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BEST-SELLING AUTHOR JANET ELAINE SMITH PRESENTS FICTION, FUN AND FACTS

Pampas--English



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CHAPTER 1

The tall, dark-haired stranger knocked on the door of the large hacienda. The house looked like an old southern mansion you might see in Gone With the Wind. It was early in the morning, but the man knew that life on the estancia, one of the huge Argentine ranches, began at the crack of dawn. He hoped to find the owner of the ranch at the house, before he left to make his daily rounds over the acres of land he controlled.

Opening the door, Doņa Helena stood, wiping her hands on her apron. There was a smudge of flour on her face, and the man smiled as he saw it. Her appearance was meticulous; the blemish was definitely out of character.

"Is something wrong, seņor?" she asked. "Why do you smile so?"

Not wanting to admit the truth, re replied, "It is because of your charm and beauty." He continued, "I would like to talk to the owner of the estancia, please. Is he in?"

Smiling sheepishly, as a young schoolgirl might, Doņa Helena answered, "Yes, seņor, he is in, but he is eating his breakfast right now. I do not like to disturb him, at least not until he has had his coffee." Doņa Helena noted the disappointment on the man’s face and added, "But you may come in and wait for him, if you like."

He accepted the invitation graciously and sat on a hard, straight-backed chair in preference to the lovely brocaded sofa Doņa Helena indicated.

Doņa Helena disappeared from the room, and the man sat, nervously twirling his large black hat, which was so typical of the gauchos. Although he appeared to be a gaucho—one of the wandering cowboys of the Pampas which stretched for 250,000 miles across Argentina—his speech betrayed him. He spoke with a strange accent.

Doņa Helena told Pancho Mendoza, the owner of the ranch, of the stranger at the door.

"He probably wants work," Seņor Mendoza said knowingly. "Everyone who comes wants work. Some day I will run out of land and out of work. Then what will they all do?"

Doņa Helena joined him in laughter. The idea of Seņor Mendoza running out of land was the most absurd thing she could imagine. He owned more than seventy thousand acres of ranch land, and it was continually growing.

As soon as he finished his meal, Seņor Mendoza entered the huge living room where the man was seated.

"Doņa Helena tells me you would like to speak to me," he said. ":How may I serve you?"

"It is I who would like to assist you, seņor," the stranger replied. "I am a good, hard worker, and I would greatly appreciate the privilege of serving you on your estancia, Seņor."

Seņor Mendoza studied the man carefully. His dress was that of the gauchos. He had the same thick, black, wavy hair of the gauchos. He wore the traditional black mustache, which was almost a ritual among the gauchos. But there was a slight Italian accent to his speech, although his Spanish was as fluent as if it was his native tongue.

"Where have you worked before?" Seņor Mendoza asked him.

"On many estancias," he replied. "Many of them far from here." Wishing to avoid too many questions, he added quickly, "But your reputation goes throughout the land of Argentina. You have the finest ranch in the country. It is my dream to work on your ranch, Seņor Mendoza."

"Aha! A man after my own heart!" Seņor Mendoza said with a laugh. "You know a good man when you see one! Flattery will get you everywhere!" he misquoted. "I will take you to meet the other men. I was just about to leave on rounds. Come along; we will get going before you get any later. I demand high quality work from my employees."

"Do you mean I am hired?" he inquired. Seeing the nod of the owner’s head, he threw his hat high in the air and jumped up, clicking his heels together.

"Yippee!" he shouted.

Shaking his head in disbelief, Seņor Mendoza said, "Of all the gauchos I have seen and hired, you have to be the strangest. You speak Spanish, but with an Italian accent, and you shout in English—like a Yankee. What is your name?"

"Raul Escobar," he said, extending his hand to shake Seņor Mendoza’s hand. "Pleased to make your acquaintance."

* * *

It seemed as if that had been a century ago, yet only five years had passed since Raul had appeared at the huge estancia. Now Seņor Mendoza was dying.

Raul had been out on the pasture land checking on the sheep when the sound of hoofbeats echoed on the ground beneath him. The horse was going so fast, it instantly spelled trouble to Raul. Turning to meet the visitor as soon as possible, Raul rode his horse even faster towards the sound of the one approaching him.

