Our Sister Republic/Chapter 20
ORIZABA—THE GREAT CONDUCTA.
ORIZABA is one of the most curious old towns which we visited in Mexico. It more resembles Colima in its surroundings than any other, but the growth of tropical vegetation in the immediate vicinity, is not to be compared with that which gives such an air of oriental luxuriance and magnificence to the City of the Sun, out by the Western Ocean, through which we made our entrance into Mexico. The heavy, flat or arched stone roofs of the central table lands and elevated plains of Mexico, disappear at the Cumbres, and at Orizaba we saw only low-walled buildings, for the most part but one story in height, with wide projecting eaves, and pitching roofs covered with the same old fashioned red tiles which the Spaniards placed there three hundred and forty years ago.
Mr. Seward's party were quartered in the most comfortable manner, in one of the few two-story houses in the city, which was owned by a young physician, Dr. Talivera, and from our windows we looked down upon the streets of the greater portion of the town. The streets are wide, and tolerably straight, and paved with lava. The gutters are in the middle of the street, and the sidewalks are mere banquettes, about three feet—rarely four feet—in width, hardly wide enough for two persons to walk abreast. Grass fresh and green— though not tall I must admit—grows, more or less, in all the streets, and water-cresses are found along the margins of the little streams of fresh water which flow through the gutters in the center.
Off the main street, through which the diligencia passes twice or thrice a day, plying between the railway station at Paso del Macho, the present western terminus of the Eastern section, and Puebla, the present eastern terminus of the Western section which comes down from Mexico, one hardly ever sees a carriage of any kind, unless it be a heavy mule wagon, loaded with cotton, or a wooden-wheeled oxcart lumbering slowly and painfully along. We found one street which appeared to be considerably traveled, so much so that Mr. Frederick Seward started off in an enthusiastic manner, to see where it led to, and ascertain the cause of its unusually lively character: it led to the cemetery, and nowhere else, as I am an honest and conscientious man.
The prospect of the railway being finished from Vera Cruz to Orizaba—the name of the city is always pronounced as if spelled Orizava, (i. e. O-re-zah-vah) with the accent on the last syllable but one—during the Empire, infused a little life into the town, and a very good sized "Hotel de la Diligencias" was erected and opened; but the work was suspended when the Empire went down, and for a long time all life appeared to be dying out. The work has been resumed with some energy, and the grading of the sixteen leagues between Orizaba and Paso del Macho, and up the mountain side around the Cumbres to the great plain above on which Puebla is situated, was so well advanced as to ensure its completion at an early day, and the people were again looking forward with hope to the future. Nevertheless, we found the town as quiet as a well-regulated cemetery, and saw no sign of life, such as would be found in an American city.
The mists from the Gulf of Mexico come up here almost daily, and it rains, more or less, nearly every week in the year. The atmosphere is of course very damp, and fevers are quite prevalent and severe.
Most of the freight between the end of the two sections of the railway, is packed through the Cumbres, and over the dusty plains to Puebla, or vice versa, upon mule backs; but all the vegetables, charcoal, country produce, earthenware, etc., etc., is still packed into this, as other towns, on the backs of stalwart male and female Indians.
It is wonderful how much these Indians will carry on their backs at a dog-trot, and how cheaply they will carry it. If they have to transport a given amount of freight for twenty miles, even right alongside the railway all the way, they never think of putting it upon the cars, but divide it up into three or four hundred pound packages, get it upon their backs, and go off at a pace equal to the average speed of a fast-walking horse.
If they start for a town, with a load of fruit or vegetables to be sold in the market, they will not dispose of it on the way, even if offered double the price at which they propose to sell it on the plaza. Like the negro, who when fishing for catfish, was seen to catch a fine, large pickerel, deliberately take him off the hook, and throw him out into the stream as far as his strength would enable him to hurl him, and who, in answer to an inquiry as to his reason for so doing, replied: "I'se fishin' for cattish I is, an' when I fishes for cats I wants cats, an' dont want no pickerel to come foolin' aroun' my hook!" they will do just what they started out for, or die on the way. They are in no hurry to get back, any way; and the scene in the plaza varies, not unpleasantly for them, the dull monotony of the daily round of their quiet, uneventful lives.
