A Mexican Diary -- Part V
By Ernest L. White
November 10, 1881 - December 15, 1956
Hampton, New Hampshire
I like him and I feel sure he does me. I've been a fool not to have made more of an effort to learn Spanish. I've depended too much on the interpreter. Time I changed my lazy ways. I'm suspicious that the interpreter and Ortaz (dealer in labor) are up to some deviltry for one thing. Poncho keeps speaking their names to me and saying "nardar bueno", which I know means "no good".
But what gets him all keyed up is that strange man that the interpreter is so chummy with. Yesterday I saw Poncho go into the bedroom where I keep my shotgun, take it, slip in a couple of cartridges and go sneaking down to the river bank. I thought he was after some kind of game and I quietly followed him, curious to see if he had any luck. Imagine my surprise when I saw him creep quietly up on the interpreter and the stranger where they sat talking together in low tones. And when I heard Poncho cock the gun and point it at the two unsuspecting men I was fairly horrified. I hollered at him and he lowered the gun, while the two men vanished in the weeds. I lectured him good in English which meant nothing to him. I doubt he even heard me for all the time I was scolding him he was doing the same to me and neither knew what the other was saying. It was sure funny in one way. But Poncho's gestures and his earnestness impressed me. He meant to kill that strange mozo and perhaps the interpreter and I do believe he meant it as a service to me.
Nearly all of our force of contract laborers slipped past the guard and deserted last evening. Wain discovered they had run away when he made the rounds late at night. Immediately all was bustle.
Fortunately there were mules and horses in the corral which we hastily saddled, armed ourselves and gave chase. Wain took Pancho with him on the trail towards 0jitlan while I took Ledesma and started towards Usila, hoping to head them off and round up at least a few of them. It was a black night and a strange trail to me, after leaving our plantation. Once as we descended a bank to ford the river, Ledesma was thrown from his mule as it jumped from one foothold to another, but was not hurt much. He was discouraged, however, and asked me to return, but we kept on over some pretty rough going, and to make matters worse, a thunderstorm broke in all its fury, drenching us. Ledesma flatly refused to go another step, but after much arguing I got him in front of me, so that he could not leave me, and we plugged along. The lightning was sharp and at each flash we were able to catch a glimpse of the trail, to be plunged the next second in inky blackness. Once Ledesma's mule refused to move and I took the lead and after a good many false starts my faithful mule took a series of downward jumps, scrambling and slipping. I clung to the saddle and had all I could do to keep from being scraped from it by projecting ledges. All this in blackness so dense it seemed as though you could feel it. I was afraid we were going into the river, which we could hear far below us roaring like a hungry animal, but we landed on fairly level ground and Ledesma's mule followed after a great deal of urging. At one time the lightning showed us we were passing over a sort of suspension bridge built of native rope and vines and with a platform of poles covered with mud. It was very narrow, without any guardrail, and swayed and buckled as our nerveless mules walked sedately along. Directly under us, far below, was the river. I was glad when dawn broke and we found ourselves nearly to Usila. We rested near a burying ground where one of our men had been buried a short time before, and sure enough, as Wain had told me (I had doubted) there was a drove of razorback pigs rooting among the graves. Human bones could be seen here and there.
We did not stop long but guided our mounts to the village and after taking breakfast with the storekeeper, called on the village secretary. Our runaway men had not come this way. We returned home over the same trail and I wondered how we ever got safely over it at night. Our mules were hard put to climb up a sort of stairway at one place and we dismounted a number of times and led them. Wain and Pancho got in after dark, completely played out and their horses nearly dead, but our mules stood it very well. They caught three men but even these got away again before they reached here, so we have lost thirty-five laborers and the company its advance money. I can't blame the men much, for I fear I would perhaps have done likewise had I been in their position.
We climbed the mountain today on the Concordia side of the river, an Indian acting as guide. We rode as far as possible and finished on foot, cutting our way with machetes considerable of the distance through thick vegetation. We were in search of a cave with a spring of cool water in it, that we had been told about. We climbed about 2,000 feet and came to a sort of plateau surrounded by higher mountains. I should judge this cave is the result of a former small volcano as we found a large deep hole going down into the mountain, into which we climbed, and sure enough found a little spring of clear, cold water. How good it was after the insipid river water.
We drank all we could, examined the stalactites which hung like great icicles under some of the projecting ledges, and then began the descent. This nearly turned into a tragedy. In one place we came down a very steep descent onto a narrow ledge and turned sharply to the right again. My mule was going pretty fast and as he landed on the ledge which dropped off sheer, at least two hundred feet, braced himself and stopped dead, with his forward feet almost on the edge. The stop was so sudden that the girth broke and the saddle, with me in it, slipped up onto the mule's neck. How I managed to keep from falling into the chasm below I cannot see, but I hung to the mule's neck like a monkey until Pancho pulled him back on the ledge.
I had a rather trying evening with a drunken woman. I'd rather have forty drunken men on my hands than one woman. I finally got her locked in the corn house, which is good and stout, but I had no way of controlling her voice and for an hour or so she made the night hideous with her frantic shrieks.
I have taken numerous pictures since I have been down here, but they nearly all are spoiled in the developing, as the solution is so warm that it melts the film on the glass. My remaining films have melted and stuck all together so I guess my picture taking is done now.
One of our horses was suffering with colic today and I was much amused watching Pancho doctoring it. He caught a grasshopper of enormous size, pulled off its hind legs, and after a lot of maneuvering managed to get said logs into the animal's mouth, and tried to make him swallow them, his theory being that hopper's legs would kick out the colic.
Caught a lizard today about three feet long, of a light green color and his body so transparent I could easily see its "innards". We often get one now of the large kind and have its tail to eat. It is good. An iguana.
