(Editor's note: for first-time readers, background is here)
It seemed like a simple enough order: find me a horse. After all, we were operating in an area where such inhabitants as there were farmed the land using non-mechanized cultivation techniques, and the peasants frequently poked along the few dirt roads in horse-drawn wagons (when they weren’t kicking up the dust with their great splay-toed flat feet).
But, no, you would have thought that I had asked Felipe to go into La Paz and steal a helicopter, or maybe hot-wire the presidential limousine and drive it back to camp with the President of the Republic trussed up in the trunk. After many complaints and a catalog of the difficulties of the assignment, he had brought me, in succession, a mangy burro, a one-eyed mule, and, in an act of insubordination that would have gotten him shot if we hadn’t been running low on ammunition, an evil-tempered goat to whom I was rudely introduced when I bent over to retie the lace on one of my boots.
“Felipe,” I snarled, as I rubbed the bruise on my gluteus maximus with one hand while trying to pry my fatigue cap off the bridge of my nose with the other, “you are an imbecile!”
“But Comandante,” he whined, “a goat is much better eating than a horse.”
Well, I suppose I should have given him some explanation as to why, precisely, I wanted a horse. Apparently Felipe was under the impression that, given our critical shortage of food, the animal was intended to be the dinner entré, so anything on four legs would be acceptable. As if to underscore his assumptions, his stomach emitted a loud noise similar to the growl of a mountain lion.
“Felipe, I do not want a horse to eat, I want a horse to sit on. Our revolutionary activity in Bolivia has bogged down and what we need is some public relations pizzazz, something symbolic that will give hope to the downtrodden masses. Symbols are important, Felipe, and what would be more inspiring than a photograph of me, sitting on a horse, against the backdrop of a rising sun…like…like…”
“Like Don Quixote?” he ventured.
“Like Bolivar, you simpleton. Yes, I am the modern Bolivar – nay – I am Bolivar reincarnated! Imagine such a photograph spread across the pages of newspapers worldwide. Imagine what people would think.”
“That we don’t have any jeeps?”
I grabbed him by his beard. “A horse, Felipe! My Bolivian soviet for a horse!”
* * *
Felipe came trudging into camp this morning with another animal. In a strictly limited, technical sense, I guess you could have called it a horse, but I wondered despairingly if I wouldn’t have been better off posing with the goat, after all, or maybe standing astride one of those stick horses with a cloth head and a mane of yarn. I don’t know what the average life expectancy of a horse is, but this one was obviously living on borrowed time.
It was a spavined old nag, with knock-knees, a sagging back and a tail that would have better suited a Norwegian wharf rat. Its dull, grayish-brown hide was drawn so tautly over its ribs that its trunk – or what, I believe, horse fanciers would call its “barrel” - looked like a xylophone stuffed into a moth-eaten gunny sack. I reached up to pat the animal on his nose, and my hand came away covered with equine snot. This miserable bag of bones reminded me of a picture I had seen somewhere; an old woodcut of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse – the horse that carried “Famine”, to be exact. Felipe was beaming at me idiotically.
“As you ordered, Comandante! One genuine horse!”
“What did you do? Go to the reject pen at the dog-food factory?”
Felipe’s smile melted away and he assumed a crestfallen expression. “Jefe, I went to a village a few kilometers from here, told the elder that I was looking for a horse, and he gave me my pick.”
“What?!? Do you mean to say that there’s actually a herd of these things?”
“W-well”, he stammered, “they weren’t all in as good a shape as this one.” He brightened suddenly. “But you won’t believe how I snookered them!”
“No doubt your negotiating skills will astound me. What did they give you to drag this wretched beast away from their village?”
“Give me, Jefe? They didn’t give me anything. But I was able to get Veronica for only a small sack of beans.”
