Mexico – Life In A Mexican Pueblo

I AWOKE to a sense of suffocation and of foul air charged with the odors of mule trappings, saddles and blankets, with a lurking substratum of smells that attach to unventilated rooms which have been slept in by countless human beings. The mozo was per-forming a muffled tattoo on the door. I knew his voice though his words were unintelligible, and lighting a match, found it was four o’clock. Bob was sleeping as sound as a log and I had to shake him. The poor boy was drugged with sleep and bad air. I have never gotten over feeling a sort of pity for children and young people in the throes of sleep. There is something pitiable in their struggles to break the lethargy that holds them, and that doubtless is a response to their nervous and physical needs.

Bob suddenly roused himself, sprang up and began folding his blankets; we had few preparations to make, for anticipating a hurried departure, we had thrown ourselves down without removing our clothing, and with our boots on. Opening the door, we found the mozo waiting for our saddles, and I discovered that the mules were there too,— that is I felt and heard them. It was pitch dark, the only light being shed from a blazing pine-knot held by a motionless Indian. Bob hurriedly shook hands and bade me good-by, promising that we should meet soon. Then he got on his mule — the mozo was already in the saddle — there was the quick scurry of unshod hoofs, and the party was swallowed up by the black forest.

I was aware of further saddling operations under Way, and my male was dragged, rather than led, to where I was standing. It seemed ungracious in her, now that she was the only remaining acquaintance left me, to snort and pull back at sight of me. I began to feel very much alone. The mysterious personage who brought my mule had his neck and chin muffled in a zarape and I presumed he was the fiddler who was to act as my guide.

It occurred to me that our grub-box was on the pack-mule and that the pack-mule was off with Bob. The ranch-house showed no light or sign of life. I appealed to the Indian, who remained motionless supporting the torch, and having no Spanish at my command, began talking to him in English. His true propensity to act as caryatid was now apparent, for apart from rolling his eyes, he gave no evidence of hearing. My common sense told me that what I needed was the Spanish name for some article of food. At first I thought in vain. Then I recalled California, and with it came the word tamales. Again his eyes rolled but now he shook his head. This was encouraging for he evidently understood. Again I thought, and again recovered a word — tortillas. Who that knows California has not seen these round, wafer-like corn-cakes? At this the Indian came to life, grunted something in the folds of his zarape, and shuffled off to the ranch-house. Returning, he thrust into my hands a clammy, soggy mass which proved to be a number of huge tortillas, about eight inches in diameter and nearly half an inch thick. I learned later that this variety is known as gordas, the name deriving from the adjective gorda, which means thick or fat, and that it is employed on journeys. In my gratitude I gave the Indian what loose silver I had, and wrapping the gordas in my bath-towel, I stowed them in my saddle-bags, mounted my reluctant mule, and motioned the fiddler to lead the way. The latter, who as yet had not spoken, got on his own beast, and without turning his head said something that was evidently a farewell to the Indian, who responded. The Indian’s voice, while monotonous, was not unpleasant; but the fiddler’s voice — how to qualify it ! Harsh, cracked — no, it was canine, between a snarl and a whine. I began to feel curious to see the owner of that unhuman voice.

My mule followed the fiddler’s beast, nose to crupper, for she was strange to those mountains and as yet there was no sign of dawn. The air was cool and delicious with the night-odors of the woods, and as it dispelled the poisonous emanations I had breathed during the night, my mind grew clear and alert. The consolation that Nature gives to men was now revealed to me in an extraordinary way. I knew from their odor that we were in the pines; their branches brushed my face, some-times not very gently; again my knee was grazed by a tree-trunk, my mule being unable in the dark to gauge the required leeway. There was something friendly about those pine trees and while I felt the strangeness of the illimitable, vast mountains, I experienced comfort in being among those trees, which were like the trees of my native land.

