A. F. Tschiffely
A GAUCHO IN THE PAMPA
OH YES, I remember him so well that he seems to be standing before me as I'm writing these lines. He was a lovely chap, a golden-red and snow-white skewbald with a bristly mane, proud fiery eyes and a long flowing tail. Where he was bought, and how much he cost, I never bothered to ask; not out of politeness, for in those days of my early childhood I didn't know that one mustn't look a gift horse in the mouth. When first I laid eyes on him, my joy was so great that I forgot everything else; my greatest desire was fulfilled: I owned a horse! What a wonderful beast he was; his manners were perfect, and despite the somewhat wild look in his eyes, he was so quiet and docile that alongside him even the proverbially quiet lamb would have been frisky.
After my father had lifted me on to his back, he stood stock-still, and only moved a little when I gingerly urged him to do so. Finding that he wasn't 'flighty,' as some Irish horsemen say, I gradually became more confident, and, letting him have his head, made him jog along merrily. The thrill of it; my father, mother, sisters and brother looking on as I showed off, sitting on my horse! From that moment on, he and I became inseparable friends, and unless some interfering grown-up person dragged me away from him when it was time to eat or go to bed, I enjoyed every moment of his company.
With constant practice, and thanks to my elder brother's instructions, I soon became a tolerably good rider, and as my confidence grew, I even risked a gallop. For a few moments the excitement was such that I held my breath, but upon finding my balance I gave vent to my feelings, screaming with joy. Even my pal, a black poodle, joined in the fun, but when jumping to give one of my legs a playful nip, he met with an accident which caused quite a commotion. As bad luck would have it, one of his paws got under the horse, and the poor dog's howls and yelps of pain were such that half the household rushed to the scene to see what was amiss. Fortunately, no serious harm had been done, and after the affected paw had been stroked by sympathetic hands, he once more wagged his tail, but later took good care to keep at a distance when any riding was being done.
My brother often asked me to lend him my horse, and when this was refused, or he simply 'bagged' him without my permission, this led to serious rows, and occasionally even fights, of which I - being the younger of the two - invariably got the worst. Here I must relate that this went on for some time, until, one day, to my amazement I discovered that he was by no means invincible, whereafter all fighting between the two of us ceased. But that's another story, so let's go back to my horse.
Every morning and evening, and sometimes several times during the day, I groomed him with great care, with the result that his coat had a gloss like a mirror. He never did anything wrong, and if ever a slight accident happened, it was always my fault. He never bucked, stumbled, kicked, bit or bolted, and had it not been that my mother objected, he could easily have been taken into the drawing-room where he would have behaved himself every bit as well as our poodle who usually was allowed to go into that room, filled with frail furniture, fancy china, delicate vases and all sorts of fragile knick-knacks I was hardly allowed to look at, let alone touch. Between ourselves, I hated that beastly drawing-room, and only went into it when, after having been washed and scrubbed until the skin of my face nearly cracked, I had to go to say 'How d'you do?' to visitors, whereafter I fairly bolted back to my beloved horse. When sitting on him, I was the happiest boy in the world. As I cantered along, I imagined being a Red Indian Chief, or a general dashing into battle. In those days I didn't know that modern generals only bestride horses when they are on parade, and that whilst the armies under their command are at close grips with the enemy, they usually are far away from the battlefields, receiving telephone and wireless messages which cause them to consult large-scale wall-maps. Then, again, I imagined being a tamer of wild horses, riding a wicked bucking bronco, or I saw myself in a circus ring, putting a high school horse through his paces. Of course, if I was a jockey riding in a race, my invincible mount always led the field, and if it was a point-to-point we were running, no obstacle was too stiff for my trusty steed which fairly sailed over them without ever putting a hoof wrong.
One day, when I was about to mount in order to indulge in such a flight of fancy, my brother tried to take my horse from me. During the ensuing struggle for possession, he pulled at my pet's head, whilst I tugged in the opposite direction, holding on to his tail, which suddenly came out, with the result that I fell over backwards. When I rose, still holding the beautiful tail in my hands, and realised the magnitude of the disaster, I cried bitterly, and even after the tail had been replaced with the help of glue, I felt that my darling rocking-horse would never be the same again.
Several years passed, and I had forgotten all about the joy of my early childhood when, one day I made a voyage of exploration up into the attic. There, among broken chairs, old picture frames, toys, trunks, hand-bags, pots and pans, and all sorts of odds and ends, some of which brought back various memories, was my dear old rocking-horse, covered with dust and cobwebs. Taking a piece of rag, I carefully wiped him down, and as I did so, his fiery eyes looked at me, as if in reproach. One of his legs being broken, I carried him to the gardener's shed for repairs, and a few days later, when the glue had dried, I saw the last of my formerly inseparable companion when he was taken to a jumble sale.
As I grew older, I did a great deal of riding, but it was only when I went to live in South America that, for the first time in my life, I became the owner of a real live horse. Now I'll relate how this came about, and introduce to you the remarkable animal I bought.
I was having a grand time out in the Pampa, as the immense Argentine plain is called. 'Pampa' is an old Indian word, meaning 'space'; and a perfect name it is for the seemingly endless expanse of grass and sky . We had been rounding up cattle, and were slowly cantering home, seated on our sweating stock ponies, when a dark patch on the distant horizon attracted our attention. My companions were six or eight Gauchos - as cowboys are called in the Argentine - and after they had slowed down in order better to see, all agreed that what we were observing in the distance was a troop of horses being driven in our direction.
