By B. Traven
Hill and Wang, New York, 1967 | Scribd
Introduction. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is regarded as B. Traven’s masterpiece. It is indeed a superb novel, and in addition it was made into an excellent movie by the same name. But The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, written in 1927, is merely the best-known work by a master storyteller who lived and wrote for another 42 years. (See bibliography below.) Traven’s body of work chronicles the loss of individual freedom in his lifetime. He celebrates wildness and describes the horrors of regimentation imposed by the state for the rich. B. Traven is a pseudonym. All that is known of this writer’s personal life is that he died in Mexico after he resided in this country and loved it like a native son for many years. Much ink has been spent on speculations about Traven’s country of birth and a personal history that might have included political activism. On this topic, Traven wrote: “my life belongs to me alone — only my books belong to the public.” His books are more than enough.
Dady Chery, Editor
Through ingenious labor the fellows had succeeded in hiding their mine. Nature had already made this place difficult to approach and to find. A wanderer passing by would never suspect that this rock, lying in a little cuplike valley on the top of a high rocky mountain, was anything but a peak. Two passes led into this small valley, and it took all the strength of man to reach those passes by climbing. The rock was bare of any plants save low bushes. An Indian hunter from the village far below would never go up to this rock to look for any sort of game, for there is enough in the great valley at the base of the mountains to make it silly for a hunter to climb this mountain. The villagers have sufficient tillable land to work on near the village, so there is no need to look for new or better land on the slope of the mountains.
The passes were so well closed in by the miners with shrubs, rocks, and trunks of trees that even if by accident a man should come near, he would never think that these shrubs, so natural- looking, were pure camouflage to hide the passes. When bringing up water for the washings, the passes had to be opened, but they were closed as soon as the burros had passed.
The ground on which the men pitched the camp was left open to view to anybody that might come along. This camp was quite a distance away from the mine, and it was located lower than the mine. In the village below, the Indians knew that up here there was an American hunting, because Curtin came to the village whenever provisions were needed. Hardly any human being would come this way save an Indian from the village. This was bound to be a rare occurrence because a villager going up to this camp would have to be away from his home not only for the whole day, but for the greater part of the night, provided he did not stay overnight in the camp. None of these Indians had any business here, and to go out of pure curiosity to see what the stranger was doing would have been impolite. To be polite in their own way is unwritten law with these natives.
During all the long months the three miners had been at work here, nobody had ever come this way. The peasants below were satisfied with the explanation that the American was hunting for hides of tiger-cats, mountain lions, foxes. The owner of the general store in the village, like all the others, was an Indian, and at the same time mayor of the village and therefore the highest authority in the neighborhood. He had never had such a flourishing business in all his life as since this hunter up on the mountain had begun to patronize him. Curtin paid in cash and seldom if ever quarreled about prices. For him the price seemed ridiculously low, while the storekeeper charged him a trifle more than he would ask from his native customers. He would have lost this excellent business had he made trouble for the foreigner up there. Since this hunter molested none of the natives in any way, nobody was interested in his business. So from this side the adventurers had nothing to fear.
It was something else that every day became more troublesome for the partners, until they thought that it hardly could be borne any longer.
It was a miserable life they now led. The grub was the same, day in, day out. Always it was cooked and prepared hastily when everyone was so tired and worn out that he would have preferred not eating at all to cooking the meal. Yet they must eat, or at least fill their bellies. And doing so every day, treating their stomachs the way they did, it was no wonder that they began to show the effects of it.
To this was added the growing monotony of their work. It had been interesting enough during the first weeks. Now there was not the slightest variety. If once in a while a nugget were found, or now and then a few grains the size of wheat grains, so that they had something new to talk about, then they might have felt afresh that glamour of adventure which had led them out here. But nothing of that sort occurred.
Sand and dirt, dirt and sand, coupled with inhumane privations; crushing rocks from the bitter cold morning hours, through the broiling of midday, and far into the darkness of night made them feel worse than convicts. When it turned out that a huge heap of crushed rocks held, as frequently happened, hardly the day’s pay of a union bricklayer in Chicago, the disappointment of the gang became so great that they could have killed each other just for the pleasure of doing something different from the daily routine.
