But the poncho was also a fighting weapon, solid partner of the fac�n. It slipped off easily and the folds flipped quickly round and round the left forearm while the fac�n was drawn. The fighters circled, point to point, feinting, trying to get a lunge caught in the wadded forearms, or using the folds to blunt the edge of a well-placed prod. Sometimes, in a spidery side-to-side, they would even whip the length of the poncho into the opponent's eyes or flick it under his feet.
But the fac�n was used only to go into the belly and up, or across the gut muscles. Grievous rips and gashes were the least to expect in hour-long battles with razor steel. It often happened that without being seriously hurt a man would die, literally drained of blood from a score of cuts in hands, arms and shoulders, where the poncho deflected the blade, though not all its power and only some of its edge.
This, of course, is not to say that el gaucho was a murderous animal, or that he spent his time lounging about and looking for trouble. He was first to know that he was just as likely to find it. He had his own rules and ideas about earning his keep, and he went about his business in his own way. Everything he did had to be a way of enjoying himself. He was never a workman in any industrial sense. The moment he saw that what he was doing had the earmarks of work, he reached for the horse. It is said that the gallop was invented when el gaucho first got a good square look at work.
He lived for sport of his own making, and his only true companion in life was the horse. His saddlery was always the best he could make or buy. Reins, quirt and lasso were of braided rawhide, with silver points, knots, buttons and medallions. His Sunday stirrups were often of solid silver, sometimes weighing more than the saddle. That is, if he was lucky at gaming. If not, he stuck to rawhide. The saddle he made himself of wood, a light frame with a bar each side of the spine running nose to tail and strapped under the belly. Over that he put a girth cloth fastened with a band. As many sheepskins as he used for his bed went on top, and a thong ran over with a cinch on the near side under the stirrup.
El gaucho's saddle, the recado, was more comfortable than many an armchair, and about the only pad that could make the famous trot-gallop-trot endurable for 15 or more hours a day over any distance, day after day. Even in these days a ride of 80 miles between dawn and sunset raises no eyebrows. It all depends on the horse.
El gaucho rode a stallion. When his children were just out of the cradle he gave them, boys or girls, a stallion to ride. A man riding a mare held himself up as poor in pocket, but far poorer in heart. Mares were only for breeding.
Spaniards brought the first horses in the early 16th century. Fighting killed off the masters, and the horses ran wild across the vast pasturelands of the Buenos Aires province and down into the Patagonian desert and among the green Andean foothills. Over years of interbreeding the animals became smaller, but if they lost in size they gained enormously in terms of endurance. In desert heat or arctic cold, in months of drought when feed dried, in winter when snow buried pasture and ice capped it, the wild horse learned to survive, breed and flourish. His head became larger because his jaw had to chew anything he could find. His hoof went to half its original size, but he never got sucked into a marsh, never slipped on a rock, never slid in loose shale or lost his footing on the most precipitous height of gravel. The four legs and hooves were like four driven nails. When he put them down, they stayed there.
El gaucho seldom used whip, rope or spur on a colt. He trained with hands and voice. He passed his hands over head, neck and barrel and down the legs, whispering, talking, humming, until the colt-knew him by touch, sound, sight and scent, and trust was absolute. A time came when it might be said without exaggeration that the animal was part of the man. During the Indian wars many instances are on record of prisoners trussed—their feet and hands tied to a crossbar stuck through the crooks of their elbows behind their backs—and flung into deep pits. The horse would track its master, wait for nightfall, drop into the pit, gnaw the rawhide loose, kneel to let numb limbs sprawl on its back and make quiet way out of enemy lines. It may sound like a fairy tale, but the records are there.
Horses were never tied or shackled at night. Their right to be free, to feed and water at will, was respected. By morning the mount could be miles from the campfire, but el gaucho never grudged the walk or the time lost.
His best mare wore a bell on a neck thong to guide the troop, perhaps a dozen or 20 animals. El gaucho came on behind, sometimes leading a packhorse carrying hides for the night's shelter, a pot to boil water and yerba, salt and flour enough for the months of roaming, and perhaps a goatskin of wine.