The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 2/The Gaucho
What is a Gaucho?
That is precisely what I am going to tell you.
Take my hand, if you please. Shod with the shoes of swiftness, we have annihilated space and time. We are standing in the centre of a boundless plain. Look north and south and east and west: for five hundred miles beyond the limit of your vision, the scarcely undulating level stretches on either hand. Miles, leagues, away from us, the green of the torrid grass is melting into a misty dun; still further miles, and the misty dun has faded to a shadowy blue; more miles, it rounds at last away into the sky. A hundred miles behind us lies the nearest village; two hundred in another direction will bring you to the nearest town. The swiftest horse may gallop for a day and night unswervingly, and still not reach a dwelling-place of man. We are placed in the midst of a vast, unpeopled circle, whose radii measure a thousand miles.
But see! a cloud arises in the South. Swiftly it rolls towards us; behind it there is tumult and alarm. The ground trembles at its approach; the air is shaken by the bellowing that it covers. Quick! let us stand aside! for, as the haze is lifted, we can see the hurrying forms of a thousand cattle, speeding with lowered horns and fiery eyes across the plain. Fortunately, they do not observe our presence; were it otherwise, we should be trampled or gored to death in the twinkling of an eye. Onward they rush; at last the hindmost animals have passed; and see, behind them all there scours a man!
He glances at us, as he rushes by, and determines to give us a specimen of his only art. Shaking his long, wild locks, as he rises in the stirrup and presses his horse to its maddest gallop, he snatches from his saddle-bow the loop of a coil of rope, whirls it in his right hand for an instant, then hurls it, singing through the air, a distance of fifty paces. A jerk and a strain,—a bellow and a convulsive leap,—his lasso is fast around the horns of a bull in the galloping herd. The horseman flashes a murderous knife from his belt, winds himself up to the plunging beast, severs at one swoop the tendon of its hind leg, and buries the point of his weapon in the victim's spinal marrow. It falls dead. The man, my friend, is a Gaucho; and we are standing on the Pampas of the Argentine Republic.
Let us examine this dexterous wielder of the knife and cord. He, Juan de Dios! Come hither, O Centaur of the boundless cattle-plains! We will not ask you to dismount,—for that you never do, we know, except to eat and sleep, or when your horse falls dead, or tumbles into a bizcachero; but we want to have a look at your savage self, and the appurtenances thereunto belonging.
And first, you say, the meaning of his name. The title, Gaucho, is applied to the descendants of the early Spanish colonists, whose homes are on the Pampa, instead of in the town,—to the rich estanciero, or owner of square leagues of cattle, in common with the savage herdsman whom he employs,—to Generals and Dictators, as well as to the most ragged Pampa-Cossack in their pay. Our language is incapable of expressing the idea conveyed by this term; and the Western qualification "backwoodsman" is perhaps the nearest approach to a synonyme that we can attain.
The head of our swarthy friend is covered with a species of Neapolitan cap, (let me confess, in a parenthesis, that my ideas of such head-coverings are derived from the costume of graceful Signor Brignoli in "Masaniello,") which was once, in all probability, of scarlet hue, but now almost rivals in color the jet-black locks which it confines. His face—well, we will pass that over, and, on our return to civilized life, will refer the curious inquirer for a fac-simile to the first best painting of Salvator, there to select at pleasure the most ferocious bandit countenance that he can find. And now the remainder of his person. He wears an open jacket of dirt-crusted serge, covered in front with a gorgeous eruption of plated buttons, and a waistcoat of the same material, adorned with equal profuseness, and showing at the neck a substratum of dubious crimson, supposed to be a flannel shirt. So far, you may say, there is nothing suspicious or very outlandish about his rig; but _turpiter desinit formosus superne_,--there is something highly remarkable _á continuacion_. Do you see that blanket which is drawn tightly up, fore and aft, toward his waist, and, there confined by means of a belt which his _querida_ has richly ornamented for him, falls over in uneven folds like an abbreviated kilt? That is the famous _chiripá_, or Gaucho petticoat, which, like the _bracae_ of the Northern barbarians some nineteen hundred years ago, distinguishes him from the inhabitants of civilized communities. Below the _chiripá_, his limbs are cased in _calzoncillos_, stout cotton drawers or pantalets, which terminate in a fringe (you should see the elaborate worsted-work that adorns the hem of his gala-pair) an inch or two above the ankle. His feet are thrust into a pair of _botas de potro_, or colt's-foot boots, manufactured from the hide of a colt's fore-leg, which he strips off whole, chafes in his hand until it becomes pliable and soft, sews up at the lower extremity,--and puts on, the best riding-boot that the habitable world can show. Add a monstrous spur to each heel of this _chaussure_, and you will have fully equipped the worthy Juan de Dios for active service.--But stay! his accoutrements! We must not forget that Birmingham-made butcher-knife, which, for a dozen years, has never been for a moment beyond his reach; nor the coiling lasso, and the _bolas_, or balls of iron, fastened at each end of a thong of hide, which he can hurl a distance of sixty feet, and inextricably entangle around the legs of beast or man; nor the _recado_, or saddle, his only seat by day, and his pillow when he throws himself upon the ground to sleep under the canopy of heaven. Neither must we omit the _mate_ gourd which dangles at his waist, in readiness to receive its infusion of _yerba_, or Paraguay tea, which he sucks through that tin tube, called _bombilla_, and looking for all the world like the broken spout of an oil- can with a couple of pieces of nutmeg-grater soldered on, as strainers, at the lower end; nor the string of sapless _charque_ beef, nor the pouchful of villanous tobacco, nor the paper for manufacturing it into _cigarritos_, nor the cow's-horn filled with tinder, and the flint and steel attached. Thus mounted, clothed, and equipped, he is ready for a gallop of a thousand leagues.
He is a strange individual, this Gaucho Juan. Born in a hut built of mud and maize-stalks somewhere on the superficies of these limitless plains, he differs little, in the first two years of his existence, from peasant babies all the world over; but so soon as he can walk, he becomes an equestrian. By the time he is four years old there is scarcely a colt in all the Argentine that he will not fearlessly mount; at six, he whirls a miniature lasso around the horns of every goat or ram he meets. In those important years when our American youth are shyly beginning to claim the title of young men, and are spending anxious hours before the mirror in contemplation of the slowly-coming down upon their lip, young Juan (who never saw a dozen printed books, and perhaps has only _heard_ of looking- glasses) is galloping, like a portion of the beast he rides, over a thousand miles of prairie, lassoing cattle, ostriches, and guanacos, fighting single-handed with the jaguar, or lying stiff and stark behind the heels of some plunging colt that he has too carelessly bestrid.
