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Chapter 1 - The Rifle Rangers by Mayne Reid

The Land of Anahuac

Away over the dark, wild waves of the rolling Atlantic—away beyond the summer islands of the Western Ind—lies a lovely land. Its surface-aspect carries the hue of the emerald; its sky is sapphire; its sun is a globe of gold. It is the land of Anahuac!

The tourist turns his face to the Orient—the poet sings the gone glories of Greece—the painter elaborates the hackneyed pictures of Apennine and Alp—the novelist turns the skulking thief of Italy into a picturesque bandit, or, Don Quixote-like, betaking himself into the misty middle age, entertains the romantic miss and milliner’s apprentice with stories of raven steeds, of plumed and impossible heroes. All—painter, poet, tourist, and novelist—in search of the bright and beautiful, the poetic and the picturesque—turn their backs upon this lovely land.

Shall we? No! Westward, like the Genoese, we boldly venture—over the dark wild waves of the rolling Atlantic; through among the sunny islands of Ind—westward to the land of Anahuac. Let us debark upon its shores; let us pierce the secret depths of its forests; let us climb its mighty mountains, and traverse its table-plains.

Go with us, tourist! Fear not. You shall look upon scenes grand and gloomy, bright and beautiful. Poet! you shall find themes for poesy worthy its loftiest strains. Painter! for you there are pictures fresh from the hand of God. Writer! there are stories still untold by the author-artist—legends of love and hate, of gratitude and revenge, of falsehood and devotion, of noble virtue and ignoble crime—legends redolent of romance, rich in reality.

Thither we steer, over the dark wild waves of the rolling Atlantic; through the summer islands of the Western Ind; onward—onward to the shores of Anahuac!

Varied is the aspect of that picture-land, abounding in scenes that change like the tints of the opal. Varied is the surface which these pictures adorn. Valleys that open deep into the earth; mountains that lead the eye far up into heaven; plains that stretch to the horizon’s verge, until the rim of the blue canopy seems to rest upon their limitless level; “rolling” landscapes, whose softly-turned ridges remind one of the wavy billows of the ocean.

Alas! word-painting can give but a faint idea of these scenes. The pen can but feebly portray the grand and sublime effect produced upon the mind of him who gazes down into the deep valleys, or glances upward to the mighty mountains of Mexico.

Though feeble be the effort, I shall attempt a series of sketches from memory. They are the panoramic views that present themselves during a single “Jornada.”

I stand upon the shores of the Mexican Gulf. The waves lip gently up to my feet upon a beach of silvery sand. The water is pure and translucent, of azure blue, here and there crested with the pearly froth of coral breakers. I look to the eastward, and behold a summer sea that seems to invite navigation. But where are the messengers of commerce with their white wings? The solitary skiff of the savage “pescador” is making its way through the surf; a lone “polacca” beats up the coast with its half-smuggler crew; a “piragua” swings at anchor in a neighbouring cove: this is all! Far as eye or glass can reach, no other sail is in sight. The beautiful sea before me is almost unfurrowed by the keels of commerce.

From this I draw ideas of the land and its inhabitants—unfavourable ideas of their moral and material condition. No commerce—no industry—no prosperity. Stay! What see I yonder? Perhaps I have been wronging them. A dark, tower-like object looms up against the horizon. It is the smoke of a steamer—sign of advanced civilisation—emblem of active life. She nears the shore. Ha! a foreign flag—the flag of another land trails over her taffrail; a foreign flag floats at her peak; foreign faces appear above her bulwarks, and foreign words issue from the lips of her commander. She is not of the land. My first conjecture was right.

She makes for the principal port. She lands a small parcel of letters and papers, a few bales of merchandise, half a dozen slightly-formed cadaverous men; and then, putting about, a gun is fired, and she is off again. She soon disappears away upon the wide ocean; and the waves once more roll silently in—their glistening surface broken only by the flapping of the albatross or the plunge of the osprey.

