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A record 60-plus writers entered our 2006 Desert Exposure Writing Contest, making selecting only one Grand Prize Winner and four finalists an unusual challenge. This year's top-prize entry stood out for its gentle humor and yarn-spinning tone, as well as its dead-on depiction of tensions along the US-Mexico border—albeit through the tale of a long-eared "border crosser."

 

 

 

 

The Christmas Donkey

Sometimes border crossers have four feet.

By Laura Leveque

 

Sandilee left a message on my voice mail: "Call me or stop at Hatari Station. It's about a donkey in Mexico."

Sarita, "the Christmas donkey."

Hatari Station is in the Animas Valley, a biological collection laboratory run by Sandilee and her husband Clark. Only eight miles from Granite Gap Mine, where the donkeys, Shaggy, Willy and Soapy the mine dog, and I live in the winter, Hatari Station possesses a federal import export license to transport live or preserved wildlife. Most collecting of salt-water specimens is done in Mexico. In New Mexico they collect snakes, lizards, scorpions, tarantulas, millipedes, centipedes. These are sold to universities, zoos and laboratory suppliers all over the world.

On water-hauling day I drove my 1986 Toyota truck to Hatari Station. I walked past gurgling salt-water tanks and five-gallon buckets of sea stars in alcohol-saltwater solution. Frogs and lizards floated suspended in gallon jars of dilute formaldehyde. Sandilee was in her office, printing out shipping labels.

I greeted her with a handshake and backslapping hug. "Hey Sandilee, what's this about a donkey in Mexico?"

"Coffee?" she asked.

We sat on lab stools. I sipped black coffee; she drank bottled water. A terrarium nearby, with rattlesnakes, buzzed when I shifted my ample buttocks on the tiny stool. I felt like a pear atop a thumbtack. By contrast, Sandilee perched—a tiny, energetic canary.

"Outside Janos, a village in Mexico where I did bison research, is a small jennet burro wandering around begging," she told me. "Seems a teenage boy used her to pack firewood, but his father bought an old truck to go farther into the mountains, because all the nearby wood is gone. Cattle are dying because of the drought. The family is unable to feed her, so they loaded her in their truck and dumped 'Sarita,' the little burro, south of Antelope Wells."

"There's drought and dead cattle here in New Mexico too! What can we do?" I asked. Earlier I'd passed three of these carcasses, legs stuck out, stiff as two-by-fours.

"I heard the boy Pedro is very sad, wants a rich Americano to take Sarita to the United States." We both laughed; neither of us was rich, far from it.

"I don't want another donkey. I can't afford another donkey!" I whined. I'd simplified my life with a small truck and a two-donkey stock trailer. More hooves to trim, teeth floated, West Nile virus shots, Coggins Tests and veterinarian health certificates for transport. . . .

Sandilee interrupted: "Maybe you could find her a home?"

I groaned.

Seems importing an equine into the United States requires a three-day quarantine, cost of $792. Plus a veterinarian certificate including a Coggins Test for equine infectious anemia, which takes seven days in the US, probably longer in Mexico, another $200. Even with Sandilee's permits, we couldn't get around this.

"Sorry," I said, "I can't afford it." I sighed. I refilled my coffee cup and Sandilee drank long on her water bottle. We sat silently.

"I have an idea," Sandilee finally said. "The border crossing chain-link fence at Antelope Wells Aduna Station turns into barbed wire at El Borendo, a border ranch. Almost every day the bison plow down about five miles of fence. We could get her across the downed fence."

"Donkey smuggling? But we might end up in a Mexican prison!"

"I'll bribe a vaquero to bring her close to the fence, lure her over with grain or something."

I thought, chewed on my lip, tore at my desert-dry cuticles. "How close to this border fence could I get the stock trailer? Maybe take Willy. His braying would send her through the downed fence and nobody'd have to cross the border."

I was hugely glad Texas Jack and Uncle Wayne weren't here. They'd have an unending list of reasons why getting another donkey was a really dumb idea. And of course all the reasons would be valid.

 

To scout out the territory we drove south through the irrigated farmland of Animas Valley to vast stretches of normally olive-green creosote bush, now brown with drought.

Sandilee, multi-lingual, laughed and joked with her Aduna Station amigos in flowing border Spanish. I had insisted on a blood test. I didn't want to bring a sick donkey across the border to infect my stock or neighboring stock. Dalgo, a friend, knew a veterinarian who'd issue a health certificate and do a blood test for about $80. The test takes about two weeks. That put us close to Christmas.

In the meantime, Sandilee's vaquero amigo had orders from El Borendo headquarters to shoot the little donkey, so he hid her at a line shack temporarily. We paid him the promised cash to keep the little burro corralled and fed, then followed the vaquero to a line shack and corral where I met Sarita, a dainty, thin, little donkey. She had a black muzzle and black eye outline. These dark points in donkeys are recessive and rare traits. Normally muzzle, ear and eye points are white. Below her unusual dark-circled eyes were a sprinkling of white diamond-shaped specks. I was sick with love.

