Tramping Through Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras
By Harry A. Franck
IN A MEXICAN MINE
A classmate of my boyhood was superintendent of the group of mines round about Guanajuato. From among them we chose “Pingüico” for my temporary employment. The ride to it, 8200 feet above the sea, up along and out of the gully in which Guanajuato is built, and by steep rocky trails sometimes beside sheer mountain walls, opens out many a marvelous vista; but none to compare with that from the office veranda of the mine itself. Two thousand feet below lies a plain of Mexico’s great table-land, stretching forty miles or more across to where it is shut off by an endless range of mountains, backed by chain after blue chain, each cutting the sky-line in more jagged, fantastic fashion than the rest, the farther far beyond Guadalajara and surely more than a hundred miles distant, where Mexico falls away into the Pacific. On the left rises deep-blue into the sky the almost perfect flattened cone of a lone mountain. Brilliant yet not hot sunshine illuminated even the far horizon, and little cloud-shadows crawled here and there across the landscape. The rainy season had left on the plain below many shallow lakes that reflected the sun like immense mirrors. From the veranda it seemed quite flat, though in reality by no means so, and one could all but count the windows of Silao, Irapuato, and other towns; the second, though more than twenty miles away, still in the back foreground of the picture. Thread-like, brown trails wound away over the plain and up into the mountains, here and there dotted by travelers crawling ant-like along them a few inches an hour. Take the most perfect day of late May or early June in our North, brush off the clouds, make the air many times fresher and clearer, add October nights, and multiply the sum total by 365, and it is more easily understood why Americans who settle in the Guanajuato region so frequently remain there.
The room I shared with a mine boss was of chilly stone walls and floor, large and square, with a rug, two beds, and the bare necessities. The mine mess, run by a Chinaman, furnished meals much like those of a 25-cent restaurant in Texas, at the rate of $5 a week. No Mexican was permitted to eat with the Americans, not even with the “rough-necks.” When the whistle blew at seven next morning, some forty peons, who had straggled one by one in the dawn to huddle up together in their red sarapes among the rocks of the drab hillside, marched past the timekeeper, turning over their blankets at a check counter, and with their lunches, of the size of the round tortilla at the bottom and four to six inches high, in their handkerchiefs, climbed into the six-foot, iron ore-bucket until it was completely roofed with their immense straw hats. Near by those of the second night-shift, homeward bound, halted, to stand one by one on a wooden block with outstretched arms to be carefully searched for stolen ore by a tried and trusted fellow-peon. A pocketful of “high-grade” might be worth several dollars. The American “jefe” sat in the hoisthouse, writing out requisitions for candles, dynamite, and kindred supplies for the “jefecitos,” or straw bosses, of the hundred or more peons still lined up before the shaft. With the last batch of these in the bucket, we white men stepped upon the platform below it and dropped suddenly into the black depths of the earth, with now and then a stone easily capable of cracking a skull bounding swiftly with a hollow sound past us back and forth across the shaft.
Not infrequently in the days to come some accident to the hoist-engine above left us to stand an hour or more packed tightly together in our suspended four-foot space in unmitigated darkness. For this and other reasons no peon was ever permitted to ride on the platform with an American. Twelve hundred feet down we stepped out into a winding, rock gallery nearly six feet wide and high, where fourteen natives were loading rock and mud into iron dump-cars and pushing them to a near-by chute. Even at this depth flies were thick. A facetious boss asserted they hatched on the peons. My task here was to “sacar muestras”—”take samples,” as it was called in English. From each car as it passed I snatched a handful of mud and small broken rock and thrust it into a sack that later went to the assay office to show what grade of ore the vein was producing.
Once an hour I descended to a hole far beneath by a rope ladder, life depending on a spike driven in the rock above and a secure handhold, for the handful of “pay dirt” two peons were grubbing down out of a lower veta, a long narrow alleyway of soft earth and small stones that stretched away into the interior of the mountain between solid walls of rock. No inexperienced man would have supposed this mud worth more than any other. But silver does not come out of the earth in minted dollars.
In the mine the peons wore their hats, a considerable protection against falling rocks, but were otherwise naked but for their sandals and a narrow strip of once white cloth between their legs, held by a string around the waist. Some were well-built, though all were small, and in the concentrated patch of light the play of their muscles through the light-brown skins was fascinating. Working thus naked seemed so much more dangerous; the human form appeared so much more feeble and soft, delving unclothed in the fathomless, rocky earth. Many a man was marked here and there with long deep scars. It was noticeable how character, habits, dissipation, which show so plainly in the face, left but little sign on the rest of the body, which remained for the most part smooth and unwrinkled.
The peons were more than careless. All day long dynamite was tossed carelessly back and forth about me. A man broke up three or four sticks of it at a time, wrapped them in paper, and beat the mass into the form of a ball on a rock at my feet. Miners grow so accustomed to this that they note it, if at all, with complete indifference, often working and serenely smoking seated on several hundred pounds of explosives. One peon of forty in this gang had lost his entire left arm in a recent explosion, yet he handled the dangerous stuff as carelessly as ever. Several others were mutilated in lesser degrees. They depend on charms and prayers to their favorite saint rather than on their own precautions. Every few minutes the day through came the cry: “‘Stá pegado!” that sent us skurrying a few feet away until a dull, deafening explosion brought down a new section of the vein. Not long before, there had been a cave-in just beyond where we were working, and the several men imprisoned there had not been rescued, so that now and then a skull and portions of skeleton came down with the rock. The peons had first balked at this, but the superintendent had told them the bones were merely strange shapes of ore, ordered them to break up the skulls and throw them in with the rest, and threatened to discharge and blackball any man who talked of the matter.