I direct my eyes northward. I behold a belt of white sand skirting the blue water. I turn towards the south, and in this direction perceive a similar belt. To both points it extends beyond the reach of vision—hundreds of miles beyond—forming, like a ribbon of silver, the selvage of the Mexican Sea. It separates the turquoise blue of the water from the emerald green of the forest, contrasting with each by its dazzling whiteness. Its surface is far from being level, as is usual with the ocean-strand. On the contrary, its millions of sparkling atoms, rendered light by the burning sun of the tropic, have been lifted on the wings of the wind, and thrown into hills and ridges hundreds of feet in height, and trending in every direction like the wreaths of a great snow-drift. I advance with difficulty over these naked ridges, where no vegetation finds nourishment in the inorganic heap. I drag myself wearily along, sinking deeply at every step. I climb sand-hills of strange and fantastic shapes, cones, and domes, and roof-like ridges, where the sportive wind seems to have played with the plastic mass, as children with potter’s clay. I encounter huge basins like the craters of volcanoes, formed by the circling swirl; deep chasms and valleys, whose sides are walls of sand, steep, often vertical, and not unfrequently impending with comb-like escarpments.

All these features may be changed in a single night, by the magical breath of the “norther”. The hill to-day may become the valley to-morrow, and the elevated ridge have given place to the sunken chasm.

Upon the summits of these sand-heights I am fanned by the cool breeze from the Gulf. I descend into the sheltered gorges, and am burned by a tropic sun, whose beams, reflected from a thousand crystals, torture my eyes and brain. In these parts the traveller is often the victim of the coup-de-soleil.

Yonder comes the “norte” Along the northern horizon the sky suddenly changes from light blue to a dark lead colour. Sometimes rumbling thunder with arrowy lightning portends the change; but if neither seen nor heard, it is soon felt. The hot atmosphere, that, but a moment before, encased me in its glowing embrace, is suddenly pierced by a chill breeze, that causes my skin to creep and my frame to shiver. In its icy breath there is fever—there is death; for it carries on its wings the dreaded “vomito”. The breeze becomes a strong wind—a tempest. The sand is lifted upwards, and floats through the air in dun clouds, here settling down, and there rising up again. I dare not face it, any more than I would the blast of the simoom. I should be blinded if I did, or blistered by the “scud” of the angular atoms. The “norther” continues for hours, sometimes for days. It departs as suddenly as it came, carrying its baneful influence to lands farther south.

It is past, and the sand-hills have assumed a different shape. The ridges trend differently. Some have disappeared, and valleys yawn open where they stood!

Such are the shores of Anahuac—the shores of the Mexican Sea. Without commerce—almost harbourless—a waste of sand; but a waste of striking appearance and picturesque beauty.

To horse and inwards! Adieu to the bright blue waters of the Gulf!

We have crossed the sand-ridges of the coast, and are riding through the shadowy aisles of the forest. It is a tropical forest. The outlines of the leaves, their breadth, their glowing colours all reveal this. The eye roams with delight over a frondage that partakes equally of the gold and the green. It revels along waxen leaves, as those of the magnolia, the plantain, and the banana. It is led upward by the rounded trunks of the palms, that like columns appear to support the leafy canopy above. It penetrates the network of vines, or follows the diagonal direction of gigantic llianas, that creep like monster serpents from tree to tree. It gazes with pleased wonder upon the huge bamboo-briars and tree-ferns. Wherever it turns, flowers open their corollas to meet its delighted glance—tropical tree-flowers, blossoms of the scarlet vine, and trumpet-shaped tubes of the bignonia.

I turn my eyes to every side, and gaze upon a flora to me strange and interesting. I behold the tall stems of the palma real, rising one hundred feet without leaf or branch, and supporting a parachute of feathery fronds that wave to the slightest impulse of the breeze. Beside it I see its constant companion, the Indian cane—a small palm-tree, whose slender trunk and low stature contrast oddly with the colossal proportions of its lordly protector. I behold the corozo—of the same genus with the palma real—its light feathery frondage streaming outwards and bending downwards, as if to protect from the hot sun the globe-shaped nuts that hang in grape-like clusters beneath. I see the abanico, with its enormous fan-shaped leaves; the wax-palm distilling its resinous gum; and the acrocomia, with its thorny trunk and enormous racemes of golden fruits. By the side of the stream I guide my horse among the columnar stems of the noble coeva, which has been enthusiastically but appropriately termed the “bread of life” (pan de vida).

