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Authors: Francisco Coloane

Tierra del Fuego

BOOK: Tierra del Fuego
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Europa Editions 214
West 19th St., Suite 1003
New York NY 10011
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www.europaeditions.com
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright © by Francisco Coloane
First publication 2008 by Europa Editions
Translation by Howard Curtis
Original Title:
Tierra del Fuego
Translation copyright © 2008 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
   Cover Art by Emanuele Ragnisco
www.mekkanografici.com
ISBN 978-1-60945-962-8 (US)
ISBN 978-1-60945-960-4 (World)

Francisco Coloane

TIERRA DEL FUEGO

Translated from the Spanish
by Howard Curtis

TIERRA DEL FUEGO

 

 

 

 

 

D
efeat rode with the three horsemen as they crossed the Páramo at a fast trot.
The final skirmish with Julius Popper's forces had taken place on the banks of the Beta River. It had been a rout, involving heavy casualties, and the wealthy prospector's enemies, some seventy adventurers of many different nationalities, had disbanded, fleeing in all directions.

Some had escaped toward the Carmen Sylva, a mountain range that Popper himself had named in honor of the Queen of Romania, others were swallowed up in the vast tussock grasslands of China Creek, and a few climbed into the hills above the River MacLelan, the refuge of rustlers and the last remaining Ona Indians.

Only Novak, Schaeffer and Spiro had fled along the southern coast of Tierra del Fuego, hoping to hide behind the dark peak of Cape San Martín. They still had a few bullets for their rifles, and Novak had a full cartridge belt of .9 caliber bullets for his long-barreled Colt—the only one among the three of them.

This scarce ammunition was their only glimmer of hope in that desperate situation, though it would hardly be much help to them if there was a prolonged shooting match. Otherwise, there was only defeat and weakness and ruin in their fugitive hearts and all around them on the bleak Fuegian steppe.

“You have blood on your pants . . .” Novak said, with a strange tenderness in his voice, pointing to Schaeffer's right leg.

“Yes, I know,” Schaeffer replied coldly, raising his blue eyes to the overcast sky, like a bird craning its neck before taking flight.

“A bullet?” Spiro asked.

“No, guanaco droppings!” Schaeffer said, angrily.

“Let's see,” said Novak, reining in his horse.

“What?”

“The wound,” the German ex-sergeant replied, ever the superior officer concerned about the well-being of his men.

“It's nothing . . . let's move on,” Schaeffer said, a touch heatedly, spurring on his horse.

Cosme Spiro threw a cautious look behind him and spurred his horse even harder, riding out ahead of the others.

Like a wounded bird, old Schaeffer again raised his head skyward. What tortured him most was not the shooting pains from his wound but the flow of blood. Every time he settled his foot firmly in the stirrup in order to keep his body upright at that pace, he felt a liquid wave well up from the wound, a horrible, tepid wave that ran down his leg to his foot, making the inside of his boot increasingly wet.

With his right hand on his old German rifle with its sawn-off barrel, which he carried across the pommel of his saddle, he tried to relieve the pressure on his foot in the stirrup as he kept up the pace of the trot, but all to no avail. The wave of blood welled up with intolerable regularity, trickling insidiously down his skin until it formed a pool inside the boot. It was then that Schaeffer would crane his neck like a bird, not to take flight in a prayer but to unleash a whole flock of curses at heaven and his God for having landed him in such a wretched situation.

“Whatever possessed me to go against Popper?” the old man muttered between his teeth. “The Romanian treated me as if I were his countryman—me, a poor Hungarian washed up on the shore of this land.”

From time to time, like the flow of his blood in those tepid, insidious waves, fleeting memories of his adventures in the Páramo with the wealthy prospector rose to the surface of his mind. With pain and the proximity of death, life always comes back like that, in fragments.

He remembered that first encounter in a bar in Punta Arenas, with a drunken officer he had almost mistaken for a lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian army because of his uniform . . . That was the very same Novak who was now trotting with him, a fugitive with defeat riding at his side! Popper had put him in charge of his personal bodyguard, who all wore Austro-Hungarian uniforms, like the rest of his forces in the Páramo, to instill respect in his workers and in the natives and to make them aware of the meaning of armed force.

