"They have little beard, and never shave," wrote another traveler, A. Gillespie, in his memoir, Gleanings and Remarks, published in 1818. "[They] are copper-colored, very strong made, have long black hair floating about the shoulders; flatfish faces and noses, mounted [on horseback] unless when asleep, at their meat, or when engaged in gambling."
Indeed, the gaucho was thought of as a sort of centaur. So seldom would he dismount that he stood severely bowlegged and had a crabbed gait. He even bathed while mounted. The tips of his boots were open so he could grip long pieces of knotted rawhide—which served as stirrups—between his toes.
A gaucho carried all his worldly possessions with him as he rode. His saddle was sheepskin and cloth laid over a leather-covered frame, and it doubled as his bedroll. He had no pockets in his baggy pants, so he wore a thick leather belt that supported his back as he rode and was adorned with silver coins. His woolen poncho was used as a raincoat by day, a blanket by night, and, during knife fights, as a shield when wrapped around his forearm.
The gaucho's most prized possession, though, was his knife, or fac�n. "The fac�n was the gaucho's third arm," says Charles Balbe, who is called the English Gaucho by friends because his grandfather emigrated from Scotland. "He used it for finely chopping tobacco for his cigarettes, for eating, for cleaning his horse's hooves and for ending a conversation. He didn't approve of firearms. He only loved his knife, and in a duel he wouldn't try to kill you. He'd try to cut you to leave a scar. That way every time you saw the scar, you'd remember how you'd been bested. You'd respect him."
Knife fights between gauchos might break out at the slightest offense when liquor was flowing. "A dispute easily arises about a hand of cards or the heart of a woman, and a sharp word is too often answered by a sharp knife," wrote T.W. Hinchliff in 1863 in South American Sketches. The author then goes on to describe a tradition in which two guitar-playing gauchos would challenge each other to an improvisational duel. It often began in fun but would spin out of control and become a challenge of manhood. Alternating verses, they taunted one another in song—"You play like you have hooves/and sing like sheep being gelded"—on and on, the insults ever escalating, until one of the troubadours, tongue-tied with humiliation and rage, could not continue. "Amid jeers of the spectators, he is compelled to shut up," Hinchliff wrote. "Boiling with wrath, Apollo casts his lyre upon the ground and transforms himself into the god of war. 'Caramba!' he cries, 'you may beat me at that stuff, but try this,' long knives gleam in the light, and a deed of blood is done."
Sometimes that deed of blood was a fatal one. In The Gaucho Mart�n Fierro the fictional hero is taunted by a "foul-mouthed gaucho" with a guitar who sings that Fierro's wife likes to share her favors when he's away. Fierro's a little sensitive on the subject since the taunt has an element of truth to it, and he slashes the balladeer's guitar strings. "Stop that singin'... you chirpin' locust," he warns. When Fierro leaves, the guitar player follows him—a big mistake. "And that poor fellow was/like a tender pigeon to me..../There I left him holding his guts, to make new strings out of."
In his book Far Away and Long Ago (1918) Argentine naturalist William Henry Hudson wrote that gauchos "loved to kill a man, not with a bullet, but in a manner to make them know and feel that they were really and truly killing."
"They liked to see blood," says Balbe. "They wouldn't hang a horse thief, as they did in the American West. They'd slit his throat without blinking an eye. They liked the color red."
The bola was the gaucho's other weapon of choice, though it was primarily employed to capture game. An Indian invention, the bola was fashioned of three billiard-ball-sized rocks or iron balls that were covered in leather and attached to long lengths of rawhide. Holding the middle ball, the gaucho would swing the bola over his head, lasso-style, and fling it at the legs of his prey. It would enwrap them as neat as you please. In this manner he could bring down rheas—small, ostrichlike birds—cattle or horses. If the horse happened to have a man on its back, that man was in trouble, which is why gauchos used to train their mounts to run with their hind legs tied together. They also took pride in being able to land on their feet if their horses took a header. Indians galloped from pursuers with their lances pointing backward to deflect a bola's flight.
That didn't stop our man Fierro, the most famous gaucho of them all, from successfully dispatching a chief's son during an Indian attack."... with a bola throw/I knocked him off his horse./Right away I jumped down to the ground/and planted my feet on his shoulder blades;/he began to screw up his face/and did all he could to cover his throat.../but I performed the holy deed/of finishin' him off."