Mauricio Rivera turned his horse and struck his stick at a panicking calf. The herd lumbered up the twisting dirt trail. For six days, Mr. Rivera and his fellow cowboys had been driving the herd to safety, ever farther from the mortar fire they say engulfed the Honduras border village of Maquengales when Nicaragua's Sandinista troops attacked recently.
Some 6,000 people have left their homes in the Las Vegas Salient border region in the past six weeks, says Lucila Aldana, the local head of a Roman Catholic Church charity group, Caritas, which has been helping the displaced people. The flood, she says, began in October, when the Sandinistas attacked contra positions in Honduras, where the rebels are preparing a new offensive. Fighting flared two weekends ago, prompting the Honduran Air Force to bomb the Sandinista units.
In the wake of the violence, many displaced Hondurans are bitter about the Sandinistas, saying that the troops burned their crops, stole their livestock, and sowed mines as they withdrew.
Though angry at the Sandinista forces, the Hondurans who have sought safety here say their problems began when the Nicaraguan rebels, the contras, first established themselves in earnest in the area in 1982.
``How can we go home now? There is only death there for us if we return,'' said Emilio Mart'i, a peasant farmer, who fled his hamlet Dec. 5 after the Sandinistas began mortaring a nearby contra position.
``Cedrales [a town in Las Vegas Salient] was fine when we moved there'' 14 years ago, recalls Blazina Gonz'alez. ``Things turned bad when those people from over there arrived,'' she adds, referring to the Nicaraguan rebels.
``Most of the people are as afraid of the contras as they are of the Sandinistas,'' Mrs. Aldana says. ``The peasants know we are all to blame for this situation, the United States, the Sandinistas, the contras, and us ourselves, for allowing it.''
Most vocal in bringing the border situation to national attention in Honduras has been the Coffee Growers Association. It has complained to the government about the economic damage they say the contra presence has caused. Honduras will forgo nearly $8 million in exports this coffee cycle, the growers claim, because of lost production in the Las Vegas region.
Those fears recently prompted Nicholas Cruz Torres, a Honduran congressman from the conservative National Party, to propose a bill that would expel the contras from Honduras. Although his motion has since been buried in committee red tape, it reflected a growing dissatisfaction with the Nicaraguan rebels, and sparked wider debates on a question that has always been swept under the carpet.
Until earlier this year, Mr. Cruz Torres points out, the government did not even officially acknowledge that there were any contras in Honduras. ``It was taboo to talk about this. Now all the hidden facts have been set flying,'' he said. This would not likely have happened, Cruz Torres and a government official concede, had the Sandinistas not been launching attacks ever since last Easter.
Managua's decision to regard the Las Vegas Salient as ``frontier territory,'' where Sandinista troops have the right to fight, has highlighted the rebels' presence and heightened pressure on the Honduran government to do something about it.
In recent months, the tiny Christian Democratic Party, which has long called for the contras' expulsion, has been joined by Honduras's largest trade-union federation and a host of other voices, including staunchly pro-US political leaders.
Their call reflects a growing feeling of resentment throughout Honduras, say Western diplomats and local officials.
One senior government figure says that ``whenever there is a horrible crime here now, the contras are blamed.''
``There is resentment at a whole lot of things'' in proverty-stricken Honduras, says a European diplomat, ``and it gets focused on the contras.'' It has become a public legend, a clich'e, that it is all the contras' fault.
Though no one in President Jos'e Azcona Hoyo's government has gone so far as to suggest that the contras should be expelled, both civilian and military authorities have grown increasingly resentful of their presence.
``The President [Azcona] has said repeatedly that the contras are unwelcome here,'' the senior official says. Ten days ago, he adds, government leaders insisted to US Ambassador Everett Briggs that the rebels should take their war to Nicaragua.
This concern, latent for some time, has been forced to the surface by the Iran arms sale affair, from which the contras are said to have profited to the tune of $10 million to $30 million.
Fears that the scandal may lead to an end to US funding of the rebels have raised the specter of a defeated irregular force not much smaller than the Honduran Army, with nowhere to go.
``If the contras are beaten by the Sandinistas and abandoned by the United States, they are going to be a real problem for us,'' says the Honduran official.
Honduras wants the contras to fight in Nicaragua. The US wants the contras to fight in Nicaragua. The contras say they intend to fight in Nicaragua. But the question remains as to what will happen if the Sandinista Army proves too strong for the rebels to establish themselves in force on the other side of the border.
``The Hondurans' problem is that they don't have any leverage with the contras themselves, only with Washington,'' says one Western diplomat. ``And they don't want to use that too much,'' because their economic dependence on the US leaves scarce room for maneuver.
While US and contra spokesmen are positive about prospects of the newly funded rebels in their planned offensive, Honduran officials and politicians are already wondering what to do if that campaign fizzles out.
Their only answer so far is to hope that the US might evacuate the contras.
Meanwhile, says a Honduran official, ``we are trapped'' between Sandinista attacks and heavy US pressure.
``We are at a very grave crossroads,'' the official adds, ``and we have no options. The options all come from Washington.''