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Comin’ south early on: Startling experiences in a brand new place

Allyn Hunt, a former editor and owner of this newspaper and South of North columnist for more than 45 years, has retired from writing his weekly column. The Reporter will occasionally publish previously run columns of his in this space. This column was first published in May, 1988.

The first time I came to Mexico in a serious way, I planned to get the train that started just outside Mexicali, in Baja California. That trip began auspiciously. A plainclothes man stopped me on the main street of Calexico, on the U.S. side, to ask a lot of questions. But he gave up when he saw my identification. I was tall and he took me for an older man. He called me “kid,” clapped me on the back and sent me on into the hot Calexico morning.

Across the border, a wiry, short man with a wheelbarrow insisted on taking my duffle bag out to the dusty plain where the train stood not far from the station. He charged me 50 cents.

When it was time to get on, all the women went into the passenger cars first. Then their husbands or sons shoved their baggage through the train windows to the womenfolk.

I stood in the blowing dust wondering what to do when a plump lady with black braids big as rope motioned me to hand my stuff through the train window. I did, then wondering if I would ever find her once I got inside.

Isabela “Chabela” Rodriguez Garcia and a teenaged nephew, Ignacio Hernandez, had been working in the fields north of the border. Now they were going back to their “tierra,” El Jaluco, Michoacan, to care for a relative who was down with pneumonia.

Though Chabela had saved me an end of one of the slat-boarded park benches used for seats on the train, it was her nephew, “Nacho,” who wanted to practice his English. “Hardly nobody in the fields talks Inglés. Only the mero-mero, and I never got to talk to him.”

If he didn’t bring back as much English as he wanted, Ignacio did have an impressive souvenir: a 45-caliber Webley revolver. He’d bargained for it in a Mexicali used-clothing store. It was big and he said he couldn’t hit a thing with it.

A skinny kid, he kept it hidden from his aunt underneath his shirt, stuck in his waistband. Guns were awfully popular around Mexico in those days. Every town of any size had a store that sold them, legally or illegally, so his World War I pistol didn’t surprise me much.

About four nights later, when the train was stopped in what seemed to be a desert so soldiers could search it, Ignacio did surprise me. A stout man with a reddish mustache and a wash of freckles across his nose started following Chabela around as she gathered up railroad tie splinters and dead weeds to get a fire going to heat some beans and tortillas while we waited. I thought he was a gringo, but according to Nacho he was a Spaniard who also spoke Yaqui. As Chabela knelt before a wide enameled frying pan heating our food, her new admirer squatted down and slouched an arm around her. She shoved him off and said something I didn’t understand. Whatever it was it made the man grab one of her braids like he was going to pull it off. Nacho stepped out of the darkness and put the Webley against the back of the man’s head. The click as he pulled back the hammer was as loud as could be.

The man froze, letting go of Chabela, who looked at her nephew with an amazed expression. They talked back and forth for about a minute. Then Nacho said something to the red mustached man and let him get up. The man sneered at Nacho, walked to the edge of the firelight where he turned around and called us several names. Then he disappeared between passenger cars.

Chabela was crying and scolding Nacho and stirring the beans all at the same time. “Why’s she so mad at you?” I asked Nacho. “That bastard said he’s going to tell the soldiers I’ve got a gun, that I’m the one they’re looking for.”

“Well, take off over behind those dunes beyond the engine until the train starts moving.”

Chabela neatly rolled a handful of tortillas around hot refried beans for him and he trotted into the darkness.

But soldiers never came by to ask us any questions. The train got up steam about dawn, and Nacho climbed into our car before it gained much speed.

Chabela was still furious, but Nacho went right to sleep while she was lecturing him.

That night when we stopped in a small pueblo for the train to take on water and let the passengers get new supplies, the red mustache showed up again. As the engineer was throttling up steam and Chabela and I bargained hurriedly for some jitomates and col, he walked up and put an arm around her hips.

When I took hold of his shoulder, he pushed me back over a wooden rail. The man laughed and tried to grab Chabela as she set out for the caboose. Sprinting after her, I banged him with the water-logged pail.

In the darkness on the other side of the train, I heard him tromping the roadbed behind us. Then a big flash of yellow exploded off to our left. The mustached man went headlong into the cinders, then jumped up and ran away.

Nacho was on board before we got to our car. Chabela didn’t say a word to him.

Nacho was shaking, his eyes were snappy and he was talking Spanish. “I saw him chasing Chabela. Then that old pistol was pointed right at him. I don’t know if I really meant to do that or not. I scared myself when it went off.”

“It’s amazing the way guns work, isn’t it?” I said.

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