The young cacique is not slow in deciding which course to pursue. The allusion to the "handsome cousin" again excites his jealousy and his ire. Its influence is irresistible, as sinister; and when he and his followers take departure from that spot—which they do almost on the instant—it is to recross the stream, and head their horses homeward— Francesca Halberger carried captive along with them.
GASPAR, THE GAUCHO.
Over the broad undulating plain which extends between Halberger's house and the deserted tolderia of the Tovas, a horseman is seen proceeding in the direction of the latter. He is a man about middle age, of hale, active appearance, in no way past his prime. Of medium size, or rather above it, his figure though robust is well proportioned, with strong sinewy arms and limbs lithe as a panther's, while his countenance, notwithstanding the somewhat embrowned skin, has a pleasant, honest expression, evincing good nature as a habitually amiable temper, at the same time that his features show firmness and decision. A keenly glancing eye, coal-black, bespeaks for him both courage and intelligence; while the way in which he sits his horse, tells that he is not new to the saddle; instead, seeming part of it. His garb is peculiar, though not to the country which claims him as a native. Draping down from his shoulders and spreading over the hips of his horse is a garment of woollen fabric, woven in stripes of gaudy colours, alternating white, yellow, and red, of no fit or fashion, but simply kept on by having his head thrust through a slit in its centre. It is a poncho—the universal wrap or cloak of every one who dwells upon the banks of the La Plata or Parana. Under is another garment, of white cotton stuff, somewhat resembling Zouave breeches, and called calzoneras, these reaching a little below his knees; while his feet and ankles are encased in boots of his own manufacture, seamless, since each was originally the skin of a horse's leg, the hoof serving as heel, with the shank shortened and gathered into a pucker for the toe. Tanned and bleached to the whiteness of a wedding glove, with some ornamental stitching and broidery, it furnishes a foot gear, alike comfortable and becoming. Spurs, with grand rowels, several inches in diameter, attached to the heels of these horse-hide boots, give them some resemblance to the greaves and ankle armour of mediaeval times.
All this has he whose dress we are describing; while surmounting his head is a broad-brimmed hat with high-peaked crown and plume of rheas feathers—underneath all a kerchief of gaudy colour, which draping down over the nape of his neck protects it from the fervid rays of the Chaco sun. It is a costume imposing and picturesque; while the caparison of his horse is in keeping with it. The saddle, called recado, is furnished with several coverings, one upon another, the topmost, coronilla, being of bright-coloured cloth elaborately quilted; while the bridle of plaited horse-hair is studded with silver joints, from which depend rings and tassels, the same ornamenting the breast-piece and neck straps attaching the martingale, in short, the complete equipment of a gaucho. And a gaucho he is—Gaspar, the hero of our tale.
It has been already said, that he is in the service of Ludwig Halberger. So is he, and has been ever since the hunter-naturalist settled in Paraguay; in the capacity of steward, or as there called mayor-domo; a term of very different signification from the major-domo or house-steward of European countries, with dress and duties differing as well. No black coat, or white cravat, wears he of Spanish America, no spotless stockings, or soft slipper shoes. Instead, a costume more resembling that of a Cavalier, or Freebooter; while the services he is called upon to perform require him to be not only a first-class horseman, but able to throw the lazo, catch a wild cow or colt, and tame the latter—in short, take a hand at anything. And at almost anything Gaspar can; for he is man-of-all-work to the hunter-naturalist, as well as his man of confidence.
Why he is riding away from the estancia at such an hour—for it is afternoon—may be guessed from what has gone before. For it is on that same day, when Halberger and his daughter started off to visit the Indian village; and as these had not returned soon as promised, the anxiety of the wife, rendered keen by the presentiment which had oppressed her at their parting, became at length unbearable; and to relieve it Gaspar has been despatched in quest of them.
No better man in all the pampas region, or South America itself, could have been sent on such an errand. His skill as a tracker is not excelled by any other gaucho in the Argentine States, from which he originally came; while in general intelligence, combined with courage, no one there, or elsewhere, could well be his superior. As the Senora said her last words to him at parting, and listened to his in return, she felt reassured. Gaspar was not the man to make delay, or come back without the missing one. On this day, however, he deviates from his usual habit, at the same time from the route he ought to take—that leading direct to the Indian village, whither he knows his master and young mistress to have gone. For while riding along going at a gentle canter, a cock "ostrich" starts up before his horse, and soon after the hen, the two trotting away over the plain to one side. It so chances that but the day before his master had given him instructions to catch a male ostrich for some purpose of natural history—the first he should come across. And here was one, a splendid bird, in full flowing plumage. This, with an observation made, that the ostriches seem less shy than is usual with these wary creatures, and are moving away but slowly, decides him to take after and have a try at capturing the cock. Unloosing his bolas from the saddle-bow, where he habitually carries this weapon, and spurring his horse to a gallop, off after them he goes.
Magnificently mounted, for a gaucho would not be otherwise, he succeeds in his intent, after a run of a mile or so, getting close enough to the birds to operate upon them with his bolas. Winding these around his head and launching them, he has the satisfaction of seeing the cock ostrich go down upon the grass, its legs lapped together tight as if he had hard spliced them.
Riding on up to the great bird, now hoppled and without any chance to get away from him, he makes things more sure by drawing out his knife and cutting the creature's throat. Then releasing the bolas, he returns them to the place from which he had taken them—on the horn of his recado. This done, he stands over the dead rhea, thus reflecting:—
"I wonder what particular part of this beauty—it is a beauty, by the way, and I don't remember ever having met with a finer bird of the breed—but if I only knew which one with identical parts the master wants, it would save me some trouble in the way of packing, and my horse no little of a load. Just possible the dueno only cares for the tail-feathers, or the head and beak, or it may be but the legs. Well, as I can't tell which, there's but one way to make sure about it—that is, to take the entire carcase along with me. So, go it must."
Saying this, he lays hold of a leg, and drags the ostrich nearer to his horse, which all the time stands tranquilly by: for a gaucho's steed is trained to keep its place, without need of any one having care of it.
"Carramba!" he exclaims, raising the bird from the ground, "what a weight the thing is! Heavy as a quarter of beef! Now I think on't, it might have been better if I'd let the beast alone, and kept on without getting myself into all this bother. Nay, I'm sure it would have been wiser. What will the Senora say, when she knows of my thus dallying— trifling with the commands she gave me? Bah! she won't know anything about it—and needn't. She will, though, if I stand dallying here. I mustn't a minute longer. So up, Senor Avertruz, and lie there."
At which, he hoists the ostrich—by the gauchos called "avertruz"—to the croup of his recado; where, after a rapid manipulation of cords, the bird is made fast, beyond all danger of dropping off.
This done, he springs upon his horse's back, and then looks out to see which direction he should now take. A thing not so easily determined; for in the chase after it, the ostrich had made more than one double; and, although tolerably familiar with the topography of that plain, the gaucho is for the time no little confused as to his whereabouts. Nor strange he should be; since the palm-groves scattered over it are all so much alike, and there is no high hill, nor any great eminence, to guide him. Ridges there are, running this way and that; but all only gentle undulations, with no bold projection, or other land-mark that he can remember.
He begins to think he is really strayed, lost; and, believing so, is angry with himself for having turned out of his path—as the path of his duty. Angry at the ostrich, too, that tempted him.
"Avertruz, maldito!" he exclaims, terms in the gaucho vernacular synonymous with "ostrich, be hanged!" adding, as he continues to gaze hopelessly around, "I wish I'd let the long-legged brute go its way. Like as not, it'll hinder me going mine, till too late. And if so, there'll be a pretty tale to tell! Santissima! whatever am I to do? I don't even know the way back to the house; though that wouldn't be any good if I did. I daren't go there without taking some news with me. Well; there's only one thing I can do; ride about, and quarter the pampa, till I see something that'll set me back upon my road."
In conformity with this intention, he once more puts his horse in motion, and strikes off over the plain; but he does not go altogether without a guide, the sun somewhat helping him. He knows that his way to the Indian village is westward, and as the bright luminary is now beginning to descend, it points out that direction, so taking his bearings by it, he rides on. Not far, however, before catching sight of another object, which enables him to steer his course with greater precision. This a tree, a grand vegetable giant of the species called ombu, known to every gaucho—beloved, almost held sacred by him, as affording shade to his sun-exposed and solitary dwelling. The one Gaspar now sees has no house under its wide-spreading branches; but he has himself been under them more than once while out on a hunt, and smoked his cigarrito in their shade. As his eye lights upon it, a satisfied expression comes over his features, for he knows that the tree is on the top of a little loma, or hill, about half-way between the estancia and the Indian town, and nearly in the direct route.
He needs nothing more to guide him now; but instead of riding towards the tree, he rather turns his back upon it, and starts off in a different direction. This because he had already passed the ombu before coming across the ostrich.
Soon again he is back upon the path from which he had strayed, and proceeds along it without further interruption, riding at a rapid pace to make up for the lost time.
Still, he is far from being satisfied with himself. Although he may have done that which will be gratifying to his master, there is a possibility of its displeasing his mistress. Most certainly will it do this, should he not find the missing ones, and have to go home without them. But he has no great fear of that; indeed, is not even uneasy. Why should he be? He knows his master's proclivities, and believes that he has come across some curious and rare specimens, which take time to collect or examine, and this it is which has been retarding his return. Thus reflecting, he continues on, every moment expecting to meet them. But as there is neither road nor any regular path between the two places, he needs to keep scanning the plain, lest on their return he may pass them unobserved.
