Juan Despierto made his way across the broad meadow, heading for the wide pastures of El Carrizal, the estate of the dowager Marquesa de Turbiasaguas, intending to enter there and catch a few things to ensure that his loved ones had some meagre fare to eat that day. He came to the edge of the estate, skipped over the barbed wire with his usual agility and slipped inside as stealthily as you like, since the pastures not only belonged to the estate but were fenced off for the sole and exclusive enjoyment of their owners and their distinguished friends and relations.
He had not taken too many steps and was poised to nestle down in one of the spots known to him when he was startled by a booming voice that resonated in his ears:
“Ahoy there, pal. Where are you going?”
Juan Despierto quickly turned his head and spotted the man who had called out and instantaneously recognised him as one of the game-keepers: but, used as he was to surprises of this sort, it never even fazed him. He braced himself and answered with aplomb:
“You should know where I am going and I hope you’re not going to try to stop me.”
“I reckon I do” - the game-keeper replied, his shotgun ready for firing “just as I reckon also that you should know that I am here for a purpose.”
“Right at this moment the only thing that I am interested in is taking a few rabbits and then I’ll be off, because I have five mouths back in the village waiting for me to fetch them their daily bread. Can you hear me?”
“You have some cheek, pal, and you jumped the gun saying that and not knowing that I have three mouths of my own without a penny other than the wages I earn hereabouts.”
“I know. I know you’re one of the keepers here watching over the rabbits and other game hereabouts and that that’s what you get paid for: but surely you won’t want to go to the lengths of putting a bullet into me or forcing me to put one into you, just for the sake of your miserable wages? Am I right?”
“I’m telling you, I am here for a reason” the game-keeper replied, somewhat exasperated and adopting a threatening stance.
“And I’m telling you that I am here for a reason as well”, Juan Despierto retorted, raising his fowling piece to his cheek and training it on the keeper, “and now that I am here I refuse to leave and I won’t be leaving without some fare for my loved ones.”
“You have no right to set foot on this property, much less kill its rabbits. They are property as well.”
“That the land belongs to somebody is something I can put up with. But what I cannot put up with is this business of the rabbits being their property as well. Who gave the Marquesa these rabbits, tell me that? Did she wet nurse them or how did she rear them?” the poacher argued, trying to get on the right side of the keeper.
The keeper who had heard him say something against property, although he had not been able to grasp his point, said, without changing his pose:
“An anarchist as well, are you? Are you one of these people that say there shouldn’t be any property because you yourself don’t even have anywhere to drop dead?”
“I’m no anarchist and I don’t know a damned thing about that. Got that? What I am saying is that my kids are hungry and I have to look for their daily bread wherever it may be found. Understand?”
“I get it that you’re looking for bread for your family, just as I am, but you should look to your employment for that, as I reckon you are a working man.”
“I am that. And you?”
“I work harder than anybody and if you don’t believe me, just ask anybody in the village about the hijo del ajorcado [hanged man’s son].”
“So, if you’re a working man like you say, how come you’re not at work instead of hanging around here guarding rabbits for these lordlings who drop by from time to time to while away their days on amusements?”
“I’ll tell you” - the game-keeper replied, somewhat calmer and more serene, seeing as Juan was beginning to talk him round. “I have always worked at whatever I could, but since things are becoming, or rather, have taken such a lousy turn, anybody who gets a week’s work in a month can consider himself the happiest man in the world.”
“Well, pal, if you know all that from bitter experience, it won’t strike you as odd that the very same thing has happened to me.”
Needless to say, by this point the game-keeper had dropped the aggressive stance and Juan Despierto reckoned that he now had the upper hand. Each of them slung his gun under his arm and the poacher, drawing out his tobacco pouch and proffered it, saying:
“Here, pal, help yourself to some tobacco. No need to be so tight or so stingy with those in need. You might well find yourself turfed out of here tomorrow and obliged to come here in search of what you are refusing me today.”
The keeper came over, took the pouch and poured out some tobacco. Then he said this:
“Look, position yourself here and kill two or three rabbits. Then clear off before the head game-keeper shows up, because in this instance you and I can come to some sort of a compromise.”
“That’s great, thanks. I wouldn’t have expected any less of you, because although you are el hijo del ahorcado, that doesn’t mean you’re going to behave like the deceased, Lord rest him.”
“How my father behaved? Did you know him, then?” the keeper asked, curious, for he could see that the poacher was too young to have known him.
“These days the entire village knows how your father conducted himself. There’s no need to have known him.”
