The Day Hal Quit
The compelling story of a secret and perilous love that arises from one man's devotion to honor and one girl's search for her stolen soul.
Cowboy and Korean War vet and bartender . . . Hal Mull grew up on a ranch near the Mexican border. He thinks he's seen every kind of border crosser: from the drug smuggler and coyote to the dehydrated migrant worker. But when his boss's nineteen-year-old daughter Tara talks him into bringing her a machine gun in the desert near Nogales, he knows the game has changed.
"A fast ride through the desert and grass country of Southern Arizona..." ~Arizona Daily Star
"Jim Christ is a good writer , particularly of the westernthriller genre." ~Courtney McDermott--Tufts University, Kirkus reviewer
"This book is definitely a page-turner . . . the plot, characters and settings are enticing and original." ~Bonnie Edwards, author of Deadly Pairs
Caje’eme’s uncle had told him many times that he was named after a great man. On Friday, he was riding on the back of a flatbed north-bound for Sasabe with a load of half-seasoned mesquite firewood, wearing a bandana over his nose to block the dust and holding a duffel bag on his lap. It did not make him feel like a great man. But if he were home, what would he be doing after all? Working in a restaurant, or reading in the university library perhaps, or maybe having fun with the girl, so no, this was better—getting money so he could keep going to the classes and keep being with the girl. Maybe be like that first Caje’eme in a few years.
When the flatbed slowed to turn northwest at Saric, where the road separated from the shoulder of the Rio Altar river bed, Caje’eme jumped off, clutching the duffel. He twisted his ankle as he landed, and rolled into the powdery dust. Wincing, he pushed himself up, slapped the dust away and made his way to the clay bank and then into the sandy river bed. As he had on the previous trips, he continued the trek north in the mostly-dry Rio Altar, treading as much as possible in dampened sand, where it was cool and gave only slightly to his weight. He trailed along the western bank where the shade from cottonwoods and mesquites was just beginning to lengthen. About halfway to El Busani, he began to wonder if he’d broken something in his ankle or foot. He set the duffel bag down and knelt to tighten the laces on his Converse high-tops and limped on, but he knew he could not walk all the way to the border now. He needed the steps left in him for the hills beyond the border.
When the river bed turned sharply east and told him he was just south of El Busani, he climbed the bank, continuing north through the thick mesquite and onto the alluvium, under the highway bridge, and still north. Broad farmland stretched to his right, but Caje’eme trailed the tree-lined north-bound road until he reached the town.
At the little dark cantina in El Busani, he ate a burro of beans and carnitas and bought a gallon jug of the local mescal. Then he waited fifty yards away in an adobe ruin, with his right leg raised up on what used to be a window sill. He lay back on the duffel as if it were a cushion. His thick black hair lay flat and smooth on his head, his nose was hooked like a bird’s nose and his mustache was fine-haired and wide, rounding the look of his smooth brown face. He wore a long-sleeved white shirt. He would be late now, and he would have to call the girl, he knew, or she would have to wait. He thought about the girl, tall and lithe and blond. She always called him Caje.
After four o’clock, men began entering the cantina, locals, he assumed. He watched the little parking lot, powdery dust rising as each set of tires rolled in, the Sonoran darkness descending. Finally, a little after eight o’clock a vehicle approached from the north. He heard it before he saw it, a noisy clatter coming in from the dirt road. He watched its headlights until they blinked off as the old pickup truck rumbled in. A floodlight beamed out into the darkness from above the cantina’s door, and he could see two men get out of their faded red truck. They looked like braceros, with their sinewy arms, hard dark skin and relaxed gait. They would have to be the ones to give him a ride. He limped closer and waited on the outer perimeter of light. He clutched the duffel. A half-moon rose, and the temperature dropped. He opened the duffel and extracted a dark blue sweatshirt and put it on. He waited.
Two hours later when the men came out, their gait was unsteady. Caje lifted his duffel and the gallon jug and approached them. “¿Me puede dar un paseo al norte? ¿La frontera?” The men’s eyes were glassy but steady.
“Vamos a El Cumaral,” one said.
“¿Es cercano a la frontera?” He held up the jug. “Por favor.”
They nodded at the bed and took the mescal and got into the cab. Caje sat in the straw-strewn bed with his back against its side. He rested his right foot on a smooth spare tire. The truck bumped along for several miles, then turned east, crossed a creek and turned north again. He had not crossed the border east of Rio Altar before, and he wondered where he would find himself. He had over an hour to think about it as the little truck made its way slowly among the ruts.
They stopped at a fork, where Caje could smell livestock and water. He saw several low adobe buildings. The engine idled, and one of the men got out from the passenger side of the truck and said, “Es El Cumaral. Jorge le llevará sobre el filo.”
Caje said, “¿El filo…La frontera?” He could smell mescal on the man’s breath.
The man nodded and walked toward the buildings. He had left the truck door open, and Caje climbed out of the bed and into the cab. The truck turned at the fork and began climbing. Caje bounced on the bench seat, clutching the duffel.
