Charley and Hubert made no remark at breakfast upon the success of their expedition; but when Charley went two days after to Rosario, he procured from Mr. Percy, who kept a quantity of chickens, two sitting hens. These were placed with their nests in the bullock-cart in a hamper; and Mrs. Hardy, who had no idea of the purpose to which they were to be put, was quite pleased, on their arrival at Mount Pleasant, at this addition to the stock. Indeed it had been long agreed that they would keep hens as soon as the maize was ripe. The next morning the boys went again, and brought back twenty eggs of various kinds of wild duck, including four swans' eggs,—to obtain which they had to shoot the parent birds, which furnished the larder for days,—which they placed under the hens in place of their own eggs, and then took the girls in triumph to see this commencement of their tame duck project. The little girls were delighted, and it was an immense amusement to them to go down constantly to see if the eggs were hatched, as of course no one could tell how long they had been sat upon previous to being taken. They had remarked that four of the eggs were much larger than the others, but had no idea that they were swans'. In the course of a few days six of the young ducklings were hatched, and the hens were both so unhappy at their difficulty of continuing to sit while they had the care of their young ones on their mind, that one hen and all the little ones were removed to a distance from the other's nest, and the whole of the eggs were put under the remaining hen. The four swans and five more ducks were safely hatched, when the hen refused to sit longer, and the remaining eggs were lost. Now that the swans were safely hatched, the boys told their sisters what they really were, and their delight was extreme.
In a few days they were all taken down to the dam, and soon found their way into the water, to the great distress of their foster mother, who was obliged to stand upon the bank calling in vain till the little ones chose to come ashore. A hencoop was soon knocked together from an old box, and this was placed near the dam, and ere long the hens became accustomed to the fancy of their charges for the water, and would walk about picking up insects while the little ones swam about on the pond. Twice a day the girls went down to feed them with grain and bits of boiled pumpkin,—for the pumpkins soon began to come into bearing,—and the ducklings and cygnets, which last were at present but little larger than the others, would swim rapidly towards them when they saw them, and would feed greedily out of their hands.
It was not for some weeks later that the desire for young flamingoes was gratified. The boys had been out for a ride, and coming upon the river where it was wide, with flat sandy banks, round which the timber grew, they determined to tie up their horses and enter the stream, to see if they could get some more eggs. With some difficulty they made their way through the bushes, and, getting into the water, waded along until a turn in the river brought them in sight of the flat bank. There were some twenty or thirty flamingoes upon it, for these birds are very gregarious. Some were standing in the water as usual, but the boys could not make out what some of the others were doing. On the flat shore were several heaps of earth, and across them some of the birds were apparently sitting with one leg straddling out each side. So comical was their aspect, that the boys burst into a laugh, which so scared the flamingoes that they all took flight instantly. The boys now waded up to the spot, and then got ashore to see what these strange heaps were for. To their great delight they found that they were nests, and upon the top of several of them were eight or nine eggs carefully arranged. The legs of the flamingo are so long, that the bird is unable to double them up and sit upon his nest in the usual fashion. The hen bird therefore scrapes together a pile of earth, on the top of which she lays her eggs, and then places herself astride to keep them warm. The boys had an argument whether they should take away two nests entire, or whether they should take a few eggs from each nest; but they decided upon the former plan, in order that each of the young broods might be hatched simultaneously. Upon the boys reaching home with their treasure, their sisters' delight was unbounded, and the hens were soon placed upon their new charges, and, both being good sitters, took to them without much difficulty.
When the young broods were hatched, the girls were greatly disappointed at the appearance of little greyish, fluffy balls, instead of the lovely red things they had expected, and were by no means consoled when their father told them that it would be three or four years before they gained their beautiful colour. However they became great pets, and were very droll, with their long legs, and slender necks, and great curved bills. They became extremely tame, and would, after a time, follow the girls about, and stalk up to the house of their own accord to be fed, their food always being placed in water, as they never feed by picking upon the ground, for which, indeed, the peculiar construction of their beak is entirely unfitted. They were perfectly fearless of the dogs, which, on their part, were too well trained to touch them; and their funny way and their extreme tameness were a source of constant amusement to the whole family.
But we must now retrace our steps. After the important work of getting a certain amount of land under cultivation, the next most urgent business was the formation of a garden. The land inside the enclosure round the house was first ploughed up, and then dug by hand, the turf being left in front of the house to serve as a lawn. The rest was planted with seeds brought from England,—peas, beans, tomatoes, vegetable marrows, cucumbers, melons, and many others, some of which were natives of warm climates, while others were planted in small patches as an experiment. Fortunately, the well supplied an abundance of water, whose only drawback was that, like most water upon the Pampas, it had a strong saline taste, which was, until they had become accustomed to it, very disagreeable to the Hardys. As the well had been dug close to the house on the highest part of the slope, the water was conducted from the pump by small channels all over the garden; and the growth of the various vegetables was surprising. But long before these could come into bearing, a welcome supply was afforded by the yams and Indian corn. The yams resemble a sweet potato; and if the Indian corn is gathered green, and the little corns nibbed off, boiled, and mixed with a little butter, they exactly resemble the most delicate and delicious young peas.
The young potatoes, too, had come in, so that they had now an abundance of vegetables, the only point in which they had before been deficient. Their drink was the mate, which may be termed the national beverage of Paraguay, Brazil, and the Argentine Republic. It is made from the leaves of the mate yuba, a plant which grows in Paraguay and Brazil. The natives generally drink it without sugar or milk, sucking it up from the vessel in which it is made, through a small tube. It is, however, greatly improved by the addition of sugar and milk, or, better still, cream. This greatly softens the bitter taste which distinguishes it. None of the party liked it at first; but as they were assured by those in the country that they would like it when they became accustomed to it, they persevered, and after a time all came to prefer it even to tea.
Occasionally one or other of the boys went over to Rosario with the cart, and Mr. Hardy bought some hundreds of young fruit trees,—apple, pear, plum, apricot, and peach,—some of which were planted in the garden at the sides and in rear of the house, others in the open beyond and round it; a light fence with one wire being put up to keep the cattle from trespassing. Clumps of young palms, bananas, and other tropical trees and shrubs, were also planted about for the future adornment of the place. Fences were erected round the cultivated ground, and an enclosure was made, into which the cattle were driven at night. These fences were easily and cheaply made. The wire cost little more at Rosario than it would have done in England, and the chief trouble was bringing the posts, which were made of algaroba wood, from the town. This wood grows abundantly upon the upper river, and is there cut down and floated in great rafts down to Rosario. It is a tough wood, which splits readily, and is therefore admirably suited for posts. It is of a reddish colour, and has a pretty grain when polished. All the furniture was made of it; and this, from constant rubbing by Sarah and the girls, now shone brightly, and had a very good effect.
The ceilings were now put to the rooms, which were greatly improved in appearance thereby, and the difference in temperature was very marked. A very short time after the capture of the wild fowl's eggs, it was unanimously agreed that chickens were indispensable, and a large hen-house was accordingly built at a short distance from the dam, as it was considered as well not to have any buildings, with the exception of the men's hut, near the house. The hen-house was quickly built, as it was a mere framework covered with felt, with bats across it for the fowls to perch upon.
The floor was made, as that of the house had been, of lime and clay beaten hard; and a small cut was made to the dam, by which water could, at will, be turned over the floor to keep it clean and neat. The next time the cart went to Rosario it brought back fifty fowls, which had only cost a few dollars. Henceforth eggs and omelettes became a regular part of the breakfast, and the puddings were notably improved.
The chickens gave very little trouble, as they foraged about for themselves, finding an abundance of insects everywhere, and getting in addition a few pots of Indian corn every morning. Maud and Ethel took it by turns, week about, to take charge of the hen-house; and a great pleasure was it to them to watch the numerous broods of young chickens, and to hunt up the eggs which, in spite of the nests temptingly prepared for them, the hens would frequently persist in laying in nests of their own in the long grass.
The hens had, however, a numerous foe, who were a great trouble to their young mistresses. These were the skunks, an animal of the weasel tribe, but much resembling squirrels in appearance, and possessing a most abominable smell; so much so, that the dogs, who would attack almost anything, would run away from them. They were at first exceedingly common, and created terrible depredations among the hens. The girls were in despair, and called in their brothers to their assistance. The boys shot a good many, for the animals were very tame and fearless; but their number was so great that this method of destruction was of slight avail. They then prepared traps of various kinds—some made by an elastic stick bent down, with a noose at the end, placed at a small entrance left purposely in the hen-house, so that, when the skunk was about to enter, he touched a spring, and the stick released, flew into the air, carrying the animal with it with the noose round its neck; other traps let fall a heavy piece of wood, which crushed the invader; and in these ways the skunks were pretty well got rid of, the most unpleasant work being the removal of the body from the trap. This had to be effected by taking hold of it with two pieces of wood, for the odour was so powerful, that if the body was touched, the smell would remain on the hands for days.
