Gasoline was a lot cheaper in Ciudad Juarez than I’d seen un the U.S. in several months. I had jus’ filled up my friends Dodge Colt and had plans to find someplace to spend the night, but I didn’t get very far.

The car suddenly started coughing and sputtering, then the engine simply died. Though I tried several times I couldn’t get it to start again, so I walked back to the little gas station where I had bought the fuel.

Unfortunately I didn’t understand the language, save for a few key words and a couple of phrases, so communication with the station’s owner lead to nothing but grief. As I started to walk back to the car I found myself surrounded by Federales’, each dressing in black paramilitary uniforms, bearing machine guns, aimed directly at me.

Without understanding why, I was suddenly in handcuffs and being forcefully tossed into the back of pickup truck. Before I could regain my sense of direction, a dark hood was yanked over my head.

Within a few minutes I was being pulled from the bed of the truck and have dragged, half shoved into a building. It was a busy place, voices and machines and telephones ringing.

Then the hood was removed and I realized I was being pushing into a dark cell. As I stumbled forward, I heard the heavy metal door slam shut behind me.

It took me a minute or two to calm down from my initial fright. I had concluded that I was about to be summarily executed, though I had no idea why.

“Find a place against the wall,” an American voice spoke, “It all sits the same.”

I fumbled around until I located the cold steel bulkhead and positioned my back against. I slowly slid to the floor, which was jus’ as chilly as the wall.

Finally I grew the courage to speak, “Tom.”

“James,” came the unseen voice.

For two day, perhaps longer, James and I languished in that cell. By the time they opened it and escorted us before a three judge panel, I knew I was listed as AWOL from the Pollard Street Reservist Station in El Paso.

That, it would turn out would be the least of my worries as James told me I had been sentenced to three-years in prison for stealing a tank of gasoline. He was given 20 years, but he never explained what he was charged with.

Breaking away from the two guards holding me, I protested. I wanted an opportunity to defend myself, but that would never happen as I heard a large crash and my world went dark.

My head throbbed and my ears rang as I forced myself to sit up right in the back of what I believed was another pick-up truck. I couldn’t be certain as once again I had a dark hood over my face.

I had to fight off the urge several times not to vomit as we bounced along some uneven roadway towards whatever prison I was being sent too.

Perhaps I passed out, perhaps I simply fell asleep — at any rate I lost track of time and before I knew it, it was dark out and we were now driving along a very flat surface. The next time I opened my eyes it was daylight, but again I lost consciousness and track of time, having no idea how long or far we had traveled.

Finally, and though I couldn’t see anything, I sensed the change in my surroundings as we entered the gated wall of the prison yard.

Again I was dragged from the back of the vehicle, my hands cuffed behind me and the hood still in place. I stood waiting for whatever was to come next as the truck I had jus’ been a passenger in drove away and the large doors to my new home closed.

That’s when the hood was stripped from my still aching head and I got the chance to see my captors and fellow inmates for the first time. There was only one Anglo face in the crowd and with his reddish hair, I concluded that was James.

Before the cuffs were removed the five of us, James, me and three Mexicans, were looked over by Cereso Prison’s El Capitan. He was short, man with a pencil thin moustache and cruel little mouth and dark squinty eyes.

He addressed us, and though I had no idea what he was saying, I could tell by his demeanor he was giving us the rules; his rules. I could tell he expected us to live by them or else.

As soon as he was done, we were quickly ushered into a cell. There were no beds and all we had for a toilet was a rusted, dented paint can.

Like clock work, we were handed a tray for food, or what passed as food, by the prison’s standards each day for the next week. The three Mexicans originally housed with us, were released into the general population by day two, yet James and I remained locked up.

“They’re afraid we’ll be killed,” James explained.

“Why?” I asked.

James chuckled and replied, “We’re foreigners and don’t have family to pay El Jefe the necessary extortion to live in his prison.”

He went on to explain that El Jefe was also a prisoner, a God-father of sorts confined behind the walls and what he said, went and that was finally.  According to James, El Jefe was even more powerful than El Capitan.

“Did you really steal gas?” James finally asked.

I laughed, “No, but I called the guy who sold me the gas a thief.”

“Why’s that,” James asked.

“The shit fouled the engine and it wouldn’t start,” I answered.

Then James pointed out, “You know your cars stripped by now.”

“That’s okay,” I returned, “It wasn’t mine anyway — I borrowed it for a weekend get away.”

We laughed at that.

“How about you?” I asked.

James smiled broadly, “I’ve been fucking a policeman’s wife.”

“No,” I shot back, thinking he was pulling my leg.

“Yeah,” he returned, “I was warned but I could stay away from that tight little thing. Got me 20-years for rape.”

For the first time, I really looked at James. I hadn’t realized he was a good ten-years older than me and not in as good a physical shape as me.

So when after ten days our cell door was unlocked and slid open, I felt a lump of fear catch in my throat. I could see the same thing in James’ eyes as we slowly walked away from the relative safety of our cell and towards the open yard in front of us.

“I don’t like this,” James said as we stepped into the sunshine for the first time in over a week. Then he added, “Watch my back and I’ll watch yours, don’t show any fear and lets find a wall to lean against where we can see anyone coming at us.”

“Roger, that,” I replied.

It didn’t take to long for someone to come at us either as a large man with scars on his arms, neck and face walked with purpose towards the two of us. I know it happened quickly, but it seemed like slow-motion as the brute, started slamming what I thought were punches into James, stomach and chest.

Then like that he walked away, leaving James bleeding. He had stabbed the red-head repeatedly and then simply blended into the mass of bodies standing there watching as the only other Americano bled out onto the brown dirt.

