A Mexican Diary -- Part VI
By Ernest L. White
November 10, 1881 - December 15, 1956
Hampton, New Hampshire
I have a very sick woman on my hands, with a high fever. While rummaging around in the medicine case, left here by Doctor Harcourt, I came across a bottle of something that smelled to me like nitor and decided it was just the thing for reducing fever. It was labeled in Latin, but I knew nothing of that language, so I took a chance and gave the woman a large dose. Somehow I felt uneasy about it afterwards, so looking up the Latin work I found I had given her chloroform: Late tonight I visited her where she lay, and she seemed no worse, but I have learned my lesson. I will never give any more medicine until I am sure what it is.
I got an awful scare last night. Ledesma got good and drunk and went visiting some of his friends amongst the free laborers, with whom he is something of a hero. They were having a very noisy time singing and shouting and in general disturbing the peace, when I broke up the party, for I was afraid they would get to fighting, and some one would get hurt. I told Ledesma to come home with me, and at first he refused but later changed his mind. He still showed his displeasure, however, by an occasional threat, (possibly because I cuffed him a few times). I rolled him into a cot, took his revolver, and retired to my cot in the office, securely lashing the door behind me, which is simply a piece of corrugated tin nailed on a frame. It does not reach the ground by a foot or so, and over the top is an open space of two or three feet.
I was just dozing off when the door began to rattle and shake and I could hear sounds like heavy breathing and some one muttering. I at once thought that Ledesma had gone back to his drunken friends and persuaded them to attack me and rob the store. I knew he disliked me, and was evidently very much peeved when I broke up his party. Every moment I expected the door to give way. I jumped from my cot, seized both my revolvers and called for them to go away, or I would shoot. The noise stopped for a moment, and I searched my mind for a way to let Honcho or Wain know of my predicament, but as they were across the river a half a mile away, I dismissed any thought of help from them. What a lot one can think of in a short time. I remembered that story told to me by Wain, of the woman who was stabbed to death by a jilted lover on this very plantation. A very long pole was used with a sharpened point charred to make it hard. She was asleep at the time in a hut like mine, but the man had no difficulty in stabbing her right through the pole walls.
I pulled my cot into the center of the room and made a little barricade of it, together with the table and trunk. I didn't care to have the above duplicated with me as the victim. It was inky black, and I could not see a thing, but every little while I could hear footsteps and the assault on the door was repeated again and again, but would stop when I threatened to shoot. Once I thought they were trying to climb over the top of the door, and once I shot at something trying to force an entrance between the poles at the back of my room, but recognized it after I shot by a nerve tingling squeal as a pig. Clean miss, I guess, for I saw no pork around in the morning. I was tempted at times to shoot through the door, but could not bring myself to the point of shooting at a man, especially one who was not himself. I never passed such a night and hope I never will again.
At the first sign of light, I tiptoed to the door, out the lashings, kicked it open, and stepped out to confront my would-be assailants, with a levelled revolver in each hand in true Western style. Instead of desperate, drunken Mexicans, I found standing there an impassive burro who, even as I gazed at him dumfounded, calmly walked to the door and began to rub and scratch his mangy sides and neck on the rough tin. As he scratched he gave little grunts and signs of satisfaction, as if the door was made on purpose to relieve itching burros. He was my "bandits". I took a look at Ledesma who was peacefully "sleeping it off" on his cot, and I guess I was some disgusted with myself. So much for a good imagination and an attack of nerves.
Three men ran away last night. We made no effort to capture them, Our corn which was up has been destroyed by cattle or pigs. Went shopping among the Indians again and practiced fording the river. We had to throw an ox today and doctor a large sore, which was full of maggots, but we are used to that now and expect them in every bad wound, even in men, if they are neglected. We have one real cow pony which, without anyone in the saddle, will hold a cow or steer from rising after Wain ropes it. He will keep the rope as tight as a bow-string all the time.
