TWO NIGHTS IN SOUTHERN MEXICO.
"A capital place this for our bivouac!" cried I, swinging myself off my mule, and stretching my arms and legs, which were stiffened by a long ride.
A FRAGMENT FROM THE JOURNAL OF AN AMERICAN TRAVELLER.
It was a fairish place, to all appearances -- a snug ravine, well shaded by mahogany-trees, the ground covered with the luxuriant vegetation of that tropical region, a little stream bubbling and leaping and dashing down one of the high rocks that flanked the hollow, and rippling away through the tall fern towards the rear of the spot where we had halted, at the distance of a hundred yards from which the ground was low and shelving.
"A capital place this for our bivouac!"
My companion nodded. As to our lazy Mexican arrieros and servants, they said nothing, but began making arrangements for passing the night. Curse the fellows! If they had seen us preparing to lie down in a swamp, cheek by jowl with an alligator, I believe they would not have offered a word of remonstrance. Those Mexican half-breeds, half Indian half Spaniard, with sometimes a dash of the Negro, are themselves so little pervious to the dangers and evils of their soil and climate, that they never seem to remember that Yankee flesh and blood may be rather more susceptible; that niguas (1) and musquittoes, and vomito prieto, as they call their infernal fever, are no trifles to encounter; without mentioning the snakes, and scorpions, and alligators, and other creatures of the kind, which infest their strange, wild, unnatural, and yet beautiful country.
I had come to Mexico in company with Jonathan Rowley, a youth of Virginian raising, six and twenty years of age, six feet two in his stockings, with the limbs of a Hercules and shoulders like the side of a house. It was towards the close of 1824; and the recent emancipation of Mexico from the Spanish yoke, and its self-formation into a republic, had given it a new and strong interest to us Americans. We had been told much, too, of the beauty of the country -- but in this we were at first rather disappointed; and we reached the capital without having seen any thing, except some parts of the province of Vera Cruz, that could justify the extravagant encomiums we had heard bestowed in the States upon the splendid scenery of Mexico. We had not, however, to go far southward from the chief city, before the character of the country altered, and became such as to satisfy our most sanguine expectations. Forests of palms, of oranges, citrons, and bananas, filled the valleys: the marshes and low grounds were crowded with mahogany- trees, and with immense fern plants, in height equal to trees. All nature was on a gigantic scale -- the mountains of an enormous height, the face of the country seamed and split by barrancas or ravines, hundreds, ay, thousands of feet deep, and filled with the most abundant and varied vegetation. The sky, too, was of the deep glowing blue of the tropics, the sort of blue which seems varnished or clouded with gold. But this ardent climate and teeming soil are not without their disadvantages. Vermin and reptiles of all kinds, and the deadly fever of these latitudes, render the low lands uninhabitable for eight months out of the twelve. At the same time there are large districts which are comparatively free from these plagues -- perfect gardens of Eden, of such extreme beauty that the mere act of living and breathing amongst their enchanting scenes, becomes a positive and real enjoyment. The heart seems to leap with delight, and the soul to be elevated, by the contemplation of those regions of fairy-like magnificence.
The most celebrated among these favoured provinces is the valley of Oaxaca, in which two mountainous districts, the Mistecca and Tzapoteca, bear off the palm of beauty. It was through this immense valley, nearly three hundred leagues in length, and surrounded by the highest mountains in Mexico, that we were now journeying. The kind attention of our chargé-d'affaires at the Mexican capital, had procured us every possible facility in travelling through a country, of which the soil was at that time rarely trodden by any but native feet. We had numerous letters to the alcaldes and authorities of the towns and villages which are sparingly sprinkled over the southern provinces of Mexico; we were to have escorts when necessary; every assistance, protection, and facility, were to be afforded us. But as neither the authorities nor his excellency, Uncle Sam's envoy, could make inns and houses where none existed, it followed that we were often obliged to sleep à la belle étoile, with the sky for a covering. And a right splendid roof it was to our bedchamber, that tropical sky, with its constellations, all new to us northerns, and every star magnified by the effect of the atmosphere to an incredible size. Mars and Saturn, Venus and Jupiter, had all disappeared; the great and little Bear were still to be seen; in the far distance the ship Argo and the glowing Centaur; and, beautiful above all, the glorious sign of Christianity the colossal Southern Cross, in all its brightness and sublimity, glittering in silvery magnificence out of its setting of dark blue crystal.
We were travelling with a state and a degree of luxury that would have excited the contempt of our backwoodsmen; but in a strange country we thought it best to do as the natives did; and accordingly, instead of mounting our horses and setting forth alone, with our rifles slung over our shoulders, and a few handfuls of parched corn and dried flesh in our hunting pouches, we journeyed Mexican fashion, with a whole string of mules, a topith or guide, a couple of arrieros or muleteers, a cook, and one or two other attendants. While the latter were slinging our hammocks to the lowermost branches of a tree -- for in that part of Mexico it is not very safe to sleep upon the ground, on account of the snakes and vermin -- our cocinero lit a fire against the rock, and in a very few minutes an iguana which we had shot that day was spitted and roasting before it. It looked strange to see this hideous creature, in shape between a lizard and a dragon, twisting and turning in the light of the fire; and its disgusting appearance might have taken away some people's appetites; but we knew by experience that there is no better eating than a roasted iguana. We made a hearty meal off this one, concluding it with a pull at the rum flask, and then clambered into our hammocks; the Mexicans stretched themselves on the ground with their heads upon the saddles of the mules, and both masters and men were soon asleep.