At twenty-one he is in his glory. Then we must look for him in the _pulperías_, the bar-rooms of the Pampas, whither he repairs on Sundays and _fiestas_, to get drunk on _aguardiente_ or on Paraguay rum. There you may see him seated, listening open-mouthed to the _cantor_, or Gaucho troubadour, as he sings the marvellous deeds of some desert hero, persecuted, unfortunately, by the myrmidons of justice for the numerous _misfortunes_ (_Anglicé_, murders) upon his head,--or narrates in impassioned strain, to the accompaniment of his guitar, the circumstances of one in which he has borne a part himself,--or chants the frightful end of the Gaucho Attila, Quiroga, and the punishment that overtook his murderer, the daring Santos Perez. When the song is over, the cards are dealt. Seated upon a dried bull's-hide, each man with his unsheathed knife placed ostentatiously at his side, the jolly Gauchos commence their game. Suddenly Manuel exclaims, that Pedro or Estanislao or Antonio is playing false. Down fly the cards; up flash the blades; a ring is formed. Manuel, to tell the truth, has accused his friend Pedro only for the sake of a little sport; he has never _marked_ a man yet, and thinks it high time that that honor were attained. So the sparks fly from the flashing blades, and Pedro's nose has got another gash in it, and Manuel is bleeding in a dozen places, but he will not give in just yet. Unfortunate Gaucho! Pedro the next moment slips in a sticky pool of his own blood, and Manuel's knife is buried in his heart! "He is killed! Manuel has had a misfortune!" exclaim the ring; "fly, Manuel, fly!" In another minute, and just as the _vigilantes_ are throwing themselves upon their horses to pursue him, he has galloped out of sight.
Twenty miles from the _pulpería_ he draws rein, dismounts, wipes his bloody knife on the grass, and slices off a collop of _charque_, which he munches composedly for his supper. Very likely this _misfortune_ will make him a _Gaucho malo_. The _Gaucho malo_ is an outlaw, at home only in the desert, intangible as the wind, sanguinary, remorseless, swift. His brethren of the _estancia_ pronounce his name occasionally, but in lowered tones, and with a mixture of terror and respect; he is looked up to by them as a sort of higher being. His home is a movable point upon an area of twenty thousand square miles; his horse, the finest steed that he can find upon the Pampas between Buenos Ayres and the Andes, between the Gran Chaco and Cape Horn; his food, the first beef that he captures with his lasso; his dainties, the tongues of cows which he kills, and abandons, when he has stripped them of his favorite titbit, to the birds of prey. Sometimes he dashes into a village, drinks a gourdful of _aguardiente_ with the admiring guests at the _pulpería_, and spurs away again into obscurity, until at length the increasing number of his _desgracias_ tempts the mounted emissaries of justice to pursue him, in the hope of extra reward. If suddenly beset by seven or eight of these desert police, the _Gaucho malo_ slashes right and left with his redoubted knife,--kills one, maims another, wounds them all. Perhaps he reaches his horse and is off and away amid a shower of harmless balls;--or he is taken; in which case, all that remains, the day after, of the _Gaucho malo_, is a lump of soulless clay.
Then there is the guide, or _vaqueano_. This man, as one who knows him well informs us, is a grave and reserved Gaucho, who knows by heart the peculiarities of twenty thousand leagues of mountain, wood, and plain! He is the only _map_ that an Argentinian general takes with him in a campaign; and the _vaqueano_ is never absent from his side. No plan is formed without his concurrence. The army's fate, the success of a battle, the conquest of a province, is entirely dependent upon his integrity and skill; and, strange to say, there is scarcely an instance on record of treachery on the part of a _vaqueano_. He meets a pathway which crosses the road upon which he is travelling, and he can tell you the exact distance of the remote watering-place to which it leads; if he meet with a thousand similar pathways in a journey of five hundred miles, it will still be the same. He can point out the fords of a hundred rivers; he can guide you in safety through a hundred trackless woods. Stand with him at midnight on the Pampa,--let the track be lost,--no moon or stars; the _vaqueano_ quietly dismounts, examines the foliage of the trees, if any are near, and if there are none, plucks from the ground a handful of roots, chews them, smells and tastes the soil, and tells you that so many hours' travel due north or south will bring you to your destination. Do not doubt him; he is infallible.
A mere _vaqueano_ was General Rivera of Uruguay,--but he knew every tree, every hillock, every dell, in a region extending over more than 70,000 square miles! Without his aid, Brazil would have been powerless in the Banda Oriental; without his aid, the Argentinians would never have triumphed over Brazil. As a smuggler in 1804, as a custom-house officer a few years later, as a patriot, a freebooter, a Brazilian general, an Argentinian commander, as President of Uruguay against Lavalleja, as an outlaw against General Oribe, and finally against Rosas, allied with Oribe, as champion of the Banda Oriental del Uruguay, Rivera had certainly ample opportunities for perfecting himself in that study of which he was the ardent devotee.
Cooper has told us how and by what signs, in years that have forever faded, the Huron tracked his flying foe through the forests of the North; we read of Cuban bloodhounds, and of their frightful baying on the scent of the wretched maroon; we know how the Bedouin follows his tribe over pathless sands;--and yet all these are bunglers, in comparison with the _Gaucho rastreador_!
In the interior of the Argentine every Gaucho is a trailer or _rastreador_. On those vast feeding-grounds of a million cattle, whose tracks intersect each other in every direction, the herdsman can distinguish with unerring accuracy the footprints of his own peculiar charge. When an animal is missing from the herd, he throws himself upon his horse, gallops to the spot where he remembers having seen it last, gazes for a moment upon the trampled soil, and then shoots off for miles across the waste. Every now and then he halts, surveys the trail, and again speeds onward in pursuit. At last he reaches the limits of another _estancia_, and the pasturage of a stranger herd. His eagle eye singles out at a glance the estray; rising in his stirrup, he whirls the lasso for a moment above his head, launches it through the air, and coolly drags the recalcitrant beast away on the homeward trail. He is nothing but a common, comparatively unskilled, _rastreador_.
