The Blue Lady
By Richard Lutman
Normally Colonel Hidalgo of the Ninth Regiment wasn't a drinking man, but today was different. It had been a day to be remembered, one he could recount over and over while sitting on the porch of his retirement villa in the mountains outside the Central American town of San Nueva. He had executed Lopez the rebel leader. After the execution, the Colonel returned to the hotel at the railroad station to celebrate: his work was done and a promotion was surely eminent. His family would be proud.
It had simply been his duty, the duty of every loyal soldier. That was all. Just as Lopez's duty had been to resist him, his had been to capture the bandit and bring him to justice, whatever the cost.
From the window of the hotel he saw the government oil rigs, thick as a forest, stretching west to the edge of the earth. The smell of oil and the odor of the peasants who worked the oil fields were something he could now begin to forget. How could these people be so unclean? The thought made him shudder. The rigs, which he had been ordered to protect from Lopez, reminded him of giant oil mantises, praying to their oil master.
On some days when it was too hot to breathe, the Colonel stayed in his headquarters, listening to the sand sting the tin roof. But today, in spite of the heat, there had been the execution.
The Colonel stretched, hoping the train wouldn't be as late as it sometimes was. In all his years as a soldier, he couldn’t remember a train being on time. It was one of the few things the government had never been able to control. The huge engines, built in the nineteen thirties, constantly broke down, and the tracks were forever getting buried by sand, flooded out, or torn up by men like Lopez.
With time at last to reflect, he removed from his tunic the note that Lopez had sent him last Christmas. The boldness of the rebel leader always fascinated the Colonel. It seemed to him from the beginning that Lopez was very dangerous to the future of the government and its oil fields, which had made the government very rich.
Since you and I are not really acquainted, never having been able to get
together and scrape up an introduction, I should still like to wish you a
Merry Christmas in spite of everything between us. I am sure that you do
not lack clothes, and since I am quite uncertain as to your tastes in books
and pictures, I can only send you the ear of your captured lieutenant,
who foolishly allowed himself to think he had surrounded me. So here is
wishing you a loving and useful and happy life and also that you may at
least have a very tiny tree at which to blink.
Your Faithful Servant,
Major Miguel Santiago Lopez
Lopez had been a rebel leader for almost eleven years. Yet in all that time he never won a battle in the long struggle for the oil fields, and the people of San Martino had almost forgotten who he was. Occasionally the Colonel took a prisoner and marched him through the streets, but after awhile all that came to watch were the many dogs of the village, looking for food.
For many years the government ignored Lopez until one day an important man from one of the oil companies had been found sitting in a large wooden chair in the middle of the road. A large stick propped up the shot-away head. At his feet was a sign, which said:
WE DO NOT WAGE WAR AGAINST CIVILIANS ONLY ON THOSE WHO TAKE OUR LAND. WE WANT TO LIBERATE SAN MARTINO FROM THOSE WHO WANT TO IMPOSE THEIR WILL ON US. TO DO THAT WE MUST PASS THROUGH YOUR LAND. DO NOT PUT UP ANY ROADBLOCKS. LET US PASS. THIS IS AN EXAMPLE OF WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THOSE WHO OPPOSE US. VIVA LOPEZ.
The rotting corpse brought the flies and with them the diseases they spread. The Colonel had been sent to prevent further such incidents; the government had enough problems already.
The Colonel had been chosen because there was no one else. The younger officers were away on maneuvers in the west and the others had yet to return from the north. At first he hadn't wanted to go, knowing what he would be facing. Then he changed his mind, accepting his fate, as he knew that Lopez accepted his. That was the way of life. And besides, orders must be obeyed.
Many times during the five years of battle the Colonel came close to capturing Lopez, and as many times Lopez escaped. Once disguised as a lady of great stature he flirted with the Colonel who found him quite attractive. On another occasion Lopez hid under the wide skirts of an old woman and escaped out a window into the night.
When Lopez had finally been caught, he was in a filthy brothel near Rio Santos with a fat, toothless woman under him. Because of their thrashings and cries, Lopez hadn't heard the Colonel approach and gave up without a struggle.
"We meet at last," said the Colonel.
“And there is nothing to drink," said Lopez with a slight bow of his head. "Next time we shall celebrate properly."
"By all means," said the Colonel. "By all means."
Then turning from the Colonel, Lopez told the whore the seed he planted in her would continue the fight. She laughed and went to the stone basin to wash. "I don't want your child," she said. "It will put a curse on everyone by climbing into their shadows just as you have done." Lopez' eyes glittered fiercely and he struck her. They could hear the woman laugh long after the house was out of sight.