On that occasion, Novak had paid with a strange coin, which the owner of the bar wouldn't accept without first weighing it. It was indeed gold, five grams of it. On one side there was a large
5
with the word
grams
through it, along the edge the words
Southern
Gold Deposits
, and on the other side
Julius Popper - Tierra del Fuego - 1889
.

That curious coin came as a surprise to Schaeffer. He'd ended up in the port of Punta Arenas without a
centavo
, after a futile trawl along the coast of the Straits of Magellan, reaching the gold deposits only after others had already abandoned them. Talking to Novak, he was impressed by what he heard about the wealthy Romanian, the self-styled “King of the Páramo.” He was impressed enough to join Popper's men, but, like all those pursuing the glitter of gold, his hidden purpose was to make himself as rich as his master.

On the lugger
María López
they plied the waters of the strait that ran alongside Tierra del Fuego from the Atlantic, and reached the Páramo, a huge breakwater jutting out some seven and a half miles like a stone arm around a wide bay, San Sebastián, where the sea level rises and falls more than thirty feet, uncovering miles and miles of clayey beaches lined with coastal dunes and scrubland—the beginning of the Fuegian plain with its extensive covering of tussock grassland.

The whole region is known as the Páramo, and it was there that Julius Popper, the first white man to cross the island from the Straits of Magellan to the Atlantic Ocean, discovered untapped deposits of gold, in powder, flakes and nuggets. But the usual sluice boxes, pickaxes and pans did not produce enough to satisfy the lucky prospector's ambitions. Noticing that there was a difference of thirty feet or more in sea level between high and low tide, he devised a way of exploiting this cosmic energy. He had tunnels dug, twenty feet below the level of high tide, and put a particular kind of wooden mechanism inside them that trapped water in the tunnels when the sea rose, and liberated it from its prison when the sea fell—but its force was controlled in such a way as to give a thorough wash to all the gold-bearing material collected by his dozens of workers.

The output from these devices was so remarkable that Popper gave them the name “gold harvesters.” It was no overstatement: this seedbed yielded almost half a ton of gold a year. By tying that cosmic bull to the yoke of human ingenuity, Julius Popper could boast that he was the first man to have “plowed and harvested the sea.”

But the intrepid Romanian's harvesters only yielded gold for their inventor, and the greedy adventurers who had accompanied him to this arid plain, hoping to becoming as rich as he was, started looking with envy and resentment at their master, who grabbed all the deposits for himself, without leaving the slightest patch of land on which any of them could make their fortune.

One day, some of them deserted, having heard that other gold deposits, just as rich as those in the Páramo, had been found in the Cullen River and in the Alpha, Beta and Gamma arroyos. There, a prospector, using only a pickax and a pan, could make his own fortune, instead of being yoked to Popper, as if to the sea, and having to wash his gold for him.

But the King of the Páramo had no intention of letting these deserters compete with him under his very nose, and started attacking them with his private army, to force them to abandon the deposits to his boundless ambitions. Then something else happened, which exacerbated the conflict on that far-flung edge of the planet. Taking advantage of the master being away in Punta Arenas, a group boarded the lugger
María López
, at anchor in the bay of San Sebastian, and got away with twenty-four kilos of gold.

But the sea not only helped Popper to harvest the gold, it also watched over him like a jealous guardian, loyal to him to a degree that his own men were not. Sacking the holds, the men took all the alcohol they could find, and that led to their downfall. A storm hit them when they were out at sea and, as they had been celebrating their escape and were too drunk to maneuver the sails, the lugger capsized, taking the whole crew, along with the twenty-four kilos of gold, down into the bosom of the ocean—a lasting example to the subjects of the King of the Páramo.

Back in his dominions, Julius Popper found it impossible to remain satisfied with this exemplary action by his faithful ally the sea. He blamed the men who washed gold in the three arroyos for what had happened, saying they were a gang of bandits and thieves who had to be punished with even more exemplary harshness. His way of doing this was to hang three or four men from the posts that marked the boundaries of his property, and to put signs around their necks saying
Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate
, the phrase of Dante warning human beings to abandon hope when they come to the threshold of hell. Neither the Ona Indians nor the adventurers from the Beta arroyo knew
The Divine Comedy
, but even more eloquent than Dante's words were the bare skulls of the skeletons on which the vultures rested after eating their fill.