By law a Mexican injured in the mine could not be treated on the spot, but must be first carried to Guanajuato—often dying on the way—to be examined by the police and then brought back to the mine hospital. Small hurts were of slight importance to the peons. During my first hour below, a muddy rock fell down the front of a laborer, scraping the skin off his nose, deeply scratching his chest and thighs, and causing his toes to bleed, but he merely swore a few round oaths and continued his work. The hospital doctors asserted that the peon has not more than one fourth the physical sensitiveness of civilized persons. Many a one allowed a finger to be amputated without a word, and as chloroform is expensive the surgeon often replaced it with a long draught of mescal or tequila, the native whiskies.
Outwardly the peons were very deferential to white men. I could rarely get a sentence from them, though they chattered much among themselves, with a constant sprinkling of obscenity. They had a complete language of whistles by which they warned each other of an approaching “jefe,” exchanged varied information, and even entered into discussion of the alleged characteristics of their superiors in their very presence without being understood by the uninitiated. Frequently, too, amid the rumble of the “veta madre” pouring down her treasures, some former Broadway favorite that had found its way gradually to the theater of Guanajuato sounded weirdly through the gallery, as it was whistled by some naked peon behind a loaded car. A man speaking only the pure Castilian would have had some difficulty in understanding many of the mine terms. Many Indian words had crept into the common language, such as “chiquihuite” for basket.
Some seventy-five cars passed me during the morning. Under supervision the peons worked at moderately good speed; indeed, they compared rather favorably with the rough American laborers with whom I had recently toiled in railroad gangs, in a stone-quarry of Oklahoma, and the cotton-fields of Texas. The endurance of these fellows living on corn and beans is remarkable; they were as superior to the Oriental coolie as their wages to the latter’s eight or ten cents a day. In this case, as the world over, the workmen earned about what he was paid, or rather succeeded in keeping his capacity down to the wages paid him. Many galleries of the mine were “worked on contract,” and almost all gangs had their self-chosen leader. A peon with a bit more standing in the community than his fellows, wearing something or other to suggest his authority and higher place in the world—such perhaps as the pink shirt the haughty “jefecito” beside me sported—appeared with twelve or more men ready for work and was given a section and paid enough to give his men from fifty to eighty cents a day each and have something over a dollar left for himself. Miners’ wages vary much throughout Mexico, from twelve dollars a month to two a day in places no insuperable distances apart. Conditions also differ greatly, according to my experienced compatriots. The striking and booting of the workmen, common in some mines, was never permitted in “Pingüico.” In Pachuca, for example, this was said to be the universal practice; while in the mines of Chihuahua it would have been as dangerous as to do the same thing to a stick of dynamite. Here the peon’s manner was little short of obsequious outwardly, yet one had the feeling that in crowds they were capable of making trouble and those who had fallen upon “gringoes” in the region had despatched their victims thoroughly, leaving them mutilated and robbed even of their clothing. The charming part of it all was one could never know which of these slinking fellows was a bandit by avocation and saving up his unvented anger for the boss who ordered him about at his labors.
It felt pleasant, indeed, to bask in the sun a half hour after dinner before descending again. Toward five I tied and tagged the sacks of samples and followed them, on peon backs, to the shaft and to the world above with its hot and cold shower-bath, and the Chinaman’s promise, thanks to the proximity of Irapuato, of “stlaybelly pie.” Though the American force numbered several of those fruitless individuals that drift in and out of all mining communities, it was on the whole of rather high caliber. Besides “Sully the Pug,” a mere human animal, hairy and muscular as a bear, and two “Texicans,” as those born in the States of some Mexican blood and generally a touch of foreign accent are called, there were two engineers who lived with their “chinitas,” or illiterate mestizo Mexican wives and broods of peon children down in the valley below the dump-heap. Caste lines were not lacking even among the Americans in the “camp,” as these call Guanajuato and its mining environs. More than one complained that those who married Mexican girls of unsullied character and even education were rated “squaw-men” and more or less ostracized by their fellow countrymen, and especially country-women, while the man who “picked up an old rounder from the States” was looked upon as an equal. The speech of all Mexico is slovenly from the Castilian point of view. Still more so was that of both the peon and the Americans, who copied the untutored tongue of the former, often ignorant of its faults, and generally not in the least anxious to improve, nor indeed to get any other advantage from the country except the gold and silver they could dig out of it. Laborers and bosses commonly used “pierra” for piedra; “sa’ pa’ fuera” for to leave the mine, “croquesí” for I believe so, commonly ignorant even of the fact that this is not a single word. In the mess-hall were heard strange mixtures of the two languages, as when a man rising to answer some call shouted over his shoulder: “Juan, deja mi pie alone!” Thanks to much peon intercourse, almost all the Americans had an unconsciously patronizing air even to their fellows, as many a pedagogue comes to address all the world in the tone of the schoolroom. The Mexican, like the Spaniard, never laughs at the most atrocious attempts at his tongue by foreigners, and even the peons were often extremely quick-witted in catching the idea from a few mispronounced words. “The man with the hair——,” I said one day, in describing a workman I wished summoned; and not for the moment recalling the Castilian for curly, I twirled my fingers in the air.
“Chino!” cried at least a half-dozen peons in the same breath.
Small wonder the Mexican considers the “gringo” rude. An American boss would send a peon to fetch his key or cigarettes, or on some equally important errand; the workman would run all the way up hill and down again in the rarified air, removing his hat as he handed over the desired article, and the average man from the States would not so much as grunt his thanks.
The engineers on whom our lives depended as often as we descended into or mounted from the mine, had concocted and posted in the engine-room the following “ten commandments”:
“Notice To Visitors And Others
“Article 1. Be seated on the platform. It is too large for the engineer anyway.
