AHEAD OF THE RAIN
After I returned to Ajoya from my brief visit to California in early June, it took me several days to get underway to Verano with my cargo. Dimas Lomas had once again offered to transport my supplies, but at first I could not locate him and then, as ever, he could not locate his mules. As the days passed I began to get more concerned. First, the weather! It was my hope to get all my supplies for summer and early fall up to Verano before las aguas began, and there were all the signs that the rain would begin early. Nearly every afternoon for more than a month dark clouds had built up over the mountains to the north-east and sometimes they had covered the entire sky. It was reported to have already rained hard higher in the mountains, and even in Ajoya there had been days of preliminary drizzles, called agüita as well as several short showers. There were nights when the flashes of lightning were so consecutive that one could easily walk over the roughest terrain without a light. Everyone was delighted, and said, “¡Habrá mucha agua en esta temporada!” (There will be a lot of rain this rainy season!)… Yet if the heavy rains came before I got my supplies up to Verano, not only would the short-cut via the Arroyo de Verano become impassable, requiring me to make the loop past Jocuixtita, half again as long and with more hard climbing, but I would run the risk of soaking my cargo in the cloudbursts or the flooding river. The medicines I had in water-tight cases, but not so the clothing, blankets, school supplies, and milk. . . Another cause for concern was that on June 24th, “El Día de San Juan”, Dimas and everyone else who owned mules would be turning them over on rent to campesinos for use in plowing when the rain softened the soil. Past June 24th, therefore, it would be almost impossible for me to secure the animals I needed to transport my cargo, and that date was now approaching fast.
At last, on June 21st, Dimas turned up in the morning with five mules. Three were his own, and as he still had been unable to track down his remaining mules, he had borrowed two machos (males) from Chuy Manjarréz. But now there was a new hangup: Dimas apologized and said he would be unable to go himself, as he had to attend the funeral of an aunt who had just died in Culiacán.
With this news, Goyo’s brother, Martín, who had arrived early from Las Chicuras with Goyo to help me pack, took off on the run to see if his father would help me drive the mule team to Verano. Although Remedios had been planning to leave himself that day for Candelero to hunt for a mule for plowing, in less than two hours he arrived in Ajoya, all set to go with me. As we had only one mule with a saddle, we quickly set about looking for another, so that we both might travel mounted. We called at half the houses in Ajoya, apparently with no success, and Remedios was resigning himself to go on foot when two mules were sent simultaneously from two different casas.
“Whoopee!” cried Goyo, “I can go too!” His father hesitated, then nodded his consent. Martín, who was quietly helping lash the cargo on one of the mules, ducked his head slightly, but said nothing.
“Y Martín?” I asked Remedios, “No puede ir también?” (Can’t Martín go too?)
“Pues, como no,” said Remedios, “Pero tiene que ir a pie.” (But he’ll have to go on foot.) And turning to the fourteen-year-old he asked, “Quieres ir, Martín?” (Do you want to go?)
Martín could not conceal his delight. “¡Sí!” he grinned.
It was nearly noon by the time we set off. We decided to go only as far as Bordontita, spend the night, and continue on the next day to Verano, returning all the way the following day (June 23) to Ajoya–a hard push, but we had to have the mules back by the 24th. Our pack mules were not the most manageable. One of them, a huge black macho, took off on a side path before we were even out of Ajoya. It crossed the river and traveled some distance downstream before Martín succeeded in circling ahead to herd it back. Martín rejoined us, dripping from the waist down with river-water and from the waist up with sweat, for the temperature was near 100º F. One of his sandals he carried in his hand, the cord having broken during the pursuit. Goyo, atop his small palomino mule, laughed with delight at his brother’s appearance. And so did Martín, for he was glad to be of help.
Leaving Bordonita the next morning we might have made an early start, but again the black macho with his headstrong homing instinct escaped from us and took off at a. gallop back in the direction of Ajoya. Remedios and Martín chased after it while Goyo and I rounded up the remaining mules and tied them securely. Hours later, the mule retrieved, we continued our journey up river.
In Bordontita we were warned that it had rained in Verano and the trail following the arroyo down to the river was muy feo in places. However, we were told, it was still passable, as long as it didn’t rain again. We determined to chance it, for, if we were to get back by the 23rd we did not have time to take the longer route.
