“La Insolación / Sunstroke”
Old, the puppy, went out through the door and crossed the patio with a slow and upright gait. He stopped at the edge of the field, stretched out on the hill, his eyes half-closed, wiggled his nose, and laid down calmly. He looked out at the monotonous plains of Chaco that switched between fields and hills, hills and fields colorless besides the cream white of the grass and the black of the bush. Some two hundred meters out, the hill cut off the horizon on all three sides by the corn fields. Towards the west, the fields widened and extended out into the valley, framed by the inescapable shadowed line in the distance.
At this early hour, the boundary, glared over by the midday light took on a calm clarity. There was not a single cloud or gust of wind. Under the calm of the golden sky, the fields gave off an invigorating freshness that brought out the hopeful spirit against the certainty of another dry day, melancholy for better paying work.
Milk, the puppy’s father, took his turn crossing the patio and laid down next to him with a lazy moan of comfort. There they remained without moving, it was still too early to be bothered by flies.
Old, who looked a while at the edge of the hill, observed,
“It’s a cool morning.”
Milk followed the puppy’s eyes and remained with his eyes fixed on the view, blinking with a distracted stare. After a moment, he said,
“There are two falcons in that tree over there.”
Their eyes turned indifferently towards a passing ox, and continued their customary stare of the land.
Meanwhile, the east began to take on shades of purple and the horizon had already lost its morning clarity. Milk crossed his front paws and felt a twinge of pain. He looked at his paws without moving them, deciding finally to sniff them. He had pulled out a thorn the day before and, remembering what he had suffered, licked his sick digit.
“I couldn’t walk.” He exclaimed, in short.
Old did not know what he was talking about. Milk added,
“There are so many thorns.”
This time Old understood. He repeated in agreement after a long pause,
“There are so many thorns.”
They both again fell silent, pleased.
The sun came out and in the first bathe of light the wild roosters filled the pure air with the noisy trumpet of their caw. The dogs, tanned by the angled sun, drooped their eyelids, softening their lashes with effeminate blinks. One by one the pack grew with the arrival of the other members: Dick, the quiet favorite; Prince, whose upper lip, split by a badger, exposed his teeth; and Isondu’, a native name. The five fox-terriers, splayed and dead from comfort, slept.
After an hour, they raised their heads; for on the far side of the odd two-story ranch—the bottom floor was made from mud and the second made from wood, with hallways and cottage railings— they could sense the steps of their master coming down the stairs. Mister Jones, with a towel around his shoulders stood for a moment at the edge of the ranch and looked toward the sun, already overhead. He still had a look of death, his lip twitching after his veiled night of whisky was put off longer than usual.
While bathing, the dogs drew closer and sniffed his boots, lazily wagging their tails. Like trained animals, the dogs recognized the smallest indication of drunkenness in their master. They slowly spread out again to lie down under the sun. But the growing heat made them quickly abandon the spot for the shade of the balconies.
The day went along the same as any other that month; dry, limp, with fourteen hours of scorching sun that seemed to melt the sky and that in an instant cracked the damp ground in pale scabs. Mister Jones went over to the chacra, looked at his work from the day before and went back to the ranch. The whole morning he did nothing. He ate lunch and laid down for a siesta.
The peones went back to the plow around two despite the scorching sun, because, well, weeds grow endlessly in the cotton fields. Behind them came the dogs, who loved farming ever since last winter when they learned to battle falcons for the white worms exposed from freshly-tilled earth. Each one laid down under a cotton plant, their panting accompanied by the dull thuds of the hoe.
All the meanwhile the heat grew. In the silent pasture and the blinding sun, the air vibrated on all sides, hurting the eyes. With the same silence as their house work the peones, wrapped to their ears in loose bandanas, supported the oven hot air expelled from freshly-tilled earth. The dogs moved plants every once in a while in search of fresh shade. They laid down for a while but fatigue soon made them sit on their haunches in order to breathe deeper.
