'What do you see yonder, Murdo?' he said.
'I see,' I replied, after carefully scanning the rolling plain, 'two ostriches hurrying over the pampas.'
'Those are not ostriches, boy. They are those same villain Gauchos, and they are after no good. I tell you this, that you may be prepared for anything that may happen to-night. But look,' he added, turning his horse's head; 'down here is a corral, and we are sure to find water.'
We soon reached it. Somewhat to our surprise we found no horses anywhere about, and no sign of life around the little inn or fonda except one wretched-looking dog.
As we drew up at the door and listened the stillness felt oppressive. Moncrieff shouted. No human voice responded; but the dog, seated on his haunches, gave vent to a melancholy howl.
'Look,' I said, 'the dog's paws are red with blood. He is wounded.'
'It isn't his blood, boy.'
The words thrilled me. I felt a sudden fear at my heart, born perhaps of the death-like stillness. Ah! it was indeed a death-like stillness, and the stillness of death itself as well.
Moncrieff dismounted. I followed his example, and together we entered the fonda.
We had not advanced a yard when we came on an awesome sight—the dead body of a Gaucho! It lay on its back with the arms spread out, the face hacked to pieces, and gashes in the neck. The interior of the hut was a chaos of wild confusion, the little furniture there was smashed, and evidently everything of value had been carried away. Half buried in the debris was the body of a woman, and near it that of a child. Both were slashed and disfigured, while pools of blood lay everywhere about. Young though I was, I had seen death before in several shapes, but never anything so ghastly and awful as this.
A cold shudder ran through my frame and seemed to pierce to the very marrow of my bones. I felt for a few moments as if in some dreadful nightmare, and I do not hesitate to confess that, M'Crimman and all as I am, had those Gauchos suddenly appeared now in the doorway, I could not have made the slightest resistance to their attack. I should have taken my death by almost rushing on the point of their terrible knives. But Moncrieff's calm earnest voice restored me in a moment. At its tones I felt raised up out of my coward self, and prepared to face anything.
'Murdoch,' he said, 'this is a time for calm thought and action.'
'Yes,' I answered; 'bid me do anything, and I will do it. But come out of this awful place. I—I feel a little faint.'
Together we left the blood-stained fonda, Moncrieff shutting the door behind him.
'No other eye must look in there,' he said. 'Now, Murdoch, listen.'
He paused, and I waited; his steadfast eyes bent on my face.
'You are better now? You are calm, and no longer afraid?'
'I am no longer afraid.'
'Well, I can trust you, and no one else. Led by those evil fiends whom we saw to-day, the Indians will be on us to-night in force. I will prepare to give them a warm reception—'
'And I will assist,' I hastened to say.
'No, Murdoch, you will not be here to help us at the commencement. I said the Indians would attack in force, because they know our numbers. Those malo men have been spying on us when we little thought it. They know our strength to a gun, and they will come in a cloud that nothing can withstand, or that nothing could withstand in the open. But we will entrench and defend ourselves till your return.'
'Twelve miles from here,' he went on, 'is a fort. It contains two officers and over a score soldiers. In two hours it will be dusk, in an hour after that the moon rises. 'Twixt twilight and moonrise you must ride to that fort and bring assistance. Depend upon it, we can defend ourselves till you come with your men, and you must attack the savages in the rear. You understand?'
'Perfectly. But had I not better ride away at once?'
'No, the Indians would waylay you. You never would reach the frontier fort. Even if you did escape from the chase, the knowledge that the troops were coming would prevent them from attacking to-night.'
'And you want them to attack to-night?'
'I wish them to attack to-night. We may never be able to give a good account of them again, but all depends on your success.'
In a short time the first waggons came up. They would have stopped, but Moncrieff beckoned them onwards. When the last waggon had gone we mounted our horses and slowly followed. At a stream not far distant we watered, and once more continued our journey.
The road now rose rapidly, till in half an hour we were on high ground, and here the halt was made. I could breathe more easily now we had left that blood-stained hollow, though well I knew the sight I had witnessed would not leave my thoughts for years to come.
Everything was done as quietly and orderly as if no cloud were hovering over us, so soon to burst. The big fire was lit as usual, supper cooked, prayers said, and the fire also lit in the ladies' caravan, for the nights were cold and raw now.
The night began to fall. Moncrieff and I had kept our secret to ourselves hitherto, but we could no longer conceal from any one that there was danger in the air. Yet the news seemed to astonish no one, not even aunt.
'Dear brother,' she said to our leader, 'I read it in your face all the afternoon.'
It was almost dusk now, and work was commenced in earnest. Spades were got out, and every man worked like a slave to entrench the whole position. The strength that I was to leave behind me was seven-and-twenty men all told, but this included ten Gauchos. Nevertheless, behind trenches, with plenty of guns, revolvers, and ammunition, they were powerful enough to defend the position against hundreds of badly-armed Indians. Not far off was a patch of wood which stretched downwards into a rocky ravine. Luckily it lay on the north side of the road, and hither, as soon as it was dark enough, every horse and mule was led and secured to the trees. Nor even in this extremity of danger were their wants forgotten, for grass mixed with grains was placed in front of each.
My horse was now led round. Each hoof was encased in a new and strong potro boot, secured by thongs around the legs.
'You must neither be heard nor seen,' said Moncrieff, as he pointed to these. 'Now, good-night, boy; God be wi' ye, and with us all!'
'Amen!' I responded, earnestly.
Then away I rode in silence, through the starlight; but as I looked back to the camp my heart gave an uneasy throb. Should I ever see them alive again?
 Cland, a kind of hawk.
ATTACK BY PAMPA INDIANS.
So lonesome a ride in the darkness of night, through a country wild and bleak, with danger lurking perhaps on either side of me, might easily have daunted a bolder heart than mine.
Something of the unspeakable feeling of dread I had experienced in the fonda while surrounded by those awful corpses came back to me now. I tried to banish it, but failed. My nervousness became extreme, and appeared to increase rather than diminish as I left the camp farther and farther behind me. It was almost a superstitious fear that had gotten possession of my soul. It was fear of the unseen; and even at this distance of time I can only say I would willingly face death in open day a hundred times over rather than endure for an hour the terrors I suffered that night. Every bush I saw I took for a figure lurking by the roadside, while solitary trees I had to pass assumed the form and shape and even movement of an enemy on horseback riding silently down to meet me. Again and again I clutched my revolver, and even now I cannot tell what power prevented me from firing at my phantom foes. Over and over again I reined up to listen, and at such times the wind whispering through the tall grass sounded to me like human voices, while the cry of birds that now and then rose startlingly close to me, made my heart beat with a violence that in itself was painful.
Sometimes I closed my eyes, and gave the horse his head, trying to carry my thoughts back to the lights of the camp, or forward to the fort which I hoped soon to reach.
I had ridden thus probably five good miles, when I ventured to look behind me, and so great had been the strain on my nerves that the sight I now witnessed almost paralyzed me.
It was the reflection as of a great fire on the brow of the hill where my people were beleaguered.
'The camp is already attacked, and in flames,' I muttered. Whither should I ride now—backwards or forwards?
While I yet hesitated the flames appeared to wax fiercer and fiercer, till presently—oh, joy!—a big round moon gradually shook itself clear of a cloud and began slowly to climb the eastern sky.
All fear fled now. I muttered a prayer of thankfulness, dashed the spurs into my good horse's sides, and went on at the gallop.
The time seemed short after this, and almost before I knew I came right upon the fort, and was challenged by the sentry.
'Amigo!' I yelled. 'Amigo! Angleese!'
I dare say I was understood, for soon after lights appeared on the ramparts, and I was hailed again, this time in English, or for what passed as English. I rode up under the ramparts, and quickly told my tale.
In ten minutes more I was received within the fort. A tumble-down place I found it, but I was overjoyed to be in it, nevertheless. In the principal room most of the men were playing games, and smoking and talking, while the commandant himself lounged about with a cigarette in his mouth.
He considered for a minute or two—an age it appeared to me—ere he answered. Yes; he would come, and take with him fifteen soldiers, leaving the rest to guard the fort. I could have embraced him, so joyful did I feel on hearing these words.
How long would he be? One hour, no more. For arms had to be cleaned, and ammunition to be got ready; and the men must feed.
A whole hour! No wonder I sighed and looked anxious. Why, every minute was precious to my poor beleaguered friends. It would be long past midnight ere I reached the camp again, for these men would not be mounted. Yet I saw the good little commander was doing his best, not only to expedite matters, but to treat me with kindness and hospitality. He brought forth food and wine, and forced me to eat and drink. I did so to please him; but when he proposed a game to pass the time, I began to think the man was crazed. He was not. No; but possessed a soldierly virtue which I could not boast of—namely, patience.
* * * * *
The work of entrenchment was soon completed after my departure; then there was nothing more to be done except to appoint the men to their quarters, place sentinels on the highest of the waggons, and wait.
Ah, but this waiting is a weary thing under circumstances like the present—waiting and watching, not knowing from what quarter the attack will come, what form it will take, or when it will commence.
