Fancy your coming out and asking me, of all people, about the late Francisco Real. Sure, I knew him, even though he wasn't from around here. He was a big shot on the Northside - that whole stretch from the Guadalupe pond to the old Artillery Barracks. I never laid eyes on the guy above three times and these three times were all the same night. But nights like that you don't forget. It was when La Lujanera got it in her head to come around to my shack and bed down with me, and Rosendo Juarez took off from the Maldonado for good. Of course, you're not the kind that name would mean much to. But around Villa Santa Rita, Rosendo Juarez - the Slasher we called him - had a reputation for being pretty tough. He was one of don Nicolas Paredes' boys, the same as Paredes was one of Morel's gang, and he'd earned respect for the way he handled a knife. Sharp dresser too. Always rode up to the whorehouse on a dark horse, his riding gear decked out with silver. There wasn't a man or dog around didn't hold him in regard - and that goes for the women as well. Everybody knew he had at least a couple of killings to his name. He'd have on one of those soft hats with a narrow brim and tall crown, and it would sit there kind of cocky on his long thick hair he wore slicked straight back. Lady luck smiled on him, like they say, and around Villa all us younger guys used to ape him even to the way he spit. But then one night we got a good look at what this Rosendo was made of.
All this might seem made-up, but the story of what happened that particular night starts when this flashy red-wheeled buggy - jamful of men - comes barreling its way down those hard-packed dirt roads out between the brick kilns and the empty lots. Two guys in black were making a big racket twanging away on guitars, and the driver kept cracking his whip at the stray dogs snapping at the legs of the horse. Sitting all quiet in the middle was one guy wrapped in a poncho. This was the famous Butcher - he'd picked that name up working in the stockyards - and he was out for a good fight and maybe a killing. The night was cool and welcome. A couple of them sat up on the folded hood just like they were parading along some downtown avenue in Carnival. A lot more things happened that night, but it was only later on we got wind of this first part. Our gang was there at Julia's pretty early. This dance hall of hers, between the Gauna road and the river, was really just a big shed made out of sheets of corrugated iron. You could spot the place from two or three blocks off either by the red lamp hanging out front or by the rumpus. Julia, even though she was a darkie, took trouble to run things right - there was always plenty of fiddlers and good booze and dancing partners ready to go all night. But La Lujanera - she was Rosendo's woman - had the others all beat by a mile. She's dead now, and I can tell you years go by when I don't give her a thought anymore. But in her day you ought to have seen her - what eyes she had! One look at her was enough to make a man lose sleep.
The rum, the music, the women, Rosendo with that rough talk pouring out of his mouth and a slap on the back for each of us that I tried to take for a sign of real friendship - the thing is, I was happy as they come. I was lucky too. I had me a partner who could follow my steps just like she knew ahead of time which way I was going to turn. The tango took hold of us, driving us along and then splitting us up and then bringing us back together again. There we were in the middle of all this fun, like in some kind of dream, when all of a sudden I feel the music kind of getting louder. Turns out it was those two guitar pickers riding in the buggy, coming closer and closer, their music getting mixed up with ours. Then the breeze shifted, you couldn't hear them anymore, and my mind went back to my own steps and my partner's, and to the ins and outs of the dance. A good half hour later there was this pounding on the door and a big voice calling out like it could have been the cops. Everything went silent. Then somebody out there starts shouldering the door and the next thing we know a guy busts in. Funny thing is he looked exactly like his voice.
To us he wasn't Francisco Real - not yet - but just some big hefty guy. He was all in black from head to toe, except for this reddish-brown scarf draped over one shoulder. I remember his face. There was something Indian and kind of angular about it.
When the door come flying in it smacked right into me. Before I even knew what I was doing I was on top of the guy, throwing him a left square in the teeth while my right goes inside my vest for my knife. But I never got a chance. Steadying himself, he puts his arms out and shoves me aside like he's brushing something out of the way.