It was somewhere about midnight when I was awakened by an indescribable sensation of oppression from the surrounding atmosphere. The air seemed to be no longer air, but some poisonous exhalation that had suddenly arisen and enveloped us. From the rear of the ravine in which we lay, billows of dark mephitic mist were rolling forward, surrounding us with their baleful influence. It was the vomito prieto, the fever itself, embodied in the shape of a fog. At the same moment, and while I was gasping for breath, a sort of cloud seemed to settle upon me, and a thousand stings, like redhot needles, were run into my hands, face, neck -- into every part of my limbs and body that was not triply guarded by clothing. I instinctively stretched forth my hands and closed them, clutching by the action hundreds of enormous musquittoes, whose droning, singing noise how almost deafened me. The air was literally filled by a dense swarm of these insects; and the agony caused by their repeated and venomous stings was indescribable. It was a perfect plague of Egypt.
Rowley, whose hammock was slung some ten yards from mine, soon gave tongue: I heard him kicking and plunging, spluttering and swearing, with a vigour and energy that would have been ludicrous under any other circumstances; but matters were just then too serious for a laugh. With the torture, for such it was, of the musquitto bites, and the effect of the insidious and poisonous vapours that were each moment thickening around me, I was already in a high state of fever, alternately glowing with heat and shivering with cold, my tongue parched, my eyelids throbbing, my brain seemingly on fire.
There was a heavy thump upon the ground. It was Rowley jumping out of his hammock. "Damnation" roared he, "Where are we? On the earth, or under the earth? -- We must be -- we are -- in their Mexican purgatory. We are, or there's no snakes in Virginny. Hallo, arrieros! Pablo! Matteo!"
At that moment a scream -- but a scream of such terror and anguish as I never heard before or since -- a scream as of women in their hour of agony and extreme peril, sounded within a few paces of us. I sprang out of my hammock; and as I did so, two white and graceful female figures darted or rather flew by me, shrieking -- and oh! in what heart-rending tones -- for "Socorro! Socorro! Por Dios! Help! Help!" Close upon the heels of the fugitives, bounding and leaping along with enormous strides and springs, came three or four dark objects which resembled nothing earthly. The human form they certainly possessed; but so hideous and horrible, so unnatural and spectre-like was their aspect, that their sudden encounter in that gloomy ravine, and in the almost darkness that surrounded us, might well have shaken the strongest nerves. We stood for a second, Rowley and myself, paralysed with astonishment at these strange appearances; but another piercing scream restored to us our presence of mind. One of the women had either tripped or fallen from fatigue, and she lay a white heap, upon the ground. The drapery of the other was in the clutch of one of the spectres, or devils, or whatever they were, when Rowley, with a cry of horror, rushed forward and struck a furious blow at the monster with his machetto. At the same time, and almost without knowing how, I found myself engaged with another of the creatures. But the contest was no equal one. In vain did we stab and strike with our machettos; our antagonists were covered and defended with a hard bristly hide, which our knives, although keen and pointed, had great difficulty in penetrating; and on the other hand we found ourselves clutched in long sinewy arms, terminating in hands and fingers, of which the nails were as sharp and strong as an eagle's talons. I felt these horrible claws strike into my shoulders as the creature seized me, and, drawing me towards him, pressed me as in the hug of a bear; while his hideous half man half brute visage was grinning and snarling at me, and his long keen white teeth were snapping and gnashing within six inches of my face.
"God of heaven! This is horrible! Rowley! Help me!"
But Rowley, in spite of his gigantic strength, was powerless as an infant in the grasp of these terrible opponents. He was within a few paces of me, struggling with two of them, and making superhuman efforts to regain possession of his knife, which had dropped or been wrenched from his hand. And all this time, where were our arrieros? Were they attacked likewise? Why didn't they come and help us? All this time! -- pshaw! it was no time: it all passed in the space of a few seconds, in the circumference of a few yards, and in the feeble glimmering light of the stars, and of the smouldering embers of our fire, which was at some distance from us.
"Ha! That has told!" A stab, dealt with all the energy of despair, had entered my antagonist's side. But I was like to pay dearly for it. Uttering a deafening yell of pain and fury, the monster clasped me closer to his foul and loathsome body; his sharp claws, dug deeper into my back, seemed to tear up my flesh: the agony was insupportable -- my eyes began to swim, and my senses to leave me. Just then -- Crack! crack! Two - four -- a dozen musket and pistol shots, followed by such a chorus of yellings and howlings and unearthly laughter! The creature that held me seemed startled -- relaxed his grasp slightly. At that moment a dark arm was passed before my face, there was a blinding flash, a yell, and I fell to the ground released from the clutch of my opponent. I remember nothing more. Overcome by pain, fatigue, terror, and the noxious vapors of that vile ravine, my senses abandoned me, and I swooned away.
When consciousness returned, I found myself lying upon some blankets, under a sort of arbour of foliage and flowers. It was broad day; the sun shone brightly, the blossoms smelled sweet, the gay-plumaged hummingbirds were darting and shooting about in the sunbeams like so many animated fragments of a prism. A Mexican Indian, standing beside my couch, and whose face was unknown to me, held out a cocoa-nutshell containing some liquid, which I eagerly seized, and drank off the contents. The draught (it was a mixture of citron juice and water) revived me greatly; and raising myself on my elbow, although with much pain and difficulty, I looked around, and beheld a scene of bustle and life which to me was quite unintelligible. Upon the shelving hillside on which I was lying, a sort of encampment was established. A number of mules and horses were wandering about at liberty, or fastened to trees and bushes, and eating the forage that had been collected and laid before them. Some were provided with handsome and commodious saddles, while others had pack-saddles, intended apparently for the conveyance of numerous sacks, cases, and wallets, that were scattered about on the ground. Several muskets and rifles were leaning here and there against the trees; and a dozen or fifteen men were occupied in various ways -- some filling up saddle- bags or fastening luggage on the mules, others lying on the ground smoking, one party surrounding a fire at which cooking was going on. At a short distance from my bed was another similarly composed couch, occupied by a man muffled up in blankets, and having his back turned towards me, so that I was unable to obtain a view of his features.
