The First Meeting
Manny Bustos is a fourteen-year-old orphan who lives on the streets of the border town of Juarez, Mexico. Just across the bridge is the city of El Paso, Texas—a short distance, but a world away. Below the bridge is a "muddy trickle" of water, all that remains of the once proud Rio Grande. On any given day, beneath the bridge, packs of hungry children begging for money cry out to the tourists who are crossing above. Oftentimes, the tourists will toss coins down to them and laugh to see the urchins fight over their cynical offerings. Manny hates working under the bridge; he is much smaller than most of the other street kids, and generally does not fare well in the desperate competition. Soon, however, he will not have to worry about any of this. The fact that he is young and small will no longer matter, because he has strength, speed, and a willingness to work hard. From all that he has heard, that is "all that is needed" on the other side, and he has resolved to attempt the crossing tonight.
Robert S. Locke is "above all things, a sergeant." Outwardly, his bearing is impeccable. He stands with his back "ramrod straight...[he has] graying...hair and a straight mouth...steel blue eyes...a uniform...incredibly neat and sharp and true." Robert is the epitome of a soldier, but his outer image reveals nothing of his tormented soul. Unseen scars cover his mind and thoughts, and he must constantly drink to alleviate the pain caused by these wounds. Stationed in El Paso, Robert performs his obligations as a soldier flawlessly, but each night that he is not on duty, he crosses the bridge to Juarez, where he drinks "evenly and professionally" to anesthetize his brain. If he does not do this, "all of his friends from all the [past] battles [will] come...to visit," and, professional though he is, he cannot stand that.
On this particular night, Robert goes to the Club Congo Tiki, a place he frequents because it is "incredibly ugly and in such poor taste that it [is] almost not real to him." Fittingly, the Congo Tiki helps him to leave the real world behind and allows him to sojourn in a place of dreams where his "old friends" cannot come to call. It is Robert's habit to sit at a table in the back corner of the establishment, and to drink methodically, until he is in such a fog that he is "blind...[to] all other things."
Out on the streets, Manny crouches in the darkness, waiting for the best time to attempt his crossing of the river. There are many dangers that threaten those preparing for the run. The worst of these are the street wolves, who seize young boys "with large brown eyes [and] long lashes" like himself, and sell them for money. There is no protection; the Juarez police are no help, and the border patrol does not care if the street kids are "hurt or used or killed." Suddenly, enormous floodlights explode upon the river, exposing hundreds of people trying to cross to the opposite shore. In the panic that ensues, there is a complete loss of order, and Manny finds himself in the clutches of four street wolves who are ecstatic with their find. Manny kicks as hard as he can between the legs of the man who holds him, then runs for the alleys in a desperate effort to escape.
Manny races up and down the labyrinthine maze that takes him around the bars and cafes frequented by the soldiers from El Paso. When he finally eludes his pursuers, he finds himself in the alley behind the Club Congo Tiki, where Robert Locke is vomiting up all the liquor he has consumed during this night. Manny passes by closely and tries to slip the soldier's wallet out of his back pocket, but Robert, despite his drunkenness, grabs him by the wrist with "more power to hold him than [Manny] could have imagined."
Without saying anything, Robert begins striding purposefully down the street, dragging Manny along with him. The sergeant is only partially aware of what he is doing, as he struggles not to see the ghosts which assail him relentlessly—ghosts of "friends...good men" in Saigon, El Salvador, and a host of other places whose names he cannot recall. When he gets to the bridge, a police officer steps out and respectfully confronts him. Manny complains that Robert is forcing him to go along against his will. The policeman, after telling the sergeant to let the boy go, asks if what Manny says is true. As the fog clears in his mind, Robert remembers that Manny had been trying to steal his wallet, but he also realizes that if he reports this, the policeman will come down hard on the boy. Prevaricating, Robert tells the officer that Manny had been guiding him to the bridge, and that in his drunkenness, he, Robert, had inexplicably grabbed the boy's arm and had dragged him along with him. The policeman, knowing that both the sergeant and the urchin are lying, waves them both away. Robert crosses the bridge and the boy disappears into the night; this is the first meeting between Manny and the sergeant.
The Second Meeting
Manny's whole being is focused on the basic elements of survival. Always on the edge of starvation, he has no time for the finer experiences of life, such as learning. Nonetheless, the boy harbors a deep appreciation for the great military general Pancho Villa. Next to the bullring in Juarez is the Rio Brava Hotel, where the illustrious general came when he took the city. Manny knows that this is true because the building's walls are pocked with bullet holes to prove it.
One Saturday, when he is begging at the adjoining market for cast-off vegetables, Manny looks up and sees the American sergeant walking toward the Rio Brava Hotel. He remembers that the soldier had not told the police that he had tried to steal his wallet. Manny thinks that the sergeant must have a generous nature and might be responsive to further begging. There is something else, too, that draws Manny...
(The entire section is 2420 words.)
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