Jokes are played off by travelers, on the habits and customs of all people, and all countries. I had often heard an assertion made in regard to these Indian packers returning from market, which I regarded as one of these traveler's jokes; but an American citizen, who has been engaged in Mexico as a railway builder, and has brought all the energies of a giant mind to bear upon the subject, told me at Orizaba that it is an absolute fact, that they are so accustomed to carrying heavy loads, that the moment the weight is off their shoulders they lose their traction, so to speak, cannot get a good hold upon the ground with their toes, and are as thoroughly "at sea," as a sailor on horseback. If they cannot find anything in the city to pack back to their homes, they will put a few chunks of lava, or boulders into their baskets, to ballast them and give them a traction, and start off, dissatisfied, but proudly conscious of having done the best that could be done under the disadvantageous circumstances of the case. A less speculative and more matter-of-fact people I never saw in my life.
There is a fine, large cotton mill with two thousand spindles, and a large paper mill with American machinery—brought out and erected by Mr. Richard G. Ashby, from Massachusetts—located near the city. The water-power is abundant, and labor cheap, but the high price of raw cotton, the depressed state of trade, and an overstocked market, render all hope of profit from the working of the cotton factory out of the question, at present. The cotton mill was not running, but it was proposed to start it up again as an experiment, soon, and run it for a short time at least. The paper mill is kept running at a moderate profit.
The city stands in a narrow, but beautiful and very fertile valley, with towering, green, forest-clad mountains all around, and Orizaba, snow-crowned and glorious, looks down upon it. There may be eighteen thousand to twenty thousand people in the city, all told, of whom a large number are engaged in trade or in waiting for trade to come to them; I saw plenty of shops and stores, but few buyers for the wares exposed.
On the hill above the city, the French and Mexicans had a fight by night, the latter being surprised, panic-stricken, and routed, almost in a moment; they did better later in the war. My window faced a fine old church, in the front wall of which I counted a dozen cannon balls, and the tower appeared to have been occupied by sharp-shooters who were receiving like attentions from the opposing party, as it was pitted all over with marks of musket-balls, as if it had the small pox. I asked a man who stood in front of it, when and how the ball and bullet marks came there. He said, with a grim humor, that he did not remember; it was el costumbre del pais, (the custom of the country) and might have been done at any time within the last fifty years. God grant that it may be the custom of the country no longer, and that Orizaba and all Mexico may have seen the last of such scenes!
The French and mercenary troops in the employ of Maximilian, committed the most terrible outrages in the State of Vera Cruz in the vicinity of Orizaba. Whole villages were depopulated, or nearly so, and peaceable, unoffending citizens, shot down in cold blood from mere devilishness, by the Turcos and other troops. One Colonel Dupin was among the worst of the leaders who were concerned in the perpetration of these wholesale massacres. His motto was, "kill every man who wears leather breeches." As four-fifths of the common people of Mexico, wear leather breeches, when they wear any at all, it is evident that the proclamation of such a policy was equivalent to inaugurating a reign of terror, and a war of utter extermination.
No man was safe who attempted to pass over the roads of the state, unless he was in the uniform of the imperial army, and the residents of the most retired hamlets knew not at what moment a force of the imported cut-throats might be turned loose upon them, to kill, ravish, burn, and destroy at will. In the city of Orizaba, women were brought into the French camp and so maltreated by the Turcos that they died on the spot. Language is powerless to depict the horrors of that time. Dupin was, with all his infernal brutality, a man of courage, and repeatedly cut his way through the enemy when surrounded by a numerically superior force; but he was corralled and killed at last.