I gaze with wonder upon the ferns, those strange creatures of the vegetable world, that upon the hillsides of my own far island-home scarce reach the knee in height. Here they are arborescent—tree-ferns—rivalling their cousins the palms in stature, and like them, with their tall, straight stems and lobed leaves, contributing to the picturesqueness of the landscape. I admire the beautiful mammey with its great oval fruit and saffron pulp. I ride under the spreading limbs of the mahogany-tree, marking its oval pinnate leaves, and the egg-like seed capsules that hang from its branches; thinking as well of the brilliant surfaces that lie concealed within its dark and knotty trunk. Onward I ride, through glistening foliage and glowing flowers, that, under the beams of a tropic sun, present the varying hues of the rainbow.

There is no wind—scarcely a breath stirring; yet here and there the leaves are in motion. The wings of bright birds flash before the eye, passing from tree to tree. The gaudy tanagers, that cannot be tamed—the noisy lories, the resplendent trogons, the toucans with their huge clumsy bills, and the tiny bee-birds (the trochili and colibri)—all glance through the sunny vistas.

The carpenter-bird—the great woodpecker—hangs against the decayed trunk of some dead tree, beating the hollow bark, and now and then sounding his clarion note, which is heard to the distance of a mile. Out of the underwood springs the crested curassow; or, basking in the sun-lit glades, with outspread wings gleaming with metallic lustre, may be seen the beautiful turkey of Honduras.

The graceful roe (Gervus Mexicanus) bounds forward, startled by the tread of the advancing horse. The caiman crawls lazily along the bank, or hides his hideous body under the water of a sluggish stream, and the not less hideous form of the iguana, recognised by its serrated crest, is seen crawling up the tree-trunk or lying along the slope of a lliana. The green lizard scuttles along the path—the basilisk looks with glistening eyes from the dark interstices of some corrugated vine—the biting peckotin glides among the dry leaves in pursuit of its insect prey—and the chameleon advances sluggishly along the branches, while it assumes their colour to deceive its victims.

Serpent forms present themselves: now and then the huge boa and the macaurel, twining the trees. The great tiger-snake is seen with its head raised half a yard from the surface; the cascabel, too, coiled like a cable; and the coral-snake with his red and ringed body stretched at full length along the ground. The two last, though inferior in size to the boas, are more to be dreaded; and my horse springs back when he sees the one glistening through the grass, or hears the “skir-r-r-r” of the other threatening to strike.

Quadrupeds and quadrumana appear. The red monkey (Mono Colorado) runs at the traveller’s approach, and, flinging himself from limb to limb, hides among the vines and Tillandsia on the high tree-tops; and the tiny ouistiti, with its pretty, child-like countenance, peers innocently through the leaves; while the ferocious zambo fills the woods with its hideous, half-human voice.

The jaguar is not far distant, “laired” in the secret depths of the impenetrable jungle. His activity is nocturnal, and his beautiful spotted body may not be seen except by the silver light of the moon. Roused by accident, or pressed by the dogs of the hunter, he may cross my path. So, too, may the ocelot and the lynx; or, as I ride silently on, I may chance to view the long, tawny form of the Mexican lion, crouched upon a horizontal limb, and watching for the timid stag that must pass beneath. I turn prudently aside, and leave him to his hungry vigil.

Night brings a change. The beautiful birds—the parrots, the toucans, and the trogons—all go to rest at an early hour; and other winged creatures take possession of the air. Some need not fear the darkness, for their very life is light. Such are the “cocuyos”, whose brilliant lamps of green and gold and flame, gleam through the aisles of the forest, until the air seems on fire. Such, too, are the “gusanitos”, the female of which—a wingless insect, like a glow-worm—lies along the leaf, while her mate whirrs gaily around, shedding his most captivating gleams as he woos her upon the wing. But, though light is the life of these beautiful creatures, it is often the cause of their death. It guides their enemies—the night-hawk and the “whip-poor-will”, the bat, and the owl. Of these last, the hideous vampire may be seen flapping his broad dark wings in quick, irregular turnings, and the great “lechuza” (Strix Mexicana), issuing from his dark tree-cave, utters his fearful notes, that resemble the moanings of one who is being hanged. Now may be heard the scream of the cougar, and the hoarser voice of the Mexican tiger. Now may be heard the wild, disagreeable cries of the howling monkeys (alouattes), and the barking of the dog-wolf; and, blending with these, the croaking of the tree-toads and the shrill tinkling of the bell-frog. Perhaps the air is no longer, as in the daytime, filled with sweet perfumes. The aroma of a thousand flowers has yielded to the fetid odour of the skunk (Mephitis chinga)—for that singular creature is abroad, and, having quarrelled with one of the forest denizens, has caused all of them to feel the power of its resentment.

