Chapter IX - Our Neighbours At The Poplars

Homes on the great green plain--Making the acquaintance of our neighbours--The attraction of birds--Los Alamos and the old lady of the house--Her treatment of St. Anthony--The strange Barboza family-- The man of blood--Great fighters--Barboza as a singer--A great quarrel but no fight--A cattle-marking--Dona Lucia del Ombu--A feast--Barboza sings and is insulted by El Rengo--Refuses to fight--The two kinds of fighters--A poor little angel on horseback--My feeling for Anjelita-- Boys unable to express sympathy--A quarrel with a friend--Enduring image of a little girl.

In a former chapter on the aspects of the plain I described the groves and plantations, which marked the sites of the estancia houses, as appearing like banks or islands of trees, blue in the distance, on the vast flat sea-like plain. Some of these were many miles away and were but faintly visible on the horizon, others nearer, and the nearest of all was but two miles from us, on the hither side of that shallow river to which my first long walk was taken, where I was amazed and enchanted with my first sight of flamingoes. This place was called Los Alamos, or The Poplars, a name which would have suited a large majority of the estancia houses with trees growing about them, seeing that the tall Lombardy poplar was almost always there in long rows towering high above all other trees and a landmark in the district. It is about the people dwelling at Los Alamos I have now to write.

When I first started on my riding rambles about the plain I began to make the acquaintance of some of our nearest neighbours, but at first it was a slow process. As a child I was excessively shy of strangers, and I also greatly feared the big savage house-dogs that would rush out to attack any one approaching the gate. But a house with a grove or plantation fascinated me, for where there were trees there were birds, and I had soon made the discovery that you could sometimes meet with birds of a new kind in a plantation quite near to your own. Little by little I found out that the people were invariably friendly towards a small boy, even the child of an alien and heretic race; also that the dogs in spite of all their noise and fury never really tried to pull me off my horse and tear me to pieces. In this way, thinking of and looking only for the birds, I became acquainted with some of the people individually, and as I grew to know them better from year to year I sometimes became interested in them too, and in this and three or four succeeding chapters I will describe those I knew best or that interested me the most. Not only as I first knew or began to know them in my seventh year, but in several instances I shall be able to trace their lives and fortunes for some years further on.

When out riding I went oftenest in the direction of Los Alamos, which was west of us, or as the gauchos would say, "on the side where the sun sets." For just behind the plantation, enclosed in its rows of tall old poplars, was that bird-haunted stream which was an irresistible attraction. The sight of running water, too, was a never- failing joy, also the odours which greeted me in that moist green place--odours earthy, herby, fishy, flowery, and even birdy, particularly that peculiar musky odour given out on hot days by large flocks of the glossy ibis.

The person--owner or tenant, I forget which--who lived in the house was an old woman named Dona Pascuala, whom I never saw without a cigar in her mouth. Her hair was white, and her thousand-wrinkled face was as brown as the cigar, and she had fun-loving eyes, a loud authoritative voice and a masterful manner, and she was esteemed by her neighbours as a wise and good woman. I was shy of her and avoided the house while anxious to get peeps into the plantation to watch the birds and look for nests, as whenever she caught sight of me she would not let me off without a sharp cross-examination as to my motives and doings. She would also have a hundred questions besides about the family, how they were, what they were all doing, and whether it was really true that we drank coffee every morning for breakfast; also if it was true that all of us children, even the girls, when big enough were going to be taught to read the almanac.

I remember once when we had been having a long spell of wet weather, and the low-lying plain about Los Alamos was getting flooded, she came to visit my mother and told her reassuringly that the rain would not last much longer. St. Anthony was the saint she was devoted to, and she had taken his image from its place in her bedroom and tied a string round its legs and let it down the well and left it there with its head in the water. He was her own saint, she said, and after all her devotion to him, and all the candles and flowers, this was how he treated her! It was all very well, she told her saint, to amuse himself by causing the rain to fall for days and weeks just to find out whether men would be drowned or turn themselves into frogs to save themselves: now she, Dona Pascuala, was going to find out how he liked it. There, with his head in the water, he would have to hang in the well until the weather changed.

Four years later, in my tenth year, Dona Pascuala moved away and was succeeded at Los Alamos by a family named Barboza: strange people! Half a dozen brothers and sisters, one or two married, and one, the head and leader of the tribe, or family, a big man aged about forty with fierce eagle-like eyes under bushy black eyebrows that looked like tufts of feathers. But his chief glory was an immense crow-black beard, of which he appeared to be excessively proud and was usually seen stroking it in a slow deliberate manner, now with one hand, then with both, pulling it out, dividing it, then spreading it over his chest to display its full magnificence. He wore at his waist, in front, a knife or _facon,_ with a sword-shaped hilt and a long curved blade about two-thirds the length of a sword.