I was eager for daybreak, and was tempted to revamp a certain aged maxim to the strain, ” A looked-for dawn never comes.” It came, by imperceptible changes, from dark to dusk then gray. The rainy season was close at hand and the sky was overcast with rain clouds. The first light was suffused with mist, and my first view of the fiddler was as through a veil of gauze. The apparition revealed to me was certainly a strange one. He was easily six feet when he stood upright. His mount was a small, scrawny, buckskin mare, with a black wisp of a tail. He sat her with a forward crouch, and his stirrups barely cleared the ground. Even then he rode with a high stirrup, just resting the toes of his huge bare feet, while his legs flopped in unison with every move of his wiry little mustang. He made me think of nothing so much as a great wolf on horseback. Then he turned his head clear round, without swerving his body, and looked at me, and I saw what I may describe, without exaggeration, as a wolf-face. He was not dark but yellow, horribly scarred by pox, with a reddish mane of hair and scant, scrubby whiskers depending from neck and chin. His disgusting mouth was toothless, save for isolated and prodigiously long, projecting fangs. But the worst of all were his eyes,— narrow, slit-like, with blood-red rims,— not cruel nor vindictive; for an instant I was puzzled, then it came over me like a flash — they were not human ! They were shallow, alert, watchful, like the eyes of a dog or a wolf.

I think I know a man by his eyes; it is there I look for revelations, whether good or bad. And as I believe in the saving grace in almost every human being, I am willing to take a chance with a man. But when I encounter, in the head of a man, eyes that lack the human light, I am filled with doubt and distrust; for there seems nothing to take hold of. Such were the eyes of my guide. Several times he turned and looked at me, and although I nodded to him with the hope of establishing relations, he made no sign nor sound.

It was now broad day. The sun appeared above the mountains to the east, and it became very hot. I felt as though freed from a sort of spell or enchantment, which in my case had induced a previous sense of contentment and supreme trust. I began to take stock of my situation, with a rapid survey of the events of the past two weeks.

I had taken train at Boston and journeyed to the Mexican border with the usual railway train environment. Bob’s society had added a piquant element, and his savoir faire in Mexico had made the transition easy for me. Again in the mountains, Bob taking all as a matter of course, I had done the same. But last and principally, there was a matter-of-course finality pertaining to Mexico’s psychology. This affects every one sooner or later. Obviously it had affected me sooner; and I found myself in the heart of a great wilderness, journeying I knew not whither, in the wake of the most repulsive and fearsome man I had ever encountered. I realized what a fool I had been to accept for a guide one who was not known even at the rancho; and while I wished I had stuck to Bob, I did not blame him. With the thoughtlessness of youth he had seized on the first way out of our dilemma. I, being his senior, should have employed ordinary caution. I resolved that I would make the best of the situation, and give Wolf-Face no hint of my uneasiness. From that instant, while I assumed an assured demeanor, I never for a second relaxed my vigilance.

I was aware that our order of march was wrong; for in Mexico the mozo or guide takes the rear: but I determined that Wolf-Face should never get behind me.

He displayed a dangerous-looking revolver in his belt, and also a long, leather-encased knife. I did not doubt he was an adept with either or both. I cudjeled my brain for some Spanish mandatory word, thinking that for the sake of morale I should give an occasional order. He was crossing a tiny, clear rivulet, which cut the trail, and my intense thirst made me involuntarily cry, “Aqua!” He turned and I held up my drinking cup. I can see him now, as he slid off his mustang and came slinking back along the trail after the cup. Swiftly crouching he filled it and as he handed it, removed his hat with his left hand and fawned against my mule, leering up at me with his shallow eyes. I knew some-how that he would try for the rear, and when he cringed again and motioned for me to pass ahead, I had another inspiration. “Andale! ” I said in a bored voice. Bob used to say ” Andale ! ” at minute-intervals to the Durango coachmen. It really means ” walk!” but it is the common mandate for ” hurry!” At this he scrambled astride his mustang and went on, looking back repeatedly, as though he feared I would turn and vanish. But I had no such intention. My revolver was close at my hand and so was my rifle, and I knew I could hold my own so long as I kept him in the lead.

I thought of the long distance separating me from civilization, as represented by Durango. For three days we had been journeying into the mountains, and now, on the fourth, the country was the wildest I had seen. Still it was beautiful, with a savage, awe-inspiring beauty. The thread-like trail, which must have been long abandoned, lay midway along the side of precipitous cliffs, whose heights towered thousands of feet overhead, and whose declivities fell in almost sheer descent thousands of feet below: The rock formations, of red sandstone, were equal in grandeur to those of Colorado, and for long intervals their imposing splendor, enhanced by the majesty of the pine forests and the intense blue of the heavens, made me forget my uneasiness. Then I would encounter the stare of those shallow eyes. They seemed to say, ” Keep it up as long as you can. You will wear out in the end!”