A similar character, a French colonel, met his fate in Durango during the occupation of that State. His troops caught a Mexican officer, and by his direction, shot him down in front of his own door, before the eyes of his young and lovely wife. To his astonishment the bereaved wife made no outcry, and did not reproach him for the murder. A few days later he met the beautiful woman at a party and was introduced. She took the matter so coolly that he inquired how it could be, and she replied that her husband was a brute; that she had never loved nor cared for him, and that she was glad when justice overtook him at last. An intimacy sprang up between them, and after some weeks the French colonel who had made her a widow, obtained her reluctant consent to visit her on a certain evening at her own apartments.
The meeting was tender and affectionate on both sides, and the Frenchman was delighted beyond words. The lady urged him to join with her in a glass of wine, and he, nothing loth, consented. After he had drank she stepped out of the room, and closing the heavy door between them, locked it in an instant and then called out to him:
"Colonel: you murdered my husband before my eyes! Your time has come now. That wine was poisoned, and in five minutes you will be a dead man! I have waited long for this; how do you like it?"
He fell, striving vainly to escape from the room, and expired in horrible agony. But her words had been overheard by a servant, who betrayed her, and she was condemned to death for the murder. She went to her execution with a smile of satisfaction on her face, and died glorying in what she had done.
It was Christmas Eve when we entered Orizaba, and all the bells were ringing, and they rung nearly all the time we were there. I rather liked it after I got used to it, but it was a little rough at first. The Christmas festivities are kept up in Orizaba for something like a month, and are mainly of two kinds. Those within the churches should take precedence of course. A part of our party attended the midnight mass on the "Buena Noche," or night before Christmas, and saw the procession of the wise men of the East enter in search of the new-born Christ, while kneeling thousands looked on in admiration, and repeated the prayers for the occasion. The music was fine, the singing good, and the spectacle altogether a beautiful and imposing one.
On Sunday I went to the cathedral with two lady friends, one who went to pray with a simple, child-like faith, for the loved parents, sisters, brothers and friends she was leaving behind her in the home of her youth; and one of another faith, a happy young wife, who went with her, only to watch over her as is the custom of the country. I stopped at the door while they went in. My married friend wore a fashionable hat upon her head, and did not conform to the usages of the place, but stood erect, by the wall. These facts drew the attention of some of the worshipers, and one of them approaching her said reproachfully, but not exactly threateningly, and apparently more in sorrow than in anger, "I see that you are a devil!" whereupon, she came out at once, and waited by the door, until the young girl, with a face radiant with the pleasure which comes from the consciousness of duty well performed, arose from her knees and came forth to meet us.
A few years since it would not have been safe for a Protestant woman, with her head covered with a hat, to have been seen in that place, but now the case is different. There is some trace of the old bigotry to be seen among the lower classes still, but its fire is fast dying out in every part of Mexico.
On Sunday night we went to the theater, where a grand sacred drama was being performed by a native company. The subject was the birth of Our Savior, and the scenes were laid in Heaven, on Earth, and in Hell. The play opened with a vivid representation of the commotion in the latter place, on the announcement being made that the Savior of mankind was about to be born. They could not raise the devil in better shape in the City Hall in New York, and they played hell, throughout, with a very strong caste. The scenes on earth were not so well done, and Heaven did not strike me as particularly attractive. It was all worth seeing once in a life-time. They have been some twenty years building a new theatre here opposite the cathedral, and the walls and roof are now nearly completed. The Dutch custom of giving presents to children and friends on Christmas, now so general in the United States, appears to be but little observed in any part of Mexico.
But the great feature of the Christmas festivities in Orizaba is the gambling. The whole plaza in front of the Cathedral is given up to it, and all who desire to open business, are licensed by the city. Thitherward the greatest crowds were tending on Christmas Eve, and I went with the majority. Along one entire side of the plaza is a row of booths devoted to roulette, played with French machines, and, apparently, "on the square." Crowds of all ages, colors, and conditions, were around the tables, and business appeared to be brisk. The banks generally had a goodly sum in silver dollars, halves, quarters, rials and medios in sight, but no gold. The bets were mostly small—few exceeding a dollar—and many being but one rial or a medio each. When I placed a dollar on the red as an experiment, won, and doubled it and won again, the crowd in front fell back respectfully, and I had the game all to myself until I was a dozen dollars ahead, and concluding the game too uncertain, bid the dealer good-night, received a courteous good-night in turn, and moved on. The poor people appear to play right on, as long as they have a dime left, and of course the bank comes out ahead in the long run.