"Raul! Come quickly! It is Seņor Mendoza!" It was Doņa Helena. Her face was pale, in spite of the hot sun which was pouring down on her.

"What is it?" Raul asked anxiously. Doņa Helena turned her horse around, and they raced together towards the hacienda, not losing a second of the precious time.

"It is Seņor Mendoza," she repeated as they rode. "Something has happened to him! I think he has had a heart attack!"

They rode together in silence, both praying and hoping against all hope that the man they both had grown to love so much would be there to greet them as he had been so many times before.

Hurriedly, they dismounted their horses and dashed for the open door. Seņor Mendoza was lying on the floor, his head propped on the hand embroidered silk pillow, just as Doņa Helena had left him. Raul tried to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but it was of no help. His pulse was extremely weak; the color had drained from his skin; he did not speak.

"Hurry!" he instructed Doņa Helena. "Call Dr. Peréz. Tell him to get over here right away."

Doņa Helena went immediately to the phone, and taking a small black book from the drawer on the table on which the phone was sitting, turned quickly to the doctor’s name and phone number. She had almost completed dialing the number before the receiver reached her ear.

"Hello? Dr. Peréz? This is Doņa Helena at the estancia of Seņor Mendoza." She did not hesitate for him to say anything in response. "I think Seņor Mendoza has had a heart attack. Will you please come to the hacienda right away? Please hurry!"

Replacing the phone in the cradle, Doņa Helena turned to Raul. "He is on his way, but it will take almost an hour before he can get here."

Doņa Helena went to Seņor Mendoza and knelt on the other side of him. The worry and concern showed on both of their faces.

"You love him, too, don’t you?" she asked Raul.

He did not answer, but the dampness in his eyes spoke loudly to Doņa Helena. It allowed her to read into his heart. He ached for the man he had come to love as a father.

His thoughts traveled back over his lifetime. He had never known his own father. His mother had told Raul and his brother very little of the man. Only his uncle had ever dared to speak to the boys of their father as he had grown up. Raul knew that he had been affiliated with the mafia and that he had been killed by the mob when he refused to let them threaten his wife and children. He had been told that his father had loved them very much, but it was a love he had never known. Until Pancho Mendoza…

Raul had taken a new name when he came to Argentina six years earlier. He had tried to hide his heritage. He was ashamed of the background of his father, and he did not want anyone to know that he was Italian. Seņor Mendoza had detected his accent when he first arrived at the estancia, but he never asked him about it. There were many things that Raul hoped would never be discovered. As close as the two men had grown, Seņor Mendoza knew better than to ask questions about things that did not concern him.

* * *

A loud knock sounded at the door. Raul did not realize how long he had knelt beside the man—so hard on the exterior, but so tender in his heart.

Doņa Helena, who had decided to go about the more mundane matters which were her duties, rushed to answer the demanding knock.

"Where is he?" Dr. Peréz asked. Seeing Seņor Mendoza lying on the floor, he pushed her to the side and made his way to the silent body.

"Raul," he said softly, but with a great deal of authority, "please move out of the way. I would like to examine the old man. It is better if you are not here. If I need you, or as soon as I finish examining him, I will call you and let you know what I have found."

Raul rose to his feet, dazed at the condition of this man before him, and left the room, much against his better judgment.

Dr. Peréz moved quickly, checking the pulse of the once powerful man who now lay helpless before him. He withdrew his stethoscope from his worn black medical bag. Placing it in his ears, he took the end of it and warmed it with his hands before putting it on Seņor Mendoza’s chest. The thump, thump, thump of the heartbeat was barely audible. Dr. Peréz moved quickly, placing one hand on top of the other, then applied pressure to Seņor Mendoza’s heart. He hoped he would be able to revive him to a normal heart rate. He worked frantically on the nearly lifeless figure. For as small a man as the doctor portrayed, he seemed to be a giant as he put his whole weight and self into the efforts he was so deeply engaged in.

After fifteen minutes had passed, Raul could stand the suspense no longer. He broke into the room, intending to demand an explanation as to the treatment Seņor Mendoza was receiving.