“Art. 2. Spit on the floor. We like to clean up after you.
“Art. 3. Talk to the engineer while he is running. There is no responsibility to his job.
“Art. 4. If the engineer does not know his business, please tell him. He will appreciate it.
“Art. 5. Ask him as many questions as you like. He is paid to answer them.
“Art. 6. Please handle all the bright work. We have nothing to do but clean it.
“Art. 7. Don’t spit on the ceiling. We have lost the ladder.
“Art. 8. Should the engineer look angry don’t pay any attention to him. He is harmless.
“Art. 9. If you have no cigarettes take his. They grow in his garden.
“Art. 10. If he is not entertaining, report him to the superintendent and he will be fired at once.”
On the second day the scene of my operations was changed to the eighth level, a hundred feet below that of the first. It was a long gallery winding away through the mountain, and connecting a mile beyond with another shaft opening on another hill, so that the heavy air was tempered by a constant mild breeze.
Side shafts, just large enough for the ore-cars to pass, pierced far back into the mountain at frequent intervals. Back in these it was furnace hot. From them the day-gang took out 115 car-loads, though the chute was blocked now and then by huge rocks that must be “shot” by a small charge of dynamite stuck on them, a new way of “shooting the chutes” that was like striking the ear-drums with a club.
The peons placed in each gallery either a cross or a lithograph of the Virgin in a shrine made of a dynamite-box, and kept at least one candle always burning before it. In the morning it was a common sight to see several appear with a bunch of fresh-picked flowers to set up before the image. Most of the men wore a rosary or charm about the neck, which they did not remove even when working naked, and all crossed themselves each time they entered the mine. Not a few chanted prayers while the cage was descending. As often as they passed the gallery-shrine, they left off for an instant the vilest oaths, in which several boys from twelve to fourteen excelled, to snatch off their hats to the Virgin, then instantly took up their cursing again. Whenever I left the mine they begged the half-candle I had left, and set it up with the rest. Yet they had none of the touchiness of the Hindu about their superstitions, and showed no resentment whatever even when a “gringo” stopped to light his cigarette at their improvised “altars.”
Trusted miners hired to search the others for stolen ore as they leave the shaft were sometimes waylaid on the journey home and beaten almost or quite to death. Once given a position of authority, they were harsher with their own kind than were the white men. The scarred and seared old “Pingüico” searcher, who stood at his block three times each twenty-four hours, had already killed three men who thus attacked him. Under no provocation whatever would the peons fight underground, but lay for their enemies only outside. A shift-boss in a neighboring mine remained seven weeks below, having his food sent down to him, and continued to work daily with miners who had sworn to kill him once they caught him on earth. One of our engineers had long been accustomed at another mine to hand his revolver to the searcher when the shift appeared and to arm himself with a heavy club. One day the searcher gave the superintendent a “tip,” and when the hundred or more were lined up they were suddenly commanded to take off their huarachas. A gasp of dismay sounded, but all hastily snatched off their sandals and something like a bushel of high-grade ore in thin strips lay scattered on the ground. But a few mornings later the searcher was found dead half way between the mine and his home.
Some of the mines round about Guanajuato were in a most chaotic state, especially those of individual ownership. The equipment was often so poor that fatal accidents were common, deaths even resulting from rocks falling down the shafts. Among our engineers was one who had recently come from a mine where during two weeks’ employment he pulled out from one to four corpses daily, until “it got so monotonous” he resigned. In that same mine it was customary to lock in each shift until the relieving one arrived, and many worked four or five shifts, thirty-two to forty hours without a moment of rest, swallowing a bit of food now and then with a sledge in one hand. “High-graders,” as ore-thieves are called, were numerous. The near-by “Sirena” mine was reputed to have in its personnel more men who lived by stealing ore than honest workmen. There ran the story of a new boss in a mine so near ours that we could hear its blasting from our eighth level, long dull thuds that seemed to run through the mountain like a shudder through a human body, who was making his first underground inspection when his light suddenly went out and he felt the cold barrel of a revolver against his temple. A peon voice sounded in the darkness close to his ear:
“No te muevas, hijo de——, si quieres vivir!”
Another light was struck and he made out some twenty peons, each with a sack of “high-grade,” and was warned to take his leave on the double-quick and not to look around on penalty of a worse fate than that of Lot’s wife.
Bandit gangs were known to live in out-of-the-way corners of several mines, bringing their blankets and tortillas with them and making a business of stealing ore. Not even the most experienced mining engineer could more quickly recognize “pay dirt” than the peon population of Guanajuato vicinity.
Though he is obsequious enough under ordinary circumstances, the mine peon often has a deep-rooted hatred of the American, which vents itself chiefly in cold silence, unless opportunity makes some more effective way possible. Next on his black-list comes the Spaniard, who is reputed a heartless usurer who long enjoyed protection under Diaz. Third, perhaps, come the priests, though these are endured as a necessary evil, as we endure a bad government. The padre of Calderón drifted up to the mine one day to pay his respects and drink the mine health in good Scotch whisky. Gradually he brought the conversation around to the question of disobedience among the peons, and summed up his advice to the Americans in a vehement explosion:
“Fine them! Fine them often, and much!
“Of course,” he added, as he prepared to leave, “you know that by the laws of Mexico and the Santa Iglesia all such fines go to the church.”
Intercourse between the mine officials and native authorities was almost always sure to make it worth while to linger in the vicinity. My disrespectful fellow countrymen were much given to mixing with the most courteous Spanish forms of speech asides in English which it was well the pompous native officials did not understand. I reached the office one day to find the chief of police just arrived to collect for his services in guarding the money brought out on pay-day.