Except in the chief caravan itself, where Moncrieff and Donald sat for a time to keep up the hearts of the ladies, no lights were lit.
There was no singing to-night, hardly a smile on any face, and no one spoke much above a whisper. Poor old Jenny had gone to sleep, as usual.
'Wake me,' had been her last words. 'Wake me, laddie, when the Philistines are upon us.'
'The old lady's a marvel!' Moncrieff had whispered to aunt.
Moncrieff was doing all he could to keep conversation alive, though, strange to say, Bombazo seldom spoke. Surely he could not be afraid. Moncrieff had his suspicions. Brave as my aunt was, the waiting made her nervous.
'Hark!' she would say every now and then; or, 'Listen! What was that?'
'Only the cry of a burrowing owl,' Moncrieff might have to answer; or, 'Only the yap of a prowling fox.' Oh, the waiting, the weary waiting!
The moon rose at last, and presently it was almost as light as day.
'Will they come soon, think you?' whispered poor Aileen.
'No, darling; not for hours yet. Believe me there is no danger. We are well prepared.'
'Oh, Alec, Alec!' she answered, bursting into tears; 'it is you I fear for, not myself. Let me go with you when they come. I would not then be afraid; but waiting here—oh, it is the waiting that takes all the heart out of me.'
'Egyptian darkness!' murmured the old lady in her sleep. Then in louder, wilder key, 'Smite them!' she exclaimed. 'Smite this host of the Philistines from Gideon to Gaza.'
'Dear old mither, she's dreaming,' said Moncrieff. 'But, oh, we'll laugh at all this by to-morrow night, Aileen, my darling.'
One hour, two hours went slowly, painfully past. The moon mounted higher and higher, and shone clearer and clearer, but not yet on all the plains were there signs of a mounted Indian.
Yet even at that moment, little though our people knew it, swarthy forms were creeping stealthily through the pampas grass, with spears and guns at trail, pausing often to glance towards the camp they meant so soon to surprise and capture.
The moon gets yet brighter. Moncrieff is watching. Shading his eyes from the light, he is gazing across the marsh and listening to every sound. Not a quarter of a mile away is a little marshy lake. From behind it for several minutes he has heard mournful cries. They proceed from the burrowing owls; but they must have been startled! They even fly towards the camp, as if to give warning of the approach of the swarthy foe.
Suddenly from the edge of the lake a sound like the blast of a trumpet is heard; another and another, and finally a chorus of trumpet notes; and shortly after a flock of huge flamingoes are seen wheeling in the moonlit air.
'It is as I thought,' says Moncrieff; 'they are creeping through the grass. Hurry round, Dugald, and call the men quietly to quarters.'
Moncrieff himself, rifle in hand, climbs up to the top of the waggon.
'Go down now,' he tells the sentry. 'I mean to fire the first shot.'
He lies down to wait and watch. No bloodhound could have a better eye. Presently he sees a dark form raise itself near a tussock of grass. There is a sharp report, and the figure springs into the air, then falls dead on the pampas.
No need for the foe to conceal themselves any longer. With a wild and unearthly scream, that the very earth itself seems to re-echo, they spring from their hiding and advance at the double towards the fort—for fort it is now. As they come yelling on they fire recklessly towards it. They might as well fire in the air.
Moncrieff's bold Doric is heard, and to some purpose, at this juncture.
'Keep weel down, men! Keep weel to coverrr! Fire never a shot till he has the orrder. Let every bullet have its billet. Ready! Fire-r-r-r!'
Moncrieff rattled out the r's indefinitely, and the rifles rattled out at the same time. So well aimed was the volley that the dark cloud seemed staggered. The savages wavered for a time, but on they came again, redoubling their yells. They fired again, then, dropping their guns, rushed on towards the breastwork spears in hand. It was thus that the conflict commenced in dread earnest, and the revolvers now did fearful execution. The Indians were hurled back again and again, and finally they broke and sought cover in the bush. Their wounded lay writhing and crying out close beneath the rampart, and among these were also many who would never move more in this world.
On seeing the savages take to the bush, Moncrieff's anxiety knew no bounds. The danger of their discovering the horses was extreme. And if they did so, revenge would speedily follow defeat. They would either drive them away across the pampas, or in their wrath slaughter them where they stood.
What was to be done to avert so great a catastrophe? A forlorn hope was speedily formed, and this my two brothers volunteered to lead. On the first shout heard down in the hollow—indicating the finding of our horses—Donald, Dugald, and fifteen men were to rush out and turn the flank of the swarthy army if they could, or die in the attempt.
Meanwhile, however, the enemy appeared bent on trying cunning and desperate tactics. They were heard cutting down the bushes and smaller trees, and not long afterwards it looked as if the whole wood was advancing bodily up towards the breastwork on that side.
A rapid and no doubt effective fire was now kept up by Moncrieff and his men. This delayed the terrible denoument, but it was soon apparent that if some more strategic movement was not made on our part it could not wholly thwart it.
At all hazards that advancing wood must be checked, else the horrors of fire would be the prelude to one of the most awful massacres that ever took place on the lonely pampas.
'How is the wind?' asked Moncrieff, as if speaking to himself.
'It blows from the wood towards the camp,' said Dugald, 'but not quite in a line. See, I am ready to rush out and fire that pile.'
'No, Dugald,' cried Donald; 'I am the elder—I will go.'
'Brother, I spoke first.'
'Yes,' said Moncrieff, quietly, 'Dugald must go, and go now. Take five men, ten if you want them.'
'Five will do—five Gauchos,' said Dugald.
It was wise of Dugald to choose Gauchos. If the truth must be told, however, he did so to spare more valuable lives. But these wild plainsmen are the bravest of the brave, and are far better versed in the tactics of Indian warfare than any white man could be.
Dugald's plan would have been to issue out and make a bold rush across the open space of seventy and odd yards that intervened between the moving pile of brushwood and the camp. Had this been done, every man would have been speared ere he got half across.
The preparations for the sally were speedily made. Each man had a revolver and knife in his belt, and carried in his hands matches, a bundle of pob (or tarred yarn), and a small cask of petroleum oil. They issued from the side of the camp farthest from the wood, and, crawling on their faces, took advantage of every tussock of grass, waving thistle, or hemlock bush in their way. Meanwhile a persistent fire was kept up from behind the breastwork, which, from the screams and yells proceeding from the savages, must have been doing execution.
Presently, close behind the bush and near the ground, Moncrieff could see Dugald's signal, the waving of a white handkerchief, and firing immediately ceased.
Almost immediately afterwards smoke and flames ran all along the wood and increased every moment. There was a smart volley of revolver firing, and in a minute more Dugald and his Gauchos were safe again within the fort.
'Stand by now, lads, to defend the ramparts!' cried Moncrieff; 'the worst is yet to come.'
The worst was indeed to come. For under cover of the smoke the Indians now made ready for their final assault. In the few minutes of silence that elapsed before the attack, the voice of a Gaucho malo was heard haranguing his men in language that could not but inflame their blood and passions. He spoke of the riches, the wealth of the camp, of the revenge they were going to have on the hated white man who had stolen their hunting fields, and driven them to the barren plains and mountains to seek for food with the puma and the snake, and finally began to talk of the pale-face prisoners that would become their possession.
'Give them another volley, men,' said Moncrieff, grimly. 'Fire low through the smoke.'
It would have been better, probably, had our leader waited.
Little need to precipitate an onslaught that could have but one ending—unless indeed assistance arrived from the fort.
* * * * *
The long, long hour of waiting came to an end at last, and the commander and myself left the frontier fort at the head of the men.
How terribly tedious the march back seemed! The officer would keep talking as cheerfully as if going to a concert or evening party. I hardly answered, I hardly heard him. I felt ashamed of my anxiety, but still I could not help it. I was but a young soldier.
At last we are within sight, ay, and hearing, of the camp, and the events of the next hour float before my memory now as I write, like the shadowy pantomime of some terrible dream.
First we see smoke and fire, but hear no sound. All must be over, I think—tragedy and massacre, all—and the camp is on fire.
Even the commander of our little force takes a serious view of the case now. He draws his sword, looks to his revolver, and speaks to his men in calm, determined tones.
For long minutes the silence round the camp is unbroken, but suddenly rifles ring out in the still air, and I breathe more freely once again. Then the firing ceases, and is succeeded by the wild war-cries of the attacking savages, and the hoarse, defiant slogan of the defending Scots.
'Hurrah!' I shout, 'we are yet in time. Oh, good sir, hurry on! Listen!'
Well might I say listen, for now high above the yell of savages and ring of revolvers rises the shriek of frightened women.
I can stand this no longer. I set spur to my horse, and go dashing on towards the camp.
THE FLIGHT AND THE CHASE.
The very last thing I had seen that cool Argentine commander do, was to light a fresh cigarette with the stump of the old one. The next time I saw him, he was standing by his wounded horse, in the moonlight, with a spear wound in his brow, but smoking still.
The onslaught of the savages had been for a while a terrible one, but the soldiers came in time, and the camp was saved.
