CHAPTER IV. THE PRAIRIE AND ITS INHABITANTS.
The Pampas, or prairie lands of the Argentine, stretch to the south and west of Buenos Ayres, and cover some 800,000 square miles. On this vast level plain, watered by sluggish streams or shallow lakes, boundless as the ocean, seemingly limitless in extent, there is an exhilarating air and a rich herbage on which browse countless herds of cattle, horses, and flocks of sheep. The grass grows tall, and miles upon miles of rich scarlet, white, or yellow flowers mingle with or overtop it. Beds of thistles, in which the cattle completely hide themselves, stretch away for leagues and leagues, and present an almost unbroken sheet of purple flowers. So vast are these thistle- beds that a day's ride through them only leaves the traveller with the same purple forest stretching away to the horizon. The florist would be enchanted to see whole tracts of land covered by the Verbena Melindres, which appears, even long before you reach it, to be of a bright scarlet. There are also acres and acres of the many- flowered camomile and numberless other plants; while large tracts of low-lying land are covered with coarse pampa grass, affording shelter for numberless deer, and many varieties of ducks, cranes, flamingoes, swans and turkeys. Wood there is none, with the exception of a solitary tree here and there at great distances, generally marking the site of some cattle establishment OP estancia. An ombu, or cluster of blue gums, is certain to be planted there.
On this prairie, man, notwithstanding the fact that he is the "lord of creation," is decidedly in the minority. Millions of four-footed animals roam the plains, but he may be counted by hundreds. Let us turn to him, however, in his isolated home, for the Gaucho has been described as one of the most interesting races on the face of the earth. A descendant of the old conquerors, who, leaving their fair ones in the Spanish peninsula, took unto them as wives the unclothed women of the new world, he inherits the color and habits of the one with the vices and dignity of the other. Living the wild, free life of the Indian, and retaining the language of Spain; the finest horseman of the world, and perhaps the worst assassin; the most open- handed and hospitable, yet the accomplished purloiner of his neighbor's cattle; imitating the Spaniard in the beautifully-chased silver trappings of his horse, and the untutored Indian in his miserable adobe hovel; spending his whole wealth in heavy gold or silver bell-shaped stirrups, bridle, or spurs (the rowel of the latter sometimes having a diameter of six inches), and leaving his home destitute of the veriest necessities of life - such is the Gaucho. A horn or shell from the river's bed makes his spoon, gourds provide him with his plates and dishes; but his knife, with gold or silver handle and sheath, is almost a little fortune in itself. Content in his dwelling to sit on a bullock's skull, on horseback his saddle must be mounted in silver. His own beard and hair he seldom trims, but his horse's mane and tail must be assiduously tended. The baked-mud floor of his abode is littered with filth and dirt, while he raves at a speck of mud on his embroidered silk saddle-cloth.
The Gaucho is a strange contradiction. He has blushed at my good but plain-looking saddle, yet courteously asked me to take a skull seat. He may possess five hundred horses, but you search his kitchen in vain for a plate. If you please him he will present you with his best horse, waving away your thanks. If you displease him, his long knife will just as readily find its way to your heart, for he kills his enemies with as little compunction as he kills the ostrich. "The Gaucho, with his proud and dissolute air, is the most unique of all South American characters. He is courageous and cruel, active and tireless. Never more at ease than when on the wildest horse; on the ground, out of his element. His politeness is excessive, his nature fierce." The children do not, like ours, play with toys, but delight the parents' hearts by teasing a cat or dog. These they will stick with a thorn or pointed bone to hear them yell, or, later on, lasso and half choke them. "They will put out their eyes, and such like childish games, innocent little darlings that they are." Cold-blooded torture is their delight, and they will cheer at the sight of blood.