Read The Cotton-Pickers Online

Authors: B. TRAVEN

Tags: #Traven, #IWW, #cotton, #Mexico

The Cotton-Pickers

The Cotton-Pickers

by B. Traven

From the 1969 edition published by Hill and Wang.


Table of Contents



Song of the Cotton-Pickers

Cotton is worn by king and prince,
Millionaire and president,
But the lowly cotton-picker
Sweats to earn each bloody cent.
Get going to the cotton field,
The sun is moving up and up.
Sling on your sack,
Tighten your belt—
Listen, the scales are turning.

Look at the food I get to eat—
Beans and chile, tortilla-bread—
And the scarecrow shirt I swiped,
Torn by bush and patched with shreds.
Get going to the cotton field,
The sun is moving on and on.
Sling on your sack,
Tighten your belt—
Listen, are the scales begging?

Cotton sells at soaring prices,
But I ain’t got a decent shoe.
My pants hang down in ragged threads,
Here and there my butt shows through.
Get going to the cotton field,
The sun climbs high too soon.
Sling on your sack,
Tighten your belt—
Listen, are the scales bossing?

On my head a straw sombrero,
Kicked in when I got beat.
But I couldn’t pick without it
Bending in the burning heat.
Get going to the cotton field,
The sun is aiming high.
Sling on your sack,
Tighten your belt—
Hey, are the scales trembling?

I’m just a lousy vagabond,
See, that’s the way they made me be,
And there’s no cotton crop for you
Unless it’s picked by bums like me.
March!—in cotton-picking ranks
Beneath the firing sun!
Or fill your sacks with rocks—
Hear, are the scales breaking?


Book One




The train that had brought me to this forlorn-looking little place had just left and I was standing on the station platform looking around in search of someone who might be able to tell me what I so very urgently needed to know.

Everyone looked so utterly depressing. There were some peasants in white cottons of many washings walking about on the platform and sitting on the ground alongside. The women had their arms full of children and were surrounded by a dozen more holding on to their mothers’ skirts, with expressions of fear and wonder written all over their young faces, which were covered with chalky dust.

While I was lost in examining the landscape, and trying to make up my mind whom to approach for the very much wanted information, I suddenly realized that someone had stopped abruptly close in front of me, his nose almost touching the point of mine. Instinctively I stepped back a few inches and saw it was a very tall and heavily built Negro, who was addressing me: “Mister, can you maybe tell me which direction to take to a nearby ranch owned by a farmer called Mr. Shine?”

“What do you want to see that Mr. Shine for?” I blurted out. In the same moment I regretted that explosion of mine. The sudden nearness of the fellow had caught me in the very midst of a hard thinking process intimately connected with the hopeless state of my present economic situation. And so as to have that giant black fellow thinking better of me and my character I added rapidly: “See here, friend, that Mr. Shine you mention is precisely the very same person I myself have come to this godforsaken village to see.”

“Also because of cotton, Mister?” he asked.

“Also because of cotton, which I want to help him harvest, or let’s more correctly call it, to pick.”

We were still looking at each other uncertainly, obviously not knowing what else to say or to do, when up trotted rather haltingly a little Chinaman with a friendly grin all over his face (even both his ears seemed to grin). “Good molning, caballelos, gentlemen,” he greeted us. “Can you pelhaps, kind paldon, tell me the way to—”

Here he stopped, fumbled in the breast pocket of his snow-white collarless shirt, pulled out a bit of notepaper, unfolded and handed it to us, and, never losing his bright grin, started to read the line scribbled on it: “Ixtli …”

“Stop,” I halted him. “You might get a knot in your tongue if you go on trying to pronounce the name of that place. The name is Ixtlixochicuauhtepec, am I right or am I?”

“Pelfectly collect, señol, it’s exactly the name.”

“Well then,” I said, “your problems will be solved now, because that’s exactly the very place we also are headed for. So, friend, welcome. You may join us.”

Ixtli … If only I had the faintest idea where that village, or ranchería, whatever it might be, could be found. To the north? To the south or west? Well now, let’s see, there must be somewhere around this railroad depot somebody who knows where to find that place with such a tongue-twisting Aztec name.

The people loitering on the platform were Indios and Mestizos, except for another Negro. He was as black as the giant one by my side but a foot shorter and very lightly built. How long he had been standing there calculating our threesome I don’t know, but when he caught my eye he approached us with a sure step.

“Mister,” he said, “could you by any chance tell me the whereabouts of a Mr. Shine, a cotton farmer? They tol’ me in Tampico he’s lookin’ for hands to help with his cotton crop and I’d find him near to this here railroad station.”

“Well! His whereabouts is exactly what we’d like to know. We’re also looking for that cotton farm. Come along with us.

“Thanks a lot, fellers. Glad to have company in this bush. Mighty happy to be accompanied in this part of the country, where you meet, I been tol’, all sorts of wil’ beasts, tigers, leopards.”

