Mexico – Swimming The Arroyo

ALL the mining men in the San Dimas district were longing for rain. The mills are run by water-power; and as the creeks were very low, there was immediate prospect of shutting down for lack of water, which means a daily loss of thousands of dollars. It threatened to rain every night with the usual warnings of heavy, black clouds and a ring around the moon, which had a greenish-yellow look, but still the rain held off. Every morning big clouds floated on the horizon and the sun broke through with difficulty. Sometimes there was a mackerel sky, and then Isidro, who always talked by signs, would cock his eye heaven-ward, nod mysteriously, and holding his hand, palm downward, wriggle his fingers in a way to suggest falling water: still it did n’t rain. Every evening at sunset, when the wind blew up the canon, hurling clouds of sand and dead leaves right and left, we said, “It will certainly rain to-night ! ” and then the night would come soft and clear, with a starlit sky. February is late for heavy rains and the miners began to despair. They found some comfort telling me how the flood had acted in previous years; how the waters roared till they could n’t hear each other’s voices, hurling great logs along with the speed of a mill-race, tumbling immense boulders down stream like so many pebbles and shutting off communications with the other camps for weeks. The little San Dimas arroyo was a raging torrent, and the river, with which it unites just below the hacienda, an angry sea. The placid charco, where we went swimming, became a lake, with a forty foot dive off the rocks, and catfish galore for the mere casting a line. Then they added consolingly, that although I had missed it, I should doubtless see it all another time.

The wind had been hot and dry all day, and there were more sand and dead leaves than usual in consequence. We had become used to disappointment and though the skies were dubious, we only said in disgusted tones, ” But it won’t rain!” At nightfall it began to sprinkle in a half-hearted way, and those who knew the signs said it meant a storm; but I remained skeptical and went to bed without giving it a second thought. Once or twice I woke in the night and heard the rain striking the corrugated iron overhead, but even then I did n’t realize what it really meant. My morning doze was broken into by a great banging on the window shutters, and amid the deafening roar of the waters I heard a voice shouting, ” Get up and see the flood.” I flung the shutters open and, though it was barely light, I could see that the arroyo, which the day before I had crossed on stepping stones, at most ten feet wide, had been transformed in a night into a mighty river, filling the bottom of the immense canon, which at that point was nearly two hundred feet wide. The water was running easily fifteen miles an hour and I could hear the constant bumping and feel the jar of the big rocks as they were dashed against the foundations of the hacienda.

As it grew lighter, we saw the river, which was grandly beautiful, with trunks of immense trees riding its billows. A steady drizzle was still falling, but the delights of such a day, coming after a long spell of hot dry weather, were not to be withstood. Everybody cautioned everybody else to beware of calentura (fever) which was prevalent in those parts, but no one stayed indoors. First there were all the animals to be visited. The mules were huddled together in a sad group under the fodder-stack, and the cow stood gazing dejectedly at her offspring, who, though safe under cover, was bawling frantically. Even the pig’s monologue had assumed a cynical tone: the roosters were trailing their bedraggled tail-feathers, and the doves, who had persistently shunned their comfortable little houses, preferring to roost on the ridge-pole and coquette with the stars, were so benumbed from the wet and cold, they could scarcely fly or even walk without pitching over. Many an unfortunate found his way to that refuge for feathered invalids — the kitchen. The dogs had the best of it for while they were supposed to be on guard at night, I was sure some of the peones, who were fond of them, had harbored them during the worst of it. They were jubilant in consequence leaping upon us with their muddy paws. And the pet burro, whose name was ” Johnny,” did what he could, braying dismally all day at ten-minute intervals, in tones that sounded more than ever in need of scraping and oiling.

The mines were on the opposite side of the arroyo from the town, and the workmen were shut off from their supply of tortillas and beans. There was no way to get food across the river, and I doubt if the women would have found time to cook in any event, they were so taken up watching the flood. The men refused to work on empty stomachs and besides they wanted to see the flood too, so they came trooping down from the mines. By noon they were ranged up in lines on the opposite banks, the women on one side, the men on the other. It is on such occasions the sign-language demonstrates its superiority over all others. In spite of the noise of the water, those Indians talked across the arroyo. I imagine the gist of what was said resolved it-self into “I’m hungry!” on one side and ” Come and get your dinner then!” on the other. At last a venture-some young peon decided to make the attempt. It was an exciting moment as he stripped off his loose cotton clothing, and stood, slender and dark, on the edge of the torrent. He leaped in and tried at first to wade but the current swept him from his feet and he disappeared. Where was he? Would he be dashed on the rocks? No, there he was swimming down stream, his dark head just showing above the foam. He landed fifty yards below and made for the town, where a pair of brown hands was already patting tortillas against his coming. One quality is never at a discount, be the owner high or low; it is courage and that peon boy had it. By night, the water had gone down sufficiently for wading, and the men were crossing in droves, carrying their clothing on their heads. Some of the weaker ones were afraid to try it, as the current was still tremendous and the water came to the arm-pits; and these, the stouter ones carried over on their shoulders.

