"Bats," I said. "I am commissioned to gather a large amount of bat guano for research purposes. Well, it wasn't that far from the truth. There was the longest most uncomfortable silence after I stopped speaking. The señora looked at her husband with questioning eyes, I could almost hear the silent conversation:
"Obviously Adolfo, this one is mad. Is there someway that we can gracefully refund the money for the room and have him depart San Jose without a scene? Remember the children."
"He doesn't seem to be particularly raving, Angelica. Perhaps we should determine if perhaps we misunderstood what he said. Maybe he means something else besides you know, bats"
"Perdoneme señor," he began slowly "I do not believe that I heard you quite right; you said that you are in San Jose to study·bats?"
I decided to spill the beans: "Pues, not just any bat," I added. "In specific Vampiros." The señora immediately shot her husband an accusing glance.
"Umm" he continued. "How will you are going to go about this?" Figuring that I was now wading hip deep in whatever I had gotten myself into, I started to ad lib an imaginary plan of hiring a string of burros, staffed by a couple of hard working campesinos.
At the mention of burros the senora rolled her eyes again and the husband stopped talking. It was obvious that they were suspicious about something. Perhaps a gringo had already hit the village of San Jose up for a load of bat guano and they were on to the reason for its sudden popularity?
"Umm, senor, burros are very hard to find in these parts and they are muy caro" I was prepared to pay at double the going rate, but when the señor suddenly blurted, "Five hundred dollars each and the burros are yours," I was floored. Knowing glances continued between husband and wife. Further negotiation proved fruitless. I retired to a pitch-black eight by eight cubicle and fell asleep wondering what the hell was going on.
Toward dawn I was awakened by the sound of stamping hooves and whinnies. A recua (pack train) was being formed outside my doorway with eleven pack mules and four packers working in the dim pink light. I decided to take a chance and ask the leader about renting burros. When I approached him with the question about finding animals to rent he laughed. "You don't look like a marijuano, but then who's to say?"
"Marijuana, hell!," I replied. "I want to get a few hundred pounds of vampire bat guano and I'll pay....·I'll pay....." I fumbled for a price, a hundred dollars a sack for it."
"What did you say?" The three other packers had stopped loading the mules when they heard the fantastic sum. "But not little sacks," I hastened to add. "I'll pay a hundred dollars for the large plastic sacks like they use for carbon." With furrowed brow, the leader shifted back and forth in his cowboy boots. "And you say that you have that much dinero to pay for many sacks of Vampiro bat caca?" he challenged.
"Well," I admitted, "I can only buy six bags this trip, but maybe many, many, more later on. If we are successful, of course." I dug for my wallet and extracted a thin stack of hundred dollar bills. A soft murmur and sharp glances between the four erupted.
"Bueno," the leader announced. "Give me a few minutes to make arrangements here and I will let you know." I retreated into my adobe cubicle while the four carried on an excited conversation that lasted less than fifteen seconds.
The leader approached the doorway and announced. "We have changed our plans and have decided to gather six bags of bat guano for you. But we will not go someplace other than where we have decided. There are many dangers in the monte alto and we do not want trouble, entiende?"
I nodded my head in agreement. "But senor, if possible I would like to go with you to the bat cave." The condition caught him off guard and he consulted again with his three helpers.
"Okay," he agreed. "But there is the little matter of the rental of a horse for you." The rental cost fifty dollars, which was outrageous for a day's ride, but the mule-skinner knew that he had me over a barrel and was pressing things to the limit.
I was more than a little nervous at this point. I mean what if they took me way back on some lonely mesa and staked me to an anthill? I hedged for a little time and asked the head packer about vampire bats.
"The government sends oficiales out here to look for the bats and when they find them they pour diesel fuel inside the cave and burn them out," he explained. But there are a lot of caves out there," he gave a grand sweep of his arm, "and sometimes the people they send sell the fuel instead and never go to the cuevas," One cave in particular has many bats and is not easy to get to".
An hour later I was mounted atop a sagging mare and riding toward the risen sun. Our pace was brisk and we entered a huge canyon just after noon. The four packers started passing a bottle of mescal between them and two broke out in a song about lost love and betrayed trust.
When the leader halted his sorrel and I gratefully dismounted and tried to work some of the stiffness out of my butt. He pointed to a place up on the side of the canyon. "Up there," he began. "Up there is the cave of your dreams, gringo. Many, many vampiros and mucho bat shit," he added with a huge laugh. "I used to play here," motioning all around him, "when I was a little boy. The bats have been flying out of the cave since the days when my abuelo (grandfather) was a small boy".
I glanced again toward the unseen cave entrance. The mountainside was rocky and sparsely dotted with brush. It was going to be quite an uphill hike just to gain entrance to the cave. "Well, we might as well tie up the horses and get going" I suggested.
"What for?" came an immediate reply. "We cannot go in until the bats come out"
"Then why the hell did we leave so early?" I countered. "Ahhh," the man replied. "When we agreed to do this thing for you, it was decided we would not risk the horses or mules getting a leg broken in the dark. Besides what's the rush? We have all day to drink." He held the mescal bottle aloft, "and tell stories. Come, get on your horse and let's go the casita where I lived as a boy"
The casita was little more than a rudimentary shelter, something like a line shack made out of heartwood from cardon cactus, with a tarpaper roof. Several small mesquite trees indicated the presence of a tinaca, a shallow rocky well that Tinoco, the leader, called an "ojo". In the distance the shrill cry of a yellow tail hawk echoed off the canyon walls. A Mexican mule-skinners lunch isn't much by U.S. standards, but beef jerky, a baseball size clump of almost dry beans, a chunk of ranch cheese and a stack of tortillas seemed to be a whole lot better than nothing.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent with Tinoco recalling events from his early youth, riding, roping, hunting and relations with his many cousins, aunts and uncles. The blur of unidentified landscape, faces, and names soon had me groggy. The Mescal apparently had much the same effect on the three packers. Just as I awoke, the sun disappeared over the canyon rim and the others quickly got to their feet.
"Lucky for you I have bags, eh?" Tinoco announced. He undid a bundle from one of the mule packs and a stack of beige woven plastic sacks fell to the ground. "Are you sure that you don't need ten or perhaps twenty bolsas of bat caca senor? We have a special going today." I shook my head no. A brief conversation took place. Ropes, bucket, and shovels were produced, and a couple of kerosene lanterns emerged from another bundle.
"¡Mira!" one of the others pointed to the hillside above. From a distance it looked like a wisp of smoke was issuing from the canyon wall itself. "Perhaps fifteen minutes until the cuava is empty," Tinoco announced. "But we can start walking now."