Hot as the weather now was, the boys worked incessantly at their carpentering for the next week, and at the end had the satisfaction of seeing a large table for dining at in the sitting-room, and a small one to act as a sideboard, two long benches, and two short ones. In their mother and sisters' rooms there were a table and two benches, and a table and a long flap to serve as a dresser in the kitchen. They had also put up two long shelves in each of the bedrooms, and some nails on the doors for dresses. They were very tired at the end of the week, but they looked round with a satisfied look, for they knew they had done their best. The next morning they were to ride to Rosario to meet the party. The carts had gone off under the charge of Terence that day.
It was indeed a joyful meeting when Mr. and Mrs. Hardy and the girls stepped off the steamer; but the first embrace was scarcely over when the boys exclaimed simultaneously, 'Why, girls, what is the matter with your faces? I should not have known you.'
'Oh, it's those dreadful mosquitoes; there were millions on board the steamer last night I really thought we should have been eaten up. Didn't you, mamma?'
'Well, my dear, I thought that they would perhaps leave something of us till morning, but I felt almost inclined to go mad and jump overboard. It was a dreadful night I do hope they are not so bad here, Frank?'
'No, Clara, they are nothing like so bad as they were last night; but still, as we are so close to the river, they will, no doubt, be troublesome, and I question whether the beds at the hotel have mosquito curtains; but if you take my advice, and all sleep with the sheet over your heads, you will manage to do pretty well. It is better to be hot than to be bitten all over.'
In spite, however, of the expedient of the sheets, all the party passed a bad night, and were quite ready to get up before daylight to start for their ride to Mr. Percy's estancia. They were all to ride, with the exception of Sarah, who took her place in one of the bullock-carts; and they would therefore reach the estancia before the heat of the day fairly set in. Terence having been told that Sarah was going to ride, had cut some boughs, with which he made a sort of arbour over the cart to shade her from the sun—a general method of the country, and at which Sarah was much gratified. She had at first felt rather anxious at the thought of going without her mistress; but Terence assured her: 'Sure, miss, and it's meself, Terence Kelly, that will take care of ye; and no danger shall come near your pretty face at all, at all; ye'll be quite as safe as if ye were in the ould country. And as for the bastes, sure and it's the quietest bastes they are, and niver thought of running away since the day they were born.'
So Sarah took her place without uneasiness, and the others started at a hand canter for Mr. Percy's estancia.
While at Mr. Thompson's, both Mrs. Hardy and the girls had ridden regularly every day, so that all were quite at their ease on their horses, and were able to talk away without ceasing of all that had happened since they parted. The only caution Mr. Hardy had to give, with a side-look at Charley, was, 'Look out for armadillo holes; because I have known fellows who were wonderful at sticking on their horses, come to grief at them.'
At which Hubert laughed; and Charley said, 'Oh papa!' and coloured up and laughed, as was his way when his father joked him about his little weaknesses.
They had not gone more than half way before they met Mr. Percy, who had ridden thus far to welcome his guests, for English ladies are very scarce out on the Pampas, and are honoured accordingly. One of the first questions the girls asked after the first greetings were over, was, 'Have you many mosquitoes at your estancia, Mr. Percy?'
'Not many,' Mr. Percy said; 'I have no stream near, and it is only near water that they are so very bad.'
After waiting during the heat of the day at Mr. Percy's, the boys rode on home, as six guests were altogether beyond Mr. Percy's power of accommodating.
The next morning the boys were up long before daylight, and went down to the stream, where, as day broke, they managed to shoot a swan and five wild ducks, and with these they returned to the house. Then they swept the place with the greatest care, spread the table, arranged the benches, set everything off to the best advantage, and then devoted their whole energies to cooking a very excellent breakfast, which they were sure the travellers would be ready for upon their arrival. This was just ready, when, from the lookout on the tower, they saw the party approaching. The breakfast was too important to be left, and they were therefore unable to ride out to meet them. They were at the gate, however, as they rode up.
'Hurrah, hurrah!' they shouted, and the girls set up a cheer in return.
The men ran up to take the horses, and in another minute the whole party were in their new home. The girls raced everywhere wild with delight, ascended to the lookout, clapped their hands at the sight of the sheep and cattle, and could hardly be persuaded to take their things off and sit down to breakfast.
Mrs. Hardy was less loud in her commendation of everything, but she was greatly pleased with her new home, which was very much more finished and comfortable than she had expected.
'This is fun, mamma, isn't it?' Maud said. 'It is just like a picnic. How we shall enjoy it, to be sure! May we set-to at once after breakfast, and wash up?'
'Certainly, Maud; Sarah will not be here for another two hours, and it is as well that you should begin to make yourselves useful at once. We shall all have to be upon our mettle, too. See how nicely the boys have cooked the breakfast. These spatch-cock ducks are excellent, and the mutton chops done to a turn. They will have a great laugh at us, if we, the professed cooks, do not do at least as well.'
'Ah, but look at the practice they have been having, mamma.'
'Yes, Maud,' Hubert said; 'and I can tell you it is only two or three things we can do well. Ducks and geese done like this, and chops and steaks, are about the limits. If we tried anything else, we made an awful mess of it: as to puddings, we never attempted them; and shall be very glad of something in the way of bread, for we are heartily sick of these flat, flabby cakes.'
'Why have you only whitewashed this high middle wall half-way up, Frank?'
'In the first place, my dear, we fell short of whitewash; and, in the next place, we are going to set to work at once to put a few light rafters across, and to nail felt below them, and whitewash it so as to make a ceiling. It will make the rooms look less bare, and, what is much more important, it will make them a great deal cooler.'
'You get milk, I hope?'
'Yes,' Charley said; 'two of the cows of the last lot papa bought are accustomed to be milked, and Hubert and I have done it up till now; but we shall hand them over to you, and you girls will have to learn.'
Maud and Ethel looked at each other triumphantly. 'Perhaps we know more than you think,' Ethel said.
'Yes,' Mrs. Hardy said; 'the girls are going to be two very useful little women. I will tell you a secret. While you boys were at work of a morning, the girls, as you know, often walked over to Mr. Williams the farmer's, to learn as much as they could about poultry, of which he kept a great many. Mrs. Williams saw how anxious they were to learn to be useful, so she offered to teach them to milk, and to manage a dairy, and make butter and cheese. And they worked regularly, till Mrs. Williams told me she thought that they could make butter as well as she could. It has been a great secret, for the girls did not wish even their papa to know, so that it might be a surprise.'
'Very well done, little girls,' Mr. Hardy said; 'it is a surprise indeed, and a most pleasant one. Mamma kept your secret capitally, and never as much as whispered a word to me about it.'
The boys too were delighted, for they had not tasted butter since they arrived, and they promised readily enough to make a rough churn with the least possible delay.
By ten o'clock the carts arrived with Sarah and the luggage, and then there was work for the afternoon, putting up the bedsteads, and getting everything into order. The mosquito curtains were fitted to the beds, and all felt gratified at the thought that they should be able to set the little bloodsuckers at defiance. The next day was Sunday, upon which, as usual, no work was to be done. After breakfast the benches were brought in from the bedrooms, and the men assembling, Mr. Hardy read prayers, offering up a special prayer for the blessing and protection of God upon their household. Afterwards Mrs. Hardy and the girls were taken over the place, and shown the storehouse, and the men's tent, and the river, and the newly planted field.
'The ground is getting very much burnt up, papa,' Charley said. 'It was damp enough when we put in the crops, and they are getting on capitally; but I fear that they were sown too late, and will be burnt up.'
'Ah, but I have a plan to prevent that,' Mr. Hardy said. 'See if you can think what it is.'
Neither of the boys could imagine.
'When I first described the place to you, I told you that there was a main stream with a smaller one running into it, and that I thought that this last would be very useful. I examined the ground very carefully, and I found that the small stream runs for some distance between two slight swells, which narrow in sharply to each other just below the house. Now I find that a dam of not more than fifty feet wide and eight feet high will make a sort of lake a quarter of a mile long, and averaging fifty yards wide. From this the water will flow over the whole flat by the river in front of the house and away to the left, and we shall be able to irrigate at least three or four hundred acres of land. Upon these we shall be able to raise four or five crops a year; and one crop in particular, the alfalfa, a sort of lucern for fattening the cattle in time of drought, when the grass is all parched up. At that time cattle ordinarily worth only L3 can be sold, if fat, for L9 or L10. So you see, boys, there is a grand prospect before us.'
The boys entered enthusiastically into the scheme, and the party went at once to inspect the spot which Mr. Hardy had fixed upon for the dam. This, it was agreed, should be commenced the very next day; and Mr. Hardy said that he had no doubt, if the earth was properly puddled, or stamped when wet, that it would keep the water from coming through.
In the afternoon Mrs. Hardy, Maud, and Ethel were taken a ride round the property, and were fortunate enough to see some ostriches, to the great delight of the girls.
At tea Mr. Hardy said: 'There is one very important point connected with our place which has hitherto been unaccountably neglected. Do any of you know what it is?'
The boys and their sisters looked at each other in great perplexity, and in vain endeavoured to think of any important omission.