The official trailer is of another stamp. Like his kinsman, the _vaqueano_, he is a personage well convinced of his own importance; grave, reserved, taciturn, whose word is law. Such a one was the famous Calébar, the dreaded thief-taker of the Pampas, the Vidocq of Buenos Ayres. This man during more than forty years exercised his profession in the Republic, and a few years since was living, at an advanced age, not far from Buenos Ayres. There appeared to be concentrated in him the acuteness and keen perceptions of all the brethren of his craft; it was impossible to deceive him; no one whose trail he had once beheld could hope to escape discovery. An adventurous vagabond once entered his house, during his temporary absence on a journey to Buenos Ayres, and purloined his best saddle. When the robbery was discovered, his wife covered the robber's trail with a kneading-trough. Two months later Calébar returned, and was shown the almost obliterated footprint. Months rolled by; the saddle was apparently forgotten; but a year and a half later, as the _rastreador_ was again at Buenos Ayres, a footprint in the street attracted his notice. He followed the trail; passed from street to street and from _plaza_ to _plaza_, and finally entering a house in the suburbs, laid his hand upon the begrimed and worn-out saddle which had once been his own _montura de fiesta_!
In 1830, a prisoner, awaiting the death-penalty, effected his escape from jail. Calébar, with a detachment of soldiers, was put upon the scent. Expecting this, and knowing that the gallows lay behind him, the fugitive had adopted every expedient for baffling his pursuers: he had walked long distances upon tiptoe; had scrambled along walls; had walked backwards, crawled, doubled, leaped; but all in vain! Calébar's blood was up; his reputation was at stake; to fail now would be an indelible disgrace. If now and then he found himself at fault, he as often recovered the trail, until the bank of a water-course was reached, to which the flying criminal had taken. The trail was lost; the soldiers would have turned back; but Calébar had no such thought. He patiently followed the course of the _acequia_ for a few rods, and suddenly halting, said to his companions, "Here is the spot at which he left the canal; there is no trail,--not a footprint,--but do you see those drops of water upon the grass?" With this slight clue they were led towards a vineyard. Calébar examined it at every side, and bade the soldiers enter, saying, "He is there!" The men obeyed him, but shortly reported that no living being was within the walls. "He is there!" quietly reiterated Calébar; and, in fact, a second more thorough examination resulted in the capture of the trembling fugitive, who was executed on the following day.--There can be no doubt regarding the literal exactness of this anecdote.
At another time, we are told, a party of political prisoners, incarcerated by General Rosas, had contrived a plan of escape, in which they were to be aided by friends outside. When all was ready, one of the party suddenly exclaimed,--
"But Calébar! you forget him!"
"Calébar!" echoed his friends; "true, it is useless to escape while he can pursue us!"
Nor was any flight attempted until the dreaded trailer had been bribed to fall ill for a few days, when the prisoners succeeded in making good their escape.
He who would learn more of Calébar and his brother-trailers, let him procure a copy of the little work that now lies before us, in the shape of a tattered duo-decimo, which has come to us across the Andes and around Cape Horn, from the most secluded corner of the Argentine Confederation. Badly printed and barbarously bound, this "Life of Juan Facundo Quiroga" is nevertheless replete with the evidence of genius, and bears the stamp of a generously-cultivated mind. Its author, indeed, the poet-patriot- philosopher, Don Domingo F. Sarmiento, may be called the Lamartine of South America, whose eventful career may some day invite us to an examination. Suffice it now to say, that he was expelled by Rosas in 1840 from Buenos Ayres, and that he took his way to Chile, with the intention in that hospitable republic of devoting his pen to the service of his oppressed country. At the baths of Zonda he wrote with charcoal, under a delineation of the national arms: _On ne tue point les idées_! which inscription, having been reported to the Gaucho chieftain, a committee was appointed to decipher and translate it. When the wording of the significant hint was conveyed to Rosas, he exclaimed,--"Well, what does it mean?" The answer was conveyed to him in 1852; and the sentence serves as epigraph to the present life of his associate and victim, Facundo Quiroga.
[Footnote 1: _Vida de Juan Facundo Quiroga_, etc., por Domingo F. Sarmiento. Santiago, 1845.]
In this extraordinary character we see the quintessence of that desert- life some types of which we have endeavored to delineate. As one who, rising from the lowest station to heights of uncontrolled power, as a representative of a class of rulers unfortunately too common in the republics that descend from Spain, and as a remarkable instance of brutal force and barbaric stubbornness triumphing over reason, science, education, and, in a word, civilization, he is admirably portrayed by Sr. Sarmiento. Ours be the task to condense into a few pages the story of his life and death.
The Argentine province of La Rioja embraces vast tracts of sandy desert. Destitute of rivers, bare of tree s, it is only by means of artificial and scanty irrigation that the peasant can cultivate a narrow strip of land. Inclosed by these arid wastes lies, nevertheless, a fertile region entitled the Plains, which, in despite of its name, is broken by ridges of hills, and supports a luxuriant vegetation with pastures trodden by unnumbered herds. The character of the people is Oriental; their appearance actually recalls, as we are told, that of the ancient dwellers about Jerusalem; their very customs have rather an Arabic than a Spanish tinge.
Somewhere upon these _Llanos_, and toward the close of the eighteenth century, Don Prudencio Quiroga, as a well-to-do _estanciero_ or grazier, was gladdened (doubtless) by the birth of a lusty son. He called him Juan Facundo. For the first few years of his existence, we may safely believe, the future general was scarcely distinguishable from a common baby. Obstinate he doubtless was, and fierce and cruel in his tiny way; were his mother still alive, the good woman could doubtless tell us of many a bitter moment spent in lamenting her infant's waywardness; but we hear nothing of him until the year 1799, when he was sent to San Juan, a town then celebrated for its schools and learning, to acquire the rudiments of knowledge. At the age of eleven the boy already manifested the character of the future man. Solitary, disdainful, rebellious, his intercourse with his schoolfellows was limited to the interchange of blows, his only amusement lay in the annoyance of those with whom he was brought in contact. He is already a perfect Gaucho; can wield the lasso, and the _bolas_, and the knife; is a fearless _ginete_, a consummate horseman. One day at school, the master, irritated beyond endurance, exhibits a new rod, bought expressly, so he says, "for flogging Facundo." When the boy is called up to recite, he blunders, stammers, hesitates, on purpose. Down comes the rod; with a vigorous kick Facundo upsets the pedagogue's rickety throne, and takes to his heels. After a three-days' search, he is discovered secreted in a vineyard outside the town.