But he sees nothing of them till reaching the tolderia, and there only the hoof-marks of his master's horse, with those of his young mistress's pony, both conspicuous in the dust-covered ground by the doors of the toldos. But on neither does he dwell, for he, too, as were the others, is greatly surprised to find the place deserted—indeed alarmed, and for a time sits in his saddle as one half-dazed.
Only a short while, for he is not the man to give way to long irresolution, and recovering himself, he rides rapidly about, from toldo to toldo, all over the town, at the same time shouting and calling out his master's name.
For answer, he only has the echoes of his own voice, now and then varied with the howl of a wolf, which, prowling around like himself no doubt wonders, as he, at the place being abandoned.
After a hurried examination of the houses, and seeing there is no one within them, just as Halberger had done, he strikes off on the trail of the departed inhabitants; and with the sun still high enough to light up every track on it, he perceives those made by the dueno's horse, and the more diminutive hoof-prints alongside them.
On he goes following them up, and in a gallop, for they are so fresh and clear he has no need to ride slowly. On in the same gait for a stretch of ten miles, which brings him to the tributary stream at the crossing-place. He rides down to the water's edge, there to be sorely puzzled at what he sees—some scores of other horse-tracks recently made, but turning hither and thither in crowded confusion.
It calls for all his skill as a rastrero, with some considerable time, to unwind the tangled skein. But he at length succeeds, so far as to discover that the whole horse troop, to whomsoever belonging, have recrossed the ford; and crossing it himself, he sees they have gone back up the Pilcomayo river. Among them is one showing a shod hoof; but he knows that has not been made by his master's horse, the bar being larger and broader, with the claw more deeply indented. Besides, he sees not the pony's tracks—though they are or were there—and have been trodden out by the ruck of the other animals trampling after.
The gaucho here turns back; though he intends following the trail further, when he has made a more careful examination of the sign on the other side of the stream; and recrossing, he again sets to scrutinising it. This soon leading him to the place where Halberger entered the sumac grove. Now the gaucho, entering it also, and following the slot along the tapir path, at a distance of some three hundred yards from the crossing, comes out into an open glade, lit up by the last rays of the setting sun, which fall slantingly through the trees standing around. There a sight meets his eye, causing the blood at one moment to run cold through his veins, in the next hot as boiling lava; while from his lips issue exclamations of mingled astonishment and indignation. What he sees is a horse, saddled and with the bridle also on, standing with neck bent down, and head drooped till the nostrils almost touch the earth. But between them and the ground is a figure extended at full stretch; the body of a man to all appearance dead; which at a glance the gaucho knows to be that of his master!
A SILENT FELLOW-TRAVELLER.
Another sun is rising over the Chaco, and its rays, red as the reflection from a fire, begin to glitter through the stems of the palm-trees that grow in scattered topes upon the plains bordering the Pilcomayo. But ere the bright orb has mounted above their crowns, two horsemen are seen to ride out of the sumac grove, in which Ludwig Halberger vainly endeavoured to conceal himself from the assassin Valdez and his savage confederates.
It is not where any of these entered the thicket that the horsemen are coming out, but at a point some half-mile further up the branch stream, and on its higher bank, where it reaches the general level of the upper plain. Here the sumac trees cover the whole slope from the water's edge to the crest of the bordering ridge, on this ending abruptly. Though they stand thinly, and there is room enough for two horsemen to ride abreast, these are not doing so, but one ahead, and leading the other's horse by a raw-hide rope attached to the bitt ring.
In this manner they have ascended the slope, and have now the great plain before them; treeless, save here and there a tope of palms or a scattering of willows around some spot where there is water; but the taller timber is behind them, and soon as they arrive at its edge, he riding ahead reins up his horse, the other stopping at the same time.
There is still a belt of bushes between them and the open ground, of stunted growth, but high enough to hinder their view. To see over them, the leading horseman stands up in his stirrups, and looks out upon the plain, his glances directed all around it. These, earnestly interrogative, tell of apprehension, as of an enemy he might expect to be there, in short, making a reconnaissance to see if the "coast be clear."
That he judges it so is evinced by his settling back into his saddle, and moving on across the belt of bushes; but again, on the skirt of this and before issuing out of it, he draws bridle, and once more makes a survey of the plain.
By this time, the sun having mounted higher in the heavens, shines full upon his face, showing it of dark complexion, darker from the apprehension now clouding it; but of honest cast, and one which would otherwise be cheerful, since it is the face of Caspar, the gaucho.
Who the other is cannot be easily told, even with the bright sun beaming upon him; for his hat, broad-brimmed, is slouched over his forehead, concealing most part of his countenance. The head itself, oddly, almost comically, inclined to one side, droops down till the chin nigh touches his breast. Moreover, an ample cloak, which covers him from neck to ankles, renders his figure as unrecognisable as his face. With his horse following that of the gaucho, who leads him at long halter's reach, he, too, has halted in the outer selvedge of the scrub; still maintaining the same relative position to the other as when they rode out from the sumacs, and without speaking word or making gesture. In fact, he stirs not at all, except such motion as is due to the movement of his horse; but beyond that he neither raises head nor hand, not even to guide the animal, leaving it to be lead unresistingly.
Were the gaucho of warlike habits, and accustomed to making predatory expeditions, he might be taken as returning from one with a captive, whom he is conducting to some safe place of imprisonment. For just like this his silent companion appears, either fast strapped to his own saddle, or who, conquered and completely subdued, has resigned all thoughts of resistance and hopes of escape. But Caspar is essentially a man of peace, which makes it improbable that he, behind, is his prisoner.
Whatever the relationship between them, the gaucho for the present pays no attention to the other horseman, neither speaks to nor turns his eye toward him; for these are now all upon the plain, scanning it from side to side, and all round as far as he can command view of it. He is not himself silent, however, though the words to which he gives utterance are spoken in a low tone, and by way of soliloquy, thus:—
"'Twill never do to go back by the river's bank. Whoever the devils that have done this dastardly thing, they may be still prowling about, and to meet them would be for me to get served the same as they've served him, that's sure; so I'd best take another route, though it be a bit round the corner. Let me see. I think I know a way that should lead tolerably straight to the estancia without touching the river or going anywheres near it. I mustn't even travel within sight of it. If the Tovas have had any hand in this ugly business—and, by the Virgin, I believe they have, however hard it is to think so—some of them may still be near, and possibly a party gone back to their old tolderia. I'll have to give that a wide berth anyhow; so to get across this open stretch without being seen, if there be anyone on it to see me, will need manoeuvring. As it is, there don't appear to be a soul, that's so far satisfactory."
Again he sweeps the grassy expanse with searching glance, his face brightening up as he observes a flock of ostriches on one side, on the other a herd of deer—the birds stalking leisurely along, the beasts tranquilly browsing. Were there Indians upon the plain, it would not be so. Instead, either one or the other would show excitement. The behaviour of the dumb creatures imparting to him a certain feeling of confidence, he says, continuing the soliloquy:—
"I think I may venture it. Nay, I must; and there's no help for't. We have to get home somehow—and soon. Ah! the Senora! poor lady! What will she be thinking by this time? And what when we get back? Valga me Dios! I don't know how I shall ever be able to break it to her, or in what way! It will sure drive her out of her senses, and not much wonder, either. To lose one of them were enough, but both, and—Well, no use dwelling on it now; besides, there's no time to be lost. I must start off at once; and, maybe, as I'm riding on, I'll think of some plan to communicate the sad news to the Senora, without giving her too sudden a shock. Pobrecita!"
At the pitying exclamation he gives a last interrogative glance over the plain; then, with a word to his horse, and a touch of the spur, he moves out into the open, and on; the other animal following, as before, its rider maintaining the same distance and preserving the self-same attitude, silent and gestureless as ever!
While the gaucho and his silent companion were still in halt by the edge of the sumac wood, another horseman could be seen approaching the place, but on the opposite side of the stream, riding direct down to the ford. Descried at any distance, his garb, with the caparison of his horse—the full gaucho panoply of bitted bridle, breast-plate, recado, and caronilla—would tell he is not an Indian. Nor is he; since this third traveller, so early on the road, is Rufino Valdez. As commissioner to the Tovas tribe, he has executed the commission with which he was entrusted, with something besides; and is now on return to make report to his master, El Supremo, leaving the latter to take such other steps as may deem desirable.
The vaqueano has passed the preceding night with the Indians at their camp, leaving it long before daybreak, though Aguara, for certain reasons, very much wished him to return with them to their town, and proposed it. A proposal, for reasons of his own, the cunning Paraguayan declined, giving excuses that but ill satisfied the young cacique, and which he rather reluctantly accepted. He could not, however, well refuse to let Valdez go his way. The man was not a prisoner moreover, his promise to be soon back, as the bearer of rich presents, was an argument irresistible; and influenced by this, more than aught else, Aguara gave him permission to depart.
The young chief's reasons for wishing to detain him were of a kind altogether personal. Much as he likes the captive he is carrying with him, he would rather she had been made captive by other means, and in a less violent manner. And he is now returning to his tribe, not so triumphantly, but with some apprehension as to how he will be received by the elders. What will they say when the truth is told them,—all the details of the red tragedy just enacted? He would lay the blame, where most part of it properly belongs, on the shoulders of the Paraguayan, and, indeed, intends doing so. But he would rather have the latter with him to meet the storm, should there be such, by explaining in his own way, why he killed the other white man. For Valdez had already said something to them of an old hostility between himself and the hunter-naturalist, knowing that the Tovas, as well as other Chaco Indians, acknowledge the rights of the vendetta.
