Friday, December 22, 2006

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Patagonia

A text from Chilean writer Luis Sepulveda.

We were in southern Argentina, not far from El Bolsón, a picturesque town on the border between the provinces of Río Negro and El Chubut. The giant poplars sheltering the cemetery bent in the wind. Their foliage formed a huge dome over all who rested there, people who had come to this southern tip of the world with their dreams, ambitions, hopes, plans, loves and hates - the basic ingredients of our brief passage on earth. These polyglot people in their different costumes had come from all over the world only to end up in this forsaken, windswept cemetery, united through eternity in the universal language of death.
A man lent on a tombstone, replacing a few dry flowers. A cigarette dangled from his lips.
"They say Martin Sheffields is buried here," I opened.
"The sheriff. Yeah, that no-good is here all right."
He could have been any age. His face, tanned by wind and sun, was inscrutable.
"Do you know where his grave is?" I insisted.
"Sure, but we can’t rush him. They buried him with his Colts in his hands. In a bad mood the bastard could blast us to hell," he answered, and led the way.
Martin Sheffields arrived in Patagonia at the beginning of the 20th century. He spoke a rough and ready Tex-Mex Spanish. His only possessions were two magnificent Colt revolvers, slung low on his hips, a well-harnessed white horse with a fine Texas saddle, and a sheriff’s star pinned to his breast. He was straight out of Marcial Lafuente Estefania’s westerns (1).
"He’s down there," said the man, pointing to an unnamed grave, "and I hope he stays put."
It was covered with a layer of beaten, almost petrified red earth, adorned by a single plastic daisy with scorched petals. Not much to mark the last resting place of a great Patagonian legend.
Sheffields probably died in 1939. No one knows for sure. Several biographies based on hearsay have been written by authors who appropriated the history of the region. But in Patagonia, legends, myths and truths change with the wind and history is a narrative genre indifferent to chronology and objective facts (2), an excuse to embroider a fireside tale over a glass of maté.
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