This little incident, of so trifling import at the time, was remembered in after years as an early indication of the ferocious and uncontrollable _caudillo's_ character. But it was soon eclipsed by the reckless deeds that followed each other in quick succession between his fifteenth and twentieth years. He speedily became notorious in the little town for his wild moroseness, for his savage ferocity when excited, for his inordinate love of cards. Gaming, a passion with many, was a necessary of life to him; it was the only pursuit to which he was ever constant; it gave rise to the quarrel in which, while yet a schoolboy, he for the first time spilt blood.
By and by we lose sight of the student of San Juan. He has absolutely _sunk_ out of sight. Yet, if we peer into filthy _pulperías_ here and there between San Luis and San Juan, we may catch a glimpse of a shaggy, swarthy savage, gambling, gambling as if for life; and we may also hear of more than one affray in which his dagger has "come home richer than it went." A little later, the son of wealthy Don Prudencio has become--not a common laborer--but a comrade of common laborers. He chooses the most toilsome, the most unintellectual, but, at the same time, the most remunerative handicraft,--that of the _tapiador_, or builder of mud walls. At San Juan, in the orchard of the Godoys,--at Fiambalá, in La Rioja, in the city of Mendoza,--they will show you walls which the hands of General Facundo Quiroga, _Comandante de Campaña_, etc., etc., put together. Wherever he works, he is noted for the ascendency which he maintains over the other peons. They are entirely subject to his will; they do nothing without his advice; he is worth, say his employers, a dozen overseers. Ah, he is yet to rule on a larger scale!
Did these people ever think,--as they watched the sombre, stubborn Gaucho sweating over a _tapia_, subjecting a drove of peons to his authority, or, stretched upon a hide, growing ferocious as the luck went against him at cards,--that here was one of those forces which mould or overturn the world? Could it ever have occurred to the Godoys of San Juan, to the worthy municipality of Mendoza, that this scowling savage was yet to place his heel upon their prostrate forms, and most thoroughly to exhibit, through weary, sanguinary years, the reality of that tremendous saying,-- "The State? _I_ am the State!"?
Doubtless no. Little as the comrades of Maximin imagined that the truculent Goth was yet to wear the blood-stained purple, little as the clients of Robespierre dreamed of the vortex toward which he was being insensibly hurried by the stream of years, did the men, whose names are thrown out from their obscurity by the glare of his misdeeds, conceive that their fortunes, their lives, all things but their souls, were shortly to depend upon the capricious breath of this servant who so quietly pounds away upon their mud inclosures.
He does not long, however, remain the companion of peons. Eighteen hundred and ten has come, bringing with it liberty, and bloodshed, and universal discord. The sun of May beams down upon a desolated land. For the mild, although repressive viceregal sway is substituted that of a swarm of military chieftains, who, fighting as patriots against Liniers and his ill-fated troops, as rivals with each other, or as _montanero_-freebooters against all combined, swept the plains with their harrying lancers from the seacoast to the base of the Cordillera.
In this period of anarchy we catch another glimpse of Juan Facundo. He has worked his way down to Buenos Ayres, nine hundred miles from home, and enlists in the regiment of _Arribeños_, raised by his countryman, General Ocampo, to take part in the liberation of Chile. But even the infinitesimal degree of discipline to which his fellow-soldiers had been reduced was too much for his wild spirit; already he feels that command, and not obedience, is his birthright; there is soon a vacancy in the ranks.
With three companions Quiroga took to the desert. He was followed and overtaken by an armed detachment, or _partida_; summoned to surrender; the odds are overpowering. But this man bids defiance to the world; he is yet, in this very region, to rout well-appointed and disciplined armies with a handful of men; and he engages the _partida_. A sanguinary conflict is the result, in which Quiroga, slaying four or five of his assailants, comes off victorious, and pursues his journey in the teeth of other bands which are ordered to arrest him. He reaches his native plains, and, after a flying visit to his parents, we again lose sight of the _Gaucho malo_. Blurred rumors of his actions have, indeed, been preserved; accounts of brutality toward his gray-haired father, of burnings of the dwelling in which he first saw the light, of endless gaming, and plentiful shedding of blood; but we hear nothing positive concerning him until the year 1818. Somewhere in that year he determines to join the band of freebooters under Ramirez, which was then devastating the eastern provinces. And here--O deep designs of Fate!--the very means intended to check his mad career serve only to accelerate its development. Dupuis, governor of San Luis, through which province he is passing on his way to join Ramirez, arrests the _Gaucho malo_, and throws him into the common jail, there to rot or starve as Fortune may direct.
But she had other things in store for him. A number of Spanish officers, captured by San Martin in Chile, were confined within the same walls. Goaded to the energy of despair by their sufferings, and convinced that after all they could die no more than once, the Spaniards rose one day, broke open the doors of their prison, and proceeded to that part of the building where the common malefactors, and among them Juan Facundo, were confined. No sooner was Facundo set at liberty, than he snatched the bolt of the prison-gate, from the very hand which had just withdrawn it to set him free, crushed the Spaniard's skull w ith the heavy iron, and swung it right and left, until, according to his own statement, made at a later date, no less than fourteen corpses were stiffening on the ground. His example incited his companions to aid him in subduing the revolt of their fellow-prisoners; and, as a reward for "loyal and heroic conduct," he was restored to his privileges as a citizen.
Thus, in the energetic language of his biographer, was his name ennobled, and cleansed, but with _blood_, from the stains that defiled it. Persecuted no longer, nay, even caressed by the government, he returned to his native plains, to stalk with added haughtiness and new titles to esteem among his brother Gauchos of La Rioja.
Having in this manner taken a rapid survey of the most salient points in his private career up to the year 1820, we may pause for a moment, before studying his public life, to glance at the condition of his native country in the first decade of its independence. The partial separation from Spain, which was effected on the 25th May, 1810, was followed by a long and bloody struggle, in all the southern provinces, between the royal forces and the adherents of the Provisional Junta. Such framework of government as had been in existence was practically annihilated, and the various provinces of the late Viceroyalty of Buenos Ayres fell a prey to the military chieftains who could attract around them the largest number of Gaucho cavalry,--while civilization, commerce, and every peaceful art, declined at a rapid rate. No alteration in this state of affairs was effected by the final Declaration of Independence, made at Tucuman, July 9, 1816; and in 1820, Buenos Ayres, the seat of the government which claimed to be supreme, was seized by a confederacy of the provincial chiefs, who secured, by the destruction of the Directorial Government, complete and unchallenged independence for themselves. During this anarchical period, the famous Artigas was harrying the Banda Oriental; Rosas and Lopez were preparing for their blood-stained careers; Bustos, Ibarra, and a host of other _caudillos_, ruled the interior provinces; and Juan Facundo Quiroga was raised to irresponsible power.
