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EVOLUTION OF A STATE
Under the colonization act the Texas colonists were permitted to import, duty free, everything they desired for their own use; but, in order to carry merchandise into Mexico, they were required then, as now, to pay a heavy import duty. Coffee and tobacco were contraband - the government reserving to itself the sole right to deal in those commodities. Citizens were even restricted in the cultivation of tobacco, the government, it is said, having passed an act prohibiting any one person from planting more than an almnd (one-sixth of a bushel) of tobacco seed. Traders, even in illegitimate lines, had to pay a heavy duty to get their goods into market, and a still heavier duty to get their money out; so smuggling was largely resorted to, notwithstanding the strict patrol maintained along the border. The official optic, however, was not proof against the dazzle of coin. Therefore there was little to fear from that source; the principal risk lay in the cupidity of the Mexican soldiery.
Life in the colonies becoming stale and not so profitable as I could wish, I sold out my shop down at Bell's Landing (Columbia), invested the proceeds in tobacco, and, in company with Joe McCoy, Jack Cryor, and John F. Webber, set out for Mexico on a smuggling trip.
Altogether we had about 1,000 pounds of leaf tobacco, done up in bales of 100 pounds each, which we packed on mules. The first town we struck on the Rio Grande was Laredo. Finding that some other trader had got in ahead of us and stocked the market, we proceeded on up the river to find fresh territory. On the way up one of those interminable Texas rains set in, and we were compelled to strike camp and cover up our tobacco. We ran out of food, and, there being no settlements near and no game but wild horses, the very thought of eating which sickened me, there was a prospective famine, at least for me. The other boys had been in Texas long enough to get rid of any fastidious notions about clean and unclean beasts, so when provisions ran out they killed a mustang and were provisioned for a siege. I turned from the horse-meat diet with disgust, vowing I would starve before I would eat it. I fasted two days, and still the rain god, as if enjoying the situation, continued to pour out his moist blessing with no sign of cessation. On the third day of my fast I sat hungry and disconsolate by the camp fire, while Webber was frying out some horse fat with which to grease our packs and lariats. At length, when the fat was all fried out, Webber lifted out the "cracklings," brown, light and crisp, laying them on a rock to the windward of me. I sniffed the air hungrily, and finally, when I thought the action unperceived, reached over and possessed myself of a crackling. I bit off a piece and found that it had no bad taste; on the contrary, it seemed to me no meat ever tasted better. My prejudice took wings, and I went for a horse steak which I could scarcely wait to cook, so famished was I. The boys said I was "broke in," and I ate horse meat with the rest of them; still I can't say I should do so of choice.
The weather finally cleared, and we went on up to Presidio del Norte, but the rains had raised the river and there were no boats except rawhide ones, which were not very safe, with the river a quarter of a mile wide and running with a swift current. We hid our tobacco out in the chaparral and laid around watching for some chance to cross the river.
Over opposite our camp was a goat ranch. Under pretense of getting milk, Cryor and myself swam our horses over and reconnoitered the situation, seeing which the Mexican soldiers concluded to emulate our example and investigate us. Their ponies were not strong enough to breast the current and were carried down to a point where the hank was so steep they could not effect a landing. One soldier was drowned, and the others, after drifting down lower, scrambled out. They found our tobacco and helped themselves to as much as they could conceal, making no attempt to arrest us, as their duty required. To have done so would have necessitated the surrender of the goods, which they had no intention of doing. Surmising that they proposed returning for the bulk of our cargo at their convenience, we removed it. We then paid another visit to the goat ranch and by a little tangible persuasion succeeded in getting possession of a rawhide boat, which we took across the river after dark, swimming and towing it. In the same manner we ferried the tobacco over and had it safely hidden before morning. There was more tobacco than could be disposed of advantageously in one little town, so we divided it, Webber and I taking our part up to San Fernando, Cryor and McCoy got in with the alcalde, but the custom house officers got wind of the affair and arrested the alcalde. He succeeded in giving the boys warning and they skipped out, leaving their tobacco buried in the sand.
Webber and I had better luck. Arriving at San Fernando in safety, we hunted up the only white man in the place, John Villars, and made him our confederate. Villars had been in the place several years, having gone out there during the Mexican war of independence with one Boone, who was a gunsmith, and was appointed armorer for the Mexican army. Boone dying, Villars succeeded to the position, marrying the widow, who in turn died, and was succeeded by a Mexican woman. Through the assistance of Villars we found safe hiding for our wares with an old Mexican woman, Dona Petra, who enjoyed the distinction of being the widow of a white man (one John Smith), and consequently the steadfast friend of all Americans, considering it an honor to have them make her house their home. Therefore our being domiciled there was quite a matter of course, occasioning no suspicion. We had to dispose of the tobacco in small parcels, which took time.
