The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 2 (May 1, 1936)
Limited Night Entertainments — Part XII. — “Pacotilla.”
We had some difficulty in finding a suitable mount for Captain Maurice Overton when he came to stay at Ngamahoe, for he stood six feet three and weighed over fifteen stone. Eventually, however, the boss borrowed for him a Tribulation mare of seventeen hands which could be more or less depended upon not to get her feet crossed on our precipitous hillsides, and thereafter he spent most of his time helping one or other of us to ride round the ewes. And great company he was with his rolling laugh, his occasional bursts of song, which had to be discouraged in the lambing paddocks, and the keen interest he took in everything about him.
Although he had never before visited New Zealand, he had apparently spent the greater part of his life knocking about the world in a state of perpetual insolvency, and it was at such less enjoyable moments as during one of the sudden hailstorms, for which our uplands were famous, or the plucking of a very dead sheep, that he would come to light with one of his colourful stories. “It's nothing,” he would say, “to what I once experienced in the Balkan mountains, when I walked from Copenhagen to the Piraeus and sang for my supper in the wayside inns,” or, “I remember one time returning after an irrigating dam had burst and finding the compound of my house full of corpses!” —and present unpleasantness would be forgotten in the ensuing flight of fact or fancy, we could never be quite sure which it was!
One evening he and I were returning along the Kereru track, which skirts the hillside by the Main Trunk railway line, and there, shooting a vast plume of smoke into the sunset, came the north-bound express toiling up the long grade to the tunnel beneath the Forty Acre. It was a grand sight, and we halted our horses while the brightly lit cars were clicking by and vanished one by one beneath the hill. For some minutes the Captain remained staring after them in silence, then he turned and critically surveyed the valley and the rails that, like two slender shining ribbons, went winding down it.
“What a place for a hold up!” he ejaculated, and ignoring my satirical laugh, “how fast do you suppose that train was moving; fifteen, twenty miles an hour? An active man could have boarded it down there by those—whats-itsname trees?”
“Quite, —he would have taken the first car, climbed over the tender to the engine cab and ordered the engineman at the point of a gun to stop the train. On such a gradient that would be accomplished in quite a short distance, say opposite those manuka bushes, where the remainder of the gang would be lying in wait. The rest would be simple.”
“Simple enough except for the fact that your train-robbers would be outlawed within the confines of two very small islands 1,200 miles from anywhere; they could never get away with it!”
“Yes,” agreed the Captain, “therein lies your safeguard from such unpleasant happenings! I was once in a holdup in country so similar to this that the sight of the train there brought the incident to mind.”
And this, as we urged our horses forward once more, was the story he told.
Four members of a disbanded Opera Company were trying to get to Mexico City from Ahuehuete in the State of Morelos. Their reason for so doing, apart from the fact that their manager was locked up in the calabozo and their costumes in the Teatro Alamo for debt, was that a fellow called Zapata was making things very uncomfortable for foreigners in the South. They had very little money, but a train was leaving that afternoon for the capital, and by pooling their resources they managed to secure tickets as far as Maguey—a town that was supposed to be beyond the range of the revolutionary Zapatista's activities.
After three hours of irksome travelling they arrived at Maguey, and finding the place a silent smoking ruin, they decided, tickets or no tickets, to remain in the train. It was when the train had started again, and they were discussing how best to square matters with the conductor, that that official made his appearance. A nasty temper he was in, too. “Yanquis” of any kind he declared were nauseous, those without money—pah! They were nothing more than “piojos” and “gachis,” and he, a good servant of the railroad, was going to stop the train and put them off in the scrub. They would walk. Where? Back to Maguey, perhaps, or the devil, it was all the same. One did not ride on his train “de baldo”—or as we should say, “buckshee.”
The train was climbing the steep grade out of the Arroyo Maguey. The coal was poor, oil-fuel was not then in general use on the Mexican lines, and Herrick, looking from the window as they rounded a curve could see the engine making very heavy weather of it; the speed could not have been above six miles an hour. He realised that if they stopped the train there, they would never get it started again, and said so.
“Look,” cried Herrick, “bandits!”
