Dictionary definition: Gaucho:- a South American cowboy of the Pampas, identifiable by his horse, his long knife and his string of dogs.
If a gaucho consumes meat three times a day and we pack two asados away, does that make us two-thirds a caballero? 66% gaucho, then I remember that I don’t have a machete: remove ten points from my score. But a gaucho without a horse is like the chronicler without his mount , a lost, non person. So that leaves me with the dog; and unfortunately we definitely have one of those.
I’m sitting quietly reading an e-newspaper at a table in Cachi, when I become aware of a dog lying quietly at my feet. It’s not your usual tick-parasitised, flea infested street dog; for one it’s quiet, clean and it’s behaviour suggests “pet”. From experience we know to ignore these hounds; if you want to get rid of them - and most fall into this category - just reach down, as if to pick up a stone and the effect is immediate: exit one cur at top speed, tail between legs. This one was young, with the physique of a small Alsatian, German Shepherd, which I have subconsciously named Gaucho Dog. A while later a river-rounded granite stone, a good dog’s mouthful, is dropped on my toes; GD sits down waiting for me to play. Still I ignore it, giving absolutely no encouragement. I can guess where this might lead, and I don’t want that to happen. This goes on for quite some time, the stone being pawed, the ingratiating, pleading looks; still I ignore it, still no encouragement.
It hangs around all evening, then disappears. Good, I guess that it belonged to the tent that had pulled in earlier in the afternoon. The threat of any hurled stone was never going to deter it , it would only end in a never-ending game.
At some point in the night, one of the street dogs came wandering past, and from what sounded like a few inches from my head, there was a low growl. He, it’s definitely male, is lying outside the tent on guard. Several times throughout the night I hear it chasing of other dogs. At first light I find it lying, waiting, under the parrilla, waiting for the day to start.
We pack up the bags, load up the bikes, still he’s lying waiting, expectant. The moment we move out, he’s up and settles in right behind one of our rear tyres. I know then that we’ve acquired a real Gaucho’s dog, the genuine article, and a very real problem. Back in El Carmel we had watched the mounted police leaving there guard post and collecting posse of assorted unwanted dogs and the problems they had in trying to shed them. Then seeing them coming back off their beat, a string of dogs trotting along behind. These dogs must be born with this instinct of following the horse.
We need some bread for the road, so we ride around town searching out the early opening bakery. We lose GD on three occasions, only to be reunited each time. Eventually stocked with moving on supplies, and at this instance sin dog, we head out of town and go south. Maybe he’s had enough of our ostracising, our boycotting of his games. There’s one road into Cachi and another out, a choice of two points in which to pick up a couple of gringo travellers; there’s GD waiting at the correct one . This dog is a natural. The road will be three days of ruts, washboard and sand. There’s never going to be chance to outpace this dog, top speed will be little better than a fast stroll. Our only hope is that he will get bored, give up and turn around. It never happens; he settles in behind the rear cyclist, settles in for the long haul. Even when he draws the snarling, barking guard dogs from each and every farm and finca, he will snap and growl once or twice, then pad on, keeping pace with us.
We are his horses and he’s got to keep up, even as the temperature rises. He’s panting hard, starting to throw a limp. He might jump into the occasional irrigation ditch to lap down a drink, then he’s back in his appointed station. What started as a bit of a novelty is starting to spook us. At no time have we shown any encouragement, no playing, no food, no water. I try, eventually throwing a stone, far down a banking and, as we expected, it wanted to play. We got a good distance away, whilst it rooted around looking for my projectile. I even thought we had shed our follower but not for long; there he is rooting along beside us again, the same stone in his mouth. Now, our only hope, is an “interesting bitch” might appear to divert his attention. No such luck. At Seclantes we sit in the park making and eating some lunch, GD just goes and lies down in the shade, watching waiting. I even got the length of preparing a rope, with the intention of tying the dog to a bench seat, then pedalling off, in the hope that someone would release him later on. We consider the possibility, then reject it. He just isn’t our responsibility.
Yet we get a guilty feeling, anybody watching us passing will be thinking: look at those stupid gringos, they’ve been feeding a street dog and now it’s going to follow them all over the Andes. The temperature’s rising and the road breaks away from the valley, rising into a waterless, shadowless desert. This dog is suffering, trying to find any acceptable relief thrown by a boulder, shrub or crag, even the narrow stripe of shade thrown by a telegraph pole. Still we don’t encourage him. I still have a hope that he will turn back to the last village, a hope born more of desperation than expectation of success; but no, he keeps pace and when we stop for a breather, he tries to shelter right under my bike. That’s when I definitely know that it is either bred from or is a lost Gaucho’s hound; we’ve seen the dogs sheltering under a trotting horse virtually between the legs.
Eventually our road climbs over a low col and we descend down to the next valley. A ribbon of acacia and pepper shade trees mark the line of a stream. When we cross the Rio Molinos our following, trailing hound decides that a drink is a greater necessity than duty. At last we’ve lost him. Gaucho Dog: one very clever dog. Just how clever we’re about to find out.
I had half expected him to have found us out overnight, and when we rise before sunrise, we were grateful that he wasn’t around. Whilst not our responsibility, he had played fully on our heartstrings. In another circumstance he would be an immense asset, for there’s no doubt that he already has every instinct for herding cattle and sheep.
We’re leaving town on the only road in or out, we’re only moments away from the last house, when from under a truck comes Gaucho Dog. He’s limping and tail wagging, his whole body language one of warm welcome, all ready for another day on the trail. I swore, cursed, and near wept in equal measure. We don’t need another day of devotion and loyalty. Has he eaten?, is he fit?, is it going to get hot today?, I’m not sure that he would make another full day on a section of Ruta 40, that styles itself ‘Heart of the Moon‘. The strange thing is that several local cyclists will have passed him under his truck on their way to work, but they didn’t offer the same potential for adventure.
I now commit my first crime, in frustration we try to chase him back to town, I try the stone hurling, only to get confused whimpering, running around until he gets in front , lies, cowering, waiting. I try tying a rope lead knowing that there’s little chance of being able to lead him anywhere. I’m right. So we decide to enlist some help. We head back into town, back to our campground, to ask Sr. Patron: if we tie Gaucho Dog to a tree, would he release him later in the day? The Navigator’s Spanish is fully up to the task, he only laughs, there’s no surprise at the request. I suspect that it happens all the time. So we tie him to a tree, he whines once as we pedal our guilty consciences away. We look back once, GD has lain down resigned to not getting a chance to run with the strange cycling caballeros today. Maybe tomorrow, then.