“How soon is soon?”
The younger man barely turned his head, just enough to glance at the old man. “I don’t know, Papi—soon.”
The old man watched his son focus his attention toward the broken land below the cliff. “Where, exactly?”
“There.” The younger man’s bark of a finger pointed toward a gnarled mesquite where its overgrown limbs swept with the breeze at the shadowed hardpan. “In that clearing. Behind the tree. To the left behind it.”
“Veo que. I see it.” Under the worn straw hat, dark eyes squinted crow’s feet against the summer glare. The deep wrinkles clawed to the silver hair at the temples until the old man returned his gaze to the younger man. “How do you know this? How do you know this is where he comes, that this is where it happened?”
“You should not be asking Danita these things, Felipe. It does her no good. Not from you. Not for this purpose. This will not change what happened. What’s done is done.”
“And what will be will be, Papi.”
“It will not help, son, it will only make things worse.”
“Nothing can make things worse. Danita will never be the same—never.”
The old man had heard his son’s voice quaver, so he knew he was crying. “No, what’s done is done. But you—you, Felipe—will be worse for doing this.”
“A father must protect his children, Papi. I—”
“And I am trying to protect you.”
“I didn’t protect Danita.”
“And you think killing this man will protect her now?”
“Killing this animal will protect other little girls, Papi.”
“It’s not just the killing, Felipe, it’s what this need to kill is doing to you. If this is where they come each time, then tell the sheriff, tell the Border Patrol, let them handle this.”
The younger man was not listening to him now. On a patch of grass that grew from a crag in the rocky ledge, he had rested the barrel of the butt-scarred .30-06 rifle. He positioned his small body into a prone position and peered into the telescope where it aimed at the narrow clearing below. “Just stay quiet now, Papi. Any minute now, we will hear the voices and the brush snapping under their feet. You have to trust me, I know what I’m doing.” He snugged the rubber-backed rifle butt against his shoulder. “Any time now, Papi.”
Crouched behind the bunch grass beside him, the old man shook his head slowly, squinting skyward into the summer glare. The crow’s feet were filled with tears now. “Killing this man will not make Danita the way she was before. Let the sheriff handle this, please. Por favor, Felipe, por favor.”
The younger man took his eye away from the telescope long enough to make sure the rifle was ready to fire.
“Please let the sheriff handle this.”
“I am handling this the way I have to, Papi. No one rapes my little girl—my little Danita—and gets away with it! No one leaves my little Danita to die in the desert that way! The animal left her out here to bleed to death! No one gets away with this—no one, Papi!”
The old man stared where a trail of ants crawled into a crevice of the hot rock and nodded. Before long, he heard the muffled voices, the scraping of brush against jeans. His head jerked toward a thicket of brush that partitioned the narrow clearing. The voices grew louder, distinguishable, one from another. Deep, shallow, flat. All were commanding, threatening voices. Then among them, the whimpers of children, of girls like Danita. Their muffled cries were emanating from the brush just beyond the clearing. Snapping brush, threatening voices, whimpers, all growing distinct now. A moment later, through the thicket, he could see glimpses of them. Two grown men, two older boys—rapists, killers—they were trafficking three more girls. Maybe Felipe was right. Maybe he should kill this animal now. He should kill all these animals. The grown men, the older boys. Kill them. Kill them now. To protect others. Maybe he should. As the figure of a taller, skinny man carrying an assault rifle led the three girls into the clearing, the old man heard his son take a quivering breath. He froze, swallowed at his suddenly parched throat, watching his son’s finger curl across the trigger of the rifle.
It pressed, the trigger clicked, no report.
“You’re dead,” the younger man whispered to himself.
At that moment, from the horizon, the thump of a helicopter could be heard as it crawled across the brassy sky. As its speck grew into a discernible object, the squeal of brush scraping metal sounded where two tails of white dust plumed from opposite directions of the caliche road that etched into the span of brush. In an instant, before the human traffickers could scramble away, a green and white U.S. Border Patrol SUV skidded to a stop along the gravel road while the sheriff’s white pickup jerked to a halt at the far edge of the clearing. From both vehicles, doors flew open before the armed agents and deputies charged to rescue the girls.
“Felipe, your rifle—it, it jammed!”
The younger man was watching the scene play out below the cliff. With the helicopter now hovering overhead, the three girls had scrambled to the safety of a large rock. In their attempts to escape, the rapist and his cronies had darted first in one direction and then in another, wildly firing their pistols and assault rifles into the thicket. The dense brush and rocky terrain were protecting the half dozen USBP agents and the two deputies. They had the human traffickers cornered now; there was no escape. In desperation, the taller, skinny man paused to aim his assault rifle at the deputy closest to him. It was a futile and final act. Before he could fire the weapon, one of the other agents fired her Berretta 96D pistol, the report echoing against the rocky cliff. The rapist was thrown against the mesquite tree where his skinny body twitched into silence. As the other traffickers fell to their knees with hands clasped behind their heads, the authorities converged to apprehend them.
“Your rifle jammed, Felipe,” the old man said again, staring at the lifeless, skinny body beside the tree. “It was meant to be, Felipe. The authorities will handle this now! Dios, gracias.” The old man crossed himself. “This is God’s will, Felipe. It is meant to be.”
The younger man held out the rifle to show the old man the empty chamber. “It wasn’t loaded, Papi.”
The old man’s parched mouth opened slightly, and for a moment, he stared at his son quizzically. “You were never going to kill them then?”
“I did kill them, Papi,” he said, pointing a gnarled finger at his head. “In here.”
“And the authorities being here now?”
“I told them what Danita told me. When to come.”
The old man smiled thankfully. “Danita will be okay, mijo. She’s young, she’ll be okay. In time. And so will you.”
Standing now, the younger man observed as two female Border Patrol agents comforted the young girls before leading them to the SUV. “Those girls there will be okay in time,” he said, “if nothing happened to them before now.”
The old man nodded, almost absent-mindedly, as he stared where the ant trail disappeared inside the dark crevice of the rock. Then he turned slightly, toward his son, and said in a quiet voice, “Life, I think, is an incomplete journey, Felipe. Consequential and incomplete.”
“Here, Papi,” the younger man said, offering a hand as his father struggled to his feet. “We better get going. It will be time to take Danita to see the counselor by the time we get home.”
The old man put a hand on his son’s slender shoulder, squeezing it lovingly, savoring the moment, and this time, the tears crawled down the crags of his leathered face.