A Game of Futebol by Raymond H. Allard

CHAPTER EIGHT - THE CONFRONTATION
 
            Captain Neihardt awaited his adversary with some discomfort. He had just received his uniform back from Dona Honoria, and she had put enough starch in it to keep the creases, even in this heat. Unfortunately, it chafed in tender, sweaty places. He was finding it difficult to move. It did nothing to elevate his anxiety and depression.
            The sight of Father Antonio, confidently striding towards him, now free for the evening of his own uncomfortable ceremonial cassocks and surplices, did not improve matters. If things between the cleric and himself went badly, this promised to be a long, possibly humiliating evening. 
            They exchanged polite, if perfunctory, greetings.
            “The night should bring cool breezes, eh, Padre?”
            “I doubt it, Capitan. Tell me, what idea do you have in mind?”
            “It is nothing completely formulated. That is why I felt that a discussion with you, away from my nervous soldiers…”
            “And my hot-blooded parishioners.”
            “Exactamente. We will be able to consult with each other much better in private.”
            “You say you have by habit strolled this village in the evening? Then Capitan, let us stroll together.”
            “Any particular direction, Padre?”
            “None. Maybe to the edge of town.”
The two men, thus alone, began to walk towards one of the streets that led out of the square, up a rising incline in the general direction of the volcano in the distance. Captain Neihardt could not remember where it led. Recent office business had kept him too busy to explore Rio Pequeno as much as he would have wished. Though Father Antonio moved with intent, the padre was clearly distracted. He knew his town well, but was not paying much attention. They engaged in very little small talk as they absently followed the turns and twists in the road.
They passed some of the shops that are found near such a village plaza. Not many people were moving about in the hot setting sun, but here or there a lanchonette showed some social vigor. The raised voices of regular patrons, who had been there since the small lunch counter/bar had opened, reached their ears.
As they strode purposefully on, they looked for a place open and flat enough to conduct negotiations, and swing a punch, if necessary. For everyone knew that the afternoon’s confrontation in the plaza could only be honorably resolved one way. It was a thing well understood by men in this culture. You triumphed over an opponent by beating him into submission. The village simply awaited the return of the victor to the plaza.
Both priest and soldier were ready, but neither had the heart for it. If Captain Neihardt were to be honest with himself, what they were both seeking at the moment was a way out of such a spectacle.
There was an understanding, or perhaps some discreetly-given orders, from both leaders, that this was a discussion to be settled between two men. No one sought to follow them, to watch. It could have been that others regarded such a conflict as personal. Perhaps the people here had a strong sense of propriety. Or perhaps it was the soldiers guarding the plaza roads, weapons at their sides.
            "They don't need us around," Sgt. Jackson said, echoing a warning the priest had given to the eager village youths. He flexed his muscular brown arms. "They wish to confer in private."
            "We only wished to cheer our Padre on,” explained one of the villagers, who had initially started after them. “He is good with his fists, but he has a weak left hook."
            Dr. Rosini had watched the two men go up the road, shaking her head at such juvenile macho behavior, which demanded such a fight. She turned towards her office, idly wondering who she’d have to patch up.
Other thoughts filled her mind. It had been years since this village had a decisive leader. The mayor that had been elected to office had fled Rio Pequeno at the outbreak of the war. Rumor had it that he had fled the country, taking the city treasury with him. Father Antonio was a good man, but civic responsibilities always took a back seat to church matters. He attended on the poor and aging, rather than the sewers and roads.
            Some of the more spirited, and drunker young townsmen stood outside the launchenette, calling out insults to the watchful soldiers. Some shouted taunts were intended to make the uniformed men angry.
            "These men in their funny clothes, why do they grace our city?"
            "Is it our daughters they want?"
            "They do not know of daughters. Only horses!"
            "Perhaps we should go to our houses, and lock up our virginal lambs!" Laughter echoed up the streets.
            “Those of them that are still virginal.” More laughter.
            "And put a covering over the hole in my fence!" someone shouted.
            The voices carried up the street after the two men, and Captain Neihardt found himself smiling. He saw a grin spread on Father Antonio's face.