Ledesma and I went to Usila today to try and buy some peppers. While there, I was shown the entrance to a cave in which a river runs. I suppose it must be a tributary of the Usila, but I don't know (nor did the secretary), where it enters the main river, or where it comes from. I took off my clothes and swam in as far as I dared. There was very little current. We arrived home again without being rained on, which is exceptional now.
Something happened today that worries me. I think the interpreter took a shot at me. He claimed it was accidental but I have a suspicion it wasn't. You bet I'll watch him closely from now on. Hereafter he will ride ahead of me and never again behind.
I tried to cross the river today, but could not. It was too swift for my horse and we were lucky to get back without being drowned. Monkeys are getting thick around here and I expect to have one for my supper if Pancho is lucky. I don't say I'll eat it, but I may taste of it.
We had a most terrific storm with lots of rain this afternoon, which blew in the side of the cook-house and demolished the building in which we kept the saddles, etc. It also started our house leaking worse than ever and I found my blankets and cot soaking wet.
All communication must be done by raft now, as the river is so swollen we can not ford it with horses or mules.
While clearing up the wreck of our storage and saddle room, I found an old trunk, buried under a pile of rotten coffee sacks and other rubbish. It fell apart as we started to move it, disclosing a man's outside clothes, underwear, machete, a bunch of letters and a diary, in fact, someone's personal things. The clothes were so rotten that they fell apart in our hands; the letters, which we burned, were beyond reading, but the diary could be read fairly well, here and there. Possibly this was not just the thing to do, that is, read a man's diary without his permission, but we could not help being curious, the things having evidently been hidden away a long time.
It proved to be written by George Williams of Charlestown, Mass. The curious part of it is that although I did not know this man, I did know of his family. How he ever came down here, or rather, why he should leave his personal things behind we could not figure out. I have taken charge of his diary, and will return it to his folks when I go North. The diary was dated 1898. Ledesma still demands to be released. How I wish we had picked an American interpreter.
The secretary at Usila visited us today and after leaving sent back an Indian with a note asking for two small glass pickle bottles that he had seen here. I am sure I don't know what he wants them for, but glass of any kind is scarcely ever seen here and the bottles probably took his fancy.
One more of the cooks has entered a complaint against Wain for beating her. Rained almost all day.
I set what men I have to shelling corn, and amused myself watching a burro eat it as I tossed it to him, and speculating on how much more he would eat without bursting. Towards the last he would take an ear into his mouth, roll it around a few times, then drop it out and look wistfully at it, and finally devour it, but with no great enthusiasm or appetite. At last he did reach his limit and very reluctantly turned away and started for the river. If he drank any water, I am sure he must have burst.
I am afraid I will see little of Wain now, as the river is still gaining and soon we will be unable to cross it even on a raft. He's drinking pretty heavy too, and is not as good company as when sober.
Still raining. We might as well be on an island as here, for two large streams of water are pouring down the mountains on both sides of our little clearing cutting communication either way. I had my first case of "jiggers" today. Some fly or insect evidently lays eggs between the toes, which hatch out little microscopical wire worms, causing great irritation. The toes are swollen and stand out from each other. I put on turpentine to kill the worms and plastered the feet with tar to keep Mr. Fly from repeating his labors.
Still raining and the river is a roaring torrent. Driftwood and trees go shooting by, or, getting in an eddy, swirl round and round. There is the body of a cow in an eddy by the big rock, and I wonder how many more there may be further up and how much these things will improve the condition of the drinking water. It is very muddy-looking and yellow. Some of the men have made themselves rain capes out of grass and they look like big traveling cocks of hay when wearing them, but they do keep the rain out pretty well. All work is suspended.
Our roof is sagging badly and I wouldn't be surprised if the whole thing came down on my head.