'I mean,' their father said at last, 'the place has no name. I suggest that we fix upon one at once. It is only marked in the Government plan as Lot 473. Now, what name shall it be?'
Innumerable were the suggestions made, but none met with universal approbation. At last Mrs. Hardy said: 'I have heard in England of a place called Mount Pleasant, though I confess I do not know where it is. Now, what do you say to Mount Pleasant? It is a mount, and we mean it to be a very pleasant place before we have done with it.'
The approval of the suggestion was general, and amid great applause it was settled that the house and estate should hereafter go by the name of 'Mount Pleasant.'
In the morning the boys were at work at two wheelbarrows, for which Mr. Hardy had brought out wheels and iron-work; and Mr. Hardy and the men went down to the stream, and began to strip off the turf and to dig out a strip of land five-and-twenty feet wide along the line where the dam was to come. The earth was then wetted and puddled. When the barrows were completed they were brought into work; and in ten days a dam was raised eight feet high, three feet wide at the top, and twenty-five feet wide at the bottom. In the middle a space of two feet wide was left, through which the little stream at present ran. Two posts, with grooves in them, were driven in, one upon either side of this; and thus the work was left for a few days, for the sun to bake its surface, while the men were cutting a trench for the water to run down to the ground to be irrigated.
A small sluice was put at the entrance to this, to regulate the quantity of water to be allowed to flow, and all was now in readiness to complete the final operation of closing up the dam. A quantity of earth was first collected and puddled, and piled on the top of the dam and on the slopes by its side, so as to be in readiness, and Mrs. Hardy and the girls came down to watch the operation.
First a number of boards two feet long, and cut to fit the grooves, were slipped down into them, forming a solid wall, and then upon the upper side of these the puddled earth was thrown down into the water, Terence standing below in the stream and pounding down the earth with a rammer. The success was complete: in a couple of hours' time the gap in the dam was filled up, and they had the satisfaction of seeing the little stream overflowing its banks and widening out above, while not a drop of water made its escape by the old channel.
While this work had been going on, the boys had been engaged up at the house. The first thing was to make a churn, then to put up some large closets and some more shelves, and the bullock-carts had to be sent to Rosario for a fresh supply of planks. This occupied them until the dam was finished. The girls had tried their first experiment at butter, and the result had been most satisfactory. The dinners, too, were pronounced to be an immense improvement upon the old state of things.
Soon after the dam was finished, Hans, who had been too long a rover to settle down, expressed his desire to leave; and as Mr. Hardy had determined to lessen his establishment,—as, now that the heavy work was over, it was no longer necessary to keep so many hands,—he offered no objection to his leaving without the notice he had agreed to give. Wages were high, and Mr. Hardy was desirous of keeping his remaining capital in hand, in case of his sheep and cattle being driven off by the Indians. One of the peons was also discharged, and there remained only Lopez, Seth, Terence, and two peons.
A TALE OF THE MEXICAN WAR.
Mr. Hardy was rather surprised at Seth Harper, the Yankee, having remained so long in his service, as the man had plainly stated, when first engaged, that he thought it likely that he should not fix himself, as he expressed it, for many weeks. However, he stayed on, and had evidently taken a fancy to the boys; and was still more interested in the girls, whose talk and ways must have been strange and very pleasant to him after so many years' wandering as a solitary man. He was generally a man of few words, using signs where signs would suffice, and making his answers, when obliged to speak, as brief as possible. This habit of taciturnity was no doubt acquired from a long life passed either alone, or amid dangers where an unnecessary sound might have cost him his life. To the young people, however, he would relax from his habitual rule of silence. Of an evening, when work was over, they would go down to the bench he had erected outside his hut, and would ask him to tell them tales of his Indian experiences. Upon one of these occasions Charley said to him: 'But of all the near escapes that you have had, which was the most hazardous you ever had? which do you consider was the narrowest touch you ever had of being killed?'
Seth considered for some time in silence, turned his plug of tobacco in his mouth, expectorated two or three times, as was his custom when thinking, and then said, 'That's not altogether an easy question to answer. I've been so near wiped out such scores of times, that it ain't no easy job to say which was the downright nearest. In thinking it over, I conclude sometimes that one go was the nearest, sometimes that another; it ain't no ways easy to say now. But I think that, at the time, I never so much felt that Seth Harper's time for going down had come, as I did in an affair near San Louis.'
'And how was that, Seth? Do tell us about it,' Maud said.
'It's rather a long story, that is,' the Yankee said.
'All the better, Seth,' Charley said; 'at least all the better as far as we are concerned, if you don't mind telling it.'
'No, I don't mind, no how,' Seth answered. 'I'll just think it over, and see where to begin.'
There was a silence for a few minutes, and the young Hardys composed themselves comfortably for a good long sitting, and then Seth Harper began his story.
'Better than five years back, in '47, I were fighting in Mexico. It wasn't much regular up and down fighting we had, though we had some toughish battles too, but it were skirmishing here, skirmishing there, keeping one eye always open, for man, woman, and child hated us like pison, and it was little mercy that a straggler might expect if he got caught away from his friends. Their partisan chiefs, half-soldier half-robber, did us more harm than the regulars, and mercy was never given or asked between them and us. Me and Rube Pearson worked mostly together. We had "fit" the Indians out on the prairies for years side by side, and when Uncle Sam wanted men to lick the Mexicans, we concluded to go in together. We 'listed as scouts to the "Rangers," that is, we agreed to fight as much as we were wanted to fight, and to go on in front as scouts, in which way we had many a little skrimmage on our own account; but we didn't wear any uniform, or do drill, which couldn't have been expected of us. We shouldn't have been no good as regulars, and every one knew that there were no better scouts in the army than Rube Pearson and Seth Harper. Lor', what a fellow Rube was, to be sure! I ain't a chicken,' and the Yankee looked down at his own bony limbs, 'but I was a baby by the side of Rube. He were six feet four if he were an inch, and so broad that he looked short unless you saw him by the side of another man. I do believe Rube Pearson were the strongest man in the world. I have heard,' Seth went on, meditating, 'of a chap called Samson: folks say he were a strong fellow. I never came across any one who had rightly met him, but a good many have heard speak of him. I should like to have seen him and Rube in the grips. I expect Rube would have astonished him. Rube came from Missouri,—most of them very big chaps do. I shouldn't wonder if Samson did, though I never heard for certain.'
The young Hardys had great difficulty to prevent themselves from laughing aloud at Seth's idea on the subject of Samson. Charley, however, with a great effort, steadied himself to say, 'Samson died a great many years ago, Seth. His history is in the Bible.'
'Is it though?' Seth said, much interested. 'Well now, what did he do?'
'He carried away the gates of Gaza on his back, Seth.'
Seth remained thoughtful for some time. 'It all depends on how big the gates were,' he said at last. 'That gate down there is a pretty heavyish one, but Rube Pearson could have carried away two sich as that, and me sitting on the top of them. What else did he do?'
'He was bound in new cords, and he broke them asunder, Seth.'
Seth did not appear to attach much importance to this, and inquired, 'Did he do anything else?'
'He killed three hundred men with the jawbone of an ass.'
'He killed——' Seth began, and then paused in sheer astonishment. Then he looked sharply round: 'You're making fun of me, lad.'
'No, indeed, Seth,' Charley said; 'it is quite true.'
'What! that a man killed three hundred men with the jawbone of an ass? It couldn't have been; it was sheer impossible,—unless they were all asleep, and even then it would be an awful job.'
'I don't know how it was, Seth, but the Bible tells us, and so it must be true. I think it was a sort of miracle.'
'Oh it was a miracle!' Seth said thoughtfully, and then remained silent, evidently pondering in his own mind as to what a miracle was, but not liking to ask.
'It was a very long time ago, Seth, and they were no doubt a different people then.'
'Was it a very, very long time back?' Seth asked.
'Yes, Seth; a very, very, very long time.'
'Ah!' Seth said in a thoughtful but more satisfied tone, 'I understand now. I expect it's that. It's the same thing among the Indians: they have got stories of chiefs who died ever so long ago, who used to be tremendous fellows,—traditions they call 'em. I don't expect they were any braver than they are now; but a thing grows, you see, like a tree, with age. Lor' bless 'em! if they tell such tales now about a Jew, what will they do some day about Rube Pearson?'
The young Hardys could stand it no longer, but went off into a scream of laughter, which even the surprised and offended looks of the ignorant and simple-minded, but shrewd, Yankee could not check. So offended was he, indeed, that no entreaties or explanations were sufficient to mollify him, and the story was abruptly broken off. It was not for two or three days that the boys' explanation and assurance sufficed; and then, when Charley had explained the whole history of Samson to him, he said:
'I have no doubt that it is all true, and I wish I could read it for myself. I can just remember that my mother put a great store on her Bible, and called it the good book. I can't read myself, and shouldn't have time to do it if I could; so it's all one as far as that goes. I am just a hunter and Indian fighter, and I don't know that for years I have ever stopped so long under a roof as I have here. My religion is the religion of most of us out on the prairies. Be honest and true to your word. Stick to a friend to death, and never kill a man except in fair fight. That's about all, and I hope it will do; at any rate, it's too late for me to try and learn a new one now. I listen on a Sunday to your father's reading, and I wish sometimes I had been taught; and yet it's better as it is. A man who acted like that wouldn't be much good for a rough life on the prairies, though I have no doubt it could be done in the settlements. Now I must go on with my work. If you and the others will come over to the hut this evening, I will go on with that yarn I was just beginning.'
