It was still dark when we arose. Outside our bedroom window, the morning star hung like a round lantern over the mountains. The moon was a shining circle of white in the dark blue square of sky above the courtyard, beginning to set toward the west. Light glowed from the glass in the kitchen doors. Standing over the big black kitchen stove, Marta was making tea and coffee, and carefully toasting slices of pan casero over the flames.
Gustavo, José, Natalio, and Samuel had gone out before dawn’s rosy fingers had started to paint the morning sky, looking for cattle in campo adentro, the “inside” pastures toward the south and away from the entrance to the finca. Pablo, another member of the team,
would be coming from his family’s arriendo over in the northeast section, gathering cattle tucked away in the folds of the mountains and little valleys. Gauchos and cattle would all meet at the corto, the pass where the mountains part to let the river run through to the neighboring finca of Pucará. It was time for the fall yerra, or round- up of the herd. Later that day, the cattle would be vaccinated, and the calves would be señalado – their ears clipped with a distinctive triangular mark.
We rode out across the sandy range, the mountains rising before us in the distance. The empty riverbed spread out in the valley, a highway of glistening grey sand dotted with green bushes. A few weeks ago, yellow flowers had covered the bushes; now they have dried into loose brown seed heads. Not a drop of water is to be seen. Now that the rains have stopped, the river drains down through its sandy bed to follow an underground channel through the mountain pass. Fortunately for our herds, as the ground slopes toward the corto, the water reappears. We stopped to wait in a watery green meadow where a few small herds grazed peacefully, blissfully unaware that in about an hour they would be running ahead of dogs and horsemen for the home corral. The horses threw down their heads and nipped off the tips of close-cropped grass. The sky was blue. Not a touch of wind stirred. The earth was still. In the distance, we could see the three alamo trees, majestically symmetrical, that Don Jorge had planted near the pass through the mountains.
A puff of dust blew up into air. A sharp “yip, yip, yip!” echoed faintly across the distance. Pablo’s high-pitched cry was unmistakable. Not long afterwards, two more puffs of dust rose up from the southern plain. The gauchos were coming, driving cattle before them. Natalio’s silhouette appeared on the northern ridge of the sunken meadow. He was keeping watch for laggards and strays, and waiting for the cattle to assemble below. On the opposite ridge, we recognized Gustavo on his long-legged chestnut mare.
Once the cattle converged in the meadow’s bowl, the drive began in earnest. We headed toward the corral up near the sala, the main house. Dogs yapped and snapped at heels of errant cows and calves. Doña Maria’s little pet dog La Morena had joined in, too, doing her best to antagonize an escaping calf. The angry mother charged her and she took off in a mad dash for safety, yipping piteously. I called her name as she went past, and she looked up at me briefly, extenuated, her red-rimmed eyes wide open, her tongue hanging out of her mouth. Then she turned and ran back to join the other dogs. Instinct is everything in a cattle drive.
An occasional cow, and many calves, would try to leave the running herd to escape back to familiar pastures. The dogs lunged at them like a pack of wolves, biting, snapping, snarling and sometimes tearing into hide. The cattle, maternal urges overcoming terror, lashed out in turn, spinning around to kick with back legs, charging, swinging their hard bony heads into ribcages and sending the dogs flying. Meanwhile, the horses are fully in the spirit of the yerra. They deftly dodge hooves and horns, drop, feint and charge to keep the cattle tightly together and moving forward. Our gauchos sit seemingly at their ease on these turbulent mounts, eyes constantly seeking strays around the perimeter of the herd, swinging lassos, calling to the cattle, urging them forward with distinctive cries. Gustavo whistles and grunts sharply. José is mostly silent, as in life on foot, but constantly searching with his eyes and moving fast with lasso and strap. Natalio growls and gruffly barks, like a huntsman urging his hounds.
At 61, Natalio is now the oldest member of the team and doesn’t move around much, steadily riding along on the edge of the herd. If necessary, he’ll turn and gallop into the distance to round up a runaway. He’s wearing a woolen cap pulled down over his ears, coca leaves rounding out one cheek, astride his small white horse. At his heels is a dog that looks like a furry brindled wolf, with a long black muzzle that turns up the end and terminates in a little round knob like the nose on a clown. But he is not here for amusement; he’s ready to take a bite out of any errant calf’s back legs, and undoubtedly leaves a lasting impression: It is safest to stay with the herd. At his heels trots a mustard-colored puppy, visibly frightened by the clamor and flying hooves. He lollops cravenly at the fringes of the action, but always returns to the fray, learning his job.
Samuel, José and Pablo are the drivers of the herd, riding around the back edges, in constant movement. On the ground, José is plump, friendly, and a little ungainly; on horseback, he is a study in fluid concentration in motion. Pablo is his much younger and lither brother. He’s all action and display, swinging his lasso high, urging, reprimanding, cajoling the cattle in a remarkable variety of tones and pitches. He sits on his horse as though he were in an armchair, following its quick movements with easy balance. And Samuel is also a remarkable horseman, exactly the same person on horseback as on the ground – forceful, energetic, and determined. During the drive, he switched his mule for a misbehaving young stallion. The young horse had never been on a cattle drive, and its owner needed some assistance. Samuel, who had been kicked by a bull the day before, dismounted, limped over to cinch up the girth, climbed on board and proceeded to gallop back and forth behind the herd, to swing his lasso, shout and chase straying calves as usual. The young horse shook his head around vigorously, and occasionally tried to bolt. The entire demonstration showed that if a horse is kept fully occupied, it doesn’t have enough brain space left to get its rider into trouble.
We arrived at the gates of the sala an hour later. Up between the rows of alamo trees on either side of the driveway went the tightly packed herd. By now, the experienced cows had settled down. The bulls, thin after four months serving them in the pastures, conserved their energy and walked along placidly.
Even the independent-minded black cow with two white circles around her eyes and a spotted muzzle, she who had consistently attempted to strike out solita, was somewhere in the middle of the herd. The little calves bumbled and skipped along at the edges.
The hard work of herding was over. The dogs sank exhausted into the stream of water that flows across the road. Their tongues, thick and red, lolled out their mouths. They panted gratefully. The last cow marched into the corral. Gustavo closed the gate. The gauchos slipped off their horses, leaving them tied to the trees. We turned ours loose. It was time for lunch and a respite before the afternoon’s work – vaccinating, clipping, castrating, dehorning, weaning — began.