Although the river was muddy with the runoff from the hills we stopped for a swim and a bath before entering the Arroyo de Verano. The water-level in the arroyo had dropped since the rain, but some of the stretches where the trail followed the stream bed were made difficult by washouts or deep deposits of soft mud… Martín was walking on foot. Part of the time he had been riding en ancas behind Goyo on the mule, but he became irritated because Goyo had several times made the mule rear so that Martín, on the rump behind the saddle, had to hang on for all he was worth. Martín said that if he fell, the mule might kick him, and it was safer to walk. So walk he did, one foot sandaled and the other bare, for miles, and was a little proud of himself for doing so.
At one point along the trail when I was bringing up the rear, Goyo suddenly reined in his mule and turning to me with a grin asked, “¿No quieres leche?” at the moment we were passing a number of range cattle, and one of the cows had an udder temptingly full. I was debating whether to say yes or no when Goyo, a piece of rope in his single hand, bounced off his mule and tore after the cow, which bounded away in the opposite direction. The cow circled around a thorny clump of bushes and headed back in my direction, Goyo close behind. I swatted my mule so that it danced forward, causing the cow to stop an instant in wonderment. That instant was all that was needed. Goyo caught hold of one hind leg, and a moment later, using his feet, teeth, and single hand, had managed to bind the baffled bovine’s two hind legs together. The cow and I looked on in astonished silence.
“¡Bajase pa’ tomar leche!” shouted Goyo, looking enormously pleased. I laughed and climbed down off my mount. I knelt by the cow and Goyo squirted the warm milk into my mouth, laughing all the while. When I’d had my fill I went to the stream to wash my face, beard, and hair, for Goyo—rather intentionally, I think—had been none too accurate with his aim… After he drank, Goyo untied the cow and we remounted, setting off at a gallop where the trail allowed, to catch up with the others.
We were approaching a spot where the stream plummets in a narrow, spouting falls for some 40 feet into a deep pool, and were going slowly of necessity because of rocks and mud, when Goyo, looking ahead, cried, “¡Mira! ¡Se cayó un macho!” (Look, a mule has fallen!) There, ahead of us to the side of the falls was the floundering mule. Remedios was standing beside it looking worried. Goyo whipped his animal to hurry, and I followed suit.
“¡No puede levantarse!” (It can’t get up), said Remedios as we drew rein. I asked if the mule had broken a leg. Remedios said he didn’t know, and added, “¡Se atasco!” (It’s stuck!), and pointing to the soft mud in which the animal lay wide-eyed, said, “¡Una ciénega!” (Quicksand.)
The small bog was only a little wider than the laden mule, and flanked on either side by protruding boulders. Perched on the stones we managed to unlash the cargo–which included two 50 pound duffles of powdered milk and two other sacks of clothing and blankets–and lifted them to the side. Then, pulling the halter, Remedios tried to make the mule fight its way out of the loose mud. The mule made a few feeble efforts and then remained quiet, its head thrown back and the whites of its eyes gleaming with fear. Remedios began to beat the animal unmercifully with his leather pial. Harder and harder he beat it, until he was streaming sweat and the mule was rearing its head from side-to-side in agony. At last, with an enormous, thrashing effort, the mule managed to stumble forward and out of the quicksand. We led it, dripping mud, up over the rough stretch to a small clearing, and there relashed the cargo.
For more than are hour now, the sun had been concealed behind fast building clouds, and as we were repacking, a crash of thunder announced the oncoming storm.
“Va a llover.” said Remedios, looking up at the dark sky through the narrow slit in the high canyon walls flanking the arroyo. “Tenemos que apurarnos.” (We must hurry.)
And hurry we did, as much as we could over the rugged trail. We splashed through the stream, plowed across mud deposits, scrambled our mules up smooth channels of rock down which the stream cascaded. The thunder continued to rumble and the sky to darken, although it was still only mid-afternoon. Our concern, now, was not only for our cargo. If the storm came quickly and was heavy, we might well be trapped in the narrow canyon by a flash flood. I remembered Irineo’s account of how this same stream, now so small, had left its banks, uprooting giant fig trees over a meter in diameter, and carrying in its tumultuous wake “un chorro de reses ahogados” (a torrent of drowned cattle). On the rock walls to either side of us, well over our heads; we could see the high waterline of the floods from previous years.