Farther up there is a large booth in which quino is played, for fancy articles, china ware, etc., etc., the cost of a card being six and one-fourth cents, or four for twenty-five cents. I did not know the game, but Col. Green acted as my padrino, and in half an hour I was the happy possessor of seven sets of fancy china cups and saucers, with two servers to match, all at an outlay of only one dollar and a quarter. I regret to be compelled to add that I offered them for one dollar—they were valued at seven—and got no bidder among my companions; but I made a family of little children happy with them, and felt that I had got more than the worth of my money, after all.
Chuck-a-luck games ran down the center of the plaza; monte, faro, etc., etc., were scattered about—in the minority, and not well patronized—and the side opposite the roulette booths, is covered with a great shed capable of seating one thousand or fifteen hundred people, which is devoted exclusively to quino, played for money. The cards or tickets, are pasted down upon the tables and must number at least one thousand all told. Each player is provided with a handful of corn with which to keep the game as the numbers, drawn out by the dealer are called, and as fast as one game is, finished—it takes about three minutes—the collectors go around and collect in the rials for a new one. Each game costs each player a rial, or two rials if it is a "double up," and the bank gets nothing but a percentage on the amount paid in, for doing the business. This place is filled every night, and much of the day, by people of all classes; ladies and gentlemen of the best families making little parties at the tables, and enjoying the sport as heartily as anybody. I went there with a party of ladies and gentlemen, played half a dozen games without winning one, then went to a roulette table, bet twice on the red and twice on the black, won all four bets, and quit gambling. It is not a first-rate business to follow, even in Mexico, where it is regarded, generally, as quite legitimate, and in a very different light from that in which we see it in the United States.
The most singular thing about this wholesale gambling is the perfect good order which prevails in the crowd. I did not see a drunken man, nor hear an angry word or an oath among all the thousands of players. When you remember, that to four-fifths of these players the loss of a single dollar is of greater moment than the loss of one hundred to the average American patron of the gaming table, you can readily understand what an event it is in their lives. Yet courtesy and forbearance are displayed upon all sides, and the losers never give vent to audible grumbling, while the winners—what there are of them—pocket their gains without a sign of exultation. Men who have lost their last medio will sit down by your side, and keep the account of the game for you, condoling with you when you lose, and congratulating you when you win, with as much earnestness as if they had known you for years In many cities of Mexico gambling is now prohibited, and, as with us, can only be carried on by stealth; but in the smaller towns throughout the country, it is not exactly the vice but the prevailing misfortune of the people.
Procuring saddle-horses in Orizaba, a number of our party with several gentlemen from the city, rode out through fine fields of sugar-cane and orange and banana plantations, a distance of three miles to the Falls of the Rincon Grande. The Rio de Agua Blanco, a deep, swift-running, pure, fresh-water stream, comes rushing, like the Truckee in Nevada, down from the mountains on the eastward of the city, running most of the distance through a deep and very picturesque cañon.
At the point where the falls commence, the stream divides, one half running on down the cañon, and the other running out on the top of the mesa, or table-rock of lava, which forms one side of the ravine, then turning, and falling in many smaller streams over the precipitous face of the cliff into the bottom of the cañon, and in a cloud of spray, mingling with the waters of the main stream below.
The perpendicular fall, itself, cannot exceed fifty feet at this point, but in outline it is a miniature Niagara, and the wealth of tropical verdure and flowers which surround it, as the gold and enamel surround the diamond when it leaves the cunning hand of the jeweler, makes it a gem of exquisite beauty, such as can never be seen in colder climes than this. The trees all around are covered with long, grey moss, and numberless parasites, all of which bear gorgeous-colored flowers. Some of these flowers are in shape like an ear of corn, six to eight inches in length, of the most brilliant scarlet, and set in a cup of bright green leaves, the whole looking more like skillful wax-work, than the work of nature.
