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martes, 6 de agosto de 2019

Gauchito Gil


      Alberto Julián Pérez ©



Antonio Mamerto Gil Núñez was born in Estancia La Trinidad, a cattle ranch close to the town of Mercedes, or Pay Ubre as he called it, on the 15th of December of 1844. His father, a native gaucho[1] from the Goya area, was a cowboy there. His mother, a China [2] with a Paraguayan mother and a Correntino[3] father had been born in a town close to the border with Paraguay. She was a very beautiful criollo[4] woman, with dark eyes and straight, black hair, which she wore in braids. His father took her from her home to Pay Ubre, where he had work. He was a very respected man in the area. He distinguished himself in the rodeos, was a good horseman and drew the animals with the whistle and the lazo in the harshest of terrains.
Antonio, who had inherited the dear face of his mother and her very dark eyes, stayed with her at the ranch when his father went out to work. His brother, six years older than he, accompanied his father to the rodeos and the brandings of cattle. His mother addressed Antonio in Spanish and in Guaraní. He understood the indigenous language, but was unable to speak it well.
The year 1850 was a difficult one in Corrientes. The civil war was unending. The combat continued and the gauchos followed their leaders. If they did not, they were labeled as cowards or lazy. The paisanos[5] took pride in their courage and would not stand a single stain on their reputation.
His father left to fight in the war and did not return. He was killed in a confrontation with the soldiers of an entrerriano[6] commander. The mother was left alone with her sons on the adobe ranch. The Patron, Don Indalecio Santamaría, upon learning that the gaucho Gil had not returned from the war against the entrerrianos, asked his wife to help them, as was the custom. Don Indalecio always protected his people in difficult moments. To the oldest son, who was still young but as strong and able as his father, he assigned work in his ranch as a cowboy. His wife, Doña Catalina, took in the Gaucho Gil’s wife to work in their house. There she helped in the kitchen and cleaned. They gave her a room in the living quarters next to the main house of the ranch, so she could live close to her son, with the service personnel. Her eldest son lived in the galpón, a shed, with the other cowboys. Antoñito, who was a humble and tranquil boy, ran errands and helped where he could. When he did not have homework to do, he played by himself in the corridor of the ranch.
The main house of La Trinidad was big. More than thirty people worked there. Also three Black slaves, a man and two women, served in the house. The patrón’s woman, who had three children, brought a teacher from the city of Corrientes to teach them how to read and write. In the mornings, after breakfast, the teacher would sit down with the children in the corridor or underneath the tree branches in the patio, and taught them the alphabet, how to spell, and how to write. Antoñito looked on with curiosity and interest. Doña Catalina, upon seeing this, asked the teacher to teach him as well. Antoñito, who was sharp and intelligent, was able to learn to read and write with great ease, even before the other children. They became envious and accused Antoñito of all sorts of things so that their mother would punish him. They told her that he often stole their candy and hit them. But the lady of the house did not believe them and looked upon him with sympathy.
In ’51 the news arrived of a pronouncement by Urquiza. The owner of the ranch was a federal and the situation worried him greatly. The Unitarians conspired against the country.  Governor Rosas had kept the French and the English far from the border, corralled in the old city of Montevideo for many years. Don Indalecio was a successful rancher and had become wealthy under the politics set forth by Rosas. Every year, he would drive his animals to the south and sell them in Buenos Aires to the saladero industry, that prepared charqui, beef jerky, for the slave markets of Brazil. He also sold cattle hides, that he embarked in the port of Corrientes. Every few months his loaded wagons carts would make their way there. The man left for Buenos Aires with his cowboys to defend Rosas, following a friend who was a commander and did not return for many months.
When he returned, they learnt that many people had died in the struggle. Rosas had been defeated in Caseros and had fled the country. General Urquiza, from Entre Ríos, was the new head of the Confederación. Many Brazilians and other foreigners were coming into the country. Soon afterward, the teacher who taught the children returned to Corrientes. No other teachers came to the ranch. There were times in the afternoons when the patron’s wife would sit beneath the tree branches with the children and had them read the Bible aloud. If Antoñito was there, she asked him to read. He preferred the Book of Genesis and the Gospel of Saint John. He read with a clear voice. Unlike the other children, he didn´t make mistakes. He pronounced carefully, giving proper emphasis to each phrase.
Antoñito’s mother continued working in the kitchen. She was an attractive woman, wooed by the gauchos. They flattered and complimented her, but she never responded. She finally accepted the advances of Juan Prieto, a proud gaucho who mounted a bursty horse, and got drunk whenever there was a dance. It bothered him that the child was always between him and the woman. He told her that the boy was too attached to her and that he needed to become a man. He was already eleven years old. He had a cowboy friend who could take him out to the countryside, where he could learn to work with the animals and become a gaucho.