But just for the reason Aguara desires to have him along with him, is the vaqueano inclined to die opposite course; in truth, determined upon it. Not for the world would he now return to the Tovas town. He has too much intelligence for that, or too great regard for his safety— his very life, which he believes, and with good cause, would be more than risked, were he again to show himself among a people whose hospitality he has so outraged. For he knows he as done this, and that there will surely be that storm of which the young cacique is apprehensive—a very tempest of indignation among the elders and friends of the deceased Naraguana, when they hear of the fate which has befallen the harmless stranger, so long living under their late chiefs protection. Therefore, notwithstanding the many promises he has made, not the slightest thought of performing any of them, or even going back on that trail, has Rufino Valdez. Instead, as he rides down the ford of the stream he is thinking to himself, it will be the last time he will have to wade across it, gleeful at the thought of having so well succeeded in what brought him over it at all. Pondering on something besides, another deed of infamy yet to be done, but for which he will not have to come so far up the Pilcomayo.
In spite of his self-gratulation, and the gleams of a joy almost Satanic, which now and then light up his dark sinister countenance, he is not without some apprehensions; this is made manifest by his behaviour as he rides along. Although making what haste he can, he does not rush on in a reckless or careless manner. On the contrary, with due caution, at every turn of the path, stopping and making survey of each new reach before entering upon it. This he did, as the ford opened to his view, keeping under cover of the bushes, till assured there was no one there; then, striking out into the open ground, and riding rapidly for it. And while wading across the stream, his eyes are not upon the water, but sweeping the bank up and down with glances of keen scrutiny.
As he sees no one there, nor the sign of anyone having been—for it is not yet daylight, and too dark for him to note the tracks of Gaspar's horse—he says with a satisfied air, "They're not likely to be coming after the missing pair at so early an hour. Besides, it's too soon. They'll hardly be setting them down as lost till late last night, and so couldn't have tracked them on here yet."
Riding up out of the water, he once more draws rein by its edge, and sits regarding the sumac grove with an expression in his eyes strangely repulsive.
"I've half a mind to go up in there," he mutters, "and see how things stand. I wasn't altogether satisfied with the way we left them, and there's just a possibility he may be still alive. The girl gave so much trouble in getting them parted, I couldn't be quite sure of having killed him outright. If not, he might manage to crawl away, or they coming after in search of him—Carrai! I'll make sure now. It can only delay me a matter of ten minutes, and," he adds glancing up at the blade of his spear, "if need be, another thrust of this."
Soon as forming his devilish resolve, the assassin gives his horse a prick of the spur, and passes on towards the sumac grove, entering at the same place as before, like a tiger skulking back to the quarry it has killed, and been chased away from.
Once inside the thicket, he proceeds along the tapir path, groping his way in the darkness. But he remembers it well, as well he may; and without going astray arrives at a spot he has still better reason to recall; that where, but a little more than twelve hours before, he supposes himself to have committed murder! Delayed along the narrow tortuous track, some time has elapsed since his entering among the sumacs. Only a short while, but long enough to give him a clearer light, for the day has meanwhile dawned, and the place is less shadowed, for it is an open spot where the sanguinary struggle took place.
It is sufficiently clear for him, without dismounting, to distinguish objects on the ground, and note, which at a glance he does, that one he expected to see is not to be seen. No murdered man there; no body, living or dead!
A PARTY NOT TO BE PURSUED.
For some seconds, Rufino Valdez is in a state of semi-bewilderment, from his lips proceeding exclamations that tell of surprise, but more chagrin. Something of weird terror, too, in the expression upon his sallow, cadaverous face, as the grey dawn dimly lights it up.
"Mil demonios!" he mutters, gazing distractedly on the ground. "What does this mean? Is it possible the gringo's got away? Possible? Ay, certain. And his animal, too! Yes, I remember we left that, fools as we were, in our furious haste. It's all clear, and, as I half anticipated, he's been able to climb on the horse, and's off home! There by this time, like enough."
With this double adjuration, he resolves upon dismounting, to make better inspection of the place, and, if possible, assure himself whether his victim has really survived the murderous attack. But just as he has drawn one foot out of the stirrup and is balancing on the other, a sound reaches his ear, causing him to reseat himself in the saddle, and sit listening. Only a slight noise it was, but one in that place of peculiar significance, being the hoof-stroke of a horse.
"Good!" he ejaculates in a whisper, "it must be his."
Hearkening a little longer, he hears the sound again, apparently further off, and as his practised ear tells him, the distance increasing.
"It must be his horse," he reiterates, still continuing to listen. "And who but he on the animal's back? Going off? Yes; slowly enough. No wonder at that. Ha! he's come to a halt. What's the best thing for me to do?"
He sits silently considering, but only for a few seconds; then glancing around the glade, in which yester eve he had shed innocent blood, at the same time losing some of his own, he sees another break among the bushes, where the tapir path goes out again. Faint as the light still is, it shows him some horse-tracks, apparently quite fresh, leading off that way.
He stays not for more, but again plying the spur, re-enters the thicket, not to go back to the ford, but on in the opposite direction. The tapir path takes him up an acclivity, from the stream's edge to the level of the higher plain, and against it he urges his horse to as much speed as the nature of the ground will permit. He has thrown away caution now, and presses forward without fear, expecting soon to see a man on horseback, but so badly crippled as to be easily overtaken, and as easily overcome.
What he does see, on reaching the summit of the slope, is something very different—two horses instead of one, with a man upon the back of each! And though one may be wounded and disabled, as he knows him to be, the other is not so, as he can well see. Instead, a man in full health, strength, and vigour, one Rufino Valdez fears as much as hates, though hating him with his whole heart. For it is Gaspar, the gaucho, once his rival in the affections of a Paraguayan girl, and successful in gaining them.
That the vaqueano's fear now predominates over his antipathy is evident from his behaviour. Instead of dashing on after to overtake the horsemen, who, with backs towards him, are slowly retiring, he shows only a desire to shun them. True, there would be two to one, and he has himself but a single arm available—his left, broken and bandaged, being now in a sling. But then only one of the two would be likely to stand against him, the other being too far gone for light. Indeed, Halberger—for Valdez naturally supposes it to be he—sits drooped in his saddle, as though he had difficulty in keeping to it. Not that he has any idea of attacking them does the vaqueano take note of this, nor has he the slightest thought of attempting to overtake them. Even knew he that the wounded man were about to drop dead, he knows the other would be more than his match, with both his own arms sound and at their best, for they have been already locked in deadly strife with those of the gaucho, who could have taken his life, but generously forebore. Not for the world would Rufino Valdez again engage in single combat with Caspar Mendez, and soon as setting eyes on the latter he draws bridle so abruptly that his horse starts back as if he had trodden upon a rattlesnake.
Quieting the animal with some whispered words, he places himself behind a thick bush, and there stays all of a tremble, the only thing stedfast about him being his gaze, fixed upon the forms of the departing travellers. So carefully does he screen himself, that from the front nothing is visible to indicate the presence of anyone there, save the point of a spear, with dry blood upon the blade, projecting above the bushes, and just touching the fronds of a palm-tree, its ensanguined hue in vivid contrast with the green of the leaves, as guilt and death in the midst of innocence and life!
Not till they have passed almost out of his sight, their heads gradually going down behind the culms of the tall pampas grass, does Rufino Valdez breathe freely. Then his nerves becoming braced by the anger which burns within—a fierce rage, from the old hatred of jealousy, interrupted by this new and bitter disappointment, the thwarting of a scheme, so far successful, but still only half accomplished—he gives utterance to a string of blasphemous anathemas, with threats, in correspondence.
"Carajo!" he cries, winding up with the mildest of his profane exclamations. "Ride on, senores, and get soon home! While there, be happy as you best may. Ha, ha! there won't be much merriment in that nest now, with the young chick out of it—pet bird of the flock; nor long before the whole brood be called upon to forsake it. Soon as I can get to Assuncion and back with a dozen of our quarteleros, ah! won't there be a wiping out of old scores then? If that young fool, Naraguana's son, hadn't shown so chicken-hearted, I might have settled them now; gone home with captives, too, instead of empty-handed. Well, it won't be so long to wait. Let me see. Three days will take me to Assuncion—less if this animal under me wasn't so near worn out; three more to return with the troop. Say a week in all; at the end of which, if there be a man named Caspar Mendez in the land of the living, it won't be he whose head I see out yonder. That will be off his shoulders, or if on them only to help hold in its place the loop-end of my lazo. But I must make haste. For what if Halberger have recognised me? I don't think he did or could; 'twas too dark. If he have, what—ay, what? Of course they'll know that wasn't likely to be the last of it, and that there's something more to come. They'd be simpletons not to think so; and thinking it, still greater fools if they don't take some steps to flee away from this new roost they've been perching upon. But whither can they? The young Tovas chief is compromised with them—dead declared as their enemy so long as he keeps that pretty creature captive in his toldo; and there are others of the tribe will stand by me, I know. The glass beads and other glistening baubles will secure the young, while a few golden onzas skilfully distributed will do the same for the sagamores. No fear then, no failure yet! With the Tovas on my side, there isn't a spot in the Chaco to shelter them. So, caballeros! you can keep on. In a week from this time, I hope to hold an interview with you, less distant and more satisfactory to myself."
After delivering this quaint rigmarole, he sits watching them till their heads finally sink below the sea of grass, the rheas feathers in Caspar's high crowned hat being the last to disappear, as it were waving back defiance and to the death!
Soon as they are out of sight, and he no longer fears an encounter with his old enemy, Valdez turns to the consideration of some other things which have appeared strange to him. At first, why they are riding so slowly, for as long as seen they were proceeding in a walking-gait rarely witnessed upon the pampas, and never where the horseman is a gaucho; for he gallops if it were but to the stream, within a stone's throw of his solitary cabin, to fetch a jar of water!
