The milk was made partly into butter, partly into fresh cheeses. These were sent off once a week to catch the steamer for Buenos Ayres. Mr. Hardy had a light cart made for one horse, and by this conveyance the butter—starting as soon as the sun went down—arrived in Rosario in time for the early boat to the capital. It was sent in large baskets made of rushes, and packed in many layers of cool, fresh leaves; so that it arrived at Buenos Ayres, forty hours after leaving Mount Pleasant, perfectly fresh and good. The skim milk was given to the pigs, who had already increased to quite a numerous colony.
Although they had been planted less than a year, the fruit trees round the house had thriven in a surprising manner, and already bore a crop of fruit more than sufficient for the utmost wants of the household. Peaches and nectarines, apricots and plums, appeared at every meal, either fresh, stewed, or in puddings, and afforded a very pleasant change and addition to their diet. As Maud said one day, they would have been perfectly happy had it not been for the frogs.
These animals were a very great nuisance. They literally swarmed. Do what they would, the Hardys could not get rid of them. If they would but have kept out of the house, no one would have minded them; indeed, as they destroyed a good many insects, they would have been welcome visitors in the garden; but this was just what they would not do. The door always stood open, and they evidently considered that as an invitation to walk in. There they would hide behind boxes, or get under beds, and into water-jugs and baths, and, in fact, into every possible corner. They would even get into boots; and these had always to be shaken before being put on, in case frogs or insects should have taken up their abode there.
It used at first to be quite a matter of difficulty to know what to do with the frogs after they were caught; but after a time a covered basket was kept outside the door, and into this the frogs were popped, and taken once a day and emptied into the stream. At first they had got into the well, and had proved a great nuisance; and they were only got rid of by nearly emptying the well out with buckets, and by then building a wall round its mouth, with a tightly-fitting lid.
Insects of all kinds were indeed a great pest, scorpions being by no means uncommon, while large centipedes occasionally intruded into the house. These creatures were a great trouble to the girls in their dairy, for the frogs and toads would climb up the walls, and fall squash into the milk-pans. The only way that they could be at all kept out was by having the door sawn asunder three feet from the ground, so that the lower half could be shut while the girls were engaged inside. However, in spite of the utmost pains, the little ones would crawl in through crevices, or leap in at the window; and at last the girls had to get wicker-work covers made for all the pans; and as the natives are very skilful at this work, they were thus enabled to keep the milk clean. Almost as great a trouble as the frogs were the brocachas, who committed terrible havoc in the garden and among the crops. They are about the size, and have somewhat the appearance of hares, and burrow in immense quantities in the Pampas. The only way to get rid of them was by puffing the fumes of burning sulphur down into their holes; and it was quite a part of the boys' regular work to go out with the machine for the purpose, and to suffocate these troublesome creatures. Their holes, however, are not so dangerous to horsemen as are those of the armadillos, as the ground is always bare in their neighbourhood.
The armadillos are of three or four species, all of them small. The peludo is about a foot in length, and has hair sticking out between his scales. The muletas are smaller. Both are excellent eating; but the girls were some time before they could bring themselves to touch them. The matajo, in addition to the protection of his scales, is able to roll himself into a ball at the approach of danger, and, clothed in his impervious armour, is proof against any attacks except those of man. These animals are so common, that the plain is in many cases quite honey-combed with them.
The girls had a great scare the first time they came upon an iguana, thinking that it was a crocodile. These great lizards are about five feet long, and are ferocious-looking, but very harmless unless attacked. Then they will defend themselves, and can inflict a sharp blow with their tails, or a severe bite with their teeth. They are very common, and the Indians eat them, and say that the meat is excellent; but the young Hardys could never be persuaded to taste it. Thus matters proceeded for some time without any noteworthy incident. Their circle of acquaintances grew little by little. Several neighbouring plots had been taken up; and although the new settlers had little time for making visits, still the very fact of their presence near, gave a feeling of companionship and security. Very frequently young men would arrive with letters of introduction, and would stay a few days with them while they inspected the country.
Their household, too, had received an increase. A young Englishman named Fitzgerald, the son of some very old friend of the Hardys, had written expressing a very strong desire to come out, and asking their advice in the matter. Several letters had been exchanged, and at length, at Mr. Fitzgerald's earnest request, Mr. Hardy agreed to receive his son for a year, to learn the business of a Pampas farmer, before he embarked upon his own account. A small room was accordingly cleared out for him, and Mr. Hardy never had any reason to regret having received him. He was a pleasant, light-hearted young fellow of about twenty years of age.
One change, however, had taken place which deserves mention. Sarah one day came to her mistress, and with much blushing and hesitation said that Terence Kelly had asked her to marry him.
Mrs. Hardy had long suspected that an attachment had sprung up between the Irishman and her servant, so she only smiled and said, 'Well, Sarah, and what did you say to Terence? The year you agreed to stop with us is over, so you are at liberty to do as you like, you know.'
'Oh, ma'am, but I don't want to leave you. That is just what I told Terence. "If master and mistress are willing that I shall marry you and stay on with them as before, I won't say no, Terence; but if they say that they would not take a married servant, then, Terence, we must stay as we are."'
'I have no objection at all, Sarah, and I think I can answer for Mr. Hardy having none. Terence is a very good, steady fellow, and I know that Mr. Hardy has a high opinion of him; so you could not make a marriage which would please us more. We should be very sorry to lose you, but we could not in any case have opposed you marrying whom you liked, and now we shall have the satisfaction of keeping you here with us.'
And so it was settled; and a fortnight afterwards, Terence and Sarah had two days' holiday, and went down to Buenos Ayres, where there was an English church, and came back again man and wife. After that each went back to work as usual, and the only change was, that Terence now took his meals and lived in the house instead of down in the men's huts. By this time they had begun to find out which of the crops peculiar to warm countries would pay, and which would not, or rather—for they all paid more or less—which was the most suitable.
The cotton crop had proved a success; the field had in time been covered with cotton plants, which had burst first into a bright yellow blossom, and had then been covered with many balls of white fluff. The picking the cotton had been looked upon at first as great fun, although it had proved hard work before it was finished. Its weight had rather exceeded Mr. Hardy's anticipation. The process of cleaning the cotton from the pods and seeds had proved a long and troublesome operation, and had taken an immense time. Judging by the progress that they at first made with it, they really began to despair of ever finishing it, but with practice they became more adroit. Still it was found to be too great a labour during the heat of the day, although carried on within doors. It had been a dirty work too; the light particles of fluff had got everywhere, and at the end of a couple of hours' work the party had looked like a family of bakers. Indeed, before more than a quarter of the quantity raised was cleaned, they were heartily sick of the job, and the remainder was sold in the pod to an Englishman who had brought out machinery, and was attempting to raise cotton near Buenos Ayres. Although the profits had been considerable, it was unanimously determined that the experiment should not be repeated, at any rate for the present.
Mr. Hardy had not at first carried out his idea of planting a couple of acres with tobacco and sugar-cane, the ground having been required for other purposes. He had not, however, abandoned the idea; and about two months before the marriage of Terence and Sarah, he had planted some tobacco, which was, upon their return from Buenos Ayres, ready to be picked.
The culture of tobacco requires considerable care. The ground is first prepared with great care, and is well and thoroughly manured; but this was not required in the present case, as the rich virgin soil needed no artificial aid. It is then dug in beds something like asparagus beds, about two feet wide, with a deep trench between each. The seeds are raised in a seed-bed, and when nine or ten inches high, they are taken up and carefully transplanted into the beds, two rows being placed in each, and the plants being a foot apart.
There are various methods of cultivation, but this was the one adopted by Mr. Hardy. The plants grew rapidly, the ground between them being occasionally hoed, and kept free from weeds. When they were four feet high the tops were nipped off, and any leaves which showed signs of disease were removed. Each stem had from eight to ten leaves. When the leaves began to turn rather yellow, Mr. Hardy announced that the time for cutting had arrived, and one morning all hands were mustered to the work. It consisted merely in cutting the stems at a level with the earth, and laying the plants down gently upon the ground. By breakfast-time the two acres were cleared. They were left all day to dry in the sun, and a little before sunset they were taken up, and carried up to one of the store-sheds, which had been cleared and prepared for the purpose. Here they were placed in a heap on the ground, covered over with raw hides and mats, and left for three days to heat. After this they were uncovered, and hung up on laths from the roofs, close to each other and yet sufficiently far apart to allow the air to circulate between them. Here they remained until they were quite dry, and were then taken down, a damp covering being chosen for the operation, as otherwise the dry leaves would have crumbled to dust. They were again laid in a heap, and covered up to allow them to heat once more. This second heating required some days to accomplish, and this operation required great attention, as the tobacco would have been worthless if the plants had heated too much.
In ten days the operation was complete. The leaves were then stripped off, the upper leaves were placed by themselves, as also the middle and the lower leaves; the higher ones being of the finest quality. They were then tied in bundles of twelve leaves each, and were packed in layers in barrels, a great pressure being applied with a weighted lever, to press them down into an almost solid mass. In all they filled three barrels, the smallest of which, containing sixty pounds of the finest tobacco, Mr. Hardy kept for his own use and that of his friends; the rest he sold at Buenos Ayres at a profitable rate. The venture, like that of the cotton, had proved a success, but the trouble and care required had been very great, and Mr. Hardy determined in future to plant only sufficient for his own use and that of the men employed upon the estate.
The next experiment which was perfected was that with the sugar-cane. In this, far more than in the others, Mrs. Hardy and the girls took a lively interest. Sugar had been one of the few articles of consumption which had cost money, and it had been used in considerable quantities for converting the fruit into fine puddings and preserves. It was not contemplated to make sugar for sale, but only for the supply of the house: two acres, therefore, was the extent of the plantation. Mr. Hardy procured the cuttings from a friend who had a small sugar plantation near Buenos Ayres.
