Oct/Nov 2007   Travel

Casupito, the Mountain that Is a Woman

by William Reese Hamilton

Lloyd Luckett's a romantic. A big, balding, barrel-bellied man who comes from English stock that took root in the American Southwest. He prefers the name Paco, which his mom gave him.

His grandfather was a Texas Ranger who once rode with Pancho Villa. When the ranger was still a young man, he fell hopelessly in love with a girl whose family didn't approve of him. They arranged for their daughter to marry what they considered a more respectable type. But on the day of the wedding, just as the bride was climbing the church steps, the young man rode up on his horse, swept her up onto his saddle and carried her off to another town, where they hid out in a boarding house until they could get married by a local justice-of-the-peace.

Perhaps that's where Lloyd got his vision of the world—his self-reliance, his impulsiveness. Or perhaps it comes from a youth spent in West Texas, New Mexico, and Chihuahua. Something in the dry air. Something in the bare open land. Something in the mix of people—Mexican, Indian, Anglo. He's aging now, weather-beaten, but he still looks as if he should be seated atop a big palomino, looking down on you from the shadow of an over-sized Stetson.

He's worked for Purina, the American Soybean Association, and others, from Mexico to Brazil. A year before Noriega went to jail, Paco was in Panama trying to sell him on the idea of his country raising rice. And he's still hopping around. This week he'll be in Chile, next in Ecuador, Argentina, or Colombia. But Venezuela's his home. He is divorced now, kids grown and scattered up and down the Western Hemisphere. One son in New York, another in Chile, one daughter in Colorado, another in San Francisco.

Something over a decade ago, he fell in love with a piece of land. Or a mountain, maybe. The mountain is named Casupito, and stretches out like a voluptuous woman atop the north end of his property. She really owns it, he figures, so he calls the whole place the Casupito. The spread lies along a dirt road between Belén and San Juan de los Morros in the state of Carabobo—a big handsome bowl surrounded by a rim of rolling hills. Early in the morning watching the sunrise, you might imagine yourself in the American Southwest or the north of Mexico. The lemon trees out by the front gate, the mandarins along the curving dirt drive, the grapefruit down toward the mango grove, might be growing in some back valley of California. It's not hard to see why someone might want to settle here.

The idea of farming this land came out of a family tragedy. His daughter Laura's first child was born with an under-developed heart and lungs and lived just a year and half. During that desperate time, Laura and her husband searched everywhere for the baby's salvation. They ended up at Mass General, but when the doctors suggested a heart and lung transplant, they backed out. They just couldn't do that to the tiny infant.

Paco suggested their farming the Casupito as a way out of their emotional devastation. He ran in the power lines and fenced the land off at considerable expense. Laura's husband is a plumber from Colorado Springs, so he knows irrigation. The couple committed themselves to the place for two years, camping out in a tent, clearing the land, turning the soil, pumping water from the river up to a big holding tank. They put in the first fields of organic fruit and vegetables. In those two years the Casupito became a finca, and the young couple conceived two healthy sons.

When they left for the States, Paco's son Paul Anthony came. He's the one who built the house. And he's the one who still holds the record—something under thirty minutes—for running up the mountain to where a single big tree grows from between Casupito's ample breasts.

Now Paco shares the spread with my Marisol's long-time friend Beatriz Polanco. And we go up every so often for a visit—a nice place to stretch your legs, breathe in the drier inland air. It's an hour on the other side of Maracay, a nice ride past the haras—horse ranches that have flourished in the region since the time of Juan Vicente Gomez. We joined in the painting parties, when Bea took hold of the decorating of the ranch house. Bea's no pushover. She a strong-minded marine biologist. If she's going to spend time at the Casupito, it's going to bear her mark. Now it's warm toasted yellow, Mexican blue, and Chinese red inside, with a bright green pillar at the center. Mari painted the hot jalapeñas on either side of the kitchen window. And now, with his big satellite dish out back, Paco can telephone anywhere in the world and send out news on the internet. It will be hard to pry him away.

It's clear Bea loves the man, but she's disturbed by that Luckett tendency toward total self-reliance and impulsive action. A couple of years ago, they were standing in a dark garage in Caracas, waiting with a crowd of others to hand in the ticket for their car. Suddenly one of those big four-by-fours came speeding through, just missing them, and Paco instinctively slammed his bag against the side of the car in anger. The driver screeched to a stop and jumped out with a revolver in his hand.

"What the hell you gonna do with that thing, shoot me?" Paco said. "Either use the goddamn thing or put it away." The driver looked at the crowd of witnesses, cursed, and got back in his car.

