During the days before the rodeo, the two Fernández huasos are often seen on the main street of San Clemente, wearing their best clothes and stopping to chat with passers-by. Sometimes they wear a white bolero jacket, sometimes a black one; a black or brown hat, depending on the weather and their outfit. They have a folded silk poncho over their shoulders and a leather riding whip in their hands. Their boots are always black and their spurs, when they wear them, have enormous silver wheels. Passersby look at them, greet them, and they respond with rather a theatrical bow, turning their heads a bit while their spurs jangle. They are the most famous rodeo team in the area, and that year the competition promised to be brutal, as teams from as far as Rancagua were coming to challenge their crown.
So, the day of the rodeo finally arrives, slowly erasing the bleakness of the cold winter months. Food is prepared, and extra flour is brought in to San Clemente from Talca, powdering the sidewalks white as the sacks are unloaded. The smell of empanadas and newly baked bread wafts through the air from the Domínguez bakery to the neighbouring houses. There is also an increase in the soft-drinks trucks that unload their bottles outside the Franz general store, and the bottles in heir trays can be heard moving against each other outside the shop. The butchers’ shops are filled with dripping carcasses, while tasty pork sausages lie on the counters like sleeping snakes. The atmosphere is festive – and smells festive – from the very early morning, and people start to go to Alejandro Cruz Street, hoping for a casual encounter with the Fernández team, so as to admire them in their full huaso regalia.
At the Navas tack shop, talk centers on the new riders coming to the rodeo, and also of the exorbitant prices of tackle and horses. But the town remains faithful to the Fernández team, the most elegant and outstanding riders to be born in this land of sugar beets. Ever since they were youngsters, the Fernández boys have been local figures that epitomize the ideal huaso. They know how to rein in a horse, when to spur it on, and where to press their steer’s rump when they tackle it. They sit on their saddles as if they were part of the horse, and their hats barely tilt on their foreheads when they charge at full gallop. They are handsome men, impressive and high complexioned, and they always wear huaso dress and sometimes even their leather leggings.
The Fernández are cousins, not brothers, although some say that they are sons of a same father, as old Fernández was very generous with his seed and impregnated more than one womb, as happens among the rich. There is another man in the town who keeps both his women openly. Both have houses near the main square, practically opposite each other, and at night people can see him leaving one house, where he is supposed to have had his supper to then go into the neighboring house for his dessert. Although on Sundays, this tall and always well-dressed man, always in huaso garb, with his hat and bolero jacket, shows up in church, praying with his children and legitimate wife. When the collection passes, he humbly gives quite a bit to the altar boy.
The small town market is open before and during the rodeo. And stall-owners mix all kinds of goods to attract customers; their wares range from huaso clothes to boxes of tea, all mixed together. Of course, pocketknives are common, as there’s not a single man who doesn’t keep one in a cartridge belt on his waist. They come in all sizes, shapes and qualities, some made of legitimate Swiss steel, others of tin, which goes rusty straight away. Belts, chocolates, and Calaf sweets, bulk and packed biscuits, the never failing colored marshmallows – yellow, pink, and light blue, devoured by the children with dramatic solemnity. Bunches of wild and artificial copihue flowers. The crowed marches forward through the narrow market aisles in a state of entrancement; most of them are window-shopping, buying nothing, wishing for anything that will make them the happy possessors of a souvenir of that day. There are fabulous watches, metal maté pipes and gourds, small oxen yokes, and miniature hats, as the real huaso hats are way beyond their means, the same as the white leather belts. It also has silver spurs, and common iron spurs, and nails and old and new horseshoes. People pass by, moving slowly in a never-ending coming and going with covetous looks in their eyes, just like those of the salesmen, who hide behind their well trimmed moustaches with expressions of theatrical indifference to mask their avidness. There are demijohns and large bottles of red and white wine, well sealed and dusty, giving evidence of false ageing.
