Later, much later, people said it had been a lousy idea to ask him if he wanted to go hunting, to hunt the tiger, but at that moment, at dusk around the swimming pool, it seemed like a good joke and nobody objected. John—but nobody called him John, we called him Wilbur because that first day, while he had gone to leave his suitcase in his room, Lucrecia decreed he rather had that sort of face—only raised his sparse eyebrows and drawled, "Why not . . . I'd like . . . I'd love to," and we knew that the next morning, without fail, would be the end of the matter. Wilbur wasn't a bad guy, actually quite the contrary, but maybe that was the cause of everything that came after. Perhaps if he hadn't been quite so easygoing, so friendly and just plain folks, as they said later, El Duende wouldn't have had the urge to make fun of him and things wouldn't have turned out as they did. But what is certain is that at the beginning no one could have guessed the tiger would acquire almost mythological proportions for Wilbur, something like American West meets wild Argentine pampa, something after all perfectly logical for such a pretty country, lost in time.
It was El Duende who took it upon himself to set Wilbur straight; calling it a tiger, he said, was just a manner of speaking. Actually it was a puma. These days you don't see many, but not long ago, ten, twelve years ago, he stammered (as if groping for the exact date, as if he were telling a true story and not making it up as he went along), they were a plague to the area. Wilbur listened with his mouth slightly open, maybe feeling ill at ease. As Don Paulino said later in the kitchen, it was hard to imagine someone could be so na´ve. I think that Wilbur wasn't na´ve but of good faith, which is different, though it can be just as dangerous. So Wilbur accepted without question what El Duende said that night at sundown, beside the pool, while the colors in the sky deepened and the last birds began to fly to the highest branches.
The only one who showed any reservations, a gesture immediately interrupted when El Duende grabbed her hand, was Sonia, that woman who was always so much in control of herself, even in the most trying circumstances. I don't think she cared especially for Wilbur, who had after all arrived only two days earlier, but maybe she felt an instinctive solidarity with him because these tactics were the very same ones that had tarnished and degraded her marriage. Because El Duende had always been like this, a little bit irresponsible, shall we say. Or rather, he was very responsible about the things for which he cared, horses for example, and that highlighted his lack of attention to certain other things.
So here we have El Duende spinning Wilbur a yarn about a tiger, holding Sonia's hand down and smiling at all the younger women with that air of cocky aplomb he still kept up quite well. The legendary polo player with a handicap of ten, famous for his dependability and ubiquitous presence on the field, who would play his last championship at the age of fifty-three. His last championship—yes, that certainly gave a special zest to those months. Because El Duende had at last decided to retire at the height of his game, with all his powers intact, as one of the greatest players, or perhaps the greatest player to grace the celebrated polo fields of Palermo; the undisputed hero of more than twenty seasons, the last crack player of his generation who was still a contender.
You can imagine Wilbur's admiration, how he took every little thing El Duende said seriously, the manner in which he accompanied him down to the corrals to see the ponies, the candid way he sought to imitate his game on the field. Yes, he even had a helmet the same color as El Duende's, pale lilac, which was a throwback to the sixties and Flower Power, a time when El Duende was twenty years old and pale lilac made the reporters of the day believe the young player, so able and gifted, shared the spirit of the times, though none of that ever meant a damn thing to El Duende. As a traditionalist, and because it was his trademark, he kept using helmets of that color, season after season. In time, when he became a legend, lilac-colored helmets came into fashion again and many players with low handicaps used them if only to be like him in this one way. But almost always, when they had acquired a handicap of, say, four goals, they realized their limitations or, if they were any good, didn't want to be in someone else's shadow and in the end everyone used the classic white helmet, or if they wanted to stand out, dark blue.
So there you have the gringo, just as soon as he arrived in Buenos Aires, running off and buying a lilac-colored helmet. In my opinion, that was what convinced El Duende that Wilbur was an idiot. That helmet, his ingenuousness, and the way he rode, of course. Because the truth is that as far as polo is concerned, the gringo was hopeless. His swing was stiff and clumsy and in the saddle he bounced like a sack of potatoes. That was plain from the start. As Don Paulino observed, it was clear Wilbur wasn't from the country.
