Jo nudged her way through the dense weave of people until she came to a clearing, and caught her breath at the first thing she saw: a man lying face up, an Indian, it looked like, though he was covered in a kind of bloody rug. His body was matted with dust, and between it and the blood, it was hard to see where he was injured, or what he’d been doing, but she’d seen him before, the day before. She’d seen him at the burial. It was the man whose son had died.
Kneeling above him was the preppie she’d seen with Larry earlier, though now Jo saw that it was actually Archie, the scowling boy who’d given her and Micah their masks the day before. He was praying over the dead man, his prayers silent but his sobs audible.
The next thing she saw was Micah. He stood on the other side of the dead body, and was pointing a gun at Jack. Jack had his hands in the air, and was standing on the far side of a Jeep. Jack told her to keep her distance, to stay put. He nodded to her left, at Paco, who she’d missed altogether. He was holding a long wooden plank. At his feet was Angel, lying unconscious.
“It’s not what you think,” said Jack.
Micah’s men were being held by the crowd, and Micah motioned at them with his gun. For the first time since she’d met him, he’d shed his cool, inscrutable mask, and his wide eyes betrayed the kind of half-crazed hypervigilance describing so many Arivacans. He was no longer certain of his outcome, nor was he resigned to failure. He was on the verge, in limbo, caught humming between seeming immovables, and Jo realized that exactly here, with the whole town against him, had he come closer than ever to assimilation.
“Let them go,” said Micah, “or Jack here pays for it.”
Loud, painful wheezing could be heard through the Jeep’s open door. Jo knew those sounds well.
“This man needs medical attention,” Jack said. “He’s having some kind of attack.”
“He’s asthmatic,” said Jo.
Both Micah and Jack looked at her, Jack’s face took in this information unquestioningly, while Micah’s fought it. Then a new voice spoke up from the crowd.
“It’s true,” said the voice. “Che Guevara suffers from asthma.”
Presently a Navajo elder stepped forward. He was short and bent and dressed simply. He wore large silver rings on each finger. His hair, long and white, was pulled back behind his head.
“Listen, old man,” said Micah, “there’s just one way we’re going to do this, and that’s with my men being released, and with us leaving. If everything goes easy, we won’t be back, and that’s a promise.”
As he said this he began walking around the Jeep, and when he reached Jack he circled behind him, slowly, and holding his arm, put his gun to Jack’s head.
“Micah,” Jo said. “He did what you wanted.”
“Jo, you’re driving. Get behind the wheel. We’re not done yet.”
Jack pleaded with Jo to go. “Just do as he says. Let’s see if we can get out of this without anyone else getting hurt.”
But Jo couldn’t move. The wheezing was growing louder, and everything in her being strained forward, having been trained—having trained herself—to battle such attacks. She looked at the dark, crumpled form in the Jeep’s seat, shuddering as it fought for air.
Micah cocked his gun, and Jack called her name. “Jo,” he said, “please!”
“I can help,” she said. And without thinking further, without so much as a glance to either side, she walked forward, opened the back door, and climbed in beside the ailing man.
He was in terrible shape, his face dirty and pale, his beard unshaven and full of brambles, but Jo could see clearly that it was Che Guevara. He was wheezing, barely breathing, and his eyes kept rolling back into his head. Jo looked back at him, amazed by what she saw.
This man didn’t look like a leader at all.
She leaned back out the door, and stared into Micah’s incredulous face. “Get Paco’s car. It’s the dust. The new car will be safer.”
Micah’s men had guns drawn now too, she noticed, and the four of them—Jack included—stood with their backs together in a small circle. Micah wore a tight smile, and in a moment nudged Jack forward, and turned his gun on Jo.
“You heard her, Jack,” he said.
Jack, wide-eyed, backed into the crowd with his hands raised, until Jo shouted at him to hurry up and ducked back into the Jeep.
With some effort she lowered him onto his back, and tilted back his head as she’d done with her son many times. She knew that air free of the particulates was the best thing she could offer, but until then any obstruction could be fatal. She brought her hands to the man’s forehead and smoothed his hair back. Black, stringy whiskers covered his face, and despite his hollow cheeks and oxygen-deprived skin, she understood for the first time how young the man was. Younger than her, certainly. He was a baby.