The body of Seņor Mendoza was heaving violently up and down on the floor. Dr. Peréz was struggling to control it, but the weight beneath him was overpowering.

"Quick! Grab his arm and hold him down while I work on his chest!"

Raul raced to the unmanageable being and placed one of his powerful arms on each of the arms of Seņor Mendoza. In spite of his great strength, he was unable to hold him completely quiet, but he fought desperately hard to maintain enough calm to enable Dr. Peréz to once again apply pressure to the heart.

Almost without any warning, the body was completely still. Feeling a tremendous relief, Raul removed his arms from the man and sat back, breathing as deeply as if he had just ridden after all the sheep on the entire estancia."He is okay now! That was close, wasn’t it, Doc?"

Dr. Peréz looked at Raul. He did not speak. He took his stethoscope and placed it on the chest. The silence of the moment filled the room. He removed the stethoscope and placed it carefully in his medical bag.

"He is going to be all right now, isn’t he?"

Raul’s face was filled with a million unspoken questions. If he still needed help, he reasoned, the doctor would still be listening to his heart.

Dr. Peréz stood up and offered a hand to Raul.

"I am very sorry, Raul. I did everything I could for Seņor Mendoza." He looked at the hardened face of the gaucho. The weathered cracks of the skin seemed to break into pieces as the tears rolled down his cheeks.

"What do you mean?" he demanded. "You don’t mean…" His voice trailed off endlessly.

"I am sorry, Raul," Dr. Peréz said softly. "You cared for him deeply, didn’t you?"

Raul did not speak. He could not speak. He opened his mouth, but his throat was parchment dry. He walked to the door and opened it for the doctor. He tried to say "Thank you," but once again, nothing would come out.

Dr. Peréz said, "I will get a death certificate and have it sent over here."

So final!

Raul knelt beside the lifeless figure on the floor. Just this morning, when they had eaten breakfast together, he seemed so vibrant—so full of life—so enthusiastic. He could not believe that this body was the same person. How could life end so abruptly? So without warning? So senselessly?

* * *

The next two days passed slowly. There was so much to do, but Raul did not have the heart to try to do anything. Doņa Helena, who had been with Seņor Mendoza all of her life, took full charge of all of the notifications, the funeral details, and the arrangements for the guests who would soon be swarming like a bunch of hungry bees.

The news had flashed over the radio and the television that Pancho Mendoza was dead. The people who had worked for him, those who had been involved with him in his business dealings, his attorneys, his friends, his enemies, the heads-of-state from many countries, were all gathered. The only people missing were his relatives. He seemed to be alone in the world, even now when he was converged upon by multitudes of people. He had never married, never had any children, and his only brother had died in a plane crash years ago.

With the funeral services over, the attorney went to Doņa Helena and quietly conversed with her. There was a buzzing from one person to another. The disposition of Seņor Mendoza’s estate was a matter of great speculation. It had been, in fact, a matter of great betting odds in the casinos in Mar del Plata, the "Las Vegas of Argentina."

Doņa Helena approached Raul. All eyes were fixed on them. Together they disappeared into the study. Seņor Mendoza’s attorney went to two other people, both who had been in his employ for a number of years. They joined the two who were already in the study. The attorney disappeared without turning to face the questioning eyes of the group that was standing, gazing at the door through which they disappeared.

"I know you all loved Seņor Mendoza very much," the attorney began. "Seņor Mendoza knew that, too. I have been instructed by Pancho to inform you of the disposition of his belongings as soon as the funeral is over. So, let’s get down to business."

Raul squirmed on his chair. No one ever called Seņor Mendoza "Pancho," he thought. How dare he?

The four members of the party stared in disbelief. They had no idea they would be the recipients of his kindness. They had partaken of his generosity during his lifetime; now they would indulge themselves in his goodness in his death.

"Doņa Helena," the attorney continued, "You are to be the sole owner of the hacienda—the house proper. And you are assured of an income for the rest of your life from the profits of the ranch." He watched her as he relayed the news to her. She burst into tears. There was no need for words from anyone at a time like this. "There is one stipulation, however. You must continue to do the public obligations for the ranch, as Seņor Mendoza always did."

