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XIV


Stale cigarette smoke, the acrid odors of sweaty
clothing, the vapors of alcohol, the breathing of a
crowded multitude, worse by far than a trainful of pigs.

Texas hats, adorned with gold braid, and khaki pre-
dominate. "Gentlemen, a well-dressed man stole my suit-
case in the station. My life's savings! I haven't enough
to feed my little boy now!"

The shrill voice, rising to a shriek or trailing off into
a sob, is drowned out by the tumult within the train.

"What the hell is the old woman talking about?"
Blondie asks, entering in search of a seat.

"Something about a suitcase . . . and a well-dressed
man," Pancracio replies. He has already the laps of two
civilians to sit on.

Demetrio and the others elbow their way in. Since
those on whom Pancracio had sat preferred to stand up,
Demetrio and Luis Cervantes quickly seize the vacant
seats.

Suddenly a woman who has stood up holding a child
all the way from Irapuato, faints. A civilian takes the
child in his arms. The others pretend to have seen noth-
ing. Some women, traveling with the soldiers, occupy two
or three seats with baggage, dogs, cats, parrots. Some
of the men wearing Texan hats laugh at the plump arms
and pendulous breasts of the woman who fainted.

"Gentlemen, a well-dressed man stole my suitcase at
the station in Silao! All my life's savings . . . I haven't
got enough to feed my little boy now! . . ."

The old woman speaks rapidly, parrotlike, sighing and
sobbing. Her sharp eyes peer about on all sides. Here
she gets a bill, and further on, another. They shower
money upon her. She finishes the collection, and goes a
few seats ahead.

"Gentlemen, a well-dressed man stole my suitcase in
the station at Silao." Her words produce an immediate
and certain effect.

A well-dressed man, a dude, a tenderfoot, stealing a
suitcase! Amazing, phenomenal! It awakens a feeling of
universal indignation. It's a pity: if this well-dressed man
were here every one of the generals would shoot him
one after the other!

"There's nothing as vile as a city dude who steals!"
a man says, exploding with indignation.

"To rob a poor old lady!"

"To steal from a poor defenseless woman!"

They prove their compassion by word and deed: a
harsh verdict against the culprit; a five-peso bill for the
victim.

"And I'm telling you the truth," Blondie declares.
"Don't think it's wrong to kill, because when you kill,
it's always out of anger. But stealing--Bah!"

This profound piece of reasoning meets with unani-
mous assent. After a short silence while he meditates,
a colonel ventures his opinion:

"Everything is all right according to something, see?
That is, everything has its circumstances, see? God's own
truth is this: I have stolen, and if I say that everyone
here has done the trick, I'm not telling a lie, I reckon! "

"Hell, I stole a lot of them sewing machines in Mex-
ico," exclaims a major. "I made more'n five hundred
pesos even though I sold them at fifty cents apiece!"

A toothless captain, with hair prematurely white, an-
nounces:

"I stole some horses in Zacatecas, all damn fine horses
they was, and then I says to myself, 'This is your own
little lottery, Pascual Mata,' I says. 'You won't have a
worry in all your life after this.' And the damned thing
about it was that General Limon took a fancy to the
horses too, and he stole them from me!"

"Of course--there's no use denying it, I've stolen too,"
Blondie confesses. "But ask any one of my partners
how much profit I've got. I'm a big spender and my
Purse is my friends' to have a good time on! I have
a better time if I drink myself senseless than I would
have sending money back home to the old woman!"

The subject of "I stole," though apparently inexhausti-
ble, ceases to hold the men's attention. Decks of cards
gradually appear on the seats, drawing generals and of-
ficers as the light draws mosquitoes.

The excitement of gambling soon absorbs every in-
terest, the heat grows more and more intense. To breathe
is to inhale the air of barracks, prison, brothel, and
pigsty all in one.

And rising above the babble, from the car ahead ever
the shrill voice, "Gentlemen, a well-dressed young man
stole . . ."


The streets in Aguascalientes were so many refuse
piles. Men in khaki moved to and fro like bees before
their hive, overrunning the restaurants, the crapulous
lunch houses, the parlous hotels, and the stands of the
street vendors on which rotten pork lay alongside grimy
cheese.

The smell of these viands whetted the appetites of
Demetrio and his men. They forced their way into a
small inn, where a disheveled old hag served, on earthen-
ware plates, some pork with bones swimming in a clear
chili stew and three tough burnt tortillas. They paid two
pesos apiece; as they left Pancracio assured his comrades
he was hungrier than when he entered.

"Now," said Demetrio, "we'll go and consult with
General Natera!"

They made for the northern leader's billet.

A noisy, excited crowd stopped them at a street cross-
ing. A man, lost in the multitude, was mouthing words
in the monotonous, unctuous tones of a prayer. They
came up close enough to see him distinctly; he wore a
shirt and trousers of cheap white cloth and was repeat-
ing:

"All good Catholics should read this prayer to Christ
Our Lord upon the Cross with due devotion. Thus they
will be immune from storms and pestilence, famine, and
war."

"This man's no fool," said Demetrio smiling.

The man waved a sheaf of printed handbills in his
hand and cried:

"A quarter of a peso is all you have to pay for this
prayer to Christ Our Lord upon the Cross. A quarter . . ."

Then he would duck for a moment, to reappear with
a snake's tooth, a sea star, or the skeleton of a fish.
In the same predicant tone, he lauded the medical virtues
and the mystical powers of every article he sold.

Quail, who had no faith in Venancio, requested the
man to pull a tooth out. Blondie purchased a black seed
from a certain fruit which protected the possessor from
lightning or any other catastrophe. Anastasio Montanez
purchased a prayer to Christ Our Lord upon the Cross,
and, folding it carefully, stuck it into his shirt with a
pious gesture.

"As sure as there's a God in heaven," Natera said,
"this mess hasn't blown over yet. Now it's Villa fighting
Carranza."

Without answering him, his eyes fixed in a stare,
Demetrio demanded a further explanation.

"It means," Natera said, "that the Convention won't
recognize Carranza as First Chief of the Constitutionalist
Army. It's going to elect a Provisional President of the
Republic. Do you understand me, General?"

Demetrio nodded assent.

"What's your opinion, General?" asked Natera.

Demetrio shrugged his shoulders:

"It seems to me that the meat of the matter is that
we've got to go on fighting, eh? All right! Let's go to it!
I'm game to the end, you know."

"Good, but on what side?"

Demetrio, nonplussed, scratched his head:

"Look here, don't ask me any more questions. I never
went to school, you know. . . . You gave me the eagle
I wear on my hat, didn't you? All right then; you just
tell me: 'Demetrio, do this or do that,' and that's all
there's to it!"






The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela
Category:
General Fiction

Mexico - History - 1910-1946
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