After tea the young Hardys went down to the hut, outside which they found Seth awaiting their arrival. They were now comfortably seated, and Seth, without further introduction, went on.
'One day our captain sent for Rube and me, and says, "I've got a job for you two scouts. It's a dangerous one, but you won't like it any the worse for that, I know."
'"Not a bit," said Rube with a laugh. He was the lightest-hearted fellow, was Rube; always gay and jolly, and wouldn't have hurt a squirrel, except in stand-up fight and as a matter of business.
'"What is it, Cap?" said I; "you've only got to give us the word, and we're off."
'"I've had a message," he said, "from Colonel Cabra of their service, that he is ready to turn traitor, and hand us over some correspondence of Santa Anna, of which he has somehow got possessed. Being a traitor, he won't trust any one, and the only plan we can hit upon is, that he shall make a journey to San Miguel, thirty miles north of this, as if on business. I am to make an expedition in that direction, and am to take him prisoner. He will then hand over the papers. We shall bring him here, and, after keeping him for a time, let him go on parole. No suspicion will therefore at any future time arise against him, which there might be if we met in any other way. The papers are very important, and the affair must not be suffered to slip through. The country between this and San Miguel is peaceful enough, but we hear that El Zeres' band is out somewhere in that direction. He has something like two hundred cut-throats with him of his own, and there is a rumour that other bands have joined him. Now I want you to go on to-morrow to San Miguel. Go in there after dusk, and take up your quarters at this address: it is a small wine-shop in a street off the market. Get up as Mexicans; it only requires a big cloak and a sombrero. You can both speak Spanish well enough to pass muster. Stay all next day, and till daybreak on the morning afterwards, and then ride back on this road. You will find out in the first place whether Cabra has arrived, and in the next place whether El Zeres is in the neighbourhood. I shall only bring forty men, as I do not wish it to be supposed that I am going on more than a mere scouting expedition. You understand?"
'"All right, Cap; we'll do it," I said, and we went off to our quarters.
'I can't say I altogether liked the job. It was a long way from headquarters, and, do what they may, two men can't fight more than, say, ten or a dozen. I was rather surprised to see by Rube's face that he rather liked it; but I did not find out till late that night what it was pleased him,—then the truth came out.
'"We had better start early, Seth," said he; "say at daybreak."
'"What for, Rube?" I said; "the Cap said we were to go in after dusk. It's only thirty miles; we shan't want to start till three o'clock."
'Rube laughed. "I don't want to get there before dusk, but I want to start at daybreak, and I'll tell you why. You remember Pepita?"
'"There," said I, "if I didn't think it had something to do with a woman. You are always running after some one, Rube. They will get you into a scrape some day."
'Rube laughed. "I am big enough to get out of it if it does, Seth; but you know I did feel uncommon soft towards Pepita, and really thought of marrying and taking her back to Missouri."
'"Only she wouldn't come, Rube?"
'"Just so, Seth," said he, laughing. "So we agreed we would be the best friends; and she asked me, if ever I went out to San Miguel, to go and see her. She said her father was generally out, but would be glad to see me if he were in. She lives in a small hacienda, a league this side of the town."
'I saw that it was of no use to argue, but I didn't like it. The Mexican women hated us worse than the men did, and that warn't easy to do; and many of our fellows had been murdered after being enticed by them to out-of-the-way places. Still, in the present case, I did not see that the girl could have expected that Rube would be there unless the rest of us were near at hand, and I did not attempt to oppose Rube's wishes.
'So next morning off we started, and by ten o'clock we rode up to the door of the place which Rube said answered to the description Pepita had given him. It was a pretty place, with trees round it, and might have been the residence of a small proprietor such as Pepita had described her father to be. As we rode up to the door it opened, and I saw at once that Rube were right, for a dark-eyed Mexican girl came out and looked at us inquiringly.
'"What can I do for you, senors?" she asked.
'"Don't you remember me, Donna Pepita?" Rube said, laughing as he lifted the sombrero which had shaded his face.
'The girl started violently. "Ah, Signor Americano, is it you? I might have known, indeed," she said, smiling, "by your size, even wrapped up. This, of course, is Signor Seth: you are always together. But come in," she said.
'"Who have you got inside, Donna Pepita?" Rube asked. "I know that I can trust you, but I can't trust others, and I don't want it known I am here."
'"The house is empty," Pepita said. "My father is out. There is only old Jacinta at home."
'At this moment an old woman made her appearance at the door, and at a word from Pepita took our horses, while Pepita signed to us to enter.
'"Excuse me, signora," I said. "We will go first and see our horses stabled. It is our custom; one never knows when he may want them."
'I thought Pepita looked annoyed, but it was only for a moment, and then she said something in one of the country dialects to the old woman. She nodded her head, and went off round to the back of the house, we leading our horses, and following her. The stables, I observed, were singularly large and well kept for a house of its size; but, to my surprise, instead of going to the long range of buildings, the old woman led the way to a small shed.
'"Ain't these stables?" said I.
'She shook her head, and said in Spanish, "They were once, but we have only two horses. Now they are used as a store for grain; the master has the key."
'I could not contradict her, though I believed she was telling me a lie. However, we fastened our horses up in the shed, put the pistols from our holsters into our belts, and, taking our rifles in our hands, entered the house.
'Pepita received us very warmly, and busied herself assisting the old woman to get us something to eat; after which she and Rube began love-making, and it really seemed as if the girl meant to change her mind, and go back with Rube, after all. There was nothing, in fact, to justify my feeling uneasy, except that, while Pepita had promised me when I entered the house not to tell the old woman who we were, I was convinced that she had done so by the glances of scowling hatred which the old hag threw at us whenever she came into the room. Still I was uneasy, and shortly made some excuse to leave the room and saunter round and about the house, to assure myself that Pepita had spoken truly when she had said that there was no one there except the old woman and herself. I found nothing to excite the smallest suspicion, and was therefore content to return to the room and to throw myself lazily down and go off for a siesta, in the wakeful intervals of which I could hear that Pepita had given way, and that the delighted Rube was arranging with her how she should escape and join him when the army retired; for of course neither had any idea that her father would consent to her marrying one of the hated enemies of his country.
'At three o'clock I roused myself, and soon after the old woman came into the room with some lemonade. I observed that Pepita changed colour, but she said nothing, and a moment after, making some excuse, she left the room. I was about to speak to Rube on the subject, when the window was darkened with men. Five or six shots were fired at us, and with a yell a crowd of Mexicans rushed into the room.
'As they appeared, Rube sprang up with the exclamation, "Trapped, by thunder!" and then fell flat on his back, shot, I believed, through the head.
'I rushed to my rifle, seized it, but before I could get it to my shoulder it was knocked from my hand. Half a dozen fellows threw themselves upon me, and I was a prisoner. I didn't try to resist when they laid hands on me, because I knew I should have a knife in me at once; and though I knew my life was not worth an hour's purchase—no, nor five minutes'—after I was caught, still, upon the whole, it was as well to live that five minutes as not.
'There was such a hubbub and a shouting at first that I couldn't hear a word, but at last I picked up that they were a party of the band of El Zeres, who was in the neighbourhood, and had been fetched by a boy that traitress Pepita had despatched for them directly we arrived. Pepita herself was wife of one of the other chiefs of the band. Much fun was made of poor Rube and myself about our courting. I felt mad with myself for having been caught so foolishly. I couldn't feel angry with Rube, with him lying dead there, but I was angry with myself for having listened to him. I oughtn't to have allowed him to have his own way. I warn't in love, and I ought to have known that a man's head, when he's after a gal, is no more use than a pumpkin. While I was thinking this out in my mind I had my eyes fixed upon poor Rube, whom no one thought of noticing, when all of a sudden I gave quite a start, for I saw him move. I couldn't see his face, but I saw a hand stealing gradually out towards the leg of a man who stood near. Then there was a pause, and then the other hand began to move. It wasn't at all like the aimless way that the arms of a badly hit man would move, and I saw at once that Rube had been playing "possum" all along.'
'Doing what, Seth?' Ethel asked.
'Just pretending to be dead. I held my breath, for I saw he had come to the conclusion that he could not be overlooked much longer, and was going to make a move.
