Hotel Damasco By Xavier Alcalá, Chapter VII

by Xavier Alcalá

Old Pedro Moreno left with a list of requisitions and a bundle of letters. One letter was for Paulina, his words painting the beauty of the lands he had ventured to; another, for his teacher, confirmed the grandeur of the “Pre-Andean” hills, as the geographical treatise he had brought with him referred to them; and asking him to make sure Paulina Mouzo had everything she needed. In the last paragraph, Manuel informed the schoolteacher that Ibrahim was still in possession of the savings that the young widow’s husband had amassed with sweat and loneliness on the harsh desert roads.

Summer flew by and, before the first advent of snow, things were going well in no-man’s-land:

Manuel Varela realised that he got on well with the indian lad, whom he called Julián because it was the Christian name that sounded most like whatever the indians called him. Julián knew everything there was to know about horses and sheep, and would also go hunting for ñandú, guanaco and mountain lion to ensure a ready supply of food, feathers and skins. All Manuel had to do was keep Julián away from the liquor and — as travellers with more experience of indians had recommended — give his assistant a demonstration of his strength and superior talents once in a while. Which was why Varela would practice his marksmanship with both his rifle and his pistol; and, in memory of his Chemist father, he cultivated an impressive Kaiser Wilhelm moustache which the beardless indians held in awe.

The indians would appear without notice and then leave just as suddenly, in a pattern that was connected to the clandestine passage of herds of cattle across the unmarked border. They would pitch their tents around the store and let loose a flood of silver in coins and valuable objects crafted using the methods of their forefathers. The dazzle of so much precious metal — Varela now understood from Héctor’s lessons — must have been what drove the greedy Spanish conquistadors out of their minds.

In exchange for the drunken binges that the Galician watched over with vigilance, not hesitating to yield his gun if necessary, the store was filling up with skins and colourful woollen ponchos brought by the savages; and the safe was brimming with money and silverware.

Merchants travelled to and fro from one republic to the other; and so did soldiers from both armies, sometimes posted there to deal with the matter of the border. Workers at the less far-flung cattle ranches flocked to the lonely house on the crossroads and, over a drink and a game of cards, news of harsh treatment meted out by the ranch-owners, of Syndicates, and of revolution could be heard there. Foremen would use Varela’s place to pick up workers; and every now and again an owner on the lookout for foremen would even wander in.

Stocks were rapidly running low; Manuel feared the winter and was concerned that the last stocking-up — just before the snow blocked the passes — might not be enough to satisfy his ever-growing clientele.

And he had another, bigger concern. There was nobody he could trust enough to look after the business in his absence. So that he could visit the town before the weather made it impossible.

He’d received no word from Paulina, which was not surprising since she couldn’t write and would be reluctant to dictate a personal letter. But he had received news from Héctor in the bag that Candelaria, the owner of the store, had sent. The schoolmaster was delighted to hear that the business was growing and advised Varela to start gradually occupying the surrounding land, stocking it with sheep and employing shepherds to watch them. These men would then build outposts and bring their families to settle there. On the subject of Paulina, he wrote that he had been to see her and had found her well and in good spirits, working at the Hotel Damasco. They had talked about her husband’s savings and she had given him to understand that she could take care of the matter by herself.

Manuel Varela was aching to leave the store. He wanted to go to that woman who he feared might no longer need him at all. He wanted to see her and he wanted her to see him, with his majestically rigid moustache.

But it just wasn’t possible. Things were moving too fast, so much in his favour, that he had to be there to keep on top of everything, watching his silver-purse grow fat.

He told himself that the most important thing was that the woman was getting on fine by herself, but she should not be allowed to forget him. That’s why he sent a letter to her on every wagon that returned to town. In the last one, when mid-May had already brought the first snows, he wrote to tell her that he was building a boarding-house, with beds and heating to shelter people caught off-guard by the inclement weather of the Cordillera.

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