No, he didn't come from the country, but as El Duende rightly observed, he wasn't short of money. Wilbur had a large fortune, a big, American-style fortune, and he had plenty of enthusiasm, like all those who take up something new as adults. Apparently, as he told Lucrecia, he had been rather wild in his college days: music, poetry, protest songs, that sort of thing, until one day he realized he was making money hand over fist. Hanging out with musicians and, of course, looking after their interests, to his surprise became a good business, a really good business. Sometimes things like that happen, Wilbur said, apologetically. And because he had made money, a lot of money, he had come to El Duende's ranch. He had always liked sports and, well, polo sounded exciting. Now that he could do what he wanted, he had come to buy the best ponies of that famous ten-handicap who had triumphed over and over in Palm Beach and Boca Raton, the winner of all the important tournaments, who had silenced—hell yes!—the best professionals and the wealthiest millionaires not only with his mastery of the game but also with the unrivaled quality of his ponies.
Here Wilbur wasn't so far off: El Duende's horses really were the best in Argentina, which is to say, the world. They came from an extraordinary collection of brood mares—all from the best bloodlines, and many of them sweet and nimble players in their day, perfect examples of what a polo pony should be. Wilbur wouldn't have any trouble finding what he needed here. But of course, it's one thing to find a decent horse to carry a poor rider like Wilbur, and quite another to find that rarity, that gem who has all the tricks, who is quick and tame, capable of turning on a dime and taking off like a shot, easy for a change of leads, and alert when following the ball. Even El Duende had few of these, and every year he needed them more. You all know how these things are: sometimes in a single season you get three excellent horses, and then there are long years when not even one really fine pony turns up. That is what had happened to El Duende. Ponies he could use in the upcoming championship in Palermo? He had only two, and of those one was rather shaky in his forelegs, so in the end, as always, the ace up his sleeve was Bad Blood. With her, he always said, he could be a fifteen-handicap player during two chukkers. And everybody knew, with a player like El Duende, two chukkers like that, in addition to another two with the other old horse (because no one could say its forelegs wouldn't be better by then), was all he needed to win, easily. And so with only a bit of luck, El Duende could play four chukkers full out, and he was already caressing victory in his last championship. Perhaps that was why it made him mad the gringo wanted to buy Bad Blood, and now that I come to think of it, Wilbur had been pressing him on this point just before El Duende suggested the tiger hunt.
You'll say that a player like that, used to receiving one offer after another for the mare, shouldn't have gotten such a sliver under his skin, but remember El Duende was already more than a little fed up with the polo scene and maybe the idea of retiring had softened him a bit. It's also likely El Duende felt the gringo had it too easy and, though all he had to say was, "Look here, the mare isn't for sale," right away something flashed in his eyes. He smiled and proposed the tiger hunt.
Wilbur accepted very enthusiastically, and they agreed to set off early the next morning. Naturally, the one who was most interested in the whole business was Lucrecia. Sonia had preferred to distance herself from the situation, and had gone inside. But not Lucrecia. Lucrecia stayed in the swimming pool and used all the weapons of her twenty years—and they were considerable—to back up her father in the joke. It was quite something to see the complicity between the two of them—the nervous girl with chestnut hair and a decided chin, very much aware of her attractive figure, and the great polo player, with his veteran-warrior aura—who didn't even need to look at each other as they went about setting the trap. It's not that they said anything unusual. On the contrary, Lucrecia was exceedingly nice to Wilbur, and El Duende let flow his charm, always talking about tigers; maybe it was because of this that the next day Wilbur felt so bad. I'd say perhaps even at that moment, it surprised him that a girl in such demand as Lucrecia was giving him all her attention, without looking at anyone else. Because during those days the place was full of people: El Duende's teammates, cousins, friends of Lucrecia's, boyfriends and girlfriends, people from other ranches. The merry-go-round of summer, as Sonia called it. But that night Lucrecia ignored all the young men and had eyes only for Wilbur.
So it seemed quite natural when the next day, very early, she appeared and asked if she could go with them. Of course, El Duende answered that if Wilbur didn't mind, he had no objection. The two men took the guns and the three of them went very slowly across the grounds, walking through a cluster of trees, moving with great caution, until they finally neared the old henhouse where, according to El Duende, the tiger wreaked havoc from time to time. This was an old tiger, he explained to Wilbur, because if not, one couldn't imagine it approaching the houses so near. It couldn't even kill a foal. Every few days, when hunger made it desperate, it would stalk up to the henhouse and raise hell. If they wanted to go on eating chicken, they would have to just get rid of it once and for all.