'In another minute there was a crash and a shout as the two men fell to the ground with their legs knocked clean from under them, catching hold of other men and dragging them down with them. From the midst of the confusion Rube leapt to his feet and made a rush for the window; one man he levelled with a blow of his fist; another he caught up as if he had been a baby, and hurling him against two others, brought them on the ground together, and then leaping over their bodies, dashed through the window before the Mexicans had recovered from their astonishment. I could have laughed out loud at the yell of rage and amazement with which they set off in pursuit; but two or three of them remained to guard me, and I might have got a knife in my ribs, so I kept quiet. I did just feel so glad to see Rube was alive, that I hardly remembered that it warn't likely that either he or I would be so long, for I did not for a moment expect that he would make good his escape. The odds were too great against it, especially in broad daylight. Even on horseback it would be next to impossible. No one but Rube would have attempted such a thing; but he never stopped to think about odds or chances when his dander was up. In less than no time I heard a shot or two, then there was a silence for a time, then a shout of triumph. I knew it was all over, and that Rube was taken again.
'He told me afterwards that he had made a dash round to the stable, where he had found seven or eight Mexicans looking after the horses; that he had knocked down one or two who were in his way, had leapt upon the nearest animal, and had made off at the top of his speed, but that a dozen others were after him in an instant; and seeing that he would be lassoed and thrown from his horse, he had stopped and thrown up his arms in token of surrender. Rube's hands were bound tightly behind him, and he was led back into the room.
'He gave a loud laugh when he saw me: "That was a boy's trick; wasn't it, Seth? But I couldn't have helped it if I had been shot a minute afterwards. There were those fellows' legs moving about me just as if I was a log of wood. The thoughts came across me, 'A good sharp rap above the ankle and over you'd go;' and when I'd once thought of it, I was obliged to do it. It was fun, though, Seth; wasn't it?"
'"It was, as you say, Rube, a boy's trick, and just at present is hardly the time for that. But don't let us say anything we don't want overheard, Rube; some of these fellows may understand."
'"Right you are, Seth. I am main sorry, old hoss, that I've got you into this scrape, but I expect we shall get out again somehow. I don't think Rube Pearson is going to be wiped out yet."
'I hoped not too. I warn't a bit tired of life, but I did not see my way out of it. However, I had one comfort: I knew if any two men could get out of an ugly mess, those two men were Rube and I.
'We were now told to sit down on the ground in one corner of the room, two fellows taking up their station by our sides. Then there was a hot discussion about our fate, which warn't exactly pleasant to listen to. Some were in favour of hanging us at once, but the majority were for taking us to the main body under El Zeres himself, because the chief would be so glad to have us in his power. He had frequently vowed vengeance against us, for we were known as the most active scouts in the army, and had led troops in his pursuit many a time, and had once or twice come very near to catching him. He had vowed solemnly to his patron saint, that if we fell into his hands he would put us to death with unheard-of tortures: and as El Zeres was rather celebrated that way,—and it was the anticipation of an unusual treat which decided the majority to reserve us,—it warn't altogether pleasant to listen to. But we put a good face on the matter, for it would never have done to let those Mexican varmints see that two backwoodsmen who had "fit" them and beaten them time after time, were afraid to die when their time came. Presently there was a little stir, and Pepita came into the room. I rather think that, though the girl hated us like pison, she didn't like to come into the room where one of us was, she thought, laying dead. Now she came in, looking, I will say for her, uncommonly pretty. She came straight up to us, and looked us full in the face. I paid no attention to her, but Rube nodded quite cheerfully.
'"Well, signora, so you were making fools of us, after all! Well, I ain't the first chap that's been fooled by a pretty woman; that's one comfort, anyhow. I suppose our engagement is to be considered at an end, eh?" and he laughed.
'"American dog!" the girl said, with her eyes flashing with rage, "did you think you were so good-looking that the women of the nation you tread upon are all to lose their hearts to you? We are Mexicans, and we hate you!" and she stamped her foot with passion.
'Rube laughed unconcernedly. "Well, signora, after what you now permit me to see of you, I am really thankful that you are so kind and lenient. Thunder! what a fate mine would have been if you had taken it into your head to marry me!"
'There was a general laugh among the men at the cool way in which Rube treated the girl, and the enraged Pepita struck him a box on the ear. It was a hearty one; but Rube's face hardly changed, and he said, still smiling,
'"We have a custom in the States, Pepita, that when a gal boxes a man's ears, he has a right to give her a kiss. You are reversing that; I had the kisses this afternoon, and now I have got the box on the ear."
'There was again a roar of laughter among the Mexicans, and the enraged woman drew a knife, and would have stabbed Rube to the heart had she not been seized by the men standing round her and forced from the room. We were kept in that room under a guard, so watchful that any attempt to escape was out of the question, until three o'clock the next morning. The horses were then saddled, and we were soon off, Rube and I riding in the midst of the party with our hands tied before us, so that we could just hold the bridle. We had found out from the conversation, that El Zeres with his band was about twenty-five miles distant.
'Upon our ride, I found an opportunity for the first time since our capture for a talk with Rube.
'"What do you think of it, Seth?"
'"Looks bad, Rube," I said. "If we find El Zeres in camp, I expect he will make short work of us; if he is away, I suppose we shall get till to-morrow morning. If we are to escape at all, it must be to-night."
'"Escape!" Rube said scoffingly; "of course we are going to escape. The question is, Which one of all the ways open to us are we to choose?" and he laughed merrily.
'"I don't quite see all the ways yet, Rube; however, we shall see what sort of a place we are put in to-night, and can then come to some conclusion. There comes the sun."
'It was about nine o'clock when we rode into camp; and as we approached it, we acknowledged that a better place against a sudden surprise could hardly have been chosen. The ground was flat for miles round; but the site of the camp rose in a slight mound, of nearly circular form, and perhaps one hundred yards across; the central part was thirty feet or so above the general level. Round this the band of El Zeres was encamped. Rube and I guessed them at four hundred strong. There was an attempt at military order, for, by the bundles of wearing apparel, etc., it was evident that the men slept round a series of bivouac fires, extending in a circle round the foot of the mound. Within the line of fires the horses were picketed in two rows. In the centre of the circle, upon the highest point of the rise, was a small house. As we approached we could see a stir in the camp: a party of men were mounting their horses as if for an expedition.
'"I hope El Zeres is on the point of starting somewhere, Rube," I said, "and that he is in too great a hurry to stop to amuse himself with us as he has threatened: it will give us another day."
'"I hope so," Rube said; "it's hard if we don't manage to make tracks if we get twenty-four hours."
'On reaching the camp we were ordered to alight; and upon its being known who we were, there was as many shouts of triumph as if we had been generals.
'"We are quite celebrated characters, Seth," Rube said, with his usual laugh.
'"Ah," said I, "we could do without such celebrity just at present."
'"I don't know," Rube said. "If we were mere American soldiers, they would cut our throats at once: as it is, they may keep us for a more ceremonial killing."
'As we were talking, we were being led up towards the central hut, which was evidently the abode of the chief. He was standing at the door, tapping his riding-boot impatiently with a heavy whip; a man was holding his horse in readiness. One of the other leaders was standing talking to him. "Jehoshophat!" said I, "he is going out. We are safe for a while."
'El Zeres was a slight, wiry man, with a small wicked-looking eye, which gave one the "squerms" to look at, and a thin mouth curved up in a cruel smile. He was the savagest and most bloodthirsty of all the Mexican partisans. The man with him was a tall, swarthy, ferocious-looking villain.
'El Zeres looked at us for some time without a word. Then he said, "I've got you at last; I've been on the lookout for you for a long time past."
'"It hasn't been our fault we haven't met before," said Rube; which was true enough, for we had given him a close chase several times. El Zeres only gave an evil smile, but the other Mexican exclaimed savagely, "You dog, do you dare to answer?" and struck Rube across the face with all his force with his heavy whip.
'Rube turned quite white, and then with a tremendous effort he broke the cowhide thongs which fastened his hands—not new rope, mind you, but cowhide—just as if it had been so much grass, and went right at the fellow who had struck him. The Mexicans gave a cry of astonishment, and threw themselves upon Rube, El Zeres shouting at the top of his voice, "Don't draw a knife, don't draw a knife; I'll hang any man who injures him."
'Rube had got the fellow by the throat with both hands, and though the crowd of men who threw themselves upon him pulled him to the ground, he never let go, but brought the man down too. I knew it was all over with him. I was quite mad to join in and help; but though I tugged and strained at my thongs till they cut right into my wrists, I could not succeed. For a while they lay in a struggling mass on the ground, and then Rube shook himself free of them for a moment and got to his feet. A dozen men were upon him in a moment; but he was blind with rage, and would not have minded if it had been a thousand. Those who came in front went down, as if shot, before the blows of his fists; but others leapt on him from behind, and then the struggle began again. I never saw such a thing before, and never shall again. It was downright awful. They could not hold his arms. Their weight, over and over again, got him upon the ground, and over and over again he was up on his feet; but his arms, somehow, they could not hold, and the work he did with them was awful. Anything he hit went down, and when he could not hit he gripped. It was like a terrier with rats: he caught 'em by the throat, and when he did, it was all up with them. Some of them made a grab for their knives, but they had no time to use them. In a moment their eyes would seem to start from their heads; and then, as he threw 'em away, they fell in a dead lump. How long this went on I can't say,—some minutes, though,—when a Mexican snatched the lasso, which every Mexican carries, from the saddle of El Zeres' horse, and dropped the noose over Rube's neck. In another moment he was lying half strangled upon the ground, and a dozen hands bound his hands behind him and his feet together with cowhide thongs. Then they stood looking at him as if he was some devil. And no wonder. Seven Mexicans lay dead on the ground, and many more were lying panting and bleeding around. The Mexicans are an active race of men, but not strong—nothing like an average American,—and Rube at any time was a giant even among us scouts; and in his rage he seemed to have ten times his natural strength. El Zeres had never moved; and except shouting to his men not to use their knives, he had taken no part whatever in it—watching the struggle with that cruel smile, as if it had only been a terrier attacked by rats. When it was over he mounted his horse, and said to one of his lieutenants who was standing near: "I must go now. I leave these men in your charge, Pedro. Fasten that one's hands behind him; then take them inside. Put them in the inner room. Clear my things out. Take ten picked men, and don't let any one in or out till I return. I shall be back before daybreak. I shall amuse myself to-day with thinking how I shall try the nerves of these Americanos. I can promise you all a handsome amusement of some sort, anyhow." And he rode off.