"What is all this? Where am I? Where is Rowley -- our guide -- where are they all?"
"Non entiendo," answered my brown-visaged Ganymede, shaking his head, and with a good-humoured smile.
"In el valle de Chihuatan, in el gran valle de Oaxaca y Guatimala; diez leguas de Tarifa. In the valley of Chihuatan; ten leagues from Tarifa."
The figure lying on the bed near me now made a movement, and turned round. What could it be? Its face was like a lump of raw flesh streaked and stained with blood. No features were distinguishable.
"Who are you? What are you?" cried I.
"Rowley," it answered: "Rowley I was, at least, if those devils haven't changed me."
"Then changed you they have," cried I, with a wild laugh. "Good God! have they scalped him alive, or what? That is not Rowley."
The Mexican, who had gone to give some drink to the creature claiming to be Rowley, now opened a valise that lay on the ground a short distance off, and took out a small looking-glass, which he brought and held before my face. It was then only that I began to call to mind all that had occurred, and understood how it was that the mask of human flesh lying near me might indeed be Rowley. He was, if any thing, less altered than myself. My eyes were almost closed; my lips, nose, and whole face swollen to an immense size, and perfectly unrecognisable. I involuntarily recoiled in dismay and disgust at my own appearance. The horrible night passed in the ravine, the foul and suffocating vapours, the furious attack of the musquittoes -- the bites of which, and the consequent fever and inflammation, had thus disfigured us -- all recurred to our memory. But the women, the fight with the monsters - beasts - Indians -- whatever they were, that was still incomprehensible. It was no dream: my back and shoulders were still smarting from the wounds that had been inflicted on them by the claws of those creatures, and I now felt that various parts of my limbs and body were swathed in wet bandages. I was mustering my Spanish to ask the Mexican who still stood by me for an explanation of all this, when I suddenly became aware of a great bustle in the encampment, and saw every body crowding to meet a number of persons who just then emerged from the high fern, and amongst whom I recognized our arrieros and servants. The new-comers were grouped around something which they seemed to be dragging along the ground; several women -- for the most part young and graceful creatures, their slender supple forms muffled in the flowing picturesque reboxos and frazadas -- preceded the party, looking back occasionally with an expression of mingled horror and triumph; all with rosaries in their hands, the beads of which ran rapidly through their fingers, while they occasionally kissed the cross, or made the sign on their breasts or in the air.
"Un Zambo muerto! Un Zambo Muerto!" shouted they as they drew near.
"Han matado un Zambo! They have killed a Zambo!" repeated my attendant in a tone of exultation.
The party came close up to where Rowley and I were lying; the women stood aside, jumping and laughing, and crossing themselves, and crying out "Un Zambo! Un Zambo Muerto!" the group opened, and we saw, lying dead upon the ground, one of our horrible antagonists of the preceding night.
"Good God, what is that?" cried Rowley and I, with one breath. "Un demonio! a devil!"
"Perdonen vos, Senores -- Un Zambo mono -- muy terribles los Zambos. Terrible monkeys these Zambos."
"Monkeys!" cried I.
"Monkeys!" repeated poor Rowley, raising himself up into a sitting posture by the help of his hands. "Monkeys -- apes -- by Jove! We've been fighting with monkeys, and it's they who have mauled us in this way. Well, Jonathan Rowley, think of your coming from old Virginny to Mexico to be whipped by a monkey. It's gone goose with your character. You can never show your face in the States again. Whipped by an ape! -- an ape, with a tail and a hairy -- O Lord! Whipped by a monkey!"
And the ludicrousness of the notion overcoming his mortification, and the pain of his wounds and bites, he sank back upon the bed of blankets and banana leaves, laughing as well as his swollen face and sausage-looking lips would allow him.
It was as much as I could do to persuade myself, that the carcass lying before me had never been inhabited by a human soul. It was humiliating to behold the close affinity between this huge ape and our own species. Had it not been for the tail, I could have fancied I saw the dead body of some prairie hunter dressed in skins. It was exactly like a powerful, well-grown man; and even the expression of the face had more of bad human passions than of animal instinct. The feet and thighs were those of a muscular man: the legs rather too curved and calfless, though I have seen Negroes who had scarcely better ones; the tendons of the hands stood out like whipcords; the nails were as long as a tiger's claws. No wonder that we had been overmatched in our struggle with the brutes. No man could have withstood them. The arms of this one were like packets of cordage, all muscle, nerve, and sinew; and the hands were clasped together with such force, that the efforts of eight or ten Mexicans and Indians were insufficient to disunite them.
Whatever remained to be cleared up in our night's adventures was now soon explained. Our guide, through ignorance or thoughtlessness, had allowed us to take up our bivouac within a very unsafe distance of one of the most pestiferous swamps in the whole province. Shortly after we had fallen asleep, a party of Mexican travellers had arrived, and established themselves within a few hundred yards of us, but on a rising ground, where they avoided the mephitic vapours and the musquittoes which had so tortured Rowley and myself. In the night two of the women, having ventured a short distance from the encampment, were surprised by the zambos, or huge man-apes, common in some parts of Southern Mexico; and finding themselves cut off from their friends, had fled they knew not whither, fortunately for them taking the direction of our bivouac. Their screams, our shouts, and the yellings and diabolical laughter of the zambos, had brought the Mexicans to our assistance. The monkeys showed no fight after the first volley; several of then must have been wounded, but only the one now lying before us had remained upon the field.
