Here to return to
OVER THE BORDER
ON my first morning at El Paso, where, by good luck, as already explained, I arrived nine or ten hours behind time, I made an early start for Juarez, the Mexican city on the opposite bank of the Rio Grande. As I waited for the car at the corner of the street, a rosy house finch stood on the top of a telegraph pole overhead, singing ecstatically. The pretty creature, it is evident, is very much at home in this bustling city, at least in winter, for I was hardly in my room on the afternoon of my arrival before I heard its warble, and looking out of the window beheld the bird perched upon the eaves of a building across the way, where more than once since then I have heard and seen it. I am sorry to add that the English sparrow, its most unworthy rival, is here also, though for the moment in small numbers.
When the car came along, it proved to be an open one.
“A rather cold morning for open cars,” I said to the youthful conductor.
“Oh, we run open cars all winter,” he answered. “But I suppose we don’t mind the cold so much,” he continued, emphasizing the pronoun, “because we are out of doors all the time.”
A Northern tenderfoot might naturally be less inured to frigidity, he seemed to imply; but I remarked that he wore the heaviest of overcoats with the collar up. Warm days (much like New England June), cool nights, clear skies, constant winds, dryness and dust — such is the January climate of El Paso, if my four days have given me a fair impression of its quality.
Presently we crossed a short bridge.
“Was that the river?” I asked my seatmate, a minute afterward, a sudden suspicion coming over me, though it seemed so absurd that I was half ashamed to betray it.
“Yes, sir; that was the Rio Grande. You’re in Mexico now,” he answered.
Yes, and that must have been the Mexican Custom House officer whom I had seen step out of the door of a small building on the southern bank of the river and salute our conductor so politely. None of us looked like smugglers, I suppose. At all events, the car was not “held up,” as happened at the other end of the bridge, a day or two later, while two rather boisterous young fellows on the rear seat made themselves merry over the attempt of Uncle Sam’s official representative to collect a duty. International travel, even in an electric street-car, is liable to complications.
As for the river, it was practically dry. Pedestrians were crossing it — to save toll — on a few small stepping-stones at a point where the current could not have been ten feet wide nor more than half of ten inches deep. My seatmate explained that so much water was drawn off above this point for irrigation purposes that the river had little left for its own use; and in fact, more than once afterward I saw its bed absolutely dry, so that even the stepping-stones had for the day gone out of business. Yet it is a real rio grande, for all that, and the life of a long, long strip of Texas.
Drought is the mark of this country. A friendly citizen (of whom, in my ignorance, I had inquired about “suburban trains”!) warned me earnestly against wandering far out of the town. If some Mexican did not kill me “for the sake of the clothes I had on” (an ignoble death, surely), I might get lost (an easy matter, by my adviser’s tell), in which event, if nothing more serious happened to me, I should infallibly perish of thirst.
The car took me through the compact little ciudad (a five-minute passage, perhaps), and I struck out for the country, along the line of the Mexican Central Railroad, in the direction of the mountains, heading my course for a cemetery out on the slope, in the midst of the chaparral. White-necked ravens were foraging beside the track, as little disturbed by human approach as so many English sparrows might have been. How soon the strange becomes familiar!” I thought. I had never seen a white-necked raven (there is no whiteness visible,1 the bird being a very imp of darkness to look at it) till less than twenty-four hours ago, and already I was passing it with something like indifference. I was far from indifferent, however, two afternoons later, when for the first time I watched a flock of several hundred soaring in mazy circles high overhead, after the manner of buzzards or sea-gulls.
No other birds showed themselves till I drew near the cemetery gate, when suddenly the bushes just in front, straight between me and the sun, were alive with sparrows. My eyes, dazzled as they were by the sunshine, caught sight of one lark bunting as the flock took wing. I must see more of it, — it was my first one, — and started eagerly in pursuit. But the creatures were timid beyond all calculation, and though I pursued them with cautious haste for some distance, I could never come up with them. Wherever I looked, there was nothing but white-crowned sparrows; handsome birds, the sight of which is almost an event in Massachusetts, but so abundant in Texas at this time of the year — as Lincoln finches are, also — that I have begun to turn away from them as almost a nuisance. It becomes vexatious to a man in search of novelties when even an old favorite keeps itself too persistently under his glass. As the proverb has it, there is reason in all things.