“Ah, senor mio,” cried the superintendent, “Y como esta usted? La familia buena? Y los hijos—I’ll slip the old geaser his six bones and let him be on his way—Oh, sí, señor. Cómo no? Con muchísimo gusto—and there goes six of our good bucks and four bits and—Pues adiós, muy señor mio! Vaya bien!—If only you break your worthless old neck on the way home—Adiós pues!”
After the shower-bath it was as much worth while to stroll up over the ridge back of the camp and watch the night settle down over this upper-story world. Only on the coast of Cochinchina have I seen sunsets to equal those in this altitude. Each one was different. To-night it stretched entirely across the saw-toothed summits of the western hills in a narrow, pinkish-red streak; to-morrow the play of colors on mountains and clouds, shot blood-red, fading to saffron yellow, growing an ever-thicker gray down to the horizon, with the unrivaled blue of the sky overhead, all shifting and changing with every moment, would be hopelessly beyond the power of words. Often rain was falling in a spot or two far to the west, and there the clouds were jet black. In one place well above the horizon was perhaps a brilliant pinkish patch of reflected sun, and everything else an immensity of clouded sky running from Confederate gray above to a blackish-blue that blended with range upon range to the uttermost distance.
There was always a peculiar stillness over all the scene. Groups of sandaled mine peons wound noiselessly away, a few rods apart, along undulating trails, the red of their sarapes and the yellow of their immense hats giving the predominating hue. In the vast landscape was much green, though more gray of outcropping rocks. Here and there a lonely telegraph wire struck off dubiously across the rugged country. Rocks as large as houses hung on the great hillsides, ready to roll down and destroy at the slightest movement of the earth, like playthings left by careless giant children. Along some rocky path far down in the nearer valley a small horse of the patient Mexican breed, under its picturesque, huge-hatted rider, galloped sure-footed up and down steep faces of rock. Cargadores bent half double, with a rope across their brows, came straining upward to the mine. Bands of peons released from their underground labors paused here and there on the way home to wager cigarettes on which could toss a stone nearest the next mud puddle. Flocks of goats wandered in the growing dusk about swift stony mountain flanks. Farther away was a rocky ridge beaten with narrow, bare, crisscross trails, and beyond, the old Valenciana mine on the flanks of the jagged range shutting off Dolores Hidalgo, appearing so near in this clear air of the heights that it seemed a man could throw a stone there; yet down in the valley between lay all Guanajuato, the invisible, and none might know how many bandits were sleeping out the day in their lurking-places among the wild, broken valleys and gorges the view embraced. Down in its rock-tumbled valley spread the scattered town of Calderón, and the knell of its tinny old church bells came drifting up across the divide on the sturdy evening breeze, tinged with cold, that seemed to bring the night with it, so silently and coolly did it settle down. The immense plain and farther mountains remained almost visible in the starlight, in the middle distance the lamps of Silao, and near the center of the half-seen picture those of Irapuato, while far away a faint glow in the sky marked the location of the city of Leon.
Excitement burst upon the mess-table one night. Rival politicians were to contend the following Sunday for the governorship of the State, and the “liberal” candidate had assured the peons that he would treble their wages and force the company to give them full pay during illness, and that those who voted for his rival were really casting ballots for “los gringos” who had stolen away their mines. All this was, of course, pure campaign bunco; as a matter of fact the lowest wages in all the mines of Mexico were in those belonging to the then “liberal” President of the republic, and accident pay would have caused these insensible fellows to drop rocks on themselves to enjoy its benefits. For several mornings threatening political posters had appeared on the walls of the company buildings. But this time word came that “liberal” posters had been stuck up in the galleries of the mine itself. The boss sprang to his feet, and without even sending for his revolver went down into the earth. An hour or more later he reappeared with the remnants of the posters. Though the mine was populated with peons and there was not then another American below ground, they watched him tear down the sheets without other movement than to cringe about him, each begging not to be believed guilty. Later a peon was charged with the deed and forever forbidden to work in the mines of the company. The superintendent threatened to discharge any employee who voted for the “liberal” candidate, and, though he could not of course know who did, their dread of punishment no doubt kept many from voting at all.
Work in the mine never ceased. Even as we fell asleep the engine close at hand panted constantly, the mild clangor of the blacksmith-shop continued unbroken, cars of rock were dumped every few minutes under the swarming stars, the mine pulse beat unchanging, and far down beneath our beds hundreds of naked peons were still tearing incessantly at the rocky entrails of the earth.
Though the mine throbbed on, I set off one sunny Sunday morning to walk to town and the weekly ball game. It was just warm enough for a summer coat, a breeze blew as at sea, an occasional telephone pole was singing as with contentment with life in this perfect climate. Groups of brownish-gray donkeys with loads on their backs passed me or crawled along far-away trails, followed by men in tight white trousers, their striped and gay-colored sarapes about their bodies and their huge hats atop. Over all was a Sunday stillness, broken only by the occasional bark of a distant dog or a cockcrow that was almost musical as it was borne by on the wind. Everywhere were mountains piled into the sky. Valenciana, where so many Spaniards, long since gone to whatever reward awaited them, waxed rich and built a church now golden brown with age, sat on its slope across the valley, down in which no one would have guessed huddled a city of some 60,000 inhabitants. Much nearer and a bit below drowsed the old town of Calderón, home of many of our peons, a bright red blanket hung over a stone wall giving a splash of brilliancy to the vast stretch of grayish, dull-brown, and thirsty green. The road wound slowly down and ever down, until the gullies grew warmer as the rising mountains cut off the breeze and left the sun in undisputed command. Along the way were flowers uncountable, chiefly large, white, lily-like blossoms growing on a bush, then thick patches of orange-yellow. Horsemen, Mexicans on burros, peon men, women, and children afoot were legion. There were no Americans, though I passed one huge Negro with a great black beard who gave me “Good morning” from his horse in the tone of a man who had not met an equal before in some time. At length appeared the emerald-green patch of the upper Presa, with its statue of Hidalgo, and the café-au-lait pond that stores the city’s water, and over the parapet of which hung guanajuatenses watching with wonder the rowboat of the American hospital doctor, the only water craft the great majority of them have ever seen.