Such are some of the features of the tropical forest that lies between the Gulf and the Mexican mountains. But the aspect of this region is not all wild. There are cultivated districts—settlements, though far apart.

The forest opens, and the scene suddenly changes. Before me is a plantation—the hacienda of a “rico”. There are wide fields tilled by peon serfs, who labour and sing; but their song is sad. Its music is melancholy. It is the voice of a conquered race.

Yet the scene around them is gay and joyful. All but the people appears to prosper. Vegetation luxuriates in its fullest growth. Both fruit and flower exhibit the hues of a perfect development. Man alone seems stunted in his outlines.

There is a beautiful stream meandering through the open fields. Its waters are clear and cool. They are the melted snows of Orizava. Upon its banks grow clumps of the cocoa-palm and the majestic plantain. There are gardens upon its banks, and orchards filled with the fruit-trees of the tropics. I see the orange with its golden globes, the sweet lime, the shaddock, and the guava-tree. I ride under the shade of the aguacate (Laurus Persea), and pluck the luscious fruits of the cherimolla. The breeze blowing over fields carries on its wings the aroma of the coffee-tree, the indigo-plant, the vanilla bean, or the wholesome cacao (Theobroma Cacao); and, far as the eye can reach, I see glancing gaily in the sun the green spears and golden tassels of the sugar-cane.

Interesting is the aspect of the tropical forest. Not less so is that of the tropical field.

I ride onward and inward into the land. I am gradually ascending from the sea-level. I no longer travel upon horizontal paths, but over hills and steep ridges, across deep valleys and ravines. The hoof of my horse no longer sinks in light sand or dark alluvion. It rings upon rocks of amygdaloid and porphyry. The soil is changed; the scenery has undergone a change, and even the atmosphere that surrounds me. The last is perceptibly cooler, but not yet cold. I am still in the piedmont lands—the tierras calientes. The templadas are yet far higher. I am only a thousand yards or so above sea-level. I am in the “foot-hills” of the Northern Andes.

How sudden is this change! It is less than an hour since I parted from the plains below, and yet the surface-aspect around me is like that of another land. I halt in a wild spot, and survey it with eyes that wander and wonder. The leaf is less broad, the foliage less dense, the jungle more open. There are ridges whose sides are nearly naked of tree-timber. The palms have disappeared, but in their place grow kindred forms that in many respects resemble them. They are, in fact, the palms of the mountains. I behold the great palmetto (Chamcerops), with its fan-like fronds standing out upon long petioles from its lofty summit; the yuccas, with their bayonet-shaped leaves, ungraceful, but picturesque, with ponderous clusters of green and pulpy capsules. I behold the pita aloe, with its tall flower-stalk and thorny sun-scorched leaves. I behold strange forms of the cactus, with their glorious wax-like blossoms; the cochineal, the tuna, the opuntias—the great tree-cactus “Foconoztle” (Opuntia arborescens), and the tall “pitahaya” (Cereus giganteus), with columnar shafts and straight upright arms, like the branches of gigantic candelabra; the echino-cacti, too—those huge mammals of the vegetable world, resting their globular or egg-shaped forms, without trunk or stalk, upon the surface of the earth.

There, too, I behold gigantic thistles (cardonales) and mimosas, both shrubby and arborescent—the tree-mimosa, and the sensitive-plant (Mimosa frutescens), that shrinks at my approach, and closes its delicate leaflets until I have passed out of sight. This is the favourite land of the acacia; and immense tracts, covered with its various species, form impenetrable thickets (chapparals). I distinguish in these thickets the honey-locust, with its long purple legumes, the “algarobo” (carob-tree), and the thorny “mezquite”; and, rising over all the rest, I descry the tall, slender stem of the Fouquiera splendens, with panicles of cube-shaped crimson flowers.

