EL SAUCITO, MEXICO, JULY 11 -- In the rocky, reddish fields, the corn is only three inches high, 47 days after planting. The only industry here, a colonial silver mine with evil-looking holes that disappear into the earth, has been idle since time immemorial.

Thereby hangs the tale of four unemployed laborers and a schoolteacher and how they came to suffocate last week -- with 13 men from three other Mexican villages -- in a boxcar in West Texas.

Now a fortress-like ruin on a hill, the silver mine and refinery gave rise to El Saucito. The silver is long gone, but most people in the barren, scrub-cactus countryside still live by farming methods little changed since the Spanish came to this arid, highland plain in the mid-16th century.

Those here with access to a burro, horse, ox and -- in a few cases -- a tractor, planned to rush into the fields Friday and Saturday to plant again, on their hands and knees. The day after El Saucito's five dead were buried, the first rains since the previous planting splattered the land, giving the children rare puddles to play in.

"We have a little land from the ejido {village cooperative}, but we can't plant because we don't have even an animalito with which to plow," said Vicenta Jimenez, widow of Alfonso Lopez Hernandez, also known as Poncho who was one of the men who died.

"No, I don't know how much it costs to hire oxen or a tractor," she said as she sat on a low three-legged stool beside a tin pail of tortillas, the only food in sight in her doorless, windowless and floorless adobe kitchen. "I just know it costs more than we can even think about."

Half of the Mexican workers who go illegally to the United States come from just four of the 32 Mexican states, including this one, Zacatecas.

Of El Saucito's 5,000 people, only 40 or 50 live permanently in the United States and some of them have abandoned their families here, said the village priest, the Rev. Jose Cordero Ortiz. And, 400 or 500 go for brief periods but always come back, working in the United States mostly in low-paying agricultural and service-industry jobs.

So it is not surprising that the men from this village of no-name dirt streets did not have relatives in Texas who could send them the money to take a bus or plane after they crossed the border.

Four of the five men from here were related. Although three of the four, including Jimenez' husband, Poncho, had been to the United States once previously, none had had much success finding work there.

Nonetheless, two of them -- Poncho and his distant cousin, Jose Manuel Hernandez Hernandez -- were taking the role of "coyotes," or paid guides across the border, for two other relatives and five men from Ojocaliente, a village in the same township.

They had planned to hop a freight train from El Paso to Dallas, said Rodolfo Lopez, a cousin of Poncho, because they couldn't afford the bus fare. In Dallas, they hoped to get work with the same day-labor contractors that Rodolfo worked for three years ago, laying bricks and pouring concrete for $7 an hour.

Poncho, Hernandez, and a third relative were carrying about 60,000 pesos each -- only $44, but 20 to 40 days' pay for a day laborer here.

Before a drought cycle began 10 years ago, studies found that most men in the countryside hereabouts were getting 80 to 100 days work a year. Now, it seems to be only about 50, even as the buying power of the peso has plummeted.

The fourth relative, Jose Belen Lopez Chavez, had 100,000 pesos, or $74. A sixth-grade teacher, Belen, as he was called, was more affluent. Rural schoolteachers in Zacatecas are paid $44 every two weeks, said Belen Lopez's wife of 18 months, Leticia Hernandez as she cradled their 5-month-old son, Jose Oscar.

"He didn't care about the new {immigration} law in the United States," she said sadly. "He just cared about his family."Boarding a Truck at Dawn for Trip North

The fifth man from El Saucito who died, Rafael Zamarron Torres, was a semi-professional "coyote." The other men who died in the boxcar, all from the vicinity of Pabellon de Artiaga in the state of Aguascalientes to the south, were paying him to take them to the United States.

Zamarron Torres' widow, Maria del Refugio Lopez, said that her husband used to pay a shopkeeper in Pabellon 5,000 or 10,000 pesos to keep a list of people who wanted a "coyote" for the trip north.

As Zamarron Torres and the other men boarded the truck to Zacatecas city at dawn on Monday, June 29, they discovered they were all on the way to Dallas and decided to travel together, Zamarron Torres' widow said.

They met the Pabellon men at the Zacatecas train station and each paid the 6,000-peso, third-class fare to Ciudad Juarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso. Evidently, they crossed the border together and, still together, boarded what the Mexican press has called "the boxcar of death."

Zamarron Torres, too, had gone to the United States to work three years ago for two months. He had figured how to get across the border on his own and how to hop a freight to Dallas, his widow said.

After he returned here, others asked him to take them north. He charged "$50 or $100 or $200" a head, she said.

"He said they would get in a freight car and close the door from the inside," she said. "They would punch a hole in the floor for air. They would spend two or three days in there without food or water. They would look at their watches and know by the time that they were in Dallas, and get out."

This time, the men seem not to have recognized that the freight car they boarded was a double-bottomed, insulated one that would allow in almost no fresh air. It could not be opened from the inside.

U.S. authorities on Friday arrested a man believed to be a "coyote," too, who allegedly shut the men into the car. All but a single Pabellon man were found dead when U.S. agents made a routine check 14 hours later.

As a "coyote," Zamarron Torres already had made two trips this year to the United States, but no one had paid him yet. The usual arrangement was that the Mexicans were to send him the money after they found work.

"About half the people would never pay," his widow said. "Rafael didn't even leave me a list so I could charge them. If he had to die, I wish he had left me rich, but he left me only the house and those skinny cows out there."