The attorney turned to one of the two workers. "You," he said, "are to have the east five hundred acres of the ranch. You are to tend it as Seņor Mendoza has always done."

Turning to the other worker, he went on. "You, on the other hand, are to have the west five hundred acres of the ranch. You also are to tend it as Seņor Mendoza has done."

"Are there any questions?" he asked the group. No one spoke.

"Raul," he continued, "the balance of the holdings of Seņor Pancho Mendoza are to go to you. The thousands of acres of the ranch proper are yours, as well as his grape vineyards in Mendoza Province. He has left detailed instructions at my office on how he wants to have you proceed, as if he were here watching you. I will get them to you tomorrow."

Raul stared in amazement. How could this be? The kid from the streets in New York City was suddenly a millionaire. He should feel like the luckiest person in the world, but at this very moment he would give it all up in an instant to have the man he had grown so fond o here in their midst instead.

Raul looked around the room at the other three who had just been given word that they too were beneficiaries of Seņor Mendoza’s great generosity. He could tell—from the look on their faces, from the damp eyes, from the quiet which penetrated the entire atmosphere, from the words which echoed off the walls without even being spoken—that the others felt the same way he did.

The attorney finally spoke, breaking the solemn stillness. It seemed almost sacreligious to even think of cracking a joke, and yet a deep smile was evident across his face.

"Oh, one more thing, Raul," he said, looking at him square in the face, "Seņor Mendoza said that you will have to figure out where you are going to live. You are not allowed to move into the hacienda with Doņa Helena, unless you should at some time decide to marry. Then you and your wife could reside there, but only if it is agreeable with Doņa Helena. "

The group roared hysterically. One thing they had all appreciated about Seņor Mendoza—or should we say the late Seņor Mendoza—was his wry sense of humor. It was evident, even now. He would not want these people, whom he had depended on deeply to be there when he needed them, to grieve his departure, no matter when or how it came.

The people who were in the large living room beyond had grown nervous and anxious. The chatter had died almost completely. The ears and eyes were all centered on the door to the study. Astonishment filled the faces of the beholders. What could possibly be so funny at a time like this?

"What kind of joke did the old man play on us?" It was the U.S. Ambassador who dared to speak. He had served Seņor Mendoza well on many occasions. He had helped him amass his fortunes. He had a right to be remembered. He belonged in that room! A fierce rage overtook him. He nearly shook from the anger which was experiencing. He deserved something more than to be sitting here among all these people, listening to the laughter coming from inside, like he was some stranger. He probably knew more about Seņor Mendoza’s holdings and business than anyone else here, except perhaps the attorney. Jeremy David Whitcomb was entitled to more than he was getting! But for once he did not know what to do about the situation. For years he had known power, but he was totally powerless now. It was a feeling he did not enjoy.

* * *

The next morning the doorbell rang. Doņa Helena went to answer it, and was surprised to find the attorney there so early in the morning.

"Where is Raul?" he asked.

"Raul?" Doņa Helena said in surprise. "You, of all people, should know that he is not allowed to move into the hacienda." She smiled warmly. "He is out in the casita—the small house for the gauchos. Imagine that," she said, "a millionaire and still sleeping out there with the hired hands."

The attorney grinned. "Seņor Mendoza would love it. He knew he could trust Raul. He said the one man he could depend on to not let his money spoil him was Raul. In fact, he said he could picture Raul living in the casita for the rest of his life."

"I did ask him to come in for breakfast," Doņa Helena said. "It seems awfully empty in here this morning."

"If you don’t mind," he said, "I will wait for him in here. I do have something I would like to discuss with both of you."

"Come join me in the kitchen," she invited. "I will give you a cup of coffee." She hesitated for a moment, then added, "Seņor Mendoza always had a cup of coffee before breakfast. He always said he was a real bear before his coffee, but I never heard him say anything unkind about anyone."

The back door flung open and Raul came charging in. He sat down at the table, appearing completely oblivious to the presence of the attorney, and banged his fists on the heavy oak table.