In order to avert any suspicion that an apparently aimless sojourn might arouse, Villars suggested that one of us should be "doctor," American doctors being in demand among the Mexicans, who had no regular physicians. I caught at the idea at once but I was so boyish looking that we feared the natives might distrust my skill, so we decided Webber must shoulder the responsibility.
Villars had a store which was the principal advertising medium in the vicinity. Its facilities were ample, and "Dr." Webber's services were soon in requisition. It was summer time, and bilious disorders prevalent. We had taken out a lot of simple medicines for our own needs, consisting for the most part of calomel, quinine, and tartar emetic. As I spoke better Spanish than the "doctor," I accompanied him on his professional visits, ostensibly as interpreter, really to see the fun and help him out if he got into deep water. With an air of importance that would have done credit to a professional, Webber noted the symptoms, shaking his head, knitting his brows, and otherwise impressing the patient with the seriousness of his condition.
Tartar emetic was the doctor's favorite prescription, and his doses were liberal. I looked on the Mexicans as scarce more than apes and could with difficulty restrain my enjoyment at the situation when the medicine got in its work, seemingly turning the poor devils inside out, they meanwhile swearing and praying alternately. And I felt no twinge of remorse for the monstrous imposition we were practicing upon them when they finally emerged from the doctor's heroic treatment looking as dry and shrunken as so many pods of chili colorado (their favorite article of diet), and loaded him with thanks for his ministrations. I managed to keep down my risibles while in attendance on the patients, but I gave full vent to them when I got back to Villars' store and rehearsed the performance for his benefit. The doctor's fame went abroad and he soon had a large practice, just the same as impostors of the present day. Occasionally he varied his treatment by bleeding, though between the red pepper with which the natives plied the inner man, and the hot summer sun beating on the thinly clad outer surface, blood-letting seemed something of a paradox. The only case we ever had which baffled Dr. Webber's skill was that of an old Mexican woman, fat as only a Mexican woman can get. The doctor decided she needed depletion, so he corded her arm, but here he encountered a difficulty for which his practice furnished no precedent: the vein was too deeply imbedded in the fat to be discernible to the eye, and his knowledge of anatomy did not enable him to otherwise locate it with any degree of accuracy; therefore the only resource was to prospect for it. He jabbed the lancet in several times, but either from failure to get his bearings right, a miscalculation of the capacity of his lancet, or the thickness of the stratum of fat, it had no more effect than if he had stuck it into a fat porker, and he had to fall back on tartar emetic.
When not "professionally" engaged I divided my time between the study of the Spanish language and tinkering at my trade. Villars gave me the freedom of his smithy, but his outfit was so meager and ancient that it was almost like learning the trade anew.
Every kind of work was done in the most primitive manner. Their plows were counterparts of the one Romulus used in laying out the city of Rome, being simply forked sticks, one prong of which served for share, another for handle, and the third for a tongue, which was tied on to a straight stick, the latter in turn lashed to the horns of a pair of oxen. Carts with great, clumsy, solid wooden wheels were the only vehicles they had there; there were not even dugouts, their only boats being made of cow hides sewed together and stretched over a framework of poles, the whole thing put together with rawhide thongs.
Rawhide entered into the construction of pretty much everything they used. When they slept, it was on a rawhide bedstead; when they sat, it was on a rawhide; and when they ate, a rawhide laid on the ground did duty for a table - around this the family squatted, eating with their fingers, like Indians, their only table service consisting of rude pottery and gourds.
The women ground their corn on the metate, after first hulling it like hominy, and baked their tortillas on flat stones, or at best on a sheet of iron. Their spinning and weaving would have made even a lazy man tired. Such things as cards, wheels and looms were unknown. Wool was colored and then picked open by hand. For spinning, they used a kind of top, attaching a bit of wool to the peg or spindle, then giving it a dexterous twirl between the thumb and finger and dropping it into a bowl, drawing out the thread while it spun round. It took weeks and weeks of this kind of patient work to spin thread enough for the warp of a blanket, and then came the weaving, which took months. The warp was stretched upon a frame and the filling of unspun wool worked in and out with the fingers and driven up with a board which was passed over and under the threads and stood on edge while the filling was being placed, then turned flat and the filling driven up close, after which the board was taken out and changed for the next layer. I presume they are still working the same way in some portions of Mexico. Their blankets were beautiful, and much more durable than might be supposed.
Old Dona Petra had a wheel that her deceased husband had made. It was a grotesque looking affair, but an improvement on the top. The old lady was also the proud possessor of several chairs, the handiwork of the lamented John Smith. The houses had no chimneys, the little fire necessary being kindled in the center of the room, like in an Indian wigwam. The one only luxury they enjoyed was an abundance of pure, clear spring water, brought through a cement aqueduct from a large spring some miles distant.