For me this lie showed the depths of El Duende's scorn. What would it have cost him to make things a little more realistic? For example, everything could have happened in the corral, which was only ten minutes away by car. There it would have been much more likely, and perhaps, without the chickens, Wilbur would have felt a little less of an idiot. But maybe El Duende couldn't be bothered, maybe he was already feeling a bit ashamed about the whole affair, or maybe he only wanted to have his breakfast, so he just took Wilbur by the hand to that broken-down chicken coop, which held only a few hens, and fed the gringo his weak explanation. And Wilbur, of course, believed him, went with him contentedly, happy to be with the two people he most admired in the whole world just then.
It was a humid morning and the sun hadn't come out properly yet. They walked in a strange half-light while shreds of mist floated among the trees. All sound was muffled.
"Now," El Duende whispered, "careful. Load and don't make a sound, Wilbur." Wilbur loaded his Mauser with an exaggerated but surprisingly able movement, Lucrecia said later, and advanced toward the henhouse in an absurd crouch. About this part of the story there are several versions. For example, regarding Wilbur's clothes. Lucrecia said he had disguised himself for the occasion with a beige and green jacket and some startling black army boots. Poor guy. Yes, a fool. That was what she said when they got back.
What's certain is that Wilbur and El Duende slipped through the trees without making a sound and stopped fifty feet from the chicken coop. There, in the early morning stillness, crouching on the roof of the shed, gazing over the yard, motionless, as if observing the world from the peak of a mountain, was the tiger, waiting for its first victims to come out.
"You go ahead and take the shot, you're the guest," whispered El Duende, letting him go on alone.
Wilbur moved up slowly, taking cover behind the trees. When it was impossible for him to miss, he took his position in the grass, El Duende said later, and held the tiger in his sight for maybe five minutes, exaggerated Lucrecia, and finally, when it seemed he was never going to shoot, he made up his mind and pulled the trigger.
In that silence, the explosion was appalling; the bullet lifted the tiger in the air and, according to El Duende, the beast turned two somersaults, sort of clawed the air, suddenly froze as if realizing what had happened, and dropped abruptly in front of the hens' nests.
"Excellent, Wilbur," El Duende shouted, while he made his way toward the coop with his guest.
Wilbur asked him if it wouldn't be better to shoot again, but El Duende said, "What for? You got him good, go and see." So Wilbur gathered his courage and approached the tiger, looked at him, looked at him up close, and suddenly his shoulders slumped.
Yes, Wilbur had shot an old, moth-eaten lion skin, which served as a rug in a bedroom they never used. A rug stuffed with straw and wires, crudely sewn together by Lucrecia. He looked at the two of them, looked at El Duende. Wilbur's mouth was wide open, with a disgraced air, as if he had been slapped in public. He looked at them as if asking for an explanation; he could understand everything if only they would take the time to explain it to him.
"Hey Wilbur, you surprise me. You killed my rug. How could you!"
And then El Duende began to laugh, slap him on the back and laugh, saying that he had never seen such a startled expression in all his life. "Hey Wilbur, what a face! You'll scare the hens!" And just then Lucrecia arrived. Perhaps it was lucky she did, because Wilbur was very pale. Very pale and with his jaw tightly clenched, his eyes enormous and full of shock, as if he had just realized where the beast really was. Speak? He didn't say anything, he was sort of dazed, and his arms hung limp, as if the bullet had got him unexpectedly, right in the back, and my guess is he didn't hear half the things El Duende was saying.
"Now, Daddy," said Lucrecia, "make up with Wilbur. Tell him it was only a joke. Come on, Wilbur, snap out of it, wasn't it funny? You have to agree, it was wonderful, wasn't it?"
Wilbur looked at her as if he were coming out from under water, as if he were slowly emerging and couldn't make things out clearly. El Duende was slapping him on the back and telling him how much work it had been to stuff that damn rug, but in the end it had turned out really well, didn't he think so? And while the other two laughed, Wilbur accompanied them silently back to the houses.
Once there, he had to endure El Duende telling the story to each and every person who sat down at the table, and since there was no fixed time for breakfast, people arrived in groups at different times, and the telling of the story went on until eleven o'clock. The story was so successful that a certain routine began to take shape. El Duende was absolutely serious, and it was Lucrecia who began with the giggling, so that when somebody asked what was going on, El Duende had to step in to set things straight and tell what had really happened, with some polite questions to the gringo—those small details always so necessary to the telling of a good story, if you follow me. So everybody had a wonderful time except, of course, Wilbur, but it was only a joke, and you only had to look at his face to understand he was the type of person born to put up with these things. He didn't say anything, barely managing a thin, bitter smile, and in the end he went to his room and when the time for lunch arrived, he sent word that he wasn't hungry, and didn't appear until four o'clock, and who knows what he had thought about in his room during those hours.