We were now sort of an organized group for the long or short trip—we didn’t know which. That was how matters stood when a man came up whom I judged to be a Mestizo from the way he was dressed. He had slung about his upper body a red, tattered, formless piece of coarse-wool blanket and he wore the customary white, sloppy wide-brimmed bast hat—or was it reed? His bronze-brown face was covered by a growth of beard. He was middle-aged, of medium build, slender but doubtless a man used to hard work. His beat-up dirty tennis shoes had once upon a time been white. I remembered I had seen this man on the train, traveling in the same car which I had chosen to come here.

Scrutinizing our little assembly, as if searching for someone among us whom he might perhaps know, he decided to put his question to me: “Buenos dias, señor, are you perhaps Mr. Shine?”

“No,” I said, “I’m not Mr. Shine, but I’m here to meet him somewhere in this neighborhood.”

“Is this the place?” So saying he produced a scrap of muddy paper torn from a newspaper, on which was scribbled: Ixtlixochicuauhtepec.

“Yes, that’s the place, amigo. We’re going, there; so if you wish to come along with us, bienvenido, you are invited.”

“Nothing better could have happened to me. Muchas gracias, mil, mil gracias. I’ll be only too grateful to be in your company. Again, many, many thanks.” He bowed with the innate courtesy of a Mexican.

Then he turned slightly around, fingering his beard, undecided as to what to do or say next. Seeing him turn aside like that gave me the idea that we had better start going now and right away, or a dozen more people in need of a job might try to join us.

Sure enough, another Mexican came leisurely walking up. He was not a Mestizo like the previous one; this was a Mexican of pure Indian stock, dressed in very clean white cotton, for shoes the local huaraches—no socks, of course—and carrying over his shoulder a beautiful blanket in bright colors, a so-called sarape, as well as a small bundle rolled inside a reed mat. He just stood there looking at us, not saying a word.

“Need any help?” I asked in Spanish.

“Si, señor. Do you know the way to Ixtlixochicuauhtepec?” A true son of the land, he had no difficulty pronouncing the name of the place.

“No,” I answered, “but I’m just about to find out. Keep close to us, if you wish; we’re all going cotton-picking at six centavos a kilo. As soon as we find out which way to go to Mr. Shine’s farm, we’ll get started.”

Get started! If only I knew which way to go.

The station meanwhile, ten minutes after the one train of the day had departed, had emptied and lay drowsy and deserted in the tropical heat, as only a station in this part of America can. The mail bag, which looked all bag and no mail, had already been carried off. The goods — a few cases of merchandise, two drums of kerosene, five rolls of barbed wire, a bag of sugar — were lying still unclaimed on the blistering hot platform.

The wooden shack where tickets were sold and luggage was weighed had been padlocked. The man responsible for the official duties had left the station before the last car had gone by. Even the little old Indian woman who, like her counterparts at all the village depots of the countryside, appeared at every train arrival with her reed basket containing tortillas and two bottles of cold coffee, even she was already a fair distance away, slipping through the tall grass toward home. She was always the last to leave the platform. Although she never sold anything, she came every day to meet the train. The coffee she brought to the station was probably the same for weeks on end. Evidently the travelers suspected this; otherwise they might have given the old woman a chance to earn something now and then, especially in that heat. But anyhow the ice water that was available on the trains free of charge put the old woman’s cold coffee right out of business.

My five companions had seated themselves happily on the ground near the wooden shack — in the shade; though it must be admitted that, as the sun was standing vertically above us, it took a man of some experience to discover where the shade actually was.

Time did not matter to them; and since they knew that I wanted to go where they wanted to go they left the reconnaissance to me. Without formal election I had become the leader of our little group. They would go when I went, and not before; and they would follow me even if I took them to Argentina.

There was not a house to be seen anywhere near the station. Looking off in the direction taken by the last group of departing natives, whom I could see still making their way through the grass, I suggested to my companions that we follow them, with the idea that they might lead us into the town or direct us to it.

It didn’t take us long to catch up with them. “Never heard of a farm or a place by that name, señor,” they answered when I approached them. “But come along with us. Surely in the town someone will know the way.”

We soon reached the village. The dwellings there were crude huts surrounded by banana plants and tall mango trees which, although never tended in these regions, bear great quantities of fruit. The little fields were sown with maize and beans well beyond the needs of the few people there.

It would have been quite pointless to go to one of these huts and ask the way to Ixtli…. If these people gave an answer at all, it would be an unreliable one. Not that they would deliberately mislead us, but out of sheer politeness they would want to give a pleasant answer and avoid the necessity of saying “I don’t know.”

Besides the huts, there were two wooden buildings in the village. In one of them, our friends pointed out, lived the stationmaster, of whom we should ask the way; the other was a poolroom.

I went to the stationmaster’s house, but he did not know where Ixtli … was. He added politely that he had never heard of the place but, then, he’d only recently been transferred to this town. So I walked over to the poolroom, where I found an intelligent-looking man inside idly leaning against a pool table. He greeted my entrance with an inviting smile.

Other books

The Tears of Autumn by Charles McCarry
Precious Anathema by T.L. Manning
It by Stephen King
Guardian by Sierra Riley
Shadow Breakers by Daniel Blythe
El gran reloj by Kenneth Fearing
On This Day by Melody Carlson
Finding My Thunder by Diane Munier Copyright 2016 - 2023