The cultivation of sugar is simple. The land having been got in perfect order, deep furrows were ploughed at a distance of five feet apart. In these the cuttings, which are pieces of the upper part of the cane, containing two or three knots, were laid at a distance of three feet apart. The plough was then taken along by the side of the furrow, so as to fill it up again and cover the cuttings. In sugar plantations the rows of canes are close together, but Mr. Hardy had chosen this distance, as it enabled his horse-hoe to work between them, and thus keep the ground turned up and free from weeds, without the expense of hard labour. In a short time the shoots appeared above the soil. In four months they had gained the height of fourteen feet, and their glossy stems showed that they were ready to cut.
'Now, Clara,' Mr. Hardy said, 'this is your manufacture, you know, and we are only to work under your superintendence. The canes are ready to cut: how do you intend to crush the juice out? because that is really an important question.'
The young Hardys looked aghast at each other, for in the pressure of other matters the question of apparatus for the sugar manufacture had been quite forgotten.
'Have you really no idea how to do it, Frank?'
'No, really I have not, my dear. We have certainly no wood on the place which would make the rollers; besides, it would be rather a difficult business.'
Mrs. Hardy thought for a minute, and then said, 'I should think that the mangle would do it.'
There was a general exclamation of 'Capital, mamma!' and then a burst of laughter at the idea of making sugar with a mangle. The mangle in question was part of a patent washing apparatus which Mr. Hardy had brought with him from England, and consisted of two strong iron rollers, kept together by strong springs, and turning with a handle.
'I do think that the mangle would do, Clara,' Mr. Hardy said, 'and we are all much obliged to you for the idea. I had thought of the great washing copper for boiling the sugar, but the mangle altogether escaped me. We will begin to-morrow. Please get all the tubs scrubbed out and scalded, and put out in the sun to dry.'
'How long will it take, papa?'
'Some days, Ethel; we must only cut the canes as fast as the boiler can boil the juice down.'
The next day the work began. The canes were cut at a level with the ground, the tops were taken off, and the canes cut into lengths of three feet. They were then packed on a bullock-cart and taken up to the house. They were next passed through the mangle, which succeeded admirably, the juice flowing out in streams into the tub placed below to receive it. When all the canes had been passed through the mangle, the screws were tightened to increase the pressure, and they were again passed through; by which time, although the juice was not so thoroughly extracted as it would have been by a more powerful machine, the quantity that remained was not important. As the tub was filled, the contents were taken to the great copper, under which a fire was then lighted. The crushing of the canes was continued until the copper was nearly full, when Mr. Hardy ordered the cutting of the canes to be discontinued for the day. The fire under the copper was fed with the crushed canes, which burnt very freely. Mr. Hardy now added a small quantity of lime and some sheep's blood, which last ingredient caused many exclamations of horror from Mrs. Hardy and the young ones. The blood, however, Mr. Hardy informed them, was necessary to clarify the sugar, as the albumen contained in the blood would rise to the surface, bringing the impurities with it. The fire was continued until the thermometer showed that the syrup was within a few degrees of boiling, and the surface was covered with a thick, dark-coloured scum. The fire was then removed, and the liquor allowed to cool, the family now going about other work, as so large a quantity of liquor would not be really cold until the next day.
The following morning the tap at the bottom of the boiler was turned, and the syrup came out bright and clear,—about the colour of sherry wine. The scum descended unbroken on the surface of the liquor; and when the copper was nearly empty the tap was closed, and the scum and what little liquor remained was taken out. The bright syrup was now again poured into the boiler, the fire re-lighted, and the syrup was kept boiling, to evaporate the water and condense the syrup down to the point at which it would crystallize. It required many hours' boiling to effect this, any scum which rose to the surface being carefully taken off with a skimmer. At last it was found that the syrup on the skimmer began to crystallize, and Mr. Hardy pronounced it to be fit to draw off into the large washing tubs to crystallize. A fresh batch of canes was now crushed, and so the process was repeated until all the canes were cut. It took a fortnight altogether, but only five days of this were actually occupied in cutting and crushing the canes. As the sugar crystallized it was taken out,—a dark, pulpy-looking mass, at which the young Hardys looked very doubtfully,—and was placed in a large sugar hogshead, which had been procured for the purpose. In the bottom of this eight large holes were bored, and these were stopped up with pieces of plantain stalk. Through the porous substance of these stalks the molasses or treacle slowly drained off. As the wet sugar was placed in the cask, layers of slices of plantain stems were laid upon it, as the spongy substance draws the dark colouring matter out from the sugar. The plantain grows freely in South America, and Mr. Hardy had planted a number of this graceful tree near his house; but these had not been advanced enough to cut, and he had therefore procured a sufficient quantity from a friend at Rosario. It was three months before the drainage of the molasses quite ceased; and the Hardys were greatly pleased, on emptying the hogshead and removing the plantain stems, to find that their sugar was dry, and of a very fairly light colour. The sugar-canes did not require planting again, as they will grow for many years from the same roots; and although the canes from old stools, as they are called, produce less sugar than those of the first year's planting, the juice is clearer, and requires far less trouble to prepare and refine. Before another year came round, the boys made a pair of wooden rollers of eighteen inches in diameter. These were covered with strips of hoop iron, nailed lengthways upon them at short intervals from each other, thereby obtaining a better grip upon the canes, and preventing the wood from being bruised and grooved. These rollers were worked by a horse mill, which Mr. Hardy had ordered from England. It was made for five horses, and did a great deal of useful work, grinding the Indian corn into fine flour for home consumption and for sale to neighbouring settlers, and into coarse meal, and pulping the pumpkins and roots for the pigs and other animals.
Mr. Hardy also tried many other experiments, as the climate is suited to almost every kind of plant and vegetable. Among them was the cultivation of ginger, of the vanilla bean, of flax, hemp, and coffee. In all of them he obtained more or less success; but the difficulty of obtaining labour, and the necessity of devoting more and more attention to the increasing flocks, herds, and irrigated land, prevented him from carrying them out on a large scale. However, they served the purpose for which he principally undertook them,—of giving objects of interest and amusement to his children.
A STEADY HAND.
It was now more than eighteen months since the Hardys had been fairly established at Mount Pleasant. A stranger who had passed along at the time the house was first finished, would certainly fail to recognise it now. Then it was a bare, uninviting structure, looking, as has been said, like a small dissenting chapel built on the top of a gentle rise, without tree or shelter of any kind. Now it appeared to rise from a mass of bright green foliage, so rapidly had the trees grown, especially the bananas and other tropical shrubs planted upon each side of the house. At the foot of the slope were some sixty or seventy acres of cultivated ground, while to the right were three or four large and strong wire enclosures, in which the milch cows, the cattle, the sheep, and the pigs were severally driven at night.
Everything was prospering beyond Mr. Hardy's most sanguine expectations. More and more land was monthly being broken up and irrigated. Large profits had been realized by buying lean cattle during the dry season, fattening them upon alfalfa, and sending them down to Rosario for sale. The pigs had multiplied astonishingly; and the profits from the dairy were increasing daily, as more cows were constantly added. The produce of Mount Pleasant was so valued at both Rosario and Buenos Ayres, that the demand, at most remunerative prices, far exceeded the supply.
Additions had been made to the number of peons, and the farm presented quite an animated appearance.
The two years which had elapsed since the Hardys left England had effected a considerable change in their appearance. Charley was now eighteen,—a squarely-built, sturdy young fellow. From his life of exposure in the open air, he looked older than he was. He had a strong idea that he was now becoming a man; and Ethel had one day detected him examining his cheeks very closely in the glass, to see if there were any signs of whiskers. It was a debated question in his own mind whether a beard would or would not be becoming to him. Hubert was nearly seventeen: he was taller and slighter than his brother, but was younger both in appearance and manners. He had all the restlessness of a boy, and lacked somewhat of Charley's steady perseverance.
The elder brother was essentially of a practical disposition. He took a lively interest in the affairs of the farm, and gave his whole mind to it. If he went out shooting, he did so to get game for the table. He enjoyed the sport, and entered heartily into it, but he did so in a business sort of way.
Hubert was a far more imaginative boy. He stuck to the work of the farm as conscientiously as his brother did, but his attention was by no means of the same concentrated kind. A new butterfly, an uncommon insect, would be irresistible to him; and not unfrequently, when he went out with his gun to procure some game which Mr. Hardy had wanted upon the arrival of some unexpected visitor, he would come back in a high state of triumph with some curious little bird, which he had shot after a long chase, the requirements of the household being altogether forgotten.
Maud was fifteen. Her constant out-of-door exercise had made her as nimble and active as a young fawn. She loved to be out and about, and her two hours of lessons with her mamma in the afternoon were a grievous penance to her.
Ethel wanted three months of fourteen, and looked under twelve. She was quite the home-bird of the family, and liked nothing better than taking her work and sitting by the hour, quietly talking to her mother.
The time was now again approaching when the Indian forays were to be expected. It was still a month earlier than the attack of the year before, and Mr. Hardy, with the increased number of his men, had not the least fear of any successful assault upon Mount Pleasant; but he resolved, when the time came, to take every possible precaution against attacks upon the animals. He ordered that the iron gates of the enclosures should be padlocked at night, and that some of the native dogs should be chained there as sentinels. He looked forward with some little anxiety to the Indian moon, as it is called, because, when he had ridden out with Lopez and two of their Canterbury friends to the scene of the encounter a few days after it had taken place, they found that the Indians had fled so precipitately upon the loss of their horses, that they had not even buried the bodies of their friends, and that, short as the time had been, the foxes had left nothing but a few bones remaining of these. From the mocassins, however, and from other relics of the Indians strewn about, Lopez had pronounced at once that two tribes had been engaged in the fray: the one, inhabitants of the Pampas,—a people which, although ready to murder any solitary whites, seldom attack a prepared foe; and the other, of Indians from the west, of a far more warlike and courageous character. The former tribe, Lopez affirmed,—and the natives of the country agreed with him,—would not of themselves have been likely to attempt a fresh attack upon antagonists who had proved themselves so formidable, but the latter would be almost certain to make some desperate attempt to wipe off the disgrace of their defeat. Under these circumstances, although perfectly confident of their power to beat off any attack, it was resolved that every precaution should be taken when the time approached.