Hardly knowing what I did—not knowing till this day how I did it—I had put my good steed at the breastwork, and, tired though he was, he fairly cleared it. Next I remember hewing my way, sword in hand, through a crowd of spear-armed savages, finding myself close to the ladies' caravan, and next minute inside it.
A single glance showed me all were safe. Aileen lay pale and motionless on the sofa. Near her, revolver in hand, stood my brave aunt, and by the stove was old Jenny herself.
'Oh, bless you, dear boy!' cried auntie. 'How glad we are to see you!'
"Deed are we, laddie!' chimed old Jenny; 'but—' and she grinned as she spoke, 'they rievin' Philistines will be fools if they come this road again. I've gi'en some o' them het [hot] hurdies. Ha, ha! I'm makin' a drap mair for them in case they come again.'
'Poor thing!' I think; 'she has gone demented.'
There was no time now, however, to ask for explanation; for although the Indians had really been driven off, the chase, and, woe is me, the slaughter, had commenced.
And I shudder even yet when I think of that night's awful work on the moonlit pampas. Still, the sacrifice of so many redskins was calculated to insure our safety. Moreover, had our camp fallen into the hands of those terrible Indians, what a blood-blotted page would have been added to the history of the Silver West!
It is but just and fair to Moncrieff, however, to say that he did all in his power to stay the pursuit; but in vain. The soldiers were just returning, tired and breathless, from a fruitless chase after the now panic-stricken enemy, when a wild shout was heard, and our Gauchos were seen riding up from the woods, brandishing the very spears they had captured from the Indians, and each one leading a spare horse.
The soldados welcomed them with a shout. Next minute each was mounted and galloping across the pampas in one long extended line.
They were going to treat the Indians to a taste of their own tactics, for between each horse a lasso rope was fastened.
All our men who were safe and unwounded now clambered into the waggon to witness the pursuit. Nothing could exceed the mad grandeur of that charge—nothing could withstand that wild rash. The Indians were mowed down by the lasso lines, then all we could see was a dark commingled mass of rearing horses, of waving swords and spears, and struggling, writhing men.
Yells and screams died away at last, and no sound was now heard on the pampas except the thunder of the horses' hoofs, as our people returned to the camp, and occasionally the trumpet-like notes of the startled flamingoes.
As soon as daylight began to appear in the east the ramparts were razed, and soon after we were once more on the move, glad to leave the scene of battle and carnage.
From higher ground, at some distance, I turned and looked back. Already the air was darkened by flocks of pampas kites, among them many slow-winged vultures, and I knew the awful feast that ever follows slaughter had already commenced.
We had several Gauchos killed and one of our own countrymen, but many more were wounded, some severely enough, so that our victory had cost us dear, and yet we had reason to be thankful, and my only surprise to this day is that we escaped utter annihilation.
It would be anything but fair to pass on to other scenes without mentioning the part poor old Jenny played in the defence of the caravan.
Jenny was not demented—not she. Neither the fatigue of the journey, the many wonders she had witnessed, including the shower of golochs, nor the raid upon the camp had deprived Moncrieff's wonderful mither of her wits. I have said there was a stove burning in the caravan. As soon, then, as Jenny found out that they were fortifying or entrenching the camp, and that the Philistines, as she called them, might be expected at any moment, she awoke to a true sense of the situation. The first thing she did was to replenish the fire, then she put the biggest saucepan on top of the stove, and as soon as it commenced to boil she began 'mealing in,' as she called it.
'Oatmeal would have been best,' she told my aunt; 'but, after a',' she added, 'Indian meal, though it be but feckless stuff, is the kind o' kail they blackamoors are maist used to.'
Aunt wondered what she meant, but was silent, and, indeed, she had other things to think about than Jenny and her strange doings, for Aileen required all her attention.
When, however, the fight had reached its very fiercest, when the camp itself was enveloped in smoke, and the constant cracking of revolvers, the shrieks of the wounded men and clashing of weapons would have daunted a less bold heart than Jenny's—the old lady took her saucepan from the stove and stationed herself by the front door of the caravan. She had not long to wait. Three of the fiercest of the Indian warriors had sprung to the coupe and were half up,
'But little kenned they Jenny's mettle, Or dreamt what lay in Jenny's kettle.'
With eyes that seemed to flash living fire, her grey hair streaming over her shoulders, she must have looked a perfect fury as she rushed out and deluged the up-turned faces and shoulders of the savages with the boiling mess. They dropped yelling to the ground, and Jenny at once turned her attention to the back door of the van, where already one of the leading Gaucho malos—aunt's beautiful blackguards of the day before—had gained footing. This villain she fairly bonneted with the saucepan.
'Your brithers have gotten the big half o' the kail,' she cried, 'and ye can claw the pat.'
It was not till next evening that aunt told Moncrieff the brave part old Jenny had played. He smiled in his quiet way as he patted his mother's hand.
'Just as I told ye, Miss M'Crimman,' he said; 'mither's a marrrvel!'
But where had the bold Bombazo been during the conflict? Sword and revolver in hand, in the foremost ranks, and wherever the battle raged the fiercest? Nay, reader, nay. The stern truth remains to be told. During all the terrible tulzie Bombazo had never once been either seen or heard. Nor could he be anywhere found after the fight, nor even after the camp was struck, though search was made for him high and low.
Some one suggested that he might have been overcome by fear, and might have hidden himself. Moncrieff looked incredulous. What! the bold Bombazo be afraid—the hero of a hundred fights, the slayer of lions, the terror of the redskins, the brave hunter of pampas and prairie? Captain Rodrigo de Bombazo hide himself? Yet where could he be? Among the slain? No. Taken prisoner? Alas! for the noble redman. Those who had escaped would hardly have thought of taking prisoners. Bombazo's name was shouted, the wood was searched, the waggons overhauled, not a stone was left unturned, figuratively speaking, yet all in vain.
But, wonderful to relate, what men failed to do a dog accomplished. An honest collie found Bombazo—actually scraped him up out of the sand, where he lay buried, with his head in a tussock of grass. It would be unfair to judge him too harshly, wrong not to listen to his vouchsafed explanation; yet, sooth to say, to this very day I believe the little man had hidden himself after the manner of the armadillos.
'Where is my sword?' he shouted, staggering to his feet. 'Where is the foe?'
The Scotchmen and even the Gauchos laughed in his face. He turned from them scornfully on his heel and addressed Moncrieff.
'Dey tried to keel me,' he cried. 'Dey stunned me and covered me up wit' sand. But here I am, and now I seek revenge. Ha! ha! I will seek revenge!'
Old Jenny could stand it no longer.
'Oh, ye shameless sinner!' she roared. 'Oh, ye feckless fusionless winner! Let me at him. I'll gie him revenge.'
There was no restraining Jenny. With a yell like the war cry of a clucking hen, she waved her umbrella aloft, and went straight for the hero.
The blow intended for his head alighted lower down. Bombazo turned and fled, pursued by the remorseless Jenny; and not even once did she miss her aim till the terror of the redskins, to save his own skin, had taken refuge beneath the caravan.
* * * * *
As at sea, so in travelling. Day after day, amid scenes that are for ever new, the constantly recurring adventure and incident suffice to banish even thoughts of the dead themselves. But neither seafarers nor travellers need be ashamed of this; it is only natural. God never condemns His creatures to constant sorrow. The brave fellows, the honest Scot and the Gauchos, that we had laid side by side in one grave in the little burying-place at the frontier fort, were gone beyond recall. No amount of sorrowing could bring them back. We but hoped they were happier now than even we were, and so we spoke of them no more; and in a week's time everything about our caravan and camp resumed its wonted appearance, and we no longer feared the Indians.
One Gaucho, however, had escaped, and there was still the probability he might seek for revenge some other day.
We have left the bleak pampas land, although now and then we come to bare prairie land but scantily furnished with even bushes, and destitute of grass; houses and estancias become more frequent, and fondas too, but nothing like that fearful fonda in the prairie—the scene of the massacre.
We have passed through San Lui—too wretched a place to say much about; and even La Paz and Santa Rosa; and on taking her usual seat one forenoon in front of the caravan, old Jenny's eyes grew bright and sparkling with very delight.
'Saw anybody ever the like o' that?' she cried, as she raised both her hands and eyes cloudwards. But it was not the clouds old Jenny was marvelling at—for here we were in the Province of Mendoza, and a measurable distance from the beautiful city itself; and instead of the barren lands we had recently emerged from, beheld a scene of such natural loveliness and fertility, that we seemed to have suddenly dropped into a new world.
The sky was blue and almost cloudless; winter though it was, the fields were clad in emerald green; the trees, the vineyards, the verandahed houses, the comfortable dwellings, the cattle, the sheep, and flocks of poultry—all testified to the fact that in summer this must indeed be a paradise.
'What do you think of all this, mither?' said Moncrieff, with a happy smile. He was riding close to the caravan coupe.
'Think o' it, laddie! Loshie me, laddie! it beats the braes o' Foudlan'! It is surely the garden o' Eden we're coming to at last.'