The conductor stuck his head out of the window and swore bitterly, then he turned and charged down the car; they could hear him bellowing three cars away. Heads came poking out of the windows, but were hastily withdrawn as the bandit reappeared and firing a random shot into the air, ran back once more into the scrub. He was answered by a fusillade from the express car next the engine that could only mean one thing—the train was carrying bullion and the usual shot-gun messenger had been supplemented by an armed guard. Miss Veree began to weep dramatically and Barbara Craven drew close to Herrick's side. “What's the next thing, partner?” she asked.
Herrick smiled and squeezed her arm reassuringly, “More chit-chat with the conductor I expect,” he replied, and he was right, for the man returned just as the train gained the top of the rise, and began the steep descent.
“You see,” he cried, flourishing a nickel-plated revolver, “even bandits do not ride my train ‘de baldo’.”
“You are a brave man,” Herrick told him, “and when we arrive in Mexico City, I shall see that you—” he did not finish his sentence, for at that moment there sounded three short blasts from the engine's whistle. The conductor frowned and turned towards the door, the signal was repeated, and he disappeared at the run.
“What's the matter?” asked Barbara.
“Brakes,” replied Herrick shortly, “the engineer can't apply the train brakes.” He leaned far out of the window. “By Heaven!” he cried excitedly, “that bandit knew his business—he must have pulled up the brake cock behind the combination car. We're running away! Quick,” he turned to the others, “get out on to the rear platform.”
Staggering down the now violently swaying car, they gained the rear platform as the train rounded a wide curve. Their speed was increasing every moment. At the rear of the combination car they could see the conductor crouched upon the step as he vainly tried to reach the brake cock. Ahead was a vicious reverse curve, the engine snapped out of sight round it, howling like a lost soul. The express car followed and the combination, careening violently, catapulted the conductor from his precarious hold. His body was still tumbling amongst the rocks and scrub as the rear car flashed by.
Miss Veree began screaming and Lorado Tait was forced to slap her. Once more the front end of the train came into view. Suddenly a great cloud of dust, streaked with fire, shot into the air, and the cars, with a terrible crashing and rending, began piling themselves one on top of the other. The rear car pitched and swayed, began to mount the one ahead of it, and then, as though changing its mind rolled half over, spilling its occupants rudely, but without much hurt, into the right of way.
Herrick must have been partly knocked out, for his next impression was that of a vast sombrero blotting out the stars, which by now were beginning to appear, one by one, in the evening sky. Beneath it stooped a peon who prodded him in the stomach with the butt of an antiquated rifle. Lorado Tait and the girls were standing close by and when Herrick got upon his feet the four of them were herded to a point further up the line. The train had smashed up in a cutting, and here, huddled against the rock-wall, guarded by more armed peons, were such passengers as had survived injury; what was happening to those less fortunate was only too horribly apparent from the shots and cries of anguish which marked the progress of ghoulish figures amongst the wreckage. Mounted men were arriving every minute, cut-throat “indios” and half-breeds in every kind of looted garment from knee-boots to opera cloaks; they could be seen by the light of the flames that were beginning to lick the splintered woodwork, dragging the heavy bullion cases from the express car. These they carried up the line to a small adobe building, and breaking them open loaded their contents on to the backs of pack-mules.
Until this important work was finished no notice was taken of the prisoners, and then there bore down upon them a score of well-armed men. In the centre of this bodyguard swaggered a squat, hairy figure, barbarically splendid as far as his waist; new felt sombrero decorated with silver ornaments, orange silk shirt crossed with two well-filled bandoliers, and striped serape artistically draped over one shoulder, but his trousers, cotton— “calzones,” were dirty and ragged, and he wore sandals on his feet. He puffed at a long thin cigar, page 30 page 31 and grinned wolfishly as he surveyed the wretched group lined up against the cutting wall.
“You know me?” —he said in Spanish argot—“I am General Zapata who will one day be President of all Mexico, but like all great generals and presidents I need money. Your willingness to oblige me will be proof of your goodwill toward the high ideals of Zapatismo!”
“I am afraid,” whispered Lorado Tait, “that there will be some misunderstanding in regard to the members of the Miraflores Opera Company.”
“But for the fact that this man is not Zapata,” Herrick answered.
“Who is he then?”
“Some dirty half-breed who is doing a little private raiding. We must try and play for time.”
The other passengers were disgorging such valuables as they possessed, and presently it was Miss Veree's turn; she screamed as the guards laid their dirty paws upon her, and Herrick stepped for-ward.
