Green Bottles in the Rio Grande*


H. Allen Smith

A RASPING TWANG was heard now in the vast prairie land. It was the voice of a character named Sam Huddleston, another columnist with Dallas as his base of iniquitous operation. This Huddleston said of my chili recipe that "a man could get more flavor from a set of stewed piano keys." He gave out that I knew less about a good bowl of chili than a pregnant sow knows about Neiman-Marcus.

"This dude," said Senor Huddleston, "ought to have his head candled." He charged that I was "one of them Yankees that've been spoiling up our womenfolks with washing machines and electric smoothin' irons."

I reckoned this Huddleston to be a common scold. I chose to ignore his tirade and went fishin'-a Cloralex expedition on the Rio Grande, organized by Gene Morgan at La Linda. There were four of us: Tom Leary, a native of the Big Bend country, owner of a cattle ranch between La Linda and Marathon, and proprietor of a drugstore in Marathon; Henhouse Hailey, a retired cattle rancher, a garrulous man in his early seventies; Gene Morgan himself, and me. Henhouse Hailey was called Henhouse because in his ranching days he spent more time feeling under hens for eggs than he spent with his cattle problems.

We assembled at the river's edge where a fourteen-foot aluminum boat was waiting and where a couple of Mexicans had piled up two dozen green plastic bottles, labeled "Cloralex," which seems to be the name of a Mexican bleach. Each bottle had been stoppered and a nine-inch line fastened to the handle, with a small lead weight and a hook. The hooks had already been baited with chunklets of beef liver.

I remarked that when I was a kid we were accustomed to spitting on the bait, to make certain of a good catch.

"That's for worms," said Morgan. "Don't spit on this beef liver. Go on back and pollute your New York waters, but don't expectorate in our beautiful Rio Grande." I glanced at the water and thought of the classic description-too thick to drink and too thin to plow-and I thought too of my New York waters, the Hudson River, which has achieved the saturation point in pollution, being now a mere nine per cent water.

The green bottles were turned loose in the river by the Mexicans. After all of them had been launched, we took our leisurely time arranging things in the boat-box lunches, thermos bottles of coffee, iced beer, a couple of cameras, binoculars. Then we shoved off in pursuit of the bobbing green bottles, which were all now out of sight.

Morgan began to tell a story before we were ten feet from the shore.

"Shame you didn't get down this way for the funeral of Old Man Tatum's shotgun," he said. "Old Man Tatum lived in a shack near the river quite a piece below us, and his shack burnt down and his shotgun with it. He gathered up the remains and made a little coffin for then and got a few of his friends to go out one evening to a country graveyard. They didn't say prayers but Old Man Tatum delivered a sort of farewell sermon."

Our boat was now approaching a canyon whose walls appeared to be half a mile high, but Morgan had been over this water many times and paid small heed to the scenic wonders. "There at the graveside," he went on, "Old Man Tatum took off his hat and he says, " This is a sad day fer me, buryin' Ole Number Eight. It was down on Mistuh Gofoth's sandbar that it happened. Them geese came in to sand up . . .' " Gene interrupted himself to explain that when geese sand up, they are getting grit into their crops to grind their food. "So Old Tatum says, "Them geese was in perfect formation. I never had a chancet fer another shoot like that before er sence. I line 'em up and bloooooey! Eight geese with one shot! Lord-a-mercy! If that ain't a world's record, then I don't know how to shoot geese. And if airy a shotgun desarved a public funeral, this one does. Good-bye, Ole Number Eight. Have yourself a long rest."

I enjoyed the tale but my mind was on catfish. This was the first real fishing I had undertaken since boyhood-if this could be called real fishing. When I was about twelve years old I used to fish with my father in the waters around the town of Defiance, Ohio, where the Auglaise and Maumee rivers conflue. Pop favored cane poles and night crawlers and my equipment was the same, with the addition of a cork out of a sorghum molasses jug. Pop scorned bobbers of any kind and eventually converted me away from them. "A crap," he said, "won't go near a bobber 'les he's starvin' to death-he thinks it's some kinda battleship."

In those far-gone days I realized that fishermen practice a religion of their own or, rather, each individual fisherman embraces a code of orthodox beliefs fully as occult and complex as Spin-off Shintoism. Articles in the various creeds proclaim that fish will never bite during a thunderstorm and remain scared, hugging bottom, for two or three days after such a storm; that when the cows are lying down in the pastures, the bass are hitting; that if an east wind is blowing, pack up your tackle and go home; that trout find hidey-holes on the bottom if there are any female wimmin around. There is a great body of such scientific knowledge, but somehow the True Faith failed to snatch me and after my family left Ohio I never fished again.

When we were entering the canyon I asked Gene Morgan to tell me something about the fish we were pursuing, and Henhouse Hailey spoke up: "It ain't a good idee," he said, "to ever talk about catfish when you are out to get catfish. They won't get in a country moll uh your hooks you start talkin' about 'em."

