On Sunday, May 20th, at 6:00 a.m., chaos descends upon the Wellton 26. The men are deep in the Cabeza Prieta. If Mendez had known where to look, Urrea writes, he could have found “several watering spots.” The men grow angry even as they begin to despair, but continue walking, following Mendez. Mendez repeatedly tries to lead the men over the Growler Mountains, believing they were all that stood between their group and the salvation of Ajo. He is well aware that if their group does not make it to Ajo, they will die, and his frustration and fear both grow. Mendez’s trail, by midmorning, grows confused and jerky, and the group’s “integrity as a unit” is greatly compromised. Many straggle behind, and each rest stop becomes more difficult to recover from. Mendez comes to a gap in the mountains and leads the group through it, only to find another “wall of burning rock.”
As Mendez panics for a second time, he leads his men across more and more dangerous terrain. The desert is seemingly playing “tricks” on him, keeping him from traversing the mountains which separated the 26 from their only hope of salvation. As the men begin to suffer more greatly, they are unable to keep up—and when they finally make it through the mountains only to encounter an even greater obstacle, it becomes very clear to them that things have veered from the disorienting into the gravely dangerous.
Some men begin to run out of water, and what water remains between them has grown as hot as the desert all around them. At noon, the group stops to rest, and Mendez recommends they rest until nightfall—again, he assures everyone that there are “just a few more miles” left to go, though at this point, they understand that he is wrong.
Though Mendez assured the men they wouldn’t walk through daylight, he has effectively doomed them by forcing them to march onward while the sun is out. He attempts to course-correct by offering them an extended rest and assuring them that they’ll only continue again under cover of nightfall, but at this point his assurances are worth little.
After nightfall, the desert remains as hot as it was during the day. Mendez orders the men to their feet, and “inexplicably” makes a forty-five degree turn to the left and marches the men southwest, in the opposite direction of where they need to be heading. Desperation mounts, and many more men begin to run out of water. The men comfort each other with memories of home.
Whereas the night before was cool in comparison to the daylight temperatures, the heat of the day has now lingered past sundown, and the men must set off anyway. As Mendez leads the men even more sharply off course, they are too disoriented to understand what is happening to them.
By 8 p.m., Mendez’s “suicidal hike” veers south. All of the men’s water bottles, at this point, are empty. They are headed in the exact opposite direction of their supposed destination, such that their trail forms a large U shape. Some of the men have realized how lost they are, and Santos, one of the polleros, suggests they all attempt to head back to Mexico—the journey will have been a failure, but at least the men will live. Mendez refuses, and thus a splinter group forms. Accounts vary, but somewhere between three and five men decide to go with Santos back to Mexico. Urrea writes that no trace of this group has ever been found.
Santos’s desperation to survive by returning to Mexico—even if it would mean a failed journey—still did not manage to save him and his splinter group from the desert. Mendez has begun to steer his group in the opposite direction of salvation, but he presses on nonetheless, more than likely completely unaware of just how lost they actually are.
At 9 p.m., the desert temperature is still at ninety degrees. Some men begin to fall behind, and one walker announces that two companions have become lost from the group. Mendez tells the group that the lost men can “suck [his] cock,” and carries on. The two lost walkers eventually manage to rejoin the group, but the men are still hopelessly lost. It seems that their journey is “repeating itself” endlessly. When they find themselves in another “maze of mountains,” Mendez stops the group to rest, once again assuring them that there are only “a few more miles” to go.
Mendez’s disregard for the two lost pollos at this point is almost justifiable—as he himself, along with every member of the larger group, are suffering and beginning to die. Nonetheless, his cruel and harsh language when notified of two missing individuals belies a lack of regard for human life, and a stubborn resistance to the fact that he has gotten his group “hopelessly” lost.