The Mexicans we had fallen amongst were on the Tzapoteca, principally cochineal gatherers, and kinder-hearted people there could not well be. They seemed to think they never could do enough for us; the women especially, and more particularly the two whom we had endeavoured to rescue from the power of the apes. These latter certainly had cause to be grateful. It made us shudder to think of their fate had they not met with us. It was the delay caused by our attacking the brutes that had given the Mexicans time to come up.
Every attention was shown to us. We were fanned with palm leaves, refreshed with cooling drinks, our wounds carefully dressed and bandaged, our heated, irritated, musquitto- bitten limbs and faces washed with balsam and the juice of herbs: more tender and careful nurses it would be impossible to find. We soon began to feel better, and were able to sit up and look about us; carefully avoiding, however, to look at each other, for we could not get reconciled to the horrible appearance of our swollen, bloody, and disgusting features. From our position on the rising ground, we had a full view over the frightful swamp at the entrance of which all our misfortunes had happened. There it lay, steaming like a great kettle; endless mists rising from it, out of which appeared here and there the crown of some mighty tree towering above the banks of vapour. To the left, cliffs and crags were to be seen which had the appearance of being baseless, and of swimming on the top of the mist. The vultures and carrion-birds circled screaming above the huge caldron, or perched on the tops of the tall palms, which looked like enormous umbrellas, or like the roofs of Chinese summer-houses. Out of the swamp itself proceeded the yellings, snarlings, and growlings of the alligators, bull-frogs, and myriads of unclean beasts that it harboured.
The air was unusually sultry and oppressive: from time to time the rolling of distant thunder was audible. We could hear the Mexicans consulting amongst themselves as to the propriety of continuing their journey, to which our suffering state seemed to be the chief obstacle. From what we could collect of their discourse, they were unwilling to leave us in this dangerous district, and in our helpless condition, with a guide and attendants who were either untrustworthy or totally incompetent to lead us aright. Yet there seemed to be some pressing necessity for continuing the march; and presently some of the older Mexicans, who appeared to have the direction of the caravan, came up to us and enquired how we felt, and if we thought we were able to travel; adding, that from the signs on the earth and in the air, they feared a storm, and that the nearest habitation or shelter was at many leagues' distance. Thanks to the remedies that had been applied, our sufferings were much diminished. We felt weak and hungry, and telling the Mexicans we should be ready to proceed in half an hour, we desired our servants to get us something to eat. But our new friends forestalled them, and brought us a large piece of iguana, with roasted bananas, and cocoa-nutshell cups full of coffee, to all of which Rowley and I applied ourselves with much gusto. Meanwhile our muleteers and the Tzapotecans were busy packing their beasts and making ready for the start.
We had not eaten a dozen mouthfuls when we say a man running down the hill with a branch in each hand. As soon as he appeared, a number of the Mexicans left their occupations and hurried to meet him.
"Siete horas!" shouted the man. "Seven hours, and no more!"
"No more than seven hours!" echoed the Tzapotecans, in tones of the wildest terror and alarm. "La Santissima nos guarde! It will take more than ten to reach the village."
"What's all that about?" said I with my mouth full, to Rowley.
"Don't know -- some of their Indian tricks, I suppose."
"Que es esto?" asked I carelessly. "What's the matter?"
"Que es esto!" repeated an old Tzapotecan, with long grey hair curling from under his sombrero, and a withered but finely marked countenance. "Las aguas! El ouracan! In seven hours the deluge and the hurricane!"
"Vamos, por la Santissima! For the blessed Virgin's sake let us be gone!" cried a dozen of the Mexicans, pushing two green boughs into our very faces.
"What are those branches?"
"From the tempest-tree -- the prophet of the storm," was the reply.
And Tzapotecans and women, arrieros and servants, ran about in the utmost terror and confusion, with cries of "Vamos, paso redoblado! Off with us, or we are all lost, man and beast," and saddling, packing, and scrambling on their mules. And before Rowley and I knew where we were, they tore us away from our iguana and coffee, and hoisted and pushed us into our saddles. Such a scene of bustle and desperate hurry I never beheld. The place where the encampment had been was alive with men and women, horses and mules, shouting, shrieking and talking, neighing and kicking; but with all the confusion there was little time lost, and in less than three minutes from the first alarm being given, we were scampering away over stock and stone, in a long, wild, irregular sort of train.
The rapidity and excitement of our ride seemed to have the effect of calming our various sufferings, or of making us forget them; and we soon thought no more of the fever, or of stings or musquitto bites. It was a ride for life or death, and our horses stepped out as if they knew how much depended on their exertions.