He was a great fighter: at all events he came to our neighbourhood with that reputation, and I at that time, at the age of nine, like my elder brothers had come to take a keen interest in the fighting gaucho. A duel between two men with knives, their ponchas wrapped round their left arms and used as shields, was a thrilling spectacle to us; I had already witnessed several encounters of this kind; but these were fights of ordinary or small men and were very small affairs compared with the encounters of the famous fighters, about which we had news from time to time. Now that we had one of the genuine big ones among us it would perhaps be our great good fortune to witness a real big fight; for sooner or later some champion duellist from a distance would appear to challenge our man, or else some one of our own neighbours would rise up one day to dispute his claim to be cock of the walk. But nothing of the kind happened, although on two occasions I thought the wished moment had come.

The first occasion was at a big gathering of gauchos when Barboza was asked and graciously consented to sing a decima--a song or ballad consisting of four ten-line stanzas. Now Barboza was a singer but not a player on the guitar, so that an accompanist had to be called for. A stranger at the meeting quickly responded to the call. Yes, he could play to any man's singing--any tune he liked to call. He was a big, loud-voiced, talkative man, not known to any person present; he was a passer-by, and seeing a crowd at a rancho had ridden up and joined them, ready to take a hand in whatever work or games might be going on. Taking the guitar he settled down by Barboza's side and began tuning the instrument and discussing the question of the air to be played. And this was soon settled.

Here I must pause to remark that Barboza, although almost as famous for his decimas as for his sanguinary duels, was not what one would call a musical person. His singing voice was inexpressibly harsh, like that, for example, of the carrion crow when that bird is most vocal in its love season and makes the woods resound with its prolonged grating metallic calls. The interesting point was that his songs were his own composition and were recitals of his strange adventures, mixed with his thoughts and feelings about things in general--his philosophy of life. Probably if I had these compositions before me now in manuscript they would strike me as dreadfully crude stuff; nevertheless I am sorry I did not write some of them down and that I can only recall a few lines.

The decima he now started to sing related to his early experiences, and swaying his body from side to side and bending forward until his beard was all over his knees he began in his raucous voice:

En el ano mil ochocientos y quarenta, Quando citaron todos los enrolados,

which, roughly translated, means:

Eighteen hundred and forty was the year When all the enrolled were cited to appear.

Thus far he had got when the guitarist, smiting angrily on the strings with his palm, leaped to his feet, shouting, "No, no--no more of that! What! do you sing to me of 1840--that cursed year! I refuse to play to you! Nor will I listen to you, nor will I allow any person to sing of that year and that event in my presence."

Naturally every one was astonished, and the first thought was, What will happen now? Blood would assuredly flow, and I was there to see-- and how my elder brothers would envy me!

Barboza rose scowling from his seat, and dropping his hand on the hilt of his facon said: "Who is this who forbids me, Basilio Barboza, to sing of 1840?"

"I forbid you!" shouted the stranger in a rage and smiting his breast. "Do you know what it is to me to hear that date--that fatal year? It is like the stab of a knife. I, a boy, was of that year; and when the fifteen years of my slavery and misery were over there was no longer a roof to shelter me, nor father nor mother nor land nor cattle!"

Every one instantly understood the case of this poor man, half crazed at the sudden recollection of his wasted and ruined life, and it did not seem right that he should bleed and perhaps die for such a cause, and all at once there was a rush and the crowd thrust itself between him and his antagonist and hustled him a dozen yards away. Then one in the crowd, an old man, shouted: "Do you think, friend, that you are the only one in this gathering who lost his liberty and all he possessed on earth in that fatal year? I, too, suffered as you have suffered--"

"And I!" "And I!" shouted others, and while this noisy demonstration was going on some of those who were pressing close to the stranger began to ask him if he knew who the man was he had forbidden to sing of 1840? Had he never heard of Barboza, the celebrated fighter who had killed so many men in fights?

Perhaps he had heard and did not wish to die just yet: at all events a change came over his spirit; he became more rational and even apologetic, and Barboza graciously accepted the assurance that he had no desire to provoke a quarrel.

And so there was no fight after all!