"Nothing in that," he mutters, "now I come to think of it. Only natural they should be going at snail's pace. Carrai! the wonder is the gringo being able for even that, or go at all. I thought I'd given him his quietus, for surely I sent my spear right through his ribs! It must have struck button, or buckle, or something, and glinted off. Mad fool of me, when I had him down, not to make sure of my work! Well, it's no use blubbering about it now. Next time I'll take better care how the thing's done."
After a short pause, he resumes his strain of interrogative conjecture now on another matter, which has also struck him as being strange.
"Why are they going off that way, I wonder? It isn't their direct route homeward, surely? I don't know the exact spot where the gringo has established himself; but didn't Aguara say the nearest way to it is along the river's bank, down to their old tolderia? If so, certainly they're making a round about. Ha! I fancy I know the reason; natural, too, as the other. The Senor Ludwig must have known they were Tovas who attacked him, and under the belief that they've gone on to their former place of abode, dreads a second encounter with them. No wonder he should, having found them such treacherous allies—enemies instead of friends. Ha, ha, ha! won't that puzzle him? Of course, he hasn't yet heard of Naraguana's death—couldn't—they all said so. Well, it's a bit of good luck for me their going that round. My road lies direct down the river, and now I may proceed upon it without fear of being spied by them. That would never do just yet. They shall have sight of me soon enough—sooner than they'll like it. And this reminds me I mustn't waste any more time here; it's too precious. Now off, and home to El Supremo, who'll jump with very joy at the news I have for him."
Giving his horse a touch of the spur, he heads him along the high bank, still keeping within the skirt of timber, and riding slowly through the tangle of obstructing bushes; but at length getting out upon the old trail, where it goes down to the ford, he turns along it, in the opposite direction, towards the deserted tolderia. And now, with nothing further to obstruct him, he plies the spur vigorously, and keeps on at full gallop, not looking ahead, however, but with eyes all the while scanning the plain to his left, apprehensively, as fearing there to see a tall black hat, with a bunch of ostrich feathers floating above it.
WHY COME THEY NOT?
A night of dread suspense has been passed at the estancia of Ludwig Halberger. No one there has thought of sleep. Even the dark-skinned domestics—faithful Guano Indians—touched with sympathy for the senora, their mistress, do not retire to rest. Instead, retainers all, outside the house as within, sit up throughout the night, taking part with her in the anxious vigil.
As the hours drag wearily along, the keener become her apprehensions; that presentiment of the morning, which during all the day has never left her, now pressing upon her spirit with the weight of woe itself. She could scarce be sadder, or surer that some terrible mischance had happened to her husband and daughter, had she seen it with her own eyes. And were both to be brought back dead, 'twould be almost what she is anticipating.
In vain her son Ludwig, an affectionate lad, essays to cheer her. Do his best to assign or invent reasons for their prolonged absence, he cannot chase the dark shadow from her brow, nor lift the load off her heart. And Cypriano, who dearly loves his aunt, has no more success. Indeed, less, since almost as much does he need cheering himself. For although Francesca's fate is a thing of keen inquietude to the brother, it is yet of keener to the cousin. Love is the strongest of the affections.
But youth, ever hopeful, hinders them from despairing; and despite their solicitude, they find words of comfort for her who hears them without being comforted.
"Keep up heart, mother!" says Ludwig, feigning a cheerfulness he far from feels. "'Twill be all right yet, and we'll see them home to-morrow morning—if not before. You know that father has often stayed out all night."
"Never alone," she despondingly answers. "Never with Francesca. Only when Gaspar was along with him."
"Well, Gaspar's with him now, no doubt; and that'll make all safe. He's sure to have found them. Don't you think so, Cypriano?"
"Oh! yes," mechanically rejoins the cousin, in his heart far from thinking it so, but the reverse. "Wherever they've gone he'll get upon their tracks; and as Gaspar can follow tracks, be they ever so slight, he'll have no difficulty with those of uncle's horse."
"He may follow them," says the senora, heaving a sigh, "but whither will they lead him to. Alas, I fear—"
"Have no fear, tia!" interrupts the nephew, with alacrity, an idea occurring to him. "I think I know what's detaining them—at least, it's very likely."
"What?" she asks, a spark of hopefulness for an instant lighting up her saddened eyes; Ludwig, at the same time, putting the question.
"Well," replies Cypriano, proceeding to explain, "you know how uncle takes it, when he comes across a new object of natural history, or anything in the way of a curiosity. It makes him forget everything else, and everybody too. Suppose while riding over the campo he chanced upon something of that sort, and stayed to secure it? It may have been too big to be easily brought home."
"No, no!" murmurs the senora, the gleam of hope departing suddenly as it had sprung up. "It cannot be that."
"But it can, and may," persists the youth, "for there's something I haven't yet told you, tia—a thing which makes it more probable."
Again she looks to him inquiringly, as does Ludwig, both listening with all ears for the answer.
"The thing I'm speaking of is an ostrich."
"Why an ostrich? your uncle could have no curiosity about that. He sees them every day."
"True, but it's not every day he can catch them. And it was only yesterday I heard him tell Caspar he wanted one, a cock bird, for some purpose or other, though what, he didn't say. Now, it's likely, almost certain, that while on their way to the tolderia, or coming back, he has seen one, given chase to it, leaving Francesca somewhere to wait for him. Well, tia, you know what an ostrich is to chase? Now lagging along as if you could easily throw the noose round its neck, then putting on a fresh spurt—'twould tempt any one to keep on after it. Uncle may have got tantalised in that very way, and galloped leagues upon leagues without thinking of it. To get back to Francesca, and then home, would take all the time that's passed yet. So don't let us despair."
The words well meant, and not without some show of reason, fail, however, to bring conviction to the senora. Her heart is too sad, the presentiment too heavy on it, to be affected by any such sophistry. In return, she says despairingly—
"No, sobrino! that's not it. It your uncle had gone after an ostrich, you forget that Caspar has gone after him. If he had found them, they'd all have been back before this. Ay de mi! I know they'll never be back—never more!"
"Nay, mamma! don't say that," breaks in Ludwig, flinging his arms around her neck, and kissing the tears from her cheek. "What Cypriano says appears to me probable enough, and likely to be true. But if it isn't, I think I can tell what is."
Again the sorrowing mother looks inquiringly up; Cypriano, in turn, becoming listener.
"My idea," pursues Ludwig, "is that they went straight on to the tolderia, and are there still—detained against their will."
Cypriano starts, saying. "What makes you think that, cousin?"
"Because of Naraguana. You know how the old Indian's given to drinking guarape. Every now and then he gets upon a carousal, and keeps it up for days, sometimes weeks. And he may be at that now, which would account for none of them having been to see us lately. If that's the reason, the silly old fellow might just take it into his head to detain father and Francesca. Not from any ill will, but only some crazy notion of his own. Now, isn't that likely enough?"
"But Gaspar? they wouldn't detain him. Nor would he dare stay, after what I said to him at parting."
It is the senora who speaks, for Cypriano is now all absorbed in thoughts which fearfully afflict him.
"Gaspar couldn't help himself, mamma, any more than father or sister. If the chief be as I've said—intoxicated—all the other Indians will be the same, sure enough; and Gaspar would have to stay with them, if they wished it. Now, it's my opinion they have wished it, and are keeping all of them there for the night. No doubt, kindly entertaining them, in their own rough way, however much father and Francesca may dislike it, and Gaspar growl at it. But it'll be all right. So cheer up, madre mia! We'll see them home in the morning—by breakfast time, or before it."
Alas! Ludwig's forecast proves a failure; as his mother too surely expected it would. Morning comes, but with it no word of the missing ones. Nor is any sign seen of them by anxious eyes, that from earliest daybreak have been scanning the plain, which stretches away in front of the estancia. Nothing moves over it but the wild creatures, its denizens; while above it, on widely extended wings, soars a flock of black vultures—ill omen in that moment of doubt and fear.
And so passes the hour of breakfast, with other hours, on till it is mid-day, but still no human being appears upon the plain. 'Tis only later, when the sun began to throw elongated shadows, that one is seen there, upon horseback, and going in a gallop; but he is heading from the house, and not toward it. For the rider is Cypriano himself, who, no longer able to bear the torturing suspense, has torn himself away from aunt and cousin, to go in search of his uncle and another cousin— the last dearer than all.
A TEDIOUS JOURNEY.
It yet wants full two hours of sunset, as the gaucho and his companion come within sight of the estancia. Still, so distant, however, that the house appears not bigger than a dove-cot—a mere fleck of yellow, the colour of the cana brava, of which its walls are constructed—half hidden by the green foliage of the trees standing around it. The point from which it is viewed is on the summit of a low hill, at least a league off, and in a direct line between the house itself and the deserted Indian village. For although the returning travellers have not passed through the latter place, but, for reasons already given, intentionally avoided it, the route they had taken, now nearer home, has brought them back into that, between it and the estancia.
A slow journey they have made. It is all of eight hours since, at earliest sunrise, they rode out from among the sumac trees on the bank of the branch stream; and the distance gone over cannot be much more than twenty miles. Under ordinary circumstances the gaucho would have done it in two hours, or less.
As it is, he has had reasons for delaying, more than one. First, his desire to make the journey without being observed; and to guard against this, he has been zig-zagging a good deal, to take advantage of such cover as was offered by the palm-groves and scattered copses of quebracho.