There is less of animal life here; but even these wild ridges have their denizens. The cochineal insect crawls upon the cactus leaf, and huge winged ants build their clay nests upon the branches of the acacia-tree. The ant-bear squats upon the ground, and projects his glutinous tongue over the beaten highway, where the busy insects rob the mimosse of their aromatic leaves. The armadillo, with his bands and rhomboidal scales, takes refuge in the dry recesses of the rocks, or, clewing himself up, rolls over the cliff to escape his pursuer. Herds of cattle, half wild, roam through the glassy glades or over the tufted ridges, lowing for water; and black vultures (zopilotes) sail through the cloudless heavens, waiting for some scene of death to be enacted in the thickets below.

Here, too, I pass through scenes of cultivation. Here is the hut of the peon and the rancho of the small proprietor; but they are structures of a more substantial kind than in the region of the palm. They are of stone. Here, too, is the hacienda, with its low white walls and prison-like windows; and the pueblita, with its church and cross and gaily-painted steeple. Here the Indian corn takes the place of the sugarcane, and I ride through wide fields of the broad-leafed tobacco-plant. Here grow the jalap and the guaiacum, the sweet-scented sassafras and the sanitary copaiba.

I ride onward, climbing steep ridges and descending into chasms (barrancas) that yawn deeply and gloomily. Many of these are thousands of feet in depth; and the road that enables me to reach their bottoms is often no more than a narrow ledge of the impending cliff, running terrace-like over a foaming torrent.

Still onward and upward I go, until the “foot-hills” are passed, and I enter a defile of the mountains themselves—a pass of the Mexican Andes.

I ride through, under the shadow of dark forests and rocks of blue porphyry. I emerge upon the other side of the sierra. A new scene opens before my eyes—a scene of such soft loveliness that I suddenly rein up my horse, and gaze upon it with mingled feelings of admiration and astonishment. I am looking upon one of the “valles” of Mexico, those great table-plains that lie within the Cordilleras of the Andes, thousands of feet above ocean-level, and, along with these mountains, stretching from the tropic almost to the shores of the Arctic Sea.

The plain before me is level, as though its surface were liquid. I see mountains bounding it on all sides; but there are passes through them that lead into other plains (valus). These mountains have no foot-hills. They stand up directly from the plain itself, sometimes with sloping conical sides—sometimes in precipitous cliffs.

I ride into the plain and survey its features. There is no resemblance to the land I have left—the tierra caliente. I am now in the tierra templada. New objects present themselves—a new aspect is before, a new atmosphere around me. The air is colder, but it is only the temperature of spring. To me it feels chilly, coming so lately from the hot lands below; and I fold my cloak closely around me, and ride on.

The view is open, for the valu is almost treeless. The scene is no longer wild. The earth has a cultivated aspect—an aspect of civilisation: for these high plateaux—the tierras templadas—are the seat of Mexican civilisation. Here are the towns—the great cities, with their rich cathedrals and convents—here dwells the bulk of the population. Here the rancho is built of unburnt bricks (adobe’s)—a mud cabin, often inclosed by hedges of the columnar cactus. Here are whole villages of such huts, inhabited by the dark-skinned descendants of the ancient Aztecs.

Fertile fields are around me. I behold the maguey of culture (Agave Americana), in all its giant proportions. The lance-like blades of the zea maize wave with a rich rustling in the breeze, for here that beautiful plant grows in its greatest luxuriance. Immense plains are covered with wheat, with capsicum, and the Spanish bean (frijoles). My eyes are gladdened by the sight of roses climbing along the wall or twining the portal. Here, too, the potato (Solanum tuberosum) flourishes in its native soil; the pear and the pomegranate, the quince and the apple, are seen in the orchard; and the cereals of the temperate zone grow side by side with the Cucurbitacece of the tropics.

I pass from one valu into another, by crossing a low ridge of the dividing mountains. Mark the change! A surface of green is before me, reaching on all sides to the mountain foot; and upon this roam countless herds, tended by mounted “vaqueros” (herdsmen).