A small bleak plain of clay shimmered in front of them, where no one had ever attempted to plow. There, the puppy all of a sudden saw Mister Jones sitting on a log, looking at them fiercely. Old got up onto his paws wagging his tail. The others got up also, but with their hackles on high alert.
“It’s the Master!” The puppy exclaimed, surprised by the attitude of the others.
“No, no that’s not him.” Replied Dick.
The four dogs stood together growling quietly, without taking their eyes off Mister Jones who remained still, staring at them. The puppy, incredulous, began to walk over when Prince showed him his teeth.
“No, it’s not him. It’s Death.”
The puppy raised his hackles and slunk back to the group.
“Is the Master dead?” He asked anxiously. The others, without responding, began to bark furiously, with a relentless attitude of fearful attack. Without moving, Mister Jones faded into the shivering air.
Hearing the howls, the peones looked out over the horizon but saw nothing. They turned their heads to see if any horses had made their way over to the field before returning to their work.
The fox-terriers walked back to the ranch. The puppy, still frightened, ran ahead and fell back in short nervous trots and learned from the behavior of the others that when something is about to die, Death first let’s itself be seen.
“But how do you know that who we saw wasn’t the Master?” He asked.
“Because it wasn’t him.” They told him harshly.
Death will come and with it: a change of owner, misery, beatings, all we’re upon them! They spent the rest of the evening at their Master’s side, somber and alert. They growled at the slightest noise without knowing where it came from. Mister Jones felt safe with his restless guardians.
Finally, the sun sank behind the black line of palms above the riverbed, and in the calm of the silver night, the dogs positioned themselves around the ranch, where in the top floor Mister Jones recommenced his hidden abuse. At midnight they heard his steps and the thud of his two boots on the floorboards before the light came on. The dogs could then feel the change of owner closing in on them. Alone, at the foot of the sleeping house, they began to cry. They poured out their dry convulsive cries in a chorus of desolate howling behind the sustained cry of Prince while the others began to howl anew. The puppy barked. The night went along and the four aged dogs, under the light of the moon, their snouts extended and arched up in howls—well loved and taken care of by their Master they were about to lose— continued crying in their domesticated misery.
The next morning Mister Jones was still himself, tying the mules to the plow and working until nine. But, nonetheless, he remained unsatisfied. Besides in his fields, he had never been one to follow the lead. The blades were dull and with the quick steps of the mule, the plow began to jump. He brought it back and sharpened the grille, but a bolt that he noticed as flawed when he bought the machine broke when he put it back into place. He sent a peon over to the nearest sawmill, telling him to take the horse, a good animal, just a bit sun worn. Mister Jones raised his head to the melting midday sun and insisted that he not gallop the horse for even a moment. He quickly ate lunch and got on. The dogs, whom so far that morning had not left their Master’s side for one second, stayed in the corral.
He regretted the siesta, overwhelmed by light and silence. The boundaries were cloudy from the sun-scorched earth. Around the ranch the stone-white earth, blinding from the timely sun, seemed to lose form in a trembling boil, that put the fluttering of the fox-terriers to sleep.
“He hasn’t come back.” Milk said.
Old, hearing “come back”, lifted his ears up over his eyes. This time, the puppy, incited from the invocation, stood up and barked, searching what for. He soon gave up and joined the group in their defensive fly hunt.
“He’s not coming back.” Isondru added.
“There was a lizard under that stump.” Prince finally remembered.
A chicken, her beak open and winds extended away from her body, crossed the patio incandescently with her heavy trot from the heat. Prince followed her stalkingly with his eyes, and then leapt up
“Here he comes!” He yelled.
To the north of the patio came only the horse who the worker had been riding. The dogs arched their backs and stood on their toes, barking with restrained fury at the Death that drew closer. The animal walked with its head down, apparently indecisive about which path to follow. As soon as she passed the front of the ranch, she took a few steps toward the well, disappearing with each step under the exposed light.