Lopez now finds herself the husbandless mother of five girls and two boys, ages 2 to 11, whose youthful nervousness rose to a crescendo as she spoke.

The benefits of working in the United States are visible not only here and there on television sets in El Saucito, but also in the fine house with attractive wagon wheels in the outer wall that one man is building near the barren village square.

"The young people look at houses like that and they get enthusiastic and want the same," said Juan Sanchez, whose 22-year-old son went to Guadalajara at 14 and to Los Angeles at 17. "Many people from here go to Monterrey or Guadalajara or Aguascalientes. Some go to El Norte."

Belen Lopez, the schoolteacher, was an ambitious man from an ambitious family. "He was a quiet, respectable man, a very good boy," said his grandmother, Eugenia Cisneros Lopez. "He went with very good intentions of helping his family, and now this happened."

Said his widow, Leticia, "He had taught for three years in Villa Hidalgo, a village on a hill about 28 kilometers from here. He liked to help the children overcome their starts in life, hoping that they would have a better life."'We Kept Them All in School'

The eldest of five children, Belen Lopez lost his mother when he was 10. Three of the children still live with the grandmother and their father's sister who reared them.

That aunt, Abigail Lopez, was the eldest child of her generation. She went to work after their father was swept to his death in a flash flood through a nearby arroyo at the age of 31. She and her mother sold clothes in the streets here and in Zacatecas city until they earned enough to open a "little store" here.

"It has been a sacrifice, selling this, scrimping on that, but we kept them all in school," Abigail Lopez said.

Belen Lopez completed normal school, which adds up to 14 years of education in a place where most people have only two or three. So did the next child, also named Leticia. She works as a secretary in Monterrey. The three younger children attend high school in Zacatecas city.

But making ends meet is becoming more difficult for the Lopez family. After Mexico sank into its economic crisis five years ago, they had to close the store, Abigail Lopez said. They could not afford to buy merchandise for the store, and people here couldn't afford what they had for sale.

And although schoolteachers have been getting raises every three months, Belen Lopez's widow said, inflation has exceeded the raises by far.

The difficulties faced by Belen Lopez's and Rafael Zamarron Torres' families pale by comparison to those of the families of their fellow travelers. Belen Lopez and Rafael Zamarron Torres lived in the only houses with beds and floors. The others sleep in hammocks strung above their earthen floors.

Jesus (Chito) Lopez Zamarron's father, Jose Lopez Hernandez, was the eldest child, so he never went to school. Instead, the gaunt man took care of the family's few cows as they grazed on whatever wild cactus could be found, a frequent childhood job for the eldest son of Mexican peasants.

He and his wife, Estella Zamarron Garcia, had seven boys and five girls. He and their eldest son, also named Jose, looked for day labor every afternoon in the village square.

When they didn't find work for the next day, they went out at dawn and looked in the fields. "You see somebody working and you go over and ask if they have work for you," Jose, the father, said.

"One can find about one day of work a week," he said, smiling a tiny smile. "There's no fixed salary here. You work for what they give you -- 1,500 pesos a day down to 1,000 pesos."

There are about 1,360 pesos to a dollar, against which the peso has been devalued virtually every day for four years. The peso's value against the dollar has been cut in half in each of those years, while prices here doubled at the same time. First came the new 5,000-peso bills, then the 10,000-peso bill. Now there's a 50,000-peso bill.

Still, Jose the father, like his brother Poncho next door, who also died in the freight car, built a house of sun-baked adobe with his own hands, holding the bricks together with dried mud.

And so far he and his wife have managed to keep all of their children in school through the sixth grade. Studies have found that most undocumented workers in the United States come from similarly upwardly mobile families. They tend to have less education than the U.S. average, but more than the Mexican norm.Too Poor for a Farewell Party

Chito, the second son, who died, preferred to look for work by himself, partly because there are few jobs for which more than two get hired at a time. He, too, had been to the United States once, also without much work success, but things had gotten so bad here that he decided to go back. He confided to his mother before he left that he wanted to get married and build a house.

"There used to be more nopales," a cactus tree with edible petals and fruit, said Andrea Hernandez, grandmother to the dead Chito and mother to the dead Poncho, her youngest, with whom she lived. "One could go and search for things to eat, but it's all used up, years and years ago."

Like her widowed daughter-in-law, she sat on a stool in the earthen room. As she spoke, her face was hidden in a widow's shawl. But she turned and looked fiercely at a reporter, saying: "The grief is a terrible thing."

Two days before the men left for the United States, each had gathered pesos.

Rafael, the "coyote," took a truck on Sunday afternoon to Zacatecas city and another on to Pabellon to determine who was going and that they would be at the train station on time.

Sunday night, none had a despinada, a farewell party, because there was so little money to spare after preparation for the trip. Only Belen Lopez the schoolteacher and Rafael Zamarron Torres the "coyote" had meat to eat at home; the others supped on tortillas, beans and lopalitos.

On the 35th day since the previous rain here, Belen and Chito, Poncho, Jose Manuel and Rafael arose in the dark, and as their families waved goodbye, clamored into the back of an open-bed truck and rode off.

Said Poncho's father-in-law, "I don't understand what you mean, 'What plans can you make for the future?' If one can plan, one does. But what happens is that the plans don't come out the way you hoped because you can't the resources together."

"So, unfortunately, one cannot plan," he said with a sigh as he raised the brim of his straw sombrero to look hard at a foreign reporter. "Tell me again, young man. Where did you say you come from?"