In his native province of La Rioja the mastery had for many years been disputed by two powerful houses, the Ocampos and the Dávilas, both descended from noble families in Spain. In the year 1820 the former were triumphant, and possessed all the authority then wielded in the province. From them Facundo received the appointment of Sergeant-Major of Militia, with the powers of _Comandante de Campaña_, or District Commandant.
In any other country the nomination to such a post of a man rendered notorious by his contempt for authority, who already boasted of no less than thirty murders, and who had voluntarily placed himself in the lowest ranks of society, would be a thing absolutely incredible; but the Ocampos probably felt the insecurity of their authority, and were sufficiently sagacious to attempt, at least, to render that man a useful adherent or ally, who might, if allured by their foes, prove a terrible weapon against them. But they found in Quiroga no submissive servant. So openly did he disregard the injunctions of his superiors, that a corps of the principal officers in the army entreated their general, Ocampo, to seize upon and execute the rebellious Gaucho, but failed in inducing him to adopt their advice. It was not long before he had occasion to repent his leniency, or his weakness.
A mutiny having occurred among some troops at San Juan, a detachment was sent against them, and with it Quiroga and his horsemen. The mutineers proved victorious, and, headed by their ringleaders, Aldao and Corro, continued their line of march towards the North. While Ocampo with his beaten troops fell back to wait for reinforcements, Quiroga pursued the retreating victors, harassed their rear, clogged their every movement, and proved so formidable to the enemy, that Aldao, abandoning his companion, made an arrangement with the government of La Rioja, by which he was to be allowed free passage into San Luis, whither Quiroga was ordered to conduct him. He joined Aldao.
And here, close upon the summit of the steep he has so easily ascended, we cannot help pausing for an instant to reflect upon the singular manifestation of _destiny_ in his life. History acquaints us with no similar character who displayed so little forethought with such astonishing results. He premeditated nothing, unless now and then a murder. He took no trouble to form a plan of government, yet his authority was unquestioned during many years in Mendoza, Córdova, and San Juan. Even his most monstrous acts of perfidy appear to have been committed on the spur of the moment, with less calculation than he gave to a game at cards. Thrown upon the world with brutal passions scarcely controlled by a particle of reason, whirled hither and thither in a general and fearful cataclysm, he shows us preëminently the wonderful designs of Providence carried into effect, as it were, by a succession of blind and sudden impulses. In a community of established order the gallows would have put a speedy check upon his misdeeds; in the Argentine Confederation of 1820 he was gradually lifted, by an ever-rising tide of blood, to the eminence of lawless power.
Only for a while, however; for the stream did not cease to rise. The flood that had elevated him alone disregarded his commands. For a few moments he might maintain his footing upon the fearful peak; and then--
But as yet he is only _Comandante de Campaña_, escorting the rebel Aldao into San Luis. He took no pains to conceal his discontent with the government of Ocampo, nor was Aldao slow in noticing or availing himself of his disaffection. He offered Quiroga a hundred men, if he chose to overturn the government and seize upon La Rioja. Quiroga eagerly accepted, marched upon the city, took it by surprise, threw the Ocampos and their subordinates into prison, and sent them confessors, with the order to prepare for death. The remainder of Aldao's force was subsequently induced to join his cause, and, on the intercession of some of its leaders, the incarcerated Ocampos were suffered to escape with their lives.
Their banished enemy, Don Nicolas Dávila, was called from Tucuman to the nominal governorship of La Rioja, while Quiroga retained, with his old title, the actual rule of the province. But Dávila was not long content with this mere semblance of authority. During the temporary absence of Quiroga, he concerted with Araya, one of the men of Aldao, a plan for the capture of their master. Quiroga heard of it,--he heard of everything,-- and his answer was the assassination of Captain Araya! Summoned by the government which he himself had created to answer the accusation of instigated murder, he advanced upon the Dávilas with his Llanista horsemen. Miguel and Nicolas Dávila hastily assembled a body of troops, and prepared for a final struggle. While the two armies were in presence of each other, a commissioner from Mendoza endeavored to effect a peaceable arrangement between their chiefs. Passing from one camp to the other with propositions and conditions, he inspired the soldiers of the Dávilas with a fatal security. Quiroga, falling suddenly upon them in the midst of the negotiations, routed them with ease, and slew their general, who, with a small body of devoted followers, made a fierce onslaught upon him personally, and succeeded in inflicting upon him a severe wound before he was shot down. Thenceforth,--from the year 1823,--Quiroga was despot of La Rioja.
His government was simple enough. His two engrossing objects--if objects, indeed, he may be said to have possessed--were extortion and the uprooting of the last vestiges of civilization and law; his instruments, the dagger and the lash; his amusement, the torture of unwitting offenders; his serious occupation, the shuffling of cards. For gambling the man had an insatiable thirst; he played once for forty hours without intermission; it was death to refuse a game with him; no one might cease playing without his express commands; no one durst win the stakes; and as a consequence, he accumulated at cards in a few years almost all the coined money then existing in the province. Not content with this source of revenue, he became a farmer of the _diezmo_ or tithes, appropriated to himself the _mostrenco_ or unbranded cattle, by which means he speedily became proprietor of many thousand head, even established a monopoly of beef in his own favor,--and woe to the luckless fool who should dare to infringe upon the terrible barbarian's prerogative!
[Footnote 2: Thus the Monagas, the late rulers of Venezuela, are accused of denuding their country of specie in order to accumulate a vast treasure abroad in expectation of a rainy day.]
