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Chapter 9 - The Rifle Rangers by Mayne Reid

Scouting in the Chaparral

Between the shores of the Mexican Gulf and the “foot-hills” (piedmont) of the great chain of the Andes lies a strip of low lands. In many places this belt is nearly a hundred miles in breadth, but generally less than fifty. It is of a tropical character, termed in the language of the country tierra caliente. It is mostly covered with jungly forests, in which are found the palm, the tree-ferns, the mahogany and india-rubber trees, dyewoods, canes, llianas, and many other gigantic parasites. In the underwood you meet thorny aloes, the “pita” plant, and wild mezcal; various Cactacese, and flora of singular forms, scarcely known to the botanist. There are swamps, dark and dank, overshadowed by the tall cypress, with its pendent streamers of silvery moss (Tillandsia usneoïdes). From these arise the miasma—the mother of the dreaded “vomito.”

This unhealthy region is but thinly inhabited; but here you meet with people of the African race, and nowhere else in Mexico. In the towns—and there are but few—you see the yellow mulatto, and the pretty quadroon with her black waving hair; but in the spare settlements of the country you meet with a strange race—the cross of the negro with the ancient inhabitants of the country—the “zamboes.”

Along the coast and in the black country, behind Vera Cruz, you will find these people living a half-indolent, half-savage life, as small cultivators, cattle-herds, fishermen, or hunters. In riding through the forest you may often chance upon such a picture as the following:—

There is an opening in the woods that presents an aspect of careless cultivation—a mere patch cleared out of the thick jungle—upon which grow yams, the sweet-potato (Convolvulus batata), chilé, melons, and the calabash. On one side of the clearing there is a hut—a sort of shed. A few upright poles forked at their tops; a few others laid horizontally upon them; a thatch of palm leaves to shadow the burning rays of the sun—that is all.

In this shadow there are human beings—men, women, children. They wear rude garments of white cotton cloth; but they are half-naked, and their skins are dark, almost black. Their hair is woolly and frizzled. They are not Indians, they are not negroes, they are “zamboes”—a mixture of both. They are coarse-featured, and coarsely clad. You would find it difficult, at a little distance, to distinguish their sex, did you not know that those who swing in the hammocks and recline indolently upon the palm-mats (petatés) are the men, and those who move about and do the work are the females. One of the former occasionally stimulates the activity of the latter by a stroke of the “cuarto” (mule-whip).

A few rude implements of furniture are in the shed: a “metaté” on which the boiled maize is ground for the “tortilla” cakes; some “ollas” (pots) of red earthenware; dishes of the calabash; a rude hatchet or two; a “macheté”; a banjo made from the gourd-shell; a high-peaked saddle, with bridle and “lazo”; strings of red-pepper pods hanging from the horizontal beams—not much more. A lank dog on the ground in front; a lean “mustang” tied to the tree; a couple of “burros” (donkeys); and perhaps a sorry galled mule in an inclosure adjoining.

The zambo enjoys his dolce far niente while his wife does his work—what work there is, but that is not much. There is an air of neglect that impresses you; an air of spontaneity about the picture—for the yams and the melons, and the chilé-plants, half choked with weeds, seem to grow without culture, and the sun gives warmth, so as to render almost unnecessary the operations of the spindle and the loom.

The forest opens again, and another picture—a prettier one—presents itself. It bears the aspect of a better cultivation, though still impressing you with ideas of indolence and neglect. This picture is the “rancho”, the settlement of the small farmer, or “vaquero” (cattle-herd). Its form is that of an ordinary house, with gables and sloping roof, but its walls are peculiar. They are constructed of gigantic bamboo canes, or straight poles of the Fouquiera splendens. These are laced together by cords of the “pita” aloe; but the interstices between are left open, so as freely to admit the breeze. Coolness, not warmth, is the object of these buildings. The roof is a thatch of palm-leaves, and with far-impending eaves casts off the heavy rain of the tropics. The appearance is striking—more picturesque even than the chalet of Switzerland.

There is but little furniture within. There is no table; there are few chairs, and these of raw hide nailed upon a rude frame. There are bedsteads of bamboo; the universal tortilla-stone; mats of palm-leaf; baskets of the same material; a small altar-like fireplace in the middle of the floor; a bandolin hanging by the wall; a saddle of stamped leather, profusely ornamented with silver nails and plates; a hair bridle, with huge Mameluke bit; an escopette and sword, or macheté; an endless variety of gaily-painted bowls, dishes, and cups, but neither knife, fork, nor spoon. Such are the movables of a “rancho” in the tierra caliente.

You may see the ranchero by the door, or attending to his small, wiry, and spirited horse, outside. The man himself is either of Spanish blood or a “mestizo” (half-breed). He is rarely a pure Indian, who is most commonly a peon or labourer, and who can hardly be termed a “ranchero” in its proper sense.