They sent him to Pancracio, a cowboy with a head band and long hair, who was famous for his skill with the knife. Pancracio became fond of Antoñito, taught him to tame horses, to drive cattle, to brand, to butcher, and to skin. He also taught him how to fight with a knife in the manner of the gauchos. In the country each one needs to know how to defend himself. He referred to him as Gauchito, little Gaucho, instead of Antoñito. “Gauchito who?” someone asked him. “Gauchito Gil,” responded the young man. And the name stuck.
Every now and then, Gauchito Gil returned home to visit his mother, who had gone to live on a ranch with the gaucho Juan Prieto. Once when he arrived, he learned that she was pregnant. He was to have a little brother. The baby was born premature and died soon afterward. His mother lost so much blood while giving birth that she, too, died afterward. El Gauchito loved his mother deeply and her demise caused him great pain. They buried her in a cemetery in Pay Ubre. At sixteen, he was an orphan.
Sometime later, the patrón sent Pancracio with a shipment to Corrientes and el Gauchito went to work as a helper to a hunter who lived in the wetlands. His name was Venancio. He hunted birds and sold the finest of feathers, which were highly prized and valued. Almost none of the gauchos owned a firearm. This was a weapon only for the rich. They hunted with traps and bolas[7]. Gauchito became a skilled hunter. He could use the bolas to capture ducks in the air. In the marshes they travelled by canoe.  They would spear large fishes and eat them roasted. They slept in a choza de junco, a reed hut, they had built. Gauchito fell in love with the landscape, with the sounds, and with the starry nights. Venancio had been raised along the border with Paraguay and spoke very little Castilian Spanish. He almost always talked to him in Guaraní. Gauchito understood him and responded in Spanish.
At the age of eighteen, Gauchito decided to go back to the Estancia. He told Venancio he wanted to be on his own and bid him farewell. He returned to La Trinidad, where he had been raised and told the patrón that he was looking for work. Soon afterward, Don Indalecio sent for him. A friend of his had died in a great battle at Pavón Creek, in Santa Fe, and his wife, who was now a widow, needed help in her ranch. Don Indalecio knew that Gauchito was a sharp and intelligent young man. He gave him a letter of introduction and sent him to La Estrella, close to Mercedes.
The widow received him. She was a woman of about thirty years of age, beautiful, with a stout body. Her name was Estrella, like the ranch. Her husband had named the Estancia in her honor. From the very first moment, el Gauchito drew her attention. He was a small young man, with a child’s face. He looked young for his age. After asking a few questions, she offered him a job. The foreman put him in charge of a number of animals. He was a good horseman and knew how to select and divide the cattle. He led them to the watering holes and to the grasslands.
One day, by the campfire, a big gaucho made fun of him. The others laughed and Gauchito was offended. He challenged him to a fight and drew his knife. The man took out his and they began to fight. The foreman interceded and disarmed them. He told them that by orders of the patrona, Doña Estrella, fights were prohibited and made them whip.
The gauchos drove the cattle with the rebenque [8], and the lazo. El Gauchito preferred the boleadoras. Since he was short, he would tie them across his chest instead of across his waist. He said that it was more comfortable. The foreman would send him after the run away cattle. He would immobilize them with a single throw of bolas. Once, while they were in the plains, he captured a wild boar.  The other gauchos celebrated his feat. They feasted on the boar meat cooked over the open flames. They cut it up, fastened it to an iron cross, drove the cross into the earth, covered it with a mountain of espinillo[9] branches that they had gathered, and made an enormous bonfire. After a few minutes, they extinguished the fire. The meat was ready.
At the age of twenty, he grew a mustache so he could seem older. He had a round, kind face and penetrating eyes. Many considered him to be effeminate and looked on him with derision. Like a good Correntino, he respected the customs of his land. He carved upon his sternum a tattoo with the image of San La Muerte[10] with the tip of his knife. San La Muerte protected him from vermin when he found himself alone in the dangerous wilderness and in the swamps. There were ocelots, snakes, and alligators. Those faithful to San La Muerte also believed that he defended them from the dangers of war. The civil confrontations devastated the region. They frequently came to look for people for some skirmish. El Gauchito had not gone to war yet, but he knew that at any moment it would be his turn.
At night, if he was not far away or on a cattle drive, he would return to the ranch. He slept in a shed with a high roof, among the other cowboys. On moonlit nights, he would go out and contemplate the fields. Doña Estrella liked to sit in the corridor of the house. The woman observed the Gauchito and began to take an interest in him.