The second occasion was about two years later--a long period, during which there had been a good many duels with knives in our neighbourhood; but Barboza was not in any of them, no person had come forward to challenge his supremacy. It is commonly said among the gauchos that when a man has proved his prowess by killing a few of his opponents, he is thereafter permitted to live in peace.

One day I attended a cattle-marking at a small native estancia a few miles from home, owned by an old woman whom I used to think the oldest person in the world as she hobbled about supporting herself with two sticks, bent nearly double, with her half-blind, colourless eyes always fixed on the ground. But she had granddaughters living with her who were not bad-looking: the eldest, Antonia, a big loud-voiced young woman, known as the "white mare" on account of the whiteness of her skin and large size, and three others. It was not strange that cattle- branding at this estancia brought all the men and youths for leagues around to do a service to the venerable Dona Lucia del Ombu. That was what she was called, because there was a solitary grand old ombu tree growing about a hundred yards from the house--a well-known landmark in the district. There were also half a dozen weeping willows close to the house, but no plantation, no garden, and no ditch or enclosure of any kind. The old mud-built rancho, thatched with rushes, stood on the level naked plain; it was one of the old decayed establishments, and the cattle were not many, so that by midday the work was done and the men, numbering about forty or fifty, trooped to the house to be entertained at dinner.

As the day was hot and the indoor accommodation insufficient, the tables were in the shade of the willows, and there we had our feast of roast and boiled meat, with bread and wine and big dishes of _aros con leche_--rice boiled in milk with sugar and cinnamon. Next to cummin-seed cinnamon is the spice best loved of the gaucho: he will ride long leagues to get it.

The dinner over and tables cleared, the men and youths disposed themselves on the benches and chairs and on their spread ponchos on the ground, and started smoking and conversing. A guitar was produced, and Barboza being present, surrounded as usual by a crowd of his particular friends or parasites, all eagerly listening to his talk and applauding his sallies with bursts of laughter, he was naturally first asked to sing. The accompanist in this case was Goyo Montes, a little thick-set gaucho with round staring blue eyes set in a round pinky- brown face, and the tune agreed on was one known as La Lechera--the Milkmaid.

Then, while the instrument was being tuned and Barboza began to sway his body about, and talking ceased, a gaucho named Marcos but usually called El Rengo on account of his lameness, pushed himself into the crowd surrounding the great man and seated himself on a table and put his foot of his lame leg on the bench below.

El Rengo was a strange being, a man with remarkably fine aquiline features, piercing black eyes, and long black hair. As a youth he had distinguished himself among his fellow-gauchos by his daring feats of horsemanship, mad adventures, and fights; then he met with the accident which lamed him for life and at the same time saved him from the army; when, at a cattle-parting, he was thrown from his horse and gored by a furious bull, the animal's horn having been driven deep into his thigh. From that time Marcos was a man of peace and was liked and respected by every one as a good neighbour and a good fellow. He was also admired for the peculiarly amusing way of talking he had, when in the proper mood, which was usually when he was a little exhilarated by drink. His eyes would sparkle and his face light up, and he would set his listeners laughing at the queer way in which he would play with his subject; but there was always some mockery and bitterness in it which served to show that something of the dangerous spirit of his youth still survived in him.

On this occasion he was in one of his most wilful, mocking, reckless moods, and was no sooner seated than he began smilingly, in his quiet conversational tone, to discuss the question of the singer and the tune. Yes, he said, the Milkmaid was a good tune, but another name to it would have suited the subject better. Oh, the subject! Any one might guess what that would be. The words mattered more than the air. For here we had before us not a small sweet singer, a goldfinch in a cage, but a cock--a fighting cock with well-trimmed comb and tail and a pair of sharp spurs to its feet. Listen, friends, he is now about to flap his wings and crow.

I was leaning against the table on which he sat and began to think it was a dangerous place for me, since I was certain that every word was distinctly heard by Barboza; yet he made no sign, but went on swaying from side to side as if no mocking word had reached him, then launched out in one of his most atrocious decimas, autobiographical and philosophical. In the first stanza he mentions that he had slain eleven men, but using a poet's license he states the fact in a roundabout way, saying that he slew six men, and then five more, making eleven in all:

Seis muertes e hecho y cinco son once.

which may be paraphrased thus:

Six men had I sent to hades or heaven, Then added five more to make them eleven.

The stanza ended, Marcos resumed his comments. What I desire to know, said he, is, why eleven? It is not the proper number in this case. One more is wanted to make the full dozen. He who rests at eleven has not completed his task and should not boast of what he has done. Here am I at his service: here is a life worth nothing to any one waiting to be taken if he is willing and has the power to take it.

