IT WAS A WARM September night. About an hour after dark Bob Snow drove up to a little wooden house just off the highway and sounded his horn. Saturnino Cantú came out buttoning in his shirttail. He had evidently been asleep. The moonlight flooded a field on one side of the house; on the other it shone on an unending stretch of the earth-guarding brush—mesquite, granjeno and a score of other species—that characterizes the vast land between the Nueces and the Rio Grande.
After a swift introduction in Spanish, Bob Snow said to Saturnino Cantú, “This gentleman likes stories. I have brought him to you to hear a story. Please do me the favor to tell him one.”
“With pleasure.” Without pause for a period, Saturnino was off on what he called “The Tale of the Two Companions.” He spoke in the manner of an accordion which gives out notes while both inhaling and exhaling. Saturnino's notes were also musical. We sat in the car while he stood there in the moonlight and told the tale.
These two compañeros were rascals, and finally the King ordered them to leave his country. The capital of it was called the City of the Mouth of the River. They left together and traveled two days afoot, going west into the mountains. Along late on the second day they came to a spring beside the trail and drank. They went on getting hungrier and hungrier. Then they came in sight of a ranchería called San Juan del Picacho—just a few jacales (cabins). They heard a rooster and saw some goats. Down in the valley were some little fields of corn and pumpkins. They knew the people here had food.
A big rock at a turn of the trail hid them as they looked. This road they were traveling was, you will understand, only for people riding mules or on foot. Here the first companion said to the other, “I will go ahead and tell the people something to please them. Then after a little while you come up and confirm what I say. We must not show that we have known each other. Thus we shall make our welcome.”
So the First Companion went up to the ranchería. These people so far out in the mountains seldom saw a stranger and soon all of the households were around him.
“What is there of news?” they asked.
“No, all is pacific,” the First Companion answered.
“You have come from the City of the Mouth of the River, is it not so?” the spokesman of the group pressed.
“Then you must know something new. Look, we live here at the tail end of the world. We are very humble, without instruction. Tell us something new.”
“Well,” the First Companion responded, “the only thing new I can tell is what I heard just as I was leaving the City of the Mouth of the River. I heard people saying that the river was on fire.”
“We did not ask for lies,” a man of San Juan dryly observed.
“I told you I was reporting only what I heard,” the First Companion replied. “But look, yonder comes a man from the direction I came from. Perhaps he knows something.”
The Second Companion walked up and was courteously saluted by the country people, also by the First Companion, as if he had never seen him.
“Sir,” he said, “I myself have just arrived at this place. I come from the City of the Mouth of the River. You seem to come from that direction also. I was telling the people here that when I left, rumor had it that the river was on fire. I do not understand how this could be, but perhaps you know something of the matter.”
“Yes, I come also from the City of the Mouth of the River,” the Second Companion replied. “Like you, I heard also that the river was on fire. I did not see it burning, but as I was leaving I saw ox carts coming up loaded with fish already cooked, and I was told that they had been both boiled and baked by the burning water.”
“Excuse us,” a man of San Juan del Picacho addressed the First Companion, “for doubting your word. This señor proves beyond a doubt that you have spoken the truth. It is a thing very curious. It is a blessing to us out here in the mountains when we hear news of the great city. Now come into your house.”
So the Two Companions found hospitality. For days they ate goat meat and eggs and tortillas and frijoles and were very contented. In time, however, they wore out their welcome and decided to travel on.
They walked on west, deeper into the mountains. They had traveled more than a day when they came in sight of the next ranchería, a little village by the name of Santa María. Just before they got to it the Second Companion stopped and remained hidden in a little canyon while the First Companion went on.
“Good morning, sir,” he greeted an old man sunning himself on a rock.
“Good morning, sir,” the old man responded. “Ave María Purísima of the Refuge.”
“In grace conceived without original sin,” the First Companion gravely gave back.
By now other people were coming from spots of sunshine and from the houses to behold the stranger and to hear him.
“What is there of news?” the humble old man asked.
“But no, all is pacific,” responded the First Companion.
“That is possible,” said the old man, “but look, we live here cut off from all the world like a pothole of water in a desert of parched rocks. We are all humble and never hear anything. You come from afar. You must know something. Tell us.”
“I but come from the ranchería of San Juan del Picacho, nearly two days to the east,” the First Companion replied. “The only thing of any interest that I noted there was a great bird flying over the valley. It was so big that its wings were like two great clouds shutting out the sunlight. When it passed, the chickens started to go to roost as if the sun were going down. The people said it had its nest in the mountains.”