There was an old grist mill in the outskirts of the town which had fallen into disuse for want of patronage, presumably. We went out and took a look at it with a view to its rehabilitation, but it would have required more capital than we were possessed of to put it into running order.
To illustrate how ignorant even the best of the inhabitants were, I will relate a couple of incidents that came under my observation during my sojourn in San Fernando. A rumor had reached them that Bradburn and Staples had applied for a charter to run a steamboat up the Rio Grande. As not one of them, not even Villars, had ever seen a steamboat, they sent out for Webber and myself to attend a meeting of the council and explain its workings to them. I, being spokesman, spread myself, expatiating on the speed, carrying capacity, etc., but I overshot the mark. The very point that I had depended on to recommend it proved its condemnation. After listening to my glowing eulogies, they consulted together, gravely shook their heads, and announced their decision: that "it would never do; it would throw all the cartmen and packmen out of employment." The same argument used by the Mississippi flatboatmen.
At another time there was an excitement about the landing of the French army at Vera Cruz. Having no idea where Vera Cruz was, they again sent for me to help them. There was an old atlas among Villar's possessions, and with its aid I succeeded in allaying all fears of an immediate attack on San Fernando.
And, speaking of the French invasion, reminds me of another story. There was a band of Empirico Indians in town, one of whom had a horse that I very much coveted. It was a mountain mustang, in color a strawberry roan, as beautiful a piece of horseflesh as I ever laid eyes on. I was determined to have the roan, and on making overtures for him was struck dumb with astonishment and delight when told that if I would make twenty silver buckles with which to bedeck the Indian's long braid of hair, I could take the horse. I accepted the offer with alacrity, and at once set about fulfilling my part of the contract. I took twenty old Spanish hammered dollars, worth 75 cents on the dollar, and worked industriously to convert them into buckles, in a fever of anxiety lest the Indian go back on his agreement. I had almost completed the job when news came that the French had been repulsed, whereupon the Mexicans got up a grand parade to celebrate the event. The Indians mounted their horses and took part in the demonstration. The horse that I had bargained for, being frightened by the blare of trumpets, became unmanageable and ran over another horseman, throwing his rider and falling on him. The Indian never regained consciousness and lived but a short time. Then, notwithstanding the whole band of Indians knew of the bargain I had made, they would not give the horse up. They held that inasmuch as he had not been delivered to me, he was still the property of the dead brave, and as such must be killed so as to accompany his master to the happy hunting ground. In vain I offered them twice and even thrice the sum agreed upon. It was an Indian law, and they were determined their unlucky comrade should make a good appearance when he rode into the happy hunting grounds. I experienced no regret for the untimely taking off of the Indian, but it did sore grieve me to see that noble animal sacrificed to a blind superstition. Decked out in all the glory of warpaint, the doomed steed was led away beside the remains of his dead master, followed by the chief mourners with shorn heads and blackened faces, giving vent to their sorrow in loud, blood-curdling shrieks and howls. Wrapped in his buffalo robes, with his bow and arrows beside him, the departed brave was laid to rest in a shallow grave. His saddle and bridle were placed at his feet, and the grave filled in and tramped down hard. The horse was then led up beside the grave and shot, the remains being cremated. There were twenty silver buckles for sale and no buyers, as not one of the tribe would take them. Villars gave me back my $20 and took the buckles off my hands.
About that time I got a letter from Dr. Long, who had invested in some old silver mines in the Le Juana Mountains, which he thought very rich, offering me a liberal share in the investment. I started at once, going out on the Saltillo road to La Punte, a considerable town at the foot of the mountains, where we left the road. The arrival of an American being an unusual event, the news spread quickly, and at once brought forth the only white man the place contained. He was very friendly, and, having to present my passport to the alcalde, I asked him to go with me. As he informed me he had been some time in Mexico, I supposed he had learned to speak the language fluently, and asked him to interpret for me. When we came into the alcalde's presence, Blerton commenced to explain the object of our visit in a mixture of English and Spanish unintelligible to any one. The alcalde listened politely, and when Blerton had finished turned to me with a puzzled expression. "Alba uste Spanola, senor, said he. "Poquito," I replied. "Then," said he, "I wish you would try and do your own talking; I can't understand this man." Poor Blerton was terribly crestfallen, but he did not in the least abate his friendliness. He accompanied me up to the mines.
Dr. Long's mines lay some thirty miles back in the mountains. When I reached the place I was disgusted to find only a few of the lowest class of Mexicans there, pecking out a few grains of silver, enough to purchase the bare necessities of life, instead of the lively camp I expected to find. The hills were honeycombed with old tunnels and there were huge piles of cinders, showing that much ore had been taken out, but there were no smelting works and no way of getting supplies except by pack trains, so I took no stock in it. Long was dead broke, and having his family up there with him, I divided what money I had with him, which would enable him to get lock to Montevideo, where he had left a good practice, and myself returned to San Fernando. Americans were held in high esteem in Mexico at that time, and I could have traveled through the length and breadth of the land without spending a dollar.
