CHAPTER I. INTO THE COOLER SOUTH
You are really in Mexico before you get there. Laredo is a purely - though not pure - Mexican town with a slight American tinge. Scores of dull-skinned men wander listlessly about trying to sell sticks of candy and the like from boards carried on their heads. There are not a dozen shops where the clerks speak even good pidgin English, most signs are in Spanish, the lists of voters on the walls are chiefly of Iberian origin, the very county officers from sheriff down - or up - are names the average American could not pronounce, and the saunterer in the streets may pass hours without hearing a word of English. Even the post-office employees speak Spanish by preference and I could not do the simplest business without resorting to that tongue. I am fond of Spanish, but I do not relish being forced to use it in my own country.
On Laredo's rare breeze rides enough dust to build a new world. Every street is inches deep in it, everything in town, including the minds of the inhabitants, is covered with it. As to heat - "Cincinnati Slim" put it in a nutshell even as we wandered in from the cattleyards where the freight train had dropped us in the small hours: "If ever hell gets full this'll do fine for an annex."
Luckily my window in the ruin that masqueraded as a hotel faced such wind as existed. The only person I saw in that institution during twenty-four hours there was a little Mexican boy with a hand-broom, which he evidently carried as an ornament or a sign of office. It seemed a pity not to let Mexico have the dust-laden, sweltering place if they want it so badly.
I had not intended to lug into Mexico such a load as I did. But it was a Jewish holiday, and the pawnshops were closed. As I passed the lodge on the north end of the bridge over the languid, brown Rio Grande it was a genuine American voice that snapped: "Heh! A nickel!"
Just beyond, but thirty-six minutes earlier, the Mexican official stopped me with far more courtesy, and peered down into the corners of my battered "telescope" without disturbing the contents.
"Monterey?" he asked.
"No revolver?" he queried suspiciously.
"No, senor," I answered, keeping the coat on my arm unostentatiously over my hip pocket. It wasn't a revolver; it was an automatic.
The man who baedekerized Mexico says Nuevo Laredo is not the place to judge that country. I was glad to hear it. Its imitation of a street-car, eight feet long, was manned by two tawny children without uniforms, nor any great amount of substitute for them, who smoked cigarettes incessantly as we crawled dustily through the baked-mud hamlet to the decrepit shed that announced itself the station of the National Railways of Mexico. It was closed, of course. I waited an hour or more before two officials resplendent in uniforms drifted in to take up the waiting where I had left off. But it was a real train that pulled in toward three, from far-off St. Louis, even if it had hooked on behind a second-class car with long wooden benches.
For an hour we rambled across just such land as southern Texas, endless flat sand scattered with chaparral, mesquite, and cactus; nowhere a sign of life, but for fences of one or two barb-wires on crooked sticks - not even bird life. The wind, strong and incessant as at sea, sounded as mournful through the thorny mesquite bushes as in our Northern winters, even though here it brought relief rather than suffering. The sunshine was unbrokenly glorious.
Benches of stained wood in two-inch strips ran the entire length of our car, made in Indiana. In the center were ten double back-to-back seats of the same material. The conductor was American, but as in Texas he seemed to have little to do except to keep the train moving. The auditor, brakeman, and train-boy were Mexicans, in similar uniforms, but of thinner physique and more brown of color. The former spoke fluent English. The engineer was American and the fireman a Negro.
Far ahead, on either side, hazy high mountains appeared, as at sea. By the time we halted at Lampazos, fine serrated ranges stood not far distant on either hand. From the east came a never-ceasing wind, stronger than that of the train, laden with a fine sand that crept in everywhere. Mexican costumes had appeared at the very edge of the border; now there were even a few police under enormous hats, with tight trousers and short jackets showing a huge revolver at the hip. Toward evening things grew somewhat greener. A tree six to twelve feet high, without branches, or sometimes with several trunk-like ones, growing larger from bottom to top and ending in a bristling bunch of leaves, became common. The mountains on both sides showed fantastic peaks and ridges, changing often in aspect; some, thousands of feet high with flat tableland tops, others in strange forms the imagination could animate into all manner of creatures.
A goatherd, wild, tawny, bearded, dressed in sun-faded sheepskin, was seen now and then tending his flock of little white goats in the sand and cactus. This was said to be the rainy season in northern Mexico. What must it be in the dry?
Toward five the sun set long before sunset, so high was the mountain wall on our right. The sand-storm had died down, and the sand gave way to rocks. The moon, almost full, already smiled down upon us over the wall on the left. We continued along the plain between the ranges, which later receded into the distance, as if retiring for the night. Flat, mud-colored, Palestinian adobe huts stood here and there in the moonlight among patches of a sort of palm bush.