Today I thought I would introduce you to one of the minor characters from my recent novel, The Silver Gaucho. Here is The One-eyed Man, a keen observer of the daily soap opera, And there are no spoilers here – the novel opens with the death of El Gaucho de la Plata, star of the soap, in a car accident.
The One-eyed Man
The one-eyed man stands outside the only shop in Paso de los Indios. The locals call the shop la esquina; the corner.
From this vantage point, in the middle of the Patagonian desert, the old man watches everything.
Each day he sees the two buses that stop – the first heading east to Rawson, the second going west towards Esquel.
On rare occasions there are tourists on the buses. Sometimes they take photographs of the one-eyed man. Not because of his one eye, but because he looks different, conspicuous. His black sombrero and yellow scarf are flamboyant. He carries himself as if he was once a warrior. To the tourists he looks like a man with a past. Few realise how small he is inside his coat.
The one-eyed man was once a gaucho.
My halting Spanish makes questions difficult, but I ask them anyway.
Once started, the old gaucho is eager to talk. His one working eye flickers like a neon light as words tumble out from some place below his greying moustache.
I write quickly, capturing as much as I can as he speaks.
The one-eyed man says he seldom sees cars. Not many vehicles use this road. But horses are different. By comparison, lots of horses come and go, waiting while their riders make purchases in the only shop in Paso de los Indios. These are Criollo horses. They need no tethering. They are obedient, he says. They stand quietly in the dust, in the sun, while their riders roll smokes in the measly shade of the only tree.
The old gaucho tells me that he never dwells on the day he lost his eye. He was chasing cattle and his horse lost its footing. The gaucho was thrown onto a jagged rock that hooked his eye out of its socket. He carried the eyeball home in his pocket and still keeps it in a jar. The empty socket healed and the one-eyed man wears the scar with pride.
With a crooked smile the old gaucho talks of nights by the river, resting against his recado, his saddle. He smells again the asado con cuero cooking him the sweetest beef in the Americas, he relives wild rides when the cattle sensed water. He hears the echoes of laughter, remembers the high spirits of the gauchos when fresh-killed meat was being salted.
All these memories make him smile and when the man with one eye smiles, he flashes three gold teeth.
I ask him how he feels about the death of El Gaucho de la Plata and he looks away. It is minutes before he replies. I wait impatiently, not wanting to hurry him, but conscious that my time is limited.
The one-eyed man says that when he watched the first episode he saw quickly that Luis Mabon was not a gaucho. He was too big, probably Tehuelche blood. The best gauchos are smaller, supple, thick-set men who move quickly. They are men of the earth. They are Mapuche, like the one-eyed man.
Luis Mabon was tall, raw-boned. He was a horseman, yes, but he was never a gaucho. He did not hold his head so.
By the end of the first programme the man with one eye realised that the gaucho who rode the horse with vitality; the one who wore the billowing bombachas and fancy red pañuelo; who cut and wound in and out through running cattle, his knife flashing at his back; who could spin and throw the boleadoras with accuracy – was not Luis Mabon but another.
And as he watched, he came to the conclusion that there must have been two gauchos making one.
If that is so, says the observant man from Paso de los Indios, then it was the impostor who died. The gaucho lives.
I shake hands with him and assure the old gaucho that he is, indeed, perceptive. I wish him well and run back to try and appease a cranky bus driver.