It was shortly after this that Moncrieff went galloping on ahead. We could see him miles and miles away, for the road was as straight as one of the avenues in some English lord's domains. Suddenly he disappeared. Had the earth swallowed him up? Not quite. He had merely struck into a side path, and here we too turned with our whole cavalcade; and our road now lay away across a still fertile but far more open country. After keeping to this road for miles, we turned off once more and headed for the distant mountains, whose snow-clad, rugged tops formed so grand a horizon to the landscape.
On we journey for many a long hour, and the sun goes down and down in the west, and sinks at last behind the hills; and oh, with what ineffably sweet tints and shades of pink and blue and purple his farewell rays paint the summits!
Twilight is beginning to fall, and great bats are flitting about. We come within sight of a wide and well-watered valley; and in the very centre thereof, and near a broad lagoon which reminds us somewhat of dear old Coila, stands a handsome estancia and farmyard. There are rows and rows of gigantic poplar-trees everywhere in this glen, and the house itself—mansion, I might almost say—lies in the midst of a cloud of trees the names of which we cannot even guess. There was altogether such a home-like look about the valley, that I knew at once our long, long journey was over, and our weary wanderings finished for a time. There was not a very great deal of romance in honest Moncrieff's nature, but as he pointed with outstretched arm to the beautiful estancia by the lake, and said, briefly, 'Mither, there's your hame!' I felt sure and certain those blue eyes of his were moist with tears, and that there was the slightest perceptible waver in his manly voice.
But, behold! they have seen us already at the estancia.
There is a hurrying and scurrying to and fro, and out and in. We notice this, although the figures we see look no larger than ants, so clear and transparent is even the gloaming air in this wonderful new land of ours.
By and by we see these same figures on horseback, coming away from the farm, and hurrying down the road towards us. One, two, three, six! Why, there must be well-nigh a score of them altogether. Nearer and nearer they come, and now we see their arms wave. Nearer still, and we hear them shout; and now at length they are on us, with us, and around us, waving their caps, laughing, talking, and shaking hands over and over again—as often as not twice or thrice with the same person. Verily they are half delirious with joy and wholly hysterical.
What volleys of questions have to be asked and answered! What volumes of news to get and to give! What hurrying here and there and up and down to admire the new horses and mules, the new waggons and caravan—to admire everything! while the half-frightened looks those sturdy, sun-browned, bearded men cast at auntie and Aileen were positively comical to witness!
Then, when the first wave of joyous excitement had partially expended itself—
'Stand back, boys!' shouted Moncrieff's partner, a bold-faced little Welshman, with hair and beard just on the turn; 'stand back, my lads, and give them one more little cheer.'
But was it a little cheer? Nay, but a mighty rattling cheer—a cheer that could have issued only from brave British throats; a cheer that I almost expected to hear re-echoed back from the distant mountains.
Ah! but it was echoed back. Echoed by us, the new-comers, and with interest too, our faithful Gauchos swelling the chorus with their shrill but not unmusical voices.
But look! more people are coming down the road. The welcome home is not half over yet. Yonder are the lads and lasses, English, Irish, Castilian and Scotch, who have no horses to ride. Foremost among them is a Highlander in tartan trews and bagpipes. And if the welcome these give us is not altogether so boisterous it is none the less sincere.
In another hour we are all safe at home. All and everything appears to us very strange at first, but we soon settle down, and if we marvelled at the outside of Moncrieff's mansion, the interior of it excites our wonder to even a greater degree. Who could have credited the brawny Scot with so much refinement of taste? The rooms were large, the windows were bowers, and bowers of beauty too, around which climbed and trailed—winter though it was—flowers of such strange shapes and lovely colours that the best of our floral favourites in this country would look tame beside them. None of the walls were papered, but all were painted, and many had pictures in light, airy and elegant frames. The furniture too was all light and elegant, and quite Oriental in appearance. Oriental did I say? Nay, but even better; it was Occidental. One room in particular took my aunt's fancy. This was to be the boudoir, and everything in it was the work of Indian hands. It opened on to a charming trellised verandah, and thence was a beautiful garden which to-night was lit up with coloured lanterns, and on the whole looked like a scene in some Eastern fairy tale.
'And would you believe it, Aileen,' said Moncrieff, when he was done showing us round the rooms; 'would you believe it, auntie, when I came here first my good partner and I had no place to live in for years but a reed shanty, a butt and a ben, mither mine, with never a stick of furniture in it, and neither a chair nor stool nor table worth the name?'
'That is so, Miss M'Crimman,' said the partner, Mr. Jones. 'And I think my dear friend Moncrieff will let the ladies see the sort of place we lived in.'
'This way, then, ladies,' said the big Scot. He seized a huge naphtha lamp as he spoke, and strode before them through the garden. Arrived at the end of it they came to a strange little hut built apparently of mud and straw.
With little ceremony he kicked open the rickety door, and made them enter. Both aunt and Aileen did so, marvelling much to find themselves in a room not ten feet wide, and neither round nor square. The roof was blackened rafters and straw, the floor was hardened clay. A bed—a very rude one—stood in one corner. It was supported by horses' bones; the table in the centre was but a barrel lid raised on crossed bones.
'Won't you sit down, ladies?' said Moncrieff, smiling.
He pointed to a seat as he spoke. It was formed of horses' skulls.
Aunt smiled too, but immediately after looked suddenly serious, gathered her dress round her with a little shudder, and backed towards the door.
'Come away,' she said; 'I've seen enough.'
What she had seen more particularly was an awful-looking crimson and grey spider as big as a soft-shell crab. He was squatting on a bone in one corner, glaring at her with his little evil eyes, and moving his horizontal mandibles as if he would dearly like to eat her.
LIFE ON AN ARGENTINE ESTANCIA.
I verily believe that Britons, whether English, Irish, or Scotch, are all born to wander, and born colonists. There really seems to be something in the very air of a new land, be it Australia, America, or the Silver West, that brings all their very best and noblest qualities to the surface, and oftentimes makes men—bold, hardy, persevering men—of individuals who, had they stayed in this old cut-and-dry country, would never have been anything better than louts or Johnnie Raws. I assure the reader that I speak from long experience when I make these remarks, and on any Saturday evening when I happen to be in London, and see poor young fellows coming home to garrets, perhaps with their pittance in their pockets, I feel for them from the very depths of my soul. And sometimes I sigh and murmur to myself——
'Oh dear me!' I say, 'if my purse were only half as big as my heart, wouldn't I quickly gather together a thousand of these white slaves and sail merrily off with them to the Land of the Silver West! And men would learn to laugh there who hardly ever smiled before, and tendons would wax wiry, and muscles hard, and pale faces grow brown with the tints of health. And health would mean work, and work would mean wealth, and—but, heigho! what is the good of dreaming? Only some day—yes, some day—and what a glorious sunrise it will be for this empire—Government will see its way to grant free passages to far-off lands, in which there is peace and plenty, work and food for all, and where the bread one eats is never damped by falling tears. God send that happy day! And send it soon!
It is the memory of our first months and years of a downright pleasant life that makes me write like this. We poor lads—my brothers and I—poor, but determined, found everything so enjoyable at our new home in the Silver West that oftentimes we could not help wishing that thousands of toiling mortals from Glasgow and other great overcrowded cities would only come out somehow and share our posy. For really, to put it in plain and simple language, next to the delight of enjoying anything oneself, should it only be an apple, is the pleasure of seeing one's neighbour have a bite.
Now here is a funny thing, but it is a fact. The air of Mendoza is so wonderfully dry and strong and bracing that it makes men of boys in a very short time, and makes old people young again. It might not smooth away wrinkles from the face, or turn grey hair brown, or even make two hairs grow where only one grew before; but it does most assuredly rejuvenate the heart, and shakes all the wrinkles out of that. Out here it is no uncommon thing for the once rheumatic to learn to dance, while stiff-jointed individuals who immigrated with crutches under their arms, pitch these crutches into the irrigation canals, and take to spades and guns instead.
It is something in the air, I think, that works these wondrous changes, though I am sure I could not say what. It may be oxygen in double doses, or it may be ozone, or even laughing gas; but there it is, and whosoever reads these lines and doubts what I say, has only to take flight for the beautiful province of Mendoza, and he shall remain a sceptic no longer.
Well, as soon as we got over the fatigues of our long journey, and began to realize the fact that we were no longer children of the desert, no longer nomads and gipsies, my brothers and I set to work with a hearty good-will that astonished even ourselves. In preparing our new homes we, and all the other settlers of this infant colony as well, enjoyed the same kind of pleasure that Robinson Crusoe must have done when he and his man Friday set up house for themselves in the island of Juan Fernandez.
Even the labourers or 'hands' whom Moncrieff had imported had their own dwellings to erect, but instead of looking upon this as a hardship, they said that this was the fun of the thing, and that it was precisely here where the laugh came in.
Moreover they worked for themselves out of hours, and I dare say that is more than any of them would have done in the old country.
Never once was the labour of the estancia neglected, nor the state of the aqueducts, nor Moncrieff's flocks and herds, nor his fences.