'I have often faced death, and ain't afraid of it; but the unruffled face and the cruel smile of that man made my flesh creep on my bones, as I thought of what Rube and I had got to go through the next day. And now,' Seth said, breaking off, 'it's getting late, and I haven't talked such a heap for years. I will finish my yarn another night.'
Very warm were the young Hardys in their thanks to Seth for this exciting story from his own experience, and great was the discussion among themselves that arose as to how the two Americans could possibly have made their escape from their terrible predicament.
SETH CONTINUES HIS NARRATIVE OF THE MEXICAN ADVENTURE.
The next evening the young Hardys again took their seats by Seth, and, without any delay, he went on with his story.
'After El Zeres had ridden off, the lieutenant, Pedro, selected ten from the men around,—for pretty well the whole camp had gathered round us,—and told them, in the first place, to clear the house of the hammock and other belongings of El Zeres, and when this was done, to carry Rube in. Bound and helpless as he was, there was a visible repugnance on the part of the men to touch him, so great was the fear which his tremendous strength had excited. However, six of them took him up and carried him into the hut—for it was little more—and threw him down like a log in the inner room. I walked in of my own accord, and sat down on the ground near him. I heard Pedro give orders to some of the men outside to take away the dead bodies and bury them, and for the rest to go down to their camp fires. Then he entered the house with his other four men.
'The house was just the ordinary Mexican hut. It contained two rooms, or rather, one room partially divided into two, the inner compartment forming the sleeping-room of the family. There was no door between the rooms, nor was there any window; the light entering through the wide opening into the outer room. The outer room had no regular windows, only some chinks or loopholes, through which a certain amount of light could come; but these were stopped up with straw, for the Mexicans are a chilly people; and as the door was always open, plenty of light came in through it. The house was not built of adobe, as are most Mexican huts, but of stones, with the interstices plastered with mud.
'Never in my life did I feel that the game was up as I did when I sat down there and looked round. The men were seated on the ground in the next room, in full view of us, and every now and then one walked in to look at us. Helpless as we were, they had an uneasy doubt of what we might do. Rube still lay at full length on the ground. For a quarter of an hour I did not speak, as I thought it best to let him cool and quiet down a bit; and I thought and thought, but I couldn't, for the life of me, think out any plan of getting clear away. At last I thought I would stir Rube up. "How do you feel, Rube?" "Well, I feel just about tired out," Rube said; "just as if I had walked a hundred miles right on end. I've been a fool again, Seth, sure enough; but I've given some of them goss, that's a comfort. I'll just take a sleep for a few hours, and then we'll see about this business. Hollo, there!" he shouted in Spanish; "water." For a while no one attended to him; but he continued to shout, and I joined him, so that the men in the next room were obliged to leave off their talk to do as we wanted them. One of them got up and took a large copper pan, filled it with water from a skin, and placed it down between us; and then giving me a hearty kick—even then he did not dare kick Rube—went back to his pillow. It took some trouble and much rolling over before we could get so as to get our mouths over the pan to drink. When we had satisfied our thirst we rolled over again, made ourselves as comfortable as we could under the circumstances,—which warn't saying much,—and in a short time were both asleep, for we had only been four hours in bed for two nights. I was pretty well accustomed to sleep on the ground, and I slept without waking for nearly seven hours; for when I did so, I saw at once it was nearly sunset. I can't say it was an agreeable waking, that; for I felt as if my shoulders were out of joint, and that I had two bands of red-hot iron round my wrists. My first move was to roll over and have another drink. Then I sat up and looked round. Rube was sitting up, looking at me. "So you are awake, Seth?" "Yes," said I. "Are you all right now, Rube?" "As right as can be," Rube said in his ordinary cheerful tone; "except that I feel as if a fellow was sawing away at my ankles and wrists with a blunt knife." "That's about the state of my wrists," I said. "I don't mind my wrists so much," he said; "it's my feet bothers me. I shall be such a time before I can walk." "You needn't bother about that, Rube," said I. "It isn't much more walking your feet have got to do." "I hope they've got more to do than they've ever done yet, old hoss," Rube said; "at any rate, they've got a good thirty miles to do to-night." "Are you in earnest, Rube?" said I. "Never more so," said he. "All we've got to do is to get away, and then tramp it." "How do you mean to get away, Rube?" "Easy enough," Rube said carelessly. "Get our hands loose first, then our legs, then kill them fellows and make tracks." Now it ain't very often that I larf out. I don't suppose I've larfed right out three times since I was a boy; but Rube's coolness tickled me so, that I larfed out like a hyaena. When I began, Rube he began; and when he larfed, it was tremendous. I don't think Rube knew what I war larfin' at; but he told me afterwards he larfed to see me larf, which, in all the time we had been together, he hadn't seen. What made us larf worse, was that the Mexicans were so startled that they seized their rifles and rushed to the doorway, and stood looking at us as if we were wild beasts. Keeping the guns pointed at us, they walked round very carefully, and felt our cords to see that they were all right; and finding they were, went back into the next room, savage and rather scared. Our larfing made them terribly uneasy, I could see; and they had an idea we couldn't have larfed like that, if we hadn't some idea of getting away. When we had done I said: "Now Rube, tell me what you have planned out, that is, if you're downright in arnest." "In arnest!" says he, almost angry; "of course I'm in arnest. Do you think I'm going to be fool enough to stop here to be frizzled and sliced by that El Zeres to-morrow? No, it's just as I said: we must get our hands free; we must kill all these fellows, and be off." "But how are we to get our hands free, Rube?" "That's the only point I can't make out," he said. "If these fellows would leave us alone, it would be easy enough; we could gnaw through each other's thongs in ten minutes; but they won't let us do that. All the rest is easy enough. Just think it over, Seth." I did think it over, but I did not see my way to getting rid of our thongs. That done, the rest was possible enough. If we could get hold of a couple of rifles and take them by surprise, so as to clear off four or five before they could get fairly on their legs, I had little doubt that we could manage the rest. No doubt they would shut the door as it got later, and it was possible that the row might not be heard. If that was managed, I was sure we could crawl through the lines, and get off. Yes, it was straightforward enough if we could but get rid of our cords. As I was thinking it over, my eye fell upon the pan of water. An idea came across me. "I don't know, Rube, that it would stretch them enough to slip our hands out, but if we could wet these hide thongs by dipping them in water, we might stretch them a bit, anyhow, and ease them." "That would be something, Seth, anyhow." We shuffled by turn, next to the pan, and leant back so that our wrists were fairly in the water. The water relieved the pain, and I could feel the thongs give a little, but it was only a little; they had been tied too carefully and well, to render it possible to unloose them. We came to this conclusion after an hour's straining, and at the cost of no little pain. We agreed it was no use, and sat thinking over what was the next thing to do, and taking it by turns to cool our wrists. We did not altogether give up hope, as we agreed that we must try, in the short intervals between the visits of the Mexicans, to untie the knots of each other's cords with our teeth. It was possible, anyhow, for the knots would draw pretty easy now that the leather was wet. Suddenly an idea struck me. I squeezed myself back to the wall, and leant against it. "It's all right, Rube," said I; "our cords are as good as off." "How's that?" said Rube. "This wall is made of rough stones, Rube, and there are plenty of sharp edges sticking out through the mud. They will cut through these wet thongs like knives." "Hoorah!" shouted Rube at the top of his voice, with a yell that startled the Mexicans from their seats again, and then he commenced thundering out one of the songs the soldiers used to sing on the march. Several Mexicans came running up from the camp to ask if anything was the matter, Rube's yell having reached their ears. They were told it was only those mad Americanos amusing themselves, and with many angry threats of the different sort of yells we should give next day, they sauntered off again. "That's rather a good thing," Rube said to me when he stopped making a noise. "If any sound of the little fight we are going to have here reaches the camp, they will put it down to us shouting for our amusement." By this time it had become perfectly dark, and the guard lighted a fire in the middle of the room in which they sat. A pile of wood had been brought in for the purpose, and when the smoke had a little abated, the door was shut and barred. Every three or four minutes one of the men would take a lighted brand and come in to see that we were not near to each other, and that all was secure. "What time shall we begin, Seth?" Rube asked. "In another hour or so," I said; "by eight. They will be gambling and quarrelling round the fire by nine o'clock; and the talk, and the noise of the horses, will prevent them hearing anything here. We must not think of going out for two hours later, and even then they won't be all asleep; but we dare not put it off later, for El Zeres may come back earlier than he said he