While the trail had been long in disuse, I saw small wooden crosses at intervals, marking the spot where a death had occurred. I had heard that on these mountain trails it was usually a death of violence — from shooting or with the knife. There came to my mind a story I had heard at the hotel in Durango of an American who, while prospecting for mines in these mountains, became separated from his companions. They found his body, weeks later, with his revolver lying near his hand. I concluded that my case was not so bad as his, for Wolf-Face, at least, knew where we were going.

The sun was now high overhead. Wolf-Face stopped at another small stream, and began with clawing gestures to simulate eating or rather tearing food. He also pointed to a slight recess off the trail where we might dismount, it being his obvious wish to stop for dinner. For an instant I wavered, being half-famished; but my distrust was strong. With a peremptory ” Andale ! ” I motioned him on; and on he went, with occasional furtive, backward glances that taxed my composure. I had neglected my watch the night before, so even this remnant of ordinary existence was denied me; but I judged from the position of the sun it was about two o’clock. As I had not yet eaten a mouthful, I drew forth a huge gorda and tried to eat.

It was coarse, cold, and unsavory; but I was faint for food, and forced myself to swallow. I now thought of my flask, which was a parting gift from friends. It was filled with tequila, the native brandy made from the root of the maguey. Until then I had scarcely tasted it, but I filled the cup to the brim, and as I drained the fiery liquor I thought of my friends. The stuff put life into me, and what with another gorda to stop the burning and another draught to wash down the gorda, I managed to revive the inner man.

Wolf-Face now performed the first human act I had observed. He had watched me attentively and no doubt noted my flask. Coming to another rivulet, he alighted on the trail, and held out his hand for my drinking-cup. The water was ice-cold and delicious. After drinking, I filled the cup with tequila and gave it to him. He took it at one gulp, but after it, he stood almost erect, and for the first time I saw in him, the semblance of a man. Immoral was it,—and unethical? I have naught to say in extenuation, except that I was determined to win.

At what I presumed to be about five o’clock, the sun passed below the mountain rim, and my heart sank with it. Night would come — not rapidly—but it would come. Wolf-Face was gazing back again. Again he clawed the air, but now he was pointing. From the wide, free sweep of his arm I saw he was pointing over immeasurable distance to something far below in the valley. Wild hope sprang up in my breast and I peered into the valley. At last I distinguished something like a shining, silver ribbon. Surely that must be the little river ! And beside it, I could make out rectangular, brown objects. The roofs of adobe huts of course!

It must be — it was —” Huahuapan ! ” barked Wolf-Face excitedly. It was the first sound he had uttered all day.

The trail now made an abrupt turn down the side of the mountain, which was covered with dense chaparral, and the huts were lost to view. Soon we came to the crest of a slight rise, preparatory to another descent, and I saw them again. From then on I had occasional cheering glimpses of the pueblo, where I hoped my friends awaited me; and each time the huts appeared larger. The trail was precipitous and dangerous, but my mule, whatever her shortcomings, was sure-footed; and on that perilous ride she won my confidence which she never forfeited later by either stumbling or falling. It was two hours after we sighted the pueblo when we gained the floor of the valley, forded the stream, which proved to be a foaming torrent reaching to my mule’s belly, and some thirty feet across, and entered the small, ruined pueblo of Huahuapan, where I received a welcome from my friend Don Alfredo and his wife, truly Californian in its affectionate fervor.

Being but human, I now made light of the difficulties through which I lately had passed, and even refrained from mentioning my distrust of the fiddler. Indeed I scarcely gave him a thought in the pleasure and wonder of this meeting. My friends had started from San Francisco, I from Boston, and after journeying three thousand miles on opposite sides of the continent, our routes had converged and at last met in this isolated, semi-savage pueblo, four and a half days on mule-back from a steamboat or a railroad, with cordones or ranges, ten thousand feet high, dividing us from both. As I am a truthful man, I will confess that we were led on this hard and perilous journey by the prospect of untold riches in the old, abandoned mines of the Huahuapan district.

