The moonlight was their only light. Huffing and puffing were the only sounds. José walked in front. The trail was narrow. He didn’t want his wife to stumble. She carried the baby. He’d offered to do so, but she’d refused.
“He’s asleep,” she’d explained.
“Let him sleep,” he’d agreed.
So, they hurried, José in the lead, all their earthly possessions crammed in the backpack he’d purchased from the street vendor in San Salvador. That was weeks ago. How many trains since then? How many miles? How many cold nights?
He glanced over his shoulder. Her eyes caught his. Was that a smile he saw? She’s something, this woman, he said to himself. He turned his attention back to the trail. Mesquites on either side scraped against their jeans.
Behind them was a village. Within the village was a barn. Within that barn lay, even still, the gathered straw and abandoned feed trough that had served as a bassinet for their baby.
The child whimpered. José stopped.
“He is fine,” Maria assured before José had time to ask.
The trail emptied into a river that had long since emptied its water into a rancher’s pond. The wide, dry riverbed allowed them to walk abreast. No thorns. They moved faster. He hoisted the pack. She secured the child. A blacktop was near, they’d been told.
After a dozen steps they heard the shots.
José had been warned of the danger. Just that morning, as the men warmed their hands over the fire in the five-gallon drum, he heard them speak of the cartel. Take the baby and leave, they’d urged him. These men are violent.
He’d hurried back to the barn to tell Maria, but she was sound asleep. He decided to let her rest. When she awoke at noon, her face was pale. She nursed the child and dozed again. José kept an eye toward the door. An old cowboy knew they were using his barn for shelter. He brought them coffee and beans and a blanket for the child.
“Do you know about the gangs?” he asked José.
Maria overheard and sat up from her pallet.
“You must go,” the cowboy told them.
But José wanted to wait.
“Just another day, or two. Till you find your strength,” he told Maria, though he knew she had enough strength for them both. Nothing fazed her. This sudden journey. This barnyard birth. She was the strong one.
She nodded and stretched out on the pallet. The sun was setting, and the chill was creeping through the walls. He built a fire on the floor, sat next to her, and pulled knees to chest. He ventured a touch to her cheek. She did not stir. Her long hair was silk on her face. So young. Trusting.
He stretched out and closed his eyes. Sleep resisted, then relented. A messenger came to him in a dream. He was tall and light-filled. The same messenger who had spoken to him nine months earlier when spring was in the air and a wedding in his plans. But then came Maria’s mysterious pregnancy. Had it not been for this midnight visitor, José might have left her.
Tonight, the messenger came again. The boy is in danger. Blood will be shed. It’s time to go.
José sat up with a start. He knew he had no choice.
He shook Maria awake. “Get your things.”
Without a word she stood. She grabbed their few possessions and stuffed them in the pack. José lifted the lid of an old toolbox and took out the gifts. Strangers had brought them. They’d traveled far to see his son. Now, José would travel as far as necessary to protect him. Their kindness would fund the journey.
He placed the gifts in the pack and looked across the barn. Maria was leaning over their son. Shhh, she assured and lifted him. Within moments the three were out the door and scurrying down the narrow street. Within minutes they were standing in the riverbed, listening to the crack of gunfire. A woman screamed. A baby cried. Maria tugged on José’s sleeve. “We need to go!” she told him.
Yes, she was right. Time was short. Safety was within miles. If only they could reach it. They hurried. The riverbed emptied onto a single-lane road. They saw approaching headlights. José waved. A pickup pulled to a stop. José motioned to the truck bed. The driver nodded. The young family climbed in the back and squeezed together.
At one point the baby cried. Maria gave him milk. José looked at the Mexican sky. Stars sparkled like diamonds. For a moment, he wasn’t running, he was resting. Imagining a hacienda back home, perhaps? A home of their own, at least?
Maria dozed. Her hoodied head lay motionless on his shoulder. A pothole bumped the truck and she awoke. They rode wordlessly for an hour. The black sky gave way to gray, then gold. At the first daylight, the truck came to a stop on the side of the road.
“This is as far as I can carry you. What you seek is over the next hill.”
José gave the man a gracias and a coin then helped his family climb down. Maria’s face was chalked with road dust. The eyes of his son were open, looking at the sky then at his mother. The three set out on the final segment of their escape. One weary step after another carried them to the top of the hill. When they reached the crest, they stopped and stared. The river below was lined with tents, campfires, and people.
José reached for the newborn. “I’ll carry him the rest of the way.”
Maria gazed at the refugees. “Will we be safe, José?”
He looked at her for several moments before answering. The rising sun cast her face in orange.
“Si Dios quiere, mi amor.”
“Yes,” she agreed, “if God wills.”
The family turned and began the walk to the border.
Now when they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up! Take the Child and his mother and flee…” (Matt. 2:13)
According to the UN Refugee agency, 70.8 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide, including 25.9 million refugees. During this season when Christians celebrate the most famous of refugee families, let’s offer prayers and assistance.
Max Lucado is a pastor and best-selling author in San Antonio, Texas. This story also appears on his blog.
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