A natural amphitheater encloses the ball-ground in which were gathered the wives of Americans, in snowy white, to watch a game between teams made up chiefly of “gringoes” of the mines, my one-time classmate still at short-stop, as in our schoolboy days, thanks to which no doubt Guanajuato held the baseball championship of Mexico. Like the English officials of India, the Americans in high places here were noticeable for their youth, and, at least here on the ball-ground, for their democracy, known to all by their boyhood nicknames, yet held almost in reverence by the Mexican youths that filled in the less important positions. At the club after the game the champion Mexican player discoursed on the certainty of ultimate American intervention and expressed his own attitude with:
“Let it come, for I am not a politician but a baseball player.”
It was election day, and I passed several doorways, among them that of the company stable, in which a half-dozen old fossils in their most solemn black garb crouched dreamily over wooden tables with registers, papers, and ink bottles before them. Now and then a frightened peon slunk up hat in hand to find whether they wished him to vote, and how, or to see if perhaps he had not voted already—by absent treatment. The manager of one of the mines had come into the office of the jefe pólitico of his district the night before and found the ballots already made out for the “liberal” candidate. He tore them up and sent his own men to watch the election, with the result that there was a strong majority in that precinct in favor of the candidate more pleasing to the mine owners. The pulquerias and saloons of the peons had been closed, but not the clubs and resorts of the white men. In one of these I sat with the boss, watching him play a game of stud poker. A dissipated young American, who smoked a cigar and a cigarette at the same time, was most in evidence, a half Comanche Indian of an utterly impassive countenance did the dealing, and fortunes went up and down amid the incessant rattle of chips far into the morning. At three the boss broke away, nine dollars to the good, while the proprietor of the place ended with an enormous heap of chips in front of him; another American, making out to him a check for $90, and calling for his horse, rode back to his mine to earn it—the shoes of the horse clanking on the cobbles in the silence of the night and passing now and then a policeman’s lantern set in the middle of the street, while that official huddled in his white uniform in a dark corner, ostensibly keeping guard.
On another such a day I turned back about dusk up the gorge on the return to the mine. The upper park where the band had played earlier was now completely deserted. The road was nearly five miles long; the trail, sheer up the wild tumble of mountains before me, little more than two. This was vaguely reputed dangerous, but I was not inclined to take the rumor seriously.
Black night fell. Soon I came upon the vanguard of the day-shift from “Pingüico,” straggling down the face of the mountain, shouting and whistling to each other in their peculiar language. Some carried torches that flashed along the mountain wall above me and threw long quaint shadows of the tight-trousered legs. The grade was more than forty-five degrees, with much slipping and sliding on unseen rocks. Two or three groups had passed when one of the men recognized me and with a “Buenas noches, jefe!” insisted on giving me the torch he carried, a mine candle with a cloth wrapped around it as a protection in the strong wind. I had soon to cast this away, as it not only threatened to burn my hand but left the eyes unable to pierce the surrounding wall of darkness. In the silence of the night there came to mind the assertion of by no means our most timorous engineer, that he never passed over this trail after dark without carrying his revolver cocked in his hand. My fellow countrymen of the region all wore huge “six-shooters” with a large belt of cartridges always in sight, less for use than the salutary effect of having them visible, in itself a real protection. Conditions in Mexico had led me to go armed for the first time in my travels; or more exactly, to carry one of the “vest pocket automatics” so much in vogue—on advertising pages—in that season. My experienced fellow Americans refused to regard this weapon seriously. One had made the very fitting suggestion that each bullet should bear a tag with the devise, “You’re shot!” An aged “roughneck” of a half-century of Mexican residence had put it succinctly: “Yer travel scheme’s all right; but I’ll be —— —— if I like the gat you carry.” However, such as it was, I drew it now and held it ready for whatever it might be called upon to attempt.
A half hour of heavy climbing brought me to the summit, with a strong cool breeze and a splendid view of the spreading lights of Guanajuato in the narrow winding gully far below. The trail wound round a peak and reached the first scattered huts of Calderón just as a number of shots sounded not far away. These increased until all the dogs for miles around took up the hue and cry. The shots multiplied, with much shouting and uproar, soon sounding on both sides and ahead and behind me, while the whistling language shrilled from every gully and hillside. Evidently drunken peons were harmlessly celebrating their Sunday holiday, but the shots sounded none the less weirdly out of the black night as I stumbled on over the rocky, tumbled country, for the only smooth way thereabouts was the Milky Way faintly seen overhead. Gradually the shooting and shouting drifted behind me and died out as I surmounted the last knoll and descended to bed. It was only at breakfast next morning that I learned I had serenely strolled through a pitched battle between bandits that haunted the recesses of the mountains about Calderón and the town which, led by its jefe político, had finally won the bout with four outlaw corpses to its credit. It was my luck not to have even a bullet-hole through my cap to prove the story. There were often two or three such battles a week in the vicinity.