In the hurry and confusion we had been mounted on horses instead of our our own mules; and splendid animals they were. I doubt if our Virginians could beat them, and that is saying a great deal. There was no effort or straining in their movements; it seemed mere play to them to surmount the numerous difficulties we encountered on our road. Over mountain and valley, swamp and barranca, always the same steady surefootedness -- crawling like cats over the soft places, gliding like snakes up the steep rocky ascents, and stretching out with prodigious energy when the ground was favourable; yet with such easy action that we scarcely felt the motion. We should have sat in the roomy Spanish saddles as comfortably as in arm-chairs, had it not been for the numerous obstacles in our path, which was strewed with fallen trees and masses of rock. We were obliged to be perpetually stooping and bowing our heads to avoid the creeping plants that swung and twined and twisted across the track, intermingled often with huge thorns as long as a man's arm. These latter stuck out from the trees on which they grew like so many brown bayonets; and a man who had run up against one of them, would have been transfixed by it as surely as though it had been of steel. We pushed on, however, in Indian file, following the two guides, who kept at the head of the party, and making our way through places where a wild-cat would have difficulty in passing; through thickets of mangroves, mimosas, and tall fern, and cactuses with their thorny leaves full twenty feet long; the path turning and winding all the while. Now and then a momentary improvement in the nature of the ground enabled us to catch a glimpse of the whole column of march. We were struck by its picturesque appearance, the guides in front acting as pioneers, and looking out on all sides as cautiously and anxiously as though they had been soldiers expecting an ambuscade; the graceful forms of the women bowing and bending over their horses' manes, and often leaving fragments of their mantillas and rebozas on the branches and thorns of the labyrinth through which we were struggling. But it was no time to indulge in contemplation of the picturesque, and of this we were constantly made aware by the anxious vociferations of the Mexicans. "Vamos! Por Dios, vamos!" cried they, if the slightest symptom of flagging became visible in the movements of any one of the party; and at the words, our horses, as though gifted with understanding, pushed forward with renewed vigour and alacrity.
On we went -- up hill and down, in the depths of the valley and over the soft fetid swamp. That valley of Oaxaca has just as much right to be called a valley as our Alleghanies would have to be called bottoms. In the States we should call it a chain of mountains. Out of it rise at every step hills a good two thousand feet above the level of the valley, and four or five thousand above that of the sea; but these are lost sight of, and become flat ground by the force of comparison; that is, when compared with the gigantic mountains that surround the valley on all sides like a frame. And what a splendid frame they do compose, those colossal mountains, in their rich variety of form and colouring! here shining out like molten gold, there changing to a dark bronze; covered lower down with various shades of green, and with the crimson and purple, and violet and bright yellow, and azure and dazzling white, of the millions of paulinias and convolvoluses and other flowering plants, from amongst which rise the stately palm-trees, full a hundred feet high, their majestic green turbans towering like sultans' heads above the luxuriance of the surrounding flower and vegetable world. Then the mahogany-trees, the chicozapotes, and again in the barrancas the candelabra-like cactuses, and higher up the knotted and majestic live oak. An incessant change of plants, trees, and climate. We had been five hours in the saddle, and had already changed our climate three times; passed from the temperate zone, the tierra templada, into the torrid heat of the tierra muy caliente. It was in the latter temperature that we found ourselves at the expiration of the above- named time, dripping with perspiration, roasting and stewing in the heat. We were surrounded by a new world of plants and animals. The borax and mangroves and fern were here as lofty as forest-trees, whilst the trees themselves shot up like church steeples. In the thickets around us were numbers of black tigers -- we saw dozens of those cowardly sneaking beasts -- iguanas full three feet long, squirrels double the size of any we had ever seen, and panthers, and wild pigs, and jackals, and apes and monkeys of every tribe and description, who threatened and grinned and chattered at us from the branches of the trees. But what is that yonder to the right, that stands out so white against the dark blue sky and the bronze-coloured rocks? A town -- Quidricovi, d'ye call it?
We had now ridden a good five or six leagues, and begun to think we had escaped the aguas or deluge, of which the prospect had so terrified our friends the Tzapotecans. Rowley calculated, as he went puffing and grumbling along, that it wouldn't do any harm to let our beasts draw breath for a minute or two. The scrambling and constant change of pace rendered necessary by the nature of the road, or rather track, that we followed, was certainly dreadfully fatiguing both to man and beast. As for conversation it was out of the question. We had plenty to do to avoid getting our necks broken, or our teeth knocked out, as we struggled along, up and down barrancas, through marshes and thickets, over rocks and fallen trees, and through mimosas and bushes laced and twined together with thorns and creeping plants -- all of which would have been beautiful in a picture, but was most infernally unpoetical in reality.
"Vamos! Por la Santissima Madre, vamos!" yelled our guides, and the cry was taken up by the Mexicans, in a shrill wild tone that jarred strangely upon our ears, and made the horses start and strain forward. Hurra! on we go, through thorns and bushes, which scratch and flog us, and tear our clothes to rags. We shall be naked if this lasts long. It is a regular race. In front the two guides, stooping, nodding, bowing, crouching down, first to one side, then to the other, like a couple of mandarins or Indian idols -- behind them a Tzapotecan in his picturesque capa, then the women, then more Tzapotecans. There is little thought about precedence or ceremony; and Rowley and I, having been in the least hurry to start, find ourselves bringing up the rear of the whole column.
"Vamos! Por la Santissima! Las aguas, las aguas!" is again yelled by twenty voices. Hang the fools! Can't they be quiet with their eternal vamos? We can have barely two leagues more to go to reach the rancho, or village, they were talking of, and appearances are not as yet very alarming. It is getting rather thick to be sure; but that's nothing, only the exhalations from the swamp, for we are again approaching one of those cursed swamps, and can hear the music of the alligators and bullfrogs. There they are, the beauties; a couple of them are taking a peep at us, sticking their elegant heads and long delicate snouts out of the slime and mud. The neighbourhood is none of the best; but luckily the path is firm and good, carefully made, evidently by Indian hands. None but Indians could live and labour and travel habitually, in such a pestilential atmosphere. Thank God! we are out of it at last. Again on firm forest ground, amidst the magnificent monotony of the eternal palms and mahogany-trees. But -- see there!
