THE INSURGENCE of CHAN SANTA CRUZ
BOOK FOUR: THE BOOK of SCIENCE
A company of twenty five departed Santa Cruz del Bravo on the following morning, under command of the flamboyant Captain Oveido. Next in rank was Andujar and, after him, Teniente Carlos Hernandez... three months out of military college. There were also three Sergeants, each with more experience than all of their commanding officers combined; included, among these, one Claudio Carrasco who, after fourteen years service, was being given his first command assignment... the telegraph station, presumably ruined, of San Geronimo.
In placing an enlisted soldado in command of the station, Bravo was deliberately violating over forty years of loyalty to Army procedure. Even the smallest outpost was to be commanded by an officer, however green and, indeed, all of the other posts in the northern half of the territory adhered to this unwritten rule. San Geronimo, however, was indispensable and, under the ordinary run of commander, quite undefendable. Bravo had considered those officers whom he could spare and, finally, had rejected every one. There were plenty of places in the Republic where an inexperienced man, whether a few months graduated from Chapultepec or even a few years, could be given command without danger. San Geronimo was not one of these places... and, in the taciturn, loyal Sergeant, Bravo had a man who was more than a match both for the force of the sublevados and the wiles of Vega.
Beside Carrasco rode a telegraph operator named Alcazar, a tall, indescribably thin man who proceeded towards his destination like a scarecrow being led to the pyre. Twenty soldiers of mixed history accompanied these and there was not a soldadera or indian servant to be found. Gloom hung thick as one of those clouds of mosquitoes already bedeviling the company, as the dry tortillas and burned beans of the first night were consumed. Life in Santa Cruz, save for the heat and the disease... and the myriad forms of corruption, and Bravo's store which gobbled their pay, the screeching birds, thieving dogs and insects and the insolent robbers and labor agitators from Belem and the other prisons of Mexico who would work no faster no matter how many arrobas given... well, it was tolerable. More than a few of the men reckoned themselves spoiled and, rather than blaming themselves for the misfortune of being drafted for the patrol, they focused their resentment upon Major Oveido.
While the soldados sipped a bitter pimiento tea and further cursed the Captain for failing to bring more than a personal supply of coffee, Oveido shared his cup with Andujar and, in an gesture of liberality, Sergeant Carrasco. Andujar found it difficult to long dislike the Captain, for all of his faults. He was a splendid horseman and his only concession to discipline was the ordering of every last man to feed, water and inspect their mounts before commencing their own meals. The Oviedo family was a large landholder in Chihuahua with relatives by marriage among the powerful Terrazas clan and the Captain's ambition, in fact, was to become a General and retire, with that rank and by the age of forty, to the gentlemanly profession of breeding horses. Naturally he despised Quintana Roo, General Bravo, chicle, indians and snakes and, like José Macias before him, could often be found curled in his hammock with a book.
"Do you know the story of the Yucatecan indians and their first horse?" he now asked, and both Andujar and Sergeant Carrasco shook their heads.
"Before the Conquest, there was not a horse in all of Mexico, although science would hold that the breed existed here for many ages before an inexplicable extinction. Early in the sixteenth century, when the savages had learned of the Spaniards and perhaps some had seen a few of them; the cavalry, for example, and, being unable to discern the man from the horse..."
"Ah," Carrasco interrupted, "and so they misinterpreted the horse and rider as a fantastical being, a centaur?"
Oveido, being one of those men who give the impression of listening gravely to every word uttered in their presence, took some time to ponder the sergeant's word, giving an impression of deep thought. He lowered his head and frowned.
"A centaur... not unlikely, no. An excellent point, sergeant." Carrasco beamed. Don Juan, the Captain, had recognized his intelligence on a subject of much importance, the settlement of Yucatan by the Classical Greeks and Romans and their gods. With the command of San Geronimo, his career was advancing momentously.
"One night, perhaps thirty or forty years after Columbus," the Captain continued, "a Spanish vessel rammed the reefs to the north of here and sank. All its men perished and the only survivor was a horse, which swam to shore and was easily captured by the indians, being the much fatigued by its escape.
"These indians did what comes unquestioningly to the heathen when confronted by some novelty that does not immediately threaten them... they made the horse one of their gods. They draped it in flowers and led it into their city, where it was stationed in the house of the Chief. Because it would be sacrilege to offer common corn and beans to a god, they placed, before the horse, their choicest roasted meats and fowl and fish. The horse... being a horse... would have nothing to do with such repasts. Day after day it wasted. The indians beat their drums and wailed, and who knows what sacrifices were performed to inspire their cannibal gods to make the horse-god eat, what ghastly delicacies were placed under its nose. But the flesh of warriors and virgins, like all the venison and turkey in the peninsula, was of no interest to the beast. Finally it died and was buried with much superstitious ceremony. And that is why the indians here still worship horses, and will not ride one even to save their lives. After four hundred years... the stupid creatures! Why we have not simply marched down to the border with Belize killing them all is something, I'll never understand."
"Bravo must have his reasons, and he is our General," said Andujar. He did not bother to make the Captain understand that only foolish indians would go into the monte where the sapodilla and mahogany trees grew, that only they would suffer the assaults of snakes and falling logs and the insults of the dread chicle fly which lays its eggs in a man's nose and ears while he rests or sleeps, leaving the maggots to devour them from the inside out until it became impossible to distinguish the unfortunate chiclero from one of those leprous creatures of high birth one sometimes saw on holiday in Merida. All of this the indians did for a want of money, which need Captain Oveido... unlike Andujar, Carrasco and, most importantly, the General whose palm was ever itching for the touch of gold... would also never understand.
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