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HOME > Classical Novels > The Boy Travellers in Mexico > CHAPTER IV.
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On resuming their journey through Mexico, Doctor Bronson and his young companions proceeded by the railway southward to Saltillo, sixty-seven miles from Monterey.
As they passed Santa Caterina, eight or ten miles beyond Monterey, one of their fellow-passengers told them that there were some interesting caves not very far from the station, and also near Garcia, thirteen miles farther on. A remarkable hole in the mountain near Santa Caterina was pointed out by the same gentleman, but in spite of his voluble account of the attractive features of a journey there, they did not consent to stop for the excursion. They also decided to allow the caves of Garcia to take care of themselves, much to the disappointment of their informant.
The beauty of the scenery along the railway, almost from the very moment of leaving Monterey, kept their eyes busy on both sides of the train. The railway for some distance follows the San Juan Valley, which diminishes in width as it ascends. The labored puffing of the locomotive told that the grade was a steep one, and it was evident that the engine was exerting all its powers. On most trains two locomotives are required, and an extra one is always added unless the number of carriages is small and their cargoes are light.
The scenery of the Sierra Madre is remarkably fine, and surpassed by that of very few railway routes in the world. Frank compared it to that of the Brenner or Semmering passes of the Alps, and Fred said he was reminded of the Blue Mountains in Australia, and the route traversed by the railway between Colombo and Kandy, in Ceylon. But they agreed that it
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 differed in some respects from all these routes, and had a beauty and grandeur of its own, just as did each of the places they had mentioned. On each side of the valley the mountains rose very steeply, and in many places they were nearly, if not quite, perpendicular. The rocks were of various shades, in which red had a prominent place, and on the steepest part of the slopes there was no place where vegetation could cling.
The best of the scenery was in the neighborhood of Garcia; beyond that point it became less grand, as the mountains were farther away in the widening valley, and the steep cliffs were less numerous. But the
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 ascent was steady, and brought the train to the plateau and to a much higher elevation than that of Monterey. Monterey, as before stated, is 1800 feet above sea-level; Saltillo is at an elevation of 5200 feet, and consequently the railway ascends 3400 feet in passing from the former to the latter city.
The old route of the diligence before the railway was built afforded an exciting ride from San Gregario to Rinconada, as the descent was very rapid and the coach went down the incline with great rapidity. At one turn in the road there was a point where a misstep would have sent the whole conveyance down a precipitous slope of a thousand feet into the valley below. A thoughtful American who travelled that route years ago regarded the possibilities of such a slide, and estimated that the diligence, passengers and all, would be worth not more than nineteen cents a bushel after making the descent into the yawning gulf.
Frank and Fred wished they could gather some of the bright cactus-flowers which abounded along the route. There are many varieties of cactus in Mexico; in fact the country may be said to be the land of the cacti. Botanists have described more than sixty species; they vary in height and size from the little plant hardly larger than a spray of clover
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 up to the gigantic growths that rise more than thirty feet above the ground. The flowers run from pure white to a deep scarlet and purple, and some of the flowers are of great beauty. A peculiarity of the cactus is that it thrives best in poor soils, and on a great part of the ground where it grows few other vegetable products could maintain an existence. The largest of the cactus family is scientifically known as the Candelabrum, but the Mexicans call it the Organo, or organ; it grows in straight hexagonal columns, and when many of these columns are clustered together it bears quite a resemblance to a church organ with its pipes. One variety of cactus nourishes the cochineal insect; another is used for hedges, and owing to the sharp spines for which the plant is noted, it forms an impervious barrier to man or quadruped. The cactus generally has inside its flower a mass of edible substance, and in some localities this cactus-fruit is collected and sold in the markets.
The cactus plant is not wholly inedible, as the donkeys of Mexico feed on some of them, and the goat will also make a meal of the leaves and stalks. But this is not to be wondered at when it is borne in mind that the goat is popularly credited with dining upon tomato-cans, scraps of tin, old boots, newspapers, umbrellas, and other articles not ordinarily included among esculents. Of late years the cactus has been found useful for paper-making, and thousands of tons of it are annually converted into paper fibre.