"Where is my coffee?" he demanded. "I can’t function until I have had a cup of that brew! Come on, woman! Bring me my coffee!"

Doņa Helena laughed. His imitation of Seņor Mendoza was almost perfect.

"Well?" Raul asked. "Did I pass?"

"He could not have done it better himself," she admitted. "If I had had my eyes closed, I would have thought he had been resurrected."

With no further hesitation, Doņa Helena took a cup of hot, steaming coffee and set it before him on the table.

Turning to the attorney, Raul said, "Well, good morning, seņor. What are you doing out here at the estaancia at this hour of the morning? I thought you people slept until at least seven o’clock."

The attorney smiled. "You learn very quickly, just as Seņor Mendoza said," he quipped. "You sound as cynical as he tried to sound. As a matter of fact, Seņor Escobar, I am in my office before seven o’clock most mornings. Now, shall we get down to business?"

Taking a large box from the floor, he said to Raul, "Here you are. These are the deeds for all of Seņor Mendoza’s land."

Raul gasped. He had never seen a deed before, much less held one in his hands. Now, these were his? All of them?

For the first time in more than six years, Raul thought of his mother. He had put her out of his mind—forever, he thought. Why should she invade his thoughts now? Suddenly, he wished he could share his newfound wealth with her. She had worked hard to provide a living for him and his twin brother when they were growing up. He wondered, too, for the first time, where his brother was and what he was doing.

Snapping back to reality, he pushed such thoughts far back into a corner of his mind, making a very conscious effort to forget that they were there. It was an uncomfortable area of his mind; he did not wish to dwell on it.

"Well," Raul drawled, "you can keep them for me. I presume you handled most of that end of the business for Seņor Mendoza. Am I right?"

"You are indeed," he replied. "I shall be glad to continue in your employ, Seņor Escobar."Seņor Escobar! It sounded so formal. He hated it, but realized that he would have to accept a new role. He had become Raul; he would become Seņor Escobar. Change was one thing he had learned to handle quite well.

* * *

The threesome was interrupted by the doorbell. Doņa Helena, who had been busy about her duties, hurried to answer it.

"Is Seņor Escobar here?" the man inquired.

"Yes, come in," Doņa Helena said invitingly.

"I will wait here for him." Pointing behind him, he had a dozen sheep with him.

Raul went to the door, followed by Doņa Helena and the attorney. Their curiosity had been duly aroused.

"May I be of service to you?" Raul asked the man.

"No, Seņor. It is I who wish to serve you. I have heard that you are the new owner of the estancia. I wish to pay my respects to Seņor Mendoza. He helped me purchase my first acres of land. I now have come to repay the debt I owe him. Here are twelve sheep to add to your flocks. Good day, Seņor Escobar."

The three of them stood there, looking at each other. The man left in such a hurry, he virtually seemed to disappear.

"Well, well," the attorney chuckled, "you do seem to have that certain knack about you. A chip off the old block! That is the way Seņor Mendoza started his first flock of sheep when he moved to the Pampas from Mendoza Province. You will do well, my boy. You will do very well."

As the three of them returned to the house, the attorney said to Doņa Helena, "I do hope you can prepare for the fiesta."

"Fiesta?" she asked. "What fiesta? Seņor Mendoza is barely dead! We cannot hold a party on the poor man’s grave."

"I am sorry you feel that way," the attorney replied. "It was Seņor Mendoza’s wish that you have a party at the hacienda within a week of the time of his death to announce the new owner of the estancia to the world. They will all want to know. You must comply with his wish."

Raul, who hated publicity and crowds of people, shuddered.

"What must I do? I don’t know how to give a party."

"It is no problem," Doņa Helena said. "I have the guest lists from all of Seņor Mendoza’s parties. He never did anything but attend. I always did all the work. I can continue doing all of your work and you can get all of the credit. I can see it now," Doņa Helena said, somewhat sarcastically," Seņor Escobar holds party in the estancia in the traditional Mendoza style."

They all laughed. They knew Seņor Mendoza would have been glad to see them laugh. They could almost feel his presence among them.

COMING SOON

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