The ranchero is picturesque—his costume exceedingly so. His complexion is swarthy, his hair is black, and his teeth are ivory white. He is often moustached, but rarely takes the trouble to trim or keep these ornaments in order. His whisker is seldom bushy or luxuriant. His trousers (calzoneros) are of green or dark velvet, open down the outside seams, and at the bottoms overlaid with stamped black leather, to defend the ankles of the wearer against the thorny chaparral. A row of bell buttons, often silver, close the open seams when the weather is cold. There are wide drawers (calzoncillos) of fine white cotton underneath; and these puff out through the seams, forming a tasty contrast with the dark velvet. A silken sash, generally of scarlet colour, encircles the waist; and its fringed ends hang over the hips. The hunting-knife is stuck under it. There is a short jacket of velveteen, tastefully embroidered and buttoned; a white cambric shirt, elaborately worked and plaited; and over all a heavy, broad-brimmed hat (sombrero), with silver or gold band, and tags of the same material sticking out from the sides. He wears boots of red leather, and huge spurs with bell rowels; and he is never seen without the “seraph”. The last is his bed, his blanket, his cloak, and his umbrella.

His wife may be seen moving about the rancho, or upon her knees before the metaté kneading tortillas, and besmearing them with chilé Colorado (red capsicum). She wears a petticoat or skirt of a naming bright colour, very short, showing her well-turned but stockingless ankles, with her small slippered feet. Her arms, neck, and part of her bosom are nude, but half concealed by the bluish-grey scarf (rebozo) that hangs loosely over her head.

The ranchero leads a free, easy life, burthened with few cares. He is the finest rider in the world, following his cattle on horseback, and never makes even the shortest journey on foot. He plays upon the bandolin, sings an Andalusian ditty, and is fond of chingarito (mezcal whisky) and the “fandango.”

Such is the ranchero of the tierra caliente around Vera Cruz, and such is he in all other parts of Mexico, from its northern limits to the Isthmus.

But in the tierra caliente you may also see the rich planter of cotton, or sugar-cane, or cocoa (cacao), or the vanilla bean. His home is the “hacienda”. This is a still livelier picture. There are many fields inclosed and tilled. They are irrigated by the water from a small stream. Upon its banks there are cocoa-trees; and out of the rich moist soil shoot up rows of the majestic plantain, whose immense yellow-green leaves, sheathing the stem and then drooping gracefully over, render it one of the most ornamental productions of the tropics, as its clustering legumes of farinaceous fruit make it one of the most useful. Low walls, white or gaily painted, appear over the fields, and a handsome spire rises above the walls. That is the “hacienda” of the planter—the “rico” of the tierra caliente, with its out-buildings and chapel belfry. You approach it through scenes of cultivation. “Peons”, clad in white cotton and reddish leathern garments, are busy in the fields. Upon their heads are broad-brimmed hats, woven from the leaf of the sombrero palm. Their legs are naked, and upon their feet are tied rude sandals (guarachés) with leathern thongs. Their skins are dark, though not black; their eyes are wild and sparkling; their looks grave and solemn; their hair coarse, long, and crow-black; and, as they walk, their toes turn inward. Their downcast looks, their attitudes and demeanour, impress you with the conviction that they are those who carry the water and hew the wood of the country. It is so. They are the “Indios mansos” (the civilised Indians): slaves, in fact, though freemen by the letter of the law. They are the “peons”, the labourers, the serfs of the land—the descendants of the conquered sons of Anahuac.

Such are the people you find in the tierra caliente of Mexico—in the environs of Vera Cruz. They do not differ much from the inhabitants of the high plains, either in costume, customs, or otherwise. In fact, there is a homogeneousness about the inhabitants of all Spanish America—making allowance for difference of climate and other peculiarities—rarely found in any other people.

Before daybreak of the morning after my interview with the “swearing major”, a head appeared between the flaps of my tent. It was that of Sergeant Bob Lincoln.

“The men air under arms, Cap’n.”

“Very well,” cried I, leaping from my bed, and hastily buckling on my accoutrements.

I looked forth. The moon was still brightly shining, and I could see a number of uniformed men standing upon the company parade, in double rank. Directly in front of my tent a small boy was saddling a very small horse. The boy was “Little Jack”, as the soldiers called him; and the horse was little Jack’s mustang, “Twidget.”

Jack wore a tight-fitting green jacket, trimmed with yellow lace, and buttoned up to the throat; pantaloons of light green, straight cut, and striped along the seams; a forage-cap set jauntily upon a profusion of bright curls; a sabre with a blade of eighteen inches, and a pair of clinking Mexican spurs. Besides these, he carried the smallest of all rifles. Thus armed and accoutred, he presented the appearance of a miniature Ranger.

Twidget had his peculiarities. He was a tight, wiry little animal, that could live upon mezquite beans or maguey leaves for an indefinite time; and his abstemiousness was often put to the test. Afterwards, upon an occasion during the battles in the valley of Mexico, Jack and Twidget had somehow got separated, at which time the mustang had been shut up for four days in the cellar of a ruined convent with no other food than stones and mortar! How Twidget came by his name is not clear. Perhaps it was some waif of the rider’s own fancy.