The keeper said nothing. A dark cloud passed across his forehead, reddening his cheeks. No question about it; this fellow knew something of the story of his father and in a muddled way he was afraid of vengeance being wrought. His mother had told him a little, especially about his father’s tragic end and this shamed and worried him because he might go the same way or similar as his a father, even though he was not made of the same stuff as his father. In his uncouth and half-wild innards he carried the temperament of his mother. Juan Despierto waited in vain for some response, but since he was taking so long about it, he added:
“Don’t you go feeling ashamed, my good friend. When all is said and done, you’re not to blame for what your father was, and even if you’re a keeper like he was, you’re made of different stuff and a much more reasonable person, so that’s like the son making up for the sins of the father.”
As if overwhelmed by Juan’s argument, the game-keeper looked around for a rock and went over and sat down on it with his shotgun broken over his thigh. Then, stirring himself, he declared:
“I know a little of my father’s story, which was quite dark, just as his soul was black also. I know that during his years in the Civil Guard he did quite a few bad things to the poor poachers who fell into his clutches, even though he was poacher himself; I also know that he was discharged from the Corps for having stripped a poor man of two rabbits and failing to hand them in at the barracks: I know all that.”
And again he fell silent as if worn out by the story: he who had never known weariness nor fatigue on his long patrols around the wide expanse left in his care. Then, having recaptured his breath, and recovered from the fatigue, he carried on:
“Later he joined the game-keepers in this very estate, but instead of changing, instead of mending his ways and making a fresh start, he was as cruel and ruthless as ever towards the poor wretches who, driven by necessity, showed up to gather a few acorns or a bundle of kindling wood. My mother would correct him and give him a piece of her mind, but, stubborn and unbending as he was, my father never heeded her counsel. That was his reward for the zeal and care he took in protecting what he regarded as his own simply because it earned him three pesetas a day and a few tips from the lordlings dropping by with their pals to while away a few days bingeing and hunting.”
Juan who had sat down facing him on the dry, soft grass listening attentively to the the hijo del ajorcao seized upon this third pause and interjected:
“He was that blinkered that he killed a man because he has shown him off the grounds several times already; that was most serious thing he did and as a result he was jailed for less than three months, for the marques’s influence and money came to his aid and he was acquitted, which only made him all the more brazen and filled him with pride and arrogance. Shortly after that, the desmesne was set ablaze on all sides and after taking an extraordinary beating, the game-keeper in question was found dangling from a pine tree, the ‘gallows pine’ as the tree that was used as your father’s gallows is still known.”
“True, true. My mother has told me the story on more than one occasion.”
“Didn’t she ever tell you the name of the poacher killed by your father?”
“She did too, but I can only call to mind his nickname: they called him Despierto.”
“Precisely, Despierto they called him but his real name was Juan Ruiz: although since boyhood he had been known as Despierto because he was always wide awake and ready at any hour, at any time should the need arise and no matter how great the risks. For all of which reasons he was greatly loved by the villagers, although the lordlings and Civil Guard deadly despised him. ”
Juan paused himself at this point and two big tears welled in his eyes and slid down his cheeks, which were wiped on his jacket sleeves.
“So you know the story too?”
“I had it from my mother as well, just as you had it from yours. They both suffered greatly; mine on seeing the harassment my father endured from the rich; yours on seeing how your father was harassed by the poor. And both at the tragic end that befell your father and of mine. You inherited the nickname hijo del ahorcao and his job as a game-keeper on the estate, while I got the nickname Juan Despierto and the shotgun of the man who was killed by a shot fired by your own father.”
“What are you telling me? What is this? You’re the son of the man my father killed?” the game-keeper exclaimed, starting to his feet.
“Indeed I am; but don’t upset yourself, man; don’t upset yourself over that. I have never had any thought of avenging his killing. Besides, by my reckoning the debt was paid after the killer perished later in the way we know.”
Rather calmer and more relieved now, the game-keeper sat back down again and said:
“I knew my father’s victim had a son, but only now am I finding out who, although it has always intrigued me.”
“Well then, now that I can see you somewhat more relaxed, let me tell you the truth; I have known about you for quite some time and I knew you had taken over your father’s job; and on more than one occasion I had had you in my sights and almost point blank range, meaning to kill you by way of avenging my father’s death; but some strange power, a voice from I know not where, kept telling me: ‘No, don’t kill him; he is blameless; he is decent.’ At which I have retracted my weapon and allowed you to go on your way. You continued just as you had when you arrived: ear cocked and eyes peeled for poachers in hiding, where, you had no idea. In that respect you had already made my acquaintance and, to set your mind completely at rest, let me tell you that you have a friend here in whatever you mean to do.
The game-keeper stood up and Juan did likewise, a firm embrace setting the seal upon their friendship.
From: Amor, Sacrificio Y Venganza, December 1935.. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.