Don Alfredo and his wife had reached the pueblo several weeks before my arrival, and I was amazed to find them engaged in living and working in genuine American fashion. He had already sampled and assayed the ore from the various old workings, and had thirty odd peones in two different prospects, which he said we would take a look at on the next morning.

Doña Marciana, as the people styled her, had been busily employed in making a home. The first requisite was a roof, but this was hard to find in a place where roofs were, as a rule, in the last stages of collapse. Fortunately a whole one was found and the owner was willing to rent. It covered one enormous room, plastered outside and in with adobe mud; the floor was adobe and there was one window with wooden bars and a door. She had never thought much of whitewash before, but one learns to appreciate the humblest agents, when they are hard to get. To obtain whitewash, an Indian had to be despatched into the mountains with burros to fetch the lime. It took him two days. Then he had to mix the stuff and make a sort of mop to daub it on with, which took another day. Thus a week passed, but at the end the room was snow white from base to ceiling, and no sala, frescoed by a master, was ever hailed with more delight. The room was large, some twenty by forty feet. One end was converted into a kitchen. There was an American cookstove, and when its fame went abroad, all the women of the pueblo came and crouched about it in mute admiration. Until then they had held off, but the cooking machine of the white woman was more than their curiosity could with-stand. The center was the dining-room, with a table covered with enamel cloth, and the other end served for a bedroom. Among the unwelcome visitors the people told her she might expect were pulgas (fleas) chinches (bedbugs) both with wings and without, alacranes, tarantulas, scorpions, centipedes and sancudas (mosquitoes). Accordingly the bed was provided with a stout netting and each foot stood in a can of petroleo. There was no floor covering, beyond a mat near the bed. An adobe floor grows hard and smooth with constant sprinkling and sweeping. The window was left uncovered, save for a mosquito netting. There were four blank, white walls and these she converted into things of beauty. Her friends had already begun sending magazines and pictorials, and in due time these arrived, borne over the mountains on the shoulder of a peon, who declared the American’s correspondencia was too heavy.

In this day of elaborate illustration, given a plenty of papers and magazines, a good white background, and an eye for the beautiful, and wall decoration is assured. It was a delightful. room. The guitar and mandolin had a corner to themselves; there were good-looking, straight-legged oak chairs covered with hide, and hammocks hung just outside the door, where burros and pigs came perilously near.

Being worn with my travels I soon inquired for my bed, and Don Alfredo led me to the assay office, where I was to sleep. We left Dona Marciana engaged in the remarkable enterprise, in Mexico, of making American bread; and to my knowledge for a year, that camp was never without it. Of course she had Indian servants, but it takes time to teach the Indian.

But Indian women can teach as well. From them she learned to do a wonderful sort of lace work, finer than the finest cobwebs. She painted a little, read a great deal, and attended religiously to her large correspondence. Writing to one’s friends gets to be a religion in lonely places. At first the mail came once a week, and its coming was anxiously awaited. Then the rains came, the Indian who brought it had to make a tremendous detour to avoid the torrents, and its arrival became a fortnightly event. That Indian mail carrier stood high in Dona Marciana’s favor. When he came, wet to the skin, but with a fat sack of letters and papers on his back, he must first have hot coffee and something to eat, before she would consent to distribute the mail. Every letter was worth its weight in gold. Why can’t we realize, who love to receive letters, that one from us means just as much to somebody else?

Doña Marciana loved pets. She had a mule, a trick burro, a cow, several dogs and a pair of rabbits, besides doves and chickens. But the mountains abound in coyotes, foxes, opossums, hawks, snakes and gigantic lizards, and every one has a fondness for young doves and chickens. So she learned to shoot a rifle; and many were the trophies that adorned her walls, recalling the death of various marauders despatched by her own hand. Then she took photographs: amateurs, who have every convenience at hand for their work, can fancy what photography means, in a spot where hypo is precious as diamond dust and developer must be used again and again; where every drop of water is carried from the river on women’s shoulders, and where a dark room can only be obtained by waiting for a dark night.