Every night, when the day had been hard and the gains not in proportion to their labor, a hot quarrel about the uselessness of this sort of life would arise. The men would decide to keep on one more week and not a day longer. Almost every time such a decision was made, the next day or the day after the profits would rise so high that it seemed to be a sin to give up when such rich earnings could be made. So the decision was disregarded and work would go on as before.
The companionship which they had to endure had become the source of troubles they never would have thought of had they been in town. Had it not been for Howard, who, out of his long experience, could not be surprised by anything, the two youngsters would have had fights every day.
During the first weeks of work there was something new to talk about every day and always something interesting to worry about, problems to solve or to think over. These kept their minds occupied for a time, so that there was no need to look to their partners for entertainment.
Then came a time when each had heard the same jokes and stories three hundred times. Also each one, after a few weeks, knew the whole life-story of both his partners.
Dobbs, perhaps owing to an early head injury, had the habit of moving the skin of his forehead upward and so wrinkling it when speaking. Curtin had never noticed this while he knew Dobbs in the oil-fields and in town. Out here, during the first weeks, he and the old man had found this sort of frown rather jolly for the comic impression it made when used with certain phrases. Then they had come to crack jokes about it, with Dobbs good-naturedly joining in. Now came an evening when Curtin yelled at Dobbs: “You cursed dog, if you for once don’t drop that nasty frown of yours, bigod, I’ll smash your head with this stone. You know quite well, you pen-bird, that Fm sick of that face-making of yours, damn it to hell.”
Dobbs was up in an instant, gun drawn. Curtin was saved only because he had left his gun on his cot in the tent. Otherwise Dobbs would have pulled the trigger.
“Haven’t I been waiting for just that for a long time?” Dobbs bellowed. “And who is it that wants to baby-nurse me? Weren’t you horsewhipped in Georgia for taking a jane across a tree- trunk? We know what brought you down here into this country. You aren’t here for pleasure. One more crack about my face and I pump yo’ “\p, chest and belly alike.”
The fact was that Curtin did not know whether Dobbs had ever been in ]ail, so that he was not justified in calling him a pen-bird. Nor did Dobbs know whether Curtin had ever been in Georgia, because he had never said so and he had never mentioned that he had been out on a necking party with results not fully approved by the gai.
The old man kept quiet while this battle was on. He smoked his pipe and puffed out thick clouds to protect himself from the mosquitoes.
Finally Dobbs laid down his cannon, and Howard felt that his advice might now be welcomed.
“What’s all this row about, boys? We won’t make any money if we have to doctor bullet-wounds. Wait until we are back in town. Besides, we don’t know yet for what better purpose we may need that ammunition you’re so ready to waste, like the real boneheads you are.”
Neither of the youngsters answered.
After a long silence at the fire, Dobbs took up his gun and turned in, leaving the old man and Curtin to themselves.
Soon came a morning when Curtin poked his gun in Dobbs’s ribs: “Any more lip from you and I’ll pull off, you rattler.”
“Why don’t you pull? Yellow, hey? all right, I haven’t said a word. Forget it. She was only a bitch anyway. Trust me, sonny.”
A new quarrel early in the morning before a hard day made Howard mad: “Why the damn hell can’t you hicks behave like real guys? You act worse than a married couple on Sunday night. Bury the gun, Curty.”
“You telling me, ordering us about, hey?”
“I haven’t anybody to order about here.” Howard, too, seemed to be the victim of that devastating disease caused by the monotony of their life. “And I repeat, I’m not here to give orders. I’ve come here to make money and not to nurse kiddies so dumb they couldn’t live out here two weeks without being eaten alive by the coyotes and the buzzards. Here we need one another, like him or hate him. Gees crisp, if one is banged up by your foolishness, the other two can go home, for two alone can’t do anything here. Not me. I want to make money, and if I want to see a good fight, it won’t be you two I’d pay to see put it on.”
Curtin fingered his gun and then put it back in its holster.
“And that’s not ail,” Howard continued. “I’m plumb sick and dog-tired, not of the job here, but of you two guys. I’m not willing to stay behind here with one alone after the other has been bumped on”. I’m going, that’s what I’m doing. I’m through, you can get that right now. I’m satisfied with what I’ve made so far. I certainly won’t take any more chances with you.”