As I appeared at the entrance of my tent, Jack had just finished strapping on his Mexican saddle; and seeing me, up he ran to assist in serving my breakfast. This was hastily despatched, and our party took the route in silence through the sleeping camp. Shortly after, we were joined by the major, mounted on a tall, raw-boned horse; while a darkie, whom the major addressed as “Doc”, rode a snug, stout cob, and carried a large basket. This last contained the major’s commissariat.

We were soon travelling along the Orizava road, the major and Jack riding in advance. I could not help smiling at the contrast between these two equestrians; the former with his great gaunt horse, looming up in the uncertain light of the morning like some huge centaur; while Jack and Twidget appeared the two representatives of the kingdom of Lilliput.

On turning an angle of the forest, a horseman appeared at some distance along the road. The major gradually slackened his pace, until he was square with the head of the column, and then fell back into the rear. This manoeuvre was executed in the most natural manner, but I could plainly see that the mounted Mexican had caused the major no small degree of alarm.

The horseman proved to be a zambo, in pursuit of cattle that had escaped from a neighbouring corral. I put some inquiries to him in relation to the object of our expedition. The zambo pointed to the south, saying in Spanish that mules were plenty in that direction.

“Hay muchos, muchissimos,” (There are many), said he, as he indicated a road which led through a strip of forest on our left.

Following his direction, we struck into the new path, which soon narrowed into a bridle-road or trail. The men were thrown into single file, and marched à l’Indienne. The road darkened, passing under thick-leaved trees, that met and twined over our heads.

At times the hanging limbs and joined parasites caused the major to flatten his huge body upon the horn of the saddle; and once or twice he was obliged to alight, and walk under the impeding branches of the thorny acacias.

Our journey continued without noise, silence being interrupted only by an occasional oath from the major—uttered, however, in a low tone, as we were now fairly “in the woods”. The road at length opened upon a small prairie or glade, near the borders of which rose a “butte”, covered with chaparral.

Leaving the party in ambuscade below, I ascended the butte, to obtain a view of the surrounding country. The day had now fairly broken, and the sun was just rising over the blue waters of the Gulf.

His rays, prinkling over the waves, caused them to dance and sparkle with a metallic brightness; and it was only after shading my eyes that I could distinguish the tall masts of ships and the burnished towers of the city.

To the south and west stretched a wide expanse of champaign country, glowing in all the brilliance of tropical vegetation. Fields of green, and forests of darker green; here and there patches of yellow, and belts of olive-coloured leaves; at intervals a sheet of silver—the reflection from a placid lake, or the bend of some silent stream—was visible upon the imposing picture at my feet.

A broad belt of forest, dotted with the lifelike frondage of the palm, swept up to the foot of the hill. Beyond this lay an open tract of meadow, or prairie, upon which were browsing thousands of cattle. The distance was too great to distinguish their species; but the slender forms of some of them convinced me that the object of our search would be found in that direction.

The meadow, then, was the point to be reached.

The belt of forest already mentioned must be crossed; and to effect this I struck into a trail that seemed to lead in the direction of the meadow.

The trail became lighter as we entered the heavy timber. Some distance farther on we reached a stream. Here the trail entirely disappeared. No “signs” could be found on the opposite bank. The underwood was thick; and vines, with broad green leaves and huge clusters of scarlet flowers, barred up the path like a wall.

It was strange! The path had evidently led to this point, but where beyond?

Several men were detached across the stream to find an opening. After a search of some minutes a short exclamation from Lincoln proclaimed success; I crossed over, and found the hunter standing near the bank, holding back a screen of boughs and vine-leaves, beyond which a narrow but plain track was easily distinguished, leading on into the forest. The trellis closed like a gate, and it seemed as if art had lent a hand to the concealment of the track. The footprints of several horses were plainly visible in the sandy bottom of the road.

The men entered in single file. With some difficulty Major Blossom and his great horse squeezed themselves through, and we moved along under the shady and silent woods.

After a march of several miles, fording numerous streams, and working our way through tangled thickets of nopal and wild maguey, an opening suddenly appeared through the trees. Emerging from the forest, a brilliant scene burst upon us. A large clearing, evidently once cultivated, but now in a state of neglect, stretched out before us. Broad fields, covered with flowers of every hue—thickets of blooming rose-trees—belts of the yellow helianthus—and groups of cocoa-trees and half-wild plantains, formed a picture singular and beautiful.

On one side, and close to the border of the forest, could be seen the roof of a house, peering above groves of glistening foliage, and thither we marched.

We entered a lane, with its guardarayas of orange-trees planted in rows upon each side, and meeting overhead.

The sunlight fell through this leafy screen with a mellowed and delicious softness, and the perfume of flowers was wafted on the air.

The rich music of birds was around us; and the loveliness of the scene was heightened by the wild neglect which characterised it.

On approaching the house we halted; and after charging the men to remain silent, I advanced alone to reconnoitre.

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