A new and surpassingly beautiful landscape burst suddenly upon our view, seeming to dance in the transparent atmosphere. On either side mountains, those on the left in deep shadow, those on the right standing forth like colossal figures of light, in a beauty and splendour that seemed really supernatural, every tree, every branch shining in its own vivid and glorious colouring. There lay the valley in its tropical luxuriance and beauty, one sheet of bloom and blossom up to the topmost crown of the palm-trees, that shot up, some of them, a hundred and fifty and a hundred and eighty feet high. Thousands and millions of convolvoluses, paulinias, bignonias, dendrobiums, climbing from the fern to the tree trunks, from the trunks to the branches and summits of the trees, and thence again falling gracefully down, and catching and clinging to the mangroves and blocks of granite. It burst upon us like a scene of enchantment, as we emerged from the darkness of the forest into the dazzling light and colouring of that glorious valley.
"Misericordia, misericordia! Audi nos peccadores! Misericordia, las aquas!" suddenly screamed and exclaimed the Mexicans in various intonations of terror and despair. We looked around us. What can be the matter? We see nothing. Nothing, except that from just behind those two mountains, which project like mighty promontories into the valley, a cloud is beginning to rise. "What is it? What is wrong?" A dozen voices answered us --
"Por la Santa Virgen, for the holy Virgin's sake, on, on! No hay tiempo para hablar. We have still two leagues to go, and in one hour comes the flood."
And they recommenced their howling, yelling chorus of "Misericordia! Audi nos peccadores!" and "Santissima Virgen, and Todos santos y angeles!"
"Are the fellows mad?" shouted Rowley, "What if the water does come? It won't swallow you. A ducking more or less is no such great matter. You are not made of sugar or salt. Many's the drenching I've had in the States, and none the worse for it. Yet our rains are no child's play neither."
On looking round us, however, we were involuntarily struck with the sudden change in the appearance of the heavens. The usual golden black blue colour of the sky was gone, and had been replaced by a dull gloomy grey. The quality of the air appeared also to have changed; it was neither very warm nor very cold, but it had lost its lightness and elasticity, and seemed to oppress and weigh us down. Presently we saw the dark cloud rise gradually from behind the hills, completely clearing their summits, and then sweeping along until it hung over the valley, in form and appearance like some monstrous night- moth, resting the tips of its enormous wings on the mountains on either side. To our right we still saw the roofs and walls of Quidricovi, apparently at a very short distance.
"Why not go to Quidricovi?" shouted I to the guides, "we cannot be far off."
"More than five leagues," answered the men, shaking their heads and looking up anxiously at the huge moth, which was still creeping and crawling on, each moment darker and more threatening. It was like some frightful monster, or the fabled Kraken, working itself along by its claws, which were struck deep into the mountain-wall on either side of its line of progress, and casting its hideous shadow over hill and dale, forest and valley, clothing them in gloom and darkness. To our right hand and behind us, the mountains were still of a glowing golden red, lighted up by the sun, but to the left and in our front all was black and dark. With the same glance we beheld the deepest gloom and the brightest day, meeting each other but not mingling. It was a strange and ominous sight.
Ominous enough; and the brute creation seem to feel it so as well as ourselves. The chattering parrots, the hopping, gibbering, quarrelsome apes, all the birds and beasts, scream and cry and flutter and spring about, as though seeking a refuge from some impending danger. Even our horses begin to tremble and groan -- refuse to go on, start and snort. The whole animal world is in commotion, as if seized with an overwhelming panic. The forest is teeming with inhabitants. Whence come they, all these living things? On every side is heard the howling and snarling of beasts, the frightened cries and chirpings of birds. The vultures and turkey- buzzards, that a few minutes before were circling high in the air, are now screaming amidst the branches of the mahogany-trees; every creature that has life is running, scampering, flying -- apes and tigers, birds and creeping things.
"Vamos, por la Santissima! On! or we are all lost."
And we ride, we rush along -- neither masses of rock, nor fallen trees, nor thorns and brambles, check our wild career. Over every thing we go, leaping, scrambling, plunging, riding like desperate men, flying from a danger of which the nature is not clearly defined, but which we feel to be great and imminent. It is a frightful terror-striking foe, that huge night-moth, which comes ever nearer, growing each moment bigger and blacker. Looking behind us, we catch one last glimpse of the red and bloodshot sun, which the next instant disappears behind the edge of the mighty cloud.
Still we push on. Hosts of tigers, and monkeys both large and small, and squirrels and jackals, come close up to us as if seeking shelter, and then finding none, retreat howling into the forest. There is not a breath of air stirring, yet all nature -- plants and trees, men and beasts -- seem to quiver and tremble with apprehension. Our horses pant and groan as they bound along with dilated nostrils and glaring eyes, trembling in every limb, sweating at every pore, half wild with terror; giving springs and leaps that more resemble those of a hunted tiger than of a horse.
The prayer and exclamations of the terrified Mexicans, continued without intermission, whispered and shrieked and groaned in every variety of intonation. The earthy hue of intense terror was upon every countenance. For some moments a death-like stillness, an unnatural calm, reigned around us: it was as though the elements were holding in their breath, and collecting their energies for some mighty outbreak. Then came a low indistinct moaning sound, that seemed to issue from the bowels of the earth. The warning was significant.
"Halt! stop" shouted we to the guides. "Stop! and let us seek shelter from the storm."
"On! for God's sake, on! or we are lost," was the reply.
Thank Heaven! the path is getting wider -- we come to a descent -- they are leading us out of the forest. If the storm had come on while we were among the trees, we might be crushed to death by the falling branches. We are close to a barranca.