The sun was out a little while today, and the whole valley steamed like a great tea kettle. Great clouds of vapor gathered on the sides of the mountain like banks of fog. I aired my clothes and bedding, which are covered with mold. My floor is nothing but sticky mud. Thank heaven I have a cot and don't have to do as the other men do. Their bed is simply a little straw mat laid on the muddy floor.
Last night when I took off my shoes and stockings my feet were so parboiled that great patches of skin came off my heels. I should have discarded the foot gear when the rainy season got here, as Wain advised me to do. Hereafter I shall wear only sandals. These are simply a piece of leather with a thong which passes between the big toe and its neighbor, back around the heel and fastens. Of course it is no protection against the mud, which is everywhere and deep.
Pancho told me late in the afternoon that there was a dead man up the trail but when I went to see, found it to be the mail carrier, drunk and asleep, and minus his mail-pouch. He was covered with flies and bugs, which come out in swarms when the sun shines. It is raining again now and I wonder if the mail man came to enough to find shelter. I have a little fever tonight and have taken a good dose of quinine. My head aches something wicked.
I've had a good dose of fever and lost track of the days, but guess I am a little better and will try and write a little. Pancho and his wife have attended me during this little attack of fever.
Ledesma I have not seen for days. Wain can not cross the river. Still raining. I am covered with mud and so is my cot. Pancho says I have been crazy for two days. He found me rolling in the mud on the floor and put me back on the cot time and time again. I want him to wash me, but he won't. Says it will make me worse again. I feel too weak to do it myself. Scraped out most of the dried mud with my hands from my cot. Perhaps I can wash tomorrow.
Feel better today, but not strong enough to walk without Pancho's help. Guess I've been pretty sick. I have washed myself, against Pancho's advice. The cook was glad to see me and kept patting me on the shoulder and crying. Pancho has nursed me faithfully and though I have been out of my head a good deal of the time, whenever I woke it was always to find him or his wife keeping watch. It was during one of these lucid spells that I remember their giving me a peculiar treatment for my fever. They removed all my clothing and put a belt around my waist without fastening it. Next, starting from my head, they rubbed down towards the waistline, bearing down so heavily I thought they would rub all my skin off. As they reached my waistline in their rubbing, Pancho tightened and buckled the belt. It was so tight it could hardly be seen as my flesh covered it up and I could feel my legs getting all numb. I begged Pancho to loosen it but he would not, explaining that they had rubbed the badness all out of my head; the tight belt was to keep it below and they would now draw out this badness through my naval.
Some spirits was put in half a coconut shell and lighted, and when the blue flame showed they inverted it and held it tightly over my stomach. Of course, the burning liquid made a vacuum which sucked and drew worse than any plaster could. It hurt, but they assured me it would draw out the badness, and left me. I managed, after what seemed hours, in working my fingernail under the shell and getting rid of it. The belt was a much harder proposition but I crawled on my hands and knees, got my knife and cut it away where the buckle was, cutting the swollen flesh around the belt as I did it.
I never see Ledesma, the interpreter.
Pancho brought me a piece of a large snake today. He found it near the river when he went for water and struck it with his machete, cutting it in two. The piece he showed me is over twelve feet long and is much larger than my arm. The piece with the head he did not bring back. Its skin is covered with great scales and is very handsome, with its big black bordered diamonds of green and gold intermingled with browns of all shades. Pancho skinned it and I am going to try and preserve it.
As I sat at the table today trying to eat something, I watched a big tarantula coming down the wall of my hut and finally he showed up quite close to me on the table. He was a big fellow, as large as a saucer, and I was just making plans to dispose of him when Pancho, who was nearby, went into action with the flat side of his machete. I appreciate his vigilance but I do think he put too much enthusiasm in his blow for I had to pick a few hairy legs from my tin plate and a few more soft parts of Mr. Tarantula's anatomy.
What a place this is for bugs, this hut with its rotten thatch roof. At times the old roof seems to literally rain bugs of all descriptions.