That was the likeliest fate awaiting Novak the German, Spiro the Italian and Schaeffer the Hungarian for having gone over to the rebel side instead of defending the property he had entrusted to them—especially the loyal Novak, the commander of his bodyguard, who had personally led the final resistance of the seventy fighters in the Beta arroyo. And it was also why Spiro kept glancing furtively over his shoulder, even though he was quite well protected by the two companions behind him.

Schaeffer contracted his toes as much as he could inside his boot, to calculate the amount of blood that had seeped into it, but at the same time, as if trying to ignore that calculation, he stretched his numb body, and once again raised his eyes from his foot to the cruel gray sky crushing the earth.

The Carmen Sylva range levels off as you approach the eastern coast of Tierra del Fuego, its spurs turning into smooth hills covered in black scrub, barberry bushes and baccharis shrubs, ideal terrain for hiding out. Then the range rises again to Cape San Martín, where the cliff falls sheer to the open sea, closing off the bay of San Sebastián and making the shore inaccessible on foot. From here, the great breakwater of the Páramo looks like a dark, static wave turned to stone in the middle of the sea.

Advancing deep into this oasis of refuge, the riders slowed down a little.

“Let's stop and have a look at that leg,” Novak said, and turning to Spiro, ordered him peremptorily, “You, go stand on that hill and let us know if you see anything.”

In a little clearing on the pampa, surrounded by black scrub, Schaeffer dismounted and for the first time checked the seriousness of his wound. The bullet had entered his thigh from the front and gone all the way through, but fortunately had not touched the bone. Cutting diagonally across the muscle, the wound had acted as a drainage canal, collecting the blood from the broken tissues inside and spilling it out through the lower of the two holes. Above all, because he had kept his foot firm in the stirrup in order to hold his body upright as he rode, the muscles had compressed the wound and the accumulated blood had poured out, in those insidious, tepid waves that made Schaeffer stretch his neck and head like a cormorant.

With his pants down, the old man looked for the first time at the entrance and exit wounds. He was pale and weak, and his upper lip kept quivering. But he contained the quivering by biting his moustache, the way oxen imprison a clump of grass between their lips. His face was naturally red and swollen, with a somewhat alcoholic snub nose, from the point of which there almost always hung a suspiciously transparent drop. In the same way, there was always a damp gleam in his eyes, as if an indifferent tear lingered in them.

When the old man lay down on the pampa, Novak looked at the pale face and blue eyes, and saw a kind of hieratic brilliance in them, as if an inner youth were trying to come through. He untied the canteen and gave him some water. Half opening his lips, Schaeffer drank a little, still biting a piece of his beard, as if afraid to let go of it. Novak took off Schaeffer's red and blue neckerchief, tore it in strips, and used it to plug the bullet holes and bandage the wound. Paler than ever, Schaeffer closed his eyes. Novak saw the nose quivering and the upper lip trembling again and that youthful gleam stronger than ever in the old man's wrinkled face. But after a while Schaeffer half opened his eyes, looked around him in surprise, and said quietly, “I thought I was done for . . .”

“You're a bit better now,” Novak said, in a coldly comforting tone, “but we have to get out of here and find somewhere safer . . . You've lost a lot of blood and I don't know if you'll be able to continue.”

“Just leave me here . . . If I recover, I'll follow you. If I don't, I'm too old to carry on at this pace.”

“The horses are worn out. I don't think we can keep going if they don't get some rest. We have to spend the night somewhere around here and leave before first light tomorrow morning.”

Novak gave a shrill whistle, and Spiro made his way down from the hill where he had been keeping watch.

“Schaeffer's not well,” he said to him. “I don't think he can stay on a horse anymore.”

“So?” Spiro said, and there was something unpleasant and even cruel in his expression. He was a fat man of medium height, with a round, pudgy face, and dark, lively eyes that fluttered like two flies buzzing over a piece of freshly baked bread.

“Let's find somewhere safe to spend the night,” Novak said. “Tomorrow, when the horses have rested, we'll think about where to go next.”

“Don't worry about me,” Schaeffer said, propping himself on his elbows. Then he looked at his leg and saw that the bleeding had stopped a little. He tilted his head, and looked up from the ground at Novak's face, with its prominent square jaw, broad and angular like the rest of his huge body, crowned by a few blond locks peeping out from under his grimy leather hat. There was a physical solidity in that framework of bone and muscle, and the somewhat childlike face had a certain air of pride and authority.

BOOK: Tierra del Fuego
10.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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