At times, when she saw him at night, the woman would call out to him so they could talk. She asked him about the things in his life. When she learned that he knew how to read, she asked him to read the Bible to her.  She asked him to come in, and he read to her by the light of the lantern. This scene would go on to be repeated frequently. She would invite him with cognac or gin. The Gauchito, who was very timid, did everything she asked him to do. One day the inevitable happened. The woman, who wanted him, caressed and kissed Gauchito. She then took him to her bedroom, where they made love. He was an affectionate and passionate young man. She fell in love with him. El Gauchito let her take advantage. As time went on, he hardly slept in the shed anymore. The other gauchos began to envy him. They found out that he had had intimate relations with the patrona.
Soon after, two of Doña Estrella’s brothers arrived at the ranch. For a few days Gauchito did not come close to the house. One of the brothers dressed in military uniform. The other dressed in city clothes. They lived in Corrientes. Days later Captain Alvarado came to visit. He was a suitor for Doña Estrella and was an influential man, an official in the Army, and Chief of Police in Mercedes. He was about forty years old, tall, and had a military demeanor. He was a friend of the governor, and everyone in the region feared him.
The Captain started to visit frequently in the afternoons. Once, the lady asked Gauchito to brew mate[11], and there he was able to see him close. He did not know why Estrella’s brothers had come to the ranch. He worried that they could be trying to take advantage of her because of her wealth.
When the brothers left, everything returned to normal. The Captain would visit her every so often in the afternoons and they would go horseback riding, or she would invite him for lunch. They also enjoyed drinking mate together in the corridor of the house. They would spend time alone in the interior of the house, but the Captain never slept at the ranch.
            Doña Estrella became infatuated with the young man. She would invite him to the house in the evenings. She liked to bathe him in a tub, to perfume him, and then take him to bed and mount him. El Gauchito was fair-skinned, hairless, and his body was smaller than hers. Doña Estrella caressed him, played with his moustache, and told him she loved him. El Gauchito began to fall in love with her. He had never before been with a woman.
            The other cowboys looked with envy at the relationship between Gauchito and the patrona. Someone informed the Captain of the rumored night visits between the young cowhand and the widow. Some time later, the military brother of Doña Estrella returned to the ranch. He stayed for days. He told her that the war was approaching. Apparently, the two discussed how business of the ranch would go. The Captain soon arrived and sent for Gauchito. He told him that bad times were coming and that he was to hide in the country with a herd of cattle. Doña Estrella agreed. There was a war on, and they didn’t want all of their cattle to be confiscated.
Gauchito, along with the other gauchos, took the cattle to a distant pasture range. There they spent several months. When they returned to the ranch, Captain Alvarado received them. Gauchito was not able to see Doña Estrella. The Captain informed him that he was going to live in a post somewhat far away from the house, and that he was not to abandon it without his authorization. The young man, who missed his lover, prowled about at night in the surroundings of the ranch house. He tried to come near, but two policemen confronted him. He covered his face with a kerchief, took out his gaucho knife, and faced them. He injured one of them and escaped. The next day, the Captain came looking for him with two policemen and arrested him. He was accused of trying to rob the house and of injuring one of the policemen. Gauchito denied that it could have been him. The Captain ordered him flogged and staked to the ground. He left him there one day under the hot sun. When she found out, Doña Estrella came to speak on his behalf. She said he was a good cowhand and should be pardoned. The Captain knew that he did not want to compete with the young man. He ordered that he go far away and never return to the ranch. He was still a suspect of attacking the policeman. If he returned, things would most likely not go well for Gauchito.
The government was recruiting men for the war against Paraguay. The Gauchito saw this as an opportunity to prove himself. It was 1866, and he was twenty-two years old. He went to Corrientes and was assigned to the infantry. The war was fought in the wetlands, and he knew that kind of terrain. Military life was not what he expected. He had to spend so much time at the camp, waiting for orders. He got bored. He made a few friends. They were mostly all gauchos like him. The officers rarely spoke to them, since they came from the cities along the coast.
There was one soldier who was different from the rest. He always walked around with a file folder. He would put it down where he could and begin to draw. He would make sketches and drawings of the camp and its surroundings. He would also draw other soldiers, in different positions. He would place a pencil before him to measure the size of things and to calculate distances. They called him Cándido. He fought at his side in the battle of Sauce. At the battle of Curupaytí, he was badly injured and lost his right arm. El Gauchito observed as they took him to the army hospital. The injured man recognized him. He told him that he would never again be able to draw or paint. El Gauchito answered that if he were truly a painter, he would learn to paint with his other hand. The young man gazed at him appreciatively.