Again, the only person who said anything was Sonia. Not in front of everybody, of course not, but in an aside, when Lucrecia had at last gone off with the other young people. It was only a few words, but maybe it confirmed El Duende's secret shame. They were on the veranda and Sonia told him he was hardly one to tease the young people like that anymore, and El Duende, who knows why, got very red-faced and stammered, "Come on, it was only to have a little bit of fun." He hadn't wanted to offend anybody, least of all Wilbur, who had only come to spend his money. He would try to find a way to fix things up, and he went down to the corrals to be alone.
It wasn't without reason that the polo journalists had christened him "El Duende," the genie, so many years before. It was a way of alluding to what they called his "resources," a tricky move here, a little mischief there, and perhaps even a little bad faith, they implied, which in that great player, in spite of his very European appearance, made him in fact very Argentine. There was even someone who in an interview turned around a famous phrase and said that underneath El Duende's tuxedo you could see his poncho.
It's true that during those first years of success there were some ugly rumors, a few nasty accidents, the kind that make you wonder—accidents where by pure chance, El Duende never got hurt. Also, why not say it, there was talk about some worthless nags being sold for astronomical sums, but here, truly, very few could cast the first stone. Basically, as his admirers said, there was nothing really serious here, a man like El Duende always draws a lot of envy, and anyway, as soon as there were no rivals in sight, he was a perfect gentleman.
At the time when he married Sonia, she was not only ravishing but well provided for, and El Duende could buy more land and notably improve his stock of brood mares. Since then his life, as was logical and fitting, had been an unending stream of successes. In all this, to tell the truth, there was only one drawback: El Duende was much more limited than he thought. It's not that he was stupid, not at all, but let's say he was a bit restricted, maybe because he thought the entire universe could be reduced to polo. But in this many of his admirers were in total agreement: no one considered him any less for it—on the contrary—and so El Duende went on leading the same life for years.
When Wilbur appeared in the afternoon, El Duende was very solicitous and the gringo perfectly cool, as if nothing had happened, like water off a duck's back, El Duende said afterward, incredulously. And so, amid polite conversation, El Duende suddenly found that he had offered Wilbur nothing less than the opportunity to ride Bad Blood in the practice match that afternoon. El Duende never quite understood how it came about. Apparently, while they were looking at the horses in the corral, Wilbur had remarked that since he wasn't going to sell him the mare, he might at least let him ride her once, knock the ball around a little bit, just to get the feel of her, you know, if he didn't mind. This was a chance to ride a champion's best mare and surely such an opportunity wouldn't come again, he said, and he looked so grateful when El Duende, swallowing hard, accepted: Of course you can, go ahead, my pleasure.
Repent? El Duende repented immediately, but there was nothing to be done about it and poor Wilbur seemed so very pleased. At least this was a sure way to patch things up with Sonia.
So in the third chukker, out goes Bad Blood with Wilbur. Yes, that's what everybody said: the mare with the gringo, not the other way around, if you see what I mean. And the incredible thing was, on that mount, Wilbur seemed a bit less clumsy, as if the mare gave him something of her mastery. "Maybe he'll learn once and for all how to play," commented Don Paulino from the hitching posts. But no, Wilbur wasn't transformed into a high-handicap player, that would have been a miracle; still, he did anticipate the ball better. He was less distracted than with the other nags he had been riding. The mare moved like silk, her mouth was amazingly responsive, and she had a much remarked on ability to change leads in the gallop. After some slight confusion—the poor thing must have missed El Duende's touch—she managed to put Wilbur wherever he wanted to go on the field, and under these conditions the gringo improved his handicap by a couple of goals. Cunning to anticipate where the play was going he didn't lack, so he mixed in quite well with the better players around him, and besides it was ranch polo, played in a happy-go-lucky style. No one paid much attention to him.
It was a calm, blue afternoon and the sun was going down slowly.
Everybody played at a canter, let the others take their shots without interfering, and the younger players even allowed themselves the luxury of bending the rules in ways they never would have dared in a real match. Wilbur played the number-one position on El Duende's team, as befitted his low handicap, and was not doing all that badly. The girls sitting on the hoods of the cars even said the poor fellow was improving, and that from a distance he seemed better looking. They had not finished saying this when Wilbur crashed into El Duende.