I was prepared for a change the next morning, but not for the one I saw. From a river, close on to two hundred feet wide, the arroyo had subsided into a trifle over its usual width; but with an added volume and velocity that suggested sufficient reserve to last a long time. The water was ice-cold and we hoped that it came from melting snow, which would assure its continuance.

The havoc that a small and apparently inoffensive mountain stream can create in a night, aided and abetted by the innumerable smaller ones that are its tributaries, is incalculable. Every rill contributes its mite and the united water of hundreds of rills soon constitutes an irresistible torrent. Woe to the unlucky mill owner, whose works happen to come within the danger line. A few years ago, this same arroyo carried away an en-tire pipe-line and its bed is still strewn, half-way to the coast, with sections of iron pipe: while a huge boiler, four feet in diameter and sixteen feet long, was whisked away like a stick of wood. After a long and fruitless search, the owners concluded it had gone out to sea; but several years later, the water uncovered it where it lay embedded in the sand, over three miles down the arroyo. The precept for mill owners would seem to be, ” roost high ! ”

While a mountain flood frequently subsides as quickly as it came, its havoc makes travel dangerous for weeks afterward. As a result of the present flood, our mail was delayed for two weeks, and the waiting seemed interminable. I have known tense moments, but none that surpasses the arrival of the mail in lonely places, which for weeks have been isolated from the rest of the world by the floods: shut off by the impassable mountains. It is then the mountains dominate us and silence our pretentiousness. Like the ocean, they are immutable and relentless. We know that though every human tie we possess is calling, it cannot reach us, for it is death to attempt to cross the mountains in time of flood. At last the mail arrived, carried by a mozo on mule-back, and Dona Marciana, after giving him a quart of hot coffee, assorted and distributed the letters as was her custom. I recognized the writing of a New York friend, with the postmark ” Mexico City.” In his letter he said that he had sailed from New York four weeks since, having decided to pay me a visit, and that he was then in Mexico City. He hoped I would return there at once or send for him. I consulted my friends, but they said it was out of the question; for only the most intrepid and experienced mozos could get through alive. Again I felt the thrall of the mountains. But we chafe under the limitations imposed by nature, and I began to long for Mexico City and felt impelled to return there,— the more so on account of my friend’s visit.

I have found that the success of an undertaking, what-ever the obstacles may be, is furthered by the deliberate beginning of preparations; and though my friends were doubtful as to how soon I could safely begin my journey, I engaged a mozo and pack-animals and began to get my outfit in shape. I was scarcely ready when, the weather having changed abruptly, the mail mozo assured me the trails were passable and the streams low enough for crossing. It had been decided that I should ride Don Alfredo’s mule, Queen “; and while I hesitated to accept his kind offer, the prospect of four days astride such an excellent saddle-animal was irresistible. In the mountains, the loan of a man’s rifle or of his mule is the test of unselfish friendship. This mule was gaited like a horse, with a fast trot and an easy gallop; and as the mozo was well-mounted, I hoped to make Durango in four days, which was record time. Our first day’s ride should take us to the rancho San Miguel, and it was my intention to sleep there.