What was the state of society, it will undoubtedly be inquired, in which the defeat of a handful of men could result in such a despotism? We have already glanced at the people of La Rioja,--at their dreamy, Oriental character, at their pastoral pursuits. A community of herdsmen, scattered over an extensive territory, and deprived at one blow of the two great families to whom they had been accustomed to look up, with infantine submission, as their God-appointed chiefs,--these were not the men to stand up, unprompted by a single master-mind, to rid themselves of one whose oppression was, after all, only a new form of the treatment to which, for an entire generation, they had been subjected. La Rioja and San Juan were the only two provinces in which Quiroga's heavy hand was felt continuously; in the others he ruled rather by influence than in person; and the Gauchos, as a matter of course, were enthusiastic for a man who exalted the peasant at the expense of the citizen, whose exactions were actually burdensome only to the wealthy, and who permitted every license to his followers, with the single exception of disobedience to himself.
He was not without--it is impossible that he should have lacked--some of those instinctive and personal attributes with which almost every savage chieftain who has maintained so extraordinary an ascendency over his fellows has been endowed. Sarmiento tells us that he was tall, immensely powerful, a famous _ginete_ or horseman, a more adroit wielder of the lasso and the _bolas_ than even his rival, Rosas, capable of great endurance, and abstinent from intoxicating drinks.
His eye and voice were dreaded more by his soldiers than the lances of their antagonists. He could wring a Gaucho's secret from his breast; it was useless to attempt a subterfuge before him. Some article, we are told, was once stolen from a company of his troops, and every effort for its recovery proved fruitless. It was reported to Quiroga. He paraded the men, and, having procured a number of sticks, exactly equal in length, gave to each man one, proclaiming that the soldier whose stick should be found longer than the others next morning had been the thief. Next morning he again drew up his troops. The sticks were mustered by Quiroga himself. Not one had grown since the previous day; but there was one which was shorter than the rest. With a terrible roar, Quiroga seized the trembling Gaucho to whom the stick belonged. "Thou art the thief!" he exclaimed. It was so; the fellow had cut off a portion of the wood, hoping thus to escape detection by its growth!--
[Footnote 3: Since the above was written, we have heard of the adoption of an expedient identical with that of Quiroga, under similar circumstances, and with the same result. The detector was, however, an English seaman, now captain of a well-known steam-vessel, who forming part of a crew one of whom had lost a sum of money, broke off ten twigs of equal length from a broom, and distributed them among his shipmates, with the same observation as was used by the Argentine chief. Two hours later he examined them, and found that the negro steward had _shortened_ his allotted twig. The money was restored.--The coincidence is instructive.]
Another time, one of his soldiers had been robbed of some trappings, and no trace of the thief could be discovered. Quiroga ordered the detachment to file past him, one by one. He stood, himself, with folded arms and terrible eyes, perusing each man as he passed. At length he darted forward, pounced upon one of the soldiers, and shouted, "Where is the _montura_?" "In yonder thicket!" stammered out the self-convicted thief. "Four musketeers this way!" and the commander was not out of sight before the wretched Gaucho was a corpse. In these instinctive qualities, so awful to untutored minds, lay the secret of the power of Quiroga,--and of how many others of the world's most famous names!
Already in 1825 he was recognized as a lawful authority by the government of Buenos Ayres, and invited to take part in a Congress of Generals at that city. At the same time, however, he received a military errand. The Province of Tucuman having been seized by a young Buenos Ayrean officer, Colonel Madrid, Quiroga was requested to march against the successful upstart, and to restore the cause of law and order,--an undertaking scarcely congruous with his own antecedents. The chief of La Rioja, however, eagerly accepted the mission, marched with a small force into Tucuman, routed Madrid, (and this literally, for his army ran away, leaving the Colonel to charge Quiroga's force alone, which he did, escaping by a miracle with his life,) and returned to La Rioja and San Juan. Into the latter town he made a triumphal entry, through streets lined on both sides with the principal inhabitants, whom he passed by in disdainful silence, and who humbly followed the Gaucho tyrant to his quarters in a clover-field, where he allowed them to stand in anxious humiliation while he conversed at length with an old negress whom he seated by his side. Not ten years had elapsed since these very men might have beheld him pounding _tapias_ on this spot!
We do not propose following the blood-stained career of Juan Facundo through all its windings and episodes of cruelty and blood. Suffice it to say, that, with the title of _Comandante de Campaña_, he retained in La Rioja every fraction of actual power,--nominating, nevertheless, a shadowy governor, who, if he attempted any independent action, was instantly deposed. His influence gradually extended over the neighboring provinces; thrice he encountered and defeated Madrid; while at home he gambled, levied contributions, bastinadoed, and added largely to his army. He excelled his contemporary, Francia, in the art of inspiring terror; he only fell short of Rosas in the results. A wry look might at any time call down upon a luckless child a hundred lashes. He once split the skull of his own illegitimate son for some trifling act of disobedience. A lady, who once said to him, while he was in a bad humor, _Adios, mi General_, was publicly flogged. A young girl, who would not yield to his wishes, he threw down upon the floor, and kicked her with his heavy boots until she lay in a pool of blood. Truly, a ruler after the Russian sort!
Dorrego, meanwhile, was at the head of affairs at Buenos Ayres. Opposed to the "Unitarianism" of Lavalle and Paz, who would have made of their country, not a republic "one and indivisible," but a confederation after the model in the North, Dorrego was chiefly anxious to consolidate his power in the maritime state of Buenos Ayres, leaving the interior provinces to their own devices, and to the tender mercies of Lopez, Quiroga, Bustos, with a dozen other Gaucho chiefs. Rosas, the incarnation of the spirit which was then distracting the entire Confederation, was made Commandant General by Dorrego, who, however, frequently threatened to shoot "the insolent boor," but who, unfortunately for his country, never fulfilled the threat. As for himself, he, indeed, met with that fate at the hands of Lavalle, who landed with an army from the opposite coast of Uruguay, defeated Dorrego and Rosas in a pitched battle at the gates of Buenos Ayres, and entered the city in triumph a few hours later.
With the ascendency of Lavalle came the inauguration--and, alas! only the inauguration--of a new system. Paz, one of the few Argentinians who really deserved the name of General that they bore, was sent to Córdova, with eight hundred veterans of his old command. He defeated Bustos, the tyrant of Córdova, took possession of the city, (one of the most important strategic points upon the Pampas,) and restored that confidence and security to which its inhabitants had so long been strangers. This action was at the same time a challenge to Quiroga in his neighboring domain. It was a warning that right was beginning to assert its supremacy over might; nor was the hero of La Rioja slow to understand it. Collecting a band of four thousand Gaucho lancers, he marched upon Córdova with the assurance of an easy victory. The _boleado_ General! The idea of _his_ opposing the Tiger of the Plains!