should, and if he does, it's all up with us. Let's arrange our plans for good, I said, and then we can each sit up against a corner and pretend to go to sleep. When I am going to cut my cord I will give a very little cough, and then you do the same when you are free. We had better do that before very long, for you will be a long time before you will get any feeling in your feet. Rub them as hard as you can; but you can't do that till you get the use of your hands. When you are quite ready, snore gently; I'll answer in the same way if I am ready. Then we will keep quiet till the fellow comes in again, and the moment he is gone let us both creep forward: choose a time when the fire is burning low. You creep round your side of the room; I will keep mine, till we meet in the corner where the rifles are piled. We must then open the pans, and shake all the powder out, and, when that is done, each take hold of one by the barrel and hit. Do you quite understand and agree?" "Quite, Seth. Is there anything else?" "Yes," I said; "you take the door, I will take the corner where the arms are. We must try and keep them from coming within arm's reach to use their knives; but if either of us are hard pressed he must call, and the other must come to him." "All right, old hoss, I long to be at work." "So do I," I said. "And now don't let's have any more talk; shut your eyes, and keep quiet till I cough." The men were engaged now in talking over the deeds in which they had been engaged, and so revolting and cold-blooded were the atrocities of which they boasted, that I longed for the time when Rube and I should fall upon them. In half an hour I gave the signal. I had picked out a sharp stone in a convenient position, and it was not a minute before I felt the coil of cords loosen with a sudden jerk, and knew that I was free. I found my hands were completely numbed, and it was a long time before I could restore the circulation. It must have been a good half hour before Rube gave the signal that he had got the cords that bound his ankles loosened, as of course he could not begin at them until he had the free use of his hands. As I had anticipated, the visits of our guards were rather less frequent now that they believed us to be asleep. Fortunately, the din and talk in the next room was now loud and incessant, which enabled Rube to rub, and even stamp his feet a little. In half an hour I heard a snore, which I answered. The moment the next visit was over, I crawled to the door, and then, lying pretty nigh on my stomach, crept round to where the rifles were piled. The fire was burning low, and the guard were sitting so closely round it, that the lower part of the room was in black shadow; so that, though I was looking out for Rube, I didn't see him till he was close enough to touch me. It was a delicate job opening all the pans, but we did it without making as much noise as would scare a deer, and then, each taking a rifle by the barrel, we were ready. Pedro was just telling a story of how he had forced an old man to say where his money was hid, by torturing his daughters before his eyes, and how, when he had told his secret, and the money was obtained, he had fastened them up, and set the house a-light,—a story which was received with shouts of approving laughter. As he finished, down came the butt of Rube's rifle on his head with a squelch, while mine did the same on the head of the next man. For an instant there was a pause of astonishment, for no one knew exactly what had happened; then there was a wild yell of surprise and fear, as our rifles came down again with a crashing thud. All leapt to their feet, the man I aimed my next blow at rolling over, and just escaping it. Rube was more lucky, and just got his man as he was rising. "Hoorah! Seth," he shouted, "five down out of eleven." We drew back now to our posts as agreed on, and the Mexicans drawing their knives, made a rush forward. They ain't cowards, the Mexicans—I will say that for them; and when these fellows found they were caught like rats in a trap, they fought desperately. They knew there was no mercy to expect from Rube and me. They divided, and three came at each of us. Two went down as if they were shot, and I was just whirling my rifle for another blow, when I heard a crash, and then a shout from Rube, "Help, Seth!" I saw at once what had happened. Rube's rifle, as he was making a blow at a man, had struck a beam over his head, and the shock had made it fly from his hands across the room. In another moment the two Mexicans were upon him with their knives. He hit out wildly, but he got a gash across the forehead and another on the arm in a moment. I made two strides across the hut, and the Mexicans who were attacking me, instead of trying to prevent me, made a rush to the corner where their rifles were, which I had left unguarded. It was a fatal mistake. My gun came down crash upon the head of one of Rube's assailants before he knew of my approach, and another minute did for the second. As I turned from him the remaining two Mexicans levelled at Rube, who had rushed across to pick up his gun, and myself, and gave a cry as the flints fell and there was no report. For a minute or two they fought desperately with the guns; but it was no use, and it was soon over, and we stood the masters of the hut, with eleven dead men round us. For they were dead every one, for we examined them. The stocks of our guns had broken with the first blow, and the rest had been given with the iron, and in no case had we to hit twice. I don't say it was anything like Samson and the donkey's jaw-bone you were telling me about, but it war very fair hitting. It was scarcely over when we heard several men come running up outside. "Is anything the matter, Pedro? We thought we heard a yell." "No, nothing," I said, imitating Pedro's gruff voice, which I felt sure they would not know through the door; "it's only these mad Americanos yelling." The men were apparently quite satisfied with the explanation, for in a minute or two we heard their voices receding, and then all became still. Presently we opened the door and looked out. Many of the fires had begun to burn low, but round others there was still a sound of laughing and singing. "Another hour," Rube said, "and they will all be asleep." We threw some more wood on the fire, took some tobacco and cigaret paper from the pocket of one of the Mexicans, and sat down to smoke comfortably. We were both plaguey anxious, and couldn't pretend we warn't, for at any moment that rascal El Zeres might arrive, and then it would be all up with us. At last we agreed that we could not stand it any longer, and made up our minds to go outside and sit down against the wall of the hut till it was safe to make a start, and then if we heard horses coming in the distance we could make a move at once. We each took a hat and cloak, a brace of pistols, and a rifle, and went out. There we sat for another hour, till the camp got quiet enough to make the attempt. Even then we could hear by the talking that many of the men were still awake, but we dared not wait any longer, for we calculated that it must be near eleven o'clock already. We chose a place where the fires had burned lowest, and where everything was quiet, and, crawling along upon the ground, we were soon down among the horses. We had been too long among the Indians to have a bit of fear about getting through these fellows; and, lying on our faces, we crawled along, sometimes almost touching them, for they lay very close together, but making no more noise than two big snakes. A quarter of an hour of this and we were through them, and far enough out on the plain to be able to get up on to our feet and break into a long stride. Ten more minutes and we broke into a run: there was no fear now of our steps being heard. "Done them, by thunder!" Rube said; "won't El Zeres curse?" We might have been a mile and a half from the camp, when in the quiet night air we heard the sound of the howl of a dog. We both stopped as if we were shot. "Thunder!" Rube exclaimed furiously, "if we haven't forgot the bloodhound." I knew what Rube meant, for it was a well-known matter of boast of El Zeres that no one could ever escape him, for that his bloodhound would track them to the end of the world. "There's only one thing to be done," I said; "we must go back and kill that critter." "Wait, Seth," Rube said; "we don't know where the darned brute is kept. He warn't up at the hut, and we might waste an hour in finding him, and when we did, he ain't a critter to be wiped out like a babby." "We must risk it, Rube," I said. "It's all up with us if he's once put on our track." Rube made no answer, and we turned towards the camp. We hadn't gone twenty yards, when Rube said, "Listen." I listened, and sure enough I could hear out on the plain ahead a low trampling. There was no need of any more talk. We ran forward as hard as we could go, turning a little out of our course to let the horsemen who were coming pass us. "In another quarter of an hour they'll know all about it, Rube. It will take them as much more to get ready and put the dog on the track. They'll have some trouble in getting him to take up our scent with all that blood in the room. I should say we may fairly reckon on three-quarters of an hour before they're well out of the camp." "That's about it," Rube said. "They will have to tie the dog, so as not to lose him in the darkness. They won't gain on us very fast for the next two hours; we can keep this up for that at a pinch. After that, if we don't strike water, we are done for." "We passed a stream yesterday, Rube; how far was it back?" "About an hour after daylight. Yes, nearly three hours from camp. But we are going faster now than we did then. We ought to do it in two hours." After this, we didn't say any more. We wanted all our breath. It was well for us we had both been tramping half our lives, and that our legs had saved our necks more times than once on the prairies. We were both pretty confident we could run sixteen miles in two hours. But we dared not run straight. We knew that if they found we were keeping a line, they would let the dog go their best pace and gallop alongside; so we had to zigzag, sometimes going almost back upon our own track. We did not do this so often as we should have done if we had had more time.'
'But how did you know which way to go, Seth?' Hubert asked.
