The Last Cowboys at the End of the World: The Story of the Gauchos of Patagonia

The Last Cowboys at the End of the World: The Story of the Gauchos of Patagonia

by Nick Reding
Gaucho conjures up an image as iconic as the word cowboy. But according to historians and anthropologists, their semi-nomadic culture disappeared at the end of the nineteenth century, and no one has seen the gauchos since. Until now.

Twenty-five years ago, the government of Chile began building a road into Chilean Patagonia, one of the least-populated regions in the


Gaucho conjures up an image as iconic as the word cowboy. But according to historians and anthropologists, their semi-nomadic culture disappeared at the end of the nineteenth century, and no one has seen the gauchos since. Until now.

Twenty-five years ago, the government of Chile began building a road into Chilean Patagonia, one of the least-populated regions in the world. In 1995, when Nick Reding traveled down that still-unfinished road into an unmapped river valley, he found himself in a closed chapter of history: a last, undetected, and unexplored outpost of gauchos so isolated that many of them, some of whom are boys as young as thirteen, still live completely alone with their herds, hours on horseback from the nearest neighbors. In 1998, Nick returned to the valley to witness what happens when time catches up to a people whom history has forgotten.

Reding’s account of the ten months he spent in Middle Cisnes, Patagonia, is a riveting, novelistic exploration of the longing for change by a people and a culture that, according to history books and the Chilean government, do not even exist. There’s Duck, the alcoholic with whom Reding lives and who takes Reding on long cattle drives, teaching him to ride and work as gauchos have for centuries; Duck’s wife, Edith, who is convinced she is reliving the life of her estranged mother, who was, according to legend, wed to the Devil; John of the Cows, a famed cattle thief wanted for murder who takes Reding to the secret place in the mountains where he hides his stolen stock; and Don Tito and Alfredo, two brothers who are unsure of their age and communicate with each other through smoke signals.

In Middle Cisnes, Reding watches a singular—and ultimately murderous—conflict take hold between those who want to trade life in the nineteenth century for life in the twenty-first and those who want to keep living as gauchos have for hundreds of years. What all of them understand is the near impossibility of a journey through a world where everything from the fierce landscape to a ravaging disease conspires against them, a journey whose terminus—the Outside, the only town in central Patagonia’s 42,000 square miles—is a place where the gauchos are not only ill-equipped to live, but clearly unwelcome.

The Last Cowboys at the End of the World is a story of regeneration through violence and tragedy. When the people of Middle Cisnes finally try to take their place in the modern world, the results are as horrifying and surprising as they are heroic. In the collision of the gaucho past, our present, and an unknown future, Nick Reding captures a moment in time that we have never before seen and will never see again.