The men from Buenos Aires complained about the climate. It was hot and humid, and there were so many insects. The soldiers became ill. They had to fight in the worst of conditions. Curupaytí was a true slaughterhouse. They were ordered to advance through the swamps against enemy positions, but they were never able to succeed. Those who died were left behind, half buried in the marshes. During battle, el Gauchito got lost. When night arrived, he hid in a more elevated and dry terrain. Tired, he fell asleep. He was awoken by the noise of oncoming men. They spoke in Guaraní. He learned that they were Paraguayan soldiers. He took his rifle and readied his bayonet to defend himself. He remained very still. They came within a few meters of him but did not see him. They said they were the men of Captain Ayala and that the Argentineans were almost defeated. In the morning he was able to go back to his regiment. The battle lasted a few more days, and much like the Paraguayans had said, the Argentineans lost.
But they were too many. The months went by and the war started to turn in favor of the Argentinean side, and its allies, the Brazilians and the Uruguayans. An Officer journalist arrived at his Regiment. He was a Captain. He had fought in Sauce and in Curupaytí, where he had been wounded. El Gauchito was curious when he saw him read and write. One day he approached him so he could observe what he was writing. The captain asked if he understood what he had written down. El Gauchito said yes, that he knew how to read. The captain was surprised. Most of the gauchos were illiterate. El Gauchito told him he had learned to read at the ranch of his patrones, where his mother worked as a cook. The captain introduced himself. He was Captain Mansilla and wrote for La Tribuna, a newspaper in Buenos Aires. He also had military duties as a Captain. He asked if he would like to help him. El Gauchito answered that he would. He asked him to make clean and clear copies of his chronicles. El Gauchito had a very neat handwriting. He worked on a campaign table, next to the Captain’s tent. He spent hours at his task, almost artistically rendering each letter. Mansilla asked him if he had read books. El Gauchito responded that he had only read the Bible. Mansilla asked if he had ever read any other books. El Gauchito responded that he had not.
He became inseparable from the Captain and followed him everywhere. Mansilla asked him to read aloud the newspapers that arrived from Buenos Aires. He was against the government, did not like the president, and continually criticized the direction the war was taking. The chronicles he wrote analyzed the situation in a negative and pessimistic tone.
His Regiment did not go anywhere for several weeks. Mansilla got bored of life in the camp. They at last received orders to advance their position. The entire Regiment marched and positioned themselves closer to the enemy. They built up embankments to protect themselves from enemy fire and dug out trenches. Mansilla had a great sense of humor and liked to play pranks and tell jokes to his troops. The hours were long, and there wasn’t much action. The Paraguayans had few munitions and hardly fired at them. It was a war of nerves. The spent their time observing the enemy and waiting.
Mansilla proposed to make a charge against the enemy with their bayonets, but his superiors argued against it. The Captain was furious when he returned and climbed onto one of the embankments. He started waving his arms. The Paraguayans shouted at him. The Argentineans responded. A few Paraguayan bullets bounced around the fortification. His soldiers yelled at him to get down before he got wounded. He started to laugh loudly. He lowered his pants and showed his ass to the Paraguayans. All of the men started to laugh. That afternoon ended without incident.  Mansilla was now the hero of the camp.
A few days later, they advanced on the position the Paraguayans had held and evicted them. They had to mount a frontal assault against the enemy. There were many casualties. The Gauchito witnessed as a Paraguayan soldier charged at him. He managed to step aside at the last moment and impale him with his bayonet. As he died, the Paraguayan looked at him in the eyes. He was a boy of no more than fifteen. El Gauchito held the boy’s head up and watched him die in his arms. He kept on fighting, but that night he could not forget the look of the dying young soldier.
The war continued in its course. His Regiment was decimated little by little. Less than half of the men remained. He was wounded in one of his shoulders and was sent to the rearguard. He was tended to and bandaged by women who considered themselves nurses and stayed there until he regained his strength. When he returned to the front, Mansilla was no longer there. They had ordered him to return to Buenos Aires.
The next month, his Regiment was sent to Corrientes and was stationed in the city. His unit remained there for several months, until the end of the war came. They discharged everyone and gave them a few pesos with which to return to their homes. When Gauchito arrived at Pay Ubre, he learned that Doña Estrella, the patrona, had married Captain Alvarado. He had retired from the police and now managed the ranch. The Captain received the news of Gauchito’s return with displeasure. He suspected that something had happened between him and his wife.
The Gauchito found work in a ranch where he tended to some animals. He led them to the pastures and to the watering holes. He had a good horse and would ride him in the afternoons after work. He was tempted to go by the ranch of Doña Estrella, but he did not do so. It was not easy for him to once again become accustomed to the life of a cowhand. The war had changed him. He had nightmares at night. He saw the eyes of the boy he had killed with his bayonet and died in his arms. He would awaken in anguish.
