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VI


Through the shadows of the starry night, Luis Cer-
vantes had not yet managed to detect the exact shape of
the objects about him. Seeking the most suitable resting-
place, he laid his weary bones down on a fresh pile of
manure under the blurred mass of a huizache tree. He
lay down, more exhausted than resigned, and closed his
eyes, resolutely determined to sleep until his fierce keepers
or the morning sun, burning his ears, awakened him.
Something vaguely like warmth at his side, then a tired
hoarse breath, made him shudder. He opened his eyes
and feeling about him with his hands, he sensed the
coarse hairs of a large pig which, resenting the presence of
a neighbor, began to grunt.

All Luis' efforts to sleep proved quite useless, not
only because the pain of his wound or the bruises on his
flesh smarted, but because he suddenly realized the
exact nature of his failure.

Yes, failure! For he had never learned to appreciate
exactly the difference between fulminating sentences of
death upon bandits in the columns of a small country
newspaper and actually setting out in search of them,
and tracking them to their lairs, gun in hand. During his
first day's march as volunteer lieutenant, he had begun to
suspect the error of his ways--a brutal sixty miles'
journey it was, that left his hips and legs one mass of
raw soreness and soldered all his bones together. A week
later, after his first skirmish against the rebels, he under-
stood every rule of the game. Luis Cervantes would have
taken up a crucifix and solemnly sworn that as soon as
the soldiers, gun in hand, stood ready to shoot, some pro-
foundly eloquent voice had spoken behind them, saying,
"Run for your lives." It was all crystal clear. Even his
noble-spirited horse, accustomed to battle, sought to
sweep back on its hind legs and gallop furiously away,
to stop only at a safe distance from the sound of firing.
The sun was setting, the mountain became peopled with
vague and restless shadows, darkness scaled the ram-
parts of the mountain hastily. What could be more log-
ical then, than to seek refuge behind the rocks and at-
tempt to sleep, granting mind and body a sorely needed
rest?

But the soldier's logic is the logic of absurdity. On the
morrow, for example, his colonel awakened him rudely
out of his sleep, cuffing and belaboring him unmerci-
fully, and, after having bashed in his face, deprived him
of his place of vantage. The rest of the officers, moreover,
burst into hilarious mirth and holding their sides with
laughter begged the colonel to pardon the deserter. The
colonel, therefore, instead of sentencing him to be shot,
kicked his buttocks roundly for him and assigned him to
kitchen police.

This signal insult was destined to bear poisonous
fruit. Luis Cervantes determined to play turncoat; in-
deed, mentally, he had already changed sides. Did not
the sufferings of the underdogs, of the disinherited
masses, move him to the core? Henceforth he espoused
the cause of Demos, of the subjugated, the beaten and
baffled, who implore justice, and justice alone. He be-
came intimate with the humblest private. More, even, he
shed tears of compassion over a dead mule which fell,
load and all, after a terribly long journey.

From then on, Luis Cervantes' prestige with the sol-
diers increased. Some actually dared to make confes-
sions. One among them, conspicuous for his sobriety
and silence, told him: "I'm a carpenter by trade, you
know. I had a mother, an old woman nailed to her chair
for ten years by rheumatism. In the middle of the night,
they pulled me out of my house; three damn policemen;
I woke up a soldier twenty-five miles away from my
hometown. A month ago our company passed by there
again. My mother was already under the sod! . . . So
there's nothing left for me in this wide world; no one
misses me now, you see. But, by God, I'm damned if I'll
use these cartridges they make us carry, against the
enemy. If a miracle happens (I pray for it every night,
you know, and I guess our Lady of Guadalupe can do
it all right), then I'll join Villa's men; and I swear by the
holy soul of my old mother, that I'll make every one of
these Government people pay, by God I will."

Another soldier, a bright young fellow, but a charlatan,
at heart, who drank habitually and smoked the narcotic
marihuana weed, eyeing him with vague, glassy stare,
whispered in his ear, "You know, partner . . . the men
on the other side ... you know, the other side . . . you
understand . . . they ride the best horses up north there,
and all over, see? And they harness their mounts with
pure hammered silver. But us? Oh hell, we've got to ride
plugs, that's all, and not one of them good enough to
stagger round a water well. You see, don't you, partner?
You see what I mean? You know, the men on the other
side-they get shiny new silver coins while we get only
lousy paper money printed in that murderer's factory,
that's what we get, yes, that's ours, I tell you!"

The majority of the soldiers spoke in much the same
tenor. Even a top sergeant candidly confessed, "Yes, I
enlisted all right. I wanted to. But, by God, I missed the
right side by a long shot. What you can't make in a life-
time, sweating like a mule and breaking your back in
peacetime, damn it all, you can make in a few months
just running around the sierra with a gun on your back,
but not with this crowd, dearie, not with this lousy
outfit ...."

Luis Cervantes, who already shared this hidden, im-
placably mortal hatred of the upper classes, of his offi-
cers, and of his superiors, felt that a veil had been re-
moved from his eyes; clearly, now, he saw the final out-
come of the struggle. And yet what had happened? The
first moment he was able to join his coreligionists, in-
stead of welcoming him with open arms, they threw him
into a pigsty with swine for company.

Day broke. The roosters crowed in the huts. The
chickens perched in the huizache began to stretch their
wings, shake their feathers, and fly down to the ground.

Luis Cervantes saw his guards lying on top of a dung
heap, snoring. In his imagination, he reviewed the fea-
tures of last night's men. One, Pancracio, was pock-
marked, blotchy, unshaven; his chin protruded, his
forehead receded obliquely; his ears formed one solid
piece with head and neck--a horrible man. The other,
Manteca, was so much human refuse; his eyes were al-
most hidden, his look sullen; his wiry straight hair fen
over his ears, forehead and neck; his scrofulous lips
hung eternally agape. Once more, Luis Cervantes felt
his flesh quiver.





The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela
Category:
General Fiction

Mexico - History - 1910-1946
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