You all know El Duende had a trick everybody knew about, a sudden little stop in an all-out chase he would use only on certain special occasions, when he was on top of the ball and all the players who were worth anything were up ahead and whoever was marking him had to respect him in order not to crash right into him. It was a very delicate business, because it was a borderline foul. Or, rather, it was a foul, if the referee had guts enough to call it. During his first years as a top player El Duende had clinched more than one important match with this trick. Maybe that is why he had stopped using it at Palermo and in all the other important tournaments, if we get right down to it; he would have been repeating himself, and he didn't like to do that. And who knows if they would even let him get away with it. But from time to time he liked to show off his old trick. As a joke, of course. And it always came off well; he was so well respected that they greeted his little flourish with cheers. And it was his ranch, his house, his field, everybody was playing a relaxed game. But for the first time it came off badly. Or rather, the maneuver worked perfectly, and he scored the goal at sixty yards. But what happened was that Wilbur was jockeying for position with another player behind, and when El Duende pulled back to do his trick, the gringo was breaking away. He was already on top of El Duende, and naturally he tried to turn. Perhaps it was this last jerk of the reins that made things worse. If Bad Blood's chest had hit the rear of the other horse, possibly nothing would have happened. It was something instinctive, Don Paulino said, to avoid the impact. A bad decision made too quickly. A very natural impulse. He really couldn't be blamed for the fact that when he switched direction he got Bad Blood's forelegs caught up in the rear legs of El Duende's horse. Everyone heard clearly when the bone broke. The snap of a dry branch. It was followed by the rumble of the fall—a long skid as Bad Blood went one way and Wilbur another, rolling, taking the fall on his knees and on his shoulders—and above it all, loud and clear, El Duende's howl of hatred.
Wilbur got up as if nothing had happened, but quickly realized the gravity of the situation. He walked slowly to the mare, which was already surrounded by the other players, and very humbly apologized to El Duende. Luckily, there were several players who managed to get between them.
"Sonofabitch!" El Duende shouted. "Sonofabitch! Gringo motherfucker goes and breaks my best mare!"
El Duende kept on shouting insults at him while the other players led Wilbur away to the hitching posts at the end of the field. Later, when everything had quieted down and the mare lay by the side of the field with a bullet in her head, waiting for the tractor to come and take her away, El Duende, pale-faced and again at Sonia's insistence, made peace with Wilbur.
Wilbur said he felt terrible about it, that it had been a great tragedy, and in a low voice, in a tone so neutral it couldn't possibly give offense, he offered to pay, in dollars of course, the full price of Bad Blood.
"No," El Duende said, swallowing hard. "For me that mare was priceless. Let's leave it at that. We'd better just forget the whole thing. In any case, you can buy other horses, if you're interested." And he turned and left. He had more than complied with Sonia's wishes.
Each of them went off alone to chew his grudge. El Duende spent a long time at the place where they burned the garbage and where they had finally left the mare. He watched the sun set. Afterward he went walking through the open fields, on his own, not letting anyone go with him, not even Lucrecia, and no one dared follow him. In the houses, then, Wilbur did not find an exactly warm reception. Except for Sonia, who wasn't all that enthusiastic, people avoided him, and after a while, tired of being ignored, he went for a walk through the grounds. When supper was still an hour off, he came to the veranda and said to Sonia, who was sitting there alone, that he wanted to leave right away. Would she say goodbye to everyone for him?
This is one of the murky parts of the story, a point of silence that could never be explained, not because what happened next isn't known, of course not, but because there are too many interpretations. Perhaps Sonia felt sorry for him, perhaps she identified with this spurned man, perhaps she just wanted to get even with El Duende for all his little flings. Or maybe she had always liked Wilbur, maybe she felt like protecting him so that for a little while he would be happy and not feel like an idiot.
As for Wilbur, we just don't know for sure. Perhaps Sonia's reaction was in his plans. What's certain is that he took advantage of the opportunity when it came and, very soon, in the storehouse—which was a little way off from the main house and could be locked from the inside—among the aroma of crackers, yerba, and sulphur, he became Sonia's last lover.