Dobbs protested. “You may have enough, but we haven’t. Your old bones may carry you along on what we’ve helped you to make, but we’re still young and we have a damn long life before us; we’ll need dough, and plenty of it. You can’t run out on us like that and leave us here on the cracked ice. We want to clean up, and not before that is done will we give you our kind permission to walk off.”
“Now come here, sweet oldy,” Curtin broke in. “You really shouldn’t show your second infancy at this time. It isn’t good taste. How would you do it, anyhow? Just try. Don’t misjudge our legs, old man. Want to know what we’d do in such a. case?”
“You don’t have to tell me. I know both of you so darn well that I’m sure I’d make no mistake in guessing what fate would be in store for me.”
“Mebbe we are worse than you think.” This came from Dobbs. “We would wait until you were packed up, so as to be sure you had your dust wrapped up. Then we’d get hold of you and tie you to a tree. With that well done, we’d go our smooth road back home, where money still counts, no matter where it comes from and how you got it. Kill? Kill you? No, it would be very nasty to do such a dirty thing to a good pal like you. You, of course, with your dirty thinking, believe we might murder you in cold blood. Nope, we aren’t that bad.”
“I get you, Dobby, my fine boy.” Howard grinned sardonically at the two. “To tell you the truth, I had thought, really and seriously thought, that you might murder me just to get rid of me and have my dough thrown in into the bargain. But I’d never figured on anything like being left behind in the wilderness, tied to a tree, fc,..posed to mosquitoes, scorpions, rattlers, wolves, coyotes, ants, and other pretty creatures handed us by the Lord to make life miserable. You wouldn’t burden your good conscience with a merciful quick shot into my chest to deliver me from pain. Oh no, you are too good-natured for that. all right, you win. I shall stay and have my fate delivered into your soft hands.”
Followed a long silence. The youngsters avoided the old man’s searching face. They became restless. Dobbs surely had not meant to do such a thing; neither had Curtin. He had, or so at least Howard figured, used only the best weapon he could think of to keep him on the field, for without him they would have been lost.
Curtin couldn’t stand the awkward silence any longer. “Hell, that’s all bosh. Nothing back of it. We’re all cracked in our heads somehow, that’s what’s the matter with us.”
“Exactly what I was thinking myself. Don’t believe a word of what I’ve spouted here, Howy. Cross my heart, this is all nonsense. Well, I’m shaky, sort of shaky all over. I don’t know myself what I’m saying. Forget it, oldy. Let’s get to work and lift a quarter of an ounce.”
Howard laughed. “Now, that’s the way to talk. You’re just kiddies. One day, perhaps thirty years hence, both of you will be standing in the same shoes I am in now. Then you’ll know better. I didn’t take you seriously, anyhow. Well, Curty, get the burros going; we haven’t got water enough.”
It had done them a great deal of good to clean their chests. After the argument they seemed to get along better for quite a while, and the work progressed more rapidly.
The last quarrel, however, had an unexpected effect. The word had been dropped that one might pack up and leave. This suggestion began to take root in their minds. Howard had said that he was satisfied with what he had made so far. He knew the value in cash of the dust they had accumulated. The boys had never sold pay-dirt, so they didn’t know how much money they would have after it had been properly assayed.
Therefore it was quite natural for Curtin to bring up this question one evening: “How much do you think, Howy, we may collect on what we have so far?”
The old man was silent for a while, making calculations in his mind. Then: “I can’t say in dollars and cents, but I should be very much mistaken if each of us had much less than fifteen thousand dollars. It may be fourteen, it may be sixteen. That’s my figure, and I feel satisfied that I’m not very far wrong.”
The partners had not expected so much. It came as a surprise to them.
“If it’s that much,” Dobbs said, “I move we stay here about six weeks more, work like devils, and then return to town.”
Curtin assented. “Suits me perfectly.”
‘I’ve been thinking of making this proposition to you,” Howard began. “Yes, that’s what I was going to do. Because as far as I can figure, there will hardly be anything left after six weeks. It looks to me as if the field is getting suspiciously thin. If we should come upon a new rich layer, which I don’t think will happen, then it would pay to stay on. As it is, it looks as though after six weeks there will no longer be a good day’s wages in our work. So what would be the use of staying here?”
It was agreed, therefore, to put in another six or eight weeks and not one day more. Eight weeks would be the limit.
This decision, more than anything else, brought peace to the partners.