What followed this movement is a matter of general history. The battle of the Tablada has had European, and therefore American, celebrity. It is known to those who think of Chacabuco and Maipú, of Navarro and Monte Caseros, only as of spots upon the map; let it, therefore, suffice to say that Quiroga was beaten decisively, unmistakably, terribly. The serried veterans of Paz, schooled in the Brazilian wars, stood grimly to the death before the fiery onslaught of Quiroga; in vain did his horsemen shatter themselves against the Unitarian General's scanty squares; the tactics of civilized warfare proved for the first time successful on these plains against wild ferocity and a larger force; Quiroga was driven back at length with fearful slaughter, with the loss of arms, ammunition, reputation, and of seventeen hundred men. He returned to La Rioja, with the disorganized remnant of his band, marking his path with blood and the infliction of atrocious chastisements. Even in adversity he is terrible and is obeyed.
For nearly two years he divided his time between the provinces of San Juan, Tucuman, and La Rioja, engaged in the prosecution of his designs, chief among which was the destruction of Paz, who remained at Córdova, intending to act only on the defensive. At length, in 1830, he considered himself sufficiently strong for an attack on his recent conqueror. Paz was unwilling to shed blood a second time; he offered advantageous terms to Quiroga; but the boastful Gaucho, full of confidence in his savage lancers, refused to negotiate, and marched against his skilful but unpresuming antagonist. Paz secretly evacuated Córdova, and, moving westward, hazarded a feat which is alone sufficient to establish his character as the best tactician of the New World,--San Martin alone, perhaps, excepted. Splitting his little army into a dozen brigades, he occupied the entire mountain-range behind the town, operated, with scarce five thousand men, upon a front of two hundred miles in extent, held in his own unwavering grasp the reins which controlled the movements of every division, and gradually inclosed, as in a net, the forces of Quiroga and Villafañe. In vain they struggled and blindly sought an exit; every door was closed; until, finally, after a campaign of fifteen days, the narrowing battalions of Paz surrounded, engaged, and utterly defeated at Oncativo the bewildered army on whose success Quiroga had staked his all.
The Gaucho himself again escaped. After seven years of dictatorial power, he is once more reduced to the level upon which we saw him standing in 1818, a vagabond at Buenos Ayres, although from that level he may raise his head a trifle higher.
And here we might conclude, having seen his rocket-like ascent, and the swiftly-falling night of his career,--having seen him a laborer, a deserter, a General, a Dictator, a fugitive; but much remains to be narrated. Passing over, with the barest mention, his temporary return to power, which he accomplished by one of those lightning-like expeditions that even among Gaucho horsemen rendered him conspicuous, let us hasten on to the great dramatic crisis of his history; and taking no notice of the five years of marching and countermarching, scheming, fighting, and negotiating, that intervened between his defeat at the Laguna Larga and 1835, draw to a close our hasty sketch.
In that year, after taking part in a disorderly and fruitless expedition planned by Rosas to secure the southern frontier against Indian attacks, he suddenly made his appearance at Buenos Ayres, with a body of armed satellites, who inspired the newly-seated Dictator--the famous Juan Manuel de Rosas, who has been already so often mentioned in these pages--with vivid apprehensions. Rosas, Quiroga, Lopez--the Triumvirate of La Plata-- were bound together, it is true, by a potent tie,--by the strongest, indeed,--that of self-interest; but as each of the three, and especially Rosas, was in continual dread lest that consideration in his colleagues should clash with his own intentions, the presence of Quiroga at Buenos
Ayres was far from satisfactory to the remaining two. His influence over
half a dozen of the despotic governors in the interior was still immense; the Pampa was his own, after all his defeats; and it was shrewdly suspected that his indifference to power in La Rioja, and his mysterious visit to the maritime capital, were indications of a design to seize upon the government of Buenos Ayres itself. Nor were the actions of Quiroga suited to remove these apprehensions. The sanguinary despot of the interior bloomed in the Buenos Ayrean _cafés_ into a profound admirer of Rivadavia, Lavalle, and Paz, his ancient Unitarian enemies; Buenos Ayres, the Confederation, he loudly proclaimed, must have a Constitution; conciliation must supplant the iron-heeled tyranny under which the people had groaned so long; the very jaguar of the Pampa, said the Porteño wits, --not yet wholly muzzled by the dread _Mazorca_, or Club, of Rosas,--was to be stripped of his claws, and made to live on _matagusano_ twigs and thistles! _Redeunt Saturnia regna!_ The reign of blood, according to Quiroga, its chief evangelist, was approaching its termination.
In order to form a conception of the effect produced by these transactions, we must imagine Pelissier or Walewski entertaining, twenty- three years later, the _cercles_ at Paris with discourses from the beauty of the last _régime_, with eulogies of Lamartine, and apotheoses of Louis Blanc; sneering at Espinasse, and eulogizing Cavaignac; vowing that France can be governed only under a liberal constitution, and paying a visit to his Majesty, the Elect of December, with a rough-and-tumble suite of Republican bravos. Assuredly, were such a thing possible in Paris, the gentlemen in question would very shortly be reviling English hospitality under its protecting aegis, if not dying of fever at Cayenne. Nor could Rosas, who was at that time far less firmly seated on his throne than is at present the man who wields the destinies of France, endure so powerful a rival in his vicinity. But how to get rid of him? Assassination, by which a minor offender was so speedily put out of the way, could not safely be attempted with a man who yet retained a singular mastery over the minds of thousands of brutal and strong-armed horsemen; a false step would result in inevitable destruction; and many anxious days were spent by the gloomy tyrant ere he could decide upon a plan for disposing of his inconvenient friend.
In the midst of this perplexity intelligence was received of a disagreement between the governments of Salta, Tucuman, and Santiago, provinces of the interior, which threatened to expand into warlike proceedings. Rosas sent for Quiroga. No one but the hero of La Rioja, he insinuated, had sufficient influence to bring about a settlement of these disputes; no one but he had power to prevent a war; would he not, therefore, hasten to Tucuman, and obviate so dire a calamity? Quiroga hesitated, refused, consented, wavered, and again declined the task. With a vacillation to which he had hitherto been a stranger, he remained for many days undecided; a suspicion of deceit appears to have presented itself to his mind; but at length he resolved to accept the commission. His hesitation, meanwhile, had completed his ruin; it had given time for the maturing of deadly plans.