All around the falls the foliage and shrubbery is so dense as to preclude walking, except in narrow footpaths cut for the purpose, and at the end of the year, when everything in the far North is buried in the snows of winter, all is as green, and red, and gay-colored and beautiful as in midsummer. In this tropical paradise, only man and his works pass away; the glory of Nature is eternal and unchanging: "In Summer and in Winter shall it be."
The rushing waters come down to the edge of the precipice through a rank growth of great canes, which swing and sway with the pressure of the current, like willows by our northern rivers when swept by the winds of summer. Clinging to the jagged lava rocks which divide the stream above the falls, wherever there is a handful of earth to nourish them, are great banana trees, with broad leaves like the banners of an army of giants, waving in the soft breeze of the South. All the face of the rock between the streams of falling water is covered with clinging plants and flowering shrubs, and one rock, shaped like a cross, which projected from the center out into the falling spray, was enwreathed with flowers like an artificial garland, as if they had been hung there by some dear woman's hand, to mark the last resting place of the loved and lost.
We went down by a winding pathway to the bottoms of the cañon, opposite the fall, and sitting beneath the broad-spreading trees, gazed upon the scene until its beauty was indelibly impressed upon our minds, to be treasured up in memory forever; then gathered some sweet wild-flowers, to be pressed and carried away as souvenirs for our friends in the North, and re-mounting our horses, galloped towards the city.
On our way back we turned off from our road, and visited the great sugar ranch of San Antonio. The hacienda stands in a narrow cañon through which runs a small stream of pure water, and is surrounded by wide fields of luxuriant and rich-juiced cane, running up to the suburbs of the city. The sugar works are run by water-power, and though the crusher is of American make, all the other machinery and appliances are of the rudest and most primitive character.
The cane-juice is boiled in great, open, copper kettles set in brick-work, and is bailed from one to another until the last is reached, by naked-footed men, whose skin appears to be so indurated as to resist the action of the scalding fluid as thoroughly as the metal itself. The sugar, in its crude state, is placed in very large earthen moulds, wide at the top, and running to a point at the bottom, and covered with a peculiar clay made into a thin paste, which filtering through it, bleaches the mass to a pale brown color.
The sugar is sweet, and for coffee, fully equal to the article of a pale yellow hue called "coffee sugar" in the United States. This is the common product of the sugar haciendas of Mexico, and the process is that in general use all over the Republic from the Pacific to the Atlantic. With railways, a good and liberal system of revenue laws, and a few years of uninterrupted peace, Mexico could supply the United States, Canada, and much of Europe, with all the sugar required, and control the market of the world.
The coffee tree flourishes in the vicinity of Orizaba in all possible luxuriance, and the product of the but indifferently tilled plantations between this point and Paso del Macho, is sufficient to supply the demand for a considerable extent of country. Mexico produces nearly, or quite, enough coffee for home consumption, and under more favorable conditions of society could furnish in a short time, an almost unlimited quantity for export. To sum up in a word, the Republic of Mexico has within her limits resources of wealth and comfort unbounded, and the day will come—I trust it may not be far distant—when she will be regarded, with reason, as the Paradise of the world.
In Mexico, there are no great Express Companies to transport specie cheaply and quickly through the country, as in the United States; and as the roads swarm with bands of robbers, from one end of the Republic to the other, when there is a chance for plunder offered, it follows, that the safety of the silver and gold from the mines of the interior, on its way to the coast, becomes a matter of such importance that the Government is compelled to assume the responsibility of providing for it. Accordingly, the troops are always held ready to escort it from point to point, and protect it, at any risk, from attack and plunder.
Notice is .given, of the time a "conducta" will leave Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, or other point for Mexico, and from Mexico for Vera Cruz, and shippers avail themselves of the opportunity offered, to forward the millions of hard dollars which accumulate in a few weeks or months at the center of one of the great mining districts, willingly paying the tax imposed in order to secure the protection of the Government troops; this protection is not always effectual, as recent events demonstrate that the escort itself, is, sometimes, not wholly trustworthy and incorruptible. When we were journeying towards the coast, the state of affairs along the route gave additional interest to the movements of the conductas.
