A grave was accordingly dug in the centre of the space once occupied by the house. In this the bodies of Mr. Mercer and his family were laid. And Mr. Hardy having solemnly pronounced such parts of the burial service as he remembered over them, all standing by bareheaded, and stern with suppressed sorrow, the earth was filled in over the spot where a father, mother, brother, and two children lay together. Another grave was at the same time dug near, and in this the bodies of the three servants, whose remains had been found with the others were laid.
By this time it was eleven o'clock, and the number of those present had reached twenty. The greater portion of them were English, but there were also three Germans, a Frenchman, and four Guachos, all accustomed to Indian warfare.
'How long do you think it will be before all who intend to come can join us?' Mr. Hardy asked.
There was a pause; then one of the Jamiesons said:
'Judging by the time your message reached us, you must have sent off before seven. Most of us, on the receipt of the message, forwarded it by fresh messengers on farther; but of course some delay occurred in so doing, especially as many of us may probably have been out on the plains when the message arrived. The persons to whom we sent might also have been out. Our friends who would be likely to obey the summons at once, all live within fifteen miles or so. That makes thirty miles, going and returning. Allowing for the loss of time I have mentioned, we should allow five hours. That would bring it on to twelve o'clock.'
There was a general murmur of assent.
'In that case,' Mr. Hardy said, 'I propose that we eat a meal as hearty as we can before starting. Charley, tell Terence to bring the horses with the provisions here.'
The animals were now brought up, and Mr. Hardy found that, in addition to the charqui and biscuit, Mrs. Hardy had sent a large supply of cold meat which happened to be in the larder, some bread, a large stock of tea and sugar, a kettle, and some tin mugs.
The cold meat and bread afforded an ample meal, which was much needed by those who had come away without breakfast.
By twelve o'clock six more had arrived, the last comer being Mr. Percy. Each new comer was filled with rage and horror upon hearing of the awful tragedy which had been enacted.
At twelve o'clock exactly Mr. Hardy rose to his feet 'My friends,' he said, 'I thank you all for so promptly answering to my summons. I need say no words to excite your indignation at the massacre that has taken place here. You know, too, that my child has been carried away. I intend, with my sons and my friends from Canterbury, going in search of her into the Indian country. My first object is to secure her, my second to avenge my murdered friends. A heavy lesson, too, given the Indians in their own country, will teach them that they cannot with impunity commit their depredations upon us. Unless such a lesson is given, a life on the plains will become so dangerous that we must give up our settlements. At the same time, I do not conceal from you that the expedition is a most dangerous one. We are entering a country of which we know nothing. The Indians are extremely numerous, and are daily becoming better armed. The time we may be away is altogether vague; for if it is a year, I do not return until I have found my child. I know that there is not a man here who would not gladly help to rescue Ethel,—not one who does not long to avenge our murdered friends. At the same time, some of you have ties, wives and children, whom you may not consider yourselves justified in leaving, even upon an occasion like this. Some of you, I know, will accompany me; but if any one feels any doubts, from the reasons I have stated,—if any one considers that he has no right to run this tremendous risk,—let him say so at once, and I shall respect his feelings, and my friendship and goodwill will in no way be diminished.'
As Mr. Hardy ceased, his eye wandered round the circle of stalwart-looking figures around him, and rested upon the Jamiesons. No one answered for a moment, and then the elder of the brothers spoke,—
'Mr. Hardy, it was right and kind of you to say that any who might elect to stay behind would not forfeit your respect and esteem, but I for one say that he would deservedly forfeit his own. We have all known and esteemed the Mercers. We have all known, and I may say, loved you and your family. From you we have one and all received very great kindness and the warmest hospitality. We all know and love the dear child who has been carried away; and I say that he who stays behind is unworthy of the name of a man. For myself and brother, I say that if we fall in this expedition,—if we never set eyes upon our wives again,—we shall die satisfied that we have only done our duty. We are with you to the death.'
A loud and general cheer broke from the whole party as the usually quiet Scotchman thus energetically expressed himself. And each man in turn came up to Mr. Hardy and grasped his hand, saying, 'Yours till death.'