The people contributed to her amusement. Occasion-ally the women assembled and went in solemn procession to visit her. A dozen would file in and range themselves about the room, crouching on the floor, when there were no chairs or boxes left to offer. There they sat, devouring every article in sight with their eyes, occasionally exchanging a whispered word or two, and then took their departure, as solemnly as they had come. At first, the intercourse between the hostess and her guests was limited to the ceremonious handshaking; but she eventually came to understand their odd dialect, which is a curious corruption of Spanish. They showed their imitative genius in trying in their rude way, to copy her clothing, and soon every woman among them rejoiced in an apron, which had hitherto been unknown. There was also a great demand for shoes, and many a dusky matron suffered untold torture, crowding her sturdy feet into wretched, high-heeled, pointed-toed, shiny Mexican shoes, that made her hobble where before she had glided, nimble as a cat. These luckily were discarded, when the women went, night and morning, to bring water from the river, tripping lightly over the sharp rocks, with a huge olla of water deftly balanced on the head, or held on one shoulder.

Dona Marciana had in her possession one article, that the people regarded as a sort of fetish. It was a small, highly polished medicine chest. Shortly after her arrival, a woman who had been very ill, was cured by a remedy taken from that chest. News of the magic went abroad and it was said that the cajita bonita (beautiful little box) held a sure cure for every ill that flesh was heir to. The Indians themselves still preserve considerable knowledge of medicinal plants. In fact there is not a weed nor a flower to which they do not assign some virtue. This, they will tell you, is good for head-ache; this for a cough; this flower cures snake-bite, and the leaves of that tree will stop bleeding. The people of the pueblo, however, forsook their own medicines, when the fame of the cajita bonita went abroad. Every man, woman or child, with an ache or pain came to Dona Marciana to solicit medicina. Now medicine, in the mountains of Mexico, is even more precious than hyposulph, and one never knows when it may be needed badly. She was willing to give if the case was serious, and al-ways kept a stock of lint and bandages on hand in the event of an accident in the mines; but this perpetual cry for medicina was out of all reason. Finally she hit on a plan. She adopted the water cure. When a man came with a sprain, she sent him to hold the injured member in the river. Hot water was prescribed for this ache, and cold water for that. The patients obeyed, and almost always found relief. It was most conducive to cleanliness and a vast saving in medicina. The most remarkable cure was of a man, apparently in the last stages of consumption, and filthy beyond words. He was advised to bathe in the river and told that if he bathed often enough, he would get well. Soon after-wards, he was seen in the river. The next day and the next found him still bathing, and it got so that at any time of day he could be found, soaking in some shallow pool. Strange as it may seem, he began to get better. He ate more, took on flesh, and in a month was as able to work as any peon about the place.

What with the water cure and the cajita bonita, which was resorted to in extreme cases, Dona Marciana came to be greatly revered by the people, and many were the humble offerings they brought her. When there was a dance and the girls and young men were all assembled, they came to her door with lighted torches; and the giver of the baile led each girl up in turn to salute her. Then they went and danced till daybreak. Sometimes she would signify her wish to see one of their dances, and a young man would bring his novia (sweetheart) and together they would dance the jarabe till both were exhausted. Or perhaps she would request one of her favorite pieces, and they would sit in the moonlit corral, strumming guitar and mandolin, until they were surrounded by dark forms. The women would come and crouch on the ground, with their children in their arms. The men would stand motionless in the shadow. Not a sound disturbed the performance except an adventure-some pig perhaps, or a sad-voiced burro, protesting from the mountain-side.

It is truly said that the woman is the natural home-maker. But Dona Marciana, it seemed to me, had more to make than the woman usually has. She not only made a home, but in her mysterious woman-way she filled it with happiness, which overflowed and got into the homes of the people. I have no doubt that an appreciable factor in her plan was her insistence, in this outlandish place which was five days from a yeast-cake, on constantly providing her household with American bread.