They had now added another species of domestic animal to their stock, but this was the boys' charge. Mr. Hardy, when the pumpkins began to ripen, bought six pigs. They were of little trouble, for although a sty was built for them, they were allowed to wander about as they pleased by day, another wire being added to the fence round the cultivated land, to keep them from trespassing. The crop of pumpkins was enormous; and Mr. Hardy determined that no pigs should be killed for eighteen months, by which time, as these animals increase rapidly, there would be quite a large herd of them.
Although an immense deal of hard work was got through during the four months which followed the completion of the house and the arrival of Mrs. Hardy and her daughters, it must not be supposed that it was not mingled with plenty of relaxation and amusement.
There were few days when one or other of the boys did not go out with his gun for an hour either before sunrise or after sunset, seldom failing to bring home a wild fowl or two of some kind or other. And sometimes of an afternoon they would go out for a ride with their sisters, and have a chase after an ostrich, or a run after the grey foxes, which abounded, and were very destructive among the young lambs. Once or twice during these rides the boys brought a puma to bay; but as they always carried a ball in one of their barrels, with these and their revolvers they soon despatched their unwelcome visitors.
They had contrived an apparatus with straps and a sort of little pocket, in which the muzzle of the gun went, so that it hung from the saddle down in front of their leg; the stock of the gun being secured by a strap against the pommel of the saddle, at the other side of which was their revolver-holster. This was an inconvenient way of carrying the gun in some respects, as the strap had to be unfastened to get at it, and the chance of a shot thereby lost; but they considered it preferable to the mode they had at first adopted, of riding with their guns slung behind them. This they gave up, because, with the utmost care, they occasionally got a fall, when galloping, from the armadillo holes, and the shock was greatly increased from the weight of the gun, besides the risk to any one riding near, of the gun exploding. When riding quietly, and upon the lookout for game, they carried the gun in readiness upon their arms.
It was after one of these rides, when Hubert had brought down with a bullet a swan which was making for his bed in the river, that Maud said at tea:
'I wish we could shoot too; it would be a great amusement, and I should enjoy my rides a good deal more if I knew that I could take a shot in case a lion or a deer came out.'
'Well, girls,' Mr. Hardy said, 'I had always intended that you should learn to shoot. We have had so much to do since you came here that I did not think of it, and I had besides intended to wait until one of you expressed a desire to learn. I brought out three light rook-shooting rifles, on purpose, for you and your mamma, and you can begin to-morrow morning if you like.'
'Oh, thank you, papa, thank you very, very much; that will be nice!' both the girls exclaimed, clapping their hands in their excitement.
'And what do you say, mamma?' Mr. Hardy asked.
'No, thank you,' Mrs. Hardy said; 'I have plenty to do, and, with a husband and two sons and two daughters to defend me, I do not consider that it is essential. But I think that it will be a nice amusement for the girls.'
And so next morning, and nearly every morning afterwards, the girls practised with the light rifle at a mark, until in time their hands became so steady, that at short distances of sixty or seventy yards they could beat their brothers, who were both really good shots. This was principally owing to the fact that the charge of powder used in these rifles was so small, that there was scarcely any recoil to disturb the aim. It was some time before they could manage to hit anything flying; but they were very proud one evening when, having been out late with the boys, a fat goose came along overhead, and the girls firing simultaneously, he fell with both bullets in his body. After this, they, too, carried their rifles out with them during their rides.
Any one who had known Maud and Ethel Hardy at home, would have scarcely recognised them now in the sunburnt-looking lassies, who sat upon their horses as if they had never known any other seat in their lives. Their dress, too, would have been most curious to English eyes. They wore wide straw hats, with a white scarf wound round the top to keep off the heat. Their dresses were very short, and made of brown holland, with a garibaldi of blue-coloured flannel. They wore red flannel knickerbockers, and gaiters coming up above the knee, of a very soft, flexible leather, made of deers' skin. These gaiters were an absolute necessity, for the place literally swarmed with snakes, and they constantly found them in the garden when going out to gather vegetables. Most of these snakes were harmless; but as some of them were very deadly, the protection of the gaiters was quite necessary. The girls did not like them at first, especially as their brothers could not help joking them a little, and Hubert said that they reminded him of two yellow-legged partridges. However, they soon became accustomed to them, and felt so much more comfortable about snakes afterwards, that they would not have given them up upon any account.
The boys always wore high boots for the same reason, and had no fear whatever of the snakes; but Mr. Hardy insisted that each of them should always carry in a small inner pocket of their coats a phial of spirits of ammonia, a small surgical knife, and a piece of whipcord; the same articles being always kept in readiness at the house. His instructions were, that in case of a bite, they should first suck the wound, then tie the whipcord round the limb above the place bitten, and that they should then cut deeply into the wound cross-ways, open it as much as possible, and pour in some spirits of ammonia; that they should then pour the rest of the ammonia into their water-bottle, which they always carried slung over their shoulders, and should drink it off. If these directions were instantly and thoroughly carried out, Mr. Hardy had little fear that the bite, even of the deadliest snake, would prove fatal. In addition he ordered, that in case of their being near home, they should, upon their arrival, be made to drink raw spirits until they could not stand, and that, if they were some distance away from home, and were together, the one bitten should lie down while the other galloped at full speed to take back a bottle of brandy, and order assistance to be sent. This remedy is well known throughout India. Any one bitten by a poisonous snake is made to drink spirits, which he is able to do without being affected by them, to an extraordinary extent; a man who at ordinary times could scarcely take a strong tumbler of spirits and water, being able, when bitten, to drink a bottle of pure brandy without being in the least affected by it. When the spirit does at last begin to take effect, and the patient shows signs of drunkenness, he is considered to be safe, the poison of the spirit having overcome the poison of the snake.
NEIGHBOURLY VISITS AND ADVICE.
It must not be supposed that the Hardys, during the whole of this time, were leading a perfectly solitary life. Upon the contrary, they had a great deal of sociable companionship. Within a range of ten miles there were no less than four estancias owned by Englishmen, besides that of their first friend Mr. Percy. A ride of twenty miles is thought nothing of out on the Pampas. The estate immediately to the rear of their own was owned by Senor Jaqueras, a native. The tract upon the east of his property was owned by three young Englishmen, whose names were Herries, Cooper, and Farquhar. They had all been in the army, but had sold out, and agreed to come out and settle together.
The south-western corner of their property came down to the river exactly opposite the part where the north-eastern corner of Mount Pleasant touched it; their house was situated about four miles from the Hardys. To the west of Senor Jaqueras, the estate was owned by two Scotchmen, brothers of the name of Jamieson: their estancia was nine miles distant. In the rear of the estate of Senor Jaqueras, and next to that of Mr. Percy, were the properties of Messrs. Williams and Markham: they were both about ten miles from Mount Pleasant. These gentlemen had all ridden over to call upon the new-comers within a very few days of Mr. Hardy's first arrival, and had offered any help in their power.
The Hardys were much pleased with their visitors, who were all young men, with the frank, hearty manner natural to men free from the restraints of civilised life. The visits had been returned in a short time, and then for a while all communication with the more distant visitors had ceased, for the Hardys were too busy to spare time upon distant rides. One or other of the party at Canterbury, as the three Englishmen had called their estancia, very frequently dropped in for a talk, and Mr. Hardy and the boys often rode over there when work was done. Canterbury was also a young settlement,—only four or five months, indeed, older than Mount Pleasant,—so that its owners, like themselves, had their hands full of work; but sometimes, when they knew that the Hardys were particularly hard at work, one or two of them would come over at daybreak and give their assistance. During the final week's work, especially just before Mrs. Hardy's arrival, all three came over and lent their aid, as did the Jamiesons.
As soon as Mrs. Hardy had arrived, all their neighbours came over to call, and a very friendly intercourse was quickly established between them. As there was no spare bed-room at Mount Pleasant, some hammocks were made, and hooks were put into the sitting-room walls, so that the hammocks could be slung at night and taken down in the morning. The English party always rode back to Canterbury, as the distance was so short, and the Jamiesons generally did the same; but Messrs. Percy, Williams, and Markham usually came over in the afternoon, and rode back again next morning.
When the press of work was over, the boys and their sisters often cantered over to Canterbury to tea, and sometimes, but more seldom, to the Jamiesons' estancia. The light-hearted young Englishmen were naturally more to their fancy than the quiet and thoughtful Scotchmen. The latter were, however, greatly esteemed by Mr. and Mrs. Hardy, who perceived in them a fund of quiet good sense and earnestness.
Upon Sunday morning Mr. Hardy had service, and to this the whole of their friends generally came. It was held early, so that the Jamiesons and the Englishmen could ride back to their homes before the heat of the day, the other three remaining to dine, and returning in the cool of the evening. Canterbury was entirely a sheep and cattle farm. The owners had five thousand sheep, and some hundreds of cattle; but they had comparatively a good deal of time upon their hands, as stock and sheep farming does not require so much personal care and supervision as must be bestowed upon agricultural farms. The Jamiesons, on the contrary, were entirely occupied in tillage: they had no sheep, and only a few head of cattle.