'We went by the stars,' Seth said. 'It was easier than it would have been by day, for when the sun's right overhead, it ain't a very straightforward matter to know how you are going; but there would be no difficulty then to scouts like Rube and me. Well, we had run, may-be, an hour and a quarter when we heard a faint, short bark far behind. "The brute is on our trail," Rube said; "they haven't given us so much start as I looked for. Another half hour and he will be at our heels sure enough." I felt this was true, and felt very bad-like for a bit. In another quarter of an hour the bark was a good bit nearer, and we couldn't go no faster than we were going. All of a sudden I said to Rube, "Rube, I've heard them dogs lose their smell if they taste blood. Let's try it; it's our only chance. Here, give me a cut in the arm, I can spare it better than you can; you lost a lot to-night from that cut." We stopped a minute. I tore off the sleeve of my hunting shirt, and then Rube gave me a bit of a cut on the arm. I let the blood run till the sleeve was soaked and dripping, then Rube tore off a strip from his shirt and bandaged my arm up tight. We rolled the sleeve in a ball and threw it down, then took a turn, made a zigzag or two to puzzle the brute, and then went on our line again. For another ten minutes we could hear the barking get nearer and nearer, and then it stopped all of a sudden. On we went, and it was half an hour again before we heard it, and then it was a long way off. "I expect we're all right now, Seth," Rube said. "I guess we are," I said; "but the sooner we strike water, the better I shall be pleased." It was nigh another half hour, and we were both pretty nigh done, when we came upon the stream, and the dog couldn't have been more than a mile off. It was a bit of a thing five or six yards wide, and a foot or two deep in the middle. "Which way?" says Rube. "Up's our nearest way, so we had better go down." "No, no," says I; "they're sure to suspect that we shall try the wrong course to throw them off, so let's take the right." Without another word up stream we went, as hard as we could run. In a few minutes we heard the dog stop barking, when we might have been half a mile up stream. "We must get out of this, Rube," I said. "Whichever way they try with the dog, they are safe to send horsemen both ways." "Which side shall we get out, Seth?" "It don't matter," I said; "it's all a chance which side they take the dog. Let's take our own side." Out we got; and we hadn't ran a quarter of a mile before we heard a tramping of horses coming along by the stream. We stopped to listen, for we knew if they had the dog with them, and if he was on our side of the river, we were as good as dead. "If they take the trail, Seth," Rube said, "it's all up with us. Don't let's run any more. We are men enough to shoot the four first who come up, and I only hope one of them may be El Zeres; that'll leave us a pistol each, and we will keep them for ourselves. Better do that, by a long way, than be pulled to pieces with hot pinchers." "A long way, Rube," I said. "That's agreed, then. When I give the word, put the barrel against your eye and fire; that's a pretty safe shot." As the Mexicans got to the place where we had got out, we stopped and held our breath. There was no pause,—on they went; another minute, and we felt certain they had passed the spot. "Saved, by thunder!" Rube said; and we turned and went off at a steady trot that we could keep up for hours. "How long shall we get, do you think, Seth?" "That all depends how long they follow down stream. They can't tell how far we are ahead. I should think they will go two miles down; then they will cross the stream and come back; and if they don't happen to be on the right side of the stream as they pass where we got out, they will go up another two or three miles, and near as much down, before they strike the trail. We're pretty safe of half an hour's start, and we might get, if we're lucky, near an hour. We ain't safe yet, Rube, by a long way. It's near thirty miles from Pepita's to the camp. We've come sixteen of it good—eighteen I should say; we have got another twelve to the road, and we ain't safe then. No; our only chance is to come across a hacienda and get horses. There are a good many scattered about; but it's so dark, we might pass within fifty yards and not see it. There won't be a streak of daylight till four, and it ain't two yet." "Not far off, Seth." By this time we had got our wind again, and quickened up into a fast swing; but our work had told on us, and we couldn't have gone much over seven miles an hour. Several times, as we went on, we could hear a trampling in the dark, and knew that we had scared some horses; but though we had a lasso we had brought with us, we might as well have tried to catch a bird with it. In an hour we heard the dog again, but it was a long way behind. There was nothing for it now but hard running, and we were still seven miles from the road, and even that didn't mean safety. I began to think we were going to lose the race, after all. In another quarter of an hour we stopped suddenly. "Thunder!" said Rube; "what's that?" Some animal, that had been lying down, got up just in front of us. "It's a horse! Your lasso, Rube!" Rube, however, had made a tremendous rush forward, and, before the animal could stretch himself into a gallop, had got close, and grasped him by the mane. "It's no go," Rube said, as the horse made a step forward; "he's an old un, dead lame." "Don't leave go, Rube," I said. "He'll do for our turn." He was a miserable old beast, but I felt that he would do as well as the best horse in the world for us. Rube saw my meaning, and in a minute we were both astride on his back. He tottered, and I thought he'd have gone down on his head. Kicking weren't of no good; so I out with my knife and gave him a prod, and off we went. It weren't far, some two hundred yards or so, but it was the way I wanted him, right across the line we were going. Then down he tumbled. "All right," said I. "You've done your work, old man; but you mustn't lay here, or they may light upon you and guess what's been up." So we lugged him on to his feet, gave him another prod, which sent him limping off; and on we went on our course, sure that we were at last safe, for we had thrown the bloodhound altogether off our trail. For a mile or so we kept right away from our course, for fear that they should keep straight on, and, missing the scent, lead the dog across the trail, and so pick it up again; then we turned and made straight for the road. "I don't think, Rube," I said after a while, "that we shall strike the road far off where we left it at Pepita's." "No, I expect not, Seth. We had better bear a little more to the south, for they will most likely make for Pepita's, and day will soon be breaking now." "We'd better not strike the road at all, Rube; likely enough, they will follow it down for a few miles in hopes of picking us up." "I hope they will," Rube said; "and I expect so. Won't it be a lark, just?" "What do you mean, Rube?" "Mean? Why, didn't the Cap tell us to leave San Miguel before daybreak, and to ride to meet him? It warn't likely that he meant us to ride more than ten miles or so; so that he will be within that distance of San Miguel by an hour after daybreak, and will be at Pepita's half an hour later. If them fellows ride on, they are safe to fall into as nice a trap as——" "Jehoshophat!" said I. "You're right, Rube. Let's make tracks. It can't be more than another four or five miles to the road, and day will break in half an hour." "How strong do you reckon them, Seth?" "Fifty or sixty," said I, "by the regular sound of the horses." "That's about what I guessed," Rube said. "There are forty of our chaps, and they will be fresh. We'll give 'em goss."
'We had now long ceased to hear the baying of the dog, which had been most unpleasantly clear when we got off the old hoss that had done us such a good turn. We made sure, too, that we were well ahead, for they would likely wait an hour in trying to pick up the trail again. Daylight came at last; and when it was light enough to see, we stopped and took a look from a slight rise, and there, across the plain, we could see the road just where we expected. Nothing was moving upon it, nor, looking back, could we see any sign of the Mexicans. Away to the left, a mile or so, we could see a clump of trees, and something like the roof of a house among them. This, we had no doubt, was Pepita's. About a mile down the road the other way was a biggish wood, through which the road ran. "Let's make for that wood, Rube, and wait; the Cap will be up in another half hour, and it ain't likely the Mexicans will be along much before that. They're likely to stop for a drink at Pepita's." In another ten minutes we were in shelter in the wood, taking care not to get upon the road, in case the Mexicans should come along with the hound before our men. We hadn't been there twenty minutes before we both heard a trampling of horses; but it was a minute or two more before we could decide which way they were coming. At last, to our great comfort, we found it was the right way. Just before they came up, I had an idea I caught a sound from the other way, but I couldn't have sworn to it. We lay till the troop came fairly up, as it might be another party of Mexicans; but it was all right, and we jumped out, with a cheer, into the middle of them. Mighty surprised they were to see us, on foot, and all dust and sweat. Rube's face, too, was tied up; and altogether we didn't look quite ourselves. They all began to talk at once; but I held up my hand urgent, and, when they saw it was something particular, they shut up, and I said to the Cap: "Don't ask no questions, Cap; I'll tell you all arterwards. El Zeres with about fifty of his men will be here in about three minutes, I reckon. They've ridden thirty miles, and the beasts ain't fresh; so it's your own fault if one gets away." The Cap didn't waste a moment in words. He ordered half his men to ride back two hundred yards, and to charge when they heard his whistle; and he and the rest turned off into the wood, which was very thick, and screened 'em from any one passing. Rube and I, not having horses, were no good for a charge; so we went on in the wood, as near as we could guess, half-way between them, so as to be ready to jump out and join in the skrimmage. It all takes some time to tell, but it didn't take two minutes to do, and in another minute we could hear the Mexicans close. On they came: we knew now that they had passed the Cap, and we clutched our rifles tight and peered out through the leaves. On they came, and we could see El Zeres riding first, with the bloodhound trotting along by the side of his horse. Just as he was opposite, we heard a loud, shrill whistle, and the Mexicans halted with a look of uneasiness. They weren't left to wonder long, for in a moment there was a trampling of horses, and down came our fellows on both sides of them. Just before they got up we stepped forward with our rifles up. "El Zeres!" Rube shouted; and startled as the Mexican was, he looked round. He had just time to see who it was, when Rube's ball hit him in the head, and down he went as dead as a stone. The hound turned and came right at us with a deep growl of rage. I sent a ball through his chest and rolled him over, and just as I did so our fellows came down upon the Mexicans. It was a fierce fight, for the Mexicans were in a trap, and knew that there was no mercy for them. Rube and I sprang out, and paid a good many of 'em off for the scare they had given us. We wiped them right out to the last man, losing only six ourselves. I don't know as ever I see a better skrimmage while it lasted. After it was over, Rube and I mounted two of their horses, and rode on with the rest of them to San Miguel; but before we started off we told our story to the Cap, and he sent a couple of men back with a despatch to the general, asking for five hundred men to destroy El Zeres' band at a blow. We stopped at Pepita's, and I never see a girl have a much worse scare than we gave her. She made sure it was El Zeres, and came running out to see if he had caught us; and when she found that she had fallen into the hands of the Rangers, and that we were among them, she was as white as a shirt in a minute. She was plucky enough, though; for as soon as she could get her tongue, she cursed us like a wild woman. I expect she made sure we should have shot her for her treachery,—and a good many of our bands would have done so right on end,—but the Rangers never touched women. However, she warn't to go scot free; so we got fire, and set the house and stable in a blaze. As we rode off Rube shouted out, "If you change your mind again about coming with me to Missouri, you just drop me a line, Pepita." I thought, as I looked at her, it was lucky for Rube she hadn't a rifle in her hand; she'd have shot him if she had been hung for it a minute afterwards. We rode on to San Miguel, took Col. Cabra prisoner, with his papers, and sent him back under an escort. At dusk the same day we got on our horses and rode back to where Pepita's house had stood, and where our captain expected the troops he had sent for. In half an hour they came up. They had a couple of hours to rest their horses, and then Rube and I led them straight to the Mexican camp. No doubt they heard us coming when we were close, but made sure it was El Zeres, and so didn't disturb themselves; and it warn't till we had wheeled round and fairly surrounded them that they smelt a rat. But it was too late then, for in another minute we were down upon them, and I don't believe twenty out of the whole lot got away. It was, altogether, one of the most successful businesses in the whole war. And I think that's about all the story.'