The smuggling date was scheduled for Christmas Eve. Most federales were Roman Catholic and would be observing the holiday, and we hoped the US Border Patrol would be busy elsewhere.

Sandilee's husband, Clark, had no doubts about the success of our mission. He called us "Thelma and Louise."

I loaded Willy, leaving Shaggy and Soapy at the mine. Picked up Sandilee at the lab.

After an hour or so of driving south on Hwy. 338, we turned west over a cattle guard onto a bumpy dirt track in the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert's low chaparral, creosote bush and mesquite thickets. I was nervous as a cat in a dog kennel and felt like throwing up. I stopped, locked up, unloaded Willy, slung the wood panniers on the sawbuck packsaddle and we started walking. I'd packed water, camera, extra halter, lead rope and soft panniers, field notes and a 15-year-old Press Pass, acquired when working for a small-town newspaper. Sandilee carried her daypack with bison study notes and plastic sandwich bags for scat samples and other biologist paraphernalia. Clandestine stage props.

I quoted my favorite Shakespeare line: "All the world's a stage. . . and one man in his time plays many parts." What were a biologist, a sidekick with a Press Pass and a donkey doing at the border on Christmas Eve? Whistling "Dixie"?

"Look!" said Sandilee, "a Harrier hawk. Quick, take a picture and write some notes, just in case someone is watching. They've got sensors and cameras all over the place down here."

I mumbled while crouching to look at a track. "We're going in with one donkey, leaving with two. How do we explain that?"

"Tell them you lost your ass."

This struck me as hysterical and I doubled over with gut-wrenching laughter, then, clutching myself, scuttled off behind some brush to pee.

"Smile, you're on candid camera!"

"Whose dumb idea was this, anyway?" I said, trying to sound peeved.

Willy kept looking back toward the stock trailer and acting nervous, which made us more nervous.

"He's not used to traveling without Shag."

 

Actually, I was enjoying myself. The men would've marched right in, grabbed the donkey and left. As Uncle Wayne would say, "You turn everything into a theatrical production!" I'd always reply, "All the world's a stage. . . ."

We angled west. Sandilee stopped a few times to stir through bison flop and take samples.

"Shall I take a photo of you inspecting bison scat?" I asked.

"Sure," she said cheerfully, obviously enjoying the adventure.

"If I've in fact lost my ass, shouldn't I be calling for it?"

"Appearing to track it, probably good enough," she said, trying to sound serious. Again we both laughed hysterical, nervous laughter. I hoped I wouldn't pee my pants.

Sandilee stopped a few times not only to inspect the ground, but to check the crudely drawn map. We turned south and kept walking.

Then I nearly tripped over strands of new barbed wire stretched tight on the ground, metal fence posts twisted and pulled out.

"Is this the border?" I whispered. We had visited the rendezvous site from the Mexican side, not the US side.

"Not sure, could be close. This fence was dragged quite a distance."

Willy's ears pricked up. We stood a long while, waiting, watching. Then we heard sand crunching and scraping until, emerging out of the wash came our vaquero on a tall rangy bay, dragging a reluctant little donkey by a rope tied around her neck. Willy started braying. The vaquero unwrapped the rope from his saddle horn and dropped it on the ground. "Adios," he said. Spun his horse around and trotted away.

Sarita trotted toward us. She had a high pitched squeaky bray. Her legs quivered, her nostrils dilated, eyes wide, the white showing. She pressed herself against Willy's chest, trembling. I grabbed the rope and Sandilee held it while I got the grain, halter and snap lead out of the wood panniers. Sarita sucked up the grain, while I adjusted her new red halter and put the soft empty canvas panniers on her bony back, and cut the frayed rope from her neck. Masking tape wound around the rope, like a crappy repair job, held an envelope with health certificate and Coggins Test results, all in Spanish. By phone Sandilee knew the donkey was healthy, but aware of unreliable Mexican mail, she'd suggested the donkey-method of transferring the paperwork.

At the stock trailer, I removed panniers and tossed them in the truck bed. Sarita jumped in the stock trailer right behind Willy. I'd expected trouble loading—what a relief.

Clouds rolled in, followed by blasts of cold air. Every living thing prayed for rain.

That night, Christmas Eve, it snowed. Beautiful wet snow.

We celebrated Christmas Day with food. Soapy got a huge beef bone, the donkeys feasted on apples and oranges and an extra ration of grass hay, and I ate canned ham with cranberry sauce. Sarita, now called "Squeaky," the Christmas Donkey, follows Willy like a happy puppy dog. Shag doesn't seem jealous.

 

2006 Grand Prize winner Laura Leveque is a freelance outdoor writer and Western artist. She currently lives at Jackass Junction in Deming. Since 1996 she's written the "Donkey Prospector" column for Gold Prospectors magazine (as "Jackass Jill") and "Adventures of a Donkey Prospector" for The Brayer magazine. Her current project is "The Painter and the Donkey" short-story series. Visit Leveque's websites at www.frontiermurals.com and www.jackassjunction.net.

 

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