The neighboring women all stuck their oars in and prescribed their favorite herbs. But we set more store by Señora Engracia, and it was with her we took counsel to cure Rosario. The treatment she ordered was complicated enough, God knows, but since we all put our hearts and souls into the cure, it seems to have worked, for although a slow process, she was soon showing signs of improvement. The old proverb was right: you can’t kill a weed (though I don’t mean to imply that Rosario was altogether a weed, neither would I put my hand in the fire to prove that she was altogether a flowering herb). And so as soon as the brew prescribed by Señora Engracia began to work, we could sit back and just let time pass. For she recovered her health, and with it, all her jaunty exuberance.
She was no sooner well again, and happiness momentarily visited on our parents-who were united only in their common concern for the girl—when the vixen again outfoxed us, She scooped up the skimpy savings at hand and, without more ado or so much as a curtsy, took French leave, this time to Almendralejo, where she repaired to the house kept by Nieves La Madrileña. Truth is—or so I think, at least—that there is always a trace of good even in the worst scoundrel, male or female, for Rosario did not altogether wipe us from her memory. From time to time, on the Saint’s Day of one of us or at Christmastime, she would send us a little something in the way of money, which kept us as well as a belt keeps a well-fed belly. But the gesture was meritorious, for she was certainly not swimming in wealth, though she might have to look as if she were, given her need to dress for her gaudy trade. In Almendralejo she was to meet the man who would work her in, not the ruin of her honor, which must have been good and ruined by that time, but of her pocketbook. Having lost the former, the latter was the only thing she needed to watch. The individual in question bore the name of Paco López, alias "Stretch."* There is no denying that he cut a handsome figure, though his look was not altogether straightforward, since he had one glass eye in place of a real one he had lost in God knows what tussle, and thus his gaze wavered. The wild look in his eye would have unnerved the toughest bully. He was tall, a regular goldilocks, straight as a willow, and he walked so erect that the person who first called him "Stretch" was certainly inspired. His face was his only fortune. Since women were so mesmerized that they maintained him, he preferred not to work. I take a dim view of this, probably only because I could never get along like that. According to rumor, he had been a novice bullfighter in the bull ringsof Andalusia. I don’t know whether I believe that, for he struck me as a man who was brave only with women. But since these creatures, my sister among them, believed it firmly, he led the grand life, for you know yourself the way women idolize bullfighters.
I ran into him once, when I was out hunting partridge, skirting about "Los Jarales"—Don Jésus’ estate. He had come out from Almendralejo to get some air, walking a little way into the woods. He was all dressed up, in a coffee-colored suit, a cap on his head and a wicker cane in his hand. We greeted each other, and he, the sly dog, noticing that I did not ask after my sister, tried to draw me out, so he could get in a few barks. I put him off, and he must have been aware that I was backing down. Without further ado, and like a man forced to do something disagreeable, he cut loose on me just as we were saying goodbye.
"How is Rosario?"
"You ought to know … "
"Man, if you don’t, then nobody does."
"Why should I know how she is?"
He spoke so seriously that anyone would have said that he had never told a lie in his life. It annoyed me to talk to him about Rosario. I couldn’t help it. You know how it is.
He kept hitting the beds of thyme underfoot with his stick.
"All right, then. You might as well know. She’s good, see? Didn’t you want to know that?"
"Look, Stretch, listen here. I’m not one to take much, and I don’t waste time on words. Don’t get me started! Don’t get me into a rage!"
"Get you into a rage? How can I, when you haven’t got any rage at all about you? Now what would you like to know about Rosario? What has she got to do with you? So she is your sister. But she’s my girl, if it comes to that."
He had got around me with words, he had beat me at talk, but if we had come to grips I swear to you by the souls of my dead I would have killed him before he could have laid a hand on me. I was anxious to cool off, for I knew my own character, and besides it wasn’t right for me to start when I had a shotgun in my hand and he had only a stick.
"Look, Stretch, the best thing to do, is to shut up, both of us! So she’s your girl. Well, let her be what she wants. What’s that to me?"
Stretch was laughing. He seemed to want a fight. "You know what I say to you?"
"That if you had had my sister I would have killed you."
God knows that my keeping quiet that day cost me my health. But, I didn’t want to hit him. I don’t know why. I was surprised he talked to me that way. In the village no one would have dared say half so much.
"And if I find you following me around again, I’ll kill you in the bull ring on market day."
“Stick you with a sword right between the horns!"
"Look, Stretch! … Look, Stretch! … "
A thorn that day was stuck in my side and it’s still sticking there.
Why I didn’t tear it out at the time is something I don’t understand to this day. Some while later, when Rosario came home to recover from another bout of fever, she told me what followed these words. When Stretch went to see his girl that night at La Nieves’ house, he called her outside.
"Do you know you’ve got a brother who isn’t even a man?"
. . .
"And who runs and hides like a rabbit when it hears voices?"
My sister tried to defend me, but it was no use. That fellow had won the day. He had beaten me, the only battle I ever lost because I didn’t keep to my own ground, and talked instead of fought.
"Look, dove . . . Let’s talk about something else. What have you got for me?"
"Is that all?"
"That’s all. What do you expect? It’s a bad time … "
Stretch hit her across the face with his wicker stick until he was tired of the game.
"You know you’ve got a brother who isn’t even a man?"
My sister asked me to stay in the village for her sake, for her own good.
The thorn in my side felt as if it were being rubbed. Why I didn’t tear it out at the time is something I don’t understand to this day …
* "El Estirao," from estirado: stretched: stuck-up, presumptuous, "hotshot."
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