Shortly after we had reached the ranch, and our ponies had been washed down and turned loose, some thirty tired horses, led by a bell mare, halted near the corral, and when we went to see who might be the men in charge of them, found that all were strangers who had driven the troop for hundreds of miles across the Pampa. It was a bunch of fine animals they had brought, all sturdy and of various colours; but one, a piebald, despite being thin and bedraggled, particularly attracted my attention. The animals were to be sold in a little town situated some fifty miles from the ranch, and as they, as well as the herdsmen, showed the effects of so long and arduous a journey, they were invited to remain with us until the cattle and horse sale was to be held. The piebald of my fancy was deep-chested and stood just a shade under fifteen hands, and judging by his appearance and movements, even a greenhorn could have told that he must be tough and nimble.
Ever since my early childhood, when I was the proud owner of the skewbald rocking-horse, I have had a liking for animals of 'broken' colours; that is to say, those with patches and blotches of brown, golden-red or black, irregularly arranged on white. Probably this is why I immediately took a fancy to the newly arrived piebald whose peculiar black patches made him look like a circus horse.
Whilst cantering back to the corral, I made up my mind to buy the horse, but realising that, most likely, his owner would put a high price on him, I decided to be cunning about my proposed deal. Accordingly, when I dismounted, and was asked what was my opinion of the piebald, I merely shrugged my shoulders and replied, 'not bad.'
But to make a long story short; that very evening, after the usual haggling, I paid the equivalent of ten pounds for him, and from that moment on he was mine. Having completed the deal, I went to catch the animal, and soon after was busy grooming him and trimming his hoofs. As usual in the Pampa, none of the horses was shod, shoes being unnecessary in those regions where stones and rocks are practically nowhere to be seen. It felt grand to be grooming my own animal which appeared to be enjoying these attentions, especially when I vigorously brushed him under the chin or behind his ears. Since his arrival he had already put on a bit of flesh, and when I finished the job, and stepped back a few paces to have a good look at him, I was very pleased. On either side of his face was a large black patch, and the top of his broad forehead and short ever alert ears were .of the same colour. From his throat down to his chest he had a marking resembling an apron, and, his four extremities being black, he appeared to be wearing beautifully polished top-boots. Then, of course, he had large black patches and blotches all over his body which, after having been groomed, fairly glistened in the late evening sun. He kept on looking towards the place where his companions were grazing in the plain resembling an ocean in which the ranch and its surrounding trees appeared to be a solitary island. Every now and again he neighed, calling his friends, and when, after he had eaten a good ration of crushed oats, I turned him loose, he raised his head and tail, and raced towards them.
After darkness had fallen, and the whole of nature seemed to be at peace and resting, we were sitting round a roaring fire over which two sheep's sides were being roasted on iron spears stuck into the ground. When the meat was ready, out of leather sheaths that were stuck in every gaucho's wide coin-studded belt, were drawn knives with which ribs and pieces of meat were dexterously cut off the roast. No plates or forks were used, but the men daintily held the meat between the tips of their thumbs and forefingers of one hand, whilst cutting with the other, and they were so clever doing this that only the two finger-tips got slightly greasy.
After the meal, when the owner of the recently arrived horses had retired for the night, his men, some of our ranch hands and I, continued to sit near the fire, smoking and talking about people and happenings. When the conversation changed to the inevitable subject, namely horses, one of the visitors, a wiry, sun-tanned and grey-haired old gaucho, turned, towards me and slowly asked in a deep bass voice:
'Señor, how do you like the piebald you bought to-day?' This time there was no need for me to be foxy, as had been the case after I had ridden the animal for the first time, and I hoped to buy him cheaply; so I frankly replied that I thought my acquisition had the makings of a very good mount.
'Yes,' the old gaucho said, at the same time nodding his assent, and then continued, 'you've picked the best of the bunch. Just wait until he has rested and fed for another month or so, and then you'll see. He's one of the toughest mustangs I've ever known, and if you're interested, I'll tell you a story about him.'
'Please do,' I and several listeners said in chorus; so when the old centaur had lit another cigarette, he began: 'Your piebald comes from a region situated in the far South, near the cordillera. Some time ago, an outlaw named Luna repeatedly attacked travellers, and even had the audacity to make single-handed raids on ranches. He was a killer, and as cunning as a puma, and although once or twice he was cornered, he managed to slip away into the mountains where no one could track him down. On several occasions, when his pursuers were hot on his heels, thanks to an amazingly swift and untiring horse he had stolen, he always out-distanced them. Chasing a desperado through those wild rocky valleys is a tough and dangerous proposition, for even if a pursuer happens to be mounted on an animal which is used to travelling fast over such difficult ground, a well-aimed bullet from an ambush is likely to end the chase. Anyway, although several expeditions set out into the mountain wilderness to capture Luna, dead or alive, all failed, and when we thought he had vanished to some other region, he suddenly reappeared to renew his murderous assaults. One day, a little half-caste Indian policeman - not much of a chap to look at in his old tattered and patched-up uniform which once upon a time had been brown - turned up on an old nag. He hardly spoke to anyone, but after having nosed around a corral in which horses happened to be shut up, he asked their owner to lend him one he fancied for the job of tracking down the outlaw. Everybody was surprised when the little policeman said that he intended to go alone, and great was our astonishment when, with a number of excellent horses to choose from, he picked the piebald you bought to-day. Early next morning, as we watched him jog away in the direction of the bleak snow-capped mountains, all of us felt certain that this was the last we would see of him.
Without waiting for my reply, the old gaucho rose, and bidding all of us good night, shuffled off towards a shed, moving awkwardly like an alligator walking on dry land.
So now, gentle reader, you know how I got my first horse, and why I continued to call him 'Luna,' which, in English, means Moon.
And with this I bid you A Dios, and wish you happy hunting.