Late one afternoon, however, Mr. Fitzgerald had gone out for a ride with Mr. Hardy. Charley had gone down to the dam with his gun on his shoulder, and Hubert had ridden to a pool in the river at some distance off, where he had the day before observed a wild duck, which he believed to be a new sort. The cattle and flocks had just been driven in by Lopez and two mounted peons at an earlier hour than usual, as Mr. Hardy had that morning given orders that the animals were all to be in their enclosures before dusk. The labourers in the fields below were still at work ploughing. Ethel was in the sitting-room working with Mrs. Hardy, while Maud was in the garden picking some fruit for tea.
Presently the occupants of the parlour were startled by a sharp cry from Maud, and in another instant she flew into the room, rushed at a bound to the fireplace, snatched down her light rifle from its hooks over the mantel, and, crying, 'Quick, Ethel, your rifle!' was gone again in an instant.
Mrs. Hardy and Ethel sprang to their feet, too surprised for the moment to do anything, and then Mrs. Hardy repeated Maud's words, 'Quick, Ethel, your rifle!'
Ethel seized it, and with her mother ran to the door. Then they saw a sight which brought a scream from both their lips. Mrs. Hardy fell on her knees and covered her eyes, while Ethel, after a moment's pause, grasped the rifle, which had nearly fallen from her hands, and ran forward, though her limbs trembled so that they could scarcely carry her on.
The sight was indeed a terrible one. At a distance of two hundred yards, Hubert was riding for his life. His hat was off, his gun was gone, his face was deadly pale. Behind him rode three Indians. The nearest one was immediately behind him, at a distance of scarce two horses' length; the other two were close to their leader. All were evidently gaining upon him.
Maud had thrown the gate open, and stood by the post with the barrel of her rifle resting on one of the wires. 'Steady, Ethel, steady,' she said in a hard, strange voice, as her sister joined her; 'Hubert's life depends upon your aim. Wait till I fire, and take the man on the right. Aim at his chest.'
The sound of Maud's steady voice acted like magic upon her sister; the mist which had swum before her eyes cleared off; her limbs ceased to tremble, and her hand grew steady. Hubert was now within a hundred yards, but the leading Indian was scarce a horse's length behind. He had his tomahawk already in his hand, in readiness for the fatal blow. Another twenty yards and he whirled it round his head with a yell of exultation.
'Stoop, Hubert, stoop!' Maud cried in a loud, clear voice; and mechanically, with the wild war-whoop behind ringing in his ears, Hubert bent forward on to the horse's mane. He could feel the breath of the Indian's horse against his legs, and his heart seemed to stand still.
Maud and her rifle might have been taken for a statue, so immoveable and rigid did she stand; and then, as the Indian's arm went back for the blow, crack, and without a word or a cry the Indian fell back, struck with the deadly little bullet in the centre of the forehead.
Not so silently did Ethel's bullet do its work. A wild cry followed the report: for an instant the Indian reeled in his saddle, and then, steadying himself, turned his horse sharp round, and with his companion galloped off.
Hubert, as his horse passed through the gate and drew up, almost fell from his seat; and it was with the greatest difficulty that he staggered towards Maud, who had gone off in a dead faint as she saw him ride on alone.
Ethel had sat down on the ground, and was crying passionately, and Terence came running down from the house with a gun in his hand, pouring out Irish threats and ejaculations after the Indians. These were changed into a shout of triumph as Charley stepped from behind the hen-house, as they passed at a short distance, and at the discharge of his double barrels the unwounded Indian fell heavily from his horse.
Anxious as he was to assist his young mistresses, for Hubert was far too shaken to attempt to lift Maud from the ground, Terence stood riveted to the spot watching the remaining Indian. Twice he reeled in the saddle, and twice recovered himself, but the third time, when he was distant nearly half a mile, he suddenly fell off to the ground.
'I thought the murdering thief had got it,' muttered Terence to himself, as he ran down to raise Maud, and with the assistance of Sarah to carry her up to the house, against the door-way of which Mrs. Hardy was still leaning, too agitated to trust herself to walk.
Hubert, now somewhat recovered, endeavoured to pacify Ethel, and the two walked slowly up towards the house. In a minute or two Charley came running up, and the peons were seen hurrying towards them. After a silent shake of the hand to his brother, and a short 'Thank God!' Charley, with his accustomed energy, took the command.
'Hubert, do you and Terence get all the arms loaded at once. Lopez, tell the peons to hurry up the plough oxen, shut them in the enclosure, and padlock all the gates. I will warn you if there's any danger. Then bring all the men and women up here. I am going to run up the danger flag. Papa is out somewhere on the plains.' So saying, and taking his Colt's carbine, he ran up the stairs.
In a moment afterwards his voice was heard again. 'Hubert, Terence, bring all the guns that are loaded up here at once,—quick, quick!' and then he shouted loudly in Spanish, 'Come in all; come in for your lives!' In another minute they joined him on the tower with Mr. Hardy's long rifle, Hubert's carbine, and their double-barrelled shot-guns, into each of which Terence dropped a bullet upon the top of the shot. Hubert could scarcely help giving a cry. At a distance of a quarter of a mile, Mr. Hardy and Fitzgerald were coming along, pursued by at least a dozen Indians, who were thirty or forty yards in their rear. They were approaching from behind the house, and would have to make a sweep to get round to the entrance, which was on the right, on the side facing the dam. This would evidently give their pursuers a slight advantage.
'They hold their own,' Charley said after a minute's silence; 'there is no fear. Lopez!' he shouted, 'run and see that the outside as well as the inside gates are open.'
It has been already said that a low wire fence had been placed at a distance of a hundred yards beyond the inner enclosure, to protect the young trees from the animals. It was composed of two wires, only a foot apart, and was almost hidden by the long grass. It had a low gate, corresponding in position to the inner one. Charley's quick eye saw at once the importance of the position.
'I think you might use the long rifle now,' Hubert said; 'it might stop them if they feel that they are in reach of our guns.'
'No, no,' Charley said, 'I don't want to stop them; don't show the end of a gun above the wall.' Then he was silent until his father was within three hundred yards. He then shouted at the top of his voice, 'Mind the outside fence, mind the outside fence!'
Mr. Hardy raised a hand to show that he heard, and as he approached, Charley shouted again, 'Sweep well round the fence, well round it, for them to try and cut you off.'
Charley could see that Mr. Hardy heard, for he turned his horse's head so as to go rather wide of the corner of the fence. 'Now, Hubert and Terence, get ready; we shall have them directly.'
Mr. Hardy and his companion galloped past, with the Indians still fifty yards behind them. Keeping twenty yards from the corner of the fence, the fugitives wheeled round to the right, and the Indians, with a cry of exultation, turned to the right also to cut them off. The low treacherous wire was unnoticed, and in another moment men and horses were rolling in a confused mass upon the ground.
'Now,' Charley said, 'every barrel we have;' and from the top of the tower a rain of lead poured down upon the bewildered Indians. The horses, frightened and wounded, kicked and struggled dreadfully, and did almost as much harm to their masters as the deadly bullets of the whites; and when the fire ceased, not more than half of them regained their seats and galloped off, leaving the rest, men and horses, in a ghastly heap. Seeing them in full retreat, the occupants of the tower descended to receive Mr. Hardy and Fitzgerald, Terence much delighted at having at last had his share in a skirmish.
'Well done, boys! Very well planned, Charley!' Mr. Hardy said as he reined in his horse. 'That was a near escape.'
'Not as near a one as Hubert has had, by a long way, papa.'
'Indeed!' Mr. Hardy said anxiously. 'Let me hear all about it.'
'We have not heard ourselves yet,' Charley answered. 'It occurred only a few minutes before your own. The girls behaved splendidly; but they are rather upset now. If you will go up to the house to them, I will be up directly, but there are a few things to see about first. Lopez,' he went on, 'carry out what I told you before: get the men in from the ploughs and see all secured. Tell them to hurry, for it will be dark soon. Kill a couple of sheep and bring them up to the house; we shall be a large party, and it may be wanted. Then let the peons all have supper. Come up to the house in an hour for instructions. See yourself that the dogs are fastened down by the cattle. Terence, take your place on the lookout, and fire a gun if you see any one moving.'
Having seen that his various orders were obeyed, Charley went up to the house. He found the whole party assembled in the sitting-room. Maud and Ethel had quite recovered, although both looked pale. Mrs. Hardy, absorbed in her attention to them, had fortunately heard nothing of her husband's danger, until the firing from above, followed by a shout of triumph, told her that any danger there was, had been defeated.
'Now, papa,' Charley said, 'you give us your account first.'
'I have not much to tell, Charley. Fitzgerald and I had ridden out some distance,—five miles, I should say,—when the dogs stopped at a thicket and put out a lion. Fitzgerald and I both fired with our left-hand barrels, which were loaded with ball. The beast fell, and we got off to skin him. Dash barked furiously, and we saw a couple of dozen Indians coming up close to us. We stopped a moment to give them our barrels with duck-shot, and then jumped into our saddles and rode for it. Unfortunately, we had been foolish enough to go out without our revolvers. They pressed us hard, but I was never in fear of their actually catching us; my only alarm was, that one of us might repeat my disaster of the armadillo hole. So I only tried to hold my own thirty or forty yards ahead. I made sure that one or other of you would see us coming, and I should have shouted loudly enough, I can tell you, to warn you as I came up. Besides, I knew that, at the worst, the arms were hanging above the fireplace, and that we only wanted time to run in, catch them up, and get to the door, to be able to defend the house till you could help us. And now, what is your story, Charley?'