Mr. Hardy was remarking upon this one day to Mr. Percy, who replied, 'Ah, the poor fellows are very unfortunate. They brought out a fair capital, and had as large a stock of sheep and cattle as the Canterbury party have. About six months, however, before you arrived,—yes, it's just a year now,—the Indians swept down upon them, and carried off every animal they had. They attacked the house, but the Jamiesons defended themselves well; and the Indians were anxious to get off with their booty, and so they beat a retreat. Pursuit was hopeless; every horse had been driven off, and they had to walk six miles to the next hacienda to give the news; and long before a party could be got together, the Indians were beyond the possibility of pursuit. Two or three hundred sheep and a dozen or two of the bullocks found their way back, and these and their land was all that remained to the Jamiesons of their capital, for they had invested all they had in their stock. However, they looked affairs manfully in the face, sold their animals, bought a couple of ploughs and draught bullocks, hired a peon or two, and set to work with a will. They will get on but slowly for a time; but I have no doubt that they will do well in the course of a few years. Men with their pluck and perseverance are certain to get on. That puts me in mind, Hardy, of a matter upon which I had intended to speak to you. We are just getting now to the time of the year when Indian attacks are most likely to take place. Sometimes they are quiet for a year or two, then they are very troublesome again. Five or six years ago, just after I first came out, we had terrible times with them. Vast numbers of cattle were driven off: the sheep they less seldom take, because they cannot travel so fast, but they do drive them off sometimes. A good many shepherds were killed, and two or three estancias captured and burnt, and the inmates murdered. You are now the farthest settler, and consequently the most exposed. Your estancia is strong and well built, and you are all well armed, and good shots. You are, I think, in that respect safe, except from sudden surprise. The dogs are sure to give an alarm; still I should sleep with everything in readiness.'
'Thank you, Percy; I shall take your advice. I expected it from what I had heard when I bought the place; but from hearing nothing of Indians all this time, I had almost forgotten it. I will prepare for defence without the loss of a day. The house has only one vulnerable point,—the doors and shutters. I will measure them this afternoon, and will get you to take over a letter and forward it to Rosario by the first opportunity, for some sheets of thin iron to cover them with.'
Mr. Percy promised to forward the letter the very next day by a bullock-cart he was sending in, and also that the same cart should bring them back. He said that if a conveyance were sent over in two days' time for them, they would be in readiness at his place.
This conversation caused Mr. Hardy great uneasiness. It was a possibility he had been quite prepared for; but he could not feel that the danger was really at hand without an anxious feeling. His thousand sheep had cost him L250, and his cattle as much more. The lambing season had come and gone, and the flock of sheep had doubled in number. The cattle, too, had greatly increased, and the sheep were nearly ready for shearing. Altogether the value of the stock was over L1000. The loss would not be absolute ruin, as he had still L600 of his original capital in the bank at Buenos Ayres; but it would be a very serious loss.
Mr. Hardy had been alone with Mr. Percy when the conversation took place; but he determined at once to take the boys into his entire confidence. He therefore called to them to come out for a stroll down to the dam, and told them word for word what Mr. Percy had related to him.
Charley's eyes brightened at the thought of the excitement of a fight with Indians, for which when in England, eighteen months before, he had longed; and his fingers tightened upon his gun as he said, 'All right, papa, let them come.' Hubert's face grew a little paler, for he was not naturally of so plucky or pugnacious a disposition as his brother. However, he only said, 'Well, papa, if they do come, we shall all do our best.'
'I am sure you will, my boy,' said his father kindly. 'But there is no fear if it comes to fighting. We three, with our arms, can thrash a hundred of them. What I am thinking of is our cattle, and not ourselves. We will take good care against a sudden surprise; and it's more than a whole tribe could do, to take Mount Pleasant if we are prepared.'
'Do you mean to tell mamma and the girls, papa?'
'I mean to tell them that it is necessary for a time to be on their guard, that the girls are on no account to venture to ride out alone, and that they must not stir out of the enclosure even as far as the hen-house, without first of all going up to the top of the lookout to see that all is clear. We must see that, in future, the sheep and cattle and horses are all driven at night into their wire enclosures,—we have not been very particular about the cattle lately,—and that the gates are fastened and padlocked at night. It will puzzle them to get them out. Our own three horses I will have in future kept within our own enclosure, so that they may be always at hand, night or day. I bought them with a special eye to Indians; they are all remarkably fast; and whether we run away or pursue, can be relied on. And now, boys, come up to the house, and I will open the mysterious box.'
The box of which Mr. Hardy spoke was a long case, which had never been opened since their arrival. No entreaties of his children could induce Mr. Hardy to say what were its contents, and the young ones had often wondered and puzzled over what they could be. It had come, therefore, to be known in the family as the mysterious box.
With greatly excited curiosity the boys now walked towards the house; but there was a slight delay, for as they approached, Maud and Ethel came running to meet them.
'Is anything the matter with the dam, papa? We have been watching you having such a long talk with the boys. What is it all about?'
Mr. Hardy now told them as much as he thought proper of the state of things, and gave them their instructions. The girls, who had no idea there was any real danger, and who had besides an unlimited confidence in their father and brothers, were disposed to look upon it as fun, and Mr. Hardy had to speak quite seriously to be sure that his orders would be strictly attended to. The boys then informed them that the mysterious box was to be opened, and the whole party went up to the house.
The box had been placed in the storeroom on the upper floor of the tower, and the boys took up screw-drivers and hammers to open it. The latter tools were not necessary, as the case was very carefully screwed up; and when the top was taken off, it was found that there was an inside case of tin, soldered up. As the boys were cutting through this, they expressed their opinion that, from the extreme care taken, the contents must be very valuable. Still Mr. Hardy would give no clue; and when the case was finally opened, the astonishment of all was unbounded to find that it contained four dozen large rockets and a dozen blue-lights. One dozen of these rockets were ordinary signal rockets, but the rest were covered with strong tin cases.
'Fireworks!' they all exclaimed in intense surprise. 'What have you brought fireworks all this way for, papa?'
'I will tell you, my dears. I knew that the Indians of the Pampas were horse Indians, and the idea struck me, that as they could never have seen rockets, they would be horribly scared at night by them. Rockets, you know, are used in war; and even if the riders are not frightened, it is quite certain that the horses would be horribly alarmed by one or two of these rushing fiery things charging into their midst. I therefore had them specially made for me by a pyrotechnist in London. One dozen, as you see, are ordinary rockets of the largest size; they contain coloured balls, which will give out a most brilliant light. One of them thrown into the air, even where we believe any Indians to be, will light up the plain, and give us a fair view of them. The other three dozen are loaded with crackers. As you see, I have had a strong case of tin placed over the ordinary case; and one of them striking a man, will certainly knock him off his horse, and probably kill him. The roar, the rush, the train of fire, and finally the explosion and the volley of crackers in their midst, would be enough to frighten their horses altogether beyond control. What do you think of my idea?'
'Capital, capital!' they all cried.
'But how, papa,' Hubert asked, 'will you manage to make your rockets go straight at the Indians? All the rockets I ever saw went straight up into the air.'
'Yes, Hubert, because they were pointed up. A rocket goes whichever way it is pointed. Rockets in war are fired through a tube, or from a trough. We will use the trough. Set to at once, boys, and make a trough about four feet long, without ends. It must stand on legs high enough to raise it above the level of the wall round the top of the tower. Let there be two legs on the front end, and one leg behind; and this leg behind must have a hinge, so that, when it stands upright, it will be six or eight inches higher than the front, in case we want to fire at anything close at hand. When we want to elevate the head of the rocket to fire at anything at a distance, we pull the hind leg back, so that that end is lower than the front. Put a spike at the end of the leg, to let it have a firm hold on the floor.'
Charley thought a moment, and then said: 'I think, papa, it would be firmer, and more easily managed, if we made two legs behind, with another one sliding up and down between them, and with holes in it so that it can be pegged up and down as we like.'
'That would be certainly better, Charley. Put your idea down upon paper, and let me see exactly what you mean before you begin.'
Charley did so, and Mr. Hardy pronounced it to be excellent; and by night the trough was finished, and placed in position at the top of the lookout.
Mr. Hardy, in the course of the evening, explained to his wife that it was possible the Indians might venture to make a dash to carry off some of the cattle, and that, therefore, he had ordered the girls to be on the lookout, and to adopt every precaution upon moving out. To them he made an addition to his former instructions, namely, that not only should they look out before leaving the enclosure, but that, if one went out, the other should go up to the top of the tower every quarter of an hour to see that everything was still clear, and that if both were out, Sarah should do the same. The boys needed no instructions to load their revolving carbines, and the pistols and a double-barrelled gun were handed over both to Lopez and Terence, with instructions to carry them always with them. Lopez required no orders on this score. He knew what Indians were, and had a perfect horror of them. Their friends at Canterbury were also put upon their guard, as their estates were also very much exposed. Three days passed over, and then the light iron plates arrived for the door and window-shutters. Before they were nailed on, large holes were cut in them for firing through, corresponding slits being cut in the woodwork. When they were fastened in their places, all felt that Mount Pleasant could defy any number of assailants.
Orders were given to Terence, that in case of the dogs giving the alarm at night, the occupants of the hut were to retire at once to the house; to which he replied characteristically:
'Sure, your honour, I suppose I may stop for a bit and pepper the blackguards till they get close to me.'
