he makes out a man in sandals and a leather hat, drill trousers and a coarse cotton blouse, with a machete at his waist, kneeling a few feet away from him, exploring a trap.
“Rufino?” he asks. “Rufino the guide from Queimadas?”
The man turns halfway around, slowly, as though he had been aware of his presence for some time, and putting a finger to his lips signals him to be silent: shhh, shhh. At the same time he glances at him and for a second there is surprise in his dark eyes, perhaps because of the newcomer’s foreign accent in Portuguese, perhaps because of his funereal garb. Rufino—a young man, with a thin and supple body, an angular, beardless, weather-beaten face—draws his machete out of his belt, turns back to the trap hidden under the leaves, leans over it once again, and tugs on a net: he pulls out of the opening a confusion of croaking black feathers. It is a small vulture that cannot get off the ground because one of its feet is trapped in the net. There is a disappointed expression on the face of the guide, who frees the ugly bird from the net with the tip of the machete and watches it disappear in the blue air, desperately beating its wings.
“One time a jaguar this big leapt out at me,” he murmurs, pointing to the trap. “He was half blind after being down in that hole for so many hours.”
Galileo Gall nods. Rufino straightens up and takes two steps toward him.
Now that he is free to talk, the stranger seems hesitant. “I went to your house looking for you,” he says, stalling for time. “Your wife sent me here.”
The mule is pawing the dirt with its rear hoofs and Rufino grabs its head arid opens its mouth. As he examines its teeth with the look of a connoisseur, he appears to be thinking aloud: “The stationmaster at Jacobina knows my conditions. I’m a man of my word—anybody in Queimadas will tell you that. That’s tough work.”
As Galileo Gall doesn’t answer, Rufino turns around to look at him. “Aren’t you from the railroad company?” he asks, speaking slowly since he has realized that the stranger is having difficulty understanding him.
Galileo Gall tips his hat back and, pointing with his chin toward the desert hills all around them, murmurs: “I want to go to Canudos.” He pauses, blinks as though to conceal the excitement in his eyes, and adds: “I know that you’ve gone up there many times.”
Rufino has a very serious look on his face. His eyes are scrutinizing him now with a distrust that he does not bother to hide. “I used to go to Canudos when it was a cattle ranch,” he says warily. “I haven’t been back since the Baron de Canabrava abandoned it.”
“The way there is still the same,” Galileo Gall replies.
They are standing very close together, observing each other, and the silent tension that has arisen seems to communicate itself to the mule, for it suddenly tosses its head and begins to back away.
“Is it the Baron de Canabrava who’s sent you?” Rufino asks as he calms down the animal by patting its neck.
Galileo Gall shakes his head and the guide does not pursue the matter. He runs his hand over one of the mule’s hind legs, forcing the animal to raise it, and squats down to examine its hoof.
“There are things happening in Canudos,” he murmurs. “The people who have occupied the baron’s hacienda have attacked soldiers from the National Guard, in Uauá. They’re said to have killed several of them.”
“Are you afraid they’ll kill you, too?” Galileo Gall grunts, with a smile. “Are you a soldier?”
Rufino has finally found what he was looking for in the hoof: a thorn, perhaps, or a little pebble that is lost in his huge rough hands. He tosses it away and lets go of the animal.
“Afraid? Not at all,” he answers mildly, with just the trace of a smile. “Canudos is a long way from here.”
“I’ll pay you a fair price.” Stifling from the heat, Galileo Gall takes a deep breath; he removes his hat and shakes