'I have even less than you, papa. I was down at the dam, and then I went into the hen-house, and I was just thinking that I could make a better arrangement for the nests, when I heard an Indian war-yell between me and the house. It was followed almost directly by two cracks, which I knew were the girls' rifles. I rushed to the door and looked out, and I saw two Indians coming along at full gallop. By the direction they were taking, they would pass only a little way from the hen-house; so I stepped back till I heard they were opposite, and then, going out, I gave both barrels to the nearest to me, and stopped his galloping about pretty effectually. When I reached the place, I saw that Hubert had had a narrow squeak of it, for Maud had fainted, and Ethel was in a great state of cry. But I had no time to ask many questions, for I ran up to hoist the danger flag, and then saw you and Fitzgerald coming along with the Indians after you. Now, Hubert, let's hear your story.'
'Well, papa, you know I said yesterday that I was sure that I had seen a new duck, and this afternoon I rode out to the pools, in hopes that he might still be there. I left my horse, and crept on very cautiously through the reeds till I got sight of the water. Sure enough, there was the duck, rather on the other side. I waited for a long half hour, and at last he came over rather nearer. He dived at my first barrel, but as he came up, I gave him my second. Flirt went in and brought him out. He was new, sure enough,—two blue feathers under the eye——'
'Bother the duck, Hubert,' Charley put in. 'We don't care for his blue feathers; we want to hear about the Indians.'
'Well, I am coming to the Indians,' Hubert said; 'but it was a new duck, for all that; and if you like it, I will show it you. There!' And he took it out of his pocket and laid it on the table. No one appeared to have the slightest interest in it, or to pay any attention to it. So Hubert went on: 'Well, after looking at the duck, I put it into my pocket, and went out from the bushes to my horse. As I got to him, I heard a yell, which nearly made me tumble down, it startled me so; and not a hundred yards away, and riding to cut me off from home, were thirty or forty Indians. I was not long, as you may guess, climbing into my saddle, and bolted like a shot. I could not make straight for home, but had to make a sweep to get round them. I was better mounted than all of them, except three; but they kept gradually gaining on me, while all the rest in turn gave up the chase: and, like papa, I had left my revolver behind. Black Tom did his best, and I encouraged him to the utmost; but I began to think that it was all up with me, for I was convinced that they would catch me before I could get in. When I was little more than three hundred yards from the gate, I saw Maud come dashing down with her rifle towards the gate, and a little afterwards Ethel came too. The Indians kept getting nearer and nearer, and I expected every moment to feel the tomahawk. I could not think why the girls did not fire, but I supposed that they did not feel sure enough of their aim; and I had the consolation that the Indian nearest could not be going to strike, or they would risk a shot. On I went: the Indian was so close that I could feel his horse's breath, and the idea came across my mind that the brute was trying to catch hold of the calf of my leg. At a hundred yards I could see Maud's face quite plain, and then I felt certain I was saved. She looked as steady as if she had been taking aim at a mark, and the thought flashed across me of how last week she had hit a small stone on a post, at eighty yards, first shot, when Charley and I had missed it half a dozen times each. Then there was a frightful yell, almost in my ear. Then I heard Maud cry out, "Stoop, Hubert, stoop!" I was stooping before, but my head went down to the horse's mane, I can tell you. And then there was the crack of the two rifles, and a yell of pain. I could not look round, but I felt that the horse behind me had stopped, and that I was safe. That's my story, papa.'
A few more questions elicited from Mrs. Hardy all that she knew of it, and then the warmest commendations were bestowed upon the girls. Ethel, however, generously disclaimed all praise, as she said that she should have done nothing at all had it not been for Maud's steadiness and coolness.
'And now let us have our tea,' Mr. Hardy said; 'and then we can talk over our measures for to-night.'
'Do you think that they will attack us, papa?' Ethel asked.
'Yes, Ethel, I think that most likely they will. As we came across the plain, I noticed several other parties quite in the distance. There must be a very strong body out altogether, and probably they have resolved upon vengeance for their last year's defeat. They had better have left it alone, for they have no more chance of taking this house, with us all upon our guard, than they have of flying. There is one advantage in it,—they will get such a lesson, that I do think we shall be perfectly free from Indian attacks for the future.'
After tea Lopez came up for orders. 'You will place,' Mr. Hardy said, 'two peons at each corner of the outside fence. One of us will come round every half hour to see that all is right. Their instructions are, that in case they hear any movement, one is to come up to us immediately with the news, and the other is to go round to tell the other sentries to do the same. All this is to be done in perfect silence. I do not want them to know that we are ready for their reception. Bring some fresh straw up and lay it down here on the floor: the women can sleep here.'
'What shall I do about your own horses, Signor?' Lopez asked.
Mr. Hardy thought a moment. 'I think you had better send them down to the enclosure with the others; they might be driven off if they are left up here, and I do not see that we can require them.'
'But what about the cattle, papa?' Charley asked. 'It would be a serious loss if they were driven off, especially the milch cows. If you like, I will go down with Terence, and we can take up our station among them. It would be a strong post, for the Indians of course could not attack us on horseback; and with my carbine, and Terence's gun, and a brace of revolvers, I think we could beat them off easily enough, especially as you would cover us with your guns.'
'I had thought of that plan, Charley; but it would be dangerous, and would cause us up here great anxiety. I imagine, too, that as no doubt their great object is vengeance, they will attack us first here, or they may make an effort upon the cattle at the same time that they attack here. They will not begin with the animals. They will find it a very difficult business to break down the fence, which they must do to drive them out; and while they are about it we shall not be idle, depend upon it.'
The preparations were soon made, and it was agreed that Mr. Hardy and Hubert should go the rounds alternately with Charley and Fitzgerald. As a usual thing, the Indian attacks take place in the last hour or two of darkness. Mr. Hardy thought, however, that an exception would be made in the present case, in order that they might get as far as possible away before any pursuit took place. The wives of the peons lay down to sleep on the straw which had been thrown down for them. The men sat outside the door, smoking their cigarettes and talking in low whispers. Mrs. Hardy was in her room; Ethel kept her company, Maud dividing her time between them and the top of the tower, where Mr. Hardy, Fitzgerald, and the boys were assembled in the intervals between going their rounds.
At about ten o'clock there was a sharp bark from one of the dogs fastened up by the fold, followed up by a general barking of all the dogs on the establishment.
'There they are,' Mr. Hardy said. 'Charley, bring the mastiffs inside, and order them, and the retrievers too, to be quiet. We do not want any noise up here, to tell the Indians that we are on the watch. Now, Fitzgerald, you go to the sentries behind the house, and I will go to those in front, to tell them to fall back at once.'
This mission was, however, unnecessary, for the eight peons all arrived in a minute or two, having fled from their posts at the first barking of the dogs, and without obeying their orders to send round to each other to give notice of their retreat.
Mr. Hardy was very angry with them, but they were in such abject fear of the Indians that they paid little heed to their master's words, but went and huddled themselves together upon the straw in the sitting-room, remaining there without movement until all was over. Terence was now recalled from the gate, which had been his post.
'Did you hear anything, Terence?'
'Sure, your honour, and I thought I heard a dull sound like a lot of horses galloping in the distance. I should say that there were a great many of them. It seemed to get a little louder, and then it stopped.'
'That was before the dogs began to bark, Terence?'
'About five minutes before, your honour.'
'Yes. I have no doubt that they all dismounted to make the attack on foot. How quiet everything is!'
The general barking of the dogs had now ceased: sometimes one or another gave a suspicious yelping bark, but between these no sound whatever was audible. The door was now closed and barred; candles were lighted and placed in every room, thick cloths having been hung up before the loopholes in the shutters, to prevent a ray of light from escaping; and the windows themselves were opened. Mr. Fitzgerald, the boys, and Maud took their station on the tower, Mr. Hardy remaining with his wife and Ethel, while Terence and Lopez kept watch in the other apartments. The arrangements for the defence were, that Mr. Fitzgerald, Lopez, and Terence should defend the lower part of the house. There were in all six double-barrelled guns,—two to each of them; and three of the peons more courageous than the others offered to load the guns as they were discharged.
Mr. Hardy and the boys had their place on the tower, from which they commanded the whole garden. They had the long rifle, the carbines, and four revolvers. Mrs. Hardy and the girls took their place in the upper room of the tower, where there was a light. Their rifles were ready in case of necessity, but their principal duty was to load the spare chambers of the carbines and pistols as fast as they were emptied, the agreement being, that the girls should go up by turns to take the loaded ones and bring down the empties. Sarah's place was her kitchen, where she could hear all that was going on below, and she was to call up the ladder in case aid was required. And so, all being in readiness, they calmly awaited the attack.
THE INDIAN ATTACK.
For nearly half an hour the occupants of the tower remained without hearing the smallest sound. Then there was a slight jarring noise.
'They are getting over the fence,' Mr. Hardy whispered. 'Go down now every one to his station. Keep the dogs quiet, and mind, let no one fire until I give the signal.'
Over and over again the clinking noise was repeated. Cautious as the Indians were, it was impossible even for them to get over that strange and difficult obstacle without touching the wires with their arms. Occasionally Mr. Hardy and the boys fancied that they could see dark objects stealing towards the house through the gloom; otherwise all was still.
'Boys,' Mr. Hardy said, 'I have changed my mind. There will be numbers at the doors and windows, whom we cannot get at from here. Steal quietly down-stairs, and take your position each at a window. Then, when the signal is given, fire both your revolvers. Don't throw away a shot. Darken all the rooms except the kitchen. You will see better to take aim through the loopholes; it will be quite light outside. When you have emptied your revolvers, come straight up here, leaving them for the girls to load as you pass.'
Without a word, the boys slipped away. Mr. Hardy then placed on a round shelf nailed to the flag-staff, at about eight feet from the ground, a blue-light, fitting into a socket on the shelf. The shelf was made just so large that it threw a shadow over the top of the tower, so that those standing there were in comparative darkness, while everything around was in bright light. There, with a match in his hand to light the blue-light, he awaited the signal.