"Alerto! Alerto!" shrieked the Mexicans. "Madre de Dios! Dios! Dios!"
And well might they call to God for help in that awful moment. The gigantic night-moth gaped and shot forth tongues of fire -- a ghastly white flame, that contrasted strangely and horribly with the dense black cloud from which it issued. There was a peal of thunder that seemed to shake the earth, then a pause during which nothing was heard but the panting of our horses as they dashed across the barranca, and began straining up the steep side of a knoll or hillock. The cloud again opened: for a second every thing was lighted up. Another thunder clap, and then, as though the gates of its prison had been suddenly burst open, the tempest came forth in its might and fury, breaking, crushing, and sweeping away all that opposed it. The trees of the forest staggered and tottered for a moment, as if making an effort to bear up against the storm; but it was in vain: the next instant, with a report like that of ten thousand cannon, whole acres of mighty trees were snapped off, their branches shivered, their roots torn up; it was no longer a forest but a chaos; an ocean of boughs and tree-trunks, that were tossed about like the waves of the sea, or thrown into the air like straws. The atmosphere was darkened with dust, and leaves, and branches.
"God be merciful to us! Rowley! where are ye? -- No answer. What is become of them all?"
A second blast more furious than the first. Can the mountains resist it? will they stand? By the Almighty! they do not. The earth trembles; the hillock, on the leeside of which we are, rocks and shakes; and the air grows thick and suffocating -- full of dust and saltpetre and sulphur. We are like to choke. All around is dark as night. We can see nothing, hear nothing but the howling of the hurricane, and the thunder and rattle of falling trees and shivered branches.
Suddenly the hurricane ceases, and all is hushed; but so suddenly that the charge is startling and unnatural. No sound is audible save the creaking and moaning of the trees with which the ground is cumbered. It is like a sudden pause in a battle, when the roar of the cannon and clang of charging squadrons cease, and nought is heard but the groaning of the wounded, the agonized sobs and gasps of the dying.
The report of a pistol is heard; then another, a third, hundreds, thousands of them. It is the flood, las aguas; the shots are drops of rain; but such drops! each as big as a hen's egg. They strike with the force of enormous hailstones -- stunning and blinding us. The next moment there is no distinction of drops, the windows of heaven are opened; it is no longer rain nor flood, but a sea, a cataract, a Niagara. The hillock on which I am standing, undermined by the waters, gives way and crumbles under me; in ten seconds' time I find myself in the barranca, which is converted into a river, off my horse, which is gone I know not whither. The only person I see near me is Rowley, also dismounted and struggling against the stream, which is already up to our waists, and sweeps along with it huge branches and entire trees, that threaten each moment to carry us away with them, or to crush us against the rocks. We avoid these dangers, God knows how, make violent efforts to stem the torrent and gain the side of the barranca; although, even should we succeed, it is so steep that we can scarcely hope to climb it without assistance. And whence is that assistance to come? Of the Mexicans we see or hear nothing. They are doubtless all drowned or dashed to pieces. They were higher up on the hillock than we were, must consequently have been swept down with more force, and were probably carried away by the torrent. Nor can we hope for a better fate. Wearied by our ride, weakened by the fever and sufferings of the preceding night, we are in no condition to strive much longer with the furious elements. For one step that we gain, we lose two. The waters rise; already they are nearly up to our armpits. It is in vain to resist any longer. Our fate is sealed.
"Rowley, all is over -- let us die like men. God have mercy on our souls!"
Rowley was a few paces higher up the barranca. He made me no answer, but looked at me with a calm, cold, and yet somewhat regretful smile upon his countenance. Then all at once he ceased the efforts he was making to resist the stream and gain the bank, folded his arms on his breast and gave a look up and around him as though to bid farewell to the world he was about to leave. The current was sweeping him rapidly down towards me, when suddenly a wild hurra burst from his lips, and he recommenced his struggles against the waters, striving violently to retain a footing on the slippery, uneven bed of the stream.
"Tenga! Tenga!" screamed a dozen voices, that seemed to proceed from spirits of the air; and at the same moment something whistled about my ears and struck me a smart blow across the face. With the instinct of a drowning man, I clutched the lasso that had been thrown to me. Rowley was at my elbow and seized it also. It was immediately drawn tight, and by its aid we gained the bank, and began ascending the side of the barranca, composed of rugged, declivitous rocks, affording but scanty foot-hold. God grant the lasso may prove tough! The strain on it is fearful. Rowley is a good fifteen stone, and I am no feather; and in some parts of our perilous ascent the rocks are almost as perpendicular and smooth as a wall of masonry, and we are obliged to cling with our whole weight to the lasso, which seems to stretch, and crack, and grow visibly thinner. Nothing but a strip of twisted cow-hide between us and a frightful agonizing death on the sharp rocks and in the foaming waters below. But the lasso holds good, and now the chief peril is past: we get some sort of footing -- a point of rock, or a tree-root to clutch at. Another strain up this rugged slope of granite, another pull at the lasso; a leap, a last violent effort, and -- Viva! -- we are seized under the arms, dragged up, held upon our feet for a moment, and then -- we sink exhausted to the ground in the midst of the Tzapotecans, mules, arrieros, guides, and women, who are sheltered from the storm in a sort of natural cavern. At the moment at which the hillock had given way under Rowley and myself, who were a short distance in rear of the party, the Mexicans had succeeded in attaining firm footing on a broad rocky ledge, a shelf of the precipice that flanked the barranca. Upon this ledge, which gradually widened into a platform, they found themselves in safety under some projecting crags that sheltered them completely from the tempest. Thence they looked down upon the barranca, where they descried Rowley and myself struggling for our lives in the roaring torrent; and thence, by knotting several lassos together, they were able to give us the opportune aid which had rescued us from our desperate situation. But whether this aid had come soon enough to save our lives was still a question, or at least for some time appeared to be so. The life seemed driven out of our bodies by all we had gone through: we were unable to move a finger, and lay helpless and motionless, with only a glimmering indistinct perception, not amounting to consciousness, of what was going on around us. Fatigue, the fever, the immersion in cold water when reeking with perspiration, the sufferings of all kinds we had endured in the course of the last twenty hours, had completely exhausted and broken us down.
