The first time he saw the journalist, he reckoned him to be twenty years old and he was wrong. The journalist, from his perspective, reckoned the plaid-shirted rancher to be around fifty, and he guessed right. They were both traveling south. The journalist was on his way from the United States, after quitting his job; the man in the plaid shirt was coming back from a job in the northern part of the state, but he didn’t say what it was. They knew they were getting into Mexico because the air on the bus was too thick to breathe.
When they crossed the Río Muerto, they saw a two-jeep convoy. As they got to Dos Cruces a pickup full of judiciales passed them, and at Seis Marias they ran into a checkpoint inspection by the Eighth Military Zone. A soldier with a lantern signaled the driver to pull over; the driver took the bus down a dirt road and stopped it in the beam of a huge floodlight, between two walls of sandbags.
On the other side of the highway was a big canvas tent with a set of radar machines, and farther down three dozen soldiers were doing calisthenics. During the search of the bus, the journalist turned on his reading light and tried to read the only book he had with him, The Spiritual Exercises by St. Ignatius of Loyola, but just a minute into it he felt deeply uncomfortable and looked in the direction of the trenches. Just beneath him, behind the sandbags and the thicket of palm trees, two soldiers stared at him, full of resentment. He wouldn’t have cared, if it weren’t for the high-caliber machine guns they had trained on him. The rancher said he’d probably look the same, if he had to spend the night at the mercy of the mosquitoes, in hundred-degree heat, crouched behind a bunch of sandbags.
The inspection was carried out without incident. The sergeant who looked them over did it only out of duty and scrutinized the luggage lazily. Meanwhile, the young journalist took advantage of the wait to drink a yogurt, and he offered another to the rancher. In exchange, the fifty-year-old offered him some pemoles, the cornmeal cookies they eat in the Huasteca. The rancher asked if he was a student, the young man said no, he’d already finished his studies, in fact had even quit his first job, as a reporter for the San Antonio Herald. He was thinking of taking a year off and living down at the port; perhaps later he’d go back to Texas. He showed the rancher a picture of a blonde woman with her hair pulled back. The rancher remarked that she was very beautiful and said he shouldn’t have left such a job. The journalist responded that he had his reasons.
The young man examined his fellow travelers: they looked to him like rough, uncultured types. There was the plaid- shirted rancher, shirttail untucked to hide his gun; a somber smoker, who traveled with a machete wrapped in newspaper; and, toward the back, one who seemed worst of all: a mustachioed giant who was eating oranges without peeling them. The young man was still looking them over when it came time for the second inspection.
Ever since he saw the pickups parked on the broken white line of the highway, he’d had the conviction that they would be rude and arrogant, but he hadn’t guessed the half of it. They were pulled over by an officer with a walrus mustache, who raised his badge and his gun in the same hand. Behind him, the whole squadron was drinking beer, leaning against the trucks. They all wore dark glasses, even though it was not yet morning, and were dressed in black, despite the oppressive heat. For some reason their poise troubled him more than the arrival of the soldiers had. Keeping his devotional readings to himself, he thought merely, The world is so round and has so much room, and in it there are so many and such varied people. Soon enough he’d realize that the only thing pure about these souls was the white initials of the judicial police printed on their shirts.
The chief gave instructions, and a fat fellow climbed into the bus. He was followed by a kid with an AK-47. Neither of them was older than he was; the second didn’t even shave yet. The journalist got the impression that this was the first bus they’d searched in their lifetime. The fat man displayed his badge as if he were going to bless them with it and requested that nobody move: they’d be doing a routine inspection—though it didn’t turn out that way for anyone.
He walked the length of the aisle and looked twice at the other passengers, as if he couldn’t believe he detected so many wanted individuals. He was a fat man of little faith and didn’t even think of hauling them in. Then he brought in a German shepherd that sniffed at them one by one. As soon as the dog was on the bus, the journalist noticed a stirring in the back. Without a doubt the smoker was concealing the machete, the rancher was hiding his gun, and the guy with the mustache was tossing something out the window. All in vain: it was an extremely intelligent dog. It went to the very back of the bus, passed all the other passengers without pausing or doubting once, and stopped in its tracks before the young man who was reading The Spiritual Exercises.
“Get off the bus!” the fat man ordered.
They took him off at gunpoint, they searched him as if he were a member of the Paracuán cartel, they mortified him with raunchy cursing, and when he said he was a member of the press they made him take off his jacket—ah, so you’re a reporter—and searched him for drugs. Then they emptied his suitcase on a table and the fat man began to rummage. The tape recorder and clothing grabbed his attention, but what he liked most were the sunglasses. The journalist said he had an eye condition and needed to wear them on doctor’s orders, but the agent took them anyway. The kid with the AK-47 opined aloud, “Fancy-ass little prick,” and spat in the direction of the journalist’s shoes. The rest of them smiled.
“Here we go,” boasted the potbellied officer, “now we’ve got the truth.”
He waved a marijuana cigarette in his hand. The rancher, from his seat on the bus, shook his head.
“The cigarette is not mine,” the journalist protested. “I saw when he put it there.”
“No way, asshole,” the fat man shot back.
When he figured the abuse was only going to get worse, the rancher said to himself, That’s enough, and got off the bus. He walked straight to the judicial police chief, who was drinking a beer and leaning on his pickup. As soon as he saw him, the chief gave a noticeable start.
“Fuckin’ Macetón, you lose something around here?”
“Screw you, Cruz, he’s just a pup.”
“He’s old enough to vote.”
“He’s traveling with me.”
The chief gave a distrustful grunt and yelled at the journalist, “What’re you going to the port for?”
“What’re you going to the port for?”
“That’s where I’m going to be living.”
“Get out of here.”
They put his things back in the suitcase, except for his jacket and the sunglasses. When he reached for them, the kid with the AK-47 blocked him.
“These stay here. And hurry it up, or the bus’ll leave without you.”
As the bus took off, the young man saw the fat guy trying on the sunglasses and the other had put on the jacket. Plus a thousand pesos were missing from his wallet.
“It’s your lucky day, sir,” the rancher said, “that was Chief Cruz Treviño, of the judicial police.”
The journalist nodded and clenched his jaw.
Just before they reached the river’s edge, two gigantic billboards welcomed them to the city: the first was an ad for Cola Drinks and the second showed the president with arms open wide. Both he and his campaign slogan were riddled with bullet holes. Where it read, A GOOD LIFE FOR YOUR FAMILY, the light shone through the perforations.
As they crossed the bridge, the rancher thought it strange that the journalist stared at the river with such curiosity: there were the same little boats as ever, and, in the distance, the immense cranes moved their dinosaur necks at the cargo port.
Once at the bus station, they made their way to the taxi stand and bought their tickets. As they waited their turn, the rancher observed, “If ever you want to transport weed, put it in a shampoo bottle, wrapped in a piece of plastic. Don’t even think of putting it in a coffee can; that’s where they look first.”
The boy insisted that they’d planted the drug among his things; he didn’t even smoke tobacco. Then he said he owed him and he’d like to thank him. A bit awkwardly, the plaid-shirted man handed him his card: AGENT RAMÓN CABRERA, MUNICIPAL POLICE. The boy looked at him dumbfounded, and the rancher insisted that he get in the next available cab.
After the car had turned the corner, he noticed the portrait of the blonde fluttering on the ground: it must have fallen out when the boy paid. Cabrera picked it up and put it in his wallet, without knowing what for.
He thought he’d never see the boy again, and again he was wrong.