“That is more marvelous than the goat that belched up gold coins,” the old man replied. “Perhaps you saw the cloud wings of this bird drenching the earth with rain. No doubt thunder and lightning came out of them also. Now that I think of it, the sun shriveled up here the other day. I understand the reason now. The cloud wings of that big bird had rained water up into the sun's fires as well as down on earth. Tell us some more news.”
The old man was clearly offended at being taken for a sheep. His people at the same time were making sounds, not polite, to express disgust at the liar. And now they noticed the Second Companion coming up the trail.
“I'll declare! Yonder comes a man that I saw in San Juan del Picacho, just as I was leaving,” the First Companion exclaimed. “Ask him about the bird.”
“Señor,” the old man of Santa Maria addressed the Second Companion, after polite salutations had been exchanged, “you look like a man of honor. This stranger,” indicating the First Companion, “has been telling us about a marvelous bird he saw flying over San Juan del Picacho. He reports its wings to be bigger and blacker than the clouds which in June drench the earth. Perhaps you, too, have seen this curious thing.”
“No,” the Second Companion replied, “truth compels me to admit that I have not seen it. I did hear something about it. All I know is that just as I was leaving San Juan del Picacho the men and boys were coming up with an egg so large that the only way they could move it was to lever it with long poles. I understand they found the egg out in a mountain where the bird was said to have its nest.”
“Then you have not lied after all,” the old man said to the First Companion. “Please excuse me and my people for having doubted your word. The house you see here is poor, but it is yours. Do us the favor to enter.”
For days the two companions ate stewed chicken and tortillas and frijoles and drank black coffee with the hospitable people of Santa María. In time, however, they thought it wise to travel on, and again they set out westward. The mountains grew higher and the trail more crooked. They shivered all night by the fire they made under a big pine tree. The next day they came in sight of a village called San José de los Remedios. The First Companion entered it while the Second Companion remained out of sight.
“Good day,” he saluted a young man who was coming out of a jacal with an old .44 Winchester.
“Good day,” the young man greeted him. “What is there of news?”
“No, all is pacific,” the First Companion replied.
“Perhaps you are a hunter also,” the young man suggested.
“Oh, no, though I did make a curious shot back at Santa María the other day.”
“My father has been to Santa María,” the young man said. “It is more cigarettes to the east than I can count.”
“Yes, the shot I made was very unusual.” The First Companion paused to greet several other men gathering from the huts clustered in the valley.
One of the men who looked important turned out to be the jefe político—the mayor. “What is there of news?” he asked.
“I was just about to tell this young hunter of a curious shot I made back of Santa Maria,” the First Companion went on. “The people there were without meat. The jefe político had a rifle exactly like this one, but he had only one shell. He hunted for two days without getting a shot. Then he asked me if I cared to try my luck. I took the rifle, went around the first mountain, and there on the side of it came face to face with a very large buck. He was so fat he was black. Prooo, and down he went. I stuck him, but had to go back for a mule in order to carry him in.”
“Good. But what was there curious about the shot?” the jefe político asked.
“As I said,” the First Companion replied, “I had but one cartridge. It was well known in Santa María that no other cartridge existed. Well, when the fine buck was brought in, everybody was amazed at the shot I had made. According to the bullet holes, the buck had been hit in the head at the butt of his ear on the sword side [right side] and through the hind foot on the mounting side [left side].”
“The wonder is that you did not so shoot the hairs out of his tail that they went up his nostrils and made him sneeze his lungs out,” the jefe político snorted. “It is true that we live here as out of the world as the old bear that snores alone in her den on the north side of the highest mountain all winter long. But, sir, we are not fools or babies. We are decent, and we have sense enough to resent an insult to our intelligence.”
The voice of the outraged jefe político was rising higher and higher when all of a sudden that of the Second Companion was heard. While the details of the wonderful shot were being related and debated, he had approached unnoticed.
“I was there in the patio of the owner of the rifle in Santa María,” the Second Companion announced, “when this señor brought the buck in on a mule. Excuse me. This señor is a stranger to me, but I understand that he has been accused of telling a lie. It is just that I explain the marvel we all beheld. You see, when this señor shot the buck in the head at the butt of his ear on the sword side, the buck was scratching that ear with his hind foot on the other side.”
“Clear, clear,” voices went up.
“Excuse me, my friends,” the jefe político said warmly, extending his hand. “I was too hasty. Prove your forgiveness by entering your house and commanding us, at your orders.”
After the Two Companions had feasted a week and at last left the village to travel on farther west, the First Companion said, “Well, we are doing all right. What did you think of that last lie I fixed up?”
“Friend,” replied the Second Companion, “the next time you had better be a little more careful or I may not be able to get you out.”