That morning I was given a new job. The boss led the way, candle in hand, a half mile back through the bowels of the mountain, winding with the swinging of the former ore vein. This alone was enough to get hopelessly lost in, even without its many blind-alley branches. Now and then we came upon another shaft-opening that seemed a bottomless hole a few feet in diameter in the solid rock, from far down which came up the falsetto voices and the stinking sweat of peons, and the rap, rap of heavy hammers on iron rock-bars. But we had only started. Far back in the gallery we took another hoist and descended some two hundred feet more, then wound off again through the mountain by more labyrinthian burrowings in the rock, winding, undulating passages, often so low we must crawl on hands and knees, with no other light than the flickering candles half-showing shadowy forms of naked, copper-colored beings; the shadows giving them often fiendish faces and movements, until we could easily imagine ourselves in the realms of Dante’s imagination. In time we came to a ladder leading upward into a narrow dark hole, and when the ladder ended we climbed on our bellies some forty feet higher up a ledge of rock to another “heading.” Along this we made our way another hundred yards or more to where a dozen naked peons were operating compressed-air drills, then wormed our way like snakes over the resultant debris to the present end of the passage, where more peons were drilling by hand, one man holding a bar of iron a few feet long which another was striking with a five-pound sledge that luckily never missed its mark. This was indeed working in Mexico. It would have been difficult to get farther into it; and a man could not but dully wonder if he would ever get out again.
We were evidently very close to the infernal regions. Here, indeed, would have been a splendid setting for an orthodox hell. Peons whose only garment was the size of a postcard, some even with their hats off, glistened all over their brown bodies as under a shower-bath. In five minutes I had sweated completely through my garments, in ten I could wring water out of my jacket; drops fell regularly at about half-second intervals from the end of my nose and chin. The dripping sweat formed puddles beneath the toilers, the air was so scarce and second-hand every breath was a deep gasp; nowhere a sign of exit, as if we had been walled up in this narrow, low-ceiled, jagged-rock passageway for all time.
My work here was to take samples from the “roof.” A grinning peon who called himself “Bruno Básques” (Vásquez) followed me about, holding his hat under the hammer with which I chipped bits of rock from above, back and forth across the top of the tunnel, every few feet. The ore ran very high in grade here, the vein being some six feet of whitish rocky substance between sheer walls of ordinary rock. It struck one most forcibly, this strange inquisitiveness of man that had caused him to prowl around inside the earth like a mole, looking for a peculiar kind of soil or stone which no one at first sight could have guessed was of any particular value. The peons, smeared all over with the drippings of candle-grease, worked steadily for all the heat and stuffiness. Indeed, one could not but wonder at the amount of energy they sold for a day’s wages; though of course their industry was partly due to my “gringo” presence. We addressed them as inferiors, in the “tu” form and with the generic title “hombre,” or, more exactly, in the case of most of the American bosses, “húm-bray.” The white man who said “please” to them, or even showed thanks in any way, such as giving them a cigarette, lost caste in their eyes as surely as with a butler one might attempt to treat as a man. I tried it on Bruno, and he almost instantly changed from obsequiousness to near-insolence. When I had put him in his place again, he said he was glad I spoke Spanish, for so many “jefes” had pulled his hair and ears and slapped him in the face because he did not understand their “strange talk.” He did not mention this in any spirit of complaint, but merely as a curious fact and one of the many visitations fate sees fit to send those of her children unluckily born peons. His jet black hair was so thick that small stones not only did not hurt his head as they fell from under my hammer, but remained buried in his thatch, so that nearly as many samples were taken from this as from the roof of the passage.
Thus the sweat-dripping days passed, without a hint of what might be going on in the world far above, amid the roar and pounding of air and hand-drills, the noisy falling of masses of rock as these broke it loose, the constant ringing of shovels, the rumble of iron ore-cars on their thread-like rails, cries of “‘stá pegado!” quickly followed by the stunning, ear-splitting dynamite blast, screams of “No vás echar!” as some one passed beneath an opening above, of “Ahora sí!” when he was out of danger; the shrill warning whistling of the peons echoing back and forth through the galleries and labyrinthian side tunnels, as the crunch of shoes along the track announced the approach of some boss; the shouting of the peons “throwing” a loaded car along the track through the heavy smoke-laden air, so thick with the smell of powder and thin with oxygen that even experienced bosses developed raging headaches, and the Beau Brummel secretary of the company fell down once with dizziness and went to bed after the weekly inspection.
When the first day was done I carried the ten sacks of samples—via Bruno’s shoulders—through the labyrinth of corridors and shafts to be loaded on a car and pushed to the main shaft, where blew a veritable sea-breeze that gave those coming from the red-hot pockets a splendid chance for catching cold which few overlooked. In the bodega, or underground office, I changed my dripping garments for dry ones, but waited long for the broken-down motor to lift me again finally to pure air. In the days that followed I was advanced to the rank of car-boss in this same level, and found enough to do and more in keeping the tricky car-men moving. A favorite ruse was to tip over a car on its way to the chute and to grunt and groan over it for a half-hour pretending to lift it back on the rails; or to tuck away far back in some abandoned “lead” the cars we needed, until I went on tours of investigation and ferreted them out.
During the last days of October I drew my car-boss wages and set out to follow the ore after it left the mine. From the underground chutes it was drawn up to the surface in the iron buckets, dumped on “gridleys” (screens made of railroad rails separated a like width) after weighing, broken up and the worthless rock thrown out on the “dump,” a great artificial hill overhanging the valley below and threatening to bury the little native houses huddled down in it. A toy Baldwin locomotive dragged the ore trains around the hill to the noisy stamp-mill spreading through another valley, with a village of adobe huts overgrown with masses of purple flowers and at the bottom a plain of white sand waste from which the “values” had been extracted. The last samples I had taken assayed nine pounds of silver and 23 grams of gold to the ton. The carloads were dumped into bins at the top of the mill.