The morning after my arrival, Don Alfredo invited me to a swim before breakfast, telling me I had only to don a pair of overalls over my pajamas, and take my underclothing along. I found the pueblo even more dejected in appearance than it had seemed the night be-fore. There were not over three hundred souls in all, and the early abandonment of the mines, with the en-suing misery, had induced in the people a dull and hope-less apathy. Our advent had somewhat aroused them, and we had already employed over thirty of their men. They were civil in their greetings, but for any outward expression on their part, we might always have lived among them. This again was Mexico’s psychology. A plunge in the river, which was crystal-clear and very cold, the sun not having yet touched it, proved a fine tonic. Again I experienced the complete refreshment of nerves and body imparted by Mexico’s mountains. We breakfasted hurriedly, for our mules were waiting at the door, and before us was the never-failing thrill of a first look at the face of the mine. Many a rich bonanza, ere now, has been opened up by the night shift.

The scene that met my eyes, as we quitted the pueblo on our mules, was inspiring as the town itself was depressing. The valley which lay five thousand feet above the sea was perhaps a mile long, and enclosed by pine-clad mountains, whose mean altitude was about ten thousand feet. On their heights appeared, amid the glistening pines, such wondrous formations in red sand-stone as to give at first the impression that they were fashioned by man. The intense blue of the heavens, the fragrant, balmy air, and the profusion of bright birds: and flowers made the valley seem a paradise. And beyond all this scenic enchantment was the ever-present dream of the mines, with their illimitable promise of riches. This was the dream that cast its glamour over the beautiful valley, where the very light seemed golden. After an hour’s ride we reached the tunnel, where the men were at work. A pleasurable excitement was in the air. Soon the foreman, who was an American, appeared with a broad smile and told Don Alfredo that the last blast had opened up a vein of high-grade ore. He was as happy as possible and wanted to wager that an assay would show it to be very rich metal, with a high percentage of gold. The peones, too, had caught the infection and laughed and sang, their lithe, nude bodies glistening with sweat as they toiled from the mine, bearing on their backs great leather sacks filled with waste. This they emptied on the dump and trotted in for more. The peones, like all the workmen, knew that rich mines meant a good living for them and their families.

Leaving our mules, we were provided by the fore-man with lights, and with him traversed the long tunnel until we came to the face, where the barrateros were drilling with steel barras or drills, preparatory to putting in another charge of dynamite. These men were of higher skill and intelligence than the peones, who merely carried the ore and dirt from the mine. They were serious and dignified, and their manifest satisfaction at the appearance of the vein was correspondingly impressive. Don Alfredo took some samples of ore, and our curiosity was high to see what they would assay. Jumping upon our mules, we sent them racing down the trail, and knowing that a feed of corn awaited them, they carried us back to camp in less than half the time it took to reach the mines. We now started a fire in the assay-furnace, crushed the ore and prepared the assays, and eagerly watched the result of the fiery test. The beads came out as big as small peas. The ore was very rich, as the foreman was ready to wager, and it carried considerable gold. Ore like that, if it holds out, constitutes a bonanza. Dona Marciana came to exclaim and admire, but she also held, woman-like, to the opinion that a well-prepared dinner should not be despised, even if the mines were in bonanza. After dining, we sought our hammocks, for the afternoon siesta. The mountains and valley were suffused with a golden haze, which merged with our slumbers, and tinged our dreams with gold. But the next day brought disillusion. The rich find turned out to be only a pocket of ore, and was soon exhausted. The mother vein lay further in the mountain, the foreman said. It meant running the tunnel a little further, that was all. Don Alfredo was sanguine, like the foreman. It takes a sanguine man to make a successful miner.

So fascinated did I become with this mining life, s0 absorbed in the contemplation of what each day brought forth,— the past, which had to do with cities and civilization, grew dim and unreal, while the present seemed the only reality. I even had ceased to think of my ride in the mountains and of ” Wolf-Face,” until one day our storekeeper, who spoke a quaintly broken English, re-minded me of him.

” The people were all surprise, that night you arrive,” he remarked; ” they say you bring one very bad peon.” ” Why bad?” I inquired.

” Quien sabe? ” he said with a shrug; ” they say he has kill some people.”

” What did he kill them for?” I inquired, trying to appear indifferent.

” For to rob them,” replied the storekeeper. “He is very bad man. He has—how you say it? corazon de lobo.” [Heart of a wolf.]

This bit of information was on the whole rather gratifying; for while I had never communicated my suspicions regarding ” Wolf-Face ” to a soul, my opinion of him was at last vindicated.