I pointed out that the bottles were probably a mile (moll) out in front of us by now, and the catfish couldn't hear us gossiping about them, and then Morgan said almost the only fish ever taken from the Rio Grande, at least in this area, are blue cat, channel cat, and mud cat. "Some of the mud cat run as high as ninety pound," he said, "and they are . . ."

"Speakin' of raddlesnakes," spoke up Henhouse Hailey, "you oughta see the ones we got back home. Once a year we have a raddlesnake roundup, everybody, with forked sticks and warr nooses and gunny sacks, ketch 'em by the hunderds. Up home we know raddlesnakes. A full-growed one ain't a particle afraid of nobody. It sickens me to hear all these experts sayin' that a raddlesnake won't bother you long as you don't bother him. Bull roar! Don't ever bleeve it! He'll come at you because he hates you and he knows he can lick you. But he's a gennelman, clean through. He walks right up to you and says, 'Ah'll fight you no holts barred, whether you wanna fight er not, so flang up yer dukes.' No, sirreee. A raddlesnake don't sneak around and bush people. He fights fair and he kill honest."

Our shiny craft was now in the canyon where the stream narrowed, roughing up the water, but we weathered the tossing about we got and I, in fact, rather enjoyed it. Our journey was to cover fifteen moll of river and take about three hours. When we came out of the canyon into scrubby, dusty-looking flat land again, Gene Morgan launched into a story about a raffle he had recently organized among the Mexicans of La Linda. Gene had a bottle of 25-year-old Scotch and decided to raise some money for charity with it. He consulted with a couple of Mexican associates and learned that raffles in their land are somewhat different from those in Estados Unidos. In the first place, said Morgan, a Mexican prizes a bottle of genuine Scotch above almost all other possessions. With him it is a status symbol, and stands prominently on a shelf or table in his living room, and when the whisky is all gone he still keeps it there, filled with colored water. So the interest in the raffle was intense, and a one-day fiesta was declared, for it takes a full day to conduct a Mexican raffle. More than a hundred chances were sold at a dollar apiece and as soon as the fiesta got started, two men stood by the box and at a signal from Morgan, drew out a name. Santanna Chavez.

"I got up to congratulate Santanna," Morgan said, "and right at this point I learned that a Mexican raffle runs backwards. The first name chosen is not the winner. He is eliminated, and so is a second, and third, and so on down to the point where a single name remains in the box. He wins the whisky. The drawing started early in the morning and continued intermittently to the final moments of the party late that night. You can imagine how the suspense built up all during the day. One of the most exciting blow-outs I've ever attended in Mexico."

The river twisted and turned, and narrowed and widened, and the scenic wonders continued awesome, alternating between grandeur and desiccated bleakness. My god, when I get to writing about scenery I write it. There was no sign of life anywhere outside the boat, and there was no sign of any green bottles.

Tom Leary now spoke up: "Along this stretch of the river, I think is where the Apaches used to snatch ducks. They'd locate a flight settled on the Water. Then they'd hide in the bushes and begin releasing big gourds. These gourds would float along, into the flock, and for some reason the ducks didn't seem to be afraid of the invaders. So after a while when the birds had become accustomed to the gourds, those Apaches would put big gourds over their heads, with eyeholes cut in them, and creep into the water, crouching so only the gourds would show. They'd move into the flight of ducks and the way they took them was to reach up from below, take hold of their legs, and jerk them under water where they were stuffed into bags held below the surface."

By this time it seemed clear to me that the minds of my companions were not on fishing to the exclusion of all other subjects. I felt that I had to get into the act, so I told General Ed Sebree's story of the time Horse Wagner and Willie Biggerstaff went coon-huntin' in the land of my nativity, Little Egypt. They were deep in the woods in proven coon country, when they noted a scurrying in the bushes and caught a glimpse of an animal ducking into a large hollow log. Willie Biggerstaff got down on his knees and tried to grab the critter, but couldn't reach him, so he bent lower and poked his face up to the opening. Zwisssssh! It was not a coon. It was a polecat, and Willie got the charge full in his eyes. Woods people know that skunk juice can blind a man permanently, Willie rolled over groaning, and Horse Wagner went into action. Horse had a chaw in his cheek, and he knew that tobacco juice is a specific remedy for skunk juice in the eyes. Carefully he deposited some juice in Willie's eyes. Willie heaved a deep sigh of relief and then murmured, as though in ecstasy, "Godamighty, Hoss, do that ag'in!"

Gene Morgan now resumed his discourse on the nature of the catfish, which is considered a delicacy on both sides of the Tex-Mex border. "There's no prejudice against him," said the big Texas, "the way there is in certain other parts of the country, especially among you knothead Yankees. Way I figure, by the time we get to Maravillas we'll have enough catfish for a combination fish fry and fiesta for the whole village of La Linda."

