Six Thousand Miles on Horseback
by W. C. Rose
This article was first published in August 1907 in The Wide World Magazine. The Long Riders' Guild would like to thank Outlaw Trail/Butch Cassidy expert Dan Buck for so kindly sending us a copy.
The record of a magnificent achievement, a ride of somewhat over six thousand miles, from Mexico to the Argentine, accomplished on one horse and traversing for a considerable part of the way entirely unexplored country, where hardships and adventures were met with almost daily. The author was introduced to us by Mr. Roger Pocock, founder of the Legion of Frontiersmen, and himself the hero of a remarkable ride. Mr. Pocock wrote, "I thought I held the world's record for long-distance riding, but this man's trip puts me quite in the shade."
In giving these experiences to the public I am describing what I am informed is the world's record long distance ride - over six thousand miles on one horse across rough and, to a large extent, quite unexplored country.
I arrived in New York in March, 1894, and made my way to California. Having made a little money at gold-mining, generally by working abandoned claims, I decided to put my plans for an extended hunting trip into operation. Accordingly, I bought an outfit and took a passage on board the Do˝a Lucia, a small coasting schooner bound for Mazatlan, in Mexico, where I arrived in May.
It was on the second day of my stay in Mazatlan that I met with my first adventure. Strolling through the town after dark, I passed a gambling-den from which came the sounds of loud, angry voices, the smashing of furniture, and the stamping of feet.
Looking in through the low window, I saw two Mexicans, with their backs to the wall and a long knife in each hand, keeping at bay about twelve ruffians, who, with daggers in their hands and murder in their eyes, surrounded the pair. Without considering the danger I was running, I dashed open the window and swung myself into the room, shouting, "Stand back, there, if you care for your lives!" I spoke in English, forgetting for the moment that I was in a Spanish-speaking country.
They did not understand my words, but my levelled Colts conveyed my meaning readily enough. Several of the rascals fell back, though one fellow seized a heavy bottle with the intention of hurling it at me, but he had not raised it half-way when a bullet from my pistol broke his wrist. After the gang saw that I knew how to use my weapons, they slunk out of the room, snarling viciously, leaving the two Mexicans and myself alone.
I discovered that the two men were named Pedro Hualva and JosÚ Paz, and the little fracas I have just described established a bond between us.
It appeared, from their explanation, that they had won largely, and the row started through somebody making a remark about cheating.
They were capital fellows, I soon discovered, "desperadoes" in the full sense of the word, and as such known and dreaded throughout the country, but they served me well and faithfully during all the hardships and dangers of our nineteen months' journey. They were good shots and splendid riders.
I eventually arranged with the two men to accompany me on my proposed hunting trip. We wasted no time, starting next morning, after having bought four more horses and some cooking utensils. I had provided myself with guns and ammunition in 'Frisco.
Passing Rosario, we crossed the Rio de Mesquital and the Sierra de Nayarit, pitching our tent for the first time between the villages of San Antonio and Huejuquilla, on the bank of a small river. In the saddle again at sunrise, we took our route south by east, skirted Mesquitie, crossed a spur of the Sierra near Colotlan, and, passing Tlaltenango, made our camp and settled down to hunting.
Leaving JosÚ to guard the camp, Pedro and myself went off early next morning into the mountains. Game was very scarce and shy, we found, but about four o'clock in the afternoon I sighted some seven or eight mountain sheep, crept up to them, and secured a young and fat-looking animal. I shouldered my quarry and was hurrying back to camp, expecting a signal-shot to show me the whereabouts of my companion when, just at dusk, I came to a ravine and met friend Pedro in most terrible plight. An immense old buck lay beside him, and he was covered with blood and bruises.
It appeared that he had sat down for a rest in a deep, narrow gorge, which ran up the mountain wall opposite, when he heard the rattling of loose stones, and, looking up, saw the old buck. The animal halted in its flight, and was about to turn and gallop back when Pedro fired. The buck was only some thirty feet above him, and the bullet struck it from below, smashing its left shoulder and bringing it crashing down within a few inches of himself. The Mexican was still sitting on the ground with his back against the rocks, and, the passage being very narrow, he could not move out of the infuriated animal, which, being in great pain and seeing its enemy practically at its mercy, made liberal use of its hoofs and big horns. Before Pedro, dodging the terrific blows as best he might, could dash in and give the coup de grÔce, his shirt had been torn to ribbons and he himself covered with wounds.