Searching Lopez's trousers, the Colonel found a tattered black notebook with some writing in it.
1. Dinner. 1 1/2 cup beans full of salt.
1 bread. Tea. Dirty cup, knife, fork.
The sores of children.
2. Supper. Strips of bread soaked in fat.
Little milk. Drought. Fields full of dust.
The women no longer sing.
3. Today. Oats. Very little oats.
The children no longer laugh. Lots
of milk. Stale bread. Coffee. Most faint
by 10am. No teeth. Gums worn out.
Boiled meat. Fit for dogs.
My men are tired.
4. Tonight. Soup. No body to it. 3
pieces apple. 1 slice bread. Nothing
solid for their stomachs. Nothing solid.
Harvest is coming.
When the Colonel asked Lopez what the book meant, he received no answer. After ordering Lopez to be beaten the Colonel sent the book to the government's intelligence office, noting that Lopez had all his teeth and recently he heard the children laughing.
After his return to the village, the Colonel paraded Lopez down the main street. The villagers stood silently watching the slowly moving procession. By the time the Colonel reached the jail, the street was empty.
On the first cool night after Lopez's capture, the Colonel had gone to see him. The jail was an adobe hut with small windows; one outside wall was heavily pockmarked with bullet holes. From the center of the airless room, a naked bulb cast a hot white light.
Lopez had been lying down, but rose when he saw the Colonel approach. His face was still swollen, and clotted blood matted his hair above one ear. His held his broken left hand close to his side.
"Cigarette?" said the Colonel.
Lopez nodded and the Colonel gave him one and lighted it. He put it between his cracked lips and puffed.
His eyes never left the Colonel, who stood very straight in the small cell.
"Are you being treated all right?"
"I wish I had a woman and something to drink."
"There is some milk. Would you like that?"
The Colonel poured out a cup of the milk from the pitcher on the table outside the cell. Lopez slowly washed his hands with it.
"The milk is for drinking," said the Colonel.
“I was thirsty,” said Lopez.
For a moment the Colonel felt envious of the dirty little man who stood in front of him, and then he remembered who he was.
“If it had not been for the Blue Lady," said Lopez. "You would have had someone else to chase. When you see the clouds in the form of a lady in a flowing dress you know she is nearby. It is her home.
"Blue flowers grow where she walks, and in her path blue birds follow. She always dresses in blue and brings luck to the good. With those who have seen her the story is the same. If you reach out toward her, she is always out of reach. She has helped many.
"I was crossing the northern territories. My canteen was dry. All day I walked in the hot sun searching a spring of water before it was dark. Darkness caught me because my pace was slow from the thirst. I still had hope, but the clouds moved in and hid the stars. I became lost in a trance and wandered most of the night. Just when I thought I was dead, the Blue Lady appeared and led me to a spring of water. Because of that I was able to reach Lomas, where I raised an army, but it was harvest and we did not fight that day. She will not come now because she helped me already, which is all any man is entitled to. It was many years ago when I was a young man of twenty. I have searched many times for that spring of water, but it is not there. It is for the others who will follow me to find. Now it shall save them. Our children must be free."
Lopez finished and stared hard at the Colonel.
The Colonel was brought out of his thoughts about Lopez by the whistle of the train as it approached the station. He got up, collected his bags and went out to stand on the platform. No one got off and the Colonel quickly climbed into the last coach.
The train pulled slowly away, beginning a ten-hour journey through the country to the capital.
A grizzled, middle-aged man sat wedged between his two plump daughters on the seat facing the Colonel. Stuffed into a threadbare blue suit, the sweating landowner, farmer, or perhaps small merchant—forced a nervous grin on the Colonel. Petit bourgeois fool, the Colonel thought, smiling back. As stupid as his cattle or his customers, obliviously one of the many Lopez had sought to free.
After rumbling through several tiny villages and crossing the brown waters of the Rio Tegria, the train stopped for no apparent reason other than to let a group of children approach the open windows of the coaches. Little girls in tattered dresses and bare feet offered bunches of flowers. Boys stood behind them, waiting.
As if on cue, several of the train's passengers began throwing pennies and candy out the windows. They made a game of it, tossing the coins and candy further and further away from the children, watching them scramble and grovel. It soon became tiring, and the passengers began to yell no more at the children, waving empty hands so that there would be no misunderstanding that the game was over. The train began moving again. The children ran alongside.
The Colonel barely glimpsed the stubby snout of a pistol from under the blue coat. Then he pitched forward, almost bending over double as the train jolted ahead, its horn bleating. Outside he could just make out a graceful cloud skirting the horizon.