For some weeks, the departure of the conducta from Mexico with treasure for Europe and the United States, had been the theme of much conversation all along the road. It was known that the pronunciados in the State of Puebla had their eyes upon this conducta, and would certainly attack it if they found themselves strong enough, or the guard weak enough, to warrant them in the attempt. Then it was further known, that Gen. Negrete had been in Mexico in disguise, and it was feared that his clandestine visit had some connection with a project to attack this conducta; and therefore the Government had made extraordinary arrangements for its protection.
From the hour of its starting from the Capital, down to the end of the trip, the bulletin-board at the Lonja at Vera Cruz, had shown the daily progress of the conducta, adding "all safe" at each new announcement. The precautions taken had proved all-sufficient, and the most dangerous portion of the road was passed or would be passed in a day or two. The silver was expected to reach Vera Cruz in season for the American steamer Cleopatra on the 10th of January.
On Monday, January 3d, the long looked for conducta came filing into the City of Orizaba, and the whole of the irregular, wide, main street of the town was filled with it. There were two million seven hundred thousand dollars in this conducta, and the entire train resembled a division of a grand army in appearance. There were forty-six carts, each drawn by fourteen to eighteen mules and loaded with over sixty thousand dollars in specie, and pack-animals and carts for the baggage of the escort, and the escort itself consisted of eight hundred men of all arms, viz; five hundred picked infantry, including two companies of Zapodores from the capital, under the immediate command of Major Rocha, nearly three hundred cavalry, and a detachment of artillery with two field-pieces, all under the command of Colonel Lerya of the regular army of Mexico.
The conducta did not take the railway, but marched down the old stage road, via Puebla, and came on, direct, toward Vera Cruz. Their encampment in the streets of Orizaba presented one of the most novel and interesting spectacles imaginable. Each cart had its separate guard, and the whole a general one, which was changed from hour to hour, day and night, with military precision; and whether on the march or in camp, on the wild mountains or in a quiet city like Orizaba, the care and watchfulness was never for a moment relaxed. I have already described the manner of the marching of a detachment of Mexican troops as we saw it between Colima and Guadalajara; but this was a repetition of that scene on a grander and more extended scale.
Of course the conducta was the grand feature of the day, and caused a great excitement, and an unwonted appearance of life in the streets of Orizaba. At night the spectacle, when the troops were preparing their suppers and making ready for the night, was more wild and picturesque than during the day.
In the morning, the long train of treasure-laden carts, with its advance-guard, rear-guard, and immediate escort was in motion at an early hour, the trumpets and kettle-drums of the different corps filling the air with the harsh, discordant music, even before day-break, and making sleep at our quarters impossible.
Mr. Seward's party were to have been off for Paso del Macho, at 5 o'clock a. m., to meet the special train formerly kept for the special use of Maximilian and his family, and still known as "the Imperial Train," sent up from Vera Cruz, for the occasion; but owing to bungling mismanagement they were delayed until after 7 o'clock, and, of course, compelled to crowd on all speed to make up for lost time. The long train of the conducta was in motion, taking up all the highway, but when word was sent that Mr. Seward was at the rear, it halted and made room for the coach to pass, and the officers and men of each corps presented arms as he went by.
I went down to Vera Cruz ahead of the conducta, passing it on the way, and so had an opportunity of seeing it arrive at its destination and witnessing the final scene. The dangerous Pass of the Chiquihuite having been made successfully, on arriving at Paso del Macho—the western end of the Vera Cruz section of the railway—the cavalry and artillery were dismissed, and the specie transferred to the cars—a special having been provided—and thence went on to Vera Cruz under escort of the infantry only. The two million seven hundred thousand dollars in specie was all packed in coarse sacks of maguey fibre, each sack holding three thousand dollars, and it required twelve closed box, freight-cars to transport it.