A second cause retarding him has been the strange behaviour of his travelling companion, whose horse he has had to look after all along the way. Nothing has this rider done for himself, nor is yet doing; neither guides the horse, nor lays hand upon the bridle-rein, which, caught over the saddle-bow, swings loosely about. He does not even urge the animal on by whip or spur. And as for word, he has not spoken one all day, neither to the gaucho, nor in soliloquy to himself! Silent he is, as when halted by the edge of the sumac wood, and in exactly the same attitude; the only change observable being his hat, which is a little more slouched over his face, now quite concealing it.
But the two causes assigned are not the only ones why they have been so long in reaching the spot where they now are. There is a third influencing the gaucho. He has not wished to make better speed. Nor does he yet desire it, as is evident by his actions. For now arrived on the hill's top, within sight of home, instead of hastening on towards it he brings his horse to a dead halt, the other, as if mechanically, stopping too. It is not that the animals are tired, and need rest. The pause is for a different purpose; of which some words spoken by the gaucho to himself, give indication. Still in the saddle, his face turned towards the distant dwelling, with eyes intently regarding it, he says:—
"Under that roof are three hearts beating anxiously now, I know. Soon to be sadder, though; possibly, one of them to break outright. Pobere senora! what will she say when she hears—when she sees this? Santissima! 'twill go wellnigh killing her, if it don't quite!"
While speaking, he has glanced over his shoulder at the other horseman, who is half a length behind. But again facing to the house, and fixing his gaze upon it, he continues:—
"And Cypriano—poor lad! He'll have his little heart sorely tried, too. So fond of his cousin, and no wonder, such a sweet chiquitita. That will be a house of mourning, when I get home to it!"
Once more he pauses in his muttered speech, as if to consider something. Then, looking up at the sun, proceeds:
"It'll be full two hours yet before that sets. Withal I must wait for its setting. 'Twill never do to take him home in broad daylight. No; she mustn't see him thus, and sha'n't—if I can help it. I'll stop here till it's dark, and, meanwhile, think about the best way of breaking it to her. Carramba! that will be a scene! I could almost wish myself without eyes, rather than witness it. Ah! me! It'll be enough painful to listen to their lamentations."
In conformity with, the intention just declared, he turns his horse's head towards a grand ombu—growing not far off—the same which, the day before, guided him back to his lost way—and riding on to it pulls up beneath its spreading branches. The other horse, following, stops too. But the man upon his back stays there, while the gaucho acts differently; dismounting, and attaching the bridles of both horses to a branch of the tree. Then he stretches himself along the earth, not to seek sleep or rest, but the better to give his thoughts to reflection, on that about which he has been speaking.
He has not been many minutes in his recumbent attitude before being aroused from it. With his ears so close to the ground, sounds are carried to him from afar, and one now reaching them causes him first to start into a sitting posture, and then stand upon his feet. It is but the trample of a horse, and looking in the direction whence it comes sees the animal itself, and its rider soon is seen, recognising both.
"Cypriano!" he mechanically exclaims, adding, "Pobrecito! He's been impatient; anxious; too much to stay for my return, and now's coming after."
It is Cypriano, approaching from the direction of the house whence he has but lately started, and at great speed, urged on by the anxiety which oppresses him. But he is not heading for the ombu, instead, along the more direct path to the Indian town, which would take him past the tree at some three hundred yards' distance.
He does not pass it, nevertheless. Before he has got half-way up the hill, Caspar, taking the bridle of his own horse from the branch, leaps into the saddle, and gallops down to meet him. The gaucho has a reason for not hailing him at a distance, or calling him to come under the ombu, till he first held speech with him.
"Caspar!" shouts the youth excitedly, soon as he catches sight of the other coming towards him. "What news? Oh? you've not found them! I see you haven't!"
"Calm yourself, young master!" rejoins the gaucho, now close up to him; "I have found them—that is, one of them."
"Only one—which?" half distractedly interrogates the youth.
"Your uncle—but, alas—"
"Dead—dead! I know it by the way you speak. But my cousin! Where is she? Still living? Say so, Caspar! Oh, say but that!"
"Come senorito, be brave; as I know you are. It may not be so bad for the nina, your cousin. I've no doubt she's still alive, though I've not been successful in finding her. As for your uncle, you must prepare yourself to see something that'll pain you. Now, promise me you'll bear it bravely—say you will, and come along with me!"
At this Gaspar turns his horse, and heads him back for the ombu, the other silently following, stunned almost beyond the power of speech. But once under the tree, and seeing what he there sees, it returns to him. Then the gaucho is witness to an exhibition of grief and rage, both wild as ever agitated the breast of a boy.
Once more the sun is going down over the pampa, but still nothing seen upon it to cheer the eyes of the Senora Halberger, neither those first missing, nor they who went after. One after another she has seen them depart, but in vain looks for their return.
And now, as she stands with eyes wandering over that grassy wilderness, she can almost imagine it a maelstrom or some voracious monster, that swallows up all who venture upon it. As the purple of twilight assumes the darker shade of night, it seems to her as though some unearthly and invisible hand were spreading a pall over the plain to cover her dear ones, somewhere lying dead upon it.
She is in the verandah with her son, and side by side they stand gazing outward, as long as there is light for them to see. Even after darkness has descended they continue to strain their eyes mechanically, but despairingly, she more hopeless and feeling more forlorn than ever. All gone but Ludwig! for even her nephew may not return. Where Caspar, a strong man and experienced in the ways of the wilderness, has failed to find the lost ones, what chance will there be for Cypriano? More like some cruel enemy has made captives of them all, killing all, one after the other, and he, falling into the same snare, has been sacrificed as the rest!
Dark as is this hour of her apprehension, there is yet a darker one in store for her; but before it there is to be light, with joy—alas! short-lived as that bright, garish gleam of sun which often precedes the wildest burst of a storm. Just as the last ray of hope has forsaken her, a house-dog, lying outstretched by the verandah starts to its feet with a growl, and bounding off into the darkness, sets up a sonorous baying.
Both mother and son step hastily forward to the baluster rail, and resting hands on it, again strain their eyes outward, now as never before, at the same time listening as for some signal sound, on the hearing of which hung their very lives.
Soon they both hear and see what gives them gladness unspeakable, their ears first imparting it by a sound sweeter to them than any music, for it is the tread of horses' hoofs upon the firm turf of the plain; and almost in the same instant they see the horses themselves, each with a rider upon its back.
The exclamation that leaps from the mother's lips is the cry of a heart long held in torture suddenly released, and without staying to repeat it, she rushes out of the verandah and on across the patch of enclosed ground—not stopping till outside the palings which enclose it. Ludwig following, comes again by her side, and the two stand with eyes fixed on the approaching forms, there now so near that they are able to make out their number.
But this gives them surprise, somewhat alarming them afresh. For there are but three where there should be four.
"It must be your father and Francesca, with Caspar," says the senora, speaking in doubt. "Cypriano has missed them all, I suppose. But he'll come too—"
"No, mother," interrupts Ludwig, "Cypriano is there. I can see a white horse, that must be his."
"Gaspar then; he it is that's behind."
She says this with a secret hope it may be so.
"It don't look like as if Gaspar was behind," returns Ludwig, hesitating in his speech, for his eyes, as his heart, tell him there is still something amiss. "Two of them," he continues, "are men, full grown, and the third is surely Cypriano."
They have no time for further discussion or conjecture—no occasion for it. The three shadowy figures are now very near, and just as the foremost pulls up in front of the palings, the moon bursting forth from behind a cloud flashes her full light upon his face, and they see it is Gaspar. The figures farther off are lit up at the same time, and the senora recognises them as her husband and nephew. A quick searching glance carried behind to the croups of their horses shows her there is no one save those seated in the saddle.
"Where is Francesca?" she cries out in agonised accents. "Where is my daughter?"
No one makes answer; not any of them speaks. Gaspar, who is nearest, but hangs his head, as does his master behind him.
"What means all this?" is her next question, as she dashes past the gaucho's horse, and on to her husband, as she goes crying out, "Where is Francesca? What have you done with my child?"
He makes no reply, nor any gesture—not even a word to acknowledge her presence! Drawing closer she clutches him by the knee, continuing her distracted interrogatories.
"Husband! why are you thus silent? Ludwig, dear Ludwig, why don't you answer me? Ah! now I know. She is dead—dead!"
"Not she, but he," says a voice close to her ear—that of Gaspar, who has dismounted and stepped up to her.
"Alas! senora, my master, your husband."
"O Heavens! can this be true?" as she speaks, stretching her arms up to the inanimate form, still in the saddle—for it is fast tied there—and throwing them around it; then with one hand lifting off the hat, which falls from her trembling fingers, she gazes on a ghastly face, and into eyes that return not her gaze. But for an instant, when, with a wild cry, she sinks back upon the earth, and lies silent, motionless, the moonbeams shimmering upon her cheeks, showing them white and bloodless, as if her last spark of life had departed!
ON THE TRAIL.
It is the day succeeding that on which the hunter-naturalist was carried home a corpse, sitting upright in his saddle. The sun has gone down over the Gran Chaco, and its vast grassy plains and green palm-groves are again under the purple of twilight. Herds of stately quazutis and troops of the pampas roebuck—beautiful creatures, spotted like fawns of the fallow-deer—move leisurely towards their watering-places, having already browsed to satiety on pastures where they are but rarely disturbed by the hunter, for here no sound of horse nor baying of molossian ever breaks the stillness of the early morn, and the only enemies they have habitually to dread are the red puma and yellow jaguar, throughout Spanish America respectively, but erroneously, named lion (leon) and tiger (tigre), from a resemblance, though a very slight one, which these, the largest of the New World's felidae, bear to their still grander congeners of the Old.