While I was beating the chaparral over, still in search of those missing white wing-patches, I noticed a funeral procession coming from the city. Heading the cortege was what in a Massachusetts town would be called a “depot carriage.” It served the purpose of a hearse, I suppose, and in it sat two men bareheaded. It seemed a neighborly and Christian act to accompany a brother mortal to the grave in this fraternal manner. The second carriage was an open buggy, drawn by a white horse.
These things I took note of while the procession was still a long way off (a military band, still farther away, at the barracks, no doubt, was playing a march), and meantime I went up to the cemetery fence and looked over. The monuments were mostly, if not wholly, wooden crosses, with the ordinary run of affectionate epitaphs. A man, who appeared to be the keeper of the place, came out of the one house near at hand, and asked me something in Spanish, to which I replied in English. We were unable to communicate with each other till finally I said, “No sabe.” It was not precisely what I intended to tell him; but it was all one. He saw for himself that I spoke no Spanish, and with that left me to myself.
I returned to El Paso on foot, and as I reached the northern end of the bridge, walking, as it happened, on the far side of the road, with my overcoat on my arm, as careless as could be, I was hailed by an officer in uniform. I halted, and he approached. Then he waited. It was my place to speak first, as it seemed, and I began:
“Do you wish to inspect me?”
“Well, what did you buy in Mexico?” he asked.
“A postal card, and mailed it.”
“Was that all you bought?”
The souvenir postal-card industry, though comparatively infantile, is not “protected,” it appears, although, if I had brought the five-cents’ worth away with me, I might, for aught I positively know, have been called upon for duty. The rights of American laboring men must by all means be looked after. To think what ruin might befall this great republic if its people, with all the rest of their freedom, should in some fit of madness insist upon the freedom to buy and sell!
That was three days ago. Since then I have been to Juarez twice, pushing a little farther each time into the country southward. On both visits I found lark buntings in plenty. They move about — and sit about — in peculiarly dense flocks. One such, that I saw this morning, might have numbered a thousand birds. If disturbed, they rise in a cloud, and on coming to rest again every one seems to desire a perch at the very tip of a bush. As they must all alight in the same one or two bunches of scrub, however, though there are hundreds of others exactly like them all about, there are by no means top seats enough to go round, and there is a deal of preliminary hovering, accompanied by a grand confusion of formless twittering, during which — the white patches of the quivering wings and outspread tails showing through — the spectacle is most animated and pleasing.
As for the city itself, it is squalid, but well worth a visit; having so strange and other-worldish a look that one seems to have crossed at least an ocean rather than a trickling streamlet. The white church; the little shops, with their curious wares; the game cocks in the street, tethered each by a yard of cord to a peg driven into the ground on the edge of the sidewalk, crowing defiance to each other, and regarded proudly by their owners, who now and then take them up in their arms, caressing them fondly, or shaking one in the face of another, to see the feathers of their necks bristle; the bust of Bonito Juarez in the fenced plaza, the bust itself of a size to adorn a parlor mantel, while the marble pedestal is ten or fifteen feet high and at least ten feet square at the base; the Spanish signboards and placards; best of all, the people themselves, men, women, and children — the children, some of them, half naked, even on a cold, windy forenoon, while the men saunter about, or lean against an adobe wall in the sun, wrapped in thick, bright-colored blankets (I shall think of a Mexican, as long as I live, as leaning against the side of a house) — all these go to make a memorable picture for a Yankee on his travels._______________
1 True as a general statement; but once, at Tucson, I saw a bird standing on the top of a telegraph pole facing a pretty stiff breeze, which blew the feathers of the throat apart till they showed a snow-white spot as large as a silver dollar.