I pass another ridge, and another valid stretches before me. Again a change! A desert of sand, over the surface of which move tall dun columns of swirling dust, like the gigantic phantoms of some spirit-world. I look into another valle, and behold shining waters—lakes like inland seas—with sedgy shores and surrounded by green savannas, and vast swamps covered with reeds and “tulares” (bulrush).

Still another plain, black with lava and the scoriae of extinct volcanoes—black, treeless, and herbless—with not an atom of organic matter upon its desolate surface.

Such are the features of the plateau-land—varied, and vast, and full of wild interest.

I leave it and climb higher—nearer to the sky—up the steep sides of the Cordilleras—up to the tierra fria.

I stand ten thousand feet above the level of the ocean. I am under the deep shadows of a forest. Huge trunks grow around me, hindering a distant view. Where am I? Not in the tropic, surely, for these trees are of a northern sylva. I recognise the gnarled limbs and lobed leaves of the oak, the silvery branches of the mountain-ash, the cones and needles of the pine. The wind, as it swirls among the dead leaves, causes me to shiver; and high up among the twigs there is the music of winter in its moaning. Yet I am in the torrid zone; and the same sun that now glances coldly through the boughs of the oak, but a few hours before scorched me as it glistened from the fronds of the palm-tree.

The forest opens, and I behold hills under culture—fields of hemp and flax, and the hardy cereals of the frigid zone. The rancho of the husbandman is a log cabin, with shingled roof and long projecting eaves, unlike the dwellings either of the great valus or the tierras calientes. I pass the smoking pits of the “carbonero”, and I meet the “arriero” with his “atajo” of mules heavily laden with ice of the glaciers. They are passing with their cargoes, to cool the wine-cups in the great cities of the plains.

Upward and upward! The oak is left behind, and the pine grows stunted and dwarfish. The wind blows colder and colder. A wintry aspect is around me.

Upward still. The pine disappears. No vegetable form is seen save the mosses and lichens that cling to the rocks, as within the Arctic Circle. I am on the selvage of the snow—the eternal snow. I walk upon glaciers, and through their translucent mass I behold the lichens growing beneath.

The scene is bleak and desolate, and I am chilled to the marrow of my bones.

Excelsior! excelsior! The highest point is not yet reached. Through drifts of snow and over fields of ice, up steep ledges, along the slippery escarpment that overhangs the giddy abysm, with wearied knees, and panting breath, and frozen fingers, onward and upward I go. Ha! I have won the goal. I am on the summit!

I stand on the “cumbre” of Orizava—the mountain of the “burning star”—more than three miles above the ocean level. My face is turned to the east, and I look downward. The snow, the cincture of lichens and naked rocks, the dark belt of pines, the lighter foliage of the oaks, the fields of barley, the waving maize, the thickets of yucca and acacia trees, the palm forest, the shore, the sea itself with its azure waves—all these at a single vision! From the summit of Orizava to the shores of the Mexican Sea, I glance through every gradation of the thermal line. I am looking, as it were, from the pole to the equator!

I am alone. My brain is giddy. My pulse vibrates irregularly, and my heart beats with an audible distinctness. I am oppressed with a sense of my own nothingness—an atom, almost invisible, upon the breast of the mighty earth.

I gaze and listen. I see, but I hear not. Here is sight, but no sound. Around me reigns an awful stillness—the sublime silence of the Omnipotent, who alone is here.

Hark! the silence is broken! Was it the rumbling of thunder? No. It was the crash of the falling avalanche. I tremble at its voice. It is the voice of the Invisible—the whisper of a God!

I tremble and worship.

Reader, could you thus stand upon the summit of Orizava, and look down to the shores of the Mexican Gulf, you would have before you, as on a map, the scene of our “adventures.”


Note 1. Anahuac is Mexico.

Note 2. Jornada is a day’s journey.

Note 3. Pescador is a fisherman.

Note 4. Vomito is yellow-fever.

Note 5. Mexico is divided into three regions, known as the “hot” (caliente), “temperate” (templada), and “cold” (fria).

Note 6. Carbonero is charcoal-burner.

Note 7. Arriero is mule-driver.

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