A little past eight o'clock in the evening the train rolled into Saltillo, a city containing from fifteen to twenty thousand inhabitants, the capital of the State of Cohahuila, and for some years the terminus of the National Railway. There are several cotton factories at Saltillo or in its immediate vicinity, and the place boasts of its serapes. Evidently the boast is justified, as the serapes of Saltillo have a reputation all through northern Mexico. Our friends improved the opportunity to provide themselves with these needed articles of Mexican travel, and through the rest of their journey they carried their souvenirs of Saltillo and were well satisfied with them.
They had been advised to go to the Hotel Tomasichi, but with the condition that they must not expect anything remarkable in the way of a hotel.
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 The Doctor secured a carriage which was so rickety that it threatened dissolution before reaching the Plaza Mayor, where the hotel is situated, but by good-fortune it held together and landed them safely. The proprietor of the hotel told them that there was only one good carriage in the city, and if they wanted it for the next day it would be well to order it at once. It belonged to Señor Sada, the owner of the diligence that would take them to Jaral, where it connected with the trains on the International Railway. The advice was taken, and the one good carriage of Saltillo was ordered for the next day's driving in and around the city. Six reals, or seventy-five cents, an hour was the price of the vehicle, with a gratification to the driver.
By this time Frank and Fred were able to make all their financial calculations in the currency of the country. Here is the list of values which they had noted down and committed to memory:
"The peso, or dollar, is divided into eight reals or reales, of the value of 12½ cents each. A medio real is 6¼ cents, a cuartillo is 3 cents, and a tlaco is 1½ cents; 2 reals make a peseta (25 cents), and 4 reals a toston
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 (50 cents). Values are reckoned in centavos (100 centavos make 1 peso), reals, or pesos until large sums are reached, when they are counted in gold. Of gold coins there are the escudito de oro, $1; escudo de oro, $2; pistola, $4; media onza de oro, $8; and onza de oro (gold ounce), $16."
American currency can be used without difficulty in the large cities, but not elsewhere. Notes of the Banco National and the Bank of London, Mexico, and South America can be carried in place of silver, which is inconveniently heavy; but our friends were advised not to rely upon bank-notes of any kind away from the lines of railway.
Doctor Bronson told the youths that a metric system of coinage was established some years ago, but the common people were prejudiced against it, and it had made comparatively little progress. Half and quarter dollars are never spoken of as fifty and twenty-five centavos, but as quatro reals or dos reals.
We will return to Saltillo, where we left our friends while we made an excursion among Mexican currency values. Their supper was a composite of Mexican and Italian cookery, Tomasichi being an Italian and his cook a native of Mexico. The chief had instructed the subordinate in the ways
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 of the kitchens of Rome and Naples, but not sufficiently to drive out the ideas of the land of the Aztecs. Stimulated by curiosity and also by a good appetite, the Doctor and his nephews made an excellent meal, or at least it was good enough to make them wish to taste a dinner entirely Mexican in character. We will see later on how they succeeded in their experiment.
The next morning they started in good season to inspect the city and its surroundings. They found the Alameda much prettier than that of Monterey, and some travellers have pronounced it the most attractive one to be found in Mexico. The inhabitants are deservedly proud of it. It is a popular resort at all hours, and especially in the evening, when everybody goes out for a promenade. The Plaza Mayor is also an attractive spot, and the youths wished to make a sketch of it from the side opposite the cathedral, but decided not to take the time to do so, as a photograph would answer their purpose.
The general features of Saltillo are much like those of Monterey, and consequently a detailed description of them is unnecessary.
Before starting on the round of sight-seeing, Doctor Bronson made inquiries concerning a visit to the battle-field of Buena Vista, which is some ten miles south of Saltillo. The inquiries resulted in an arrangement to see the spot made famous in the history of the Mexican War, where 5000 Americans put 20,000 Mexicans to flight.