At last the canyon widened to form a steep valley, and we arrived at the rancho of Irineo Vidaca. No more than ten minutes after we had finished unloading the animals the storm broke. The rain streamed off the tiles of the roof in a translucent curtain of water, gushed down the mountainside and around the house and poured into the arroyo. Within fifteen minutes from the start of the rain, the arroyo had risen over two feet, here below the casa where the banks are wider. There in the canyon who knows what it was like! We had been lucky.
As we sat in the portal looking out at the deluge, old Irineo told us of a time, several years ago, when a group of children followed by their mothers were making their way down the arroyo toward the river some 8 km. below to wash their clothes, for it was near the end of Las Secas and the arroyo was reduced to a few puddles, scarcely enough to provide drinking water. Although the sun was shining brightly where they left, higher up in the mountains an early storm had hit the headwaters of the arroyo, and the run-off converged on the arroyo. At the moment when the waters came rushing past Verano, the frolicking children had strayed far ahead of their mothers into the canyon. The mothers, who had entered only a short distance into the steep-walled part of the canyon when the flash flood hit them, managed to fight their way back upstream to where they could climb out to refuge before the water rose beyond coping with. There they waited desperately for the waters to subside. But at dusk the arroyo was still flooded and the terrified mothers returned to their casas to seek the aid of their men folk. They had no more than arrived, however, when the children came running up, laughing with the excitement of the day. As luck would have it the flood had caught them at a point where the canyon widens and a small, precipitous trail scales its flank and leads off in the direction of Las Calaveras and Pueblo Viejo. The children had scampered up the trail to the top of the canyon and slowly made their way back to Verano por los altos (via the ridges).
As we Stood in the portal, looking out, the rain continued to pelt down, the arroyo continued to rise. Irineo told us that another time, a few years ago in the month of May, an arriero (burro driver) and his two sons were driving a train of ten burros and two or three mules up the arroyo when a freak flood came rushing down the arroyo at them in a wall of water two meters high. The father and his sons caught hold of descending roots of a Tescalama (type of fig) growing from a crack in the rock cliff, and hoisted themselves out of reach of the flood. Five minutes after the flood the arroyo was again seco de atiro (stone dry), but the entire train of donkeys and mules had been drowned. The arriero and his sons spent the next day hunting up and down the arroyo for the bits and pieces of their cargo, and recovered the parajos and gamarras from their dead animals. “¡Se pone muy feo a veces, el arroyo!” (It gets pretty ugly at times!) concluded Irineo.
The rain continued to pour down. This was the first violent storm in Verano this rainy season, and it was good luck that I happened to be here when it came. Although I had been assured that the grain shed,, where I had my medicines arranged on improvised shelves, did not leak, when I entered it during the cloudburst it was like entering a cold shower. I called to Irineo’s nephew, Alvaro, who scrambled onto the platform under the roof and begin reshifting the tiles, while I hurriedly rearranged my belongings to keep them as dry as possible. With luck we caught the leaking just as the downpour began, and nothing was seriously damaged.
After half an hour or so the rain subsided to a drizzle. On the opposite side of the arroyo the children of Bonifacio ran out into the muddy yard to play and shout. Their frolicking was too much for Goyo, who set off to cross the arroyo to join them. Martín and I both called to him, for his father was out back at the moment. We warned him not to cross, for although the rushing brown waters were at the moment only waist deep (no threat to Goyo who is used to crossing the flooded river at Ajoya), the arroyo might continue to rise, and he might not be able to return. Goyo, however, paid our warnings no heed, and taking off his sandals and his pants, waded out into the rushing stream. Feeling his way among the rocks and roots of the bottom he passed the swirling water with utter fearlessness. Remedios arrived on the scene just in time to see Goyo trot out on the far bank, was about to shout to him, and then shook his head and let him go…
Where Goyo goes excitement frequently follows. A short time after he crossed the stream, in the dusk, we heard triques and cohetes (firecrackers and rockets) being fired off on the far side. The arroyo continued to grow as night fell. It had risen at least another foot from the time Goyo had crossed. And now the rain began to fall again. more heavily. Still no sign of Goyo. Remedios stood in the portallooking out into the dark, a worried but resigned look on his thin, scarred face. Bringing up Goyo had not been easy!
