GUALFIN, ARGENTINA – The full moon was still up in the west when we got up yesterday.
We put on a pair of jeans, boots, a flannel shirt, a scarf, a sweater, gloves, and a hat.
It was dark, but riders were already heading down the allée from the house toward the campo adentro – the inside pasture.
Pablo, one of the ranch hands, lives on the far side of the pasture in a puesto (a remote farmstead) where several canyons come together and at least a trickle of water is usually available.
From his position at the edge of the field, he flushed out the few cattle that had wandered that far to the east and drove them over the hill.
There, he was to hook up with the rest of the gauchos and begin sweeping the valley for the rest of the cows.
Meanwhile, your editor… his wife, Elizabeth… Sergio, our farm manager… and Marie Beatrice, a young French woman who is visiting… all headed out to the north, to the “marsh.”
There is little water in the marsh this time of year… or most of the year, for that matter.
But in the rainy season, the flatland at the edge of the mountains where the river flows through a narrow pass to the adjoining valley fills with water and remains marshy for weeks, sometimes months.
Riding through it is a delight. You splash through shallow ponds and scare up birds.
Yesterday, though, we were not riding for pleasure.
Our part of the job was to round up the cattle that were down in the riverbed, where they were taking advantage of the last green grass of the season.
Sergio had his own horse, a pale white and gray criollo with an energetic character. Sergio is a “breaker.” He takes young horses and trains them.
From the beginning, his horse was almost out of control. A stallion, he jerked his head. He paid little attention to the bit. He ran too fast… or too slow. Several times, Sergio had to get off to calm the horse down.
“He needs more work,” Sergio explained.
When we got near to the pass, the grass was thick. There were still a few pools of water and groups of cattle grazing – 30 here… 25 there.
We were in a wide pan, a river bottom about a half-mile across, rising on either side. Gustavo was already stationed on one side. Natalio was on the other.
In the distance was a cloud of dust.
Yipping and Yelling
“That’s Pablo and José, driving the cattle that were down further in the valley,” Sergio explained.
We waited. Gustavo, on his red horse, on one side. Natalio, on a white horse, on the other. Gauchos never let their feet hit the ground, if they can avoid it.
We, in the middle, followed their example. We sat on our horses, with small herds of cattle on either side. All was quiet.
The sun was bright, but the air was cool. The cattle stared at us. They must have known something was up. But none moved.
Gradually, the dust grew closer… and then we heard Pablo and José yipping and yelling, driving the cattle before them.
As they came within a few hundred feet, suddenly, everyone was in motion. Gustavo and Natalio swooped down from the hills. And our little group fanned out, forming a line with the rest of the gauchos, putting the mountain called “Peach” behind us.
From there, we moved south, whooping and hollering, pushing the different groups of cattle together, until we had a herd of about 250 in front of us moving toward the corral.
The dogs did most of the work.
They barked at the heels of cattle and greatly disturbed mother cows with small calves.
When one of the cows bolted from the herd, the dogs took out after her, yapping and nipping. The cow ran away stirring up dust and trying to get a good kick at the dogs.
But soon, it realized that the only sanctuary it could find was in the herd. It soon turned around and headed back to the rest of the cows.
Barking and Snapping
But when one of the small calves became separated from the herd, the situation was alarming.
Some of the dogs are almost as big as the newborn calves. We had about five of them with us.
When a calf got separated from its mother, the dogs would chase it… snapping at its eyes, ears, and hind legs. Left alone, they could bring the animal down and kill it.
We yelled at the dogs to stop. But they paid no attention. The mother cow, terrified, would then go after the dogs to try to save her calf.
This raised more dust… more barking and snapping… more desperate mooing… and even a greater frenzy from the dogs.
Whoever was closest to the emergency turned his horse and laid the whip on his hindquarters.
The sight of the horse and rider coming up fast was usually enough to disperse the dogs and give the calf and cow an opportunity to get away.
In one instance, the dogs drove a young animal to the edge of a cliff. They continued to bite at it while the gauchos looked on, unable to help it.
Suddenly, the calf panicked, fell off the cliff, and tumbled down into a ravine. The dogs didn’t hesitate; they followed the calf down the side of the cliff themselves… and fell upon the dazed and disoriented animal again.
Natalio, our oldest and most experienced cowboy, rode down into the gulch. Then, using his woven leather lasso, he whipped the dogs until they finally backed off.
The poor calf went over to Natalio’s horse, as though for protection… rubbing against it. Natalio then turned his whip on the calf, driving it down the ravine toward the herd.
By this time, Sergio’s horse was giving him more trouble.
Samuel, one of the most macho of the gauchos, traded with him. Samuel doesn’t believe there is a horse he can’t control. So he took up the challenge readily.
The pale horse squirmed… tossed his head right and left… unwilling to go forward. Samuel pulled on his reins… dug in his heels… and hit him hard with his whip.
The horse took out running with Samuel on his back.
It was not a very elegant way to treat a horse, but the animal soon fell in line… and did the work that was required of him.
Now, mounted on his excited stallion, Samuel raced from one end of the long herd – stretching out over several hundred feet – to the other… chasing escapees… pushing the herd onto the right path… driving them through the gate and, finally, into the corral.
We were about three-quarters of the way to the corral when we noticed that one of the calves had a broken leg.
“How did that happen?” we asked Natalio.
“It was born that way,” he replied.
It had been losing ground the whole way and was now trailing the rest of the herd. Curiously, the other cows seemed to reject it, kicking it when it approached as if it were one of the dogs.
“This calf isn’t going to make it,” we said to Samuel.
“No…” he answered, smiling.
When the dogs attacked it, it could neither run away nor hope for the protection of its mother, who had advanced with the rest of the herd.
We drew our horse alongside the poor thing to keep the dogs away.
“We should probably put it out of its misery,” Elizabeth suggested.
But the calf struggled on… and reached the corral. Then we all broke for lunch.