The battle-field lies two or three miles south of the hacienda of Buena Vista, and the road from Saltillo rises nearly a thousand feet before reaching that place; consequently a journey thither must be done at a slow pace, and it was decided to take two days, or rather a night and part of two days, for the excursion.
Early in the afternoon the party started from Saltillo for the hacienda of Buena Vista, which they reached before nightfall. The youths were happy at the prospect of passing a night in a hacienda, and obtaining a glimpse of rural Mexican life.
The building where they were received was in the form of a hollow square, like the houses of Monterey, already described. The entrance was sufficiently broad to permit the admission of vehicles, and the carriage was driven inside before the travellers alighted. According to Mexican custom, a mozo, or servant, had been sent in advance to give notice of the advent of the strangers and have the house in readiness. The visitors were shown to rooms on the lower floor; the Doctor was assigned to a room by himself, while the boys were lodged together in a large room very meagrely furnished. The beds were straw-filled mattresses, laid
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 upon strips of rawhide stretched tightly across a frame, and the boys pronounced it an excellent substitute for some of the "patent spring mattresses" which are sold in American cities. The linen was scrupulously clean, which is not always the case in Mexico, but the supply of blankets was so light that it was evident the travellers were expected to make use of their serapes to keep off the chill of the night air.
They did not stay long inside the room, as they were anxious to see the surroundings of the place. So they wandered about, their first visit being to the stable, which they found commodious enough for the most fastidious horse in the world. "I have heard," said Fred, "that the people of this country are more particular about their horses than about themselves; a Mexican will take good care of his horse, but leave his wife and children to go hungry and half clothed."
"To judge by the difference between the rooms of the hacienda and the stable," responded Frank, "the statement seems to be well founded. The stable is certainly better ventilated, and the horses have no reason to complain of their quarters. A Mexican depends so much on his horse that he ought from very selfishness to be very careful of him."
From the stable they wandered to the kitchen, where three or four native women were at work preparing the meal which the strangers were to eat.
The first thing to attract Frank's attention was a woman kneeling on the floor over a flat stone raised at one end, on which she was rolling some dough into very thin sheets. "That must be a tortilla-maker," said
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 Frank; "we have had tortillas several times since we came into the country, but this is the first good chance I've had to see them made."
From his observation at this kitchen, and from subsequent information, the youth made the following note:
"Tortillas, or cakes, are made from corn-meal, which is ground by hand on a flat stone called a metate, a word of Aztec origin. The corn is soaked in lime-water till the hull can be separated from it, and then it is pounded and rolled upon the metate until it is ground into meal. In this work the woman uses a cylinder of stone something like the American rolling-pin, or very often she uses a flat or slightly rounded stone, with which she pounds and twists for hours. When the meal is sufficiently ground a little water is added, and it is worked into dough; the dough is then rolled or patted in the hand until it is almost as thin as a knife-blade and formed into circular cakes. The cakes are baked on an iron comal, or griddle, which has been previously held over the fire until it is so hot that the cooking is done in a few moments. They are not allowed to brown, and are best when served hot. They are generally without salt or other seasoning, and are very tasteless at first to a stranger; but after one has become accustomed to tortillas he prefers them to any other kind of corn-cake."
The equipment of the kitchen was exceedingly simple, and the youths wondered how a French cook would get along with none but Mexican utensils to get up a meal with. The stove, or cooking range, consisted simply of a wall or bank of solid adobe about two feet high, and of the same width; this bank was built up against one side of the kitchen, which was ten or twelve feet square, and it extended the whole length of that side. There were depressions in the bank, in which small fires of charcoal
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 or wood were burning; on these fires the pots, pans, and griddles were placed, and the process of cooking went on. There was no chimney, the smoke escaping, or being supposed to escape, through an opening in the roof directly over the cooking range.
But the kitchen of the common people is less elaborate than this. It consists simply of a mound of clay, perhaps a foot in height and a yard in diameter, and depressed in the centre. Little fires in this depression furnish the heat for cooking the food placed in the pots and kettles, which are of common unglazed earthen-ware. The cook sits or squats on the floor close by this primitive range, while the mistress of the kitchen previously described stands, and can walk about at will without the trouble of rising.