'Not at all, Terence; you are to retire at once to the house. When we are once all together, we shall be able to decide, according to the number of the enemy, as to whether we shall sally out and pepper them, or stand upon the defensive.'
And so, every one having received their instructions in case of emergency, things went on pretty much as before.
THE LOST CATTLE.
A fortnight passed without the slightest incident or alarm. The rules which Mr. Hardy had laid down were strictly observed. The sheep and cattle were carefully secured at night; two or three of the native dogs were fastened up, down at the fold; one of the mastiffs was kept at the men's hut, while the other's kennel was placed by the house; the retrievers, as usual, sleeping in-doors. A flagstaff was erected upon the lookout, with a red flag in readiness to be run up to summon those who might be away on the plain, and a gun was kept loaded to call attention to the signal. The boys, when they went out for their rides, carried their carbines instead of their guns. The girls fulfilled the duties of lookouts, going up every half-hour from daybreak to dusk; and the call of 'Sister Anne, do you see horsemen?' was invariably answered in the negative. One day, however, Mr. Hardy had ridden over to Canterbury to arrange with his friends about hiring shearers from Rosario for the united flocks. The boys and Terence were in the fields ploughing, at a distance of half a mile from the house, when they were startled by the sound of a gun. Looking round, they saw both the girls standing upon the tower: Maud had just fired the gun, and Ethel was pulling up the flag.
'Be jabers! and the Indians have come at last!' Terence exclaimed, and they all three started at a run.
Maud turned round and waved her hand to them, and then she and Ethel continued looking over the plain. At this moment they were joined on the tower by Mrs. Hardy and Sarah.
'It is all right,' Charley, who was of an unexcitable temperament, said. 'The Indians must be a long way off, or the girls would be waving to us to make haste. Take it easy; we shall want to keep our hands steady.'
So they broke from the headlong speed at which they had started, into a steady trot, which in five minutes brought them up to the house.
'What is it?' they exclaimed as they gained the top of the tower.
'Oh dear, oh dear!' Ethel said. 'They have got all the animals.'
'And I fear they have killed Gomez and Pedro,' Mrs. Hardy added.
It was too evidently true. At a distance of six miles the boys could see a dark mass rapidly retreating, and numerous single specks could be seen hovering round them. Two miles from the house a single horseman was galloping wildly. The girls had already made him out to be Lopez.
The boys and Terence stood speechless with dismay. The Irishman was the first to find his tongue.
'Och, the thundering villains!' he exclaimed; 'the hathen thieves! And to think that not one of us was there to give them a bating.'
'What will papa say?' Hubert ejaculated.
Charley said nothing, but looked frowningly, with tightly closed lips, after the distant mass, while his hands closed upon his carbine. 'How was it, Maud?' he asked at length.
'I was down-stairs,' Maud said, 'when Ethel, who had just gone up, called down, "Come up, Maud, quickly; I think that something's the matter." I ran up the steps, and I saw our animals a long way off, nearly four miles, and I saw a black mass of something going along fast towards them from the left. They were rather nearer to us than the cattle were, and were in one of the slopes of the ground, so that they would not have been seen by any one with the cattle; then, as they got quite near the animals, I saw a sudden stir. The beasts began to gallop away, and three black specks—who, I suppose, were the men—separated themselves from them and went off sideways. One seemed to get a start of the other two. These were cut off by the black mass, and I did not see anything more of them. Lopez got away; and though some of the others rode after him for about a mile, they could not overtake him. Directly I saw what it was, I caught up the gun and fired, and Ethel ran up the flag. That's all I saw.'
Ethel confirmed her sister's account, merely adding that, seeing the two bodies in the distance, one going very fast towards the other, she suspected that something was wrong, and so called at once to Maud.
The animals were now quite out of sight, and the whole party went down to meet Lopez, who was just riding up to the enclosure. He was very pale, and his horse was covered with foam.
'Are the peons killed, Lopez?' was Mrs. Hardy's first question.
'I do not know, signora; but I should think so. The Indians caught them; I heard a scream,' and the man shuddered. 'Santa Virgine'—and he crossed himself piously—'what an escape! I will burn twenty pounds of candles upon your altar.'
'How was it that you were surprised, Lopez?' Charley asked. 'You were so particularly ordered to keep a good lookout.'
'Well, Signor Charles, I was keeping a good lookout, and it is lucky that I was. I was farther away than I ought to have been,—I know that, for the signor told me not to go far; but I knew that the rise that I took them to was the highest in that direction, and that I could see for miles away into the Indian country. So I got out there, and Pedro and Gomez had got the sheep and cattle all well together, and there was no fear of them straying, for the grass there is very good. So the men lay down for their siesta, and I was standing by my horse looking over the campo. Some of the beasts seemed uneasy, and I thought that there must be a lion somewhere about. So I got on my horse, and just as I did so I heard a noise; and looking behind, where I had never dreamt of them, I saw a lot of Indians coming up at full gallop from the hollow. The cattle went off at the same instant; and I gave a shout to the men, and stuck my spurs into Carlos. It was a near touch of it, and they gave me a hard chase for the first mile; but my horse was fresher than theirs, and they gave it up.'
'How many Indians were there?' Charley asked.
'I don't know, Signor Charles. It was only those in front that I caught sight of, and I never looked round after I started. Some of them had firearms, for eight or ten of them fired after me as I made off, and the arrows fell all round me.'
'What do you think, girls, about the number?'
The girls were silent, and then Ethel said: 'They were all in a lump, Charley. One could not see them separately.'
'The lump seemed to be about the size that our cattle do when they are close together at the same distance. Don't you think so, Ethel?' Maud said.
'Yes,' Ethel thought that they were.
'Then there must be from a hundred to a hundred and fifty of them,' Charley said. 'I wonder what papa will do! One of us had better ride off at once and fetch him.'
'I will go,' Hubert said, moving away to saddle his horse.
'Stop, Hubert,' Charley said; 'I think you had better take Lopez's horse. I don't know what papa may make up his mind to do, and it is better to have your horse quite fresh.'
Hubert agreed at once, and was mounting, when Maud said: 'Wait a moment, Hubert, I will run up to the lookout. I may see papa; it is nearly time for him to be home.'
Hubert paused while Maud ran up to the house, and in a minute appeared at the top of the tower. She stood for a moment looking across the stream towards Canterbury, and then held up her hand. 'I can see him,' she called out. 'He is a long way off, but he is coming.'
Hubert was about to alight again, when Mrs. Hardy said: 'You had better ride to meet your papa, Hubert. He will be very much alarmed when he sees the flag, and it will be a great satisfaction to him to know that we at least are all safe.'
Hubert at once galloped off, while Maud continued to watch her father. He was about two miles distant, and was riding quietly. Then for a little while she lost sight of him. As he came up on the next rise, she saw him suddenly stop his horse. She guessed that he was gazing at the flag-staff, for there was not a breath of wind, and the flag drooped straight down by the pole, so that it was difficult to distinguish it at a distance. Then she was sure that he made it out, for he came on at a furious gallop; and as he came nearer, she could see that he had taken his gun from its place and was carrying it across his arm in readiness for instant action. In a few minutes Hubert met him, and after a short pause the two rode together back to the house at a canter.
Mr. Hardy paused at the men's hut to give Lopez a hearty rating for his disobedience of orders in going so far out upon the plain. Then he came up to the house. 'This is a bad affair, my dear,' he said cheerfully; 'but as long as we are all safe, we can thank God that it's no worse. We shall get some of our beasts back yet, or I am mistaken. Ethel, run down to Terence, and tell him to drive the bullocks that are down with the ploughs into their enclosure, and to fasten the gate after them. Maud, give all the horses a feed of Indian corn and some water. Boys, tell Sarah to put some cold meat and bread into your hunting-bags. Load the spare chambers of your carbines, and see that your water-gourds are full.'
Mr. Hardy then retired with his wife—who had been looking on anxiously while these orders were being given—into their own room, where they remained about ten minutes. When they came back into the sitting-room Mrs. Hardy was pale, but composed, and the children could see that she had been crying.
'Your mamma and I have been talking the matter over, boys, and I have told her that I must do my best to get some, at least, of our animals back. I shall take you both with me. It is unfortunate that two of our friends at Canterbury have ridden over early this morning to Mr. Percy's, and will not be back until late to-night. Had they been at home, they would, I know, have joined us. I thought at first of sending over for Mr. Farquhar, who is at home, but I do not like losing the time. I shall send Lopez over with a note, asking him to come and sleep here to-night. We shall not be back till to-morrow. There is no fear of another alarm to-day; still I shall be more comfortable in knowing that you have some one with you. Do not go beyond the enclosure, girls, until we return. Terence, too, is to remain inside, and can sleep in the house to-night; so also can Lopez. You will therefore be well protected. Let us have something to eat, and then in ten minutes we will be in the saddle. Charley, fetch down three blue-lights, two signal rockets, and two of the tin rockets. Maud, fill our pocket-flasks with brandy. Hubert, you boys will each take your carbine and a revolver; I will carry my long rifle, and the other two Colts.'