It was a long time coming,—so long that the pause grew painful, and every one in the house longed for the bursting of the coming storm. At last it came. A wild, long, savage yell from hundreds of throats rose on the still night air, and, confident as they were in their position, there was not one of the garrison but felt his blood grow cold at the appalling ferocity of the cry. Simultaneously there was a tremendous rush at the doors and windows, which tried the strength of frame and bar. Then, as they stood firm, came a rain of blows with hatchet and tomahawk.
Then came a momentary pause of astonishment. The weapons, instead of splintering the wood, merely made deep dents, or glided off harmlessly. Then the blows redoubled, and then a bright light suddenly lit up the whole scene. As it did so, from every loophole a stream of fire poured out, repeated again and again. The guns, heavily loaded with buck-shot, told with terrible effect upon the crowded mass of Indians around the windows, and the discharge of the four barrels from each of the three windows of the room at the back of the house, by Fitzgerald, Lopez, and Terence, for a while cleared the assailants from that quarter. After the first yell of astonishment and rage, a perfect quiet succeeded to the din which had raged there, broken only by the ring of the ramrods, as the three men and their assistants hastily reloaded their guns, and then hurried to the front of the house, where their presence was urgently required.
Knowing the tremendous rush there would be at the door, Charley and Hubert had posted themselves at its two loopholes, leaving the windows to take care of themselves for the present. The first rush was so tremendous that the door trembled on its posts, massive as it was; and the boys, thinking that it would come in, threw the weight of their bodies against it. Then with the failure of the first rush came the storm of blows; and the boys stood with their pistols levelled through the holes, waiting for the light which was to enable them to see their foes.
As it came, they fired together, and two Indians fell. Again and again they fired, until not an Indian remained standing opposite the fatal door. Then each took a window, for there was one at each side of the door, and these they held, rushing occasionally into the rooms on either side to check the assailants there.
In this fight, Sarah had certainly the honour of first blood. She was a courageous woman, and was determined to do her best in defence of the house. As an appropriate weapon, she had placed the end of the spit in the fire, and at the moment of the attack it was white-hot. Seeing the shutter bend with the pressure of the Indians against it, she seized the spit, and plunged it through the loophole with all her force. A fearful yell followed, which rose even above the tremendous din around.
There was a lull so profound, after the discharge of the last barrels of the boys' revolvers, as to be almost startling. Running up-stairs, they fitted fresh chambers to their weapons, left the empty ones with their sisters, and joined their father.
'That's right, boys; the attack is beaten off for the present. Now take your carbines. There is a band of Indians down by the animals. I heard their war-whoops when the others began, but the light hardly reaches so far. Now look out, I am going to send up a rocket over them. The cows are the most important; so, Charley, you direct all your shots at any party there. Hubert, divide yours among the rest.'
In another moment the rocket flew up into the air, and, as the bright light burst out, a group of Indians could be seen at the gateway of each of the enclosures.
As the brilliant light broke over them, they scattered with a cry of astonishment. Before the light faded, the twelve barrels had been fired among them.
As the rocket burst, Mr. Hardy had gazed eagerly over the country, and fancied that he could see a dark mass at a distance of half a mile. This he guessed to be the Indians' horses.
By this time the blue-light was burning low, and Mr. Hardy, stretching his hand up, lit another at its blaze, and planted the fresh one down upon it. As he did so, a whizzing of numerous arrows showed that they were watched. One went through his coat, fortunately without touching him; another went right through his arm; and a third laid Charley's cheek open from the lip to the ear.
'Keep your heads below the wall, boys,' their father shouted. 'Are you hurt, Charley?'
'Not seriously, papa, but it hurts awfully;' and Charley stamped with rage and pain.
'What has become of the Indians round the house?' Hubert asked. 'They are making no fresh attack.'
'No,' Mr. Hardy said; 'they have had enough of it. They are only wondering how they are to get away. You see the fence is exposed all round to our fire, for the trees don't go within twenty yards of it. They are neither in front nor behind the house, for it is pretty open in both directions, and we should see them. They are not at this side of the house, so they must be standing close to the wall between the windows, and must be crowded among the trees and shrubs at the other end. There is no window there, so they are safe as long as they stay quiet.'
'No, papa,' Hubert said eagerly; 'don't you remember we left two loopholes in each room, when we built it, on purpose, only putting in pieces of wood and filling up the cracks with clay to keep out the wind?'
'Of course we did, Hubert. I remember all about it now. Run down and tell them to be ready to pull the wood out and to fire through when they hear the next rocket go off. I am going to send another light rocket over in the direction where I saw the horses; and directly I get the line I will send off cracker-rocket after cracker-rocket as quickly as I can at them. What with the fire from below among them, and the fright they will get when they see the horses attacked, they are sure to make a rush for it.'
In a minute Hubert came back with the word that the men below were ready. In a moment a rocket soared far away to behind the house; and just as its light broke over the plains, another one swept over in the direction of a dark mass of animals, seen plainly enough in the distance.
A cry of dismay burst from the Indians, rising in yet wilder alarm as three shots were fired from the wall of the house into their crowded mass. Again and again was the discharge repeated, and, with a yell of dismay, a wild rush was made for the fence. Then the boys with their carbines, and Mr. Hardy with the revolvers, opened upon them, every shot telling in the dense mass who struggled to surmount the fatal railings.
Frenzied with the danger, dozens attempted to climb them, and, strong as were the wires and posts, there was a cracking sound, and the whole side fell. In another minute, of the struggling mass there remained only some twenty motionless forms. Three or four more rockets were sent off in the direction where the horses had been seen, and then another signal rocket, whose light enabled them to see that the black mass was broken up, and that the whole plain was covered with scattered figures of men and animals, all flying at the top of their speed.
'Thank God, it is all over, and we are safe!' Mr. Hardy said solemnly. 'Never again will an Indian attack be made upon Mount Pleasant.'
'It is all over now, my dear,' he said to Mrs. Hardy as he went down the stairs; 'they are off all over the country, and it will take them hours to get their horses together again. Two of us have got scratched with arrows, but no real harm is done. Charley's is only a flesh wound. Don't be frightened,' he added quickly, as Mrs. Hardy turned pale and the girls gave a cry at the appearance of Charley's face, which was certainly alarming. 'A little warm water and a bandage will put it all right.'
'Do you think it will leave a scar?' Charley asked rather dolorously.
'Well, Charley, I should not be surprised if it does; but it won't spoil your beauty long, your whiskers will cover it: besides, a scar won in honourable conflict is always admired by ladies, you know. Now let us go down-stairs; my arm, too, wants bandaging, for it is beginning to smart amazingly; and I am sure we all must want something to eat.'
The supper was eaten hurriedly, and then all but Terence, who, as a measure of precaution, was stationed as watchman on the tower, were glad to lie down for a few hours' sleep. At daybreak they were up and moving.
Mr. Hardy requested that neither his wife or daughters should go outside the house until the dead Indians were removed and buried, as the sight could not but be a most shocking one. Two of the peons were ordered to put in the oxen and bring up two carts, and the rest of the men set about the unpleasant duty of examining and collecting the slain.
These were even more numerous than Mr. Hardy had anticipated, and showed how thickly they must have been clustered round the door and windows. The guns had been loaded with buck-shot; two bullets he dropped down each barrel in addition; and the discharge of these had been most destructive, more especially those fired through the loopholes at the end of the house. There no less than sixteen bodies were found, while around the door and windows were thirteen others. All these were dead. The guns having been discharged through loopholes breast-high, had taken effect upon the head and body.
At the fence were fourteen. Of these, twelve were dead, another still breathed, but was evidently dying, while one had only a broken leg. Unquestionably several others had been wounded, but had managed to make off. The bullets of revolvers, unless striking a mortal point, disable a wounded man much less than the balls of heavier calibre. It was evidently useless to remove the Indian who was dying; all that could be done for him was to give him a little water, and to place a bundle of grass so as to raise his head. Half an hour later he was dead. The other wounded man was carried carefully down to one of the sheds, where a bed of hay was prepared for him. Two more wounded men were found down by the cattle enclosures, and these also Mr. Hardy considered likely to recover. They were taken up and laid by their comrade. Three dead bodies were found here. These were all taken in the bullock-carts to a spot distant nearly half a mile from the house.
Here, by the united labour of the peons, a large grave was dug, six feet wide, as much deep, and twelve yards long. In this they were laid side by side, two deep; the earth was filled in, and the turf replaced. At Hubert's suggestion, two young palm trees were taken out of the garden and placed one at each end, and a wire fence was erected all round, to keep off the animals.
It was a sad task; and although they had been killed in an attack in which, had they been victorious, they would have shown no mercy, still Mr. Hardy and his sons were deeply grieved at having caused the destruction of so many lives.
It was late in the afternoon before all was done, and the party returned to the house with lightened hearts, that the painful task was finished. Here things had nearly resumed their ordinary aspect. Terence had washed away the stains of blood; and save that many of the young trees had been broken down, and that one side of the fence was levelled, no one would have imagined that a sanguinary contest had taken place there so lately.
Mr. Hardy stopped on the way to examine the wounded men. He had acquired a slight knowledge of rough surgery in his early life upon the prairies, and he discovered the bullet at a short distance under the skin in the broken leg. Making signs to the man that he was going to do him good, and calling in Fitzgerald and Lopez, to hold the Indian if necessary, he took out his knife, cut down to the bullet, and with some trouble succeeded in extracting it. The Indian never flinched or groaned, although the pain must have been very great, while the operation was being performed. Mr. Hardy then carefully bandaged the limb, and directed that cold water should be poured over it from time to time, to allay the inflammation. Another of the Indians had his ankle-joint broken: this was also carefully bandaged. The third had a bullet wound near the hip, and with this Mr. Hardy could do nothing. His recovery or death would depend entirely upon nature.