In some parts of Mexico the cooking is done out-of-doors. This is particularly the case in the southern portion, and in the season of rains the
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 weather often reduces culinary operations to a very limited quantity. The more rain the less dinner, unless the food is eaten raw; but as it consists largely of fruits, the inconvenience is less serious than it might be otherwise.
When our young friends went to dinner they found a repast that was entirely Mexican in character. After it was over they made notes of what they had seen and eaten, and this was the result:
"We had tortillas, of course, and very good they were. The dinner began with a soup, which was so good that we asked how it was made, as we thought it might be tried by some of our cooks at home. Here is what they told us:
"'We start this soup with a chicken broth just as chicken broth is made anywhere else. Then we take the meat of the chicken, the white part only, after it has been boiled very tender, and pick it into little bits of shreds. We take some pounded almonds, the yolks of hard-boiled eggs, a little bread which has been soaked in milk, a little spice of some
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 kind, and plenty of pepper, and we mix the whole up together till it forms a hard paste. We make this paste into little balls and drop them into the soup when it is boiling hot and just before it is brought to the table.'
"If you want a good soup and a new one just try this. You may not hit the seasoning the first time, but when you do you'll find you've something worth eating.
"After the soup we had a puchero, which is said to be a very popular dish with the Mexicans, but we were not particularly fond of it. They begin it by boiling mutton to make a broth, and then they throw in every sort of garden vegetable cut in small pieces—apples, pears, squashes, tomatoes, green corn, onions, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, red or green peppers, in fact any and everything from the garden that is edible. There is so much pepper in the mess that it burns your mouth like an East Indian curry, but it is said to be good for the stomach and climate. They tell us we'll like it after a while; and perhaps we shall, but we certainly don't now. It's a good deal like the down East stew, with the addition of the hashed peppers and tree-fruits.
"Next we had a tamal de casuella, which was translated into 'corn-meal pot-pie.' As nearly as we could make out, it is made by putting a mixture of scalded meal, flour, eggs, and melted lard into a broth in which chicken and pork have been boiled, so as to make a thin paste. Then make a mixture of the boiled pork and chicken hashed reasonably fine, along with red peppers and tomatoes, and cook them in lard. Next you spread the paste on the bottom and sides of a dish that has been well greased so as to prevent sticking, lay in your meat mixture, cover with more of the paste, and bake it gently but thoroughly. For a hungry man the dish ought to be very satisfying.
"Our dinner ended with frijoles, or beans; and we remark here that beans are the principal food of the Mexicans of the lower ranks of life, and are largely used by the middle and upper classes. The great majority of Mexicans eat them twice a day, and a dinner would be incomplete without them. The annual crop of these beans in Mexico must be something enormous, and its failure would be as bad as that of wheat in our Northern States, potatoes in Ireland, or codfish along the New England coast.
"They cook them in various ways, but the favorite form is in a stew. They are usually considered unwholesome if eaten on the day they are cooked; they are always prepared with pepper, either green or red, and the preparation is so hot with pepper that one seems to be eating
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 melted lead while partaking of frijoles à la Mexican. Peppers enter into nearly all the Mexican cookery; an American who does not like them told us that the proportions for a Mexican stew were one pound of meat, one quart of water, and one pound of hashed peppers. It is a common remark in Texas and Colorado that a wolf will not eat a dead Mexican because he is so impregnated with pepper that even the stomach of that voracious animal can't stand it."
The Mexican dinner proved a digestible one; at all events Frank and Fred slept soundly and were fully refreshed for the visit to the battle-field on the following day. Saddle-horses were in readiness as soon as breakfast was over, and the party made a good start. We will listen to Fred's account of the excursion:
"After the capture of Monterey, General Taylor remained for a while at that city, and then marched upon Saltillo, which he occupied without opposition. General Scott ordered the divisions of Worth and Twiggs to join him at Vera Cruz for the advance upon the City of Mexico, and this reduced Taylor's force to 5000 men, nearly all of them volunteers. The
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 Mexicans assembled a large army at San Luis Potosi, and advanced upon Saltillo with 20,000 men, expecting to drive the Americans out of the country.
