Because my sight was drawn to the emerging bats rather than to the ground immediately in front of me, I stumbled and fell numerous times. "How long did you say that you are studying bats?" one of the packers chuckled. It took the better part of an hour to scramble to where the bats emerged from.
I expected to see the stereotypical bat cave opening, large enough to drive a semi into, with a flat floor and arched or dome ceiling. The reality turned out to be an irregular opening the size of the door to a house, leading down at a forty-five degree angle. A cool breeze issued from the mouth of the cave. The men set about lighting the kerosene lanterns. Then a stout rope was tied around a Volkswagen size boulder and the loose end thrown down into the hole. Tinoco extracted a large scarf from a shirt pocket and tied it around the back of his neck. The others did likewise.
"It's going to be dusty down there, right?
"Si. Ademas, hay rabia."
I felt my skin crawl. "Rabies?"
"Si. Maybe some sick bats. Do wish to come down and see?"
"I have no scarf."
"Well, anyway we need someone to stay up on top and pull up the bags as we fill them."
"Are you sure that these bats are vampiros?"
"Hah! Why do you think that my familia moved away from here? All of our ganados (cattle) became sick after being bitten by the bats. We were forced to move. My sister was bitten and she had to go to Chihuahua to the hospital. She nearly died."
Twenty minutes later I felt the rope go taught and heard, "¡Andele! ¡Andele! ¡Jale! ¡Jale!" from deep beneath the surface. I started to pull and the weight barely yielded. "Jale mas recio! The voice commanded and I put my back into it. The sack slowly emerged as deep welt lines imprinted themselves onto my hands. The sack was only two-thirds full and it had to weigh fifty pounds. Fifty Pounds. Fifty pounds? One thousand dollars! And it wasn't even full! By the light of the flickering kerosene lantern I admired the three and a half-foot tall sack.
The successive bags came up much easier because the men had noticed my struggle with the first one, and filled the rest only half full. I pulled up sack after sack, when finally someone yelled, "Listo hombres! Vamanos a las casitas (Finished men, let's go home). I glanced at my watch. It was quarter past ten. Getting the bags down off the hill took another grueling three hours. There was no moon and one man had to hold up a lantern so the others could find their way down hill.
I spent the remainder of the night huddled around a tiny campfire that struggled to keep the chilly night air at bay. While I nursed the fire and rubbed my hands together, Tinoco produced another bottle of cheap mescal. The men were liberally washing down the memory of the bat cave with slug after slug of the fiery potent liquor. The yips and squeals of coyotes bounced off the canyon walls.
"How many more bags did you say that you need?" Tinoco repeated.
"Maybe a lot" I replied. Can I find you easily?" Arrangements were made and the night slowly gave way to dawn. Sleep for me was impossible.
When one of the packers had finally dozed off, the practical joker in the group suddenly yelled "Ay caray, Rodrigo! You have one on your neck!
Poor Rodrigo leapt to his feet, shouting, cursing and slapping the back of his neck with his cowboy hat. This bit of raucous fun drove away any thoughts of sleep that I might have had, and darned near started a brawl. Apparently everyone knew of Rodrigo's fear of the blood-sucking mammals and the others had great fun at his expense.
The five-hour return ride gave me enough time to muse the prospect of driving hundreds of miles back to Juarez with a stack of bat fertilizer to show the federales. I decided to purchase several bags of unpressed mesquite charcoal (carbon) and then perhaps the load wouldn't raise so much suspicion.
I couldn't resist asking Tinoco why they hadn't simply burned the bats out of the cave rather than move away, "We did, muchas veces (many times)" he replied "But they always came back. Besides we had no cattle left. My father bought some mules and started making recuas (pack trains). He died last year and now the mules and I are all that is left of Rancho Provenir".
Upon return to San Jose, I handed Tinoco six rumpled hundred-dollar bills. It wasn't long before the four riders were saddled up and riding north with their unladen mules in tow. I figured that some mid-size pueblo would see the four mule-skinners having one hell of a panchanga until the money ran out. I
had one hundred sixty dollars left out of an original twelve hundred fifty. I donned a pair of rubber gloves, fitted a paint filter mask over my nose and mouth, and grabbed a spare plastic sack. Two hours later I had filled seven bags somewhat evenly, with the eighth holding an extra third.