Mr. Hardy was too much affected to reply for a short time; then he briefly but heartily expressed his thanks. After which he went on: 'Now to business. I have here about three hundred pounds of charqui. Let every man take ten pounds, as nearly as he can guess. There are also two pounds of biscuit a man. The tea, sugar, and tobacco, the kettle, and eighty pounds of meat, I will put on to a spare horse, which Terence will lead. If it is well packed, the animal will be able to travel as quickly as we can.'
There was a general muster round the provisions. Each man took his allotted share. The remainder was packed in two bundles, and secured firmly upon either side of the spare horse; the tobacco, sugar, and tea being enveloped in a hide, and placed securely between them, and the kettle placed at the top of all. Then, mounting their horses, the troop sallied out; and, as Mr. Hardy watched them start, he felt that in fair fight by day they could hold their own against ten times their number of Indians.
Each man, with the exception of the young Hardys, who had their Colt's carbines, had a long rifle; in addition to which all had pistols,—most of them having revolvers, the use of which, since the Hardys had first tried them with such deadly effect upon the Pampas, had become very general among the English settlers. Nearly all were young, with the deep sunburnt hue gained by exposure on the plains. Every man had his poncho,—a sort of native blanket, used either as a cloak or for sleeping in at will,—rolled up before him on his saddle. It would have been difficult to find a more serviceable-looking set of men; and the expression of their faces, as they took their last look at the grave of the Mercers, boded very ill for any Indian who might fall into their clutches.
THE PAMPAS ON FIRE.
The party started at a canter,—the pace which they knew their horses would be able to keep up for the longest time,—breaking every half hour or so into a walk for ten minutes, to give them breathing time. All were well mounted on strong, serviceable animals; but these had not in all cases been bought specially for speed, as had those of the Hardys. It was evident that the chase would be a long one. The Indians had twelve hours' start; they were much lighter men than the whites, and carried less additional weight. Their horses, therefore, could travel as fast and as far as those of their pursuers. The sheep would, it is true, be an encumbrance; the cattle could scarcely be termed so; and it was probable that the first day they would make a journey of fifty or sixty miles, travelling at a moderate pace only, as they would know that no instant pursuit could take place. Indeed, their strength, which the peon had estimated at five hundred men, would render them to a certain extent careless, as upon an open plain the charge of this number of men would sweep away any force which could be collected short of obtaining a strong body of troops from Rosario.
For the next two days it was probable that they would make as long and speedy journeys as the animals could accomplish. After that, being well in their own country, they would cease to travel rapidly, as no pursuit had ever been attempted in former instances.
There was no difficulty in following the track. Mr. Mercer had possessed nearly a thousand cattle and five thousand sheep, and the ground was trampled in a broad, unmistakeable line. Once or twice Mr. Hardy consulted his compass. The trail ran south-west by west.
There was not much talking. The whole party were too impressed with the terrible scene they had witnessed, and the tremendously hazardous nature of the enterprise they had undertaken, to indulge in general conversation. Gradually, however, the steady rapid motion, the sense of strength and reliance in themselves and each other, lessened the sombre expression, and a general talk began, mostly upon Indian fights, in which most of the older settlers had at one time or other taken a part.
Mr. Hardy took a part in and encouraged this conversation. He knew how necessary, in an expedition of this sort, it was to keep up the spirits of all engaged; and he endeavoured, therefore, to shake off his own heavy weight of care, and to give animation and life to them all.
The spirits of the younger men rose rapidly, and insensibly the pace was increased, until Mr. Hardy, as leader of the party, was compelled to recall to them the necessity of saving their animals, many of which had already come from ten to fifteen miles before arriving at the rendezvous at the Mercers'.
After three hours' steady riding, they arrived at the banks of a small stream. There Mr. Hardy called a halt, for the purpose of resting the animals.
'I think,' he said, 'that we must have done five-and-twenty miles. We will give them an hour's rest, and then do another fifteen. Some of them have already done forty, and it will not do to knock them up the first day.'
Girths were loosened, and the horses were at work cropping the sweet grass near the water's edge. The whole party threw themselves down on a sloping bank, pipes were taken out and lit, and the probable direction of the chase discussed.