In midsummer, 1835, (December 18th,) the Gaucho chieftain commenced his fateful journey. As he entered the carriage which was to be his home for many days, and bade farewell to the adherents who were assembled to witness his departure, he turned toward the city with a wild expression and words that were remembered afterwards. _Si salgo bien_, he said, _te volevré á ver; si no, adios para siempre!_ "If I succeed, I shall see thee again; if not, farewell forever!" Was it a presentiment of the truth which came upon him, like that which clouded the great mind of the first Napoleon as he left the Tuileries when the Hundred Days were running out?
One hour before his departure, a mounted messenger had been dispatched from Buenos Ayres in the same direction as that he was about to follow; and the city was scarcely out of sight when Quiroga manifested the most feverish anxiety to overtake this man. His travelling companions were his secretary, Dr. Ortiz, and a young man of his acquaintance, bound for Córdova, to whom he had given a seat in his vehicle. The postilions were incessantly admonished to make haste. At a shallow stream which they forded, in the mud of which the wheels became imbedded, resisting every effort for their release, Quiroga actually hooked the postmaster of the district, who had hastened to the spot, to the carriage, and made him join his exertions to those of the horses until the vehicle was extricated, when he sped onward with fearful velocity, asking at every post-station, "When did the _chasquí_ from Buenos Ayres pass? An hour ago! Forward, then!" and the carriage swept onward, on unceasingly, across the lonely Pampa,--racing, as it afterwards proved, with Death.
At last, Córdova, nearly six hundred miles from his starting-point, was reached, just one hour after the arrival of the hunted courier. Quiroga was besought by the cringing magistracy to spend the night in their city. His only answer was, "Give me horses!" and two hours before midnight he rolled out of Córdova, having _beaten_ in the grisly race.
Beaten, inasmuch as he was yet alive. For Córdova was ringing with the details of his intended assassination. Such and such men were to have done the deed; at such a shop the pistol had been bought; at such a spot it was to have been fired;--but the marvellous swiftness of the intended victim had ruined all.
Meanwhile, Quiroga sped onward more at ease toward Tucuman. Arrived there, he speedily arranged the matters in dispute, and was entreated by the governors of that province and of Santiago to accept of an escort on his return; he was besought to avoid Córdova, to avoid Buenos Ayres; he was counselled to throw off the mask of subservience, and to rally his numerous adherents in La Rioja and San Juan;--but remonstrance and advice were alike thrown away upon him. In vain was the most circumstantial account of the preparations for his murder sent by friends from Córdova; he appeared as foolhardy now in February as in December he had been panic- stricken. "To Córdova!" he shouted, as he entered his _galera_; and for Córdova the postilions steered.
At the little post-hut of Ojos del Agua, in the State of Córdova, Quiroga, with his secretary, Ortiz, halted one night on the homeward journey. Shortly before reaching the place, a young man had mysteriously stopped the carriage, and had warned its hurrying inmates that at a spot called Barranca Yaco a _partida_, headed by one Santos Perez, was awaiting the arrival of Quiroga. There the massacre was to take place. The youth, who had formerly experienced kindness at the hands of Ortiz, begged him to avoid the danger. The unhappy secretary was rendered almost insane with terror, but his master sternly rebuked his fears.--" —"The man is not yet born," he said, "who shall slay Facundo Quiroga! At a word from me these fellows will put themselves at my command, and form my escort into Córdova!"
The night at Ojos del Agua was passed sleeplessly enough by the unhappy Ortiz, but Quiroga was not to be persuaded into ordinary precautions. Confident in his mastery over the minds of men, he set out unguarded, on the 18th of February, at break of day. The party consisted of the chieftain and his trembling secretary, a negro servant on horseback, two postilions,—one of them a mere lad,—and a couple of couriers who were travelling in the same direction.
Who that has been on the Pampas but can picture to himself this party as it left the little mud-hut on the plain? The cumbrous, oscillating galera, with its shaggy, straggling four-in-hand,—the caracoling Gaucho couriers,—the negro pricking on behind,—the tall grass rolling out on every side,—the muddy pool that forms the watering-place for beasts and men scattered over a hundred miles of brookless plain,—the great sun streaming up from the herbage just in front, awakening the voices of a million insects and the carols of unnumbered birds in the thickets here and there! Look long, Quiroga, on that rising sun! listen to the well-known melody that welcomes his approach! gaze once more upon the rolling Pampa! look again upon those flying hills! Thou who hast said, "There is no life but this life," who didst "believe in nothing," shalt know these things no more! five minutes hence thy statecraft will be over, thy long apprenticeship will have expired! thou shalt be standing—where thou mayst learn the secret that the wisest man of all the bookworms thou despisest will never know alive!
Barranca Yaco is reached. The warning was well founded. A crack is heard,—there is a puff of smoke,—and two musket-balls pass each other in the carriage, yet without inflicting injury on its occupants. From either side the road, however, the partida dashes forth. In a moment the horses are disabled, the postilions, the negro, and the couriers cut down. Ortiz trembles more violently than ever; Quiroga rises above himself. Looking from the carriage while the butchery is going on, he addresses the murderers with a few unfaltering words. There is glamour in his speech; the ensanguined assassins hesitate,—another instant, only one moment more, and they will be on their knees before him; but Santos Perez, who was at one side, comes up, raises his piece,—and the body of Juan Fecundo Quiroga falls in a soulless heap with a bullet in the brain! Ortiz was immediately hacked to pieces; and the tragedy of Córdova is at an end.
Such were the life, misdeeds, and death of the Terror of the Pampas. Having in the most rapid and imperfect manner sketched the career of this extraordinary Fortune's-child, his rise from the most abject condition to unbridled power, his ferocious rule, and his almost heroic end, we may surely exclaim, that "nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it," and, presenting this bare résumé of facts as a mere outline, a mere pen-and-ink sketch of the terrible chieftain, refer the curious student to the impassioned narrative whence our facts are mainly derived.
It may be well to add, that Santos Perez, who was actively pursued by the government of Buenos Ayres, which itself had instigated him to the commission of the crime, was finally, after many hairbreadth escapes, betrayed by his mistress to the agents of Rosas, and suffered death at Buenos Ayres with savage fortitude. The Lord have mercy on his soul!