We stayed at this camp for over two weeks, until our battered comrade recovered from the results of his fight. We were visited at times by the villagers, but were never molested, my two companions being known near and far as men who cared little for their own lives or anyone else's, and who, moreover, possessed immense bodily strength. I also found that they had inspired the natives with considerable respect for myself, as a man who always carried a six-shooter and was fairly handy in the use of it.
Directly Pedro recovered we started again, traversed the State of Jalisco, and eventually reached Lake Chapala, in the State of Michoacan. This lake is beautifully situated at the foot of the towering, snow-clad peaks of the Sierra, on the other side of which flowed the Rio Grande de Santiago through a pleasant stretch of beautifully-wooded hills and plains. On these plains we found numerous large birds, something like the Australian emu, but smaller. The natives call them "mazawattl," because they had dangling from the fore-part of their long necks some horny pouches or "wattles," varying in number and size in different birds. During our stay there we shot over fifty of them, and I found that not one of them was exactly like another, differing not only in the number of "wattles" - some had but one, others as many as six or seven - but also in size and colour. They were all greyish-brown in general appearance, but their neck-feathers were of various shades of black, brown, blue, and purple. They could not fly, but ran like racehorses; they had very strong legs, armed with sharp spurs, which form formidable weapons, as I found out to my cost shortly afterwards.
At first we used to hunt them on horseback, using either lasso or revolver; but after we had been compelled to destroy two of our horses as the result of broken legs we adopted another and less hazardous method. Cutting down some bushes we pushed them before us, and under this cover crept up to within shooting distance.
One day I had a hard fight with one of these birds. I had crawled to within three hundred yards of a flock, when I noticed the birds were becoming very restless. Although it was a long shot, I fired and brought down one. As soon as I cam near it tried to run away; but not being able to do so it turned round and, jumping at me, ripped my right legging from top to bottom with its spurs. Throwing myself on the ground - for I feared serious injury from those madly-thudding legs - I killed it with my revolver.
After leaving Lake Chapala we passed Zamora and crossed the Sierra, descending with great difficulty into the volcanic Valle Jorullo. Indeed, had not our horses been as surefooted as goats, I do not think we could have reached this side of the mountains. At an altitude of about five thousand feet we had a grand view of the peak of Patamban, with its burnt-out crater and covering of eternal snow. An old native whom we met tending his goats told us that the "master of the fire" was not dead, but only asleep.
Crossing the Rio de las Balzas we entered the State of Guerrero, which we found very mountainous and tiring for our horses. We traversed nearly the whole State by following the Rio Mexcala. Both sides of the river were densely wooded, and we found travelling on horseback anything but comfortable.
After having pitched our camp one afternoon I had sauntered off, with the intention of shooting a few parrots, when I came across a fairly large swamp connected with the river. To my surprise and delight I noticed many marks, telling me that this was a favourite resort of all sorts of animals. Looking about I noticed an immense tree close to the water, with branches reaching nearly down to the ground.
As it would soon be dark I gave up shooting parrots and decided to lie in wait by the tree for a stag or a pig. I had just seated myself, looking upwards to see if there was any breeze stirring, when I noticed that some leaves over a thick branch were in violent commotion, although the rest were quiet.
Instinctively gripping my rifle and staring intently upwards, I saw, a little farther off, two spots of scintillating light. They meant danger, and instantly raising my weapon I took rapid aim and pulled the trigger.
Hardly had the report broken the stillness than, with a fearful howl and a crashing of branches, an enormous jaguar fell to the ground, dead; my shot had entered its eye, penetrating the brain. It measured over seven feet in length.