One day, the police came looking for him in the ranch where he worked. It was the year 1871. They told him they didn’t want him there. Those were difficult times, and there were cattle rustlers everywhere. It was in his best interest to leave. He understood, but he did not do as he was told. Some time later, he found out that in Corrientes there was a revolt against the government. The Chief of Police arrived at the ranch and told everyone that soon a Commander would come to recruit soldiers for the civil war, and that they should prepare themselves to fight. El Gauchito felt that he had nothing to gain by joining and that, realistically, he did not want to fight in another war. To him, all men were brothers, even if they lived in different provinces or countries. That night he had a dream. He saw Christ, bathed in a white light. He had the face of an adolescent. In Him he saw the eyes of the young Paraguayan soldier, whose life he had felt drain from his body as he held him. God spoke to him in Guaraní and told him that man should not shed the blood of man. He told him to pray to San La Muerte for protection.
The next day, a squad of soldiers arrived. The Commander explained that they were azules liberales, blue liberals, and were opposed to the autonomista party. He ordered everyone to get ready, for they would take them all to join the fight. They were forced to heed to these orders and follow them. They made a big dragnet in several ranches. They didn’t even ask the cowboys on which side they were on. They were obligated to go with them. The gauchos were all Federales. They had always seen the liberals as enemies. Two gauchos came to speak to him. They agreed to flee that evening and to escape toward the swamps. They would not find them there. The Gauchito was familiar with the area and knew how to survive in that terrain.
He escaped with the other two. They were deserters and had to live as fugitive gauchos. They got lost in the wetlands of Iberá. They made a hut on an islet and stayed there. One of the gauchos was Francisco Gonçalves, a mestizo, son of a Brazilian and a Correntina mother. The other one was Ramiro Pardo, a criollo. They spent many months fishing and hunting in the marshes, waiting for the war to end and for there to be peace.
Francisco had a Bible in his saddle. He did not know how to read. When he found out that Gauchito did know, he asked him to read the Gospel to him. Every day he would read aloud and the others would listen. They were especially interested in the Passion, when Christ is handed over and crucified. They said the world was full of traitors.
At least a year had gone by, and the Gauchito dared to leave their hideout in search of news. He made his way to a populated area and stopped at a pulpería, a general store. The owner told him that the war had ended. He bought yerba mate and gin. He noticed some booklets resting on a barrel. He took one and leafed through it. It had the title El Gaucho Martín Fierro. It was in verse. The owner explained that it had been written by a journalist from Buenos Aires and that he sold them for a few cents. He bought one. He told the shop owner that he was a hunter and that he had hides and feathers to sell. He asked if he was interested in buying them. The other said yes. The Gauchito promised to return with a load of these goods.
 He went back to the swamps. His companions were exhilarated to learn of the end of the war. They could peacefully dedicate themselves to the hunting of otters and herons. They loved the book that Gauchito brought back. From then on, they preferred it to the Bible. Every afternoon, the Gauchito would read a few stanzas of El Gaucho Martín Fierro to them. They had heard many times singers improvise songs by the bonfires or in the general stores. At every ranch, there was always a guitar for anyone who wanted to sing a few songs. But they had never heard such beautiful verses. They would ask him to read the stanzas time and time again. They also discussed the contents of the book and asked each other questions.
They agreed that the gauchos had been happier in the past than they were at that moment. Many of their countrymen had their own place, their own cattle, and their own tropilla[12]. They worked in the ranches, and no one bothered them nor chased after them. “Those were different times,” said Francisco. “That was the time of Rosas.” El Gauchito remembered that the Captain always used to say that there were no more criollos left and that because of the government, soon there would be no gauchos left. After the fall of Rosas, the bad times came. Francisco said that a Commander took away his father’s land. Ramiro’s father had been persecuted. A Sargeant wanted to steal his woman from him. They had sent him to the frontier of Cordoba to fight in the forts. His mother had gone to live with the man and Ramiro was sent far away to work as a boyero, a cowherd.  He never again saw his mother.
Everyone liked that Martin Fierro defended himself. He was a real man. It was the army that was a disgrace. The officials were thieves who made life miserable for the gaucho. When Gauchito read the verses in which Martín Fierro deserted they all identified with him. They also celebrated the part in which he fought against the squad and when Sergeant Cruz stood by him. For them, friendship was a sacred thing; a gaucho should never abandon another gaucho, especially if he was in danger.