The ascent to the summit took the entire forenoon, and after a hurried lunch and brief rest for the mules, I pushed on over the level mesa, in the direction of the rancho. At sundown we were still in the pines, and my mozo wanted to go into camp, but I had several reasons for wishing to sleep at the rancho. First, it meant that we had covered the distance allotted for a good day’s riding: and second, I had heard the praises of Don Blas, the brother of Don Luis, from my friends in the mines, and I was determined to meet him and make his acquaintance. The dusk that had pervaded the pine forest was now dispelled by the moon, and after two hours’ fast riding we reached the rancho, and to my satisfaction Don Blas himself came out to welcome me, and to place his house at my disposal. Don Luis and the other members of the family were grouped around a big fire in the yard, with their zarapes about them; but Don Blas was in his shirt-sleeves, his ruddy face and portly figure seeming to set at naught the nip-ping night air. I was glad to go to the fire and when the saddles were off the animals I told the mozo to get supper, but Don Blas had other plans. He said that I must partake of tantitos frijoles (a few beans) with him; so we went into the cozy little dining-room where the table was laid for two. The supper consisted of delicious frijoles, flaky tortillas and coffee. My provision box was crammed with good things, but something in the port of Don Blas told me that to suggest opening it would be as ill-timed, as it would were I supping with the President. Don Blas had some of the good things later, but they were offered with due reference to form. I found that my estimate of Don Blas was right when we came to settle accounts. Not one cent would he take except for the corn, which he really had for sale. His ” No, senor ” meant ” No.” Of course there is a ” No,” that really means ” Yes “; but the ” No ” of Don Blas was not of this breed.

Before the evening was over, he told me his history. He was the oldest of a large family. His mother died in child-birth, but her sister came to mother the family, and in those days there was plenty of money, his father owning a large rancho stocked with sheep and cattle, and a silver mine. Then the father died. The property was left in charge of a near male relative, who, after the manner often peculiar to male relatives, proceeded to appropriate it entirely to his own ends. The good aunt, with her brood of orphans, found herself penniless and naturally turned to Don Blas, who was then fourteen years old. His one accomplishment was playing the harp, and when the people found he would play for money he was summoned from far and near, to make music for dances. ” I always played with great gusto, but when they got drunk, it frightened me, and I hid among the women,” he said. Music brought but little money and Don Blas tried his hand as baker, cook, and store boy, while the good aunt took in sewing and washing and together they kept the wolf from the door. Finally his love of the mountains and an out-of-door life led him to become an arriero or freighter; and he now owned his own mules and outfit, and the little rancho where he enjoyed life when not on the road.

I asked Don Blas why he had never married. He said he had always been too busy, first taking care of his young brothers and sisters, and later of their children. The rancho was then overrun with small nieces and nephews and judging from the resounding smacks I heard him giving them, when they came to say, ” May you pass a good night ! ” they were like his own children to him. ” I have always been content in seeking a living,” said Don Blas. I fancied his contentment was mainly due to the fact that he was living for those rosy-cheeked youngsters who were forever hanging about him. In nearly every family, there is one who far out-strips the others in gaining this world’s goods; but I believe it is rare in other countries for the successful one to take upon himself the care of his entire family, as so often is the case in Mexico.

We were in the pine woods the greater part of the next day, and our progress was slow owing to the bad condition of the trail, and the great number of fallen trees, which often lay in our path, compelling us to ride around them. The streams were deep and care was necessary to cross them safely. Throughout this journey, the mule, ” Queen,” showed rare intelligence. Though nervous and easily excited, she was gentle and kind. As is usual with thoroughbreds, her skin was delicate, and I found the saddle was chafing her — or rather she informed me, by rubbing her nose against my leg. I got off and shifted the saddle, and from that time, when-ever her back hurt her, she gave me notice in the same way; yet gently and with the utmost patience.

That night we camped in the valley, and while the mozo was cooking supper, I bathed Queen’s back and rubbed it with liniment. As I was eating my supper, a young peon appeared from out of the darkness, and taking off his hat, asked if he might sleep by the fire and then walk with us to Durango, saying he would help with the mules. He was a gentle little lad, and my mozo was pleased to have a companion. After they had eaten supper, they began singing. They came from the same part of the mountains, it seemed, and sang the same songs. I soon fell asleep, lulled by their soft agreeable voices.

When we started, the following morning, I feared the boy would not keep up, but he was light and swift as a deer. Sometimes he would vanish and I feared he had given out; but to my surprise he would be waiting for us ahead on the trail. This he managed by crossing the ridges, where the trail went around them; and this method of travel is common among the Indians when on foot.

I was riding across a beautiful piece of meadowland, when from the pines that skirted it, a man on a white horse emerged and rode toward me, his horse’s hoofs making no sound as he glided over the springy turf — a silent horseman from out the silence. As he came near I recognized Gregorio, who was one of our most faithful miners in the old Huahuapan district. We had not met for more than a year, and of the two, I was the more moved by our meeting. Riding beside me, he lifted his hat, gave me his hand, and made inquiries for Don Alfredo, Dona Marciana, and Gumecinda. Then he asked when he should have the pleasure of seeing us ” there,”— meaning Huahuapan. I recovered my manners sufficiently to say that I hoped it might be soon, and after shaking hands again, he gravely lifted his hat, and rode silently and swiftly away. I have often wondered at the serene poise of these people; I think they have become imbued with the calm of their own mountains. I doubt not if Gregorio and I meet in ten years, for any demonstration on his part the interval will seem as a day.