In fifteen minutes they were descending again. There was a road of sorts, but it seemed to open up only a few feet ahead of them in the headlights between scrub oaks and piñons. Branches screeched along the sides of the truck and over its roof. Then they came to a small meadow, where Jorge circled around a tall ponderosa. As the truck came around, Caje saw a barbed wire fence with two small signs. One read ‘Coronado National Forest,’ the other ‘United States-Not a Port of Entry.’ Immediately to the left of the sign there was wide gap in the wire.
Jorge said, “No entrada,” and smiled at Caje.
Caje smiled back and got out of the truck. “Muchas gracias, señor. ¿Donde esta Ruby?”
Jorge pointed. “Norte recta y un poco este. Seguir la huella. Pero tenga cuidado. Hay hombres malos.”
“Okay, Jorge. Tengo cuidado.” He slung the duffel onto his shoulder and moved toward the signs, limping but moving quickly. The truck’s lights shone directly on the gap in the wire, and as he approached it, Caje could see curls of the wire twisted back and wound haphazardly around the T-posts on either side of the gap. He wondered how many times the strands had been cut and repaired and then cut again. He could hear Jorge revving to start the ascent again, and soon the lights of the truck disappeared. A few yards inside the fence, he stepped into a thicket of oak and sat on the thick duff. He checked his watch and waited for a half-hour, moving once to raise his right leg onto the duffel. He remembered his uncle saying that a Yaqui could wait longer and quieter than anyone—better than an Apache. He listened for engine noises, for footfalls, for voices, for dogs, for anything that did not belong to the night. He heard the fluttering of bats, the padding of a coyote and the swishing of puffs of breeze through the leaves. At eleven o’clock, he took a canteen from the duffel and drank and then set out on the trail again, limping.
The moon had risen, just edging over into a waning stage, and he could see the trail about ten yards ahead, twisting between scrub oak and clusters of rock, sloping down to a creek and then following it. He stopped every hour and rested with his ankle raised up on the duffel. At one clearing along the trail, he saw signs of a camp—rocks circled for a fire pit, broken glass, a few rusting pop-top cans, diapers, a torn shoe…
At dawn, he came to a rocky earth dam on the creek with a silvery camp trailer parked in a flat spot on the far side of the pond. The pond looked still and green and cool, inviting him. There was no car or truck at the camp though, and the trailer stood silent. The campers’ fire pit looked cold among a pair of camp chairs and a heap of firewood.
He circled wide to the west, upslope and beyond the dam, and found a wide crevice of granite behind a manzanita bush. He pulled his canteen out and stuffed the duffel into the crevice. He studied the place so that he could find it later—the purple-barked Manzanita lush with blooms, the giant twisted trunk of a dwarfish oak, the towering rocks that leaned together in a kiss to form the crevice. Then he walked downslope again to the trail. He could see that the trail was joined by a narrow road on the far side of the dam. It arced over a hill to the east. He knew it must lead to the Ruby Road, but remembered Jorge had told him to stay on the trail. He walked up the creek trail to the dam. There was still no sound from the camp trailer.
Caje stooped to fill his canteen, then sat on a low rock on the dam and started to unlace the sneaker from his throbbing foot, but he saw the swelling there and thought better of it. Instead, he worked from the bottom of the laces and tightened them even more and retied the sneaker. Then he swung his foot out into the pond and leaned back on his elbows. The morning air was cold, and wisps of vapor rose from the tiny pond. His ankle throbbed. He could call the girl when he got to Ruby if they had a phone there, but where could they meet now?
Perhaps he dozed, or perhaps he was thinking of the girl again, but he did not hear the approaching car until it was turning in at the camp to his left. It was a two-tone El Camino with two men in it, no more than a hundred feet away.
Caje could see the passenger stare at him. He turned slowly on the rock, picking up the canteen, and lifted his wet leg out of the water, standing and testing the foot as water bled from his sneaker.
“Mornin!” the man said, but it was really a question, like ‘Who the hell are you?’ He opened the car door and stood. He was a big man, well over six feet, with long black hair in a ponytail and a beard. He wore a heavy army shirt, sleeves torn away to make it a vest, over a red shirt, jeans and boots. A name patch on the shirt read ‘Hicks.’
Caje smiled faintly and nodded. “Buenos dias.” Time to act lost, he decided. He fought the urge to run. “¿Donde esta Calabasas?”
The driver from the El Camino went to the camp trailer and tried the door—locked. Then he came around the car and stood next to Hicks. He was shorter, about Caje’s size, with a crew cut, in an oversized white tee shirt, and baggy fatigues and sneakers. He wore a revolver in a holster on his belt. His tee shirt covered his belt line except where it was tucked behind the holster. “What’s he want?”
“Says he’s looking for Calabasas. Just a wetback I guess.” Never glancing at the smaller man, he smiled at Caje.
One may smile and smile and be a villain, Caje remembered from his lit class. “¿Donde esta Calabasas?”
“Northeast. Follow the road.” The big man motioned behind him with his thumb. “You alone? Solo?”
Caje nodded. “Si, estoy solo.” He smiled and moved forward along the dam to where the two men stood, trying not to limp. His heart pounded but he moved ahead. “Gracias.” When he got close to them, he moved left toward the road. The big man leaned at him suddenly, and he almost broke into a run. He nodded and said, “Muchas gracias.” He listened as closely as he could, walking up the road as it rose to the east.