Some of these men had been ploughmen, others shepherds, but every one of them was an artisan more or less, and it is just such men that do well—men who know a good deal about country life, and can deftly use the spade, the hoe, the rake, the fork, as well as the hammer, the axe, the saw, and the plane. Thanks to the way dear father had brought us up, my brothers and I were handy with all sorts of tools, and we were rather proud than otherwise of our handicraft.
I remember that Dugald one day, as we sat at table, after looking at his hands—they had become awfully brown—suddenly said to Moncrieff,
'Oh, by the by, Brother Moncrieff, there is one thing that I'm ready to wager you forgot to bring out with you from England.'
'What was that?' said Moncrieff, looking quite serious.
'Why, a supply of kid gloves, white and coloured.'
We all laughed.
'My dear boy,' said this huge brother of ours, 'the sun supplies the kid gloves, and it strikes me, lad, you've a pair of coloured ones already.'
'Yes,' said Dugald, 'black-and-tan.'
'But, dear laddies,' old Jenny put in, 'if ye really wad like mittens, I'll shortly shank a curn for ye.'
'Just listen to the old braid Scotch tongue o' that mither o' moine—"shortly shank a curn." Who but an Aberdonian could understand that?'
But indeed poor old Jenny was a marvel with her 'shank,' as she called her knitting, and almost every third day she turned off a splendid pair of rough woollen stockings for one or other of her bairns, as she termed us generically. And useful weather-defiant articles of hosiery they were too. When our legs were encased in these, our feet protected by a pair of double-soled boots, and our ankles further fortified by leather gaiters, there were few snakes even we were afraid to tackle.
The very word 'snake,' or 'serpent,' makes some people shudder, and it is as well to say a word or two about these ophidians here, and have done with them. I have, then, no very wild adventures to record concerning those we encountered on our estancias. Nor were either my brothers or myself much afraid of them, for a snake—this is my firm belief—will never strike a human being except in self-defence; and, of all the thousands killed annually in India itself by ophidians, most of the victims have been tramping about with naked feet, or naked legs at least.
* * * * *
Independent of the pure, wholesome, bracing air, there appeared to us to be another peculiarity in the climate which is worthy of note. It is calmative. There is more in that simple sentence than might at first be imagined, and the effect upon settlers might be best explained by giving an example: A young man, then, comes to this glorious country fresh from all the excitement and fever of Europe, where people are, as a rule, overcrowded and elbowing each other for a share of the bread that is not sufficient to feed all; he settles down, either to steady work under a master, or to till his own farm and mind his own flocks. In either case, while feeling labour to be not only a pleasure, but actually a luxury, there is no heat of blood and brain; there is no occasion to either chase or hurry. Life now is not like a game of football on Rugby lines—all scurry, push, and perspiration. The new-comer's prospects are everything that could be desired, and—mark this—he does not live for the future any more than the present. There is enough of everything around him now, so that his happiness does not consist in building upon the far-off then, which strugglers in this Britain of ours think so much about. The settler then, I say, be he young or old, can afford to enjoy himself to-day, certain in his own mind that to-morrow will provide for itself.
But this calmness of mind, which really is a symptom of glorious health, never merges into the dreamy laziness and ignoble activity exhibited by Brazilians in the east and north of him.
My brothers and I were happily saved a good deal of business worry in connection with the purchase of our estancia, so, too, were the new settlers, for Moncrieff, with that long Scotch head of his, had everything cut and dry, as he called it, so that the signing of a few papers and the writing of a cheque or two made us as proud as any Scottish laird in the old country.
'You must creep before you walk,' Moncrieff told us; 'you mustn't go like a bull at a gate. Just look before you "loup."'
So we consulted him in everything.
Suppose, for instance, we wanted another mule or horse, we went to Moncrieff for advice.
'Can you do without it?' he would say. 'Go home and settle that question between you, and if you find you can't, come and tell me, and I'll let you have the beast as cheap as you can buy it anywhere.'
Well, we started building our houses. Unlike the pampas, Mendoza can boast of stone and brick, and even wood, though round our district a deal of this had been planted. The woods that lay on Moncrieff's colony had been reared more for shelter to the flocks against the storms and tempests that often sweep over the country.
In the more immediate vicinity of the dwelling-houses, with the exception of some splendid elms and plane-trees, and the steeple-high solemn-looking poplar, no great growth of wood was encouraged. For it must be remembered we were living in what Moncrieff called uncanny times. The Indians were still a power in the country, and their invasions were looked for periodically. The State did not then give the protection against this foe it does now. True, there existed what were called by courtesy frontier forts; they were supposed to billet soldiers there, too, but as these men were often destitute of a supply of ammunition, and spent much of their time playing cards and drinking the cheap wines of the country, the settlers put but little faith in them, and the wandering pampa Indians treated them with disdain.
Our houses, then, for safety's sake, were all built pretty close together, and on high ground, so that we had a good view all over the beautiful valley. They could thus be more easily defended.
Here and there over the estancias, puestos, as they were called, were erected for the convenience of the shepherds. They were mere huts, but, nevertheless, they were far more comfortable in every way than many a crofter's cottage in the Scottish Highlands.
Round the dwellings of the new settlers, which were built in the form of a square, each square, three in all, having a communication, a rampart and ditch were constructed. The making of these was mere pastime to these hardy Scots, and they took great delight in the work, for not only would it enable them to sleep in peace and safety, but the keeping of it in thorough decorative repair, as house agents say, would always form a pleasant occupation for spare time.
The mansion, as Moncrieff's beautiful house came to be called, was similarly fortified, but as it stood high in its grounds the rampart did not hide the building. Moreover, the latter was partially decorated inside with flowers, and the external embankment always kept as green as an English lawn in June.
The ditches were wide and deep, and were so arranged that in case of invasion they could be filled with water from a natural lake high up on the brae lands. For that matter they might have been filled at any time, or kept filled, but Moncrieff had an idea—and probably he was right—that too much stagnant, or even semi-stagnant water near a house rendered it unhealthy.
As soon as we had bought our claims and marked them out, each settler's distinct from the other, but ours—my brothers' and mine—all in one lot, we commenced work in earnest. There was room and to spare for us all about the Moncrieff mansion and farmyard, we—the M'Crimmans—being guests for a time, and living indoors, the others roughing it as best they could in the out-houses, some of which were turned into temporary huts.
Nothing could exceed the beauty of Moncrieff's estancia. It was miles and miles in extent, and more like a lovely garden than anything else. The fields were all square. Round each, in tasteful rows, waved noble trees, the weird and ghostly poplar, whose topmost branches touched the clouds apparently, the wide-spreading elm, the shapely chestnut, the dark, mysterious cypress, the fairy-leaved acacia, the waving willow and sturdy oak. These trees had been planted with great taste and judgment around the fields, and between all stretched hedges of laurel, willow, and various kinds of shrubs. The fields themselves were not without trees; in fact, trees were dotted over most of them, notably chestnuts, and many species of fruit trees.
But something else added to the extreme beauty of these fields, namely, the irrigation canals—I prefer the word canals to ditches. The highest of all was very deep and wide, and was supplied with water from the distant hills and river, while in its turn it supplied the whole irrigation system of the estancia. The plan for irrigating the fields was the simplest that could be thought of, but it was quite as perfect as it was simple.
Add to the beauty of the trees and hedges the brilliancy of trailing flowers of gorgeous hues and strange, fantastic shapes; let some of those trees be actually hanging gardens of beauty; let flowers float ever on the waters around the fields, and the fields themselves be emerald green—then imagine sunshine, balmy air, and perfume everywhere, and you will have some idea of the charm spread from end to end of Moncrieff's great estancia.
But there was another kind of beauty about it which I have not yet mentioned—namely, its flocks and herds and poultry.
A feature of the strath, or valley, occupied by this little Scoto-Welsh colony was the sandhills or dunes.
'Do you call those sandhills?' I said to Moncrieff one day, shortly after our arrival. 'Why, they are as green and bonnie as the Broad Hill on the links of Aberdeen.'
Moncrieff smiled, but looked pleased.
'Man!' he replied, 'did you ever hear of the proverb that speaks about making mountains of mole-hills? Well, that's what I've done up yonder. When my partner and I began serious work on these fields of ours, those bits of hills were a constant trouble and menace to us. They were just as big then, maybe, as they are now—about fifty feet high at the highest, perhaps, but they were bare sandy hillocks, constantly changing shape and even position with every big storm, till a happy thought struck my partner, and we chose just the right season for acting on it. We got the Gauchos to gather for us pecks and bushels of all kinds of wild seed, especially that of the long-rooted grasses, and these we sowed all over the mole-hills, as we called them, and we planted bushes here and there, and also in the hollows, and, lo! the mole-hills were changed into fairy little mountains, and the bits o' glens between into bosky dells.'
'Dear Brother Moncrieff,' I said, 'you are a genius, and I'm so glad I met you. What would I have been without you?'
'Twaddle, man! nonsensical havers and twaddle! If you hadn't met me you would have met somebody else; and if you hadn't met him, you would have foregathered wi' experience; and, man, experience is the best teacher in a' the wide worruld.'