My last night in the mountains was spent in an interesting spot called Charco Puerco (Pig Charco), its one redeeming feature being that it was near Durango. It had rained in the afternoon, and though the sky was clear when I turned in, the wind was blowing a gale, which grew more violent as the night went on. I had heard all along the road of the recent hurricanes and had never before seen so many fallen trees. When I finally fell asleep, the pines overhead were lashing about like whip-cords. I awoke at one o’clock. The sky was black with clouds, the wind had subsided and it was beginning to rain. At two I called the mozo. Meantime it had begun to thunder and lighten and by the time the pack-mules were loaded, there was a sharp electric storm under way. Streaks of fire were darting across the sky, the thunder was pealing on all sides, and the rain fell in sheets. I was again anxious about the young peon, but he was as cheerful as possible, and trotted along beside the mozo’s mule. I had them take the lead with the pack-mules, and though I could only see them when it lightened, I heard the steady splash of the mules’ feet as they jogged along the muddy trail. I hoped the weather would change for the better at daybreak; but it grew cold and the rain turned to hail. It evidently hurt the mules and they refused to go, except under liberal persuasion. The ground was soon white and from that time, for nine hours, it rained and hailed alternately, with the most glorious electric storm I ever experienced, and with dazzling bursts of sunshine in between, that lasted at most ten minutes at a time. Then great masses of clouds would dart up from the horizon, the sky would grow black in the twinkling of an eye, and the storm would begin again.

I passed a burro train laden with heavy timbers. The Indian boy who was driving them was a sorry looking object, but as I came up to him, I heard the familiar strains of ” La Paloma ” and found he was playing a mouth-organ. He was covered with mud and the water was running off his soaked sombrero upon his more soaked zarape, but if facial expression meant anything, he was perfectly happy.

The first glimpse of Durango, as I approached it from the mountains, was wonderful. I was riding across an extensive mesa, thinking of nothing in particular, when suddenly I saw it, lying away off over the tops of the intervening mountains, veiled in ethereal blue like a mirage, a dream city. This time, though I was riding in the rain, the sun was shining on the cathedral towers, and the city seemed to rest on the clouds, which were piled below it and all about it. It was my promised land, yet near as it seemed, it was still a good four hours’ ride away. ” Queen ” saw it as quickly as I did. She was a Durango mule, but had not seen her native soil for three years. She was dead tired, but in the same instant that I discerned the city, she pointed her ears inquisitively, and struck into a smart trot. When we lost sight of it, she lagged, but on a second glimpse, up went her ears and off she trotted. When she was bought in Durango, she had for stable mate a white horse, and mules are fond of horses. When we struck the highway, leading into the city, we found it heavy from the rain, and I vowed I would not touch her with the spur if she walked all the way to Durango. Suddenly a Mexican passed me at a gallop on a white horse. She pricked up her ears, whinnied, and started off at a lively trot again, never quitting it till we entered the city.

It is a long ride that has no ending. This one had meant fourteen hours in the saddle without a halt; but presently I found myself before the hotel, with the amiable mozo, Leon, grinning in the zaguan. With his kindly assistance I was soon in bed, and after a bite to eat and an alcohol rub, I fell asleep, to wake the next morning ” as fit as a fiddle.” After settling accounts with the mozo, I went to the corral to take leave of ” Queen,” who was to return with him to the mines. The other mules had freight to carry home, but ” Queen ” would frolic along the trail without so much as the weight of a saddle. She received my farewell caress pleasantly, and when I called her ” Queen of Durango Mules,” did not demur.

That night, when I took train for Mexico City, it was with a feeling of contentment. I already anticipated anew the pleasant life of the capital. But underlying all, for future solace, was the thought of my late journey, — of other journeys, however distant, over Mexico’s illimitable mountains.

Two ties unite my heart to Mexico—first, love of friends; last and always, her mountains.

Rough-piled, far-flung, unending, range on range; And still beyond all wrapped in purple mist, Are mountains dimly beckoning. . . .