I had not finished skinning the huge beast when Pedro put in his appearance; camp being not far off, he had heard both shot and howl. As is usual in those latitudes, it became very dark immediately after sunset. We waited in the blackness on the chance of obtaining another jaguar, but no game came near us, although later on we heard some heavy body break through the undergrowth. Finally we lit our cigarettes and, after a smoke, climbed up to a large branch, tied ourselves to the tree-trunk with Pedro's lasso, and dropped off to sleep, but nothing happened.
As this district seemed to abound in all kinds of game, we decided to stay some time and replenish our larder. We had plenty of sport, and secured and dried all the meat we required.
As we had to wait a few days in order to get our meat in fit condition, and I had seen fresh marks of a jaguar, I went down to the swamps by the river every day in the hope of bagging him. Although I heard him often enough, however, I could never catch sight of him.
Late on the evening of our last day in camp we heard a terrible noise in the adjoining bush, and, seizing our rifles, we hurried to the spot whence the uproar proceeded. There we beheld a remarkable sight.
Writhing on the ground was a full-grown jaguar, its hindquarters pierced by the sharp-pointed horn of a wild bull. The jaguar, in his agony, had torn the neck and throat of the bull, and was vainly trying to extricate himself; the bull was rolling over from time to time, also unable to get free. A moment later their misery was ended by a couple of merciful bullets.
Finding that the course of the river was now nearly north-east, we left it and bore as near as possible due south. At Pascala we crossed the mountains, but nearly lost our lives during our descent to the Valle Avutla. A terrific thunderstorm forced us to seek shelter in a small cave and kept us prisoners there for the rest of the day. The thunder and lightning were terrifying beyond description, and we were very thankful when this trying ordeal was over and we were able to resume our journey.
Next morning the sun shone gloriously and we descended without further mishap. Late in the afternoon we reached Avutla, where we decided to halt for a couple of days.
Shortly after we pitched our tent some villagers came to greet us, and their leader, a courteous old Mexican, insisted upon our becoming his guests the next day. He turned out to be the richest man for miles around, and explained to us that his only daughter was to be married and he would be happy if the "Se˝or Ingles" would do him the honour to start the fandango with the young bride.
Of course, we promised to be present, and we certainly did not regret our decision. I found dancing the fandango with his really lovely daughter a very pleasant task, while my comrades revelled to their hearts' content. We were pressed to stay with them at least a few more days, but I feared that my companions might get into mischief, and decided to move on again in the morning.
Early next day, therefore, we were in the saddle again, and shortly after entered the State of Oajaca. The roads were very bad, and we kept near the coast for a good many days, but at Tututepec we had to turn inland again, as between this place and Tonameea the bases of the mountains are washed by the sea.
For the next four or five weeks, travelling on horseback was very tiresome, and two of our pack-horses being lame, we could proceed only at a very slow pace. We had the snow-topped range of Cimaltepec on our left and the mountainous coast on the right until we reached Astala. At Tehuantepec, on the gulf of the same name, we tried to exchange our two lame horses for sound ones, but could find none to suit us.
The weather and the scenery being very lovely, we took things easily, traversing the Isthmus of Tehuantepec by short marches, the only place of any note we passed being Tarifa. We followed the Rio Mescalapa, flanked by virgin forest, right through the State of Chiapas, and finally, quitting the Republic of Mexico, entered Guatemala near Soconusco. Here we found the so-called roads, or, rather, tracks, very bad; our horses often had to leap from one big stone to another, and to ascend and descend great heights on a path often not more than eighteen inches wide, with a precipice on one side and the mountain wall on the other. Consequently, we could only travel slowly, and although Guatemala is hardly more than two and a half degrees square, it took us over three months to traverse.
Following the course of a small river, with the snow-clad summits of Tacana and Tajumulco on our right, we were often compelled to take to the river-bed or, where this was impossible, cut our way through the lianas and underwood of the virgin forest with our machetes.
The vegetation here had become quite tropical, and we suffered a good deal from the intense heat - not so much from the sun, for the big forest trees kept off its rays, but there was not a breath of fresh air to be got, and many a time we felt more or less cooked. Game, however, was plentiful, which was some consolation.