The day of the opening, the Rodeo Ground is ready, the gravel has been well swept and raked early in the morning, broken down to an even size; the rafters have been checked, and the stage ready for the women and their music, songs and guitars. You can hear strumming and rehearsing, a beating tambourine, staccato dance steps on the hard eucalyptus stage, with a few huasos looking like ruffled cocks before a fight. The gentle strumming of a harp can be heard, its sweet music reaching out to the children’s souls while they play in the empty yard, waiting for the rodeo to start. You can hear the words “We’re off to the rodeo”, everywhere. The town is a veritable ghost town, with empty streets and houses. People march on to the outskirts in a state of hypnotized expectation.
They all crowd together at the rodeo ground to watch the beginning of the rodeo. Even the dogs are there, packs of them moving below the rafters, infected with the anxiety and breathless expectation of their masters sitting above. Nobody wants to miss the presentation of the riding teams and watch the first run, and the cueca danced in all its vigor. Their aim is to see the purebred horses in action, with their silky pelts, perfect muscles and movements, to watch them is like looking at the gods of olden days. Their shiny black hooves and vibrant tails, their strong and erect gladiator breasts, their flanks and hindquarters sculpted by masters. And their elegant movements, their intelligent pacing, as they trot and gallop at the precise moment when they need to stop the frantic escape of the mindless steer, that has no idea of its fate in the ring.
There go the Fernández cousins in the first tackle, spurring their horses on and giving them their heads, letting the steer run so as to tackle it in the exact spot required to put an end to its senseless running. The values of the Roman circus are inverted here, with the nobles, with their sophisticated gear and purebred horses, giving the crowd and the populace lessons in strength and valor. They move with elegant grace, with their silk ponchos and fine hats, but when it comes to the final strike, they are brave warriors, earning rabid applause and acceptance from the public. Another run, the short and premeditated gallop of the horse that knows perfectly well what it is doing with its foe, tackling it at just the precise moment. Spurs screech, leather heels tap, people move in the rafters, making them shake. Now comes the intermission with the female singers and the cuecas, together with the ceaseless tapping of the audience.
Wine flows freely among the audience, bottles of red wine punch and mistela jump out of their baskets like birds. People dance everywhere, while a pair of dancers does the cueca on the stage. At the beginning of the dance, the huaso struts like a cock in a henhouse, the woman flees as soon as he releases her, but he goes after her, insisting on her acceptance with a tinkle of spurs and brush of boots. They end the first part with a spin, with sparkling spurs, while he tries to corner her in the middle of the dance floor. He wields his handkerchief like a lasso in his attempts to catch her, and never stops looking at her like a hungry animal, ready to eat her up with a single swipe. The beating palms of the public excite the couple, there goes the huaso once more, moving after his woman, tapping with heels and toe caps and shaking the granite structure of the planet. The muscle-bound steel of legs vibrates, the handkerchief sounds like a whip, until at the final moment, the woman emerges victorious and the huaso kneels at her feet.
On the final day of the competition, the Fernández cousins were beating their rivals from Rancagua by quite a few points, and the crowd celebrated this triumph with shouts of encouragement. But, in the last run, which was really a token for winning team, because it was common knowledge that they had already won their first place, there was an accident. José Miguel Fernández fell off his saddle at full gallop while tackling a steer from the Santa Clara ranch. He fell on his head, thrown from the saddle by some sinister force – by a mandate of hell – because nobody had ever seen anything like it His own horse was unable to stop and battered his head and ribs with its steel hooves.
When they saw him fall, the whole crowd stood up, shouting hysterically. Various riders came out to protect Fernández’s body from the hooves of the steer that was running loose around the arena. The ambulance siren could be heard in the distance, until it entered the corral like an old animal howling in pain. Nobody stirred while they lifted the battered and trodden body of José Miguel Fernández. The closing ceremony and festivities were suspended, people returned to their houses silently, while a funereal silence pervaded the town. Huamachuco street was deserted, and not even the dogs barked that afternoon at five.
Miguel de Loyola – Santiago de Chile – Del libro Cuentos Interprovinciales.
Traducido del español al inglés por Jane Mann Elliott Somerville.