They remained together for a few more months. They hunted aquatic birds and saved the feathers. They also trapped otters and other wild animals and preserved the hides. Every so often, el Gauchito went to the general store, with the horses loaded. He would return with money and news. They would split the money and hide it in their belts. In 1874 there was yet one more civil war. These were turbulent waters. His two friends thought it would be a good time to return, mix in with the people, and open new roads for themselves. The police was distracted and occupied with the situation. The Gauchito preferred to stay a while longer and asked Francisco to leave the Bible. The other agreed. He didn’t know how to read anyway. They said their farewells. The two headed to the southern part of the province.
Before the gauchos Gonçalves and Pardo arrived at Goya they were detained by a squad. They were accused of being thieves and cattle rustlers. They had no trial. When they found out they were deserters, they decided to execute them. One said they should be taken to Goya and killed there. But they didn’t want to go through the trouble of taking them prisoners. They shot them by the side of the road. The Gauchito never found out that his friends had been killed. He continued to live on his little island, in the wetlands. He felt so alone. His spiritual life grew. He read El Gaucho Martín Fierro and the Bible. He spent a lot of time meditating.
In the afternoons, when the sun was going down and the sky was filled with red, he would lie down on the ground and concentrate on a spot at the center of his forehead. He started to have visions. He would speak with San La Muerte. Its skeletal figure would appear to him and tell him that he protected him and watched over him. The Gauchito answered that he was not afraid to die. He wanted to see God someday. He felt that everything he had experienced in his life was a preparation for something else. At some point he would have to go back to the place he had left behind, and by that time, he would be an entirely different person. The adolescent Paraguayan whom he had killed during the war appeared to him also. The Gauchito promised him that he would never again spill the blood of another man. Finally, in 1875, he prepared to leave his refuge.
He carried with him the money he had saved from the sale of feathers and hides. He was neatly dressed. He had shaved his beard but left his mustache. He carried with him a facón, a gaucho’s knife, with a deer horn handle, which was highly estimated. His boleadoras were tied to his chest. He was a consummate hunter, and he would not die of hunger as long as he had his bolas. He stayed away from the places where he had lived or those that he had visited frequently. When he was convinced that he had not been in a place, he would approach the area. He stopped by a ranch and asked for hospitality. He found out that the countryside was less populated than before. There were many adobe houses in ruins. These were not good times for the gauchos. He took with him his red poncho, and when they asked him if he was a federal, he would not lie. He told them he was, like all poor people, a defender of the gauchos.
One time he arrived at a ranch and found a desolate situation. A gaucho, his wife, and two sons lived there. One of the sons was very sick. He was consumed by fever. His body was covered by sores and pus-filled tumors. He had been unconscious for days, and they expected him to die that evening. Moved by compassion, Gauchito kneeled before his cot and touched his forehead. Then he put his hand over the sores and tumors. He took out the Bible and began to read chapter nine of the Gospel of Saint Matthew. When he reached the part where Jesus cures the sick, the sick child opened his eyes and sat up in his bed. His parents stepped back in fear. The child stood up and asked for water. They brought him water, he drank it, and told them he was hungry. The father slaughtered a lamb and roasted it. They asked the Gauchito to spend the night at the ranch. By morning, the child’s skin had healed. There were no signs of the sores or tumors. He was smiling. The Gauchito announced that he would be continuing on his way. They did not want to let him leave. They did not know what to give him. The man told him to take one of his horses. El Gauchito rode on a dapple-gray horse. He said he did not need another horse. He was just glad that the child was doing well.
He left. He did not fully understand what had just happened. God had intervened. He had cured, using him as an intermediary. He had accepted him as His own vessel. He had given him a power. He was bewildered. He arrived at a small forest and decided to spend a few days there. He neither hunted nor ate. He drank water from a stream. He fasted for a week. He spent the day lying beneath the trees, meditating. He read the Bible. In the late afternoons, he would go for walks. Spiritually strengthened, he decided to continue on his way. He asked for work at a ranch. They gave him a team of young horses, some wild, some unbroken, so he could tame them. He was a good horse-breaker. He heard a voice telling him not to beat them. They were creatures of God, and they would understand if he simply spoke to them. He decided to obey the voice. He did not punish the animals. He spoke to them. The horses seemed to understand him. He took away their tickles and their fears. He embraced them. The animals would rub against his chest. He would then ride them, and the young colts would behave like tame horses that had been used to the saddle for a long time. He made them walk without the use of a bit. He would apply pressure with his legs at the ribs, and the animals obeyed. A cowboy asked where he had learned all this, and if he had lived among the Indians. He responded that he had not, that he had simply learned how to do it. Afterwards, he put the bits in the horses’ mouths and let others ride them. The animals responded well.
He continued on his way and went to another ranch. They offered him work as a laborer. He accepted. He again started to have visions. One time, next to a watering hole, Christ appeared to him. He told Gauchito that he was, like himself, a lamb. He asked him not to be afraid, that He would receive him in his Kingdom. The lamb had come to the world to wash away man’s sins and to redeem mankind.