It may here be mentioned at once that all three of the Indians eventually recovered, although two of them were slightly lamed for life. All that care and attention could do for them was done; and when they were in a fit condition to travel, their horses and a supply of provisions were given to them. The Indians had maintained during the whole time the stolid apathy of their race. They had expressed no thanks for the kindness bestowed upon them. Only when their horses were presented to them, and bows and arrows placed in their hands, with an intimation that they were free to go, did their countenances change.
Up to that time it is probable that they believed that they were only being kept to be solemnly put to death. Their faces lit up, and without a word they sprang on to the horses' backs and dashed over the plains.
Ere they had gone three hundred yards they halted, and came back at equal speed, stopping abruptly before the surprised and rather startled group. 'Good man,' the eldest of them said, pointing to Mr. Hardy. 'Good,' he repeated, motioning to the boys. 'Good misses,' and he included Mrs. Hardy and the girls; and then the three turned, and never slackened their speed as long as they were in sight.
The Indians of the South American Pampas and Sierras are a very inferior race to the noble-looking Comanches and Apaches of the North American Prairies. They are generally short, wiry men, with long black hair. They have flat faces, with high cheek bones. Their complexion is a dark copper colour, and they are generally extremely ugly.
In the course of the morning after the fight Mr. Cooper rode over from Canterbury, and was greatly surprised to hear of the attack. The Indians had not been seen or heard of at his estate, and he was ignorant of anything having taken place until his arrival.
For the next few days there was quite a levee of visitors, who came over to hear the particulars, and to offer their congratulations. All the outlying settlers were particularly pleased, as it was considered certain that the Indians would not visit that neighbourhood again for some time.
Shortly afterwards the government sales for the land beyond Mount Pleasant took place. Mr. Hardy went over to Rosario to attend them, and bought the plot of four square leagues immediately adjoining his own, giving the same price that he had paid for Mount Pleasant. The properties on each side of this were purchased by the two Edwards, and by an Englishman who had lately arrived in the colony. His name was Mercer: he was accompanied by his wife and two young children, and his wife's brother, whose name was Parkinson. Mr. Hardy had made their acquaintance at Rosario, and pronounced them to be a very pleasant family. They had brought out a considerable capital, and were coming in a week with a strong force to erect their house. Mr. Hardy had promised them every assistance, and had invited Mrs. Mercer to take up her abode at Mount Pleasant with her children, until the frame-house which they had brought out could be erected,—an invitation which had been gladly accepted.
There was great pleasure at the thought of another lady in the neighbourhood; and Mrs. Hardy was especially pleased for the girls' sake, as she thought that a little female society would be of very great advantage to them.
The plots of land next to the Mercers and Edwards were bought, the one by three or four Germans working as a company together, the other by Don Martinez, an enterprising young Spaniard; so that the Hardys began to be in quite an inhabited country. It is true that most of the houses would be six miles off; but that is close, on the Pampas. There was a talk, too, of the native overseer of the land between Canterbury and the Jamiesons selling his ground in plots of a mile square. This would make the country comparatively thickly populated. Indeed, with the exception of Mr. Mercer, who had taken up a four-league plot, the other new settlers had in no case purchased more than a square league. The settlements would therefore be pretty thick together.
In a few days Mrs. Mercer arrived with her children. The boys gave up their room to her,—they themselves, with Mr. Fitzgerald and four peons, accompanying Mr. Mercer and the party he had brought with him, to assist in erecting his house, and in putting up a strong wire fence, similar to their own, for defence. This operation was finished in a week; and Mrs. Mercer, to the regret of Mrs. Hardy and the girls, then joined her husband. The house had been built near the northeast corner of the property. It was therefore little more than six miles distant from Mount Pleasant, and a constant interchange of visits was arranged to take place.
Shortly afterwards Mr. Hardy suggested that the time had now come for improving the house, and laid before his assembled family his plans for so doing, which were received with great applause.
The new portion was to stand in front of the old, and was to consist of a wide entrance-hall, with a large dining and drawing room upon either side. Upon the floor above were to be four bed-rooms. The old sitting-room was to be made into the kitchen, and was to be lighted by a skylight in the roof. The present kitchen was to become a laundry, the windows of that and the bedroom opposite being placed in the side-walls, instead of being in front. The new portion was to be made of properly baked bricks, and was to be surrounded by a wide verandah. Of the present bed-rooms, two were to be used as spare rooms, one of the others being devoted to two additional indoor servants whom it was now proposed to keep.
It was arranged that the carts should at once commence going backwards and forwards to Rosario, to fetch coal for the brickmaking, tiles, wood, etc., and that an experienced brickmaker should be engaged, all the hands at the farm being fully occupied. It would take a month or six weeks, it was calculated, before all would be ready to begin building; and then Mrs. Hardy and the girls were to start for a long promised visit to their friends the Thompsons, near Buenos Ayres, so as to be away during the mess and confusion of the building. An engagement was made on the following week with two Italian women at Rosario, the one as a cook, the other as general servant, Sarah undertaking the management of the dairy during her mistress's absence.
Another two years passed over, bringing increased prosperity to the Hardys. No renewal of the Indian attacks had occurred, and in consequence an increased flow of emigration had taken place in their neighbourhood. Settlers were now established upon all the lots for many miles upon either side of Mount Pleasant; and even beyond the twelve miles which the estate stretched to the south, the lots had been sold. Mr. Hardy considered that all danger of the flocks and herds being driven off had now ceased, and had therefore added considerably to their numbers, and had determined to allow them to increase without further sales, until they had attained to the extent of the supporting power of the immense estate.
Two hundred acres of irrigated land were under cultivation; the dairy contained the produce of a hundred cows; and, altogether, Mount Pleasant was considered one of the finest and most profitable estancias in the province.
The house was now worthy of the estate; the inside fence had been removed fifty yards farther off, and the vegetable garden to a greater distance, the enclosed space being laid out entirely as a pleasure garden.
Beautiful tropical trees and shrubs, gorgeous patches of flowers, and green turf surrounded the front and sides; while behind was a luxuriant and most productive orchard.
The young Hardys had for some time given up doing any personal labour, and were incessantly occupied in the supervision of the estate and of the numerous hands employed: for them a long range of adobe huts had been built at some little distance in the rear of the enclosure.
Maud and Ethel had during this period devoted much more time to their studies, and the time was approaching when Mrs. Hardy was to return with them to England, in order that they might pass a year in London under the instruction of the best masters. Maud was now seventeen, and could fairly claim to be looked upon as a young woman. Ethel still looked very much younger than her real age: any one, indeed, would have guessed that there was at least three years' difference between the sisters. In point of acquirements, however, she was quite her equal, her much greater perseverance more than making up for her sister's quickness.
A year previously Mr. Hardy had, at one of his visits to Buenos Ayres, purchased a piano, saying nothing of what he had done upon his return; and the delight of the girls and their mother, when the instrument arrived in a bullock-cart, was unbounded. From that time the girls practised almost incessantly; indeed, as Charley remarked, it was as bad as living in the house with a whole boarding-school of girls.
After this Mount Pleasant, which had always been considered as the most hospitable and pleasant estancia in the district, became more than ever popular, and many were the impromptu dances got up. Sometimes there were more formal affairs, and all the ladies within twenty miles would come in. These were more numerous than would have been expected. The Jamiesons were doing well, and in turn going for a visit to their native country, had brought out two bright young Scotchwomen as their wives.
Mrs. Mercer was sure to be there, and four or five other English ladies from nearer or more distant estancias. Some ten or twelve native ladies, wives or daughters of native proprietors, would also come in, and the dancing would be kept up until a very late hour. Then the ladies would lie down for a short time, all the beds being given up to them, and a number of shake-downs improvised; while the gentlemen would sit and smoke for an hour or two, and then, as day broke, go down for a bathe in the river.
These parties were looked upon by all as most enjoyable affairs; and as eatables of all sorts were provided by the estate itself, they were a very slight expense, and were of frequent occurrence. Only one thing Mr. Hardy bargained for,—no wines or other expensive liquors were to be drunk. He was doing well,—far, indeed, beyond his utmost expectation,—but at the same time he did not consider himself justified in spending money upon luxuries.
Tea, therefore, and cooling drinks made from fruits, after the custom of the country, were provided in abundance for the dancers; but wine was not produced. With this proviso, Mr. Hardy had no objection to his young people having their dances frequently; and in a country where all were living in a rough way, and wine was an unknown luxury, no one missed it. In other respects the supper tables might have been admired at an English ball. Of substantials there was abundance,—turkeys and fowls, wild duck and other game. The sweets were represented by trifle, creams, and blancmanges; while there was a superb show of fruit,—apricots, peaches, nectarines, pine-apple, melons, and grapes. Among them were vases of gorgeous flowers, most of them tropical in character, but with them were many old English friends, of which Mr. Hardy had procured seeds.
Their neighbours at Canterbury were still their most intimate friends: they were shortly, however, to lose one of them. Mr. Cooper had heard six months before of the death of his two elder brothers in rapid succession, and he was now heir to his father's property, which was very extensive. It had been supposed that he would at once return to England, and he was continually talking of doing so; but he had, under one excuse or other, put off his departure from time to time. He was very frequently over at Mount Pleasant, and was generally a companion of the boys upon their excursions.
'I think Cooper is almost as much here as he is at Canterbury,' Charley said, laughing, one day.
Mrs. Hardy happened to glance at Maud, and noticed a bright flush of colour on her cheeks. She made no remark at the time, but spoke to Mr. Hardy about it at night.
'You see, my dear,' she concluded, 'we are still considering Maud as a child, but other people may look upon her as a woman.'
