SI Vault
Richard Llewellyn
November 12, 1962
Bred to the saddle, the best of horsemen, he lived for sport alone, and though he has all but disappeared he is an imperishable, heroic figure in a land of vast space and pride
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November 12, 1962

El Gaucho's Days Of Glory

Bred to the saddle, the best of horsemen, he lived for sport alone, and though he has all but disappeared he is an imperishable, heroic figure in a land of vast space and pride

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Meals were simply dough baked in embers and cuts of beef or mutton grilled on a stick, and el gaucho rarely ate more than twice daily. He was, however, a meat eater, and he put away four or five pounds a meal so that a sheep might last a couple of days. His dogs fed on the scraps. In the good old days el gaucho killed a bullock only for the tender meat between the hide and the ribs, and the tongue, and left the rest for the kites. In times of drought, when sheep and cattle were scrawny or scarce, the country gave him guanaco, ostrich and armadillo.

A steady diet of mutton and bread might appall nutritionists, but the yerba was a slight laxative, strong in vitamin C, and the wine gave el gaucho iron and, in any event, history seems to show that so long as he stayed on the pampas he lived a long and healthy life. In their 80s many of them were still vaulting into the saddle and winning races.

Whether as cattleman, shepherd, tracker or guide, el gaucho had no peer. As a child he rode with his parents between summer and winter grazing, often with more than 1,500 miles of day-after-day travel paced to the flock and herd. Animals were as much a part of him as his family. A herd or flock given in his charge was safe as in its own corral. He was honest. He had to be. Or fight. In days when there were no police or justices, the fac�n was sole arbiter. In many parts of the continent it still is.

El gaucho was a man of instinct, never of emotion. He considered it crass weakness to show grief for a relative or friend. But he would mourn his horse's death for as long as his money would buy wine.

He earned his fee as a guide, never on the payroll but going along for the company and sharing the pleasures of the journey. It was sport, and not really work at all.

In charge of a herd, he was paid for each animal delivered on the hoof. For a flock of sheep he got so much for so many, plus a few extra sheep for himself for butchery on the way. The distances to be covered took weeks and sometimes months. It was his pride and his sport to travel at such a rate as to arrive where he was sent exactly on time, with the animals weighing the same as when he received them, or even fatter. Often, over country with scant feed and water, that was impossible, though as a good tropero he would plan with greatest care the route that would save his animals from the most fatigue, and at least deliver the majority alive. Since prolonged drought or an icy winter could kill off thousands of head, el gaucho could be worth many times his weight in gold, because he knew the lakes, rivers, hills and pools that never dried in the hottest summer, and the forests and canebrakes that in the worst winter would give feed and shelter. But he took the pay he was offered, and either put a few more coins on his belt, or bought some horses, or went along to the nearest boliche—a type of bar-cum-store selling wine from the barrel and simple items he needed. Where the wine poured was always a meeting place for old friends, a news center, gambling den, cockpit and general bucket o' blood. Most boliches were built of three wattle walls, a straw roof and porch, a one-plank counter and a hitching rail. The missing wall permitted a nice current of air, which took out the smoke from the wood fire besides allowing more customers to line up and overflow onto the porch. More important, it gave the fac�n ample room to hiss out of its sheath, and the general scatter could nip out in the open without wasting a drop of the wine.

"El gaucho began to die when they first put a chair in a boliche" runs an old saying. Chairs and stools can be tripped over, and knifemen waste no time. Again, men used to sitting on their saddles or haunches had no use for seats, and wood usually went on the fire, which was one more reason for wattle walls and a straw floor. They burned easily, and often did, but as easily could be rebuilt. No sympathy need be wasted on the barkeep. He started out with a barrel of wine and died of old age with a million. El gaucho would drink or gamble himself into high-interest debt for months ahead and repay 1,000%. In the matter of money, no downier bird was ever plucked.

His gambling could be divided into two parts—that is, with or without the horse. He could ride races, jump, try to put a nail through a two-inch ring just above his head at full gallop, or still at gallop go down a line of stirrup-high pegs, each a horse length apart, and take hats off them, winning his bets if he took them all, losing all bets if he missed or dropped one hat. In those games and countless others he relied on the horse as much as himself. Dismounted, he could take a hand at cards, chiefly truco, which was probably being played in the time of Achilles. The rules vary from north to south—four or more, or less, can sit in—though to explain it in English would be in the nature of teaching bridge in Morse code to an aborigine. The pull of the game lay in the bluff, both in play and in speech. Here again language fails, because el gaucho spoke his own version of Spanish, with a sprinkle of Indian words, a kind of verbal shorthand full of double meanings, inversions pointed by tone of voice and expressions not far from a rough poetry, elusive enough in his own language, blank in any other. (The classic story of el gaucho, told by Jos� Hern�ndez in his Mart�n Fierro, in translation turns simple rhythms and homely wit into doggerel, footnotes and asterisks.)

When he had drunk himself sober once or twice, he could go out in the open and take a throw at taba, which is played with a section of bone from a cow's hind leg sawed through at the hock. The piece of bone is about two inches wide, polished and plated with metal shaped to form on both sides. One side is called male and the other female. The playing area is about 20 paces, more or less, on any ground, wet or dry, even or not. The player holds the bone lengthwise on the extended fingers of the right hand, thumb on top, and lofts it over the distant mark so that, hopefully, the male side falls uppermost. Rough and ready though it may seem, champions are able to play in mud, rock, gravel or dust and bring the bone down male side up every time. Bets can be enticed by deliberately losing a series of throws, though when enough money is pooled, the taba comes down the right way. Because el gaucho will often put all he owns on a bet, he can lose the wages of years in a few moments, clothes, animals, women as well, and he can also ride off with a fortune. Dice games were rare because they could be loaded, and the fac�n tilts readily toward the right hand. Even so, the taba has also been loaded. The loaders often were mourned with wine and affectionate laughter.

Ironically enough, el gaucho's three basic qualities—honesty, inherent capability with animals and knowledge of space—were three strands of a lasso that finally brought him down. Sheep and cattle produce money. Investment means property and maps. And boundaries. Perhaps the shortest-lived race of sportsmen in history was throttled by the wire fence.

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