As we had not had the opportunity of exchanging our lame horses as yet, we prepared our camp on the foot of the still smoking volcano of Tajumulco and decided to settle down for a spell of hunting.
Just about this time poor JosÚ had a most uncomfortable experience, which might well have ended fatally. He had sat down on a small hillock next to Pedro, and I was just handing a match to the latter to light his eternal cigarette, when JosÚ began to yell in a most awful manner. It seemed as if some unearthly power lifted him bodily from his seat, turned him over, and finally landed him in Pedro's lap. He knocked the cigarette out of my mouth in his gymnastics and howled like a fiend, while we stared at him in alarm. It was not long, however, before we discovered what was amiss. Poor JosÚ had sat on a scorpion, an ugly, greyish-green beast whose bite is almost instantaneous death. This venomous creature had bitten him in the thick of his leg.
It was necessary to act promptly, and so, bidding Pedro break the bullet out of a cartridge, I ripped JosÚ's legging open with my hunting knife and told him to clench his teeth and not move. Next I inserted the point of the knife near the wound, drove it in for about an inch, and turned it round, cutting out a piece of flesh the size of a florin. [Note: a florin was a two-shilling piece in Britain's pre-decimal currency, about the size of a modern British 10p coin or an American quarter.] This done, I sucked the blood out for a moment and then, taking my revolver, fired the blank cartridge into the wound. Pouring some arnica on a piece of linen, I filled the hole with it and bound it up, finally forcing JosÚ to swallow half a pint of rum.
Not long after this Spartan treatment, as might have been expected, he became raving mad, and Pedro and I had a hard time of it. Finally, however, the alcohol began to get in its work and he fell into a heavy sleep, which lasted until next day. In the morning he awoke with a little wound-fever and, of course, a good deal of pain, but otherwise seemed all right. No doubt most readers will think this treatment very rough and ready, but what else could be done under the circumstances?
This little incident made JosÚ our camp guard for some days, while Pedro and I went out hunting.
JosÚ, although always in camp, did not lack sport, for one afternoon old Tajumulco, the volcano, started to growl and shake the earth; and fearing, in case of an outbreak, for JosÚ and our horses, Pedro and I hurried back to camp.
I was the first to reach it, and the scene I witnessed was extraordinary. The tent was down, all our saddles and cooking utensils were scattered about, and underneath the canvas I saw the form of JosÚ, his two hands protruded and holding on for dear life to the hind legs of a wild pig, which was savagely struggling to release itself!
A shot from my rifle ended the trouble. When poor JosÚ crawled out, he was quite bewildered. There was a big lump, the size of one's fist, on the top of his pate, and his wound had opened again. The language he used for the first five minutes is not to be found in any dictionary.
It appeared that at the first sign from the volcano he had looked at the horses and, finding them well secured, went into the tent to pack up the smaller articles, making everything ready for a quick start in case of trouble. He had not been inside for more than a few minutes when he heard the crashing of underwood at the back of the tent, accompanied by a deafening noise of grunting, bellowing, and howling. Before he could get out of the way herds of pig, deer, mountain-cattle, and goodness knows what else, terrified by the earthquake, bore down on the tent, bowling it over and sending JosÚ flat on the ground in a twinkling. Then, in irresistible ranks, they rushed on over the wreckage.
JosÚ was terribly knocked about and trampled, and, try as hard as he would, he could not extricate himself from the folds of the canvas, the animals always knocking him down again directly he sat up. Finally, however, he managed to get his hands free, and was about to crawl out when something came down on his head with an awful thud, nearly stunning him. Instinctively he put his hands up to his head, and in doing so caught hold of a leg. Tightening his grip, he never relinquished it again until my bullet released him.
Although the volcano ceased growling soon after, we left next morning, and arrived in good time in Totonicapan. Here we changed three of our horses for good mules, as we could get no horses to suit us.