The scene we are about to depict is upon the Pilcomayo's bank, some twenty miles above the old tomeria of the Tovas Indians, and therefore thirty from the house of Ludwig Halberger—now his no more, but a house of mourning. The mourners, however, are not all in it, for by a camp-fire freshly kindled at the place we speak of; two of them are seen seated. One is the son of the murdered man, the other his nephew; while not far off is a third individual, who mourns almost as much as either. Need I say it is Caspar, the gaucho?
Or is it necessary to give explanation of their being thus far from home so soon after that sad event, the cause of their sorrow? No. The circumstances speak for themselves; telling than to be there on an errand connected with that same crime; in short, in pursuit of the criminals.
Who these may be they have as yet no definite knowledge. All is but blind conjectures, the only thing certain being that the double crime has been committed by Indians; for the trail which has conducted to the spot they are now on, first coming down the river's bank to the branch stream, then over its ford and back again, could have been made only by a mounted party of red men.
But of what tribe? That is the question which puzzles them. Not the only one, however. Something besides causes them surprise, equally perplexing them. Among the other hoof-marks, they have observed some that must have been made by a horse with shoes on; and as they know the Chaco Indians never ride such, the thing strikes them as very strange. It would not so much, were the shod-tracks only traceable twice along the trail; that is, coming down the river and returning up again, for they might suppose that one of the savages was in possession of a white man's horse, stolen from some of the settlements, a thing of no uncommon occurrence. But then they have here likewise observed a third set of these tracks, of older date, also going up, and a fourth, freshest of all, returning down again; the last on top of everything else, continuing on to the old tolderia, as they have noticed all the way since leaving it.
And in their examination of the many hoof-marks by the force of the tributary stream, up to the sumac thicket—and along the tapir path to that blood-stained spot which they have just visited—the same tracks are conspicuous amid all the others, telling that he who rode the shod horse has had a hand in the murder, and likely a leading one.
It is the gaucho who has made most of these observations, but about the deductions to be drawn from them, he is, for the time, as much at fault as either of his younger companions.
They have just arrived at their present halting-place, their first camp since leaving the estancia; from which they parted a little before mid-day: soon as the sad, funeral rites were over, and the body of the murdered man laid in its grave. This done at an early hour of the morning, for the hot climate of the Chaco calls for quick interment.
The sorrowing wife did nought to forbid their departure. She had her sorrows as a mother, too; and, instead of trying to restrain, she but urged them to take immediate action in searching for her lost child.
That Francesca is still living they all believe, and so long as there seemed a hope—even the slightest—of recovering her, the bereaved mother was willing to be left alone. Her faithful Guanos would be with her.
It needed no persuasive argument to send the searchers off. In their own minds they have enough motive for haste; and, though in each it might be different in kind, as in degree, with all it is sufficiently strong. Not one of them but is willing to risk his life in the pursuit they have entered upon; and at least one would lay it down rather than fail in finding Francesca, and restoring her to her mother.
They have followed thus far on the track of the abductors, but without any fixed or definite plan as to continuing. Indeed, there has been no time to think of one, or anything else; all hitherto acting under that impulse of anxiety for the girl's fate which they so keenly feel. But now that the first hurried step has been taken, and they can go no further till another sun lights up the trail, calmer reflection comes, admonishing them to greater caution in their movements. For they who have so ruthlessly killed one man would as readily take other lives— their own. What they have undertaken is no mere question of skill in taking up a trail, but an enterprise full of peril; and they have need to be cautious how they proceed upon it.
They are so acting now. Their camp-fire is but a small one, just sufficient to boil a kettle of water for making the mate, and the spot where they have placed it is in a hollow, so that it may not be seen from afar. Besides, a clump of palms screens it on the western side, the direction in which the trail leads, and therefore the likeliest for them to apprehend danger.
Soon as coming to a stop, and before kindling the fire Gaspar has gone all around, and made a thorough survey of the situation. Then, satisfied it is a safe one, he undertakes the picketing of their horses, directing the others to set light to the faggots; which they have done, and seated themselves beside.
WHO RODE THE SHOD HORSE?
While waiting for the gaucho to rejoin them by the fire the two youths are not silent, but converse upon the event which saddens and still mystifies them. For up till this moment they have not seen anything, nor can they think of aught to account for the calamity which has befallen them—the double crime that has been committed. No more can they conceive who have been the perpetrators; though Cypriano all along has had his suspicions. And now for the first time he communicates them to his cousin, saying—
"It's been the work of Tovas Indians."
"Impossible, Cypriano!" exclaims Ludwig in surprise. "Why should they murder my poor father? What motive could they have had for it?"
"Motive enough; at least one of them had."
"One! who mean you?"
"Aguara! But why he of all the others? And for what?"
"For what? Simply to get possession of your sister."
Ludwig starts, showing greater astonishment than ever.
"Cypriano!" he exclaims; "what do you mean?"
"Just what I've said, cousin. You're perhaps not aware of what I've myself known for long; that the chief's son has been fixing his eyes on Francesca."
"The scoundrel!" cries Ludwig, with increasing indignation, for the first time apprised of the fact thus made known to him. Unobservant of such things generally, it had never occurred to him to reflect on what had long been patent to the jealous eyes of Cypriano. Besides, the thing seemed so absurd, even preposterous—a red-skinned savage presuming to look upon his sister in the light of a sweetheart, daring to love her—that the son of the Prussian naturalist, with all the prejudices of race, could not be otherwise than incredulous of it.
"Are you sure of that?" he questions, still doubting. "Sure of what you've said, Cypriano?"
"Quite sure," is the confident rejoinder; "more than once I've observed Aguara's free behaviour towards my cousin; and once would have thrashed the impudent redskin, but for uncle interfering. He was afraid it might get us into trouble with Naraguana."
"But did father himself know of it? I mean about Aguara and Francesca?"
"No. I rather think not. And I disliked telling him."
All this is new light to Ludwig, and turns his thoughts into the same channel of suspicion where those of Cypriano have been already running. Still, whatever he may think of Naraguana's son, he cannot bring himself to believe that Naraguana has been guilty. His father's friend, and hitherto their protector!
"It cannot be!" he exclaims; "surely it cannot be!"
"It may be for all that, and in my opinion is. Ah! cousin, there's no telling how an Indian will act. I never knew one who didn't turn treacherous when it served his purpose. Whether the old chief has been so or not, I'm quite sure his son has. Take my word for it, Ludwig, it's the Tovas Indians who've done this deed, and it will be with them we'll have to deal."
"But whither can they have gone? and why went they off so suddenly and secretly, without letting father or any of us know. All that certainly seems strange."
"Not so strange when we think of what's happened since. My idea is, it's been all a planned thing. Aguara got his father to agree to his carrying off Francesca; and the old chief, controlled by the young one, let him take his way. Fearing to face uncle he first went off, taking the whole tribe along; and they're now, no doubt, residing in some distant part of the Chaco, where they suppose we'll never go after them. But Francesca will be there too; and we must follow and find her—ay, if we have to lay down our lives when she's found. Shall we not, cousin?"
"Yes; shall and will!" is Ludwig's rejoinder in a tone of determination; their dialogue getting interrupted by Gaspar coming back to the camp-fire, and saying—
"Now, senoritos! It's high time we had some supper."
On making this announcement the gaucho himself sets about preparing their evening repast. It requires no great effort of culinary skill; since the more substantial portion of it has been already cooked, and is now presented in the shape of a cold shoulder of mutton, with a cake of corn bread, extracted from a pair of alparejas, or saddle-bags. In the Chaco there are sheep—the Indians themselves breeding them—while since settling there the hunter-naturalist had not neglected either pastoral or agricultural pursuits. Hence the meal from which came that cake of maize-bread.
With these two pieces de resistance nothing remains but to make a cup of "Paraguay tea," for which Gaspar has provided all the materials, viz., an iron kettle for boiling water, cups of cocoa-nut shell termed mates—for this is the name of the vessel, not the beverage—and certain tubes, the bombillas, to serve as spoons; the Paraguayan tea being imbibed, not in the ordinary way, but sucked up through these bombillas. All the above implements, with a little sugar for sweetening; and, lastly, the yerba itself, has the thoughtful gaucho brought along. No milk, however; the lacteal fluid not being deemed a necessary ingredient in the cup which cheers the Paraguayan people, without intoxicating them.
Gaspar—as all gauchos, skilled in the concoction of it—in a short time has the three mates brimful of the brew. Then the bombillas are inserted, and the process of sucking commences; suspended only at intervals while the more substantial mutton and maize-bread are being masticated.
Meanwhile, as a measure of security, the camp-fire has been extinguished, though they still keep their places around its embers. And while eating, converse; Cypriano imparting to Gaspar the suspicions he has already communicated to his cousin.
It is no new idea to the gaucho; instead, the very one his own thoughts have been dwelling upon. For he, too, had long observed the behaviour of the young Tovas chief towards the daughter of his dueno. And what has now occurred seems to coincide with that—all except the supposed treachery of Naraguana. A good judge of character, as most gauchos are, Gaspar cannot think of the aged cacique having turned traitor. Still, as Ludwig, he is at a loss what to think. For why should the Tovas chief have made that abrupt departure from his late abiding place? The reason assigned by Cypriano is not, to his view, satisfactory; though he cannot imagine any other. So, they finish their suppers and retire to rest, without having arrived at any certain conclusion, one way or the other.
With heads rested upon their saddles, and their ponchos wrapped around them, they seek sleep, Ludwig first finding it; next Cypriano, though he lies long awake—kept so by torturing thoughts. But tired nature at length overpowers him, and he too sinks into slumber.
