart, but we could not see one another through the fog. I held my breath and listened. Nothing! He must be doing the same thing—listening for any movement. Without making a sound, I inched myself behind a tree. Then it started. Out of the fog I heard, “Hey chick, chick, chickie. Hey chick, chick, chickie. Come to Teddy Bear.”
My God, if things weren’t already creepy enough!
I held my breath. I dared not move a muscle. And then I caught some luck. The mantra of, “Hey chick, chick, chickie” started to fade—he was moving away. I let out a deep breath and ventured a peek around the tree. To my surprise, I could see him. It then occurred to me that this was the first time I had set eyes upon him since leaping from the car. He was wearing his white ambulance driver’s uniform and it caught what little light there was. It wasn’t much, but it would give me a slight advantage in our game of hide-and-seek. Even though he was moving away, he was still close to my position. I was not about to budge or make any noise unless it became absolutely necessary. I watched the retreating, ethereal figure until it became an iridescent blur fading into the fog.
Even before he was completely out of sight, I started my retreat. I had to move slowly so as not to make the racket he was making as he indecorously made his way through the swamp. It was slow going, trudging through the quagmire, but I seemed to be making progress when all of a sudden I heard him coming up fast behind me. I took off like the proverbial bat out of hell. I blindly ran farther into the swamp. At that point, I just wanted to get away. I reacted like an animal pursued.
As I frantically made my way, I noticed that the water was getting deeper; it was now knee deep, which considerably slowed my progress. I pivoted to retrace my steps in the hope of finding shallow water again. And there he was, or more to the point, there “it” was; not ten feet away stood the white jump suit I had been running from for what seemed like an eternity. His face was indistinct, but there was no mistaking the menace in his voice as he said, “Hey, Chickie, I’ve been looking for ya.”
At that point I just gave up. What was the use? This guy knew the swamp; he would always be right behind me. And then, any doubt I had that he was playing with me, as a cat plays with a mouse, was put to rest when he took one step backwards. “You’ve got two minutes, Chickie. I suggest you use ’em.”
That got my Irish up. Not enough to tackle Teddy Bear and the knife, but enough to give me the strength to run once again. Where a few moments before I was willing to play the sacrificial lamb, I was now determined to play his game to the end—come what may. All this was decided in less than two seconds, which meant I still had one minute and fifty-eight seconds before Teddy Bear renewed his pursuit. And for some reason, I had no doubt that he would hold to his timetable. So, Once again, into the breach. Cry havoc, let slip the dogs of war.
I restarted my trek. I blundered to and fro. And then I heard the inevitable thrashing of Teddy Bear behind me and to the right. This reinvigorated me and I ran pell-mell deeper and deeper into the swamp. I was doing a good bit of thrashing myself when my foot caught on a root and I pitched head first into that miasmal water.
I got my hands out in front of me just as I hit the water, but not soon enough to keep my head from being immersed in its cold putridity. As I raised myself from that rancid liquid, the putrescent aroma clung to me as if we were fast friends. It was then that I felt it. My right hand touched something alien—something apart from the swamp. What it was I did not know, and I almost raised myself fully without inspecting it. However, at the last possible moment, I hesitated and felt along the length of this marvel. It floated, it was smooth, and by God it was a 2” x 4”, about four feet in length! This may come in handy, was my first thought. I took hold of my new friend, raised myself from the mire, and continued on my journey of fear.
Then I heard Teddy Bear coming up fast. I panicked, which was a good thing because it froze me in my tracks and I made no noise in which to help him locate me. He was getting closer and closer with every second, but I still stood there motionless.
After what seemed like forever, the fog thinned a little and I saw two trees directly before me; one with a trunk large enough that I could easily hide behind it. The other tree was only half the size; if I got behind that, I’d have to suck in my stomach in order not to be seen. I was about to step behind the larger of the two when the thought struck me that maybe I should get behind the smaller tree. I figured my pursuer would make a beeline for the larger one. All this assuming went on in a fraction of a second. But when I had finished with my deductive reasoning, I headed for the smaller tree.
And just in the nick of time. I was no sooner ensconced behind my tree when I saw the faint outline of that goddamn white jumpsuit. Man, was that getting old; I mean, I’d been running from that thing all morning. When was I going to catch a break?
As Teddy Bear approached, I took the chance of peering out from my concealed position, but I needn’t have fretted. His entire attention was focused on the tree next to mine. For the first time since the nightmare began, I had the luxury of observing ol’ Teddy Bear in his natural habitat. It looked as though he had played this game many times before.
He was moving in my direction, slowly. To him it was the old cat and mouse game; one I am now convinced he had played on numerous occasions. As he came toward me, I hefted the 2” x 4” as though I was Hank Aaron. He was now moving so slowly I thought he would never get into striking distance, but before I was fully aware of it, he was there, three feet from me, facing the other tree.
I planted my feet in my best batting stance and let fly. I was aiming for his head. I missed and hit him on the shoulder. His paroxysms of rage reverberated throughout the swamp. Though his fulminations were ringing in my ears, I set my stance once again and let swing. This time the only sound I heard was a loud THAWACK. Both of us, Teddy Bear and I, were stunned at this turn of events. He just stood there for a moment before collapsing like a wet dishrag. Me, I was so amazed that I had connected, that I stood there as if it were I who had been hit across the head.
But my stupor was short lived. When I saw he wasn’t moving, I dropped my weapon and started running. Teddy Bear had left his lights on, so it was no trouble finding my way back to the road. I thought we had traversed well into the swamp, but, in reality, we were only a few hundred feet into the goddamn place.
I emerged onto the pavement only a few yards from the car. The driver door was wide open and, as I said, the lights were on. Now if only the keys were in it, I could take the first easy breath since that nut job picked me up. I approached the car warily; I thought there might be some sort of Teddy Bear hex on it. I peered into the vehicle, and thank the Lord, the keys were in the ignition. I slipped into the driver’s seat and started the engine. I put her into gear, and accelerated away from that accursed place.
I drove hard and fast through the fog until it thinned out a bit. Up ahead were the lights of a truck stop. I parked the car around back, leaving the keys in it. I found a spigot not far from the car and because it was out back and in the dark, I took off my smelly clothes and rinsed them out. I then washed up as best I could and put my clothes back on. It was summertime and the Florida night was warm; the clothes would dry quickly. I then walked between the trucks asking any driver I saw if he was going south. One guy said he was heading for West Palm Beach, but first he was going to get himself some coffee and a sandwich. If I was still around when he came out, he’d give me a ride.
I was, and he did.
To this day, I don’t know if I killed Teddy Bear or not. Sometimes late at night when I can’t sleep, I pray that I did not. At other times, thinking he must have been a serial killer and if I did kill him, then I must have saved at least a few lives. The not knowing doesn’t bother me all that much. I did what I had to do.
Through no fault of his own, a young man is thrust into a new culture just at the time that culture is undergoing massive changes. It is losing its identity, its lands, and its dignity. He not only adapts, he perseveres and, over time, becomes a leader—and on occasion, the hand of vengeance against those who would destroy his adopted people.