From that morning on, Maruto was looking forward to visitors from the city. Nevertheless, when he heard the motor and saw the dust in the road, he had a bad premonition about what might happen.
He had been working for years at the Estancia, and he knew many friends of the boss who came to the big ranch (according to them) to shake off the corruption- and pollution-filled big city grime.
They said they needed the fresh air and the peace and quiet of the country. Generally, they brought cards, a lot of whiskey, and many boxes of bullets. Maruto was delighted to meet up with them and he really enjoyed helping them get settled in. They ate and drank to the point of nausea and got entangled in a game of trumps marked by winks, nods, and peals of laughter. They would go to bed a dawn, snoring like animals.
Later, if by sheer chance they happened to kill a parrot or a distracted crane, they would trot back to the lodge, their spirits high.
But, the tall freckled guy who had just arrived was different.
It was getting dark and was very hot when he got out of the truck. He came accompanied by a boy by the name of Roberto, a blonde turkey-face wimp who jumped at the slightest shadow that moved in the twilight.
The freckled guy introduced himself as Nicolas Duarte, brother-in-law of some highly-decorated person. He had a cigarette virtually glued to his lower lip, and he spoke with the lack of inhibition typical of someone who was used to being obeyed. He was quite obnoxious, even in his way of saying "hello."
Nicolas unfastened his shirt, allowing a view of a scrawny, sweaty chest. He lit another cigarette, striking the match on the sole of his boot, which was deformed by use and said:
"Is there any kind of water around here?"
"Yes, sir. About 500 m from here."
"Marsh or lagoon?"
"They tell me there are a lot of yacar_ alligator around here. Is that right?"
"There usually are, sir, but we're in their nesting season."
"Did you hear that, Roberto? Our guide's a real know-it-all." Roberto signaled his approval with the laughter of a complete imbecile, and he went on shooting. Nicolas said:
"I'm going to explain something to you, Maruto. You can keep your nesting and do with it whatever you'd like. I don't give a rat's ass." Slapping his gun, he turned toward the vehicle, where he opened up the back door. The putrid odor of wild, untanned skins emanated out from the truck. With a quick glance, Maruto calculated he had about 400 alligator skins back there. He moved his head with indignation, and, in spite of the fact his blood boiled, he endured in silence the injurious words of Nicolas. At that moment, their gazes crossed fleetingly and Maruto shivered without knowing why.
Nicolas lowered a heavy reflector and adjusted it over Maruto's shoulders as if he were putting a yoke on an ox. Later, he filled his pockets with cartridges, uncorked a bottle, and taking in a burning gulp of whiskey, he ordered Maruto to guide them to the marsh.
The last rays of the sun were swirling themselves down over the leaves, and they disappeared in the tangled thicket of the mountain. Dusk began to fall, and the earth gave off a humid heat, giving life to swarms of mosquitoes. It smelled like sweet pasture grass and of prickly pear flowers. OThat's just what produces delirium and blurred vision.O That's what Maruto was thinking and he crossed himself, touching the amulet that he had hung around his neck, a braid from the scrotum of a male sheep, powerful against the "yeta" which he was always guarding himself against. He rolled a piece of tobacco between his fingers to lift up his spirits and to alleviate the disagreeable sensation that he was walking with the Angel of Death.
The three walked along, lost in themselves, as if the forest had imposed a moment of silence. The trail ended in a muddy puddle which announced the proximity of the marsh. The breeze was fresh and it carried the odor of rotten roots and of fish.
They looked for a high, dry place, and Maruto shone his light toward the little beach.
"Turn off the light, you idiot," snapped Nicolas. Dozens of oblique eyes flickered along the length of the water's edge. One could hear the sound of the safety being taken off, but the act was constrained by the Nicolas' voice.
"Not a single shot, Roberto. We'll wait until they come out of the water. Luckily, the wind's in our favor. You, Maruto -- just turn on the reflector when I tell you to."
Roberto waited with the baited, nervous breath of the impromptu hunter; Nicolas delighted in the intense emotion he was about to experience. For him, killing meant feeling alive. Calm, he smoked a cigarette, with all his senses focused on a wildcat or on the valuable hide of the yacar_ alligator.
But the river contained more than one secret. Apart from all that threatened, she chewed camambu roots, and, covered with algae, she made a mooing sound as she stretched her muscles because she knew that it was the moment. A painful, visceral spasm was the announcement.
Nicolas ordered Maruto to comb the river with the light, and over the dark surface something surfaced -- something like a dog. It barked two times and the lost itself again.
"What was that?" said Roberto.
"It's a capibara. Don't shoot. You'll scare the alligators, and besides, it's not worth it to waste bullets on such a stupid creature," commented Nicolas.
The female intuited the danger, but that wasn't why she appeared. She smelled the blue hyacinth flowers and waterlilies and she was satisfied by those. She needed energy for the force that awaited her. Another sharp hit, like an electric current, radiated out from her spine into her belly. That made her decide, and her little paws scrambled quickly searching for the shore. The men heard her splashing through the water.
"Now, Maruto, the light," said Nicolas. Just then, the little animal made it to the shore, and it saw a wide fringe of sand that separated it from the undergrowth. The strong scent of the man stunned it for a few seconds, but it couldn't go back; its pups needed to be born before the moon came out and she needed to hurry up. Mysterious forces tensed her entrails which pushed toward the light. She moved heavily, her toes sunk down in the sand when she was in the full light. She was stunned and foolish in the luminous circle, and it was then when she received the first impact that opened up a huge wound in her cinnamon-colored flank. She started to run, stumbling with her enormous belly.
"You idiot! I told you not to shoot!" raged Nicolas, blind with anger, and he started off toward the beach.
"The light, Maruto, the light!" But with strong movements of the tail, the alligators slipped off into the river. When Nicolas arrived, they were no longer there.
"You're going to pay, you asshole!" he said through clenched teeth. He was furious, and he could feel his blood boiling. He followed the tracks left in the sand by the animal.
"The light, you useless Indian!!" he repeated, like a madman, but Maruto didn't give him a target. Then, Nicolas pulled out a little flashlight and he saw it just as it was entering the strawgrass. Bang, bang! The little carpincho rolled around in the lilypads, and hot water flowed from her right flank. Nevertheless, she didn't pause -- she was very close to the impenetrable underbrush. The burning pain, the fatigue, each one of her fibers responded to only one call -- dragging herself, pushing herself, with toenails in the mud, got there and she concentrated all the rest of her energy in push, push, push -- and after the last of her little pups was born, the bleeding from her side stopped.
"I lost the track, goddammit. Where could it be?" snorted Nicolas, uselessly.
Meanwhile, safe and well hidden, four little carpinchitos with shiny little eyes started to nurse.
Hours later, guided by smell, Maruto found them all curled up together over the still-warm belly of their mother. He put them in a bag and, on his way back to the house, he started thinking about how he could build a good feeding station where the little pups could nurse.