This morning, Paco and I are up before the sun, watching the valley turn colors with the early light. We walk down along the plowed fields toward the big saman tree in the lower pasture, along with our greyhound Wonk and a scruffy stray named Jack. Paco tells me his kids will all be coming down to see in the New Year. He's going to put a wing on the house for them, build a tree house in the saman for the grandchildren. But when we get down to the great spreading tree, there are a dozen head of cattle standing in the pasture looking up at us.

"Those bastards," Paco says with cold fury. "They broke down my fence again." Working together—shouting, threatening, waving branches, Jack barking, Wonk looking on—it takes a good half-hour to round them up and head them out over the fence they've flattened. We do our best to re-string it, but the posts are broken, the barbed wire snapped.

"Whose are they anyway?" I ask.

"Sonofabitch lives up the road. Doesn't have any land, so he just lets his cows run free over everybody else's property. I've told him time and again to keep his cattle out of here, but he's an asshole. His damn cows keep breaking down the fence. I don't know how many times my guys have had to fix it."

His guys are a young local farmer, who owns a house across the river, and Mark—a thin dark handsome whip-of-a-man who arrived here from Guayana some years back, married a Belén girl, and settled down. Mark is foreman of the Casupito, in charge of bringing in the labor, getting all the construction done, and in this case, the fence fixed. But it's Saturday. The fence will have to wait a couple of days.

We head back and help the women with breakfast—mandarins, grapefruit, papayas, turkey bacon, eggs, arepas, toast, and some rich Venezuelan coffee. When Mark comes by in his truck, Paco and Bea go off with him to plan the tree house. It's a slow, quiet morning, the temperature rising as the tropic sun beats down on the Casupito. It's the dry season, and fires are sweeping across the hills to the west. Even Casupito has been charred in places. The kind of fires that fan across California when the Santa Anas arrive out of the desert. Only here the hills aren't covered with houses and condos, so they just let them burn.

About one o'clock—my favorite time—I go for a walk. The dusty road runs north by northwest past the Casupito. Paco tells me it's about three hours over the mountain to the old town of San Francisco de Asís. Cattle are everywhere—on the road, back in the brush, wallowing in the river. Over the hill, there are a few smaller spreads along the river. Then the road dead-ends at a couple of barbed-wire gates. I pass through and climb along the path, hoping it will lead me up the mountain so I can look down on the colonial town. Trouble is the cattle have made other paths, and it's impossible to tell which is the one that will get me where I want to go. I cross over the river, pass through fields of tall yellow grass, groves of low spreading trees, then thick brush down by the river again, and a tree buzzing with a swarm of killer bees. Finally, about an hour and a half in, I end up in a river bottom with no clear path out, so I head home. On the way I run into even more cows that have come out of the fields and are now crowding the road. Watch the mothers with young calves, I've been told. But it's a big bull who stands firm before me, trying to stare me down. I run up a small bluff to the right, and when he sees me above him, he freaks and runs off with his cows following. No one ever said cattle were bright.

After a shower and fresh clothes, Paco and I settle into a game of chess. We're both rusty and go at it like two old, out-of-shape boxers, circling, trying to remember the right combinations, but too slow and dull to take advantage of the other's wide openings and glaring mistakes. I open stupidly enough for Paco to eat me alive. And he does look good up front, taking a few pawns, a knight, a bishop and a rook. But then, sensing the kill, he goes too strong on the offensive, and I'm able, through no great skill, to slip behind his shoddy defense to trap and kill his king.

"Thank God for the endgame," I say, looking up. Paco is looking angrily out across his land, and for just a moment, I think he might be mad about his loss.

"Those bastards," he says, rising and going into the bedroom. Then I look out at the valley and see the cattle plodding across the plowed fields in the late light of evening. More this time, many more. Paco is standing over his bag, loading a snub-nosed thirty-eight. What the hell's he going to do with that? I'm thinking. Then he's past me and in his Chevy Blazer.

"I thought you didn't allow guns on this land," I call out to him, but he's already charging down the hill, beeping his horn and firing shots into the air. Wonk, Jack, and I are running after him down the hill. But the cows, too dim to respond, continue in their slow march toward the vegetable gardens. When I reach them, most have already crossed the road, but one is still lying in the field. She looks relaxed, ready for a nap. "What's wrong with this one?" I ask.