“General,” he said, “we are the four chief singers of the Royal Opera. We play to-morrow night at the ‘Mexi-capa’ in Mexico City. I,” he struck an attitude, “am Alvarez.”
The “General” swept his sombrero from his head in an ironical bow, “I am indeed in luck, senor,” he said, “you have undoubtedly much ‘duro’.”
“Undoubtedly General, but not here, famous players do not need ‘duro,’ they travel ‘de baldo’.”
“How? the General puckered his little monkey eyes suspiciously.
Herrick made a disdainful gesture;
“Juggling with coins is beneath us, when we arrive in Mexico City there will be bands and flowers, the patron of the ‘Mexicana’ theatre himself will present the President of the railroad with money and gifts in gratitude for our safe arrival.”
The “General” looked puzzled. “How do I know you speak the truth?” he demanded.
“It would be an honour for us to enact a little play, a play which thousands in the city would pay millions of pesos to see. You will then be convinced that I speak the truth and give us safe transportation to Mexico City. Arrived there we should not only be able to provide you with much ‘duro,’ but also to make things easy for you with those in high places who are in sympathy with Zapatismo. Quien sabe, General? You may be President in a fortnight.”
The “General” looked dubious, he drew one of his lieutenants aside and conferred with him in an undertone. Then Herrick was invited to the conclave, and there was much expansive gesturing with the hands. Presently Herrick returned to his companions.
“It's all right,” he said in English, “we are to give a performance.”
“Never, cried Miss Veree, “you are taking too much upon yourself Mr. Her-rick; you seem to have forgotten your position. Anyone would think we were buskers that we should entertain these ragamuffins in the middle of the desert.”
“Better to be a live busker than a dead opera singer, however bad,” Herrick retorted.
“But how is the performance to help us,” asked Lorado Tait?
Lorado Tait looked round at the desolate hillsides. “Who are you expecting?” he asked with an effort at satire, “the marines.”
“Down by that adobe shack,” Herrick ignored the interruption, “is a passing loop. The shack itself is connected with the telegraph wires. That means it contains an emergency key for the use of train crews. We will arrange the ‘General’ and his bravos on the tracks, and the space immediately in front of the shack will be our stage. We will make our entrances from behind the shack, and while you three hold the stage I'll try and get into it and call up the nearest division point.”
“What do you propose we shall play?” asked Lorado Tait. “We can't do much with only four of us and no costumes or music.”
“That's up to you,” replied Herrick, “we need something with plenty of time off stage for me, and plenty of noise from Miss Veree to drown the sound of the telegraph key, and it will have to be good, because the Lord knows how long it will be before help arrives.”
And so, under the purple canopy of the night, with the ruddy glare from the burning cars as their footlights, this fragment of the Miraflores Opera Company produced a remarkable hotchpotch, a revue almost, of operatic talent, which at moments bore a faint resemblance to the great Carmen. If a performance may be judged from the point of view of heroism then it was the finest they had ever given; the appreciation of their audience was considerably enhanced by the looted wines of Maguey which, squatting about on the railroad tracks, they washed down with native tequila. The forceful Herrick dominated the situation. He combined a caricature of a toreador with the role of impresario. He made impromptu speeches and dubious jokes, and begged a couple of quarts of champagne from one of the guards on which he fed his little troupe and all the time he worked feverishly under cover for their salvation.
In his exits he examined the back of the adobe shack and found that by swinging himself upon the projecting ends of rafters he could reach the thatch which was rotten enough to be torn away. When he had made a hole large enough to squeeze through, he found as he had hoped, that the building did indeed contain a telegraph key. He returned to the stage and launched Miss Veree into her duet with Lorado Tait then, while her top notes were rousing answering howls from the coyotes on the surrounding hills, he entered the shack by the hole he had made and feverishly tapped his SOS. Hurrying back to the stage to allay any suspicion a lengthy exit might have aroused, he strained his ears to catch the chittering of the key in reply.
“Mio madre io la rivedo,” sang Miss Veree, and “Louder, dammit!” whispered Herrick as the key suddenly began to click.
“You'll have to improvise a bit now. Remember the reward for failure is…” he drew a finger expressively across his throat. Miss Veree paled and redoubled her vocal efforts while Herrick backed off the stage with pantomimic gestures to cloak his desperate purpose.
(Continued on P. 37.)