            "These people have a fine creative spirit, Padre."
            "In truth, Capitan, they reveal to me a new side I have not seen before."
            They passed now through a neighborhood that looked abandoned. Only a few of the dozen or so homes and stores they passed looked as if they were  actually inhabited, with smoke coming from the cooking chimney, or the well-used hammock, sometimes occupied, under a porch roof. A few curious ladies came out of poor, crumbling and dirty houses, to stand in the earthen yard and watch the men pass. Here was a raggedly dressed baby in her mother's arms, or there, barefoot children scrabbling about at play among chickens and barrels and banana trees.
            Some of the houses that they passed were empty, with unglazed, hollow windows, shutters knocked askew and flapping in the wind. Yards were overgrown and others in general had a ragged, untended look. A few doorways were choked with weeds. Roof tiles had slid carelessly out of place, leaving holes open to weather, the building thus subject to rapid deterioration. Broken, unused implements and rusting tools stood in idle clutter against walls in need of a new coat of whitewash.
            "What we do will surely excite gossip for weeks," Captain Neihardt said aloud.
            "Do not think ill of these people, Capitan," said the priest. "It is true these people are poor. But it is something like our country. Rio Pequeno is isolated from the rest of the world, and deemed unimportant. Our solutions to problems will not always be what someone from outside would expect."
            “It is much like other villages I have seen, Padre,” the soldier replied. “Do you govern these people?”
            “No, I cannot. From necessity I have, on occasion, accepted some community duties, but only because there was no one else. Our former prefeiture is now living in Buenos Aires with the town’s tax collection, or so we are told. I have to adjudicate in disputes and troubles. Frequently at the expense of church matters. There is no one else, because the village has not seen fit to elect a new official.”
            “Sometimes your disputes are also church matters?”
            “True. But what do I know of land claims? Ownership? Legal questions? This is not my area of ability. I wish to devote my life to my parishioners.”
            "Yes, I may be cowardly. I admit it. I fled the war, and the soldiers, to save myself. I still ministered to the village. But from afar, and only when I could, safely. I do not apologize. I am no hero. But I ask you to be compassionate in your judgment of the youth here. Yes, some were rebels, and some did things that I cannot repeat. But they behaved as they did in defense of their home. They committed no atrocities, nor attacked without purpose, for vengeance or greed. Nevertheless, I would welcome a change. If it is your intention to minister to municipal needs, I can attend more properly to my religious duties."
            "It seems that out of necessity, I am temporarily at your community’s service."
            "Then vacate my church."
            "I cannot, not just yet. I remind you that it was the villagers who invited us to assume these duties. They themselves are the ones that permitted us to stay there."
            "I know what you say is true. With the upheavals in our lives these past years, some of my flock have felt little need for divine guidance. They have lost much respect for the church!" With that last grumble, the priest fell silent, and they both trudged on, saying nothing.
            “Many village dwellings need some work, but they appear to be basically sound,” said the captain. “There would be abundant room here for all of my men.” The priest only grunted.
            They were not walking fast, nor with any particular direction, yet the captain saw that the priest's vigorous stride was the equal of his own. This elder cleric was healthy and tough. He was accustomed to walking. Captain Neihardt found himself again wishing there was some less combative way to settle their disagreement than a fight. Not only was he beginning to admire this man, there was some doubt about his ability to achieve victory, should they come to blows.
            "Are your men prepared for a long occupancy?"
            Captain Neihardt laughed. "I prefer to think of it as a mutually beneficial residency."
            "That is something that will reveal itself, in the fullness of time."
            They had reached the limits of the town. They were at the limits of the town, and a broad, cropped field lay ahead of them. Beyond the field the ground sloped quickly away into a deep arroyo. "Please tell me about Rio Pequeno,” the captain asked, trying to forestall any confrontation. “I am curious. Or is it your desire that we continue with our...disagreement?"
            “The young men of this village,” the priest explained, “were strong, vital and energetic. When the war came, many of them, full of youthful passion, chose to become involved."
            "In what way?"
            "Against my advice, they joined with rebel forces, to harass and assault the military."
            "I see. And this caused the village to be occupied?"