That night at supper everybody was silent, respecting El Duende's foul mood, but the quality of the silences was different, you understand. At that table full of people, nobody felt like risking a single word, but in the end the conversation got going, one way or another. In the preceding days there had always been some laughter, some little joke, and Wilbur had been an easy target for a jest or two, but this time they all wore long faces. Lucrecia tried to keep the conversation alive, pulling topics out of the air, working to distract her father's attention, but it was pointless. El Duende just stared at his plate, and what little he ate he did so without enthusiasm.
Sonia, on the other hand, didn't speak out of prudence and out of respect for her husband's mood, but at heart the only thing that mattered to her at the table was Wilbur. Meanwhile, the gringo ate serenely and methodically, even accepting seconds. He made no remarks, not a single one, although from time to time, if he thought Lucrecia wasn't looking, he shot a glance at Sonia.
It seems to me that the key to the whole thing is that Sonia never meant anything to Wilbur. What interested him was that she was the principal property of El Duende. Sonia, on the other hand, discovered her interest in Wilbur quite suddenly, as if she had been waiting for him these last years. Don't misunderstand me, perhaps he didn't even realize it; she did everything possible to be discreet, and certainly she achieved her aim admirably, with that mixture of spontaneity and cunning even the most honest women have. So nobody thought it strange when Sonia found some pretext or other to be alone with Wilbur. Indeed, they didn't imagine she was looking for pretexts, since none thought—and least of all El Duende after what had happened with the mare—that the gringo could interest anyone. He couldn't have been more discredited. And perhaps Wilbur was counting on precisely that.
Wilbur must have enjoyed himself royally during those days. Look at it from his point of view: El Duende was dejected; with just one dependable horse to face the championship, he was speaking openly about retiring; and besides, Wilbur, for pure sport, just to feel he dominated the situation and could hunt freely wherever he wanted, cornered El Duende's wife time after time in the storehouse. The American mastered the whole place, in spite of his being a stranger, without anybody being the wiser for it. It was his hour of triumph, wandering among them with that big grin of his, and perhaps that's what made him so confident. At night he would sit on the veranda and smoke a cigar, and with an apologetic air he would ask El Duende if the smoke bothered him, all the while blowing mouthfuls of it his way. El Duende would say, no, no, it didn't bother him, though it was clear he was fed up with Wilbur and that, at times, when he walked off thinking about his bad fortune, he asked himself why the gringo didn't just go away once and for all.
Besides, there was Lucrecia who, maybe to provoke her mother—because she was the only one who suspected right away—began to treat Wilbur a little better. Tell her father? She didn't tell him anything, not because it didn't occur to her. Perhaps she thought El Duende had enough problems on his hands, or perhaps in the end he hadn't known how to measure up to the high expectations of that girl. So Lucrecia spent her time also bumping into Wilbur, and in spite of his mistrust—because the gringo still hadn't got over the joke—he couldn't help noticing her; maybe it was Lucrecia's slights, her teasing, that had been the real driving force behind the whole matter.
At first he thought she wasn't looking for anything, that it was just another whim of a spoiled girl. Something to do, because now all the other polo players were leaving. And it was only a matter of time, a couple of days, until finally, and as always in the storehouse, Lucrecia ended up being Wilbur's last lover.
He must have remembered that never-ending breakfast when El Duende and Lucrecia had recounted the same story, blow by blow, detail by detail, over and over until it seemed that the only thing that had ever happened in the history of the world was that he had hunted a rug. But maybe not. He might simply have been fascinated by the girl, enjoying another prize that had fallen into his lap. This one he hadn't expected, even in his wildest dreams. Or maybe Wilbur had actually considered it a possibility, which in fact wasn't all that unlikely. What I mean to say is that at heart Wilbur was an optimist, a methodical optimist, shall we say, and as soon as he became disillusioned he, too, decided they weren't going to take him for a fool and set about to pull El Duende's teeth from his jaw one by one. Wilbur was a man with imagination who, if he wanted to and if pushed too far, was capable of doing the very worst things, deliberately, even though it was not his usual way. This reaction, which may seem disproportionate, came out of necessity, as if he had suddenly realized that the others were savages and he had no choice but to adapt quickly.
As for El Duende, I don't think he ever understood Wilbur. In my opinion the gringo was far beyond him. Think about it: when El Duende was still dancing at Mau Mau or Africa, two discos popular in Buenos Aires during El Duende's younger days, Wilbur had already been around quite a bit, and though his country was very different, so much more stable, as El Duende said with envy, the gringo had lived a much less sheltered life. By thirty-something he had seen just about everything. At least, that's what Lucrecia said later. It's not that El Duende was wet behind the ears, of course not, on the contrary, and nobody was going to step on his poncho and get away with it. But, because of his prowess on the polo field, he was so used to being obeyed and accepted in everything else that it didn't occur to him someone might see things differently. A person who is good at something often applies this expectation to the rest of his life. But the rest of his life is not always so easy.
