The endless wavering column of dust moved up the trail, a swirling ant heap of broad straw sombreros, dirty khaki, faded blankets, and black horses. . . .
Not a man but was dying of thirst; no pool or stream or well anywhere along the road. A wave of dust rose from the white, wild sides of a small canyon, swayed mistily on the hoary crest of huizache trees and the green-ish stumps of cactus. Like a jest, the flowers in the cac-tus opened out, fresh, solid, aflame, some thorny, others diaphanous.
At noon they reached a hut, clinging to the precipi-tous sierra, then three more huts strewn over the margin of a river of burnt sand. Everything was silent, desolate. As soon as they saw men on horseback, the people in the huts scurried into the hills to hide. Demetrio grew indignant.
“Bring me anyone you find hiding or running away,” he commanded in a loud voice.
“What? What did you say?” Valderrama cried in sur-prise. “The men of the sierra? Those brave men who’ve not yet done what those chickens down in Aguascalientes and Zacatecas have done all the time? Our own brothers, who weather storms, who cling to the rocks like moss itself? I protest, sir; I protest!”
He spurred his miserable horse forward and caught up with the General.
“The mountaineers,” he said solemnly and emphati-cally, “are flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone. Os ex osibus meis et caro de carne mea. Mountaineers are made from the same timber we’re made of! Of the same sound timber from which heroes . . .”
With a confidence as sudden as it was courageous, he hit the General across the chest. The General smiled benevolently.
Valderrama, the tramp, the crazy maker of verses, did he ever know what he said?
When the soldiers reached a small ranch, despairingly, they searched the empty huts and small houses without finding a single stale tortilla, a solitary rotten pepper, or one pinch of salt with which to flavor the horrible taste of dry meat. The owners of the huts, their peaceful brethren, were impassive with the stonelike impassivity of Aztec idols; others, more human, with a slow smile on their colorless lips and beardless faces, watched these fierce men who less than a month ago had made the miserable huts of others tremble with fear, now in their turn fleeing their own huts where the ovens were cold and the water tanks dry, fleeing with their tails between their legs, cringing, like curs kicked out of their own houses.
But the General did not countermand his order. Some soldiers brought back four fugitives, captive and bound.
“Why do you hide?” Demetrio asked the prisoners.
“We’re not hiding, Chief, we’re hitting the trail.”
“To our own homes, in God’s name, to Durango.”
“Is this the road to Durango?”
“Peaceful people can’t travel over the main road nowadays, you know that, Chief.”