The nature of the country had been taken advantage of in the building, which hung twelve stories high on the steep hillside, making gravitation the chief means of transportation during the refining process. Rocks were screened into one receptacle and broken up by hand. The finer stuff went direct to the stamps. Stones of ordinary size were spread by machinery on a broad leather belt that passed three peon women, who picked out and tossed away the oreless stones. Their movements were leisurely, but they were sharp-eyed and very few worthless bits got by the three of them. A story below, the picked material went under deafening stamps weighing tons and striking several blows a second, while water was turned in to soften the material. This finally ran down another story in liquid form into huge cylinders where it was rolled and rolled again and at last flowed on, smelling like mortar or wet lime, onto platforms of zinc constantly shaking as with the ague and with water steadily flowing over them. Workmen about the last and most concentrated of these were locked in rooms made of chicken-wire. Below, the stuff flowed into enormous vats, like giants’ washtubs, and was stirred and watered here for several days until the “values” had settled and were drawn off at the bottom. There were three stories, or some thirty, of these immense vats. The completed process left these full of white sand which a pair of peons spent several days shoveling out and carrying down into the valley.
The “values” were next run down into smaller vats and treated with zinc shavings, precipitating a 50 per cent. pure metal, black in color, which was put into melting-pots in a padlocked room overseen by an American. Here it was cast in large brick molds, these being knocked off and the metal left to slack, after which it was melted again and finally turned into gray-black blocks of the size and form of a paving-brick, 85 per cent. pure, about as heavy as the average lady would care to lift, and worth something like $1250 each. Two or four of these were tied on the back of a donkey and a train of them driven under guard to the town office, whence they were shipped to Mexico City, and finally made into those elusive things called coins, or sundry articles for the vainglorious, shipped abroad or stolen by revolutionists. On this same ground the old colonial Spaniards used to spread the ore in a cobbled patio, treat it with mercury, and drive mules round and round in it for weeks until they pocketed whatever was left to them after paying the king’s fifth and the tithes of the church.
My rucksack on the back of a peon—and it is astonishing how much more easily one’s possessions carry in that fashion; as if it were indeed that automatic baggage on legs I have long contemplated inventing—I set off to the neighboring mine of “Peregrina.” As the peon was accustomed to carry anything short of a grand piano, he did not complain at this half-day excursion under some twenty pounds. Being drawn out, he grew quite cheery on this new fashion of carrying—”when the load is not much.” In the cool morning air, with a wind full of ozone sweeping across the high country, the trail lay across tumbled stretches of rocky ground, range behind range of mountains beyond and a ruined stone hut or corral here and there carrying the memory back to Palestine. For a half hour we had Guanajuato in full sight in its narrow gully far below. Many donkeys pattered by under their loads of encinal fagots, the ragged, expressionless drivers plodding silently at their heels.
Ahead grew the roar of “Peregrina’s” stamp-mill, and I was soon winding through the gorge-hung village. According to the manager, I had chosen well the time of my coming, for there was “something doing.” We strolled about town until he had picked up the jefe político, a handsome Mexican, built as massive as an Aztec stone idol, under a veritable haystack of hat, who ostensibly at least was a sworn friend of the mining company. With him we returned to the deafening stamp-mill and brought up in the “zinc room,” where the metal is cast into bricks. Here the stealing of ore by workmen is particularly prevalent, and even the searching by the trusty at the gate not entirely effective, for even the skimming off of the scum leaves the floor scattered with chips of silver with a high percentage of gold which even the American in charge cannot always keep the men from concealing. Hence there occurs periodically the scene we were about to witness.
When the native workmen of the “zinc room” enter for the day, they are obliged to strip in one chamber and pass on to the next to put on their working clothes, reversing the process when they leave. To-day all five of them were herded together in one dressing-room, of which, the three of us being admitted, the door was locked. The jefe político, as the government authority of the region, set about searching them, and as his position depended on the good-will of the powerful mining company, it was no perfunctory “frisking.” The ragged fellows were called up one by one and ordered to strip of blouses, shirts, and trousers, and even huarachas, their flat leather sandals, the jefe examining carefully even the seams of their garments. Indeed, he even searched the hairs of their bodies for filings of “high-grade.”
The men obeyed with dog-like alacrity, though three of them showed some inner emotion, whether of guilt, fear, or shame, it was hard to guess. Two had been carefully gone over without the discovery of anything incriminating, when the jefe suddenly snatched up the hat of the first and found in it a knotted handkerchief containing a scrap of pure metal some two inches long. From then on his luck increased. The fourth man had been fidgeting about, half disrobing before the order came, when all at once the local authority turned and picked up a piece of ore as large as a silver dollar, wrapped in paper, which the fellow had surreptitiously tossed away among a bunch of mats against the wall. The jefe cuffed him soundly and ordered him to take off his shoes—he was the only one of the five sporting that luxury—and discovered in the toe of one of them a still larger booty. The last of the group was a cheery little fellow barely four feet high, likable in spite of his ingrained lifetime lack of soap. He showed no funk, and when ordered to undress turned to the “gringo” manager with: “Me too, jefe?” Then he quickly stripped, proving himself not only honest but the biggest little giant imaginable. He had a chest like a wine-barrel and legs that resembled steel poles, weighed fifty-two kilos, yet according to the manager, of whom he was one of the trusties, frequently carried four-hundred-pound burdens up the long hill below the mine. The jefe found something tied up in his old red cloth belt, but little Barrel-chest never lost his smile, and the suspicious lump proved to be a much-folded old chromo print of some saint.
“What’s he got that for?” asked the manager.
“To save him from the devil,” sneered the jefe, wadding it up and tossing it back at him.