When his breathing stopped altogether, she was not afraid. She did not feel anything at all. She pulled his jaw down with her hand and breathed slowly and forcefully into his lungs. She turned her face away and felt her own hot breath exhaled back against her cheek. Then she did it again, and again, and she kept doing it until she the quick, half-startled gasp of his diaphragm contracting back to life.
Suddenly she was pulled from the car, and Micah’s men reached in to drag Che out as well. Paco’s car was beside them, and its long clean whiteness divided her from much of the crowd. But not from the Elder, who looked sharply down at her on the ground, then stepped forward in her defense. One of Micah’s men, seeing him approach, gave him a quick blow to the head with the butt of his handgun, and the old man staggered then slowly fell, as though being guided downward by invisible arms.
There was a gasp from the crowd, and Micah noticed. He surveyed the lot as though taking its temperature, and Jo watched his eyes dart around and his face fairly twitch. He was clearly trying to think quickly, to devise a plan, and as clearly failing. Jo thought of how impressed he’d been by Jack and Ben, of how seamlessly their instincts drove their action. All his relaxed, easy banter, she saw now, had been a façade, only possible within the sanctuary of well-drawn plans. His men, noticing that something was wrong, had stopped trying to extract the flaccid Che from the Jeep, but Micah, grown wild with impatience and fear, batted them away and pulled the man out by his ankle in one forceful movement. The man was flung to the ground to land beside Jo, beside the Elder, and with the three of them together sprawled out at his feet, Micah stared defiantly around him.
For a moment there was perfect silence. Then the old man rolled slowly to his side, cupped his hand to his mouth, and began to sing.
But it wasn’t song, exactly. It was a cry, a call, a loud and high-pitched fluttering sound that seemed clear as cut glass.
A moment later it was picked up, repeated by other men in the crowd, other Indians, and it quickly spread throughout the parking lot. The sound was at once overwhelming and somehow sheltering, supporting, as though it had substance, heft, and despite its initial shrillness, softened as it rose, filling her ears but then her eyes, her head, her heart.
In this thick membrane of sound, or because of it, the crowd around the car began to shuffle, the Arivacans stepping aside and the natives stepping forward, all hollering, until a wall of tribesmen stood between the car and the road and a wall of sound surrounded them all. Jo felt a hand on her shoulder, and this time she looked up, unafraid. She turned and looked into Jack’s eyes. He was smiling.
“Did I ever tell you,” said Micah above the noise, “about my uncle Ed?”
Helped to her feet by Jack, she looked again at Micah, and saw that he’d changed. He was collapsed against the car, his body enervated, his eyes dim. He’d lost his anger, and looked calm. Almost peaceful. She looked for some wound, some indication of violence, but saw none. Whatever had befallen him was not physical.
“Damnedest thing,” he continued as the wail began to drain from their ears like water after swimming. “He was a war veteran, heart of gold. He’d go out drinking—this was in Denver—and he’d run across these vets, down and out, nothing to their name, most of them homeless, and he’d bring them home so they could take a hot shower, get some food, you know. Well, one night he brought one home and woke up to find out the guy had stolen just about every valuable thing in the place.”
The Indians’ cry had died out, and they now surrounded the car. Incredibly, Micah’s men had been stripped of their weapons, and the dead man had been carried off. A shift had occurred, and Jo felt as though she’d lost time.
“Well, when the police asked him if he wanted to press charges, he said absolutely not. He said—now this is unbelievable—that he’d been waiting a long time for someone to do that. Then you know what he did?”
It was a rhetorical question, but Jo could see that Micah truly needed someone to ask. She felt tears running down her cheek.
“What,” she croaked. “What did he do?”
Micah dropped his gun. Again it was silent—only more so, as it can only be following deafening sound—and he spoke softly, reverently. “He emptied out his pockets, and with the cops still wandering around his house, looking for clues, he walked out his front door and disappeared. No one ever heard from him again. Isn’t that something?”
With that he stood forward and raised his hands, and as though he’d seen it coming, let a couple of Indians lead him away.
The Elder, now on his feet, climbed into the front passenger seat of Paco’s car and motioned for Jack to sit behind the wheel. Large men lifted Che into the back, and then guided Jo in with him, so his head was on her lap. The Elder turned back once, and though still from his fall, from his blow, spoke to her evenly.
“Keep him breathing,” he said.
Jo nodded. It was as it should be. Her mission a failure, it was something, at least it was something. She would carry out this errand before returning to her son empty handed. Nothing else could be done.
The old man then turned forward and put his seatbelt on. He turned to Jack. He said drive.