In ten minutes they were ready to mount, and after a final embrace, and many a 'Be sure and take care of yourselves' from their mother and sisters, they started off across the plain at a long, steady gallop.
'They have got just an hour's start, boys,' Mr. Hardy said. 'Your mother said that it was exactly half an hour from the first alarm to my arrival, and I was in the house a minute or two under that time. It is about half past twelve now.'
'It is very fortunate, papa, that we had our horses safe up at the house.'
'Yes, boys. If we had been obliged to wait until to-morrow morning before starting, our chance of coming up would have been very slight. As it is, we shall be up with them in three or four hours. The sheep cannot go really fast more than twelve or fifteen miles, especially with their heavy fleeces on.'
Half an hour's riding took them to the scene of the attack. As they neared it, they saw two figures lying upon the grass. There was no occasion to go near: the stiff and distorted attitudes were sufficient to show that they were dead.
Mr. Hardy purposely avoided riding close to them, knowing that the shocking sight of men who have met with a violent death is apt to shake the nerves of any one unaccustomed to such a sight, however brave he may be.
'They are evidently dead, poor fellows!' he said. 'It is no use our stopping.'
Charley looked at the bodies with a fierce frown upon his face, and muttered to himself, 'We'll pay them out for you, the cowardly scoundrels.'
Hubert did not even glance towards them. He was a tender-hearted boy, and he felt his face grow pale, and a strange feeling of sickness come over him, even at the momentary glance which he had at first taken at the rigid figures.
'I suppose you do not mean to attack them until night, papa?' Charley asked.
'Well, boys, I have been thinking the matter over, and I have come to the conclusion that it will be better to do so directly we get up to them.'
'And do you think, papa, that we three will be able to thrash the lot of them? They must be a poor, miserable set of cowards.'
'No, Charley; I do not think that we shall be able to thrash the lot, as you say; but, with our weapons, we shall be able to give them a terrible lesson. If we attack at night they will soon find out how few are our numbers, and having no particular dread of our weapons, may rush at us, and overpower us in spite of them. Another thing, boys, is, I want to give them a lesson. They must know that they shan't come and murder and steal on our place with impunity.'
Scarcely another word was exchanged for the next hour. At a long, steady gallop they swept along. There was no difficulty in following the track, for the long grass was trampled in a wide swathe. Several times, too, exclamations of rage burst from the boys as they came across a dead sheep, evidently speared by the savages because he could not keep up with the others. After passing several of them, Mr. Hardy called to the boys to halt, while he leapt off his horse by the side of one of the sheep, and put his hand against its body and into its mouth.
'It's quite dead; isn't it, papa?' Hubert said.
'Quite, Hubert; I never thought it was alive.' And Mr. Hardy leapt upon his horse again. 'I wanted to see how warm the body was. If we try again an hour's ride ahead, we shall be able to judge, by the increased heat of the body, as to how much we have gained on the Indians, and whether they are far ahead. You see, boys, when I was a young man, I was out many times in Texas against the Comanches and Apaches, who are a very different enemy from these cowardly Indians here. One had to keep one's eyes open there, for they were every bit as brave as we were. Don't push on so fast, Charley. Spare your horse; you will want all he's got in him before you have done. I think that we must be gaining upon them very fast now. You see the dead sheep lie every hundred yards or so, instead of every quarter of a mile. The Indians know well enough that it would take a whole day out on the edge of the settlements to collect a dozen men for pursuit, and would have no idea that three men would set off alone; so I expect that they will now have slackened their pace a little, to give the sheep breathing time.'
After another ten minutes' ride Mr. Hardy again alighted, and found a very perceptible increase of warmth in the bodies of the sheep. 'I do not think that they can have been dead much more than a quarter of an hour. Keep a sharp lookout ahead, boys; we may see them at the top of the next rise.'
Not a word was spoken for the next few minutes. Two or three slight swells were crossed without any sign of the enemy; and then, upon breasting a rather higher rise than usual, they saw a mass of moving beings in the distance.
'Halt!' Mr. Hardy shouted, and the boys instantly drew rein. 'Jump off, boys. Only our heads have shown against the sky. They can hardly have noticed them. There, hold my horse; loosen the saddle-girths of yours too, and let them breathe freely. Take the bridles out of their mouths. It seemed to me, by the glimpse I got of our enemies, that they were just stopping. I am going on to make sure of it.'
So saying, Mr. Hardy again went forward a short distance, going on his hands and knees as he came on to the crest of the rise, in order that his head might not show above the long grass. When he reached it, he saw at once that his first impression had been correct. At a distance of a little over a mile a mass of animals were collected, and round them were scattered a number of horses, while figures of men were moving among them.
'It is as I thought, boys,' he said when he rejoined his sons. 'They have stopped for a while. The animals must all be completely done up; they cannot have come less than thirty miles, and will require three or four hours' rest, at the least, before they are fit to travel again. One hour will do for our horses. Rinse their mouths out with a little water, and let them graze if they are disposed: in half an hour we will give them each a double handful of Indian corn.'
Having attended to their horses, which they hobbled to prevent their straying, Mr. Hardy and the boys sat down and made a slight meal. None of them felt very hungry, the excitement of the approaching attack having driven away the keen appetite that they would have otherwise gained from their ride; but Mr. Hardy begged the boys to endeavour to eat something, as they would be sure to feel the want of food later.
The meal over, Mr. Hardy lit his favourite pipe, while the boys went cautiously up the hill to reconnoitre. There was no change; most of the animals were lying down, and there was little sign of movement. Two or three Indians, however, were standing motionless and rigid by their horses' sides, evidently acting as sentries. The boys thought that hour the longest that they had ever passed. At last, however, their father looked at his watch, shook the ashes out of his pipe and put it in his pocket. 'Now, boys, it is five minutes to the hour. Examine your carbines and revolvers, see that everything is in order, and that there is no hitch. Tighten the saddle-girths and examine the buckles. See that your ammunition and spare carbine chambers are ready at hand.'
In another five minutes the party were in their saddles.
'Now, boys, my last words. Don't ride ahead or lag behind: regulate your pace by mine. Look out for armadillo holes,—they are more dangerous than the Indians. Remember my orders: on no account use the second chamber of your carbines unless in case of great urgency. Change the chambers directly you have emptied them, but don't fire a shot until the spare ones are charged again. Now, boys, hurrah for old England!'
'Hurrah!' the boys both shouted as they started at a canter up the rise. As they caught sight of the Indians, everything was quiet as before; but in another moment they saw the men on watch throw themselves on to their horses' backs, figures leapt up from the grass and ran towards their horses, and in little over a minute the whole were in motion.
'Surely they are not going to run away from three men!' Charley said in a disgusted tone.
'They won't run far, Charley,' Mr. Hardy said quietly. 'By the time that we are half-way to them they will see that we can have no one with us, and then they will come on quickly enough.'
It was as Mr. Hardy said. Keen as had been the watch kept by the Indians, in spite of their belief that no pursuing force could be sent after them, it was some little time before they could get the weary animals on their legs and in motion; and even at the easy canter at which Mr. Hardy approached, he had neared them to within half a mile before they were fairly off. A small party only continued to drive the animals, and the rest of the Indians wheeling sharp round, and uttering a wild war-cry, came back at full gallop towards the whites.
'Halt, boys—steady, dismount: take up your positions quietly. Don't fire till I give you the word. I shall try my rifle first.'
The well-trained horses, accustomed to their masters firing from their backs, stood as steady as if carved in stone, their heads turned inquiringly towards the yelling throng of horsemen who were approaching. Mr. Hardy and the boys had both dismounted, so that the horses were between them and the Indians, the saddles serving as rests for their firearms.
'Five hundred yards, Charley?' his father asked quietly.
'A little over, papa; nearly six, I should say.'
Mr. Hardy waited another ten seconds, and then his rifle cracked; and a yell of astonishment and rage broke from the Indians, as one of their chiefs, conspicuous from an old dragoon helmet, taken probably in some skirmish with the soldiers, fell from his horse.
'Hurrah!' Charley cried. 'Shall we fire now, papa?'
'No, Charley,' Mr. Hardy said as he reloaded his rifle; 'wait till they are four hundred yards off, then fire slowly. Count ten between each shot, and take as steady an aim as possible. Now! Well done, two more of the scoundrels down. Steady, Hubert, you missed that time: there, that's better.'
The Indians yelled with rage and astonishment as man after man dropped before the steady and, to them, mysterious fire which was kept up upon them. Still they did not abate the rapidity of their charge.
'Done, papa,' Charley said as the two boys simultaneously fired their last shot, when the leading Indians were about two hundred and fifty yards distant.
'Change your chambers and mount,' Mr. Hardy said as he again took aim with his rifle.
The enemy was not more than a hundred and fifty yards distant, when they leapt into their saddles and started at a gallop.
'Steady, boys, keep your horses well in hand. Never mind their balls; they could no more hit a man at this distance from the back of a horse than they could fly. There is no chance of their catching us; there won't be many horses faster than ours, and ours are a good deal fresher. Keep a good lookout for holes.'