When he was dressed again the little giant was sent to town for policemen, a sign of confidence which seemed greatly to please him. For a half hour we smoked and joked and discussed, like so many cattle in the shambles, the three prisoners, two found guilty and the third suspected, who stood silent and motionless against the wall. Three policemen in shoddy uniforms, armed with clubs and enormous revolvers sticking out through their short coat-tails, at length appeared, of the same class and seeming little less frightened than the prisoners. They were ordered to tie ropes about the waists of the criminals and stood clutching these and the tails of the red sarapes, when the jefe interrupted some anecdote to shout the Spanish version of:
“What in —— are you waiting for?”
They dodged as if he had thrown a brick, and hurried their prisoners away to the cold, flea-ridden, stone calaboose of the town, where in all probability they lay several months before their case was even called up; while the manager and I ascended to his veranda and flower-grown residence and sat down to a several course dinner served by a squad of solemn servants. As in many another land, it pays to be a white man in Mexico.
Stealing is rarely a virtue. But it was not hard to put oneself in the place of these wretches and catch their point of view that made such thievery justifiable. As they saw it, these foreigners had made them go down into their own earth and dig out its treasures, paid them little for their labors, and searched them whenever they left that they should not keep even a little bit of it for themselves. Now they had made their own people shut them up because they had picked up a few dollars’ worth of scraps left over from the great burro-loads of which, to their notion, the hated “gringoes” were robbing them. Like the workingmen of England, they were only “getting some of their own back.” They were no doubt more “aficionados al pulque” and gambling than to their families, but so to some extent were the “gringoes” also, and they were by no means the only human beings who would succumb to the same temptation under the same circumstances.
The ancient “Peregrina” mine was different from “Pingüico.” Here we entered by a level opening and walked down most of the two thousand feet, much of it by narrow, slimy, slippery, stone steps, in some places entirely worn away by the bare feet of the many generations of peons that as slaves to the Spaniards of colonial days used to carry the ore up on their backs from the very bottom of the mine. “Peregrina” mountain was almost another Mammoth Cave, so enormous are the caverns that have been “stoped out” of it in the past four centuries. In many a place we could see even with several candles only the ground underfoot and perhaps a bit of the nearest sidewall; the rest was a dank, noiseless, blank space, seeming square miles in extent. For three hours we wandered up and down and in and out of huge unseen caves, now and then crawling up or down three or four hundred foot “stopes” on hands and knees, by ladders, stone steps, or toe-holes in the rock. Through it all it was raining much of the time in torrents—in the mine, that is, for outside the sun was shining brightly—with mud underfoot and streams of water running along much of the way; and, unlike the sweltering interior of “Pingüico,” there was a dank dungeon chill that reached the marrow of the bones. Even in the shafts which we descended in buckets, cold water poured down upon us, and, far from being naked, the miners wore all the clothing they possessed. Here the terror of the peons was an old American mine-boss rated “loco” among them, who went constantly armed with an immense and ancient revolver, always loaded and reputed of “hair trigger,” which he drew and whistled in the barrel whenever he wished to call a workman. A blaze crackling in the fireplace was pleasant during the evening in the manager’s house, for “Peregrina” lies even higher above the sea than “Pingüico”; but even here by night or day the peons, and especially the women, went barefoot and in thinnest garb.
A native horse, none of which seem noted for their speed, carried me out to the famous old mining town of La Luz, where the Spaniards first began digging in this region. The animal made little headway forward, but fully replaced this by the distance covered up and down. To it a trot was evidently an endeavor to see how many times and how high it could jump into the air from the same spot. The ancient Aztecs, seeing us advancing upon them, would never have made the mistake of fancying man and horse parts of the same animal. Moreover, the pesky beast had an incurable predilection for treading, like a small boy “showing off,” the extreme edge of pathways at times not six inches from a sheer fall of from five hundred to a thousand feet down rock-faced precipices.
Still it was a pleasant three-hour ride in the brilliant sunshine, winding round and over the hills along pitching and tossing trails. Peons obsequiously lifted their hats when I passed, which they do not to a man afoot; a solemn stillness of rough-and-tumble mountains and valleys, with deep-shadowed little gorges scolloped out of the otherwise sun-flooded landscape, broad hedges of cactus and pitching paths, down which the animal picked its way with ease and assurance, alternated with mighty climbs over a dozen rises, each of which I fancied the last.
La Luz is a typical town of mountainous Mexico. A long, broken adobe village lies scattered along a precipitous valley, scores of “roads” and trails hedged with cactus wind and swoop and climb again away over steep hills and through deep barrancos, troops of peons and donkeys enlivening them; flowers give a joyful touch, and patches of green and the climate help to make the place reminiscent of the more thickly settled portions of Palestine. From the town we could see plainly the city of Leon, fourth in Mexico, and a view of the plain, less striking than that from “Pingüico,” because of the range rising to cut it off in the middle distance. The mountains of all this region are dotted with round, white, cement monuments, the boundary marks of different mining properties. By Mexican law each must be visible from the adjoining two, and in this pitched and tumbled country this requires many.
Beyond the village we found, about the old Spanish workings, ancient, roofless, stone buildings with loop-holed turrets for bandits and niches for saints. These structures, as well as the waste dumped by the Spaniards, were being “repicked for values,” and broken up and sent through the stamp-mill, the never-ending rumble of which sounded incessantly, like some distant water-fall; for with modern methods it pays to crush rock with even a few dollars a ton value in it, and the Americans of to-day mine much that the Spaniards with their crude methods cast aside or did not attempt to work. At a mine in the vicinity the ancient stone mansion serving as residence of the superintendent was torn down and sent through the stamping-mill, and a new one of less valuable rock erected. We descended 1600 feet into the mine of La Luz down a perfectly round, stone-lined shaft in a small iron bucket held by a one-inch wire cable and entirely in charge of peons—who fortunately either had nothing against us or did not dare to vent it.