            “No. It was more provocative than that. Our young men tried to ambush the soldiers, outside of town, one night. They were unsuccessful. There were reprisals. The soldiers spent a month hunting them down. The bodies were displayed in the plaza.”
            “A cruel practice, and one I never permitted.”
            “You are unique, then. Few of the young men that went into the hills survived. It was a bitter time. Our people were then treated badly. There are many unpleasant stories I could tell. I protested, but to no effect. My complaints only irritated the officers. Finally, at the urging of my people, I fled for my life.”
            “It is a sad truth, Padre, that when you turn loose an army for war, they quickly become beyond any one man’s control. Much depends on discipline, loyalty, and the individual. Many a soldier is seduced by the power of his gun. I know of military units that fought each other over spoils. We have confronted renegade units ourselves.”
            “Bad times, indeed. You see, Capitan, when These young men returned to us, they had changed.” There was sadness heavy in the Priest’s voice. “They were no longer of us; no longer our sons and brothers. They were as savage as the soldiers had been. Luckily, they chose not to stay among us.”
            Captain Neihardt thought of Pvt. Garcia, and the changes in him. “Our whole country has suffered, Padre."
            “I agree, Capitan. But to answer your primary question, it is not the men we fear. Nor is it really the soldiers, or the big, destructive weapons. We fear the ugly evil released by war, which makes demons of us all.”
            Captain Neihardt nodded. He could add nothing.
            By this time, their casual stroll had carried the two men to the edge of the field, where they stopped. The breeze dusting this plateau was cool, a welcome relief from the intense heat of the fading day. Even Father Antonio's forehead was damp with sweat. Captain Neihardt leaned on a recognizable wooden frame that stood at their end of the field, with some ancient chicken wire stretched across it, held in place by bent-over nails.
            "We should get this over, Padre. I have duties to which I must return."
            "I have duties as well, Capitan." The priest smiled, in the fading light.
            "We can compromise, Padre. The space in the church is big enough. I believe that, with compromise, we can share it until other arrangements can be made."
            "As an offer, I accept," Father Antonio said. "I primarily require the Sacristy and the Main Hall."
            "It can be worked out. You are good and generous, Padre. But I refer to something deeper, too. We must remedy the tension between the men of the village, and my soldiers. We need to bring the two sides together, become one people, if my men are to remain here. The village is big enough for all of us to share. We are tired of fighting. This time of rest is good for their morale, and I am reluctant to abandon it."
            "I understand, Capitan. But ideas elude me."
            They stared off into the cloudless blue sky, still bright overhead, and at the heat-stunted scrub growing around the field in front of them. They gazed at the chalky remnants of lines that still divided the field into sections. They could see, at the other end of the field, a second wire-covered wooden frame that baked in the sun, its whitewash almost gone.
            "It is a relief that you and I do not have to confront each other physically over this," the captain said. "I am glad you are a reasonable man, and given to honorable negotiation."
            "That is part of the cloth I wear, Capitan. And like you, I had no desire to struggle in the dust with a battle-hardened soldier. It would matter little whoever won or lost. We would both suffer."
            "None the less, we are at a difficult moment. We must decide what to do."
            Both men fell silent. Captain Neihardt shifted slightly, and part of the sleeve of his uniform snagged on the chicken wire, and began to tear. As he struggled to free it, a thought surfaced in his mind. He looked at the field before them.
            "There may be a way, Padre," he said, "perhaps to the satisfaction of everyone!"
            "I welcome any agreeable possibility, Captain," Father Antonio said, sounding interested. "What idea do you have?"
            "Observe where we stand, Padre. Do the young men of Rio Pequeno ever come here to use this field?"
            "Often they did, Capitan, but for years there has been no one to...for them to..." His brow furrowed as the same thought rose to his consciousness. Slowly his mouth formed into a perfect 'Oh'. Captain Neihardt smiled at him excitedly. "I see, Capitan, I see! I understand! Yes! It is a good plan. A good, good plan indeed! Yes!"
            "Then it is settled," Captain Neihardt grinned, as the two men shook hands. "Let us go, then, and prepare ourselves and our people."