The funny thing is that it wasn't El Duende who found Wilbur out, but Sonia. Do you recall the story—probably false, like so many picturesque things—in which a polo player with a high handicap informs a teammate that if he keeps getting such poor results on the field, he will have to take severe measures and get rid of two of his five lovers? Well, since Wilbur was a rotten player, little was expected of him on the field and he had energy to spare. Things weren't ruined in that way. And Sonia didn't discover the two of them suddenly either. She realized, and in this women have a sixth sense, that Wilbur, while not avoiding her, was in some way distracted. He was thinking about someone else, and the only other woman around was Lucrecia.
Now keep in mind that Sonia was a fairly sensible woman, I would even say reasonable, who if pressed would be able to accept without getting angry that Wilbur might like a much younger woman. Of course the business was complicated by the fact that Lucrecia was her daughter, because no attractive older woman likes to lose her ground in that way, but most likely she would have understood without making a scandal about it, which certainly wasn't to her advantage. No, what injured her vanity as a beautiful woman, what really bothered her when she began to see everything clearly, was a suspicion that she as well as Lucrecia had been pawns in Wilbur's plan to exact revenge. Because the truth is that Sonia was a woman of good faith, not only beautiful but also extremely sensitive, and she was hurt, really hurt, as disillusioned as Wilbur was when they played their little joke on him. Think about it, she had protected the gringo and, in that hostile atmosphere where everybody was against him, she had practically discovered him as a man; she had given him all the passion El Duende had scorned for years; and now it turned out that Wilbur had used her coldly and deliberately just to prove that he was more than El Duende.
As for Lucrecia, for the moment she was very happy with Wilbur, who turned out to be different from those healthy and gangling young men who were beginning to bore her. Lucrecia said later that Wilbur was a very lonely, very strange man. He was one of those people always turning things over in his mind. One afternoon he had said something she had not understood. They were walking after tea, at that hour of the day when everything seems more mysterious and the last afterglow leads to the sharing of confidences. Wilbur sat down under a tree, put a blade of grass in his mouth, and stared at the sky in silence, gazing at the eucalyptus leaves as if he were remembering something or didn't understand what he was looking at. After a while, as she had asked him what was the matter, he said, "I have always been the man outside, you know. That's me. The man outside." And she still remembered, still heard his voice saying "the man outside," and it filled her with fear and pity. Then Wilbur told her, as if he had nothing to do with it, that El Duende was playing his last chukker on borrowed time and that that might transform him into a man with broader horizons, and right away he took her to the storehouse.
Lucrecia didn't stop seeing Wilbur. In fact, every day she cared less and less what El Duende might say. She and her mother never got along well; Sonia was the person who most irritated her, always so composed and serene, always so sure of herself, so pretty, for a woman of her age, naturally. Maybe this thing with Wilbur would put her in her place once and for all, and stop her playing the filly.
When Sonia realized what Lucrecia was thinking and doing—after all, she knew her by heart—for the first time in her life, in spite of all El Duende's neglect, she felt something inside her snap, with a sound like that made by the mare's leg when it broke. And maybe that's where the tragedy began.
Late that night, casting off her pride, Sonia posted herself by the storehouse, and when the two of them arrived, she confronted them. I have no idea what they thought when they saw her. Sonia appeared very calm but was breathing rapidly, as if she had just run a great distance. "Get into the house right now," she hissed at her daughter, like a cat in heat, and she sought out Wilbur's eyes. Lucrecia started to object, but Sonia silenced her with a glance and shoved her stumbling toward the house. She then took Wilbur by the hand and pushed open the storehouse door.
But Wilbur pulled his hand back and just stood there expressionless, looking at her as if he didn't see her, as if she were just another strange element in this exotic country. He looked at her and said, seriously, shrugging his shoulders apologetically, "I have to go back to Lucrecia," and turned and left her before the half-opened door, aware of every tiny line in her face, amid the odor of kerosene and crackers. And at that moment El Duende appeared with the big rifle.