'Oh, thank you very much, Seth. It is a most exciting story. And what became of Rube?'
'Rube married a year after we got back to the States, and took up a clearing and settled down. It was then I felt lonesome, and made up my mind to go south for a while. I promised Rube that I would go and settle down by him after a bit, and I've concluded that it's about time to do so. I've saved a few hundred dollars out here, and I am going to start to-morrow morning at daybreak to catch the steamer at Rosario. I shall go up straight from Buenos Ayres to New Orleans, and a steamer will take me up the river in three days to Rube's location. Good-bye, all of you. I told your father this afternoon.'
There was a hearty leave-taking, and many expressions of regret at his leaving; and after a shake of the hand, and many good wishes, the young Hardys went up to the house, really sorry to part with their Yankee friend.
FARM WORK AND AMUSEMENTS.
Although but two months had elapsed since the ground was ploughed up and planted, the progress made by the crop of maize and pumpkins was surprising: the former, especially, was now nearly six feet high. This rapid growth was the result of the extreme fertility of the virgin soil, aided by the late abundant supply of water, and the heat of the sun. The maize had given them all a great deal to do; for, when it was about six inches high, it had to be thinned out so that the plants were nine or ten inches apart. This had been done by the united strength of the party, Mr. Hardy and the boys working for two hours each morning, and as much in the evening. The girls also had assisted, and the peons had worked the whole day, except from eleven to three, when the heat was too great even for them. Many hands make light work, and in consequence the whole ground under maize cultivation was thinned in little over a week. Latterly the maize had grown so fast that the boys declared they could almost see it grow, and, at the end of two months after sowing, it was all in flower. The maize, or Indian corn, strongly resembles water rushes in appearance, and the feathery blossom also resembles that of the rush. Indian corn forms the main article of food in South America, and in all but the northern states of North America. It is equally useful and common in India, and in other tropical countries. Scarcely less is it used in Italy, and other parts of southern Europe. It was first introduced into Europe from the East by the great family of Polenta, who ruled the important town of Ravenna for nearly two hundred years. Ground maize is still called Polenta throughout Italy; and the great family will live in the name of the useful cereal they introduced, when all memory of their warlike deeds is lost except to the learned.
One evening when Mr. Hardy, with his wife and children, was strolling down in the cool of the evening to look with pleasure upon the bright green of their healthy and valuable crops, Hubert said:
'Isn't Indian corn, papa, the great yellow heads covered with grain-like beads one sees in corn-dealers' shops in England?'
'Well, if that is so, I cannot make out how those long delicate stems can bear the weight. They bend over like corn to every puff of wind. It does not seem possible that they could bear a quarter of the weight of their heavy yellow heads.'
'Nor could they, Hubert; but nature has made a wise and very extraordinary provision for this difficulty. All other plants and trees with which I am acquainted, have their fruits or seeds where the blossom before grew. In maize it is placed in an entirely different part of the plant. In a very short time you will see—indeed you may see now in most of the plants—the stalk begin to thicken at a foot or eighteen inches from the ground, and in a little time it will burst; and the head of maize, so enveloped in leaves that it looks a mere bunch of them, will come forth. It will for a time grow larger and larger, and then the plant will wither and die down to the place from which the head springs. The part that remains will dry up until the field appears covered with dead stumps, with bunches of dead leaves at the top. Then it is ready for the harvest.'
'What a strange plant, papa! I quite long for the time when the heads will come out. What are you going to plant upon that bit of land you have got ready for sowing now? It is about six acres.'
'I mean to plant cotton there, Hubert. I have sent to Buenos Ayres for seeds of what are called Carolina Upland, and I expect them here in a few days.'
'But it takes a great deal of labour, does it not, papa?'
'The calculation in the Northern States, Hubert, is that one man can cultivate eight acres of cotton, assisted by his wife and children at certain periods; and that as his labour is not always required, he can with his family cultivate another eight or ten acres of other produce; so that about half of a peon's labour will be required, and in the hoeing and picking time we can all help.'
'Is not machinery required to separate the seeds from the cotton?' Charley asked.
'It is not absolutely necessary, Charley, although it is of course economical when the cultivation is carried on upon a large scale. The variety I am going to try is sometimes called "bowed" Carolina, because it used to be cleaned by placing it upon a number of strings stretched very tight, which were struck with a sort of bow, and the vibration caused the seed to separate from the cotton. I have a drawing of one of these contrivances in a book up at the house, and when the time comes, you boys shall make me one. It will be work for us to do indoors when the weather is too hot to be out. Of course if I find that it succeeds, and pays well, I shall take on more hands, get proper machinery, and extend the cultivation. I intend to plant the rows rather wide apart, so as to use the light plough with the ridge boards between them, instead of hoeing, to save labour.'
'How much cotton do they get from an acre?' Mrs. Hardy asked.
'In the Southern States they expect twelve hundred pounds upon new ground,—that is, twelve hundred pounds of pods, which make about three hundred of cleaned cotton. When I have got the cotton fairly in the ground, I mean to plant an acre or two of tobacco, and the same quantity of sugar-cane, as an experiment. But before I do that, we must make a garden up at the house: that is a really urgent need.'
'Couldn't we grow rice here, papa?'
'No doubt we could, Hubert; but I do not mean to try it. To succeed with rice, we should have to keep the ground on which it grew in a state of swamp, which would be very unhealthy. That is why I do not irrigate the fields oftener than is absolutely necessary. Anything approaching swampy, or even wet lands, in a climate like this, would be almost certain to breed malaria. Besides, we should be eaten alive by mosquitoes. No, I shall certainly not try rice. Other tropical productions I shall some day give a trial to. Ginger, vanilla, and other things would no doubt flourish here. I do not believe that any of them would give an extraordinary rate of profit, for though land is cheap, labour is scarce. Still it would be interesting, and would cause a little variety and amusement in our work, which is always an important point, and no doubt there would be generally some profit, though occasionally we may make a total failure.'
Very often at daybreak the girls would go down with their brothers to the river, and watch the waterfowl on its surface; they were so amusing as they dabbled and played in the water, unsuspicious of danger. Their favourites, though, were the beautiful scarlet flamingoes, with their slender legs, and their long, graceful necks, and whose great employment seemed to be to stand quiet in the water, where it was only two or three inches deep, and to preen their glossy red feathers. Over and over again the girls wished that they could get a few waterfowl, especially flamingoes, to tame them, in order that they might swim on the dam pond and come and be fed; and the boys had several talks with each other as to the most practicable way of capturing some of them. At last they thought of making a sort of enclosure of light boughs, with an entrance into which birds could easily pass, but through which they could not easily return, and to scatter grain up to and into the enclosure, to entice the birds to enter. On explaining this plan to Mr. Hardy, he said that he had no doubt that it would succeed in capturing birds, but that when caught it would be impossible to tame full-grown wild fowl, and that the only plan was to find their nests, and take the eggs or very young birds. This they determined to do; and as the bushes close to the river were too thick to permit an examination from the shore, they started one morning early, and, going down to the river, entered it, and waded along for a considerable distance. They discovered two swans' nests, and several of different descriptions of ducks. In some the birds were sitting upon their eggs, in others the young brood were just hatched, and scuttled away into the bushes with the parent birds upon being disturbed.