I was a spectator of a fight with machetes between two men today. We try to keep all weapons away from them, but as they do all their work in the orchards with machetes, these short-handled, long-bladed knives come in quite handy for them when they get to fighting. Before we could stop them one had a long, deep gash in his arm. I did the best I could with the wound, and sewed it up. The men down here never attempt to fight with their fists. All disputes must be settled with a knife or gun or any kind of weapon they can get hold of, but fists were never made for that purpose, according to their ethics.
While eating dinner today a hen laid an egg on the table. She was rather a shrew and very ungrateful for my hospitality, for suddenly she began to scold and clack and strut around and when I remonstrated with her, she promptly knocked over my cup of coffee and flew shrieking out the door.
We have a little train of burros here, used mostly to lug water, and one is getting to be quite a pet. He has got so friendly that he visits me every day now; and if I leave the door open, will come walking in and go nosing around, his great ears flopping. At times, if I am busy writing, he will stand watching me with scarcely a movement except to cock his ears, first one, then the other, sometimes both. He is very fond of tortillas and is a pest at mealtime, trying to help himself from my plate. Things have settled into a routine pretty well now. Ortaz brought us sixty new laborers and is away now with a mule train getting the beans that we have bargained for.
How I wish that I had something to read. Of course, after dark with only a smoky torch to see by it would be bad on the eyes, but Sunday afternoons a good book or magazine would be appreciated. I am tired of listening to the mozo's attempts at grand opera, their squabbles and general sky-larking in their birthday suits on the river bank; also their cockfights, and it would be restful to read a good book.
Some of these cockfights are vicious affairs, but the ones staged on the ranch are tame as a rule, for the cocks are, as one might say, local talent from our feathered flock, and the gladiators know from long association who is boss.
Did a little target practice today with revolvers, and nearly shot my cook. I had a bunch of bananas set up against a pile of weeds and brush and was trying to shoot off the bananas. I had shot a number of times when up she popped from directly behind my target, where she had been sitting all the time. A particularly close shot had brought her to her feet where she stood grinning. She is a good old soul, but not much to look at; toothless, and not over-clean, very scantily clad in greasy clothes, and I should judge she has occupants in her hair, for at every leisure moment she is combing her thick black locks with a comb I gave her, and very seriously inspects the combings.
I am very busy evenings doctoring my numerous patients. Salts and quinine are dispensed in large doses. I have run out of quinine pills, but have a lot in powder form which I give in a big wooden spoon. It must be pretty bitter to take this way, but as they chewed up the pills before swallowing, I guess it doesn't make much difference and saves them the bother of chewing.
We had to throw old Betty, my mule, today and fix her up. She has cut the skin on her belly somehow and the hide hung down in a great bunch, and on inspection we found it full of maggots. I have killed a couple of dogs before this, infected the same way. We used a large wooden spoon and scooped out the maggots and other foreign matter, disinfected with bichloride, and smeared on tar, to keep the flies away. The man who was cut fighting is not doing well. While dressing the wound today a piece of flesh dropped off where I sewed it up, the stitches still in the great piece that came away.
Ledesma and I went shopping amongst the Indians today. I wanted particularly to get an Indian woman's dress, and although we found one partly made we could not get one that was completed. They are very reluctant to sell anything and at many of the huts refused to speak to us or even notice us. It takes months to make one of these dresses, as the cotton is planted, harvested, spun, dyed and woven all by hand. I secured a small girl's dress, which was being worn at the time of purchase. I also got an Indian hammock made of the same material as their nets. It looks very frail to trust one's weight in but it will hold a man up, for there was an Indian in it when I bought it, who was very reluctant to get out of it, after I had paid for it. Had a very pleasant and interesting day.
Had armadillo soup for supper tonight and although I have eaten it before and called it good I passed it up this time. I just happened to see the first stages of preparation by our cook, who never stopped to clean it, but simply smashed it up with a rock and dumped the whole mess into a pot. I presume that later she picked out the edible parts (probably with her fingers) and prepared these, but I did not stop to see, having lost interest and appetite. No more armadillo stew for the present at least.
The river is getting higher and only in one place is it fordable. Wain, with the men, is doing good work clearing up the orchards, but the weeds are coming in again, where he first began work. I visited the secretary at Usila today to pay the taxes, etc. Ledesma went with me. The secretary made some slurring remarks about gringos which seemed to please Ledesma greatly. I bet I'll have some trouble with this interpreter of mine some day. He wants to leave and at times is very insolent, hoping, I suppose, that I will get mad and fire him. The secretary proposed a race back to our plantation, which I accepted. As he was riding a very spirited horse, and I a mule, I expected he would win, but owing to the tough trail, I arrived a good ten minutes before he rode up, his horse blown and badly cut about his legs. I can't praise these mules enough. I have never yet seen one kick at a man or try to throw him, but I must admit they have kept me awake a good many nights by gathering around my hut to settle their disputes, their voices discordant but great in volume.
I have not done much today except play doctor and nurse.
A large lot of corn was delivered to us by raft. It doesn't seem to make much difference here even if it is Sunday. The Indians very skilfully landed the raft in the swift river and worked hard all day, carrying great bags of corn up the steep banking with only the help of a wide strap or tump line which rests against the forehead and passes down the back and under the burden. It must be quite a knack to balance these loads to say nothing of the wright, which I found in one case to be two hundred and ten pounds, and yet these same Indians would scorn to do any work on a plantation.
Hope I can get a good night's rest, but I have numerous and sundry bed fellows (all of the insect family) with the same purpose in life, namely, to make my night's rest anything but peaceful.
The roof is leaking so badly that I can't find a place to put my cot without getting some part of it wet, but a lot of the men are still sick and have high temperatures.