The gaucho alone surrenders not to the drowsy god; but, repelling his attacks, still lies reflecting. Thus run his reflections—as will be seen, touching near the truth:
"Carramba! I can think of but one man in all the world who had an interest in the death of my dear master. One there was who'd have given a good deal to see him dead—that's El Supremo. No doubt he searched high and low for us, after we gave him the slip. But then, two years gone by since! One would think it enough to have made him almost forget us. Forgive, no! that wouldn't be Senor Jose Francia. He never forgives. Nor is it likely he has forgotten, either, what the dueno did. Crossing him in his vile purpose, was just the sort of thing to stick in his crop for the remainder of his life; and I shouldn't wonder if it's his hand has been here. Odd, those tracks of a shod horse; four times back and forward! And the last of them, by their look, must have been made as late as yesterday—some time in the early morning, I should say. Beyond the old tolderia, downward, they've gone. I wish I'd turned a bit that way as we came up, so as to be sure of it. Well, I'll find that out, when we get back from this pursuit; which I very much fear will prove a wild goose chase."
For a time he lies without stirring, or moving a muscle, on his back, with eyes seemingly fixed upon the stars, like an ancient astrologer in the act of consulting them for the solution of some deep mystery hidden from mortal ken. Then, as if having just solved it, he gives a sudden start, exclaiming:
"Sangre de Crista! that's the explanation of all, the whole affair; murder, abduction, everything."
His words, though only muttered, awaken Cypriano, still only half-asleep.
"What is it, Gaspar?" questions the youth.
"Oh, nothing, senorito; only a mosquito that took a fancy to stick its bill into the bridge of my nose. But I've given Master Zancudo his quietus; and he won't trouble me again."
Though the gaucho thinks he has at last got the clue to what has been mystifying them, like all skilled tacticians he intends for a time keeping it to himself. So, saying no more, he leaves his young companion to return to his slumbers: which the latter soon does. Himself now more widely awake than ever, he follows up the train of thought Cypriano had interrupted.
"It's clear that Francia has at length found out our whereabouts. I wonder he didn't do so long ago; and have often warned the dueno of the danger we were in. Of course, Naraguana kept him constantly assured; and with war to the knife between the Tovas and Paraguayans, no wonder my poor master was too careless and confident. But something has happened lately to affect their relations. The Indians moving so mysteriously away from their old place shows it. And these shod-tracks tell, almost for sure, that some white man has been on a visit to them, wherever they are now. Just as sure about this white man being an emissary from El Supremo. And who would his emissary be? Who sent on such an errand so likely as him?"
The emphasis on the "him" points to some one not yet mentioned, but whom the gaucho has in his mind. Soon, however, he gives the name, saying:
"The scoundrel who bestrode that horse—and a thorough scoundrel too—is Rufino Valdez. Assassin, besides! It's he who has murdered my master. I'd lay my life on it."
After arriving at this conclusion, he adds:
"What a pity I didn't think of this before! If but yesterday morning! He must have passed along the trail going back, and alone? Ah! the chance I've let escape me! Such an opportunity for settling old scores with Senor Rufino! Well, he and I may meet yet; and if we do, one of us will have to stay on the spot where that encounter takes place, or be carried from it feet foremost. I think I know which would go that way, and which the other."
Thus predicating, the gaucho pulls his poncho around his shoulders, and composes himself for sleep; though it is some time before he succeeds in procuring it.
But Morpheus coming to his aid, proves too many for the passions which agitate him; and he at length sinks into a profound slumber, not broken till the curassows send up their shrill cries—as the crowing of Chanticleer—to tell that another day is dawning upon the Chaco.
THE "LOST BALL."
Travellers on such an errand as that which is carrying the gaucho and his youthful companions across the Chaco, do not lie abed late; and they are up and stirring as the first streak of blue-grey light shows itself above the horizon.
Again a tiny fire is kindled; the kettle hung over it; and the mates, with the bombillas, called into requisition.
The breakfast is just as was their supper—cold mutton, corn bread, and yerba tea.
By the time they have despatched it, which they do in all haste, it is clear enough to permit of their taking up the trail they have been following. So, saddling their horses, they return to, and proceed along it.
As hitherto, it continues up the bank of the Pilcomayo, and at intervals they observe the tracks of Francesca's pony, where they have not been trampled out by the other horses behind. And, as on the preceding day, they see the hoof-marks of the shod animal, both going and returning— the return track evidently the more recently made. They notice them, however, only up to a certain point—about twenty miles beyond the crossing-place of that tributary stream, now so full of sad interest to them. Here, in a grove of algarobias, they come upon the spot where those they are in pursuit of must have made their night bivouac; this told by some fragments of food lying scattered around, and the grass burnt in two places—large circular discs where their camp-fires had been kindled. The fires are out, and the ashes cold now; for that must have been two nights before.
Dismounting, they too make halt by the algarobia grove—partly to breathe their horses, which have been all the morning kept at top speed, through their anxiety to overtake the Indians—but more for the sake of giving examination to the abandoned camp, in the hope that something left there may lead to further elucidation of the crime and its causes; possibly enable them to determine, beyond doubt, who have been its perpetrators.
At first nothing is found to give them the slightest clue; only the ashes and half-burned faggots of the fires, with some bits of sipos— which have been cut from creeping plants entwining the trees overhead— the corresponding pieces, in all likelihood, having been used as rope tackle for some purpose the gaucho cannot guess. These, and the fragments of food already referred to, with some bones of birds clean picked, and the shells of a half-score ostrich eggs, are all the debris they can discover.
But none of these items give any indication as to who made bivouac there; beyond the fact, already understood and unquestioned, that they were Indians, with the further certainty of their having stayed on the spot over-night; this shown by the grass pressed down where their bodies had lain astretch; as also the circular patches browsed bare by their horses, around the picket pins which had held them.
Indians certainly; but of what tribe there is nothing on that spot to tell—neither sign nor token.
So concluding, Cypriano and Ludwig have climbed back into their saddles—the former terribly impatient to proceed—but Gaspar still stays afoot, holding his horse by the bridle at long reach, and leading the animal about from place to place, as if not yet satisfied with the search they have made. For there are spots where the grass is long, and the ground rough, overgrown also with weeds and bushes. Possibly among these he may yet discover something.
And something he does discover—a globe-shaped object lying half-hid among the weeds, about the size and colour of a cricket ball. This to you, young reader; for Gaspar knows nothing of your national game. But he knows everything about balls of another kind—the bolas—that weapon, without which a South American gaucho would feel as a crusader of the olden time lacking half his armour.
And it is a bola that lies before him; though one of a peculiar kind, as he sees after stooping and taking it up. A round stone covered with cow's skin; this stretched and sewed over it tight as that on a tennis ball.
But to the bola there is no cord attached, nor mark of where one has ever been. For there never has been such, as Gaspar at a glance perceives. Well knows the gaucho that the ball he holds in his hand has not been one of a pair strung together—as with the ordinary bolas— nor of three in like manner united, as is sometimes the case; but a bola, for still it is a bola, of a sort different from either, both in its make and the mode of using it, as also the effect it is designed to produce.
"What is it, Gaspar?" simultaneously interrogate the two, as they see him so closely examining the thing he has picked up. At the same time they turn their horses' heads towards him.
"Una bola perdida."
"Ah! a ball the Indians have left behind—lost, you mean."
"No, senoritos; I don't mean that, exactly. Of course, the redskins have left it behind, and so lost it. But that isn't the reason of my calling it a bola perdida."
"Why, then, Caspar?" asks Ludwig, with the hereditary instincts of the savant, like his father, curious about all such things. "Why do you call it a lost ball?"
"Because that's the name we gauchos give it, and the name by which it is known among those who make use of it—these Chaco Indians."
"And pray, what do they use it for? I never heard of the thing. What is its purpose?"
"One for which, I hope, neither it nor any of its sort will ever be employed upon us. The Virgin forbid! For it is no child's toy, I can assure you, senoritos; but a most murderous weapon. I've witnessed its effects more than once—seen it flung full thirty yards, and hit a spot not bigger than the breadth of my hand; the head of a horse, crushing in the animal's skull as if done by a club of quebracha. Heaven protect me, and you too, muchachos, from ever getting struck by a bola perdida!"
"But why a lost ball?" asks Ludwig, with curiosity still unsatisfied.
"Oh! that's plain enough," answers the gaucho. "As you see, when once launched there's no knowing where it may roll to; and often gets lost in the long grass or among bushes; unlike the ordinary bolas, which stick to the thing aimed at—that is, if thrown as they should be."
"What do you make of its being found here?" interrogates Cypriano, more interested about the ball in a sense different from the curiosity felt by his cousin.
"Much," answers Caspar, looking grave, but without offering explanation; for he seems busied with some calculation, or conjecture.
"Indeed!" simultaneously exclaim the others, with interest rekindled, Cypriano regarding him with earnest glance.
"Yes, indeed, young masters," proceeds the gaucho. "The thing I now hold in my hand has once, and not very long ago, been in the hands of a Tovas Indian!"
"A Tovas!" exclaims Cypriano, excitedly. "What reason have you for thinking so?"
"The best of all reasons. Because, so far as is known to me, no other Chaco Indians but they use the bola perdida. That ball has been handled, mislaid, and left here behind by a Tovas traitor. You are right, senorito," he adds, speaking to Cypriano. "Whoever may have murdered my poor master, your uncle, Aguara is he who has carried off your cousin."
"Let us on!" cries Cypriano, without another word. "O, Ludwig!" he adds, "we mustn't lose a moment, nor make the least delay. Think of dear Francesca in the power of that savage beast. What may he not do with her?"
Ludwig needs no such urging to lead him on. His heart of brother is boiling with rage, as that of son almost broken by grief; and away ride they along the trail, with more haste and greater earnestness than ever.