If there had been a wall nearby, I swear I would have turned my face to it – or maybe stood Felipe up against it and shot him point-blank, without benefit of blindfold or cigarette. Here we were, running short of provisions, and this fool had traded a sack of beans for the saddest-looking plug I had ever laid eyes on. In my state of temporary mental agitation, my mind wandered momentarily. To top it off, I fantasized, they’d probably turn out to be magic beans which would grow into the sky, enabling the peasants to kill a giant and steal his gold, making it even harder to recruit them for the revolution.
But we had wasted enough time on this enterprise, and I could see that although…Ay de mi!...”Veronica”…was no winged Pegasus, with some clever use of lighting and maybe a little touching up by a developer back in Havana, we might be able to pull off something in the way of a useful propaganda picture.
I summoned Jaime, the official photographer of the revolution’s glorious progress in Bolivia, and asked him how many unused rolls of film he had left.
“They are all unused, Jefe”.
With difficulty I suppressed an irritated sigh. “Well, good, good. Then we’ll have plenty of opportunity to experiment with different angles, poses and so forth. Felipe has explained to you what I want to do?”
Jaime cast an uncertain glance at Felipe and nodded. “Yes, Comandante. He says that you would like to have your picture taken sitting on the horse.”
Somehow, when he put it that way, the whole idea sounded insufficiently inspiring; rather as if he were a casual bystander with a Pentax who had been asked by a lollipop-sucking toddler to snap his picture sitting on the pony in a petting zoo.
“Jaime, this is not some kind of tourist shot. It may well become the iconographic image of Communism in South America. Now, let’s see. I believe we will start with something in the heroic mode. How about if you take a picture of me on horseback on top of that ridge over there, silhouetted against the morning sun? ”
My comrades looked at the ridge – a hill of some 50 meters in height, and perhaps twice that length, that rose above the surrounding flat scrub country. Then they looked at Veronica. She seemed to catch the drift of the conversation, and to find it distinctly not to her liking. The horse shook her raggedy neck and snorted violently, and lifted a knobby front fetlock, waggling it gently as if to convey the notion that she was suffering from an attack of the gout, but that with proper medical attention and adequate rest, she might be able to undertake the proposed project at some distant future date, as yet to be determined.
Veronica’s objections notwithstanding, we managed to push, pull and half carry her to the top of the ridge. Felipe gave me a leg up, and I gingerly took a seat on the animal’s bare back. A kind of whistling wheeze sounded deep in her chest, resembling a sour note played on a harmonica, but she managed to continue standing. I straightened my fatigue cap, and my holster, but something seemed to be missing.
“Jaime, I think I need a prop.”
Jaime nodded vigorously. “I think you’re right, Che. That thing looks like it might fall over any minute.”
“Not that kind of prop, you dunce. Some kind of romantic, military accoutrement…you know…something swashbuckling. Ah, I’ve got it! Hand me that machete you’re wearing on your belt.”
Jaime was quick to oblige, and soon I was sitting on horseback and holding the machete. I took a couple of swipes in the air – being careful to avoid nicking Veronica’s ears – while Jaime established himself a dozen meters or so lower down on the ridge with his camera.
“Ok, Jefe! Ready when you are!”
I composed my facial expression in such a way as to register “Selfless Heroism”, stared straight ahead, and held the machete high in the air. To my astonishment, the machete flew out of my hand, at the precise moment that I heard a rifle shot and a loud, metallic Ping!. Within seconds, bullets were smacking into the ground all around me.
Now, I do not believe that Veronica was ever a cavalry horse, but had she been trained to respond to the call of “Retreat” on the bugle, she could not have given a better accounting of herself. As soon as the shots began to fly in earnest, she swerved and bolted down the hill. The movement was so sudden that I instinctively latched onto her mane; however, she ran directly under a tree with a branch that was rapidly closing in on my face, so I held up my hands and wound up grabbing the branch – while Veronica continued thundering down the ridge and onto the dirt road that led back to her village, moving with the kind of speed normally associated only with bourgeois American racehorses such as Seabiscuit. After a few seconds, I dropped to the ground, but the grade was so steep that I rolled another ten meters or so before coming to a halt – after knocking Jaime over, unfortunately. We stood up and brushed ourselves off.