In laying out and planning our farm, my brothers and I determined, however, not to wait for experience of our own, but just take advantage of Moncrieff's. That would sustain us, as the oak sustains the ivy.
 'Shortly shank a curn'—speedily knit a few pairs.
 Since then the Indians have been swept far to the south, and so hemmed in that the provinces north of their territory are as safe from invasion as England itself.—G. S.
WE BUILD OUR HOUSE AND LAY OUT GARDENS.
About a hundred yards to the left of the buildings erected for the new colony and down near the lake, or laguna, was an elevated piece of ground about an acre in extent. It was bounded on two sides by water, which would thus form for it a kind of natural protection in case of Indian invasion. It really was part and parcel of Moncrieff's claim or land, and at an early date in his career, thinking probably it might come in handy some day for a site on which to build, he had taken considerable pains to plant it with rows of beautiful trees, especially on the sides next the water and facing the west.
My brothers and I arranged to have this, and Moncrieff was well pleased to have us so near to him. A more excellent position for a house could hardly be, and we determined it should be a good substantial one, and of as great architectural beauty as possible.
Having therefore laid out our farm proper, and stocked it with sheep and cattle, positioned our shepherds, and installed our labourers and general servants under the charge of a capataz, or working bailiff, we turned our attention to the erection of our house, or mansion, as Dugald grandly called it.
'Of course you will cut your coat according to your cloth,' said Moncrieff, as he came one evening into the room we had set apart for our private study. He had found us to-night with our heads all together over a huge sheet of paper on which we were planning out our house.
'Oh yes,' said Donald, 'that we must do.'
'But,' said Dugald, 'we do not expect to remain all our lives downright poor settlers.'
'That I am sure you won't.'
'Well, I propose building a much bigger house than we really want, so that when we do get a bit rich we can furnish it and set up—set up—'
'Set up a carriage and pair, eh?' said Donald, who was very matter of fact—'a carriage and pair, Dugald, a billiard-room, Turkey carpets, woven all in one piece, a cellar of old wine, a butler in black and flunkeys in plush—is that your notion?'
Donald and I laughed, and Dugald looked cross.
Moncrieff did not laugh: he had too much tact, and was far too kind-hearted to throw cold water over our young brother's ambitions and aspirations.
'And what sort of a house do you propose?' he said to us.
As he spoke he took a chair at Dugald's side of the table and put his arm gently across the boy's shoulders. There was very much in this simple act, and I feel sure Dugald loved him for it, and felt he had some one to assist his schemes.
'Oh,' replied Donald, 'a small tasteful cottage. That would suit well for the present, I think. What do you think, Murdoch?'
'I think with you,' I replied.
After having heard Moncrieff speaking so much about cutting coats according to cloth and looking before 'louping,' and all the rest of it, we were hardly prepared to hear him on the present occasion say boldly,
'And I think with Dugald.'
'Bravo, Moncrieff!' cried Dugald. 'I felt sure—'
'Bide a wee, though, lad. Ca' canny. Now listen, the lot o' ye. Ye see, Murdoch man, your proposed cottage would cost a good bit of money and time and trouble, and when you thought of a bigger place, down that cottage must come, with an expense of more time and more trouble, even allowing that money was of little object. Besides, where are you going to live after your cottage is knocked down and while your mansion is building? So I say Dugald is right to some extent. Begin building your big house bit by bit.'
'Preceesely, sirs; ye can add and add as you like, and as you can afford it.'
It was now our time to cry, 'Bravo, Moncrieff!'
'I wonder, Donald, we didn't think of this plan.'
'Ah,' said Moncrieff, 'ye canna put young he'ds on auld shoulders, as my mither says.'
So Moncrieff's plan was finally adopted—we would build our house wing by wing.
It took us weeks, however, to decide in what particular style of architecture it should be built. Among the literature which Moncrieff had brought out from England with him was a whole library in itself of the bound volumes of good magazines; and it was from a picture in one of these that we finally decided what our Coila Villa should be like, though, of course, the plan would be slightly altered to suit circumstances of climate, &c. It was to be—briefly stated—a winged bungalow of only one story, with a handsome square tower and portico in the centre, and verandahs nearly all round. So one wing and the tower was commenced at once. But bricks were to be made, and timber cut and dried and fashioned, and no end of other things were to be accomplished before we actually set about the erection.
To do all these things we appointed a little army of Gauchos, with two or three handy men-of-all-work from Scotland.
Meanwhile our villa gardens were planned and our bushes and trees were planted.
Terraces, too, were contrived to face the lake, and Dugald one evening proposed a boat-house and boat, and this was carried without a dissentient voice.
Dugald was extremely fond of our sister Flora. We only wondered that he now spoke about her so seldom. But if he spoke but little of her he thought the more, and we could see that all his plans for the beautification and adornment of the villa had but one end and object—the delight and gratification of its future little mistress.
Dear old Dugald! he had such a kind lump of a heart of his own, and never took any of our chaff and banter unpleasantly. But I am quite sure that as far as he himself was concerned he never would have troubled himself about even the boat-house or the terraced gardens either, for every idle hour that he could spare he spent on the hill, as he called it, with his dog—a lovely Irish setter—and his gun.
I met him one morning going off as usual with Dash, the setter, close beside the little mule he rode, and with his gun slung over his back.
'Where away, old man?' I said.
'Only to a little laguna I've found among the hills, and I mean to have a grand bag to-day.'
'Well, you're off early!'
'Yes; there is little to be done at home, and there are some rare fine ducks up yonder.'
'You'll be back to luncheon?'
'I'll try. If not, don't wait.'
'Not likely; ta-ta! Good luck to you! But you really ought to have a Gaucho with you.'
'Nonsense, Murdoch! I don't need a groom. Dash and old Tootsie, the mule, are all I want.'
It was the end of winter, or rather beginning of spring, but Moncrieff had not yet declared close time, and Dugald managed to supply the larder with more species of game than we could tell the names of. Birds, especially, he brought home on his saddle and in his bag; birds of all sizes, from the little luscious dove to the black swan itself; and one day he actually came along up the avenue with a dead ostrich. He could ride that mule of his anywhere. I believe he could have ridden along the parapet of London Bridge, so we were never surprised to see Dugald draw rein at the lower sitting-room window, within the verandah. He was always laughing and merry and mischievous-looking when he had had extra good luck; but the day he landed that ostrich he was fairly wild with excitement. The body of it was given to the Gauchos, and they made very merry over it: invited their friends, in fact, and roasted the huge bird whole out of doors. They did so in true Patagonian fashion—to wit, the ostrich was first trussed and cleaned, a roaring fire of wood having been made, round stones were made almost red-hot. The stones were for stuffing, though this kind of stuffing is not very eatable, but it helps to cook the bird. The fire was then raked away, and the dinner laid down and covered up. Meanwhile the Gauchos, male and female, girls and boys, had a dance. The ubiquitous guitars, of course, were the instruments, and two of these made not a bad little band. After dinner they danced again, and wound up by wishing Dugald all the good luck in the world, and plenty more ostriches. The feathers of this big game-bird were carefully packed and sent home to mother and Flora.
Well, we had got so used to Dugald's solitary ways that we never thought anything of even his somewhat prolonged absence on the hill, for he usually dropped round when luncheon was pretty nearly done. There was always something kept warm for 'old Dugald,' as we all called him, and I declare it did every one of us good to see him eat. His appetite was certainly the proverbial appetite of a hunter.
On this particular day, however, old Dugald did not return to luncheon.
'Perhaps,' said Donald, 'he is dining with some of the shepherds, or having "a pick at a priest's," as he calls it.'
'Perhaps,' I said musingly. The afternoon wore away, and there were no signs of our brother coming, so I began to get rather uneasy, and spoke to Donald about it.
'He may have met with an accident,' I said, 'or fifty things may have happened.'
'Well,' replied Donald, 'I don't suppose fifty things have happened; but as you seem a bit anxious, suppose we mount our mules, take a Gaucho with us, and institute a search expedition?'
'I'm willing,' I cried, jumping up, 'and here's for off!'
There was going to be an extra good dinner that day, because we expected letters from home, and our runner would be back from the distant post-office in good time to let us read our epistles before the gong sounded and so discuss them at table.
'Hurry up, boys; don't be late, mind!' cried aunt, as our mules were brought round to the portico, and we were mounted.
'All right, auntie dear!' replied Donald, waving his hand; 'and mind those partridges are done to a turn; we'll be all delightfully hungry.'
The Gaucho knew all Dugald's trails well, and when we mentioned the small distant laguna, he set out at once in the direction of the glen. He made so many windings, however, and took so many different turns through bush and grass and scrub, that we began to wonder however Dugald could have found the road.
But Dugald had a way of his own of getting back through even a cactus labyrinth. It was a very simple one, too. He never 'loaded up,' as he termed it; that is, he did not hang his game to his saddle till he meant to start for home; then he mounted, whistled to Dash, who capered and barked in front of the mule, permitted the reins to lie loosely on the animal's neck, and—there he was! For not only did the good beast take him safely back to Coila, as we called our estancia, but he took him by the best roads; and even when he seemed to Dugald's human sense to be going absolutely and entirely wrong, he never argued with him.