There I was down on my ass - back of him now - my hand still inside the jacket grabbing for the knife. And him wading forward like nothing happened. just wading forward, a whole head taller than all these guys he's pushing his way through - and acting like he never even saw them. The first of our guys - bunch of gaping wops - just back out of his way, scared as hell. But only the first. In the next bunch the Redhead was waiting for him, and before the newcomer could lay a hand on his shoulder, Red's knife was out and he let him have one across the face with the flat of the blade. Soon as they saw that they all jumped the guy. The hall was pretty long, maybe more than nine or ten yards, and they drove him from one end almost to the other - like Christ in one of the Stations - roughing him up, hooting at him, spitting all over him. First they let him have it with their fists, then, seeing he didn't bother shielding the blows, they started slapping him openhanded and flicking the fringes of their scarves at him, mocking him. At the same time they were saving him for Rosendo, who all this time was standing with his back against the far wall and not moving a muscle, not saying a word. All he did was puff on his cigarette, a little worried-looking, like he already knew what came clear to the rest of us only later on. The Butcher, who was hanging on but was beginning to bleed here and there - that whole hooting pack behind him - got pushed closer and closer to Rosendo. Laughed at, lashed at, spit on, he only started talking when the two of them came face to face. Then he looked at Rosendo and, wiping his face on his sleeve, said something like this:
"I'm Francisco Real and I come from the Northside. People call me the Butcher. I let all these punks lay their hands on me just now because what I'm looking for is a man. Word's going around there's someone out in these lousy mudflats supposed to be pretty good with a knife. They call him the Slasher and they say he's pretty tough. I'd like to meet up with the guy. Maybe he can teach a nobody like me how a man with guts handles himself."
He had his say looking straight at Rosendo, and all at once this big knife he must have had up his sleeve was flashing in his hand. Instead of pressing in, now everyone starts opening up space for a fight - at the same time staring at the two of them in dead silence. Even the thick lips of the blind nigger playing the fiddle were turned that way.
Right then I hear this commotion behind me and in the frame of the door I get me a glimpse of six or seven men who must have been the Butcher's gang. The oldest, a leathery-faced guy with a big gray moustache, who looked like a hick, comes in a few steps and, going all goggle-eyed at the women and the lights, takes off his hat, respectful. The rest of them kept their eyes peeled, ready to swing into action if anything underhanded went on.
What was the matter with Rosendo all this time, not bouncing that loudmouth the hell out? He was still keeping quiet, not even raising his eyes. I don't know if he spit his cigarette out or if it fell from his mouth. Finally he manages to come up with a couple of words, but so low the rest of us at the other end of the dance floor didn't get what he said. Francisco Real challenged him again, and again Rosendo refused. At this point, the youngest of the newcomers lets out a whistle. La Lujanera gave the guy a look that went right through him. Then, her hair swinging down over her shoulders, she wedged her way through the crowd and, going up to her man, slips his knife out and hands it to him.
"Rosendo," she says to him, "I think you're going to need this."
Way up under the roof was this kind of long window that opened out over the river. Rosendo took the knife in his two hands and turned it over like he never laid eyes on it before. Then all of a sudden he raises his arms up over his head and flips the knife behind him out the window into the Maldonado. I felt a chill go through me.
"The only reason I don't carve you up is cause you sicken me," the Butcher says then, making to let Rosendo have it. That split second La Lujanera threw her arms around the Butcher's neck, giving him one of those looks of hers, and says to him, mad as hell, "Let the bastard alone - making us think he was a man."
For a minute Francisco Real couldn't figure it out. Then wrapping his arms around her like it was forever, he calls to the musicians to play loud and strong and orders the rest of us to dance. The music went like wildfire from one end of the hall to the other. Real danced sort of stiff but held his partner up tight, and in nothing flat he had her charmed. When they got near the door he shouted, "Make way, boys, she's all mine now!" and out they went, cheek to cheek, like the tango was floating them off.
I must have turned a little red with shame. I took a couple of turns with some woman, then dropped her cold. On account of the heat and the jam, I told her, then edged my way around the room toward the door. It was a nice night out - but for who? There was their buggy at the corner of the alley with two guitars standing straight up on the seat like men. Boy, it galled me seeing that - it was as much as saying we weren't even good enough to clip a lousy guitar. The thought that we were a bunch of nobodys really had me burned up, and I snatched the carnation from behind my ear and threw it in a puddle. I stood there a while staring at it, trying to take my mind off things. I wished it was already tomorrow - I wished that night were over. Then the next thing I knew there's this elbow shoving me aside and it almost came like a relief. It was Rosendo - all by himself, slinking off.
"You're always getting in the way, kid," he says to me half snarling. I couldn't tell if he was just getting something off his chest or what. He disappeared in the dark toward the Maldonado. I never laid eyes on him again.
I stood there looking at the things I'd seen all my life - the big wide sky, the river going on down there in its own blind way, a horse drowsing, the dirt roads, the kilns - and it came to me that in the middle of this ragweed and all these dump heaps and this whole stinking place, I'd grown up just another weed myself. What else was going to come out of this crap but us - lots of lip but soft inside, all talk but no standing up to anyone? Then I thought no, the worse the neighborhood the tougher it had to be. Crap? Back toward the dance hall the music was still going strong, and on the breeze came a smell of honeysuckle. Nice night, but so what? There were so many stars, some right on top of others, it made you dizzy just looking at them. I tried hard to tell myself that what happened meant nothing to me, but I just couldn't get over Rosendo's yellow streak and the newcomer's plain guts. Real even managed to get hold of a woman for the night - for that night and a lot of nights and maybe forever, I thought, because La Lujanera was really something. God knows which way they headed. They couldn't have wandered very far. By then the two of them were probably going at it in some ditch.