A pair of guards rushed into the yard and gripped him under his arms and dragged James away. I never saw him again after that.

Instead, knowing I was going to be next, I decided to figure out how to defend myself against what was coming my way. I had learned already, though the attack on James, that the yard would become eerily quiet, as if the men were expecting something, and then the attack would begin.

I also noted that the old man, also known as El Jefe was present and though he said nothing, he directed the action.

More guards came into the yard. They grabbed me and dragged me back inside my prison cell and secured the door behind me.

It didn’t take me very long to realize they had left our food trays behind in the cell and that I also had an extra blanket, the one that had belonged to James. I conspired to put these items to good use.

For another seven days, I found myself segregated from the rest of the prison population. During that time I had taken the heavy plastic trays and fashioned them into body armor.

By using a small nail I’d found in the corner of the cell, I drilled a hole in the upper corner of each tray and fastened then together with a strip of cloth from the remains of my tee-shirt, to form a front and back plate of protection for myself. Hidden under my work shirt, I tore a hole in the center of the blanket and draped it over myself and my creation.

By the end of two-weeks, I was feeling stir-crazy, and emboldened by my body armor I was screaming for the guards to let me out so I could roam the prison yard. It took a little convincing but finally, my door was opened and I ventured forth.

By this time I had grown weak from a lack of decent food and from no exercise other than that of pacing my cell. I wandered out into the yard and towards the wall where I had seen my only friend in the world meet his doom, and leaned against the cool rock facing.

Though many of the inmates looked at me, no one paid me any real-mind. In fact, I was left alone for the rest of my time in the yard.

That evening I was directed to the main dining hall, where I would have my first meal with everyone else. As my tray was filled with the slop-of-the-day, I recognized one of the men serving us as one of the three Mexicans who had been with me on that first day.

“El cuchillo, Gringo,” he whispered as I passed him.

“Knife — he said knife,” I found myself thinking.

Cautiously I moved around the room looking for the place I thought would afford me the best chance at defending myself. I selected a position against the wall and near the doorway.

It took me only two swallows of the crap I had come to think of as food to realize it was deathly quiet in the room. I looked up from my tray and around at all the faces staring back at me.

Then slowly, one by one, men started getting up from their places, leaving the uneaten food where it sat and lined the walls of the large room. Soon only me,’El Jefe, El Segundo and the man next to me remained seated.

‘El Jefe’s eyes seemed to flash at the man next to me. It was like a sudden explosion of movement as the man swiped at me with a large blade.

I jumped back, avoiding the knife.

Again he came at me, intent on murdering me in cold blood. This time though I was on my feet and ready for him.

He stepped into me and I grabbed the arm in which the hand that held the instrument of death was attached. I allowed him to thrust the blade as hard as he wanted into my chest.

The force was met with a loud “thunk,” and a scream of pain. He had stabbed my armor so hard that his hand slipped from the handle and down the blade.

Amid the fresh blood oozing from his fingers and palm, I wrenched the knife away from him and thrust it deep into his chest. I became frenzied, stuffing the blade to the hilt over and over again in the soon lifeless form of the man who had attacked me on command.

Then I stood there — listening to my heavy breath and heat beat and the silence of the room.

As soon as I came to my senses, I turned and pointed at El Jefe. He gave me a half-smile as El Segundo rose from his seat and moved around the table towards me.

From out of his waistband he produced a slender blade. It occurred to me that I had seen it before — the day James was attacked and then it dawned on me El Segundo was the one who murdered my cell-mate.

El Segundo lead with is right and I knew this, so I was prepared when he sprang like a panther at me. I stepped to my right as he rushed by me, slashing open my serape.

He turned and started back at me, but was halted in his step, before he dropped to his knees. I had also slashed him — right below his right rib cage and now his guts were spilling out and onto his thigh.

I took advantage of his wounding and thrust the blade of my knife into the back of his head.

El Segundo fell to the cement floor and convulsed for half a minute before growing still. I tried to pull my knife from the bigger man’s head, but it refused to budget.

Instead I picked up El Segundo knife and backed my way towards the door. My eyes searched the room for my next possible attacker, but no one moved.

El Jefe simply sat there, a half-smile on his face as if he were enjoying the sport of gladiators battling to the death. I flipped El Segundo
‘s knife in the air and caught it by the blade.

A second later, I saw it buried in the El Jefe’s throat. I had thrown it without thinking and with a bit of fortune the knife had found its mark.

El Jefe gurgling on his blood as I turned a walked from the hall and into the prison yard. I placed my back against the wall near the gate and allowed myself to sink down onto my haunches and fade in and out of sleep through the night.

None of the guards bothered me as I eventually fell asleep.

It wasn’t until the sun had crept its way up above the wall, that I realized it was now morning and that I had slept much of the early hours away. The sun’s warmth was broken by a shadow as it rose over me.

I opened my eyes to find El Capitan standing over me.

At first I thought I was about find out first hand what sort of wrath he had in store for me, but much to my surprise he spoke to me in broke English,”Go, you are free. Go.”

“Now?” I asked.

“Go!” he repeated, sounding impatient with me.

The heavy metal gate squeaked as it was pushed open. I stood up and walked towards it, glancing back to see if this were really happening or maybe some sort of sadistic game, but El Capitan waved me out.

The clanking of the gate sounded final as I looked around at my unfamiliar surroundings. I was standing in a worn and rutted dirt roadway with no idea where I was.

But since I knew where the sun rose each morning, I turned to my right, and started walking. I walked until I could no longer see the walls of the prison and then I started to run.

Within half and hour I walked across the border into the United State, finding I was more than 400 miles away from where I had begun this incredible journey. Later I learned James survived his attack, spirited away by the wife of the cop he’d been fucking.

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