'Reason raise o'er instinct, if you can; In this 'tis God directs, in that 'tis man.'
'You are certain he will come this way, Zambo?' I said to our Gaucho.
'Plenty certain, senor. I follow de trail now.'
I looked over my saddle-bow; so did Donald, but no trail could we see—only the hard, yellow, sandy gravel.
We came at last to the hilly regions. It was exceedingly quiet and still here; hardly a creature of any kind to be seen except now and then a kite, or even condor, the latter winging his silent way to the distant mountains. At times we passed a biscacha village. The biscacha is not a tribe of Indians, but, like the coney, a very feeble people, who dwell in caves or burrow underground, but all day long may be seen playing about the mounds they raise, or sitting on their hind legs on top of them. They are really a species of prairie-dog. With them invariably live a tribe of little owls—the burrowing owls—and it seems to be a mutual understanding that the owls have the principal possession of these residential chambers by day, while the biscachas occupy them by night. This arrangement answers wonderfully well, and I have proved over and over again that they are exceedingly fond of each other. The biscachas themselves are not very demonstrative, either in their fun or affection, but if one of them be killed, and is lying dead outside the burrow, the poor owl often exhibits the most frantic grief for the murder of his little housekeeper, and will even show signs of a desire to attack the animal—especially if a dog—which has caused his affliction.
Donald and I, with our guide, now reached the land of the giant cacti. We all at home here in Britain know something of the beauty of the common prickly cactus that grows in window-gardens or in hot-houses, and surprises us with the crimson glory of its flowers, which grow from such odd parts of the plant; but here we were in the land of the cacti. Dugald knew it well, and used to tell us all about them; so tall, so stately, so strange and weird, that we felt as if in another planet. Already the bloom was on some of them—for in this country flowers soon hear the voice of spring—but in the proper season nothing that ever I beheld can surpass the gorgeous beauty of these giant cacti.
The sun began to sink uncomfortably low down on the horizon, and my anxiety increased every minute. Why did not Dugald meet us? Why did we not even hear the sound of his gun, for the Gaucho told us we were close to the laguna?
Presently the cacti disappeared behind us, and we found ourselves in open ground, with here and there a tall, weird-looking tree. How those trees—they were not natives—had come there we were at first at a loss to understand, but when we reached the foot of a grass-grown hill or sand dune, and came suddenly on the ruins of what appeared a Jesuit hermitage or monastery, the mystery was explained.
On rounding a spur of this hill, lo! the lake; and not far from the foot of a tree, behold! our truant brother. Beside him was Dash, and not a great way off, tied to a dwarf algaroba tree, stood the mule. Dugald was sitting on the ground, with his gun over his arm, gazing up into the tree.
'Dugald! Dugald!' I cried.
But Dugald never moved his head. Was he dead, or were these green sand dunes fairy hillocks, and my brother enchanted?
I leapt off my mule, and, rifle in hand, went on by myself, never taking my eyes off my brother, and with my heart playing pit-a-pat against my ribs.
'Dugald!' I said again.
He never moved.
He spoke now almost in a stage whisper:
'A lion in the tree. Have you your rifle?'
I beckoned to my brother to come on, and at the same moment the monster gave voice. I was near enough now to take aim at the puma; he was lying in a cat-like attitude on one of the highest limbs. But the angry growl and the moving tail told me plainly enough he was preparing to spring, and spring on Dugald. It was the first wild beast I had ever drawn bead upon, and I confess it was a supreme moment; oh, not of joy, but,—shall I say it?—fear.
What if I should miss!
But there was no time for cogitation. I raised my rifle. At the self-same moment, as if knowing his danger, the brute sprang off the bough. The bullet met him in mid-air, and—he fell dead at Dugald's feet.
The ball had entered the neck and gone right on and through the heart. One coughing roar, an opening and shutting of the terrible jaws—which were covered with blood and froth—and a few convulsive movements of the hind legs, and all was over.
'Thank Heaven, you are saved, dear old Dugald!' I cried.
'Yes,' said Dugald, getting up and coolly stretching himself; 'but you've been a precious long time in coming.'
'And you were waiting for us?'
'I couldn't get away. I was sitting here when I noticed the lion. Dash and I were having a bit of lunch. My cartridges are all on the mule, so I've been staring fixedly at that monster ever since. I knew it was my only chance. If I had moved away, or even turned my head, he would have had me as sure as—'
'But, I say,' he added, touching the dead puma with his foot, 'isn't he a fine fellow? What a splendid skin to send home to Flora!'
This shows what sort of a boy Brother Dugald was; and now that all danger was past and gone, although I pretended to be angry with him for his rashness, I really could not help smiling.
'But what a crack shot you are, Murdoch!' he added; 'I had no idea—I—I really couldn't have done much better myself.'
'Well, Dugald,' I replied, 'I may do better next time, but to tell the truth I aimed at the beast when he was on the branch.'
'And hit him ten feet below it. Ha! ha! ha!'
We all laughed now. We could afford it.
The Gaucho whipped the puma out of his skin in less than a minute, and off we started for home.
I was the hero of the evening; though Dugald never told them of my funny aim. Bombazo, who had long since recovered his spirits, was well to the front with stories of his own personal prowess and narrow escapes; but while relating these he never addressed old Jenny, for the ancient and humorsome dame had told him one day that 'big lees were thrown awa' upon her.'
What a happy evening we spent, for our Gaucho runner had brought
'Good news from Home!'
 'Ca' Canny' = Drive slowly.
SUMMER IN THE SILVER WEST.
Though it really was not so very long since we had said farewell to our friends in Scotland and the dear ones at home, it seemed an age. So it is no wonder, seeing that all were well, our letters brought us joy. Not for weeks did we cease to read them over and over again and talk about them. One of mine was from Archie Bateman, and, much to my delight and that of my brothers, he told us that he had never ceased worrying his father and mother to let him come out to the Silver West and join us, and that they were yielding fast. He meant, he said, to put the screw on a little harder soon, by running away and taking a cruise as far as Newcastle-on-Tyne in a coal-boat. He had no doubt that this would have the desired effect of showing his dearly-beloved pater et mater that he was in downright earnest in his desire to go abroad. So we were to expect him next summer—'that is,' he added, 'summer in England, and winter with you.'
Another letter of mine was from Irene M'Rae. I dare say there must have been a deal of romance about me even then, for Irene's delightful little matter-of-fact and prosaic letter gave me much pleasure, and I—I believe I carried it about with me till it was all frayed at every fold, and I finally stowed it away in my desk.
Flora wrote to us all, with a postscript in addition to Dugald. And we were to make haste and get rich enough to send for pa and ma and her.
I did not see Townley's letter to aunt, but I know that much of it related to the 'Coila crime,' as we all call it now. The scoundrel M'Rae had disappeared, and Mr. Townley had failed to trace him. But he could wait. He would not get tired. It was as certain as Fate that as soon as the poacher spent his money—and fellows like him could not keep money long—he would appear again at Coila, to extort more by begging or threatening. Townley had a watch set for him, and as soon as he should appear there would be an interview.
'It would,' the letter went on, 'aid my case very much indeed could I but find the men who assisted him to restore the vault in the old ruin. But they, too, are spirited away, apparently, and all I can do fails to find them. But I live in hope. The good time is bound to come, and may Heaven in justice send it soon!'
Moncrieff had no letters, but I am bound to say that he was as much delighted to see us happy as if we were indeed his own brothers, and our aunt his aunt, if such a thing could have been possible.
But meanwhile the building of our Coila Villa moved on apace, and only those situated as we were could understand the eager interest we took in its gradual rise. At the laying of the foundation-stone we gave all the servants and workmen, and settlers, new and old, an entertainment. We had not an ostrich to roast whole this time, but the supper placed before our guests under Moncrieff's biggest tent was one his cook might well have been proud of. After supper music commenced, only on this special and auspicious occasion the guitars did not have it all their own way, having to give place every now and then to the inspiring strains of the Highland bagpipes. That was a night which was long remembered in our little colony.
While the villa was being built our furniture was being made. This, like that in Moncrieff's mansion, was all, or mostly, Indian work, and manufactured by our half-caste Gauchos. The wood chiefly used was algaroba, which, when polished, looked as bright as mahogany, and quite as beautiful. This Occidental furniture, as we called it, was really very light and elegant, the seats of the couches, fauteuils and sofas, and chairs being worked with thongs, or pieces of hardened skin, in quite a marvellous manner.
We had fences to make all round our fields, and hedges to plant, and even trees. Then there was the whole irrigation system to see to, and the land to sow with grain and lucerne, after the soil had been duly ploughed and attended to. All this kept us young fellows very busy indeed, for we worked with the men almost constantly, not only as simple superintendents, but as labourers.
Yes, the duties about an estancia, even after it is fairly established, are very varied; but, nevertheless, I know of no part of the world where the soil responds more quickly or more kindly to the work of the tiller than it does in the Silver West. And this is all the more wonderful when we consider that a great part of the land hereabouts is by nature barren in the extreme.
