There was a nice breeze blowing off the Caribbean and northward over the mountains. It cooled off the noonday sun along the Guanajibo River which ran between San German and Hormigueros. Juan sat on his front porch in his straight-backed wooden chair. Maria was inside getting ready to sew a new dress for one of her girls; there were several. And just as many boys also.
Juan’s immaculate and pressed white shirt remained sharp against his ramrod straight posture. His new “Saturday” straw hat sat beside him on the table. Khaki pants where creased to perfection. Every stitch of clothing fit his lean yet muscular body to perfection. He was a man among men. A self taught man who lifted himself from “Juanito; machete sharpener” to cane plantation manager. He had only two people above him; the plantation owner, Julliand, who lived in Greene, New York, and Maria, Juan’s wife.
Beside Juan were his usual tools for a Saturday morning; a strong box of cash, a ledger sheet on which were inscribed each worker’s hours, a bottle of rum and a repeating pistol.
Some misguided anthropologist (or archaeologist) would, sometime in the future, stumble over the remains of Juan’s farm and record that the owner once had a severe drinking problem. His (or her) misinformation would be based on the shallow observation that there were at least 520 empty rum bottles, a ten year supply, discarded behind the horse barn. Of course they would find all the rest of Juan and Maria’s trash thrown there also.
However, collectively, it would no longer be a pile of trash. In the “site report” it would become a “midden” and the bottles would become “artifacts.” Some poor soul would have the job of trying to fit all the pieces of the broken bottles together. It would only be then that the missing small circular flakes of glass would tell the story of Juan’s expertise with his pistol.
But this story has nothing to do with time or history. It has more to do with Juan. As we return to that Saturday we find Juan sitting on his porch facing a long line of sugar cane workers. One by one they would discuss their wages with Juan. An agreement was always reached between the two men. Juan would count out the wages for the worker. In most cases the worker would not know how many hours he had worked or what he was owed. Juan took care to be fair and honest.
As is often said (who said it, I do not know, but the “said” has been accepted as fact by everyone) “Puerto Ricans are generous to a fault.” This generosity was Juan’s most prized possession; right after his horse. Every man was usually paid a little more than he had earned.
Then, a token of friendship, a bond between worker and overseer, was made. Juan would pour a shot of rum while the man put his hard earned wages into a pouch. This leather sack would be stuffed deeply into the trousers pocket. Only then was the shot of rum offered to the worker with great machismo. Both men would smile deeply and the rum would prepare the worker for the long walk home.
The pistol was hardly ever used except for target practice which was Juan’s only hobby; other than reading anything he could get his hands on. The pistol was only used once on a human being, and that was on one of Juan’s own sons.
It was a cool evening when an older son brought a silly girl into the house. Juan was starting the process of cleaning his pistol when Maria called. She needed one of the oil lamps filled in the kitchen The young girl picked up the pistol, absent-mindedly (or empty-mindedly) pointed it at a young boy playing on the floor, and pulled the trigger. The boy died within two days.
Maria was never the same after that. She would often seem pre-occupied. She would never set foot outside on paydays. And, she insisted that when payday was over, the pistol would be locked up in the strongbox. Juan, out of love for Maria, never target practiced again.
From then on the pistol was only for show on payday. It gave Juan no comfort to have the pistol. He was strong willed and sinewy. Any cane worker who challenged Juan in the field knew the outcome. First there would be a loss of the worker’s ego, second, the loss of his job. Juan simply had the pistol on display as a reminder of his accuracy. And pay day was the only time that it was to be seen.
The talk, the exchange of money, the libation offered from one man to another, men who respected each other, the knowledge that they could depend on each other, the same knowledge between all the men in the pay line. This was a ritual. It approached the deep and sincere religious principals of the Catholic people who lived in this southwestern corner of Puerto Rico.
There was the dependence upon each other when one family was in trouble. But when doing well (or just making ends meet) each man and each family was proud and would never ask another person for help. Pride would not let them.
And they would not have to lose their pride. Everyone else knew when a family was in trouble and protected the other’s pride without being asked. Whether it was food, clothing or coin (or just a half day’s labor donated by others) the generosity “to a fault” was there. Who knows? Maybe their own pride would be at risk some day.
It was on such a Saturday morning when most of the payday line had been serviced. There were about fifteen men remaining. Maria was inside the house; as usual. Young children played in the side yard. Older children were grooming the horses which had been taken out of the barn for just that purpose. Saddles started appearing in hope for a ride along the cane field paths that afternoon. There were only four horses and, as stated previously, several children. Each would have to wait their turn.
A shriek came from a teenage girl standing at the barn doorway. Juan hardly glanced her way as she went running through the front door. Teenage girls often shrieked when looking for attention. Juan also did not pay attention to the scurrying outside the barn that followed. It was not until Maria appeared at his side that he knew something was wrong. Maria would never stand beside the pistol. She whispered something in Juan’s ear.
“Where is the little one?” he asked of Maria.
“Standing beside the house with the one who shrieked” she responded.
“Find Hector and send him here immediately” Juan ordered everyone and no one.
Juan asked the men in the pay-line to maintain their patience. He then approached the one who shrieked. The teenager had bundled a little girl in the safety of her arms. The little one had a quizzical look on her face. No fear, no tears, simply quizzical. Juan and the teenager had a short conversation.
“Who was this devil?” asked Juan.
“The Cubano” related the teenager.
“Where were you?” demanded Juan.
“Watching, Papi, I was watching but it happened so fast. He was talking to the little one and joking with her. Then they disappeared. I went to the barn and he had his pants down.”
“OK” said Juan as he kissed the teenager on the forehead and the little one on the cheek. “Take the little one to her mother.”
Juan returned to the pay line and found Hector, his right hand man, waiting loyally for him.
“Finish paying the men” he ordered Hector. “Be fair. Lock up the money when complete. I will take the pistol.”
Hector nodded knowingly and without argument.
Juan’s horse had been saddled in the few minutes that had elapsed between the shriek and the orders to Hector. Juan took his position in the saddle. His clothes remained exceptionally creased and bright. He remained ramrod straight and in control of his emotions. Everyone else’s emotions had been falling to the situation.
“I will return when my job is done” Juan stated to Maria. Everyone else heard it and everyone else understood it.
Juan returned at dawn the following morning; in time for a personal confession before Sunday Mass.
That day was never spoken of until now.
© Copyright – Waldo Tomosky