By the end of August there was new hope in the barrancas of the Sierra Madre. Heavy storms had been lighter than usual during the summer monsoons, and seldom had the river left its banks. Yet the rains, though gentle, had been persistent, and the campesinos had begun to rejoice at the prospects of a bumper corn crop. On the slope below my new upper dispensary I, too, had my own small patch of corn, planted for me in appreciation by villagers of El Llano, about a mile away. Fertilized with bat guano from a cave high in the crags above my dispensary, my “milpa” was superb, the stalks dark green, taller than I could reach. Each day new tassels burst from their leafy cocoons to fan skywards, and tender ears of corn had begun to swell within their husks.
“All we need is one more shower,” they were saying, “so that the kernels swell full upon the ears. Just one more good storm...”
The first days of October passed without rain, skies clear. A flood of wild flowers spread across the mountain slopes. One afternoon a number of farmers, returning from their highland fields, came to rest beneath the large Royal Pine in the patio of my dispensary.
“All we need is one more shower,” they were saying, “so that the kernels swell full upon the ears. Just one more good storms..”
“And the rain is coming,” predicted one of the weather prophets, pointing to the wisps of mare’s tails that hovered over the jagged peaks of the high sierra.
How right he was: Next morning the sky was heavily overcast. Dawn came late and slow. A “quitar-frio” (small flycatcher whose song is said to predict rain) sang incessantly from the margin of the pine forest. By mid-morning the normal, drone of insect life was oddly subdued. By mid-day night began to fall, or so it seemed. Each minute the sky grew darker. A chilly breeze began to blow. Then, down from the high sierra and across the distant valley of the Rio Verde, there came a strange roar, faintly at first, then louder, closer, descending from sky earthward as if angry gods stampeded. The wind swept up from the deep valley, driving raindrops in explosive gusts. Pine trees flailed like wounded birds. Oak trees groaned and snapped. Above the roar of the storm thundered the crash of broken and uprooted trees.
I cowered under the strongest beams of my dispensary, peering out at the enraged world. The two-foot thick trunk of the pine in my patio literally flapped. Heavy clay roof tiles of my dispensary lifted like dry leaves, some from the upper level crashed upon the lower, showering broken pieces. Muddy water from disintegrating adobe streamed down the clean walls of my newly whitewashed clinic. The driving rain struck first from one side, then the other. I looked out at my corn lashing this way and that. Strong gusts from below carried huge branches and entire trees up the ravine bordering the cornfield. Leaves flew everywhere.
The wind subsided a moment, then roared again, bringing another blast more violent than the last. The hurricane lasted several hours. At last, shortly before dusk, the sky grew lighter. The wind and rain subsided.
Next morning my best friends came to see how I had fared. Many had warned me to fell the pines closest to my dispensary, but I had left them, unwilling to sacrifice their beauty for my security. But miraculously, not a single branch had fallen on the house. More miraculous still, as I soon discovered, was that my little corn patch, wind whipped as it was, alone was left standing after the storm. The rest of the milpas of the barrancas had been flattened as if by steamrollers. From many, stalks had been ripped out by the roots. In Jocuixtita several huts had also been toppled. These could be quickly rebuilt, but the crops were the big loss.
The bumper harvest was now only a dream. The campesinos shrugged their shoulders. Bad years in the barrancas are more frequent than good. Two years ago the crops were destroyed by drought; last year, by floods; this year by the wind. Again there will follow severe shortage and prolonged hunger. But the campesinos are used to tightening their belts.