This was a challenge direct enough, yet strange to say no sudden furious action followed, no flashing of steel and blood splashed on table and benches; nor was there the faintest sign of emotion in the singer's face, or any tremor or change in his voice when he resumed his singing. And so it went on to the end--boastful stanza and insulting remarks from Marcos; and by the time the decima ended a dozen or twenty men had forced themselves in between the two so that there could be no fight on this occasion.

Among those present was an old gaucho who took a peculiar interest in me on account of my bird lore and who used to talk and expound gaucho philosophy to me in a fatherly way. Meeting him a day or two later I remarked I did not think Barboza deserving of his fame as a fighter. I thought him a coward. No, he said, he was not a coward. He could have killed Marcos, but he considered that it would be a mistake, since it would add nothing to his reputation and would probably make him disliked in the district. That was all very well, I replied, but how could any one who was not a poltroon endure to be publicly insulted and challenged without flying into a rage and going for his enemy?

He smiled and answered that I was an ignorant boy and would understand these things better some day, after knowing a good many fighters. There were some, he said, who were men of fiery temper, who would fly at and kill any one for the slightest cause--an idle or imprudent word perhaps. There were others of a cool temper whose ambition it was to be great fighters, who fought and killed people not because they hated or were in a rage with them, but for the sake of the fame it would give them. Barboza was one of this cool kind, who when he fought killed, and he was not to be drawn into a fight by any ordinary person or any fool who thought proper to challenge him.

Thus spoke my mentor and did not wholly remove my doubts. But I must now go back to the earlier date, when this strange family were newly come to our neighbourhood.

All of the family appeared proud of their strangeness and of the reputation of their fighting brother, their protector and chief. No doubt he was an unspeakable ruffian, and although I was accustomed to ruffians even as a child and did not find that they differed much from other men, this one with his fierce piercing eyes and cloud of black beard and hair, somehow made me uncomfortable, and I accordingly avoided Los Alamos. I disliked the whole tribe, except a little girl of about eight, a child, it was said, of one of the unmarried sisters. I never discovered which of her aunts, as she called all these tall, white-faced heavy-browed women, was her mother. I used to see her almost every day, for though a child she was out on horseback early and late, riding barebacked and boy fashion, flying about the plain, now to drive in the horses, now to turn back the flock when it was getting too far afield, then the cattle, and finally to ride on errands to neighbours' houses or to buy groceries at the store. I can see her now at full gallop on the plain, bare-footed and bare-legged, in her thin old cotton frock, her raven-black hair flying loose behind. The strangest thing in her was her whiteness: her beautifully chiselled face was like alabaster, without a freckle or trace of colour in spite of the burning hot sun and wind she was constantly exposed to. She was also extremely lean, and strangely serious for a little girl: she never laughed and rarely smiled. Her name was Angela, and she was called Anjelita, the affectionate diminutive, but I doubt that much affection was ever bestowed on her.

To my small-boy's eyes she was a beautiful being with a cloud on her, and I wished it had been in my power to say something to make her laugh and forget, though but for a minute, the many cares and anxieties which made her so unnaturally grave for a little girl. Nothing proper to say ever came to me, and if it had come it would no doubt have remained unspoken. Boys are always inarticulate where their deepest feelings are concerned; however much they may desire it they cannot express kind and sympathetic feelings. In a halting way they may sometimes say a word of that nature to another boy, or pal, but before a girl, however much she may move their compassion, they remain dumb. I remember, when my age was about nine, the case of a quarrel about some trivial matter I once had with my closest friend, a boy of my own age who, with his people, used to come yearly on a month's visit to us from Buenos Ayres. For three whole days we spoke not a word and took no notice of each other, whereas before we had been inseparable. Then he all at once came up to me and holding out his hand said, "Let's be friends." I seized the proffered hand, and was more grateful to him than I have ever felt towards any one since, just because by approaching me first I was spared the agony of having to say those three words to him. Now that boy--that is to say, the material part of him--is but a handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest; but I can believe that if the other still living part should by chance be in this room now, peeping over my shoulder to see what I am writing, he would burst into as hearty a laugh as a ghost is capable of at this ancient memory, and say to himself that it took him all his courage to speak those three simple words.

And so it came about that I said no gentle word to white-faced Anjelita, and in due time she vanished out of my life with all that queer tribe of hers, the bloody uncle included, to leave an enduring image in my mind which has never quite lost a certain disturbing effect.