That a man from the suburbs of Buenos Aires, a sad upstart with no virtue save an infatuation with courage, would break through the equestrian deserts of the Brazilian border and reach the head of a group of smugglers initially seemed impossible. To those who see it that way I would like to relate the destiny of a certain Benjamín Otálora, of whom perhaps no memory is lost in Balvanera and who died on his own terms, from a bullet, in the confines of the Rio Grande do Sul. The details of his adventure are not known to me; once they are revealed I will have to correct and expand these pages. For the time being this summary may prove useful.
By 1891 Benjamín Otálora was nineteen years old. He was a big lad with a small forehead, light-colored, sincere eyes, and typically Basque brawn; a felicitous knife fight revealed that he was a brave man; the death of his opponent did not bother him, nor did his immediate need to flee the Republic. The leader of the parish gave him a letter for a certain Azevedo Bandeira, of Uruguay. Otálora set out, the crossing torturous and oppressive; the next day he was wandering through the streets of Montevideo in unconfessed and perhaps unexplained sadness. He did not find Azevedo Bandeira; towards midnight in a warehouse in Paso del Molino, he was present for an altercation among some cattle ranchers. A blade flashed; Otálora was not sure who was in the right, but he was attracted by the pure scent of danger like others were drawn to cards or music. During the brawl, one of the laborers stabbed a man in a poncho and dark hat below the belt; this turned out to be Azevedo Bandeira (upon learning this, Otálora ripped up the letter, preferring to keep it all to himself). However robust he may have been, Azevedo Bandeira gave the unjustifiable impression of being deformed. In his face, always a bit round, were the faces of the Jew, the African, and the Indian; in his demeanor, that of the monkey and the tiger; the scar across his face was one more adornment, just like his swinish black whiskers.
Projection or illusion of drink, the altercation ended as quickly as it had begun. Otálora tippled with the ranchers and walked them first to a party and then a large house in the Old City, the sun now quite high. In the last courtyard, which was of earth, all the men set up their things to go to sleep. Darkly, Otálora compared this night to the previous night. Now he was already walking on solid ground with friends. If he had any regrets it was that he didn't miss Buenos Aires. He slept until prayers, when he was woken up by the rancher who attacked Bandeira drunk (Otálora remembered that this man had shared in the night of tumult and jubilation and that Bandeira had sat him to his right and obliged him to keep drinking). The man said that he had been sent by the boss to look for him. At a sort of desk which led out to the hallway (Otálora had never seen a hallway with side doors) Azevedo Bandeira was waiting for him, with a thin and disdainful woman with reddish hair. Bandeira sized him up, offered him a dish of sugar cane, repeated that he seemed to him to be an enthusiastic fellow, and then proposed going north with the rest of the troops. Otálora accepted; until the early morning they were on the road heading for Tacuarembó.
It was here that a different life began for Otálora, a life of wide, almost endless dawns and workdays that had the smell of horses. This was a new life for him, and at times atrocious, but it was in his blood. For as men of other nations venerate and have presentiments about the sea, so do we (as well as the man who weaves these symbols) yearn for the endless prairie that resonates below our hooves. Otálora had grown up in the neighborhoods of drivers and landlords; a year ago he became a gaucho. He learned how to ride, get the horses accustomed to living in herds, slaughter cows, master the lasso and the ranchers who lasso, resist sleep, storms, ice, and the sun, urge on the cattle with whistles and shouts. Only one time during this whole period of apprenticeship did he see Azevedo Bandeira, but he was always present, because to be a man of Bandeira was to be respected and feared. And because, before any man, the gauchos said that Bandeira would make him better. Someone thought that Bandeira was born on the other side of the Cuareim, in the Rio Grande do Sul. This, which should have lowered him, obscurely enriched him with populous forests, with swamps, with inextricable and almost infinite distances. Gradually Otálora came to see that Bandeira had many different businesses and that the lifeblood of his operations was smuggling. To be a rancher was to be a servant; Otálora suggested that he be made a smuggler. Two members of the company were going to cross the frontier one night and return with some batches of sugar cane; Otálora provoked one of them, injured him and took his place. He was moved by ambition and also by some dark loyalty. May the man (he thought) come to understand that I am worth more than all his easterners put together.
A year passed before Otálora returned to Montevideo. They passed along the shores then the city (which seemed to Otálora to be very large), and arrived at the boss's house. The men had their equipment in the last courtyard. Days passed and Otálora did not see Bandeira. They said, fearfully, that he was sick. A dark-skinned man would go up to his bedroom with a boiler and with mate. One evening, this task was entrusted to Otálora. He felt vaguely humiliated but satisfied at the same time.