Both pursuers and pursued were now going over the ground at a tremendous pace. The Indians had ceased firing, for most of those who had guns had discharged them as Mr. Hardy and his sons had mounted, and it was impossible to load at the speed at which they were going.
During the first mile of the chase Mr. Hardy had looked round several times, and had said each time, 'We are holding our own, boys; they are a good hundred yards behind; keep your horses in hand.'
At the end of another mile, his face brightened as he looked round. 'All right, boys, they are tailing off fast. Three-quarters of them have stopped already. There are not above a score of the best mounted anywhere near us. Another mile and we will give them a lesson.'
The mile was soon traversed, and Mr. Hardy saw that only about twelve Indians had maintained their distance.
'Now is the time, boys. When I say halt, draw up and jump off, but take very steady aim always at the nearest. Don't throw away a shot. They are only a hundred yards off, and the revolvers will tell. Don't try to use the second chamber; there is no time for that. Use your pistols when you have emptied your carbines. Halt!'
Not five seconds elapsed after the word was spoken before Charley's carbine rang out. Then came the sharp cracks of the carbines and pistols in close succession. The Indians hesitated at the tremendous fire which was opened upon them, then halted. The delay was fatal to them. In little over half a minute the eighteen shots had been fired. Five Indians lay upon the plain; another, evidently a chief, had been carried off across the saddle of one of his followers, who had leapt off when he saw him fall; and two others were evidently wounded, and had difficulty in keeping their seats.
'Now, boys, change your chambers, and take a shot or two after them,' Mr. Hardy said as he again reloaded his rifle.
The boys, however, found by the time they were ready, that the flying Indians were beyond any fair chance of hitting; but their father took a long and steady aim with his deadly rifle, and upon its report a horse and man went down. But the rider was in an instant upon his feet again, soon caught one of the riderless horses which had galloped off with its companions, and followed his comrades.
'Well done, boys,' Mr. Hardy said, with a hearty pat on their shoulders. 'You have done gallantly for a first fight, and I feel proud of you.'
Both boys coloured with pleasure.
'How many have we killed?'
'I think seven fell at our first attack, papa, and six here, counting the one they carried off, besides wounded.'
'Thirteen. It is enough to make them heartily wish themselves back. Now let us give the horses ten minutes' rest, and then we will stir them up again. We must not lose time; it will be sunset in another three-quarters of an hour.'
Half an hour's riding again brought them up to the Indians, who had stopped within a mile of their former halting-place.
'The moon will be up by one o'clock, boys, and they mean to remain where they are till then. Do you see that hollow that runs just this side of where they are? No doubt there is a small stream there.'
This time the Indians made no move to retreat farther. They knew now that their assailants were only three in number. They were armed, indeed, with weapons which, in their terrible rapidity of fire, were altogether beyond anything they had hitherto seen; but in the darkness these would be of no avail against a sudden rush.
But if the Indians did not run away, neither did they, as before, attack their assailants. Their horses had been placed in the middle of the cattle, with a few Indians standing by them to keep them quiet. The rest of the Indians were not to be seen, but Mr. Hardy guessed that they were lying down in the long grass, or were concealed among the animals.
'The rascals have got a clever chief among them, boys. Except those half-dozen heads we see over the horses' backs, there is nothing to see of them. They know that if we go close, they can pick us off with their guns and bows and arrows, without giving us a single fair shot at them. Don't go any nearer, boys; no doubt there are many of their best shots hidden in the grass.'
'We could scatter the cattle with a rocket, papa.'
'Yes, we could, Hubert, but we should gain nothing by it; they have got men by their horses, and would soon get the herd together again. No, we will keep that for the night. Hallo! to the right, boys, for your lives.'
Not a moment too soon did Mr. Hardy perceive the danger. The chief of the Indians, expecting another attack, had ordered twenty of his best mounted men to separate themselves from the main body, and to hide themselves in a dip of the ground near the place where the first attack had taken place. They were to allow the whites to pass, and were then to follow quietly, and fall suddenly upon them.
Complete success had attended the manoeuvre; and it was fortunate that the party had no firearms, these having been distributed among the main body with the cattle, for they were within forty yards of Mr. Hardy before they were seen. It was, in fact, a repetition of the manoeuvre which had proved so successful in their attack upon the cattle.
They were not immediately in the rear of Mr. Hardy, but rather to the left. As Mr. Hardy and his sons turned to fly, a number of Indians sprang upon their feet from among the grass, and discharged a volley of guns and arrows at them. Fortunately the distance was considerable. One of their arrows, however, struck Mr. Hardy's horse in the shoulder, while another stuck in the rider's arm. Another went through the calf of Hubert's leg, and stuck in the flap of the saddle.
There was no time for word or complaint. They buried their spurs in their horses' sides, and the gallant animals, feeling that the occasion was urgent, seemed almost to fly. In a mile they were able to break into a steady gallop, the enemy being now seventy or eighty yards behind. Mr. Hardy had already pulled the arrow from his arm, and Hubert now extracted his. As he stooped to do so, his father, who had not noticed that he was wounded, saw what he was doing.
'Hurt much, old man?'
'Not much,' Hubert said; but it did hurt a good deal nevertheless.
'I don't want to tire our horses any more, boys,' Mr. Hardy said; 'I shall try and stop those rascals with one of my revolvers.'
So saying, he drew one of his pistols from his holster, and turning round in his saddle, took a steady aim and fired.
At the same instant, however, his horse trod in a hole, and fell, Mr. Hardy being thrown over its head with tremendous force. The boys reined their horses hard in, and Hubert gave a loud cry as he saw his father remain stiff and unmoved on the ground. The Indians set up a wild yell of triumph.
'Steady, Hubert. Jump off. Pick up papa's pistol. Arrange the horses in a triangle round him. That's right. Now don't throw away a shot.'
The nearest Indian was scarcely thirty yards off, when Charley's bullet crashed into his brain. The three immediately following him fell in rapid succession, another chief's arm sank useless to his side, while the horse of another fell, shot through the brain.
Both the boys were pale, but their hands were as steady as iron. They felt as if, with their father lying insensible under their protection, they could not miss.
So terrible was the destruction which the continued fire wrought among the leaders, that the others instinctively checked the speed of their horses as they approached the little group, from which fire and balls seemed to stream, and began to discharge arrows at the boys, hanging on the other side of their horses, so that by their foes they could not be seen, a favourite manoeuvre with the Indians. As the boys fired their last barrels, they drew their revolvers from the holsters, and, taking aim as the Indians showed a head or an arm under their horses' necks or over their backs, their twelve barrels added to the Indians scattered over the ground.
'Now, Hubert, give me the two last revolvers, and put the two fresh chambers into the carbines.'
Seeing only one of their foes on the defence, the Indians again made a rush forward. Charley shot the two first with a revolver, but the others charged up, and he stooped a moment to avoid a spear, rising a little on one side, and discharging with both hands his pistols at the Indians, who were now close. 'Quick, Hubert,' he said, as he shot with his last barrel an Indian who had just driven his spear into the heart of Mr. Hardy's horse.
The animal fell dead as it stood, and the Indians with a yell charged at the opening, but, as they did so, Hubert slipped a carbine into his brother's hand, and the two again poured in the deadly fire which had so checked the Indians' advance.
The continuation of the fire appalled the Indians, and the seven that survived turned and fled.
'I will load, Hubert,' Charley said, trying to speak steadily. 'See to papa at once. Empty one of the water-gourds upon his face and head.'
Hubert looked down with a cold shudder. Neither of the boys had dared to think during that brief fight. They had had many falls before on the soft turf of the Pampas, but no hurt had resulted, and both were more frightened at the insensibility of their father than at the Indian horde, which were so short a distance away, and which would no doubt return in a few minutes in overwhelming force.
Great, then, was Hubert's delight, when, upon looking round, he saw that Mr. Hardy had raised himself with his arms.
'What has happened?' he said in a confused manner.
'Are you hurt, papa?' Hubert asked, with tears of joy running down his face; 'you frightened us both so dreadfully. Please drink a little water, and I will pour a little over your face.'
Mr. Hardy drank some water, and Hubert dashed some more in his face. 'That will do, Hubert,' he said with a smile; 'you will drown me. There, I am all right now. I was stunned, I suppose. There you are,' and he got up on to his feet; 'you see I am not hurt. And now, where are the Indians?'
'There, papa,' said the boys with pardonable triumph, as they pointed to thirteen dead Indians.
Their father could not speak. He grasped their hands warmly. He saw how great the danger must have been, and how gallantly his boys must have borne themselves.
'The Indians may be back in a few minutes, papa. Your horse is dead, but there is one of the Indians' standing by his dead master. Let us catch him and shift the saddle.' The animal, when they approached it, made no move to take flight, and they saw that his master's foot, as he fell, had become entangled in the lasso, and the well-trained beast had stood without moving. In three minutes the saddles were transferred, and the party again ready for fight or flight.
'What next, papa?'
'We turned to the right, and rather towards home, when we started; so the Indian halting-place is to the south-east of us, is it not?'
'Yes, papa; as near as may be,' Charley said, making out the points with some difficulty on the pocket-compass, one of which they each carried, as the danger of being lost upon the pathless Pampas is very great.