One day, when he returned to the ranch, he saw a carriage from the city at the house of the patrón. He asked the other gauchos what was going on. The doctor had come. The wife of the patrón was very ill. She had a severe pain on her left side. It was appendicitis. In the morning they took her out to the corridor of the house. Everyone came near to see her. Her skin was yellow. The doctor announced that nothing could be done. By the afternoon, the woman was unable to speak nor to swallow anything. The doctor told them to find a priest because she was going to die, that they should give her her last rites. They sent out for a man who passed himself off as a priest and who at times gave mass. As this was going on, the Gauchito sought to see if God would grant him a favor. He approached the woman and began to pray quietly. The others didn’t realize what he was doing. He asked Christ to save her, and San La Muerte not to take her away. After ten minutes, the woman opened her eyes. She told everyone she had had a vision. A white dove had come from the heavens and had deposited drops of dew in her mouth. They thought she was delirious. The woman sat up in bed. They asked if she was still in pain. She said no, that she was fine, that nothing hurt. She asked why they had all gathered there, and she got up. The Gauchito returned to his sleeping quarters and thanked God. No one understood what had taken place, but Gauchito knew it had been Christ who had interceded and who had conceded his supplication.
Days later, he left that work place and went out into the wilderness. He stoped under a tree and fasted for a week. He asked himself what this all meant and wondered what he was going to do with his life. Why had he been selected by God, and what did He expect of him? He told Christ that if he was to be a vessel whose blood would serve to wash away sin, to please take him, that he was in His hands. It was 1877, and the Gauchito was about to turn 33 years of age. He had lived all those years escaping from one thing to the next. The only love he had ever known was the widow’s love. He had been to a few fiestas and dances, but he rarely approached any woman. He saw in each one something that remained him of his beloved and backed away.
Finally, he decided that it was time to return to the village when he was raised. He wanted to visit the grave of his mother. He knew it was dangerous, but he prayed, and thought that God would tell him when it was his time. On the 6th of January of 1878, he went to Mercedes for the celebration of the Day of the Kings. He told himself that he wanted to see the people of his village, but in reality, he wanted to find out about Estrella. He thought that she would be a mature woman now, but he still loved her. He went to mass and then he headed to the fiesta. They served empanadas[13] and wine. Soon the guitar players started to play country music. The people were cheerful.
In the evening, he went to the cemetery to visit the grave of his mother. That night he slept there, covered with his poncho. The next morning he returned to the village and went to a tavern to drink caña, a local rum. He wanted to get the news. Suddenly he felt a hand take his arm. He turned to see the gaze of the former Chief of Police, Estrella’s husband. “I knew you would return,” he said. He pointed a gun at him and ordered el Gauchito to accompany him. They went to the police station. “Lock him up,” he told the Chief of Police. “He is a thief and a deserter.” The Gauchito spent the night in jail. He thought that perhaps this was the last night of his life.
On the morning of the 8th of January, the Chief of Police took him out of jail and delivered him to a squad that awaited him. “Take him,” said the Sergeant. “He is a thief, a cattle rustler, and a deserter. You know what to do.”
The Justice of the Peace was at the Police Station at that time and tried to intercede. “If he has committed a crime, he must be judged,” he said. “We must follow the rule of law.”
The Chief of Police looked at him scornfully. “You must think you are President Avellaneda,” he said sarcastically. “There are too many gaucho bandits in this land.”
“I’ll go to the Governor,” the other responded. “Enough innocent blood has been spilled. His crimes must be proven.”
They tied his hands and took him. After traveling two leagues, the Sergeant stopped the squad. The policeman dismounted next to an algarrobo tree. The Sergeant made him get down from the horse and stood him against the tree. He ordered his men to get their rifles ready. “Why are you going to kill me, Sergeant?” asked Gauchito. “I have committed no crime. I am unjustly persecuted. You are going to shed innocent blood.” The Sergeant removed his shirt and left him bare-chested. On his left side, there appeared the image of San La Muerte. They aimed. The Gauchito looked directly at them. The firing squad lowered their weapons. They declared that they could not fire against San La Muerte because they would condemn themselves. The Sergeant, enraged, threw a lazo over one of the branches of the algarrobo tree, tied his feet, and hung him head down.
“Don’t kill me, Sergeant. I am innocent,” he repeated. “Don’t listen to the Chief of Police. Listen to the Justice of the Peace.”