Editorial Reviews

The story of human discovery has also been the story of the end of mystery and hidden places. Reding's engrossing tale of the months he spent as a journalist living in the high, barren Chilean Patagonia region is not just another travelogue, but a document of a culture on the cusp of unstoppable change. The land is harsh, gorgeous and almost impossible to get to, and the gauchos Reding lived among—tough cattlemen, for the most part, with names like Duck, Peeled and Fried Bread—are a breed apart. The author resists romanticizing the gauchos and simply recounts his experience, incorporating history and cultural analysis. It's a sad story, ultimately: By the end of the last decade the Chilean government was building a paved road deep into Patagonia, along which the tides of globalization were already flowing. This book serves as a moving testament to a disappearing culture where boys ride horses before they can walk and everyone seems to have a tale about meeting the devil on deserted trails.
—Chris Barsanti
Publishers Weekly
Reding's first book is a fascinating tale of cattle herders (gauchos) living in the desolate reaches of Chilean Patagonia. A successful mix of journalistic reportage and cultural study, it uses the complex linguistic fabric of the gaucho to weave a dynamic story that reads more like fiction than pop-anthropological research. For the better part of a year, Reding lived on land owned by a hardworking, harder-luck couple, Duck and Edith; much of the account focuses on their lives and those of their few neighbors. As a child under Pinochet's regime, Duck saw many people "disappeared" from his semiurban slum, a hotbed of Perin-inspired socialism. Meanwhile, Reding himself embarks on engaging cattle drives, has close brushes with devils real and imaginary, and lives and breathes the stunning isolation and loneliness of life on the high plains of the middle Cisnes River. Despite his fairly intimate relationships with his generous, likable but deeply troubled hosts Duck is a violent alcoholic; Edith is terrified, angry and convinced her husband is possessed by the devil Reding also delves deep into the inevitable cultural, social and economic divide between them. The gorgeous landscapes, the threatening scenes of drunkenness and folly, the prosaic workdays and the cowboy particulars are surely reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy, but present here is a fastidiously humanist angle, in which the interloping narrator never forgets humility or sensitivity. An exciting third act plays out all the promise and horror when Duck, Edith and their children leave the mountainside and move to the slums of Coyhaique, a fated move for the story's protagonists as they undergo the trials of drink,exorcism and urban decay. (Dec.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Although Reding utilizes a rather dramatic title, his first book is a delightful if troubling account of the gauchos of Chilean Patagonia. To tell the story, he introduces a handful of colorful characters whose lives center on Cisnes, a sector of Chile bordering Argentina, and the small town of Coyaique, where most of the 38,000 live in poverty. Reding writes broadly of life among the aging gauchos, yet the star of the book is Duck, who is a survivor among people living in what Reding terms an "awesome cage." Reding lived and worked with Duck, a 5'9"/250-pound gaucho, and Edith, his commonlaw-wife and mother of their three children, during parts of 1998 and 2001, and tells their story. In their isolated lives they balance near poverty, excessive alcohol use, and evangelical religion, yet when they leave the frontier for the city, the problems in their lives are only compounded. Recommended for academic libraries and public libraries with collections in sociology and Latin American studies. Boyd Childress, Auburn Univ. Lib., AL Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Newcomer Reding chronicles extended and disturbing trips to Chilean Patagonia to visit a gaucho and his family. Though rumor had it that the gauchos of Patagonia were a dead breed, Reding encountered them while working at a remote fly-fishing camp that came into existence only after a road was pushed far into the wild Chilean south on the orders of Pinochet. On the camp grounds live Duck and Edith, a gaucho and his long-suffering wife, and their three children. Because of gaucho hospitality, Reding all but imposes himself upon Duck and Edith, staying in a tent on the ranch-a vast place with an absentee owner-and partaking of their life. Writing in a voice that often sounds unmoored by this otherworld, Reding relates his days driving cattle with Duck and tells about Edith's life with the children, citing the frustrations of each (Duck's wanting to move to town and a more exciting life, Edith's dealing with her devil of a husband when he gets drunk, which is often). Reding also tells their stories (in some of the most stunning sentences here: "Doesn't take the president to know a brown egg out of a rooster's ass ain't right," says a young girl) and offers impressions of the daunting landscape and "crushing immediacy" of the isolation. This is an angry and confused world (Reding's life is threatened-by Duck, among others-a number of times), particularly now that the road has come to tempt people away. Duck and Edith ultimately end up in town, and, inevitably, things fall apart from there. But readers know in advance that no good will come of this story, for Reding wears his discomfort on his sleeve, offering a fog of hangovers, bad dreams, and life's ragged edge. Patagonia Apocalyptica.Grim and hopeless in a last great, wild place.

Product Details

Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
6.08(w) x 9.08(h) x 0.79(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Middle Cisnes

Duck and Edith lived with their three small children in a tiny two-room cabin in Middle Cisnes, Chilean Patagonia. They were twenty minutes on horseback from the nearest neighbors, who were rumored to be cattle thieves, and an hour from the next nearest neighbor. Inside of the main room of the cabin, there was a cabinet, a wood-burning stove, a table, five chairs, and a couch. There was no bathroom and no electricity; seven candles stuck together in their own drippings on the table provided the light. Duck was behind me with a wad of my long hair in one hand, the same hand in which he also held a knife, and he was using my hair like a handle with which to force my neck into the crook of his arm; I could see his shadow on the bedroom door, against which I'd braced my arms. An hour before, Edith had barricaded herself and the children in the bedroom with a fifty-pound barrel of flour. I could hear them in there.

Duck, who was a gaucho, a Patagonian cowboy, had been drinking nonstop for five hours. I had been drinking with him, first to keep from offending him and then, as he got more and more violent, so that he would pass out. I was hopelessly drunk; Duck was not. I had tried once already to walk out of the cabin. Duck had been sharpening his knife; he had sharpened it so many thousands of times before slaughtering a ewe that he did it by feel, watching me instead of the knife as he went. If I looked left--at the stove, for instance, wondering if I could get to it and open the door to retrieve a burning log before Duck stabbed me or sliced my hamstring--or right--at the guitar on the wall or the sharp-lipped frying pan he'd thrown on the floor--Duck looked, too. There was no way to get outside.

"Sit down," he said. When I didn't move, he nodded at the chair behind me. "Sit down," he'd said again, and I did. Behind Duck was a chair we called the throne, which Duck had fashioned with a hatchet from the trunk of a coigue tree and covered in sheep skins. He'd sat on the throne and said, "Why are you here?" Then he had dropped the whetstone and thrown the newly-sharpened knife so that it stuck in the floor between us. He had reached for the liter bottle of beer next to the throne and drank from it, watching me watch the knife. "Why are you here?" he had repeated. The knife had been closer to me than to him.