'We had ridden about two miles when I got my fall, so we are a mile to the west of their camp. We will ride now a couple of miles due north. The Indians are sure to send out a scout to see whether we have returned home, and our track will lead them to believe that we have. It is dusk now. We shall get three hours' rest before we have to move.'
It was perfectly dark before they reached their halting-place. The saddles were again loosened, a little Indian corn, moistened with water, given to the horses, and another slight meal taken by themselves. The boys, by Mr. Hardy's orders, though sorely against their own wishes, then lay down to get a couple of hours' sleep; while Mr. Hardy went back about a hundred yards along the trail they had made on coming, and then turned aside and sat down at a distance of a few yards to watch, in case any Indian should have followed up their trail.
Here he sat for over two hours, and then returned to the boys. Charley he found fast asleep. The pain of Hubert's wound had kept him awake. Mr. Hardy poured some water over the bandage, and then, waking Charley, gave them instructions as to the part they were to play.
Both of them felt rather uncomfortable when they heard that they were to be separated from their father. They raised no objections, however, and promised to obey his instructions to the letter. They then mounted their horses,—Hubert having to be lifted up, for his leg was now very stiff and sore,—and then began to retrace their steps, keeping a hundred yards or so to the west of the track by which they had come.
They rode in single file, and they had taken the precaution of fastening a piece of tape round their horses' nostrils and mouth, to prevent their snorting should they approach any of their own species. The night was dark, but the stars shone out clear and bright. At starting, Mr. Hardy had opened his watch, and had felt by the hands that it was ten o'clock. After some time he felt again.
It was just half an hour from the time of their starting.
'Now, boys, we are somewhere close to the place of your fight. In another ten minutes we must separate.'
At the end of that time they again closed up.
'Now, boys, you see that bright star. That is nearly due east of us; go on as nearly as you can guess for ten minutes, at a walk, as before. You will then be within a mile of the enemy. Then get off your horses. Mind, on no account whatever are you to leave their bridles, but stand with one hand on the saddle, ready to throw yourself into it. Keep two blue-lights, and give me one. Don't speak a word, but listen as if your lives depended upon detecting a sound, as indeed they do. You are to remain there until you see that I have fairly succeeded, and then you are to dash in behind the cattle and fire off your revolvers, and shout so as to quicken their pace as much as possible. I do not think there is the least fear of the Indians following, the rockets will scare them too much. When you have chased the herd for about two miles, draw aside half a mile on their side, and then listen for the Indians passing in pursuit of the cattle; wait ten minutes, and then blow your dog-whistle,—a sharp, short note. If you hear Indians following you, or think there is danger, blow twice, and go still farther to the right. God bless you, boys. I don't think there is much fear of your falling upon any scouts; they have been too badly cut up to-day, and must look upon our guns as witches. I need not say keep together, and, if attacked, light a blue-light and throw it down; ride a short way out of its circle of light, and I will come straight to you through everything. Don't be nervous about me. There is not the least danger.'
In another minute the boys lost sight of their father, and turning their horses, proceeded in the direction he had ordered. Every now and then they stopped to listen, but not a sound could they hear. Their own horses' hoofs made no noise as they fell upon the soft turf.
At the end of the ten minutes, just as Charley was thinking of stopping, they heard a sound which caused them to halt simultaneously. It was the low baa of a sheep, and seemed to come from directly ahead of them. Charley now alighted, and Hubert brought his horse up beside him, keeping his place, however, in the saddle, but leaning forward on the neck of his horse, for he felt that, if he got off, he should be unable to regain his seat hurriedly in case of alarm.
'About a mile off, I should say, by the sound,' Charley whispered; 'and just in the direction we expected.'
The spot Charley had chosen for the halt was a slight hollow, running east and west; so that, even had the moon been up, they would not have been visible except to any one in the line of the hollow.
Here, their carbines cocked and ready for instant use, they remained standing for what appeared to them ages, listening with the most intense earnestness for any sound which might tell of the failure or success of their father's enterprise.
Mr. Hardy had ridden on for, as nearly as he could tell, two miles, so that he was now to the south-west of the enemy; then, turning west, he kept along for another mile, when he judged that he was, as nearly as possible, a mile in their direct rear. He now advanced with the greatest caution, every faculty absorbed in the sense of listening. He was soon rewarded by the sound of the baaing of the sheep; and dismounting and leading his horse, he gradually approached the spot. At last, on ascending a slight rise, he fancied that he could make out a black mass, at a distance of a quarter of a mile. Of this, however, he was not certain; but he was sure, from an occasional sound, that the herd was exactly in this direction and at about that distance.
He now left his horse, taking the precaution of tying all four legs, to prevent his starting off at the sound of the rockets. He next set to work to cut some turf, with which he formed a narrow sloping bank, with a hollow for the rocket to rest in—calculating the exact distance, and the angle required. During this operation he stopped every minute or two and listened with his ear on the ground; but except a faint stamping noise from the distant cattle, all was quiet.
All being prepared, Mr. Hardy took the signal rocket, and placing it at a much higher angle than that intended for the others, struck a match and applied it to the touch-paper. In a moment afterwards there was a loud roar, and the rocket soared up, with its train of brilliant sparks behind it, and burst almost over the Indian camp. Five or six balls of an intense white light broke from it, and gradually fell towards the ground, lighting up the whole surrounding plain.
A yell of astonishment and fear broke from the Indians, and in a moment another rocket rushed out.
Mr. Hardy watched its fiery way with anxiety, and saw with delight that its direction was true. Describing a slight curve, it rushed full at the black mass, struck something, turned abruptly, and then exploded with a loud report, followed instantly by a cracking noise, like a straggling fusilade of musketry.
It had scarcely ceased before the third followed it, greeted, like its predecessors, with a yell from the Indians.
Its success was equal to that of its predecessors, and Mr. Hardy was delighted by the sound of a dull, heavy noise, like distant thunder, and knew that the success was complete, and that he had stampeded the cattle.
He now ran to his horse, which was trembling in every limb and struggling wildly to escape, soothed it by patting it, loosed its bonds, sprang into the saddle, and went off at full gallop in the direction by which he had come. He had not ridden very far before he heard, in the still night air, the repeated sound of firearms, and knew that the boys were upon the trail of the cattle. Mr. Hardy had little fear of the Indians pursuing them; he felt sure that the slaughter of the day by the new and mysterious firearms, together with the effect of the rockets, would have too much terrified and cowed them for them to think of anything but flight. He was, however, much alarmed when, after a quarter of an hour's riding, he heard a single sharp whistle at about a few hundred yards' distance.
'Hurrah! papa,' the boys said as he rode up to them. 'They have gone by at a tremendous rush—sheep and cattle and all. We started the moment we saw your first rocket, and got up just as they rushed past, and we joined in behind and fired, and yelled till we were hoarse. I don't think they will stop again to-night.'
'Did you see or hear anything of the Indians, boys?'
'Nothing, papa. When the first rocket burst, we saw several dark figures leap up from the grass—where they had been, no doubt, scouting—and run towards the camp; but that was all. What are we to do now?'
'Ride on straight for home. We need not trouble about the animals; they won't stop till they are back. We must go easily, for our horses have done a very long day's work already. They have been between fifty and sixty miles. I think that we had better ride on for another hour. By that time the moon will be up, and we shall be able to see for miles across the plain. Then we will halt till daybreak,—it will only be three hours,—and the horses will be able to carry us in at a canter afterwards.'
And so it was done. In an hour the moon was fairly up, and, choosing a rise whence a clear view could be obtained, the horses were allowed to feed, and Mr. Hardy and Hubert lay down to sleep, Charley taking the post of sentry, with orders to wake the others at daybreak.
The day was just dawning when he aroused them. 'Wake up, papa. There are some figures coming over the plain.'
Mr. Hardy and Hubert were on their feet in an instant. 'Where, Charley?'
'From the north, papa. They must have passed us in their pursuit of the cattle, and are now returning,—empty-handed, anyhow; for there are only seven or eight of them, and they are driving nothing before them.'
By this time all three were in the saddle again.
'Shall we attack them, papa?'
'No, boys; we have given them quite a severe lesson enough. At the same time, we will move a little across, so that we can get a good sight of them as they pass, and make sure that they have got nothing with them.'
'They are coming exactly this way, papa.'
'Yes, I see, Hubert; they are no doubt riding back upon their trail. They will turn off quickly enough when they see us.'
But the new-comers did not do so, continuing straight forward.
'Get your carbines ready, boys; but don't fire till I tell you. They must belong to some other party, and cannot know what has happened. No doubt they take us for Indians.'
'I don't think they are Indians at all,' Hubert said, as the figures rapidly approached.
'Don't you, Hubert? We shall soon see. Halloo!'
'Halloo! hurrah!!' came back to them; and in another five minutes they were shaking hands heartily with their three friends from Canterbury, the Jamiesons, and two or three other neighbouring settlers.
They told them that Farquhar, as soon as Lopez brought news of the attack, had sent mounted men off to all the other settlements, begging them to meet that night at Mount Pleasant. By nine o'clock they had assembled, and, after a consultation, had agreed that the Indians would be satisfied with their present booty, and that therefore no guard would be necessary at their own estancias.