* * * * *
I do not think I am wrong in saying that sheep, if not first introduced into the estancias of the Silver West by the Scotch, have at all events been elevated to the rank of a special feature of produce in the country by them. Moncrieff had done much for the improvement of the breed, not only as regards actual size of body, but in regard to the texture of the wool; and it was his proudest boast to be able to say that the land of his adoption could already compare favourably with Australia itself, and that in the immediate future it was bound to beat that island.
It is no wonder, therefore, that we all looked forward to our first great shearing as a very busy time indeed. Our great wool harvest was, indeed, one of the principal events of the year. Moncrieff said he always felt young again at the sheep-shearing times.
Now there are various styles of wool harvesting. Moncrieff's was simple enough. Preparations were made for it, both out-doors and in, at least a fortnight beforehand. Indoors, hams, &c., were got ready for cooking, and the big tent was erected once more near and behind the mansion, for extra hands to the number of twenty at least were to be imported; several neighbour settlers—they lived ten miles off, and still were neighbours—were coming over to lend a hand, and all had to eat, and most had to sleep, under canvas.
If sheep-shearing prospects made Moncrieff young again, so they did his mother. She was here, there, and everywhere; now in parlour or dining-room, in kitchen and scullery, in out-houses and tent, giving orders, leading, directing, ay, and sometimes even driving, the servants, for few of the Gauchos, whether male or female, could work with speed enough to please old Jenny.
Well, the sheds had to be cleared out, and a system of corralling adopted which was only called for during times like these. Then there were the weighing machines to be seen to; the tally tables and all the packing and pressing machinery—which on this large estancia was carried almost to perfection—had all to be got into the very best working order imaginable. For, in the matter of sheep-shearing, Moncrieff was fastidious to a degree.
The sheep were washed the day before. This was hard work, for no animal I know of is more obstinate than a sheep when it makes up its mind to be so.
So the work commenced, and day after day it went merrily on. Moncrieff did not consider this a very large shearing, and yet in six days' time no less than 11,000 sheep were turned away fleeceless.
And what a scene it was, to be sure!
I remember well, when quite a little lad, thinking old Parson McGruer's shearing a wonderful sight. The old man, who was very fat and podgy, and seldom got down to breakfast before eleven in the morning, considered himself a sheep farmer on rather a large scale. Did he not own a flock of nearly six hundred—one shepherd's work—that fed quietly on the heath-clad braes of Coila? One shepherd and two collies; and the collies did nearly all the duty in summer and a great part of it in winter. The shepherd had his bit of shieling in a clump of birch-trees at the glen-foot, and at times, crook in hand, his Highland plaid dangling from his shoulder, he might be seen slowly winding along the braes, or standing, statue-like, on the hill-top, his romantic figure well defined against the horizon, and very much in keeping with the scene. I never yet saw the minister's shepherd running. His life was almost an idyllic one in summer, when the birks waved green and eke, or in autumn, when the hills were all ablaze with the crimson glory of the heather. To be sure, his pay was not a great deal, and his fare for the most part consisted of oatmeal and milk, with now and then a slice of the best part of a 'braxied' sheep. Here, in our home in the Silver West, how different! Every puestero had a house or hut as good as the minister's shepherd; and as for living, why, the worthy Mr. McGruer himself never had half so well-found a table. Our dogs in the Silver West lived far more luxuriously than any farm servant or shepherd, or even gamekeeper, 'in a' braid Scotland.'
But our shepherds had to run and to ride both. Wandering over miles upon miles of pasturage, sheep learn to be dainty, and do not stay very long in any one place; so it is considered almost impossible to herd them on foot. It is not necessary to do so; at all events, where one can buy a horse for forty shillings, and where his food costs nil, or next to nil, one usually prefers riding to walking.
But it was a busy time in May even at the Scotch minister's place when sheep-shearing came round. The minister got up early then, if he did not do so all the year round again. The hurdles were all taken to the river-side, or banks of the stream that, leaving Loch Coila, went meandering through the glen. Here the sheep were washed and penned, and anon turned into the enclosures where the shearers were. Lads and lasses all took part in the work in one capacity or another. The sun would be brightly shining, the 'jouking burnie' sparkling clear in its rays; the glens and hills all green and bonnie; the laughing and joking and lilting and singing, and the constant bleating of sheep and lambs, made altogether a curious medley; but every now and then Donald the piper would tune his pipes and make them 'skirl,' drowning all other sounds in martial melody.
But here on Moncrieff's estancia everything was on a grander scale. There was the same bleating of sheep, the same laughing, joking, lilting, singing, and piping; the same hurry-scurry of dogs and men; the same prevailing busy-ness and activity; but everything was multiplied by twenty.
McGruer at home in Coila had his fleeces thrust into a huge sack, which was held up by two stalwart Highlanders. Into this not only were the fleeces put, but also a boy, to jump on them and pack them down. At the estancia we had the very newest forms of machinery to do everything.
Day by day, as our shearing went on, Moncrieff grew gayer and gayer, and on the final morning he was as full of life and fun as a Harrow schoolboy out on the range. The wool harvest had turned out well.
It had not been so every year with Moncrieff and his partner. They had had many struggles to come through—sickness had at one time more than decimated the flocks. The Indians, though they do not as a rule drive away sheep, had played sad havoc among them, and scattered them far and wide over the adjoining pampas, and the pampero had several times destroyed its thousands, before the trees had grown up to afford protection and shelter.
I have said before that Moncrieff was fond of doing things in his own fashion. He was willing enough to adopt all the customs of his adopted country so long as he thought they were right, but many of the habits of his native land he considered would engraft well with those of Mendoza. Moncrieff delighted in dancing—that is, in giving a good hearty rout, and he simply did so whenever there was the slightest excuse. The cereal harvest ended thus, the grape harvest also, and making of the wine and preserves, and so of course did the shearing.
The dinner at the mansion itself was a great success; the supper in the marquee, with the romp to follow, was even a greater. Moncrieff himself opened the fun with Aunt Cecilia as a partner, Donald and a charming Spanish girl completing the quartette necessary for a real Highland reel. The piper played, of course (guitars were not good enough for this sort of thing), and I think we must have kept that first 'hoolichin' up for nearly twenty minutes. Then Moncrieff and aunt were fain to retire 'for-fochten.'
Well Moncrieff might have been 'for-fochten,' but neither Donald nor his Spanish lassie were half tired. Nor was the piper.
'Come on, Dugald,' cried Donald, 'get a partner, lad. Hooch!'
'Hooch!' shouted Dugald in response, and lo and behold! he gaily led forth—whom? Why, whom but old Jenny herself? What roars of laughter there was as, keeping time to a heart-stirring strathspey, the litle lady cracked her thumbs and danced, reeling, setting, and deeking! roars of laughter, and genuine hearty applause as well.
Moncrieff was delighted with his mother's performance. It was glorious, he said, and so true to time; surely everybody would believe him now that mither was a downright mar-r-r-vel. And everybody did.
During the shearing Donald and I had done duty as clerks; and very busy we had been kept. As for Dugald, it would have been a pity to have parted him and his dear gun, so the work assigned to him was that of lion's provider—we, the shearing folk, being the lion.
For a youth of hardly sixteen Dugald was a splendid shot, and during the shearing he really kept up his credit well. Moncrieff objected to have birds killed when breeding; but in this country, as indeed in any other where game is numerous, there are hosts of birds that do not, for various reasons, breed or mate every season. These generally are to be found either singly and solitary, as if they had some great grief on their minds that they desired to nurse in solitude, or in small flocks of gay young bachelors. Dugald knew such birds well, and it was from the ranks of these he always filled the larder.
To the supply thus brought daily by Dugald were added fowls, ducks, and turkeys from the estancia's poultry-yard, to say nothing of joints of beef, mutton, and pork. Nor was it birds alone that Dugald's seemingly inexhaustible creels and bags were laden with, but eggs of the swan and the wild-duck and goose, with—to serve as tit-bits for those who cared for such desert delicacies—cavies, biscachas, and now and then an armadillo. If these were not properly appreciated by the new settlers, the eyes of the old, and especially the Gauchos, sparkled with anticipation of gustatory delight on beholding them.
For some days after the shearing was over comparative peace reigned around and over the great estancia. But nevertheless preparations were being made to send off a string of waggons to Villa Mercedes. The market at Mendoza was hardly large enough to suit Moncrieff, nor were the prices so good as could be obtained in the east. Indeed, Moncrieff had purchasing agents from Villa Mercedes to meet his waggons on receipt of a telegram.
So the waggons were loaded up—wool, wine, and preserves, as well as raisins.
To describe the vineyards at our estancia would take up far too much space. I must leave them to the reader's imagination; but I hardly think I am wrong in stating that there are no grapes in the world more delicious or more viniferous than those that grow in the province of Mendoza. The usual difficulty is not in the making of wine, but in the supply of barrels and bottles. Moncrieff found a way out of this; and in some hotels in Buenos Ayres, and even Monte Video, the Chateau Moncrieff had already gained some celebrity.