For two months, I'd been living in a tent in the pasture outside of Duck's cabin. He'd taken me with him on a long cattle drive and shown me how to make chaps from the skin of a butchered ewe--things gauchos have done for three centuries. Now a road had been built that connected Duck to central Patagonia's only town and, by virtue of this fact, connected the eighteenth century to the twenty-first. I'd come to Patagonia to see what would happen to men like Duck. I told him, "I came because of the road, che."

Duck had passed me the bottle of beer at the same time that he had see-sawed the point of the knife out of the floor. It was hard to believe I'd let him have it that easily. He said, "That's correct, Skinny. Because of the road."

Then Duck had picked up two of the plates that had spilled out of the cabinet when he'd pulled it down onto the floor, He held one plate in each hand, like cymbals, then put one plate over the other and thrown the bottle of beer into the air. "There I am," he said, and watched the bottle fall to the floor. "Duck!" he had yelled. "Hold on," he'd said, "I forgot a part of the trick."

Starting over, Duck had tossed the bottle in the air and, when it passed in front of him, had crushed it between the plates. The plates had shattered, though the bottle had not. Duck had looked at the floor "There I am," he'd said. He'd looked at me. That's when I got up from the chair and tried to make it to the door, but Duck had caught me by the back of the hair.

He pushed my neck harder against the crook of his arm and said, "I want you to come outside with me, che."

My eyes were watering, and I thought I could feel the walls of my windpipe rubbing against one another under the pressure of Duck's grip. He loosened it to permit me a response. I retched and said, One more drink, che."

"Nico," he said, "if you don't come outside with me, I'm going to gut you and hang you from the fucking ceiling."

"One more drink," I said.

Duck moved his head close to mine. He raked his whiskers against my ear. Then he said, in a voice I didn't recognize, "Duck has waited so long for you, che."

• *

Sometime very early on my first morning in Middle Cisnes, a fog bank had settled into the valley. I crawled out of the two-man tent I'd pitched the night before in the pasture in front of Duck and Edith's cabin. I could see the green, knee-high grass and the midriffs of the cottonwood trees behind the corrals; and, though I couldn't see the mountains, they were there, pressing and close in every direction.

Duck had already ridden across the river to the neighbors' to see about getting me a horse, and I could see her, too, tied and unsaddled at the hitching post next to Duck's two horses, Happy Fat and Happy Slim. Duck and I were leaving in a couple of hours for a cattle drive, and he was walking along the river to get a sheep for butcher. I got to my feet.

Duck passed low huts of handhewn wood with corrugated roofs and roofs of hatchet-cut wood shingles--the slaughterhouse, the smoke house, a hay barn. Duck's two dogs, Sheep Shearings and Country Dog, slunk behind him, their brown eyes partially hidden behind tufts of tawny fur. I followed, watching. Each time the dogs tried to creep ahead, Duck raised his hand and mumbled, "Go behind," and they dropped back into his slipstream, crossing and recrossing one another's track. Two hundred meters ahead of Duck, one white head after another raised from the tall grass. By the end of the day, the unluckiest among the sheep would be skinned and gutted, and a quarter of her would be with Duck and me, fifteen kilometers deeper into the Andes.

Duck whistled carelessly as he walked, as though he would not have the sheep know what was coming. At the age of thirty-four, Duck, though he was by no means old, was curiously unmarred. All gauchos are preternaturally misformed in some way, their bodies warped about the shoulders or hips or sternum like tectonic plates forced under one another by one too many falls from a horse. Duck, though, was not, with one exception: one of his brown eyes played higher on his face than the other. And the youthful effect of their missetting was heightened by their close proximity to his long, drop-point nose. It was as though his face were still forming.

Duck, by any standards, was a large man; but at five feet nine and two hundred fifty pounds, he was huge among gauchos. That morning, he was dressed in gray warm-up pants and an untucked white dress shirt with maroon pinstripes. On his feet he wore black, steel-toed construction boots. He had gained sixty pounds in the last two years, though in the vestigial sinew of his forearms there still existed the skeletal blueprint of a mesomorph, a tall, thin, and muscular Mapuche Indian, the tribe of which his mother is a full-blooded member. Duck had the full, indigenous lips, the wide forehead, and straw-straight hair. He wore it cut army-short, and when he smiled, his hairline shot up. When he frowned, it fell with the near-audible certainty of a closing window. When he laughed, Duck raised his hands as though waving to two people at once.