The storm did not last long in its violence, but swept onwards, leaving a broad track of desolation behind it. The Mexicans recommenced their journey, with the exception of four or five who remained with us and our arrieros and servants. The village to which we were proceeding was not above a league off; but even that short distance Rowley and myself were in no condition to accomplish. The kind-hearted Tzapotecans made us swallow cordials, stripped off our drenched and tattered garments, and wrapped us in an abundance of blankets. We fell into a deep sleep, which lasted all that evening and the greater part of the night, and so much refreshed us that about an hour before daybreak we were able to resume our march -- at a slow pace, it is true, and suffering grievously in every part of our bruised and wounded limbs and bodies, at each jolt or rough motion of the mules on which we were clinging, rather than sitting.
Our path lay over hill and dale, perpetually rising and falling. We soon got out of the district or zone that had been swept by the preceding day's hurricane, and after nearly an hour's ride, we paused on the crest of a steep descent, at the foot of which, as our guides informed us, lay the land of promise, the long looked-for rancho. While the muleteers were seeing to the girths of their beasts, and giving the due equilibrium to the baggage, before commencing the downward march, Rowley and I sat upon our mules, wrapped in large Mexican capas, gazing at the morning-star as it sank down and grew gradually paler and fainter. Suddenly the eastern sky began to brighten, and a brilliant beam appeared in the west, a point of light no bigger than a star -- but yet not a star; it was of a far rosier hue. The next moment a second sparkling spot appeared, near to the first, which now swelled out into a sort of fiery tongue, that seemed to lick round the silvery summit of the snow-clad mountain. As we gazed, five -- ten -- twenty hill tops were tinged with the same rose-coloured glow; in another moment they became like fiery banners spread out against the heavens, while sparkling tongues and rays of golden light flashed and flamed round them, springing like meteors from one mountain summit to another, lighting them up like a succession of beacons. Scarcely five minutes had elapsed since the distant pinnacles of the mountains had appeared to us as huge phantom-like figures of a silvery white, dimly marked out upon a dark star-spangled ground; now the whole immense chain blazed like volcanoes covered with glowing lava, rising out of the darkness that still lingered on their flanks and bases, visible and wonderful witnesses to the omnipotence of him who said, "Let there be light, and there was light."
Above, all was broad day, flaming sunlight; below, all black night. Here and there streams of light burst through clefts and openings in the mountains, and then ensued an extraordinary kind of conflict. The shades of darkness seemed to live and move, to struggle against the bright beams that fell amongst them and broke their masses, forcing them down the wooded heights, tearing them asunder and dispersing them like tissues of cobwebs; so that successively, and as if by a stroke of enchantment, there appeared, first the deep indigo blue of the tamarinds and chicozapotes, then the bright green of the sugar-canes, lower down the darker green of the nopal- trees, lower still the white and green and gold and bright yellow of the orange and citron groves, and lowest of all, the stately fan-palms, and date-palms, and bananas; all glittering with millions of dewdrops, that covered them like a ganze veil embroidered with diamonds and rubies. And still in the very next valley all was utter darkness.
We sat silent and motionless, gazing at this scene of enchantment.
Presently the sun rose higher, and a flood of light illumined the whole valley, which lay some few hundred feet below us -- a perfect garden, such as no northern imagination could picture forth; a garden of sugar- canes, cotton, and nopal-trees, intermixed with thickets of pomegranate and strawberry-trees, and groves of orange, fig, and lemon, giants of their kind, shooting up to a far greater height than the oak attains in the States -- every tree a perfect hothouse, a pyramid of flowers, covered with bloom and blossom to its topmost spray. All was light, and freshness, and beauty; every object seemed to dance and rejoice in the clear elastic golden atmosphere. It was an earthly paradise, fresh from the hand of its Creator, and at first we could discover no sign of man or his works. Presently, however, we discerned the village lying almost at our feet, the small stone houses overgrown with flowers and embedded in trees; so that scarcely a square foot of roof or wall was to be seen. Even the church was concealed in a garland of orange-trees, and had lianas and star-flowered creepers climbing over and dangling on it, up as high as the slender cross that surmounted its square white tower. As we gazed, the first sign of life appeared in the village. A puff of blue smoke rose curling and spiral from a chimney, and the matin bell rang out its summons to prayer. Our Mexicans fell on their knees and crossed themselves, repeating their Ave-marias. We involuntarily took off our hats, and whispered a thanksgiving to the God who had been with us in the hour of peril, and was now so visible to us in his works.
The Mexicans rose from their knees.
"Vamos! Senores," said one of them, laying his hand on the bridle of my mule. "To the rancho, to breakfast."
We rode slowly down into the valley.
(1) The nigua is a small but very dangerous insect which fixes itself in the feet, bores holes in the skin, and lays its eggs there. These, if not extracted, (which extraction by the by is a most painful operation) cause first an intolerable itching, and subsequently sores and ulcers of a sufficiently serious nature to entail the loss of the feet.
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