"On the 22d of February, 1847—Washington's birthday—General Taylor met them at Buena Vista, or rather at the pass of La Angostura (the narrows), three miles south of the hacienda which gives the name to the battle. He occupied a position where he had great advantage, as a single battery of artillery protected the entire front, while the flanks were defended by steep gullies and ravines that the Mexicans could not hope to pass, and by the mountains that rose on the east to a height of 2000 feet.
"There is a plateau to the east which Santa Anna, the Mexican commander, tried to reach, as by gaining it he would be able to turn the pass where the Americans were posted. Some of his troops advanced to it during the afternoon of the 22d, but were driven back by the Americans; during the night the Mexican army gained the plateau, and the Americans then changed their position to the plain at the base, but continuing to hold the entrance of the pass.
"On the morning of the 23d the fighting began in full earnest, the Mexicans attacking in three heavy columns, which were directed on the American left. The American line was broken on that side, but the centre and right held their ground and drove the enemy back. Then the Americans attacked the Mexican infantry on the right and drove it back. As a last move, Santa Anna formed his whole force into a single column, which drove the Americans back for some distance, until the Mexicans were checked by the artillery. In this last part of the battle, when the cause of the Americans seemed lost, General Taylor gave the celebrated order, which has passed into history, 'Give them a little more grape, Captain Bragg.' Captain Bragg's battery of artillery was stationed on one of the little mounds or hillocks at the entrance of the defile, and from that point he threw an iron hail among the advancing Mexicans that drove them into disorder and flight.
"The battle lasted all day, and when night came the two armies occupied very nearly the same positions they held in the morning. The men slept where they were, and General Taylor was uncertain whether the battle would be resumed the next morning or not. When morning came it was seen that the Mexican army had fled, and the whole ground where they were at sunset was deserted. About 20,000 men had been beaten by less than 5000. Their losses were placed at 2000, while that of the Americans was 746, or about one-sixth their entire number. Gen. Lew. Wallace, in writing about the battle, says that by every rule of scientific
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 warfare the Americans were beaten oftener than there were hours in the day, but they did not know it; they rallied and fought, and rallied and fought again, till they finally 'wrung victory from the hands of assured defeat.'
"We spent two or three hours on the battle-field, visiting all the points of interest and listening to the story as it was told by our guide, an intelligent Mexican who was born in the vicinity, and has latterly made it his business to show strangers over the ground. He said there had been very few changes since the battle. The public road runs straight through the battle-field, and it is easy to understand the positions of the opposing armies. One thing we understood, after seeing the ground, which we did not comprehend before: we had wondered why the Mexicans made so little use of their cavalry, of which they had 4000, and the Mexican horsemen are among the best in the world. When we saw how the ground is cut up with barrancas, or deep ravines, making it impossible for companies and regiments of mounted men to preserve their formation, we did not wonder any more.
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"We returned to the hacienda in time for the mid-day meal, and in the afternoon went back to Saltillo. The journey to Saltillo was quickly made, as the road descends a good deal, and the horses went along at an excellent pace."
The rest of the day was spent in sight-seeing about Saltillo, including visits to some of the cotton and other factories, for which the place is famed. The machinery in the cotton factories is of foreign make—some of it from England and some from the United States. The cloth made there is of ordinary quality, and sells for a price that ought to give a fine profit to the owners of the establishment. Frank asked about the wages of the laborers in the mills, and found that they received from thirty to fifty cents a day for twelve or fourteen hours' work, according to their skill and the amount of labor they performed.
It is estimated that about 30,000,000 pounds, or 60,000 bales, of cotton are annually converted into cloth in Mexico. Most of the raw cotton is grown in the country; and what with the cultivation of the product and its manufacture into textiles, it is thought that 50,000 families are supported by the cotton industry. Where the mills are carefully managed they are profitable, and make a liberal return for the investment of capital.

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