'I am sorry for this,' Mr. Hardy said after a pause. 'We ought to have foreseen the possibility of such a thing. Now that it is mentioned, I wonder we did not do so before. Mr. Cooper has been here so much, that the thing would have certainly struck us, had we not, as you say, looked upon Maud as a child. Against Mr. Cooper I have nothing to say. We both like him extremely. His principles are good, and he would, in point of money, be of course an excellent match for our little girl. At the same time, I cannot permit anything like an engagement. Mr. Cooper has seen no other ladies for so long a time, that it is natural enough he should fall in love with Maud. Maud, on the other hand, has only seen the fifteen or twenty men who came here; she knows nothing of the world, and is altogether inexperienced. They are both going to England, and may not improbably meet people whom they may like very much better, and may look upon this love-making in the Pampas as a folly. At the end of another two years, when Maud is nineteen, if Mr. Cooper renew the acquaintance in England, and both parties agree, I shall of course offer no objection, and indeed should rejoice much at a match which would promise well for her happiness.'
Mrs. Hardy thoroughly agreed with her husband, and so the matter rested for a short time.
It was well that Mr. Hardy had been warned by his wife, for a week after this, Mr. Cooper met him alone when he was out riding, and, after some introduction, expressed to him that he had long felt that he had loved his daughter, but had waited until she was seventeen before expressing his wishes. He said that he had delayed his departure for England on this account alone, and now asked permission to pay his addresses to her, adding that he hoped that he was not altogether indifferent to her.
Mr. Hardy heard him quietly to the end.
'I can hardly say that I am unprepared for what you say, Mr. Cooper, although I had never thought of such a thing until two days since. Then your long delay here, and your frequent visits to our house, opened the eyes of Mrs. Hardy and myself. To yourself, personally, I can entertain no objection. Still, when I remember that you are only six-and-twenty, and that for the last four years you have seen no one with whom you could possibly fall in love, with the exception of my daughter, I can hardly think that you have had sufficient opportunity to know your own mind. When you return to England, you will meet young ladies very much prettier and very much more accomplished than my Maud, and you may regret the haste which led you to form an engagement out here. You shake your head, as is natural that you should do; but I repeat, you cannot at present know your own mind. If this is true of you, it is still more true of my daughter. She is very young, and knows nothing whatever of the world. Next month she proceeds to England with her mother, and for the next two years she will be engaged upon finishing her education. At the end of that time I shall myself return to England, and we shall then enter into society. If at that time you are still of the same way of thinking, and choose to renew our acquaintance, I shall be very happy, in the event of Maud accepting you, to give my consent. But I must insist that there shall be no engagement, no love-making, no understanding of any sort or kind, before you start. I put it to your honour as a gentleman, that you will make no effort to meet her alone, and that you will say nothing whatever to her, to lead her to believe that you are in love with her. Only, when you say good-bye to her, you may say that I have told you that as the next two years are to be passed in study, to make up for past deficiencies, I do not wish her to enter at all into society, but that at the end of that time you hope to renew the acquaintance.'
Mr. Cooper endeavoured in vain to alter Mr. Hardy's determination, and was at last obliged to give the required promise.
Mr. and Mrs. Hardy were not surprised when, two or three days after this, Mr. Cooper rode up and said that he had come to say good-bye, that he had received letters urging him to return at once, and had therefore made up his mind to start by the next mail from Buenos Ayres.
The young Hardys were all surprised at this sudden determination, but there was little time to discuss it, as Mr. Cooper had to start the same night for Rosario.
Very warm and earnest were the adieus; and the colour, which had rather left Maud's face, returned with redoubled force as he held her hand, and said very earnestly the words Mr. Hardy had permitted him to use.
Then he leapt into his saddle and galloped off, waving his hand, as he crossed the river, to the group which were still standing in the verandah watching him.
For a few days after this Maud was unusually quiet and subdued, but her natural spirits speedily recovered themselves, and she was soon as lively and gay as ever.
About a fortnight after the departure of Mr. Cooper, an event took place which for a while threatened to upset all the plans which they had formed for the future.
One or other of the girls were in the habit of frequently going over to stay for a day or two with Mrs. Mercer.
One evening Hubert rode over with Ethel, and Mrs. Mercer persuaded the latter to stay for the night; Hubert declining to do so, as he had arranged with Charley to go over early to Canterbury to assist at the branding of the cattle at that station.
In the morning they had taken their coffee, and were preparing for a start, when, just as they were mounting their horses, one of the men drew their attention to a man running at full speed towards the house from the direction of Mr. Mercer's.
'What can be the matter?' Charley said. 'What a strange thing that a messenger should come over on foot instead of on horseback!'
'Let's ride and meet him, Charley,' Hubert said; and putting spurs to their horses, they galloped towards the approaching figure.
As they came close to him he stumbled and fell, and lay upon the ground, exhausted and unable to rise.
The boys sprang from their horses with a feeling of vague uneasiness and alarm.
'What is the matter?' they asked.
The peon was too exhausted to reply for a moment or two; then he gasped out, 'Los Indios! the Indians!'
The boys gave a simultaneous cry of dread.
'What has happened? Tell us quick, man; are they attacking the estancia?' The man shook his head.
'Estancia burnt. All killed but me,' he said.
The news was too sudden and terrible for the boys to speak. They stood white and motionless with horror.
'All killed! Oh, Ethel, Ethel!' Charley groaned.
Hubert burst into tears. 'What will mamma do?'
'Come, Hubert,' Charley said, dashing away the tears from his eyes, 'do not let us waste a moment. All hope may not be over. The Indians seldom kill women, but carry them away, and she may be alive yet. If she is, we will rescue her, if we go right across America. Come, man, jump up behind me on my horse.'
The peon obeyed the order, and in five minutes they reached the gate. Here they dismounted.
'Let us walk up to the house, Hubert, so as not to excite suspicion. We must call papa out and tell him first, so that he may break it to mamma. If she learn it suddenly, it may kill her.'
Mr. Hardy had just taken his coffee, and was standing at the door, looking with a pleased eye upon the signs of comfort and prosperity around him. There was no need, therefore, for them to approach nearer. As Mr. Hardy looked round upon hearing the gate shut, Charley beckoned to him to come down to them. For a moment he seemed puzzled, and looked round to see if the signal was directed to himself. Seeing that no one else was near him, he again looked at the boys, and Charley earnestly repeated the gesture.
Mr. Hardy, feeling that something strange was happening, ran down the steps and hurried towards them.
By the time he reached them, he had no need to ask questions. Hubert was leaning upon the gate, crying as if his heart would break; Charley stood with his hand on his lips, as if to check the sobs from breaking out, while the tears streamed down his cheeks.
'Ethel?' Mr. Hardy asked.
Charley nodded, and then said, with a great effort, 'The Indians have burnt the estancia; one of the men has escaped and brought the news. We know nothing more. Perhaps she is carried off, not killed.'
Mr. Hardy staggered under the sudden blow. 'Carried off!' he murmured to himself. 'It is worse than death.'
'Yes, papa,' Charley said, anxious to give his father's thoughts a new turn. 'But we will rescue her, if she is alive, wherever they may take her.'
'We will, Charley; we will, my boys,' Mr. Hardy said earnestly, and rousing himself at the thought 'I must go up and break it to your mother; though how I shall do so, I know not. Do you give what orders you like for collecting our friends. First, though, let us question this man. When was it?'
'Last night, Signor, at eleven o'clock. I had just laid down in my hut, and I noticed that there were still lights down-stairs at the house, when, all of a sudden, I heard a yell as of a thousand fiends, and I knew the Indians were upon us. I knew that it was too late to fly, but I threw myself out of the window, and laid flat by the wall, as the Indians burst in. There were eight of us, and I closed my ears to shut out the sound of the other's cries. Up at the house, too, I could hear screams and some pistol-shots, and then more screams and cries. The Indians were all round, everywhere, and I dreaded lest one of them should stumble up against me. Then a sudden glare shot up, and I knew they were firing the house. The light would have shown me clearly enough, had I remained where I was; so I crawled on my stomach till I came to some potato ground a few yards off. As I lay between the rows, the plants covered me completely. In another minute or two the men's huts were set fire to, and then I could hear a great tramping, as of horses and cattle going away in the distance. They had not all gone, for I could hear voices all night, and Indians were moving about everywhere, in search of any one who might have escaped. They came close to me several times, and I feared that they would tread on me. After a time all became quiet; but I dared not move till daylight. Then, looking about carefully, I could see no one, and I jumped up, and never stopped running until you met me.'
Mr. Hardy now went up to the house, to break the sad tidings to his wife. Charley ordered eight peons to saddle horses instantly, and, while they were doing so, he wrote on eight leaves of his pocket-book: 'The Mercers' house destroyed last night by Indians; the Mercers killed or carried off. My sister Ethel with them. For God's sake, join us to recover them. Meet at Mercer's as soon as possible. Send this note round to all neighbours.'
One of these slips of paper was given to each peon, and they were told to ride for their lives in different directions, for that Miss Ethel was carried off by the Indians.
This was the first intimation of the tidings that had arrived, and a perfect chorus of lamentation arose from the women, and of execrations of rage from the men. Just at this moment Terence came running down from the house. 'Is it true, Mister Charles? Sarah says that the mistress and Miss Maud are gone quite out of their minds, and that Miss Ethel has been killed by the Indians!'
'Killed or carried away, Terence; we do not know which yet.'
Terence was a warm-hearted fellow, and he set up a yell of lamentation which drowned the sobs and curses of the natives.
'Hush, Terence,' Charley said. 'We shall have time to cry for her afterwards: we must be doing now.'
'I will, Mister Charles; but you will let me go with you to search for her. Won't you, now, Mister Charles?'
'Yes, Terence; I will take you with us, and leave Lopez in charge. Send him here.'
Lopez was close. He, too, was really affected at the loss of his young mistress; for Ethel, by her unvarying sweetness of temper, was a favourite with every one.
'Lopez, you will remain here in charge. We may be away two days—we may be away twenty. I know I can trust you to look after the place just as if we were here.'