A good feed and four hours' rest had been given to their horses, and when the moon rose they had started. Two hours after leaving they had seen a dark mass approaching, and had prepared for an encounter; but it had turned out to be the animals, who were going towards home at a steady pace. There seemed, they said, to be a good many horses among them.
Assured by this that some encounter or other had taken place with the Indians, they had ridden on with much anxiety, and were greatly relieved at finding Mr. Hardy and his boys safe.
The whole party now proceeded at a rapid pace towards home, which they reached in four hours' riding. As they came in sight of the watch-tower, Mr. Herries separated himself from the others, and rode thirty or forty yards away to the left, returning to the others. This he repeated three times, greatly to Mr. Hardy's surprise.
'What are you doing, Herries?' he asked.
'I am letting them know you are all well. We agreed upon that signal before we started. They would be able to notice one separate himself from the rest in that way as far as they could see us, and long before they could make out any other sort of signal.'
In a short time three black spots could be seen upon the plain in the distance. These the boys very shortly pronounced to be Mrs. Hardy and the girls.
When they approached, the rest of the party fell back, to allow Mr. Hardy and his sons to ride forward and have the pleasure of the first meeting to themselves. Needless is it to tell with what a feeling of delight and thankfulness Mrs. Hardy, Maud, and Ethel received them. After the first congratulations, the girls observed that Mr. Hardy had his arm bound up with a handkerchief.
'Are you hurt, papa?' they exclaimed anxiously.
'Nothing to speak of,—only an arrow in my arm. Old Hubert has got the worst of it: he has had one through the calf of his leg.'
'Poor old Hubert!' they cried. And Hubert had some difficulty in persuading the girls that he could wait on very fairly till he reached home without its being bandaged or otherwise touched.
'And how did it all happen?' Mrs. Hardy asked.
'I will tell you all about it when we have had breakfast, my dear,' her husband said. 'I have told our friends nothing about it yet, for it is a long story, and one telling will do for it. I suppose the animals have got back? How many are missing?'
'Lopez came in from counting them just as we started,' Mrs. Hardy said. 'He says there are only four or five cattle missing, and about a couple of hundred sheep; and, do you know, in addition to our own horses, there are a hundred and twenty-three Indian horses?'
'Hurrah!' the boys shouted delightedly. 'That is a triumph; isn't it, papa?'
'It is indeed, boys; and explains, readily enough, how it was that there was not the slightest attempt at pursuit. The Indian horses evidently broke their lariats and joined in the stampede. I suppose Lopez has driven them all into the enclosure?'
'Oh yes, papa. They went in by themselves with our own animals, and Terence shut the gate at once.'
In another quarter of an hour they reached the house, received by Sarah and Terence—the latter being almost beside himself with joy at his master's safe return, and with vexation when he heard that there had been a fight, and that he had not been able to take part in it.
Orders had been given to Sarah to prepare breakfast the instant the returning party had been seen, and their signal of 'all safe' been made out. It was now ready; but before sitting down to it, Mr. Hardy begged all present to join in a short thanksgiving to God for their preservation from extreme peril.
All knelt, and as they followed Mr. Hardy's words, they were sure, from the emotion with which he spoke, that the peril, of the particulars of which they were at present ignorant, had been indeed a most imminent one.
This duty performed, all fell to with great heartiness to breakfast; and when that was over, Mr. Hardy related the whole story. Very greatly were Mrs. Hardy and the girls amazed at the thoughts of the great peril through which their father and boys had passed, and at the account of the defence by the boys when their father was lying insensible. Mrs. Hardy could not restrain herself from sobbing in her husband's arms at the thought of his fearful danger, while the girls cried sore and kissed their brothers, and all their friends crowded round them and wrung their hands warmly; while Terence sought relief by going out into the garden, dancing a sort of jig, and giving vent to a series of wild war-whoops.
It was some time before all were sufficiently calm to listen to the remainder of the story, which was received with renewed congratulations.
When it was all over, a council was held, and it was agreed that there was no chance whatever of the Indians returning to renew the contest, as they would be helpless on foot; but that if by a spy they found out that their horses were there, they might endeavour to recover them. It was therefore agreed that they should be driven over at once to Mr. Percy's, there to remain until a purchaser was obtained for them. In the afternoon the party dispersed, with many thanks from the Hardys for their prompt assistance.
'After a storm comes a calm:' a saying true in the case of the Hardys, as in that of most others. All their neighbours agreed that, after the very severe loss of the Indians, and the capture of the whole of their horses, there was no chance whatever of another attack, at any rate, for many months. After that it was possible, and indeed probable, that they would endeavour to take vengeance for their disastrous defeat; but that at present they would be too crippled and disheartened to think of it.
The settlers were now, therefore, able to give their whole attention to the farm. The first operation was the sheep-shearing. Four men had been hired to do the shearing at Canterbury, and then to come over to Mount Pleasant. Charley rode over to their neighbours' with Mrs. Hardy and his sisters, Mr. Hardy and Hubert remaining at home—the latter laid up with the wound in his leg.
It was an amusing sight to see three or four hundred sheep driven into an enclosure, and then dragged out by the shearers. These men were paid according to the number shorn, and were very expert, a good hand getting through a hundred a day. They were rather rough, though, in their work, and the girls soon went away from the shearing-place with a feeling of pity and disgust, for the shearers often cut the sheep badly. Each man had a pot of tar by his side, with which he smeared over any wound. A certain sum was stopped from their pay for each sheep upon which they made a cut of over a certain length; but although this made them careful to a certain extent, they still wounded a great many of the poor creatures.
A much more exciting amusement was seeing the branding of the cattle, which took place after the shearing was over. The animals were let out, one by one, from their enclosure, and, as they passed along a sort of lane formed of hurdles, they were lassoed and thrown on to the ground. The hot branding-iron was then clapped against their shoulder, and was received by a roar of rage and pain. The lasso was then loosened, and the animal went off at a gallop to join his companions on the plain.
Some caution was required in this process, for sometimes the animals, upon being released, would charge their tormenters, who then had to make a hasty leap over the hurdles; Terence, who stood behind them, being in readiness to thrust a goad against the animals' rear, and this always had the effect of turning them. For a few days after this the cattle were rather wild, but they soon forgot their fright and pain, and returned to their usual ways.
Mr. Hardy had by this time been long enough in the country to feel sure of his position. He therefore determined to embark the rest of his capital in agricultural operations. He engaged ten native peons, and set-to to extend the land under tillage. The water-courses from the dam were deepened and lengthened, and side channels cut, so that the work of irrigation could be effectually carried on over the whole of the low-lying land, the water being sufficient for the purpose for nearly ten months in the year. Four ploughs were kept steadily at work, and the ground was sown with alfalfa or lucern, as fast as it was got into condition. Patches of Indian corn, pumpkins, and other vegetables, were also planted. Mr. Hardy resolved that, until the country beyond him became so settled that there could be little danger from Indian incursions, he would not increase his stock of sheep and cattle, but would each year sell off the increase.
He also decided upon entering extensively upon dairy operations. He had already ascertained that a ready sale could be obtained, among the European residents of Rosario and Buenos Ayres, of any amount of butter and fresh cheeses that he could produce, and that European prices would be readily given for them. Up to the present time, the butter made had been obtained from the milk of two cows only, but he now determined to try the experiment upon a large scale.
A dairy was first to be made. This was partially cut out of the side of the slope, and lined with sun-baked bricks. Against the walls, which projected above the ground, earth was piled, to make them of a very considerable thickness. Strong beams were placed across the roof; over these rafters was nailed felt, whitewashed upon both sides to keep out insects. Upon this was placed a considerable thickness of rushes, and, over all, puddled clay was spread a foot deep. Ventilation was given by a wide chimney rising behind it, and light entered by two windows in front. The whole of the interior was whitewashed.
In this way a dairy was obtained, which, from the thickness of its walls, was cool enough for the purpose during the hottest weather. Preparations were now made for breaking in the cows to be milked. A sort of lane was made of two strong fences of iron wire. This lane was of the shape of a funnel, narrowing at one end to little more than the width of a cow. At the end of this was a gate, and attached to the gate a light trough, filled with fresh alfalfa.
Half a dozen cows which had recently calved were now separated from the herd, and driven into the wide end of the enclosure. One by one they approached the narrow end, and when one had reached the extremity, and had begun to devour the alfalfa, of which they are very fond, a bar was let down behind her, so that she could now neither advance, retreat, or turn round.
One of the boys now began cautiously and quietly to milk her, and the cows in few cases offered any resistance. One or two animals were, however, very obstreperous, but were speedily subdued by having their legs firmly fastened to the posts behind. In a few days all were reconciled to the process, and ere long would come in night and morning to be milked, with as much regularity as English cows would have done.
The wives of the peons were now taught to milk; and more and more cows were gradually added to the number, until in six months there were fifty cows in full milk. Maud and Ethel had now no longer anything to do with the house, Mrs. Hardy undertaking the entire management of that department, while the girls had charge of the fowl-house and dairy.