Taking our course due east, we rode through an enchanting valley, passing Santa Cruz and Salama. Having again a high mountain range, the Sierra de las Minas, before us, we took to our southern route once more, and had much difficulty with the crossing of a broad and deep river. The mules caused us a lot of trouble, although the horses took to the water like ducks. As we were unable to load the mules into the river, Pedro lassoed one of them and took it in tow. The result was that the obstinate brute threw itself on the ground and was nearly strangled.
Pedro, after wishing him well in exceedingly bad language, dismounted and got on its back, but could not make use of his spurs, as the animal was protected by our tent, which it carried. At last I broke off a long twig studded with big thorns, and, keeping at a safe distance, tried to "persuade" the animal with it. At the first touch it gave a sideways bound, which unseated Pedro, landing him on its neck. The second dig settled the matter, for another kick and bound sent both of them into the river. We had a hearty laugh at the spluttering Pedro, and it took us some time before we could save mule and tent. With the help of a lasso and my "persuader" we got the others across the river.
Some days later, deep down in the middle of an almost impenetrable forest, we came to a clearing, and were very much surprised to find here, so far away from civilization, five huge statues, set in a semi-circle round a flat rock - most likely used as a sacrificial altar in ages gone by. These statues were built of large blocks of stone, surmounted by masks of a most repulsive and fiendish expression. They were covered on three sides with curious sculptured figures and wonderfully distinct hieroglyphics. They were evidently of great age, and bore a remarkable resemblance to the handiwork of the ancient Egyptians.
We had also found a pyramid in the State of Chiapas, built of mud, about one hundred and twenty feet high, with a structure of the same material on top, and having over its porch a winged globe wrought in stone. The natives whom we met, however, could tell us nothing about these curious erections.
The next city on our way was Guatemala, the capital of the Republic of that name. As we required sundry articles, above all gunpowder and quinine, we decided to stay a few days in the city; and we accordingly placed our horses and camp-equipment in the keeping of the proprietor of a small hotel on the outskirts. As it was too late to get our stores that day, we had a tub and some food, and then went for a stroll up-town.
Later on, after the lamps were lit, our attention was attracted to the movements of a man closely shadowing a well-dressed gentleman. All at once I caught the flash of a stiletto in his hand. With a warning shout I shipped out my Colt, but the gentleman turned, revolver in hand - everybody carries a weapon there - and the would-be assailant vanished, quick as thought, into a pitch-dark side street, where he was lost to our sight. He was not gone for long, for shortly after I saw the same ruffian, with another of his kind, following ourselves on the other side of the street. The precious pair did not attempt to get to close quarters, however.
As we were very tired we returned to our hotel, and here another surprise awaited us, for we found our best mule and a bag containing all my underwear missing. I at once went to the proprietor and demanded my property, but he declared he knew nothing about it, and seemed to be much astonished that I should hold him responsible for the theft. During the altercation JosÚ came in, and, leaving the gesticulating and protesting hotel-keeper in his charge, I searched all over the house for my bag. In five minutes I had found it. Our worthy friend, the landlord, had broken the lock and spread the contents on his bed for inspection. Our mule, however, had vanished, and we never recovered it. After telling the rascally innkeeper we would pay his bill with a bullet if he showed us his face again, we packed out and left the town, camping out again; life in a Guatemalan hotel was too exciting for our taste. Next morning, Pedro and I returned, bought all we wanted, and then rejoined JosÚ, who was already on the march.
Four days later we left the Republic of Guatemala behind us and entered San Salvador. After a two days' halt on the shore of Lake Cuija we crossed the Republics of San Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua practically without incident.
Nicaragua took us seven weeks to cross; it abounds in game, our bag for the time being thirty-nine alligators, thirteen deer, twenty-one pig, four tiger-cats, and seven black jaguars, the latter most ferocious beasts and apt to attack one unprovoked.
The Indians we came in contact with call themselves "Sumu"; they are small but muscular, and ugly as can be. Those in the valley were quite harmless and friendly; the others living on the hills, it seemed to me, would have liked very much to attack us, but did not dare to do so.
We followed a route lying between the eastern range of the Andes and the lakes, and so met plenty of game. We passed very few villages, and I only remember the names of two, San Miguelito and San Carlos, both situated on Lake Nicaragua.