"She's been shot," Paco yells. Then I see her roll over, legs flailing, hear the rattle in her throat. Jesus, I'm thinking, he shot the goddamn cow. Killed the goddamn cow. What the fuck, I thought he was going to scare them, not kill them. Sure, I've shot my share of squirrels and rabbits and woodchucks and pheasants, and killed a few cats who were dying and in too much pain, but I didn't like it that much then, either, and I can remember crying when my father wanted to slaughter my favorite goat Charlie and staying up with him all night until my father let me keep him. Like dumb Jody in The Yearling. But Paco shot that poor stupid cow sure-as-shit, and now it's lying there, gasping, the light going out of its big brown eyes. I'm waving a big branch in my hand, running back and forth after the rest of them, trying to scare them down the hill and through the fence before Paco can shoot another. When I look back, he's standing over her, firing off the coup-de-grace. Jack and Wonk just stand there, doing nothing. Maybe they're freaked by this killing, too. So I start barking for them. And slowly, stupidly, the cattle start to respond.

Down in the pasture, after we've done our best to fix the fence again, Paco tries to tell me about the plans for his tree house in the great saman, but I'm not listening. I'm pissed. I walk up the hill alone. He comes up behind me in the Blazer, drives over to the cow, gets out and slashes at her juggler with a penknife. But the cow won't bleed, it needs hanging to bleed. And it'll take a whole lot more than the two of us to hang that cow.

"So what are you going to do with her?"

"That's a month's worth of dog food," he says. And a month's worth of jail time, I'm thinking.

When night falls and the stars come out, a chill descends over the valley and it's easy to forget the dead cow. We watch a stupid action video starring Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn and go to sleep. But in the morning, she's still lying there, big and white and already bloated half her size again. The young farmer comes across the field in the early light, stops and stands looking at the body. Paco joins him, and the two men talk it over. The dog Jack can't get over it. He just stands there, staring. You're right Jack, it's pretty amazing.

Paco calls Mark on the telephone and tells him what's happened. Tells him to let the man who owns the cow know what's happened. By the time Mark arrives from Belén, he's definitely nervous. Not exactly shaking, perhaps, not exactly white in the face, but definitely nervous.

"I don't think you realize what this means," he says. "It could be trouble, big trouble. There are ways to handle these things. Tie the cow up, call the Guardia Nacional. But you can't just shoot another man's cow. There are laws."

"Well, I shot her," Paco says.

"I don't think he understands," Mark says to us. He's afraid we're going off to Caracas and leaving him with this problem. "I've been in that jail, and I don't want to go back."

"I don't know what it is with him," Bea says to Marisol. Up until now, she's been quiet, but she is clearly upset. "He just reacts, like that time in the garage."

But Paco wants to make it very clear that this was not just some knee-jerk irrational act. It was premeditated.

"I told that asshole I was going to shoot one of his cows if he didn't keep them off my land. I knew I was going to have to do it. It's the only language he understands."

"It wasn't the poor cow's fault," Bea says.

Paco insists that we leave him here alone. It's his show, he'll take the responsibility. Mark will go with us to Belén. Beatriz will take the Blazer to Caracas. Then Mark will bring the old Jeep back from town for Paco. I am reluctant to leave, but if the Guardia's involved, it's not going to help anyone to have another gringo around. Especially one whose cedula papers aren't up-to-snuff.

So we leave him there. That's the way he wants it. He should be sitting with a shotgun across his lap, I'm thinking, waiting for the posse to arrive. I wonder if he even has that thirty-eight registered.

We meet Mark on the way out at the ford in the river. And suddenly things look brighter. He's already talked to the owner of the cow. The man doesn't want any trouble. He just wants it to go away. Do whatever you want with the cow, he told Mark. Paco picked a good man for foreman. Mark's brother-in-law is el jefe, the Chief of Police in Belén. Mark still doesn't trust the owner of the cow. He wants a witness. That guy's going to have to say it in front of his brother-in-law. With any luck, the Guardia won't have to be brought into this.

It's Sunday. Belén is in a festive mood. The townspeople are all hanging out in the plaza, listening to a boombox. We have a couple of beers, walk along the main street, and wait. After a few hours, Paco comes by in the Jeep.

"It's over," he says. "The guy's going to get his cattle out of there in the morning. And keep them out. The best part is that all my neighbors came together and stuck by me. They told him he better keep his cows off the gringo's land."

"And the cow?"

"Gone. We poured gas on her and lit her up." I suddenly remember he once told me his wish to be cremated and his ashes dropped on Casupito. Well, she's ready.

"What about what Mark said, about tying the cow up and calling the Guardia?"

"That's very nice. But this needed more of a statement. It's what these people understand."

Back in Choroní the next day, I get an e-mail from him, telling me and all the assorted Lucketts that with telephone, laptop, and the internet, the Casupito has entered into the 21st Century. I wonder. Wasn't our experience from another time and place? I write back.

"Thanks for the great (and exciting) time at the finca. Hope to see you again soon. Once my cedula's in order, I can even go to jail with you."


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