When the special train arrived at Vera Cruz the cars were run down to the Custom House Plaza in front of the entrance to the mole, and there they remained until all the money was shipped on board the steamers for New York and Europe. The American steamer Cleopatra carried about one million on the 10th of January, and the French steamer of the 13th,—owing to a quarrel about charges between the owners of the American steam line and the shippers, I believe—the remainder. Our American steamers ought, in fact, to monopolize the specie-carrying trade of Mexico, and could probably do so with a little effort.
While the cars remained in the plaza the troops were quartered under a portal in front of the train. A guard patrolled on each side of the cars day and night, and a soldier with a loaded musket stood on the roof of each car all the time. The point is further commanded by the guns of San Juan de Ulloa, and the treasure was therefore as safe as gunpowder, balls, and bayonets could make it.
It was, of course, not absolutely necessary to take such extraordinary precautions for the protection of this special conducta in Vera Cruz where all was then quiet; but it is the custom of the Government to require the officers in charge of the escort to see that discipline is never relaxed for a moment, and that all the regulations are carried out to the letter, until the treasure is delivered to consignees in the city, or safely on board the steamers, and then responsibility ceases. The Government gets eight per cent, on every dollar—amounting to two hundred and sixteen thousand dollars on this conducta alone—when it passes through the Custom-House gateway, as export duty, and is bound to afford full protection to the owners. Much of the silver is delivered to the consignees at their counting houses in the city, and there recounted, and repacked in smaller bags containing but one thousand dollars each. I saw in the house of Schliden & Co., one day, a party of natives at work counting and repacking a half million of these bright new dollars. They get twelve and a half cents for each one thousand dollars which they count and sew up in the new bags, and are very expert in detecting defective or base coin. It is said that when they pour a bag of these dollars upon the table, they will decide in an instant whether they are of the coinage of Zacatecas, Guanajuato, or Mexico, by the difference in the ring of each, though it is wholly imperceptible to the ear of the uninitiated. If the bags are found short the deficit is charged to the shippers at Mexico or Guanajuato; if in excess—and this is not uncommon—the overplus is credited to the shippers.
I have never seen any specie-counters or experts, who, could beat these uneducated Indian-blooded Veracruzanos, save the Chinese experts, who do the same business for the banks in San Francisco, and who can discount the world beyond a doubt.
The scene reminded me of an incident which occurred at the city of Mexico when Gen. Scott entered the capital in triumph. A detachment of Harney's dragoons were quartered in the Palacio National, and before order was fully restored they broke open a room in the Treasury department in which they found a large number of Mexican dollars—fourteen or sixteen large sacks, if memory serves me.
In an instant they went for the coin, and a general scramble took place. One would get a sack upon his shoulder, when another would slash it open with a bowie-knife or sword, and the precious pesos would pour down in a shower upon the floor. Another would fill a haversack with them, only to meet with the same treatment. At last they got the doors closed and came to an understanding. All the coin was piled down on the floor, and a fair division made. Then each took his share of the plunder and concealed it around his quarters as best he might. Harney was unable to understand for the time, how it was that this party kept so remarkably quiet and appeared so well satisfied, but after a while the secret leaked out.
A dragoon bought something on the streets, and offered a dollar in payment. The seller—a Mexican of course—touched the coin to his teeth, and returned it respectfully, with the single remark, "Cobre Señor!" Another was offered, and "Cobre Señor!" was still the cry. Another, and another, and still no change. The dragoon smelled a rat, and returned, a sadder and a wiser man, to his quarters. Each of the fortune-finders by himself, tried to buy something, sooner or later, and met with the same discouraging remark.
It turned out that the coin was the plunder of an unauthorized private mint—in fact a bogus-money factory—which had been pounced upon by the Government, and there was not a single dollars worth of genuine silver in the entire pile. A cheaper looking lot of disappointed speculators never congregated in a "played out" Western town, or skedaddled from a base metal camp in one of the Pacific Coast mining districts, than was seen that night among Uncle Sam's boys in the "Palace of the Montezumas."