In spite of the abject poverty of the Mexican peons, they extracted a good deal of enjoyment from life. The men worked out in the hot sun all the week, with only thin cotton trousers on, and on Saturday night donned a shirt and went to the fandango perfectly happy if they had a few cents with which to buy a cup of mescal and a cigarette. On Sunday morning they all attended mass and got their sins wiped out, the afternoon being devoted to horse racing, chicken fighting, and kindred amusements, the padre making a full hand.
When I reached San Fernando I found Webber had disposed of all our tobacco, also his stock of medicine, so we at once set out on our return to Texas. At Presidio we learned that the old alcalde was still in jail for his intrigue with Cryor and McCoy, and we asked permission to visit him. He was taking his incarceration quite philosophically; said his "time would soon be out."
We had sold our tobacco for a good price, getting as high as $2 a pound for some of it, but with what the soldiers stole and the money we necessarily spent, we hadn't more than the law allowed us to take out duty free, so we had no difficulty in leaving the state. Traders who did a large business, though, found the export duty rather onerous, and resorted to many devices to evade it.
Some time later the McNeal boys went out with a load of general merchandise, which they disposed of to advantage, the proceeds amounting to several hundred dollars, which being all in silver, was quite bulky. However, they managed to conceal the greater portion of it, only paying export on a small part. After they had gone the officials became suspicious and sent a detachment of soldiers after them. Finding they were pursued, the boys dropped their money, which was put up in stout bags, into one of those dry-weather crevices which are so frequently met with on the mesquite prairies. Marking the spot, they rode on, allowing the soldiers to overtake and search them. Allen, waiting till the coast was clear, they returned for their money, but the cleft was so deep and the ground so hard they could not dig it out without picks and spades, which they could not obtain without returning to the colonies, several hundred miles away, and before they got in the rain came on, obliterating their landmarks, and if anybody wants to search for buried treasure there is his chance, if it hasn't gone through to the other side of the world.
Billy Eaton used to tell a good story on himself that clearly illustrates the ruses the soldiers resorted to cheat the government. Billy and a confederate were endeavoring to land a load of tobacco in Laredo during the night when they were surprised by a squad of soldiers. The other fellow got away, but they captured Billy and the tobacco. Disarming Billy, they placed him between two soldiers, while a third led his horse with a slender rope. Billy said when they got within sight of the town he began to think about the calaboose, and he didn't relish the prospect of a sojourn therein. It was quite dark, and he got out his pocketknife, opened it, and cut the rope around his horse's neck; then, snatching his water gourd, which hung by a strap to his saddle, and was a large one almost full of water, he struck the soldier on his right over the head with it, smashing the gourd to flinders and knocking the Mexican from his horse. He then dashed the spurs to his horse, and before the soldiers could unsling their carbines was out of range. They gave chase, "carajoing" and firing their carbines; but it was an for effect. They soon relinquished the pursuit and Billy said he heard them laughing hilariously over the escapade. Had they taken him in they would have been obliged to produce the contraband.
We reached the Rio Frio without incident worthy of mention. Camping for the night, we hoppled some of our horses and turned the others loose. There were no resident Indians in that section, and we had seen no sign of any roving band, nor of mustangs either, and so felt quite secure. In the night, however, we heard a commotion among our horses, and then heard them running away. Our first thought was Indians, so we kept still till day broke. Then, eating a hasty breakfast, we took our guns and a little grub and started on their trail, which was easily followed, my saddle horse being shod. About 10 a. m., we came in hearing of them across a little rise. Stealing cautiously to the top of the ridge we saw a mustang stallion trying to whip my horse out of the band, which he was driving away. My horse was fighting him, and so much absorbed were they in the combat that they didn't perceive us. We knew that the only chance of recovering our horses lay in killing the stallion, so we crept up in range, and, both taking aim at him, fired, both shots taking fatal effect. After waiting till our horses recovered from their fright consequent on the killing of their captor, I went out toward them. My horse immediately recognized me and came to me. You may imagine our relief. It wasn't a pleasant predicament to be left afoot several hundred miles from anywhere. Those old mustang stallions, after lording it over their bands for years, would finally get whipped out by some younger aspirant. They were termed then "old mokes" by the Spaniards, and would leave the band, roving round in search of another, trying to take possession of any drove they came across. So desperate and vicious they often became that it was not safe to interfere with them.
Without further trouble we in due course of time reached San Felipe de Austin, no richer than when we left, but we were a little wiser, and had had "heaps of fun."
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