The stock market was closed on Good Friday.
The priest, who comes to the ranch once a month, came on Friday. He gave a mass in the little chapel to a crowd of 30 or 40 people, mostly children.
The cattle roundup is still going on. We’ve done two of our large fields. We have more to do.
Once the cows are in the pen, the calves are lassoed, thrown to the ground and castrated. The larger ones go through the chutes. Either way, it’s a rough time for the bovine species.
It’s hard on the gauchos, too. They leave the house at 6 a.m. and work all day until 6 p.m. or 7 p.m.
Young boys and dogs seem to thrive on the excitement of it. But our ranch foreman, Jorge, is suffering.
Yesterday, we noticed he gave a look of pain as he jumped up on a stone wall. After lunch, it looked as though he had a slight limp.
Jorge is about our age (mid-60s). He has been working on the ranch for 40 years. He still swings easily into the saddle and sets off at a gallop. But in the evening, his joints hurt.
‘I went to the doctor,’ he told us. ‘He gave me a prescription for glucosamine. But it doesn’t seem to work. I don’t notice any difference. Some days are fine. Others are not so fine. I’m going to have to retire.
‘I had hoped to work for another 10 years. But nature has her limits. I’m going to stop at the end of this year.’
This was unwelcome news. Jorge and his wife, Maria, are the heart of the ranch. They organize everything from the roundup on the high plains to the Easter service at the church.
They are known up and down the valley and can always be counted on to keep the life of the community in good order.
Trouble? Problems? Decisions?
You go to ask Jorge and Maria.
Unfailingly pleasant. Unmistakably competent. They are the people for whom the expression ‘salt of the earth’ was coined.
Now, they are leaving. They have a house in Salta City where they can be near their children and grandchildren.
‘I don’t think Jorge will be able to stand it,’ said our friend Sergio.
‘He’s spent his whole life in this valley. He gets up at dawn and works ‘til dusk, even on Sunday.
‘What’s he going to do in the city?’
A time for everything
We put the question directly to Jorge:
‘Are you sure you want to retire? Why not just take it a little easier? Why not get the young guys to do the hard work?’
‘I don’t want to retire at all,’ came the answer.
‘But some days, I just don’t feel like I can do it anymore. There’s a time for everything. And I think it’s time for me to go.’
‘But who can replace you?’
Jorge wasn’t born here. He was born on a neighboring ranch. According to legend, his father moved the family to Gualfin to protect Jorge’s sister.
Apparently, the ranch foreman had his eye on her. It was just a matter of time until he had his hands on her, say the local tongue wags.
Jorge’s family moved into the house at the Quesaria — one of the homesteads stuck in the folds of the mountains.
You can ride up and down the valley and not see the Quesaria. Everywhere you look you will see dry land — cactus, stones and sage. You would never know that behind one of the hills was a green oasis — with fruit trees, a kitchen garden and a pasture for horses.
There is water all year round. But in November and December it slows to a trickle. Then, with a little luck, the summer rains come.
After the move, Jorge’s father was soon promoted from ranch hand to ranch foreman. When he retired, Jorge took the job.
The new schoolmistress
Meanwhile, the government had set up a school on the ranch.
Children here are too far from any sizable community to go to a normal school. So, the government set up a school.
Parents — walking for up to six hours — bring their children on Monday. They come back on Friday to pick them up.
In the early 1970s, the school needed a schoolmistress. And Maria — freshly minted from school herself — took the job.
The assignment must have seemed like a prison sentence. She arrived at the ranch on the back of a horse. Then she was shown her bare, austere room — unheated, with no bathroom — adjoining the schoolhouse.
She must have wondered how she would bear the many months before she would be able to go back to her family and friends. She must have been counting every day until her two-year contract was up. Maybe then she could get a job in a regular school in the city.
There was no road to the ranch back then. The first automobile ever to visit the ranch was the one Jorge bought in the early 1980s. It was a Willys Jeep with four-wheel drive. He drove it up the riverbed and across the prairie to the farmhouse. The first road was not put in until 1986.
Jorge was barely schooled at all. Still, Maria must have been won over by his bright smile and friendly personality.
She must have realized that he was quick-witted and shrewd too. It was only a few months before they were riding together. And only a few more months before they were married.
Maria and Jorge have been together…and at Gualfin…ever since.
How will we replace them?
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Australian Budget Time and other Matters
6-4-2015 by Matt Hibbard