The bedroom was stripped bare and dark. There was a balcony with a view of the west wind, a large table with a dazzling mountain of Talers, bullwhips, belts, firearms, and knives, and a distant mirror fogged up by moonlight. Bandeira was lying there face up, dreaming and complaining, and the sun's persistence ultimately betrayed his contours. As Otálora noticed the grey hair, the fatigue, the cracks of age, the vast white bed seemed to diminish and obscure him. It infuriated him that this old man was their leader; he began to think that one good smash would do him in. Still immersed in thought, he saw by the mirror that someone had entered the room: it was, he observed, the red-haired woman. She was half-dressed and barefoot and was looking at him with aloof interest. Bandeira sat up. While he was prattling on about the campaign and downing mate after mate, his fingers played with the woman's braids. Finally, he allowed Otálora to leave.
Days later came the order to head north. They arrived at an abandoned outpost which was like any other place on the endless prairie. No trees, not even a stream was there to relieve them, and first light and last struck them in equal force. Quarries belonged to the farm which was horned and indigent, the name of this poor establishment being The Sigh.
Otálora heard from among the laborers that Bandeira would not be making it to Montevideo. He asked why; someone explained to him that there was a foreign gaucho who wanted a little too much power. Otálora understood this as a joke, but it flattered him anyway that this joke might indeed be possible. He later ascertained that Bandeira had made an enemy of one of the political chiefs and that the latter had rescinded his support. This news pleased him.
Then long weapons arrived in boxes; they were followed by a tankard and washbowl of silver for the woman's chamber, baskets of woven damask, baskets of knives, morning, and a cheerless horseman with a sharply clipped beard and a poncho. His name was Ulpiano Suárez and he was the capanga or bodyguard of Azevedo Bandeira. He was a man of few words and a very Brazilian manner. Otálora did not know whether to impute his reserve to hostility, disdain, or mere barbarism; what he did know was that according to the plan he was hatching, he would have to gain his friendship.
Then there entered into the destiny of Benjamín Otálora a brownish-red black-tailed horse from the Rio Grande do Sul that Azevedo Bandeira rode, and which shined from its plated tack with tiger skin trim. This unbridled steed was a symbol of the boss's authority, and for that reason the boy coveted it. He also came to desire, perhaps with some resentment, the woman with the dazzling hair. The woman, the tack, and the brownish-red steed were all attributes of the man he sought to destroy.
And here is where the story becomes more complicated and profound. Azevedo Bandeira was skilled in the art of progressive intimidation, in the Satanic maneuver of humiliating his interlocutor gradually, combining truth and jokes. Otálora decided to apply this ambiguous method to the laborious task which he gave himself. He resolved to supplant, slowly, Azevedo Bandeira. He managed, during workdays of common danger, to gain Juárez's friendship. He confided to him his plan and Suárez pledged his support. Many things would happen thereafter of which I only know a few. Otálora did not obey Bandeira; in fact, he tried to forget, correct, and reverse his orders. The universe seemed to be conspiring with him and accelerating the events. One day around noon in the fields of Tacuarembó there was a gunfight with some locals from the Rio Grande do Sul. Otálora usurped the place of Bandeira and took command of the easterners. A bullet hit him in the shoulder, but that afternoon Otálora returned to The Sigh on the chief's brownish-red horse, and that afternoon a few drops of blood stained the tiger skin, and that night he slept with the woman with the refulgent hair. Other versions changed the order of these facts and denied that they all took place in the course of a single day.
Bandeira, however, was still nominally the chief. He gave orders that were not carried out; Benjamín Otálora did not touch him out of a mix of routine and pity.
The story's final scene corresponded to the agitation on the last night of 1894. That night, the men of The Sigh ate some recently slaughtered pork and drank some troublesome liquor; someone strummed a milonga with great effort. At the head of the table and drunk, Otálora raised exultation after exultation, cheer after cheer, and this vertiginous tower was the symbol of his irresistible destiny. Bandeira, taciturn among those shouting, let the night flow along in riot. When the clock struck twelve he got up like someone who remembered an obligation. He got up and knocked softly on the woman's door. She opened immediately as if expecting his visit. She walked out half-dressed and barefoot. With a voice both feminine and groveling, the chief commanded her:
"If you and the fellow from Buenos Aires love each other so much, it's about time you gave him a kiss in front of everyone."
And here came a rather brutal twist. The woman wanted no part of this plan, but two men took her by the arm and threw her atop of Otálora. Devastated and in tears, she kissed his face and chest. Ulpiano Suárez had already taken out his revolver. Before dying, Otálora understood that they had betrayed him from the very beginning, that he had been condemned to death, that they had allowed him love, power, and triumph, because they had already taken him for dead, because for Bandeira he was already dead.
Suárez, almost with disdain, opened fire.