Driving north, I found a modest hotel on the outskirts of Chihuahua and slept sixteen hours in a soft bed. The next morning I drove to a small-scale manufacturer of charcoal and marveled at a World War II era Caterpillar bulldozer that pushed dirt over individual racks of burning mesquite limbs. I purchased six giant sacks of carbon for eight dollars and two men stacked them on top of the guano.
Despite a tsunami wave of doubt, the border crossing back into the U.S. was incredibly smooth.
"How long 'ya been in Mexico sir?"
"Where have you been?"
"What'cha got in those sacks?"
"Mesquite charcoal for barbecuing."
"Y'all in the business of selling or hauling briquettes."
"No, this is for my own personal use. I paid a dollar and twenty five cents a bag for real mesquite charcoal. On the west coast a bag like that costs twenty dollars."
"That 'cause y'all out there don't normally make a Texas barbecue."
"Y'all have a nice day.
"Thank you and goodbye."
It took a while for the fact to sink in: I had made it!
Thankfully, gasoline was not too expensive and I found that I had enough money to stay at a couple of flea-farm motels on the way home. The California Produce Inspection station caused a moderate blood pressure spike, but once the officers were convinced that nothing living was in the bags they waved me to proceed.
Thirteen days after I departed, I pulled into my muddy driveway. It seemed like thirteen weeks. I had fourteen dollars and change left over. Much to my concern, the bearded man did not appear for six days. Did he get busted? Did I make a total of fourteen dollars on a transaction that rubbed off a sizeable portion of my truck's tire life? What now? Do I post a notice on local laundry bulletin boards, "Pssst! Heavy-Duty Miracle Grow for pot to highest bidder. Leave note taped underneath pay phone located at....
Early on a Saturday morning, my client appeared at the counter.
"Well?" he asked. "How did it go?"
"How about seven plus sacks of "Primo Vampire Bat Guano? Big bags, maybe fifty pounds each."
"Let's go look at it," he suggested. "Oh by the way, this is Len, and he's going to tell us just how bad or good this stuff is."
"Len" was a balding middle-age post love child wearing thick lens glasses, bellbottom overalls and huaraches.
"Holy Shit!" exclaimed the beard as we entered my garage. He had seen not only the seven bags of Guano but the six bags of charcoal. "Not to worry," I reassured. "Those bags against the door are mesquite charcoal."
Len poured out a quantity of dung on a sheet of newspaper and then extracted some vials from an overall pocket. After pouring a quantity of clear liquid into a small bottle he then added a pinch of guano, recapped the bottle and shook it. He compared the now blue-green liquid to a small chart, and smiled: No question," he concluded. "This is the right shit."
Len extracted a hanging weight scale from the rear of a faded blue Volvo station wagon. The eight bags were weighed and recorded: Three hundred fifty four pounds. Multiplied by twenty dollars a pound.... Seven Thousand Eighty Dollars and 00/00----- cents! The beard reached into a heavy woolen coat pocket and extracted a huge wad. He casually peeled off hundred dollars bills like sheets from a roll of paper towels.
"How about six thousand two hundred, and throw in the charcoal." He nodded toward the remaining six sacks. With the one thousand two-fifty that I fronted you,·is that fair?
I nodded agreement. "Um, by the way," I blurted. "Wasn't that quite a chance you took with your money; I mean just handing me over a grand and then hoping that I would show up with your bat guano?"
"Well, I look at it this way," he mused. "Life is a gamble. Growing roses is a gamble. But my hunches usually pay off. With this bat fertilizer I expect to make a lot more money than what I paid you."
I followed the man and his collaborate as they loaded the guano and charcoal inside and on top of the sagging station wagon. When all was lashed securely and the vehicle was backing out of the driveway, the man with no name leaned out of the driver's window and said "Nice doing business with you"
I waved and replied, "Tell your friends".