Mister Jones came down; he didn’t look tired. He was getting ready to get back on the plow when he unexpectedly saw the worker atop the horse. Despite his order, he had to have galloped the horse to return at this hour. He blamed him with all rational logic, a point at which the worker responded with evasive reasoning. As soon as he had concluded his mission and was free, the poor horse, whose midsection was covered in lashes, shook her lowered head and fell to her side. Mister Jones, with the whip still in his hand, sent the peon back to the field, to prevent whipping him if he continued hearing the Jesuit pleadings of the peon.
But the dogs remained content. Death, looking for the Master, had fused with the horse. They all felt happy, free from worry, and as a result got up and followed behind the peon to the chacra when they heard Mister Jones yelling at him, still far away, asking for the screw. There was no screw: the country store was closed, the manager was asleep, and so on. Mister Jones, without responding, took off his summer hat and left in search of the tool. He withstood the heat like a laborer, and the stroll was incredibly alleviating his bad mood.
The dogs followed him but stopped in the shade of the first locust tree; it was too hot. From there, firm in their steps, their brows constrained and attentive, they watched him walk into the distance. Finally, the fear of loneliness got to them and they trotted sluggishly after him.
Mister Jones got his screw and headed back to the ranch. To shorten the long distance back, and avoid the dusty curve of the trail, he marched in a straight line to the chacra. He arrived at the stream and entered the fertile hayfields of Saladito that had grown dry and sprouted out covering the whole horizon in hay, without ever having been burned. The arched bushels that crested at the height of his chest twisted themselves together into a solid block. The grave task of crossing them was difficult at this hour even on a cool day. Mister Jones dared to cross it anyway, swimming between the resilient and pollen-filled straw from flooded clayfields, he was drowned by fatigue and acres of nitrate-filled steam.
At last he emerged and paused at the edge of the field, but it was impossible to stay still under the sun and the exhaustion. He began to walk again. The burning heat that had grown incessantly for the last three days added to the suffocating of decomposing time. The sky was white and he couldn’t feel a single gust of wind. He needed air, but his distressed heartbeat did not allow him to take a breath.
Mister Jones convinced himself that he had overstepped his limits. For some time his inner ears throbbed with the beating of his arteries. He could feel it in the air, as if the inside of his head was pushing his skull outward. He looked up and down over the grazing field. He sped up his pace to get it over with once and for all… and then suddenlt came to his senses and found himself on a distant field: unaware, he had walked close to a hundred meters. He looked behind him again and his head fell into another spell of vertigo.
Meanwhile, the dogs followed behind him, trotting with their tongues hanging out. At times, unable to breath, they stopped in the shade of an espartillo; they rested while their panting increased before returning to the tormenting sun. At last, with the house in sight, they sped up their trot.
It was in that moment when Old, who was in front, saw Mister Jones behind the fence of the house, dressed in white, headed towards them. The puppy, with subtle remembrance, turned his head, comparing the two, towards his Master and barked,
The others had seen him too, and barked with their hackles on end. They watched him flow through the fence, but immediately believed their eyes deceived them; he stopped a few hundred meters from them, looked over the group with his celestial eyes and continued forward.
“The Master shouldn’t walk so fast.” Said Prince.
“He’s going to run into him.” They all howled.
In fact, the other after a brief hesitation advanced, but not directly at them like before, but rather in oblique lines and in utter confusion, yet that would take him directly into an encounter with Mister Jones. The dogs understood then that everything had already came to its end, because their Master continued walking in his consistent steps without noticing anything. Mister Jones stopped, turned, and collapsed.
The peones saw him fall and carried him quickly over to the ranch, but all the water proved useless; he died before making it back. Mister Moore, his half-brother, came from Buenos Aires, stayed an hour at the chacra and without four days sold everything, returning immediately down south. The Indians shared the dogs who returned immediately to being skinny and mangy dogs, who go out stealthily every night to steal ears of corn from the far off fields.