Some with hard shells on their bodies and wings like June bugs, only larger, who, after striking the floor or table, and yes, one's own body, manage after much wiggling of legs or wings to fly or crawl away. But there are quite a few that go "plunk" or "splat" when they strike, and their bodies being soft they just stay around where they strike, for you to walk on and squash sometimes with your naked feet.
Wafford has a sort of cloth ceiling over the part of his hut where the table is and where he sits, but we have not this luxury.
The rats, I imagine, make use of these bugs for food and then Mr. House Snake feeds on the rats; and so it goes down through the line until some hungry mozo eats the snake.
I'll bet no one up home would believe this, but I found pretty good evidence yesterday that some one had eaten a part of the snake that's been hanging around our shack catching rats. I have part of his skin now, tacked up to try and dry. I mean the snake's skin. No doubt these big harmless snakes do tend to keep the rats from increasing somewhat, but I guess not much for there is at all times quantities of them living in our roof.
And another thing, Mr. Snake only hunts spasmodically as it were, for after catching and eating what he deems sufficient he coils up someplace (generally among the rafters) and sleeps off his debauch and is not active again for three or four days.
Had a visit from Wafford today, not social but business. It seems that his house boy made a visit to our plantation last night, unadvertised, and when he returned home one of our women who had been living with a mozo of ours went with him, I presume willingly.
In due course of time our mozo missed his novia (sweetheart) and being of a suspicious nature followed Wafford's house boy home, and took the situation in his own hands, but not to the satisfaction of Wafford, as his house boy is at present physically unable to fulfill his duties. Wafford advised me in forcible language that he would have had a dead house boy is he hadn't heard the commotion and taken a couple of shots in the general direction of the fracas.
It was fortunate that neither combatant had more than a club, because if either had had a knife or machete, or Wafford had shot either one of them it would have caused considerable trouble.
Wafford first offered to pay up the woman's debts and take her off our hands if I would guarantee to keep our wardog home and away from them. I told him that I would gladly let the woman go, but that it would not be a square deal for my mozo, and that it would be impossible to guarantee to keep him in my own backyard, as he was a free laborer and could not be locked up as most of the others could.
He next proposed that I take his house boy and let him live with the woman on our plantation, claiming that he was an A-1 worker and the rightful husband of the woman, having lived with her before my mozo did, and that she was but trying to return and make amends for her lapse from wifely duties.
I pointed out various reasons why this could not be done. First, while it might solve his troubles it would add complications to mine. Second, that I was perfectly satisfied with my present house boy. Third, that from his own admission his house boy was unfit for duty at the present time, and that if he shows up here his disability would probably become permanent, as my mozo would make short work of him; in fact, it would not solve the problem for either of us, but simply shift the battleground from his plantation to mine.
We finally decided to wait a few days and see what the woman would do. She is in hiding somewhere in the jungle, and perhaps will not show up again, or a mountain-lion will get her. Our hopes are in vain I am afraid.
As I write I can see my Romeo sauntering off to where the women are preparing supper for the men, possibly to get his supper; but knowing the man well, I presume that he is looking over the prospects in hopes of securing a new helpmate.
I held a long-ranged conversation with Wain today, across the roaring river; that is, he did about all the talking, while I listened. Pancho called my attention to him, on the other shore, waving his arms and shouting, so I made my way to the nearest point to him to see what he wanted. I could not hear all his remarks, but from what I did hear I gathered that his opinion of me was very poor, and he wanted to let me know just what he thought of me, my work, my ability, character, and ancestry. Finally reaching a point where no new thoughts came to him, he returned to a former phrase he had used repeatedly before, in regard to my near relation to a female dog, and he told me to get out of his sight before he plugged me. As I knew in his drunken state he probably would take a shot at me with that old cannon of his, I climbed up the muddy banking on my hands and knees as fast as my weakened condition allowed, and with Pancho's help reached my hammock where I spent the rest of the day.
Now as the shadows deepen in this valley I am all alone, even Pancho has disappeared.