At that moment, Gauchito had a vision. A child appeared, covered in bandages, descending from the sky. He had the same eyes as the Sergeant. He understood that he was his son. The Sergeant took out the knife with the deer horn handle that he had kept from Gauchito and got ready. The Gauchito realized that his time had come. He thought of his vision. God wanted to tell him something. He had sent him a message. He finally understood. “Sergeant,” he said. “Your son is ill and is about to die. After you have killed me, pray for my soul. The blood of an innocent will wash away sins. Pray for me and your son will be saved. Invoke my name and I will cure him. I will also forgive you for spilling my blood, because it is the will of God. Invoke my name and your miracle shall be granted.”
The Sergeant looked at him with derision and told him not to worry, that his son was all right. In an instant, he cut his jugular. The Gauchito bled out rapidly and died. They lowered him from the tree and left him to one side. The Sergeant did not want to waste any time burying him. He was worried about what that man had said about his son. They covered the body with leaves and branches. The Sergeant ordered his men to return to the Police Station. He said he had something important to attend to. He left at full gallop toward his adobe house. As he arrived, he could already smell the tragedy. His wife received him, crying. His youngest son, ten years old, was gravely ill. He could not breathe. She told him he was dying. The Sergeant finally understood.
He got on his knees beside the bed where his son lay and began to pray. He invoked the name of Gauchito Gil and asked the dead man to forgive him his crime and for his innocent blood to wash away his sins. When he got to his feet, his son opened his eyes and started to breathe normally. He called the mother and asked her to bring something to eat. The Sergeant took his horse and returned at full gallop until he reached the algarrobo tree where they had left the body of Gauchito.
He removed the leaves that cover the cadaver and embraced him. He took the red poncho that he had been wearing and put it at the side of the body. He kneeled before him and asked for forgiveness. With his facón, he began to dig a grave at the base of the algarrobo. He took an espinillo branch and made a cross. He kissed the forehead of Gauchito and placed his body in the tomb. Over his chest, he placed the two books they had found on his saddle when they first apprehended him, the Bible and El Gaucho Martín Fierro. He crossed his hands over these books. They would help his soul in its journey. He covered him with dirt, put the cross in its place, and tied the poncho in its arms. He made a fire, and with a piece of coal wrote: “Gauchito Gil.” He crossed himself, mounted his horse, and returned to his ranch.
Upon his return, he confessed to his wife everything that had taken place. He told her that he had spilled the blood of an innocent. That God has punished him and had made his son mortally ill. That he invoked the blood of Gauchito and God had forgiven him and saved him. The Gauchito had granted a miracle. The woman believed him. She was very religious. They decided to make a peregrination on foot to Gauchito’s grave. Three hundred meters before reaching the algorrobo tree, the Sergeant got down and walked on his knees while he prayed. His wife walked beside him, thanking the soul of the deceased. They made a bonfire and stayed by the grave all night.
The Sergeant returned to his work the next day and told his men what had happened. They were people of deep faith. They believed that if the Gauchito would grant one miracle, he would grant others. One of the men had a mother who suffered from dark spots on her skin. He believed it was leprosy. The policeman took his mother to the grave of Gauchito and began to pray. He asked for him to cure her. Two months later, the spots had disappeared. The Gauchito had granted another miracle. In Mercedes, the news of what had happened traveled fast.
The 8th of January of the following year, at the one-year anniversary of his death, the police officer and his wife decided to visit his grave. They weren’t the only ones. There they saw the family of the Sergeant. Soon others began to arrive. Around thirty people came together. They took red flowers and placed them over the grave. The Gauchito’s red poncho was withered and worn because of the wind and rain. The Sergeant took another red poncho and nailed it to the trunk of the algorrobo, in front of the grave. Afterward, he directed the prayers. He asked forgiveness for having spilled his blood, and begged him to protect them all. He asked that his innocent blood wash away all of their sins. After this, they ate, drank, and that night they returned to Mercedes, strengthened in their faith.

                                                                                    Translated by Rolando J. Díaz




[1] Gaucho: A native cowboy of the pampas in South America; considered of mixed Spanish and indigenous ancestry.
[2] China: a local country woman.
[3] Someone from the Province of Corrientes in Argentina.
[4] Criollo, in Argentina, is a person native from the region. She or he can be a white, or a mixed blood individual.
[5] Paisano: a rural man.
[6] From Entre Ríos, a Province in Northeastern Argentina.
[7] A hunting weapon, comprised of three ropes, weighted at the ends, used by gauchos to capture animals by entangling their legs. Also known as boleadoras.
[8] Rebenque: whip
[9] A tree native to the region, whose branches are filled with thorns (espinas).
[10] Holy Death.
[11] A highly caffeinated herb tea popular in Argentina.
[12] A certain number of saddle-horses (6-12) at the service of the gaucho.
[13] A fried turnover made with meat.