“Were you able to get a picture?” I asked hopefully.
“I-I think so, Che. I snapped a couple, but…you know…everything happened so fast.”
We walked back into camp, where I was greeted by Pancho and Hector, who had just come in from a patrol. They were visibly excited.
“Comandante!” Hector exclaimed. “Guess what we found!”
Pancho, eager to share in the news, said, “Let me tell him, Hector! I saw the guy first.!”
“Yes,” responded Hector. “But who shot the sword out of his hand?”
“Yes, but who drove his horse out from under him?”
I fear that the events of the morning had considerably rattled my temper. “So!” I roared. “It was you two chuckleheads who tried to shoot me off the ridge! Explain yourselves!”
Whereas before, each man had tried to hog the glory for himself, they both now adopted a spirit of self-sacrifice and extreme politeness.
“Er, maybe you’d better tell him, Hector.”
“No, no, Pancho. As you say, you spotted him first.”
“Yes, but as you correctly pointed out, it was you who shot the sword out of his hand.”
I had had quite enough of this nonsense. I bashed their heads together like two particularly thick-shelled coconuts and ordered Hector to tell the story.
“Well,” he gulped. “We – Pancho and I – were walking back to camp and when we were on the other side of that ridge, yonder, we looked up and…and…and we thought we saw a Bolivian mounted policeman, so we…uh…we took a few shots at him.”
“Morons! That was me! I was posing for a propaganda picture! You’d better pray to Stalin that those photos come out all right. Now, for the time being, you may consider yourselves under arrest. Turn your weapons over to Felipe and confine yourselves to your tents”
“Yes, Jefe,” they uttered, dejectedly and in unison, looking down at the ground like two schoolboys who had been caught playing hooky.
In all the excitement, Tania came running out of her tent (Tania, you will recall, is the beautiful communist whose acquaintance I had first made in East Germany, and whose dedication to the cause – and to me, personally – has caused the men to refer to her, somewhat ribaldly, as the “bed-warmer of the revolution”). She had obviously been taking a bath in her zinc tub, for her voluptuous charms were wrapped tightly in a threadbare towel.
“Che, what’s going on? I heard shots. Are you all right?”
“Yes, yes; a little shaken, perhaps.” I didn’t want to confess that what had really shaken me was the newfound knowledge that wet terrycloth could be so revealing. “Tania, I have a mission for you. I would like you to get dressed” – I took her by the arm and guided her back to her tent, the scent of her clean hair and body utterly beguiling me – “er, a little later, anyhow, I would like for you to get dressed and go into La Paz. I have some film that I want you to turn over to your contacts, there. It must be smuggled to Havana without delay.” Inside of her tent, Tania let the towel drop and gave me a lascivious wink. “That is to say,” I gulped, “the film must be smuggled to Havana after only a short and very necessary delay.”
* * *
A couple of weeks later, Tania was back in our camp with a special dispatch from no less a personage than Fidel, himself. She handed me a sealed envelope; on the outside were printed the words “Photos Enclosed – Do Not Bend.” This was curious, I thought. Why would Fidel send the pictures back to me? Surely, they would be appearing on the front pages of newspapers everywhere soon enough.
I opened the envelope and removed a letter and two photographs. I stared at the pictures long and hard, and I must have blanched, because someone eventually handed me a canteen spiked with brandy. I choked down a mouthful, never lifting my gaze from the photos. In one, I was hanging from the branch of a tree, suspended at arms’ length, looking like a gibbon at the zoo. The other picture was a close-up, inverted picture of the seat of my trousers, my legs sticking straight up in the air and forming a perfect ‘V’; Jaime’s blurry thumb was visible in one corner.
I opened the letter and gloomily read its contents:
I received the film and your instructions. Call me crazy, but I don’t think the scenes captured in the enclosed photographs exactly cover the Bolivian enterprise in glory. Please stop horsing around and get busy.
Viva La Revolución!