Manuel shouldn’t have been employed as a census taker. He wasn’t qualified. He couldn’t read a map. He didn’t know what a map was. He only grinned when they told him that North was at the top.
He knew better.
But he did write a nice round hand, like a boy’s hand. He knew Spanish, and enough English. For the sector that was assigned to him he would not need a map. He knew it better than anyone else, certainly better than any mapmaker. Besides, he was poor and needed the money.
They instructed him and sent him out. Or they thought that they had instructed him. They couldn’t be sure.
“Count everyone? All right. Fill in everyone? I need more papers.”
“We will give you more if you need more. But there aren’t so many in your sector.”
“Lots of them. Lobos, tejones, zorros, even people.”
“Only the people, Manuel! Do not take the animals. How would you write up the animals? They have no names.”
“Oh, yes. All have names. Might as well take them all.”
“Only people, Manuel.”
“No, Manuel, no. Only the people.”
“No trouble. Might as well take them all.”
“Only people--God give me strength!--only people, Manuel.”
“How about little people?”
“Children, yes. That has been explained to you.”
“Little people. Not children, little people.”
“If they are people, take them.”
“How big they have to be?”
“It doesn’t make any difference how big they are. If they are people, take them.”
That is where the damage was done.
The official had given a snap judgement, and it led to disaster. It was not his fault. The instructions are not clear. Nowhere in all the verbiage does it say how big they have to be to be counted as people.
Manuel took Mula and went to work. His sector was the Santa Magdalena, a scrap of bald-headed and desolate mountains, steep but not high, and so torrid in the afternoons that it was said that the old lava sometimes began to writhe and flow again from the sun’s heat alone.
In the center valley there were five thousand acres of slag and vitrified rock from some forgotten old blast that had melted the hills and destroyed their mantle, reducing all to a terrible flatness. This was called Sodom. It was strewn with low-lying ghosts as of people and objects, formed when the granite bubbled like water.
Away from the dead center the ravines were body-deep in chaparral, and the hillsides stood gray-green with old cactus. The stunted trees were lower than the giant bushes and yucca.
Manuel went with Mula, a round easy man and a sparse gaunt mule. Mula was a mule, but there were other inhabitants of the Santa Magdalena of a genus less certain.
Yet even about Mula there was an oddity in her ancestry. Her paternal grandfather had been a goat. Manuel once told Mr. Marshal about this, but Mr. Marshal had not accepted it.
“She is a mule. Therefore, her father was a jack. Therefore his father was also a jack, a donkey. It could not be any other way.”
Manuel often wondered about that, for he had raised the whole strain of animals, and he remembered who had been with whom.
“A donkey! A jack! Two feet tall and with a beard and horns. I always thought that he was a goat.”
Manuel and Mula stopped at noon on Lost Soul Creek. There would be no travel in the hot afternoon. But Manuel had a job to do, and he did it. He took the forms from one of the packs that he had unslung from Mula, and counted out nine of them. He wrote down all the data on nine people. He knew all there was to know about them, their nativities and their antecedents. He knew that there were only nine regular people in the nine hundred square miles of the Santa Magdalena.
But he was systematic, so he checked the list over again and again. There seemed to be somebody missing. Oh, yes, himself. He got another form and filled out all the data on himself.
Now, in one way of looking at it, his part in the census was finished. If only he had looked at it that way, he would have saved worry and trouble for everyone, and also ten thousand lives. But the instructions they had given him were ambiguous, for all that they had tried to make them clear.
So very early the next morning he rose and cooked beans, and said, “Might as well take them all.”
He called Mula from the thorn patch where she was grazing, gave her salt and loaded her again. Then they went to take the rest of the census, but in fear. There was a clear duty to get the job done, but there was also a dread of it that his superiors did not understand. There was reason also why Mula was loaded so she could hardly walk with packs of census forms.
Manuel prayed out loud as they climbed the purgatorial scarp above Lost Souls Creek, “ruega por nosotros pecadores ahora--” the very gulches stood angry and stark in the early morning--”_y en la hora de neustra muerte._”
Three days later an incredible dwarf staggered into the outskirts of High Plains, Texas, followed by a dying wolf-sized animal that did not look like a wolf.
A lady called the police to save the pair from rock-throwing kids who might have killed them, and the two as yet unclassified things were taken to the station house.
The dwarf was three foot high, a skeleton stretched over with brown-burnt leather. The other was an un-canine looking dog-sized beast, so full of burrs and thorns that it might have been a porcupine. It was a nightmare replica of a shrunken mule.
The midget was mad. The animal had more presence of mind: she lay down quietly and died, which was the best she could do, considering the state that she was in.
“Who is census chief now?” asked the mad midget. “Is Mr. Marshal’s boy the census chief?”
“Mr. Marshal is, yes. Who are you? How do you know Marshal? And what is that which you are pulling out of your pants, if they are pants?”
“Census list. Names of everybody in the Santa Magdalena. I had to steal it.”
“It looks like microfilm, the writing is so small. And the roll goes on and on. There must be a million names here.”
“Little bit more, little bit more. I get two bits a name.”
They got Marshal there. He was very busy, but he came. He had been given a deadline by the mayor and the citizen’s group. He had to produce a population of ten thousand people for High Plains, Texas; and this was difficult, for there weren’t that many people in the town. He had been working hard on it, though; but he came when the police called him.
“You Marshal’s little boy? You look just like your father,” said the midget.
“That voice, I should know that voice even if it’s cracked to pieces. That has to be Manuel’s voice.”
“Sure, I’m Manuel. Just like I left, thirty-five years ago.”
“You can’t be Manuel, shrunk three feet and two hundred pounds and aged a million.”
“You look here at my census slip. It says I’m Manuel. And here are nine more of the regular people, and one million of the little people. I couldn’t get them on the right forms, though. I had to steal their list.”