The truth is, those last few days, he had finally noticed something strange. The business of the mare's leg had certainly been a dirty trick, though he couldn't prove anything. Then he saw Sonia was much happier, and after a while he realized, incredibly enough, it was because of Wilbur. It made his blood rise but he didn't dare to say anything, even though he felt he loved Sonia once again like he had before. Perhaps he hoped she would get bored, that Wilbur would end his stay. He'd already chosen the horses he was going to take with him.
But the last straw was Lucrecia, because El Duende perceived this at once, with all the ensuing jealousy you would expect. Of course, there are those who say he encouraged her without realizing the implications, perhaps to throw the gringo off balance, saying Wilbur wasn't nearly so much a fool as he seemed. This he let slip a couple of times in the worst of those first days after the mare while Lucrecia stayed constantly by El Duende's side. But anyone who knows El Duende suspects he would have preferred to die rather than say anything in the gringo's favor, whether intentionally or not, and also knows that Lucrecia, capricious as she was, surely would not fail to switch to the stronger man, for one reason she was not aware of: she had always been close to the strongest man.
So most likely El Duende drew up a pretty accurate picture of the situation and decided he wasn't going to be a mouse for that lousy cat, who, on top of everything, was just a run-of-the-mill gringo, no matter how rich he was. At this juncture, whatever people say, it would not have been much trouble to get rid of Wilbur without confronting him directly. But El Duende recognized perfectly well this was the best way to lose face with his wife and his daughter, and he decided he would play this last game to the end. As he knew where they met, (like everybody else on the ranch, if we get right down to it), he made his plans, and that day at dusk he posted himself behind some bushes and witnessed the whole encounter among Sonia, Wilbur, and Lucrecia. Apparently, in the beginning his idea was to give Wilbur a good scare. Humiliate him, make him beg. But finally, perhaps because he saw Wilbur reject Sonia and felt wounded in his own pride, El Duende lost control and, instead of keeping the rifle raised and pointed at Wilbur, he emerged from his hiding place and approached with the gun in his hand, saying under his breath to the gringo he was going to kill him right then and there. Wilbur responded with a sort of feint, and suddenly the two of them were rolling on the ground, landing punches, and maybe they should have done this much sooner. The gun had fallen off to one side, there was no way to get at it, and El Duende quickly realized that Wilbur was much stronger. While he tried to avoid the blows and grab the gringo's throat, El Duende had time to think, I should have just opened a hole in his stomach. Now he'll kill me. Then, suddenly, he heard a heavy blow and felt Wilbur go limp.
Sonia had hit him with the stock of the Mauser, with all her strength, with all the fury of all those years that had nothing to do with the gringo. Wilbur was lying on the ground with the back of his head caved in and his mouth hanging open and El Duende, tired as he was, said, "He's dead," and just to be certain he struck Wilbur again and once more with the butt of the rifle. So there wouldn't be bloodstains, he wrapped the head in a burlap sack that was lying in the storehouse. Right away he told Sonia to be quiet, that it was too late, that the gringo was already dead meat and that suited him just fine, not to worry. He left her there, walked calmly to the house and, without making any noise, summoned Lucrecia and returned with her, because he really wanted to get back at her for all he had had to put up with. Between the three of them they lifted Wilbur by the knees and armpits and carried him around the edge of the grounds to the chicken coop. The curious thing was that of the two women, Lucrecia was the most willing, perhaps because she saw that her father had once again taken up the reins. El Duende had the pit ready in a short time, and Wilbur disappeared beneath the earth.
Once it was all over, it was as if Wilbur had never been there. "Tomorrow we'll find that the gringo decided suddenly to go," El Duende said with a tense smile, and he fell silent, feeling very strange, looking at the place where the pit had been, until he realized the three of them, at some moment, were going to have to talk.
"Enough," he said finally. "It's all over. Nothing happened here. Let's go to bed."
Lucrecia obeyed immediately. El Duende and Sonia stayed there alone, in silence, and after a while they returned to the houses together. It seems that before going in, Sonia said something to him, who knows what, because as Don Paulino says, she whispered in El Duende's ear, and Don Paulino couldn't hear anything, though he had actually been quite near, having approached in the night after hearing some commotion. El Duende embraced her tightly and kissed her and they went in, and Don Paulino couldn't see anything more. Before going back to his dwelling, Don Paulino went up to the chicken coop where the shovel was lying, washed it, and took it back to the storehouse. Blood? Luckily there wasn't much, and so by six, when the dawn began to lighten the countryside, everything was back in its place.
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