The capitaz bowed with his hand on his heart. Even the peasants of South America preserve the grand manner and graceful carriage of their Spanish ancestors. 'And now, Lopez, do you know of any of the Guachos in this part of the country who have ever lived with the Indians, and know their country at all?'
'Martinez, one of the shepherds at Canterbury, Signor Charles, was with them for seven months; and Perez, one of Signor Jamieson's men, was longer still.'
Charles at once wrote notes asking that Perez and Martinez might accompany the expedition, and despatched them by mounted peons.
'And now, Lopez, what amount of charqui have we in store?'
'A good stock, Signor; enough for fifty men for a fortnight.'
Charqui is meat dried in the sun. In hot climates meat cannot be kept for many hours in its natural state. When a bullock is killed, therefore, all the meat which is not required for immediate use is cut up into thin strips, and hung up in the sun to dry. After this process it is hard and strong, and by no means palatable; but it will keep for many months, and is the general food of the people. In large establishments it is usual to kill several animals at once, so as to lay in sufficient store of charqui to last for some time.
'Terence, go up to the house and see what biscuit there is. Lopez, get our horses saddled, and one for Terence,—a good one,—and give them a feed of maize. Now, Hubert, let us go up to the house, and get our carbines and pistols.'
Mr. Hardy came out to meet them as they approached. 'How are mamma and Maud, papa?'
'More quiet and composed now, boys. They have both gone to lie down. Maud wanted sadly to go with us, but she gave way directly I pointed out to her that her duty was to remain here by her mother's side. And now, Charley, what arrangements have you made?'
Charley told his father what he had done.
'That is right. And now we will be off at once. Give Terence orders to bring on the meat and biscuit in an hour's time. Let him load a couple of horses, and bring a man with him to bring them back.'
'Shall we bring any rockets, papa?'
'It is not likely that they will be of any use, Hubert; but we may as well take three or four of each sort. Roll up a poncho, boys, and fasten it on your saddles. Put plenty of ammunition in your bags; see your brandy flasks are full, and put out half a dozen bottles to go with Terence. There are six pounds of tobacco in the storeroom; let him bring them all. Hubert, take our water-skins; and look in the storeroom,—there are three or four spare skins; give them to Terence: some of our friends may not have thought of bringing theirs, and the country may, for ought we know, be badly watered. And tell him to bring a dozen coloured blankets with him.'
In a few minutes all these things were attended to, and then, just as they were going out of the house, Sarah came up, her face swollen with crying.
'Won't you take a cup of tea and just something to eat, sir? You've had nothing yet, and you will want it. It is all ready in the dining-room.'
'Thank you, Sarah. You are right. Come, boys, try and make a good breakfast. We must keep up our hearts, you know, and we will bring our little woman back ere long.'
Mr. Hardy spoke more cheerfully, and the boys soon, too, felt their spirits rising a little. The bustle of making preparations, the prospect of the perilous adventure before them, and the thought that they should assuredly, sooner or later, come up with the Indians, all combined to give them hope. Mr. Hardy had little fear of finding the body of his child under the ruins of the Mercers' house. The Indians never deliberately kill white women, always carrying them off; and Mr. Hardy felt confident that, unless Ethel had been accidentally killed in the assault, this was the fate which had befallen her.
A hasty meal was swallowed, and then, just as they were starting, Mrs. Hardy and Maud came out to say 'Good-bye,' and an affecting scene occurred. Mr. Hardy and the boys kept up as well as they could, in order to inspire the mother and sister with hope during their absence, and with many promises to bring their missing one back, they galloped off.
They were scarcely out of the gate, when they saw their two friends from Canterbury coming along at full gallop. Both were armed to the teeth, and evidently prepared for an expedition. They wrung the hands of Mr. Hardy and his sons.
'We ordered our horses the moment we got your note, and ate our breakfast as they were being got ready. We made a lot of copies of your note, and sent off half a dozen men in various directions with them. Then we came on at once. Of course most of the others cannot arrive for some time yet, but we were too anxious to hear all about it to delay, and we thought that we might catch you before you started, to aid you in your first search. Have you any more certain news than you sent us?'
'None,' Mr. Hardy said, and then repeated the relation of the survivor.
There was a pause when he had finished, and then Mr. Herries said:
'Well, Mr. Hardy, I need not tell you, if our dear little Ethel is alive, we will follow you till we find her, if we are a year about it.'
'Thanks, thanks,' Mr. Hardy said earnestly. 'I feel a conviction that we shall yet recover her.'
During this conversation they had been galloping rapidly towards the scene of the catastrophe, and, absorbed in their thoughts, not another word was spoken until they gained the first rise, from which they had been accustomed to see the pleasant house of the Mercers. An exclamation of rage and sorrow burst from them all, as only a portion of the chimney and a charred post or two showed where it had stood. The huts of the peons had also disappeared; the young trees and shrubs round the house were scorched up and burnt by the heat to which they had been exposed, or had been broken off from the spirit of wanton mischief.
With clenched teeth, and faces pale with rage and anxiety, the party rode on past the site of the huts, scattered round which were the bodies of several of the murdered peons. They halted not until they drew rein, and leapt off in front of the house itself.
It had been built entirely of wood, and only the stumps of the corner posts remained erect. The sun had so thoroughly dried the boards of which it was constructed, that it had burnt like so much tinder, and the quantity of ashes that remained was very small. Here and there, however, were uneven heaps; and in perfect silence, but with a sensation of overpowering dread, Mr. Hardy and his friends tied up their horses, and proceeded to examine these heaps, to see if they were formed by the remains of human beings.
Very carefully they turned them over, and as they did so, their knowledge of the arrangements of the different rooms helped them to identify the various articles. Here was a bed, there a box of closely-packed linen, of which only the outer part was burnt, the interior bursting into flames as they turned it over; here was the storeroom, with its heaps of half-burnt flour where the sacks had stood.
In half an hour they were able to say with tolerable certainty that no human beings had been burnt, for the bodies could not have been wholly consumed in such a speedy conflagration.
Perhaps they have all been taken prisoners, Hubert suggested, as with a sigh of relief they concluded their search, and turned from the spot.
Mr. Hardy shook his head. He was too well acquainted with the habits of the Indians to think such a thing possible. Just at this moment, Dash, who had followed them unnoticed during their ride, and who had been ranging about uneasily while they had been occupied by the search, set up a piteous howling. All started and looked round. The dog was standing by the edge of the ditch which had been dug outside the fence. Its head was raised high in air, and he was giving vent to prolonged and mournful howls.
All felt that the terrible secret was there. The boys turned ghastly pale, and they felt that not for worlds could they approach to examine the dreadful mystery. Mr. Hardy was almost as much affected.
Mr. Herries looked at his friend, and then said gravely to Mr. Hardy, 'Do you wait here, Mr. Hardy; we will go on.'
As the friends left them the boys turned away, and leaning against their horses, covered their eyes with their hands. They dared not look round. Mr. Hardy stood still for a minute, but the agony of suspense was too great for him. He started off at a run, came up to his friends, and with them hurried on to the fence.
Not as yet could they see into the ditch. At ordinary times the fence would have been an awkward place to climb over; now they hardly knew how they scrambled over, and stood by the side of the ditch. They looked down, and Mr. Hardy gave a short, gasping cry, and caught at the fence for support.
Huddled together in the ditch was a pile of dead bodies, and among them peeped out a piece of a female dress. Anxious to relieve their friend's agonizing suspense, the young men leaped down into the ditch, and began removing the upper bodies from the ghastly pile.
First were the two men employed in the house; then came Mr. Mercer; then the two children and an old woman-servant; below them were the bodies of Mrs. Mercer and her brother. There were no more. Ethel was not amongst them.
When first he had heard of the massacre, Mr. Hardy had said, 'Better dead than carried off;' but the relief to his feelings was so great as the last body was turned over, and that it was evident that the child was not there, that he would have fallen had not Mr. Herries hastened to climb up and support him, at the same time crying out to the boys, 'She is not here.'
Charley and Hubert turned towards each other, and burst into tears of thankfulness and joy. The suspense had been almost too much for them, and Hubert felt so sick and faint that he was forced to lie down for a while, while Charley went forward to the others. He was terribly shocked at the discovery of the murder of the entire party, as they had cherished the hope that Mrs. Mercer at least would have been carried off. As, however, she had been murdered, while it was pretty evident that Ethel had been spared, or her body would have been found with the others, it was supposed that poor Mrs. Mercer had been shot accidentally, perhaps in the endeavour to save her children.
The bodies were now taken from the ditch, and laid side by side until the other settlers should arrive. It was not long before they began to assemble, riding up in little groups of twos and threes. Rage and indignation were upon all their faces at the sight of the devastated house, and their feelings were redoubled when they found that the whole of the family, who were so justly liked and esteemed, were dead. The Edwards and the Jamiesons were among the earliest arrivals, bringing the Guacho Martinez with them. Perez, too, shortly after arrived from Canterbury, he having been out on the farm when his master left.
Although all these events have taken some time to relate, it was still early in the day. The news had arrived at six, and the messengers were sent off half an hour later. The Hardys had set out before eight, and had reached the scene of the catastrophe in half an hour. It was nine o'clock when the bodies were found, and half an hour after this friends began to assemble. By ten o'clock a dozen more had arrived, and several more could be seen in the distance coming along at full gallop to the spot.
'I think,' Mr. Hardy said, 'that we had better employ ourselves, until the others arrive, in burying the remains of our poor friends.'
There was a general murmur of assent, and all separated to look for tools. Two or three spades were found thrown down in the garden, where a party had been at work the other day. And then all looked to Mr. Hardy.
'I think,' he said, 'we cannot do better than lay them where their house stood. The place will never be the site of another habitation. Any one who may buy the property, would choose another place for his house than the scene of this awful tragedy. The gate once locked, the fence will keep out animals for very many years.'