I remembered some weeks before in Ajoya when Goyo, lying to me, insisted that his parents had given him permission to spend the night in Ajoya, and I loaned him a blanket on which he curled up on the floor in the casa Chavarin. Back in Las Chicuras, his worried parents waited up for him until after midnight, and then Remedios set off to look for him, fearing he might have slipped while crossing the river or fallen in the night from the narrow cliff trail ascending from its banks. Remedios arrived at about two in the morning, found Goyo asleep on the floor, and shook him to waken him. Goyo either did not wake, or, more likely, pretended not to waken. Remedios, above all else content that Goyo was safe, left his son without disturbing him further, and made his way through the dark night across the river to Las Chicuras. The next day it was I, not his parents, who scolded Goyo for his mistruth. Since the loss of his arm Goyo has been, without question, spoiled. His parents are frank to admit it, and to explain their lenience relate of another child they knew of who, like Goyo, had had his hand amputated. Two years afterward, “because the child’s parents had continued to spank and reprimand him”, “le cayó cancer” (cancer struck him) and he died.
Because of their dread fear of cancer, Goyo’s parents are hesitant to raise a finger against him. “Cancer”, it seems, is one of those mysterious modern diseases, the news of which has come up from the cities below. No one is too sure just what it is, and for this reason it is all .. the more terrifying. The villagers know that people die of it, and deaths which are unaccountable in other terms are therefore quickly accredited to it. As the undoubtable cause of otherwise unexplained mortality cancer is the enlightened villager’s substitute for witchcraft. However, the cause of the cancer must also be known before the people can sleep easy, for they must know what precautions to take. Luckily there are always knowledgeable persons to make up sensible-sounding teleologies—as, in this case, the spanking of the amputated child. The unquestioning acceptance of such explanations by Goyo’s parents is typical.
As the night in Verano grew darker and the rain continued to fall, Goyo’s father became increasingly nervous. At last, unable to stand still any longer, he walked out into the wet darkness and made his way toward the still rising waters of the arroyo. As he neared the stream I heard him call back to me, “¡Hijo de la fregada! ¡Aquí esta!” And sure enough, Goyo had just emerged out of the tumultuous arroyo atop a mule he had borrowed from Bonifacio, and was trying to chase it back to the other side. The mule was already in the water again, and Goyo was hurling rocks at it to make it hurry. Bonifacio, standing on the other side in the rain, was waiting to receive it. Remedios and Goyo returned to the house arm in arm, both of them wet and laughing.
That night Remedios, Martín, and Goyo slept on the floor of the portal under a single blanket. Neither Martín nor Remedios slept much, for an incisor tooth which Martín broke a year ago, and which had subsequently turned bluish, was hurting so much that he wept most of the night. Previously the pain had frequently been checked with aspirin I had given him, but this time even Darvon proved inadequate. By morning a portion of Martín’s face was badly swollen. I started him on tetracycline, and determined to take him to San Ignacio to get the tooth extracted at the first opportunity.
In the morning, the sky was clear and the water in the arroyo had dropped nearly to the level of the day before. Although we had no idea whether the river below would be flooded, we decided to chance going back down the arroyo. There were some new and difficult washouts, but the trail was not much more difficult than it had been coming up, and we traveled more quickly for lack of cargo. When we arrived at the river some two hours later we found that it was indeed in flood, but not so much as to be impassable on mule back. At this point Remedios borrowed one of the mules and left on a shortcut for Candelero. Now that the heavier rains had begun, he was afraid if he put off going any longer he would not be able to make it, and he was counting on securing a mule for plowing from his father there. Remedios set off upstream, and the two boys and I, downstream, driving the empty pack mules ahead of us.
The river crossings were fierce enough to make the trip great fun. Of the thirty-two fords from the arroyo junction to Bordontita, many were so deep as to come half way up the bodies of the mules. At each vado Martín, who was balanced atop the broad parejo (pack-saddle) of one of the pack-mules, hung on for all he was worth, grinning quietly. Meanwhile Goyo—hoisting up his feet as the swirling brown water reached nearly to the back of his small, strong mule—could scarcely contain himself, and whooped and shrieked with laughter.
The pack mules gave us no problems this time, as they knew they were headed homeward. One of the mules took off ahead of us and arrived nearly half an hour before we did. In the afternoon it clouded over once again, and a kilometer or so before arriving in Ajoya we were caught in a downpour. The mules began to run and we let them. We arrived tired and laughing.