"But where," I asked are the catfish at? Wharr did them ole green bottles go to?"

Henhouse Hailey came to life again. He told a long and involved story about a couple of fishermen back in North Carolina, a man named Charlie Ross and another named Jack Starrett, and by the time the tale was completed we were coming out of Heath Canyon. Tom Leary spotted a green bottle moving erratically near the Texas shore and Morgan saw one farther along. Out came the oars and soon we had our first catfish, one about three feet long, the other a foot shorter. I had been wondering how we would ever catch up to those bottles, considering the fact that they floated at the same speed as our boat. Morgan explained that catfish are usually mule-stubborn and hate to ever swim downstream, so as soon as they took hold of the bait, they'd begin struggling uphill, so to speak, or at least drag the green bottle over to still water near the shore. I was looking at the bigger of the cats we had caught and concluding that this had to be the ugliest, meanest-looking critter on earth; he somehow made me think of Damon Runyon, a friendly man who somehow had the misfortune to look a catfish-mean, and then seen from another angle, our catfish resembled a certain book reviewer back east. Henhouse Hailey interrupted my ruminations.

"Ah'm a man," he said, "likes to make mah own buttah. Ah skin the cream offa the milk and put it in a quawt jar till it's a couple inches from the top, and screw on the lid, and start shakin' it. Shake it thisaway, shake it thataway, down, up, crossways waggle it aroun', keep on shakin'. Ah don't like to waste time by just standin' still and shakin' a jar, so Ah try to find somethin' else to do, and maybe walk aroun' mah yod and look at thangs. So folks come drivin' past and I can almost heah them sayin', 'Lookit ole Henhouse, gone plumb in-sane, walkin' aroun' his yod shakin' a quawt jar.' Ah pay 'em no mind. Went to San Tone once, went in a place called Frisky A Go Go, godderndest dancin' in there, like wile Indians. Thought maybe Ah'd invent a new modrun dance, call it the Buttuh Jar Shake. Never got aroun' to it."

Adrift again, I spoke of a piece I'd seen in The New York Times about a boy fishing for trout in a Wyoming lake, using small marshmallows for bait and hauling in the gleaming beauties on a day when the weisenheimers were getting nothing with their fly rods. Morgan said that the Mexicans are dedicated to beef liver but when they don't have it they use a laundry soap called Mariposa (butterfly) and do real well with it.

Henhouse asked me if I had ever heard tell of a Texan named Brit Bailey, and I said I hadn't. "Once uh the nobel-est Texans ever lived," he said. "Had hisself buried standin' up straight in the grave, rifle over his shoulder, jug uh whisky at his feet, said by God he was a Texan and even when he was dead he wasn't gonna look up to any man alive."

We entered Horse Canyon and the river narrowed and we were soon shooting the rapids. Just as we emerged from the canyon with a rush, the boat hit a rock, and over we went. A Mexican goatherd was on the south bank and witnessed our disaster and doubled up with laughter. Then he waded out and helped us get the boat ashore. Everything else was gone-food, cameras, binoculars, catfish. Morgan was furious at the goatherd, and demanded to know what he found so funny about the accident, and the Mexican told him in Spanish that when we hit the first rock all he could see was four butts sticking straight up in the air. Butts, apparently, are as funny in Mexico as they are elsewhere. We took off our clothes and wrung them out, and then put them back on, and climbed into our dented boat to proceed downriver to Maravillas where the pickup truck was waiting to haul us back home. The delay had been a long one, and we saw no more green bottles.

And so, after a while, we arrived at Maravillas Creek, a spot known to old-timers as "the fartherest away from nowhere of any place on earth." We saw smoke on the Mexican shore, and the pickup, and the glint of the sun on the green bottles. It turned out that a dozen or so Mexican wetbacks, preparing to cross the river and proceed up the dry bed of the creek to find work, spotted the green bottles in the river. The wetbacks waded in and captured eight or ten nice catfish. With the assistance of our Mexican truck driver, they built a fire, got out their crude utensils and their lard, and prepared a riverside fish fry. They were just finishing their feast when we arrived. We were still wet, and hungry, but we'd have to wait for provender until we got back to La Linda.

And so, after a lovely steak supper, we were sitting on the veranda at the ranch house and Morgan said, " I'm sorry about it, but it couldn't be hepped. Worse dern fishin' trip I was ever on. I apologize to you, you Yankee Joner."

I had been busy scribbling in my notebook. "Gene, I said, "no apologies necessary. It was a marvelous expedition. If we'd have gone fifty miles instead of fifteen, I'd have got me a whole book. Fishin'," I concluded, "is a whole lot more than just fishin'."

*Reprinted from The Best of H. Allen Smith Copyright © 1972 by H. Allen Smith

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