They fixed the day of departure from the wilderness of the Sierra Madre, and having done so, their mood underwent a great change overnight. No longer could they understand how it had been possible to fight each other as they had lately. For the first time they became confident of one another. They were on the way to becoming even real pals.
“Not so bad, the ideas that guy has,” one would say to himself occasionally, and with conviction. “Why, these two mugs are almost like real brothers to me,” another would think, and he would add: I’m not so sure that a brother would act as square as these hicks do.”
The reason for this change of attitude was not the decision to break camp; that in itself could not have produced such a change of mind. It was that setting a definite date for departure brought many new problems to solve. These occupied their minds to such a degree that they could no longer waste time looking for shortcomings in their neighbors. Any nation, regardless of political quarrels and fights for party supremacy, when confronted with a war or the danger of losing her most important markets, unites under her leaders. This is the reason why smart statesmen, dictators in particular, who see their power threatened from the inside try the old trick of showing the nation the arch-enemy at the gates of the country. For the genuine dictator or despot nothing is too expensive as long as it will keep him in power.
Here the same problems confronted the partners the moment the end of their adventure was in sight, and they forgot their internal fights in looking ahead.
They talked over plans for carrying the goods safely to civilization, where they would be of value. Then there were the more personal questions of what to do after collecting the cash; whether to go into business, and if so, what business; whether to invest the money in some enterprise or buy real estate or even a farm, or only to have a good time for a while. So many things in the world were waiting to be done. They began, at least in their minds, to live within civilization again. Their talk would often center on objects which had less and less to do with their present life. They discussed affairs of the town as though living there. They mentioned certain persons whom they expected to meet again; others whom they hoped would no longer be there.
The nearer the day for departure came, the friendlier the partners became. The old man and Dobbs were considering going into business together. They talked of opening a movie house in the port, Howard to be the business manager, and Dobbs the artistic director.
Curtin had his own problems. He found himself in a difficult situation. He could not even decide for himself whether he wished to stay in the republic or return to the States. Occasionally he mentioned a dame in San Antonio, Texas, whom he meant to marry some day. This idea occurred to him mostly when he felt rather lonely for a female. Since he knew her best, he naturally concentrated his special desires upon her whenever he was thinking of manly pleasures. But he was clever enough to know that, once back in town, and having met in a friendly way some easy janes, he might lose all interest in marrying the S.A. damsel. He admitted this when Howard explained to him what was really the matter and why right now he was so hot for the dame from Laredo Street.
The partners, as a rule, rarely talked of women. They knew from experience that it was not good for their health or for their work to think too frequently of things they could not have.
Anyone listening to their discussions would have been unable to imagine any of these men holding a woman in his arms. Any decent woman would have preferred to drown herself or cut her veins rather than keep company with these men. The fellows themselves, having lost all means of comparison with other people, could, of course, know nothing about the impression they would make upon an outsider who by chance should meet them. They saw only themselves, and none of them cared how he looked or how he spoke.
The gold worn around the finger of an elegant lady or as a crown on the head of a king has more often than not passed through hands of creatures who would make that king or that elegant lady shudder. There is little doubt that gold is oftener bathed in human blood than in hot suds. A noble king who wished to show his high-mindedness could do no better than have his crown made of iron. Gold is for thieves and swindlers. For this reason they own most of it. The rest is owned by those who do not care where the gold comes from or in what sort of hands it has been.
B. Traven works:
- The Death Ship: the Story of an American Sailor (1926, Engl/1934)
- The Cotton Pickers (1927, retitled The Wobbly)
- The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927, Engl/1935)
- Land of Springtime (1928)
- The White Rose (1929, Engl/1979)
- The Night Visitor and Other Stories
- The Bridge in the Jungle (1929, Engl/1938)
- The Carreta (1931, Germ/1930)
- Government (1931)
- March to the Monteria (March To Caobaland) (1933)
- Trozas (1936)
- The Rebellion of the Hanged (1936, Engl/1952)
- A General from the Jungle (1940)
- Canasta de cuentos mexicanos (or Canasta of Mexican Stories, 1956, Mexico City, translated from the English by Traven’s wife Rosa Elena Luján)
- Aslan Norval (1960)
- “Stories By The Man Nobody Knows” (1961)
- The Creation of the Sun & the Moon (1968)
- The Kidnapped Saint & Other Stories (1975)
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