As he approached the sheep, his whistling stopped. He let the grass blade that he'd been chewing fall from his mouth as he and the dogs moved well past the flock and into the woods; there the dogs paced anxiously in the shadows until Duck said, very quietly, "Go." Then they slithered into a dried creek and came out into the pasture at full speed. The sheep went for the riverbank, where uneven, fist-sized rocks slowed the dogs' sensitive paws. Country Dog rolled end over end, yelping, and Sheep Shearings slowed briefly to watch. When the dogs recovered their momentum, Sheep Shearings, the younger and faster of the two, attacked, as Country Dog stayed back, using the river as a natural barrier to control the frightened, confused movements of the flock. In a few minutes, the dogs had cornered the sheep into a holding corral, a labyrinth whose only exit was the slaughterhouse.

"Get outta here, fuckers," warned Duck, and kicked at Country Dog, who limped now on three legs. Duck waded into the flock, looking closely at the sheep. He bent his knees to get a better view of the hams on one old ewe and kneed another against the wall, as though gauging her tenderness. Satisfied, he reached down and grabbed the ewe by a hind leg and dragged her in through the darkened door. The dogs whined outside the fence.

The slaughterhouse smelled of lanolin and damp wood. On the windowsill was an aluminum baking pan, and in the center of the room was a thing like a sawhorse with two slanted boards running across the top like a gutter. A hole had been cut into the raised floor, and the sawhorse was positioned over the hole. The ewe's front hooves scratched against the floorboards, and Duck looked coolly about the place before flipping the ewe on her back. Then he grabbed her by a hind and a front leg and hefted her onto the horse so that her head hung over the hole.

Duck put three fingers in the ewe's mouth the way you would with a six-pack, middle and ring fingers across the tongue. To look at Duck's face, he might have been selecting a fresh piece of grass to chew on. He asked me to put the aluminum pan over the hole in the floor; then he turned the ewe's head down, drew his knife, and poked against the thick wool. When he found the jugular, he smoothly ran the knife through to the handle and withdrew it, careful not to sever the windpipe so that the ewe could bleed herself to death. Then Duck threw the knife so it stuck in the floor.

Each time the ewe exhaled, blood poured thick and rhythmic from the wound, filling the room with the elemental reek of an open body cavity. Duck turned the ewe's head further, like a trainer stretching an athlete, then centered the wound over the pan on the floor. Blood fell into it audibly and in clumps, like brilliant red dollops of heavy metal. With his free hand, Duck pressed on the ewe's stomach slowly and with great assurance. Each new place that Duck touched on her body trembled, and the trembling sent a convulsion forward through the ewe's torso and ended with a quickened suck of air. Duck grunted softly, and so did she, though her hind legs no longer moved and her stomach was still. The ewe, it seemed, was already dead below the chest. Then she coughed and coughed again and was empty.

Duck's wife Edith stood watching silently from the doorway. I'd not heard her, and then I turned and she was there. Mariana, their youngest daughter, was at Edith's side. Duck looked at his wife. His face was pale and sweating, and his close-set eyes were moist along the lids. Edith had two handfuls of mint and cilantro that she'd picked from where the plants grew wild along the river, and she came forward and stood above the pan, mincing the leaves with her hands and dropping the bits to float on the warm blood. When Edith was done, Mariana came and took the pan and set it to steam and congeal on the window sill.

Now Edith took the ewe by the hind legs, and together she and Duck dumped the animal to the floor. Edith squatted and held the ewe's back legs open luridly while Duck slid his knife under the hide, just above the sex organs. He cut away the mammary glands, the teats, and the urinary tract, and threw each, in turn, to the pacing dogs. The whole time, Mariana stood braiding Edith's hair; Mariana's tongue was in her cheek as she concentrated on the task, looking quickly at the ewe and then not looking again.

Duck skinned the ewe quickly.When he was done, he hung it over a rafter like clothing on a line. He aligned the blade of the knife across her spine and used a wooden mallet to crack the spine vertically from anus to collarbone with three exacting shots. He pulled a deposit of gelatinous fat from around the ewe's diaphragm and slopped it on the floor. He and Edith gleamed with sweat as they struggled to hang the flayed ewe by her hind legs from hooks in the ceiling. When Duck wiped his brow, smearing blood across his eyes, Edith walked out the door and across the pasture, followed by Mariana.

As Duck and I threw the guts into the pasture and filled buckets of water from the pump in front of the slaughterhouse, the dogs set their legs on either side of the pile of offal, pulling and slipping in the gore until the single unit of innards was a mess of many parts. Duck and I sloshed the floor of the slaughterhouse and refilled the buckets over and over till it was clean. "There it is," said Duck, though when I looked back, all evidence of what had just happened there had been erased.

• *

Meet the Author

Nick Reding lives in New York City. This is his first book.

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