When I got back, the dance was in full swing. I slipped into the crowd, quiet as I could, noticing that some of our boys had taken off and that the Northside bunch were dancing along with everyone else. There was no shoving, no rough stuff. Everybody was watching out and on good behavior. The music sounded sleepy, and the girls tangoing away with the outsiders didn't have much to say.
I was on the lookout for something, but not for what happened. Outside there were sounds of a woman crying and then that voice we all knew by then - but real low, almost too low, like somehow it didn't belong to anyone anymore.
"Go on in, you slut," it was telling her - then more tears. After that the voice sounded desperate.
"Open the door, you understand me? Open it, you lousy tramp. Open it, bitch."
At that point the shaky door opens and in comes La Lujanera, all alone. Just like someone's herding her.
"Must be a ghost out there behind her," said the Redhead.
"A dead man, friend." It was the Butcher, and he staggers in, his face like a drunk's, and in the space we opened up for him he takes a couple of reeling steps - tall, hardly seeing - then all at once goes down like a log. One of his friends rolled him over and fixed him a pillow with his scarf, but all this fussing only got him smeared with blood. We could see there was a big gash in his chest. The blood was welling up and blackening a bright red neckerchief I hadn't noticed before because his scarf covered it. For first aid one of the women brought rum and some scorched rags. The man was in no shape to explain. La Lujanera looked at him in a daze, her arms hanging by her sides. There was one question on everyone's face and finally she got out an answer. She said after leaving with the Butcher they went to a little field and at that point someone she didn't know turned up and challenged him to fight and then gave him this stab. She swore she didn't know who it was, but that it wasn't Rosendo. Was anyone going to believe that?
The man at our feet was dying. It looked to me like the hand that done the job done it well. Just the same, the man hung on. When he knocked that second time Julia was brewing some mates. The cup went clear around the circle and back to me before he died. When the end came, he said in a low voice, "Cover my face." All he had left was pride and he didn't want us gaping at him while his face went through its agony. Someone put his hat over him and that's how he died - without a sound - under that high black crown. It was only when his chest stopped heaving they dared uncover him. He had that worn-out look dead men have. In his day, from the Artillery Barracks all the way to the Southside, he was one of the scrappiest men around. When I knew he was dead and couldn't talk, I stopped hating him.
"All it takes to die is being alive," says one of the girls in the crowd. And in the same way another one says, "A man's so full of pride and now look - all he's good for is gathering flies."
Right then the Northside gang starts talking to each other in low voices. Then two of them come out together saying, "The woman killed him." After that, in a real loud voice, one of them threw the accusation in her face, and they all swarmed in around her. Forgetting I had to be careful, I was on them like a light. I don't know what kept me from reaching for my knife. There were a lot of eyes watching - maybe everybody's - and I said, putting them down, "Look at this woman's hands. How could she get the strength or the nerve to knife a man?"
Then, kind of offhand, I added, "Whoever would have dreamed the deceased, who - like they say - was a pretty tough guy in his own neck of the woods, would end up this way? And in a place sleepy as this, where nothing ever happens till some outsider comes around trying to show us a little fun and for all his pains only gets himself spit on?"
Nobody offered his hide for a whipping.
Right then, in the dead silence, you could make out the approach of riders. It was the law. Everybody - some more, some less - had his own good reason for staying clear of the police. The best thing was to dump the body in the Maldonado. You remember that long window the knife went flying out of? Well, that's where the man in black went. A bunch of guys lifted him up. There were hands stripping him of every cent and trinket he had, and someone even hacked off one of his fingers to steal his ring. They helped themselves, all right - real daring bunch with a poor defenseless stiff once a better guy already straightened him out. One good heave and the current did the rest. To keep him from floating, they maybe even tore out his guts. I don't know - I didn't want to look. The old-timer with the gray moustache never took his eyes off me. Making the best of all the commotion, La Lujanera slipped away.
When the lawmen came in for a look, the dance was going good again. That blind fiddler could really scrape some lively numbers on that violin of his - the kind of thing you never hear anymore. It was beginning to get light outside. The fence posts on a nearby slope seemed to stand alone, the strands of wire still invisible in the early dawn.
Nice and easy, I walked the two or three blocks back to my shack. A candle was burning in the window, then all at once went out. Let me tell you, I hurried when I saw that. Then, Borges, I put my hand inside my vest - here by the left armpit where I always carry it - and took my knife out again. I turned the blade over, real slow. It was as good as new, innocent-looking, and you couldn't see the slightest trace of blood on it.