OBSTRUCTED BY A "BISCACHERA."
In their fresh "spurt," the trackers had not proceeded very far when compelled to slacken speed, and finally come to a dead stop. This from something seen before them upon the plain which threatens to bar their further progress—at least in the course they are pursuing.
The thing thus obstructing causes them neither surprise nor alarm, only annoyance; for it is one with which they all are familiar—a biscachera, or warren of biscachas.
It is scarce possible to travel twenty miles across the plains bordering the La Plata or Parana, without coming upon the burrows of this singular rodent; a prominent and ever-recurring feature in the scenery. There the biscacha, or viscacha—as it is indifferently spelt—plays pretty much the same part as the rabbit in our northern lands. It is, however, a much larger animal, and of a quite different species or genus—the lagostoinus trichodactylus. In shape of head, body, and other respects, it more resembles a gigantic rat; and, like the latter, it has a long tapering tail, which strengthens the resemblance. But, unlike either rabbit or rat, its hind feet are furnished with but three toes; hence its specific name, trichodactylus. The same scarcity of toes is a characteristic of the agoutis, capivaras, and so called "Guinea pigs," all of which are cousins-german of the biscacha.
The latter makes its burrows very much in the same manner as the North-American marmot (Arctomys Ludoviciana), better known by the name of "prairie dog;" only that the subterranean dwellings of the biscacha are larger, from the needs of a bigger-bodied animal. But, strange to say, in these of the pampa there exists the same queer companionship as in those of the prairie—a bird associating with the quadruped—a species of owl, the Athene cunicularia. This shares occupation with the biscacha, as does the other, an allied species, with the prairie dog. Whether the bird be a welcome recipient of the beast's hospitality, or an intruder upon it, is a question still undetermined; but the latter seems the more probable, since, in the stomachs of owls of the northern species, are frequently found prairie dog "pups;" a fact which seems to show anything but amicable relations between these creatures so oddly consorting.
There is yet another member of these communities, apparently quite as much out of place—a reptile; for snakes also make their home in the holes both of biscacha and prairie dog. And in both cases the reptile intruder is a rattlesnake, though the species is different. In these, no doubt, the owls find their staple of food.
Perhaps the most singular habit of the biscacha is its collecting every loose article which chances to be lying near, and dragging all up to its burrow; by the mouth of which it forms a heap, often as large as the half of a cart-load dumped carelessly down. No matter what the thing be—stick, stone, root of thistle, lump of indurated clay, bone, ball of dry dung—all seem equally suitable for these miscellaneous accumulations. Nothing can be dropped in the neighbourhood of a biscacha hole but is soon borne off, and added to its collection of bric-a-brac. Even a watch which had slipped from the fob of a traveller—as recorded by the naturalist. Darwin—was found forming part of one; the owner, acquainted with the habits of the animal, on missing the watch, having returned upon his route, and searched every biscacha mound along it, confident that in some one of them he would find the missing article—as he did.
The districts frequented by these three-toed creatures, and which seem most suitable to their habits, are those tracts of campo where the soil is a heavy loam or clay, and the vegetation luxuriant. Its congener, the agouti, affects the arid sterile plains of Patagonia, while the biscacha is most met with on the fertile pampas further north; more especially along the borders of those far-famed thickets of tall thistles—forests they might almost be called—upon the roots of which it is said to feed. They also make their burrows near the cardonales, tracts overgrown by the cardoon; also a species of large malvaceous plant, though quite different from the pampas thistles.
Another singular fact bearing upon the habits of the biscacha may here deserve mention. These animals are not found in the Banda Oriental, as the country lying east of the Uruguay river is called; and yet in this district exist conditions of soil, climate, and vegetation precisely similar to those on its western side. The Uruguay river seems to have formed a bar to their migration eastward; a circumstance all the more remarkable, since they have passed over the Parana, a much broader stream, and are common throughout the province of Entre Rios, as it name imports, lying between the two.
Nothing of all this occupies the thoughts of the three trackers, as they approach the particular biscachera which has presented itself to their view, athwart their path. Of such things they neither think, speak, nor care. Instead, they are but dissatisfied to see it there; knowing it will give them some trouble to get to the other side of it, besides greatly retarding their progress. If they ride right across it at all, they must needs go at a snail's pace, and with the utmost circumspection. A single false step made by any of their horses might be the dislocation of a joint, or the breaking of a leg. On the pampa such incidents are far from rare; for the burrows of the biscachas are carried like galleries underground, and therefore dangerous to any heavy quadruped so unfortunate as to sink through the surface turf. In short, to ride across a biscachera would be on a par with passing on horseback through a rabbit warren.
"Caspita!" is the vexed exclamation of the gaucho, as he reins up in front of the obstruction, with other angry words appended, on seeing that it extends right and left far as the verge of vision, while forward it appears to have a breadth of at least half a league.
"We can't gallop across that," he adds, "nor yet go at even a decent walk. We must crawl for it, muchachos, or ride all the way round. And there's no knowing how far round the thing might force us; leagues likely. It looks the biggest biscachera I ever set eyes on. Carra-i-i!"
The final ejaculation is drawled out with a prolonged and bitter emphasis, as he again glances right and left, but sees no end either way.
"Ill luck it is," he continues, after completing his reconnaissance. "Satan's own luck our coming upon this. A whole country covered with traps! Well, it won't help us any making a mouth about it; and I think our best way will be to strike straight across."
"I think so too," says Cypriano, impatient to proceed.
"Let us on into it, then. But, hijos mios; have a care how you go. Look well to the ground before you, and keep your horses as far from the holes as you can. Where there's two near together steer midways between, giving both the widest berth possible. Every one of them's a dangerous pitfall. Caspita! what am I prattling about? Let me give you the lead, and you ride after, track for track."
So saying, he heads his horse in among the rubbish heaps, each with its hole yawning adjacent: the others, as admonished, close following, and keeping in his tracks.
They move onward at a creeping pace, every now and then forced to advance circuitously, but taking no heed of the creatures upon whose domain they have so unceremoniously intruded. In truth, they have no thought about these, nor eyes for them. Enough if they can avoid intrusion into their dwellings by a short cut downwards.
Nor do the biscachas seem at all alarmed at the sight of such formidable invaders. They are anything but shy creatures; instead, far more given to curiosity; so much that they will sit squatted on their hams, in an upright attitude, watching the traveller as he passes within less than a score yards of them, the expression on their faces being that of grave contemplation. Only, if he draw too familiarly near, and they imagine him an enemy, there is a scamper off, their short fore-legs giving them a gait also heightening their resemblance to rats.
As a matter of course, such confidence makes them an easy prey to the biscacha catcher; for there are men who follow taking them as a profession. Their flesh is sweet and good to eat, while their skins are a marketable commodity; of late years forming an article of export to England, and other European countries.
Heeding neither the quadrupeds, nor the birds, their fellow-tenants of the burrow—the latter perched upon the summits of the mounds, and one after another flying off with a defiant screech as the horsemen drew near—these, after an hour spent in a slow but diligent advance, at length, and without accident, ride clear of the biscachera, and out upon the smooth open plain beyond it.
Soon as feeling themselves on firm ground, every spur of the party is plied; and they go off at a tearing pace, to make up for the lost time.
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE.
A SHOULDER OUT OF JOINT.
When Gaspar, on first sighting the biscachera, poured forth vials of wrath upon it, he little dreamt that another burrow of similar kind, and almost at the very same hour, was doing him a service by causing not only obstruction, but serious damage to the man he regards as his greatest enemy.
This second warren lay at least a hundred miles from the one they have succeeded in crossing, in a direction due east from the latter, and on the straight route for the city of Assuncion.
Let us throw aside circumlocution, and at once give account of the incident.
On this same day, and, as already said, almost the same hour, when the trackers are brought up by the biscachera, a single horseman is seen with head turned towards the Paraguay, and making as if to reach this river; from which he is distant some eighteen or twenty miles. He rides at a rapid rate; and that he has been doing so for a long continuance of time, can be told by the lagging gait of his horse, and the sweat saturating the animal's coat from neck to croup. For all, he slackens not the pace; instead, seems anxious to increase it, every now and then digging his spurs deep, and by strokes of a spear shaft he carries in his hands, urging his roadster onward. Anyone witness to his acting in this apparently frantic fashion, would suppose him either demented, or fleeing from pursuers who seek nothing less than his life. But as the plain over which he rides is smooth, level, and treeless for long leagues to his rear as also to right and left, and no pursuer nor aught of living thing visible upon it, the latter, at least, cannot be the case. And for the former, a glance at the man's face tells that neither is insanity the cause of his cruel behaviour to his horse. Rufino Valdez—for he is the hastening horseman—if bad, is by no means mad.
Superfluous to say, what the errand pressing him to such speed. In soliloquy he has himself declared it: hastening to communicate news which he knows will be welcome to the Paraguayan tyrant, and afterwards return to Halberger's estancia with a party of those hireling soldiers—quaintly termed cuarteleros from their living in barracks, or cuartels.
With this sinister purpose in view, and the expectation of a rich reward, the vaqueano has given his roadster but little rest since parting from the Tovas' camp; and the animal is now nigh broken down. Little recks its rider. Unlike a true gaucho, he cares not what mischance may befall his steed, so long as it serves his present necessity. If it but carry him to the Paraguay, it may drop down dead on the river's bank, for aught he will want, or think of it afterwards.
Thus free from solicitude about his dumb companion, he spurs and flogs the poor creature to the best speed it is able to make. Not much this; for every now and then it totters in its steps, and threatens going to grass, in a way different from what it might wish.