In a short time Charley rose, and saying, 'I will see if I can get anything better than dried meat for supper,' exchanged his rifle for Mr. Hardy's double-barrelled gun, which was carried by Terence, and whistling for the retriever, strolled off up the stream. In ten minutes the double-barrels were heard at a short distance, and a quarter of an hour afterwards again, but this time faintly. Ten minutes before the hour was up he appeared, wiping the perspiration from his face, with seven and a half brace of plump duck.
'They were all killed in four shots,' he said, as he threw them down. 'They were asleep in the pools, and I let fly right into the middle of them before they heard me.'
There was a general feeling of satisfaction at the sight of the birds, which were tied in couples, and fastened on the horses.
In two minutes more they were again in the saddles, Hubert saying to his father as they started, 'There is one satisfaction, papa, we can't miss the way. We have only to ride far enough, and we must overtake them.'
Mr. Hardy shook his head. He knew enough of Indian warfare to be certain that every artifice and manoeuvre would have to be looked for and baffled; for even when believing themselves safe from pursuit, Indians never neglect to take every possible precaution against it.
After riding for two hours longer, Mr. Hardy consulted the Guachos if there were any stream near, but they said that it would be at least two hours' riding before they reached another, and that that was a very uncertain supply. Mr. Hardy therefore decided to halt at once, as the men knew this part of the plain thoroughly, from hunting ostriches on it, and from frequent expeditions in search of strayed cattle. They had all lived and hunted at one time or another with the Indians. Many of the Guachos take up their abode permanently with the Indians, being adopted as members of the tribe, and living and dressing like the Indians themselves. These visits are generally undertaken to avoid the consequences of some little difficulty,—a man killed in a gambling quarrel, or for rivalry in love. Sometimes they make their peace again, satisfy the blood-relations with a bull, secure absolution readily enough by confession and a gift of a small sum to the Church, and return to their former life; but as often as not they remain with the Indians, and even attain to the rank of noted chiefs among them.
The men who accompanied the expedition were all of the former class. All had taken to the Pampas to escape the consequences of some crime or other, but had grown perfectly sick of it, and had returned to civilised life. In point of morals they were not, perhaps, desirable companions; but they were all brave enough, thoroughly knew the country farther inland, and, if not enthusiastic in the adventure, were yet willing enough to follow their respective masters, and ready to fight for their lives upon occasion.
Just as they halted, Mr. Herries thought that he caught sight of some deer a short way ahead. He therefore started at once for a stalk, several of the others going off in other directions. Mr. Herries proceeded very cautiously, and the wind being fortunately towards him, he was enabled to creep up tolerably close. The animals, which are extremely shy, had, however, an idea that danger was about before he could get within a fair shot. As he knew that they would be off in another instant, he at once practised a trick which he had often found to be successful.
He threw himself on his back, pulled a red handkerchief from his neck, tied it to one of his boots so as to let it float freely in the air, and then threw up both legs in the form of a letter V. Then he began moving them slowly about, waving them to and fro. The deer, which were upon the point of flight, paused to gaze at this strange object; then they began to move in a circle, their looks still directed at this unknown thing, to which they gradually kept approaching as they moved round it. At last they were fairly in shot, and Herries, whose legs were beginning to be very weary, sprang to his feet, and in another instant the foremost of the deer lay quivering in death.
Taking it upon his shoulders, he proceeded to the camp, where his arrival was hailed with acclamation. A fire was already alight, made of grass and turf, the former being pulled up in handfuls by the roots, and making a fierce but short-lived blaze. A large quantity had been collected at hand, and the ducks were already cut up. Half a one was handed to each; for every man is his own cook upon the Pampas.
The other hunters shortly returned, bringing in another of the little deer; for the stag of the Pampas is of small size. They were speedily skinned by the Guachos, and cut up, and all the party were now engaged in roasting duck and venison steaks on their steel ramrods over the fire.
When all were satisfied, a double handful of tea was thrown into the kettle, which was already boiling, pipes were lighted, and a general feeling of comfort experienced. The horses had been picketed close at hand, each man having cut or pulled a heap of grass and placed it before his beast; beside which, the picket ropes allowed each horse to crop the grass growing in a small circle, of which he was the centre.
Mr. Hardy chatted apart for some time with the Guachos, anxious to know as much as possible of the country into which he was entering. The others chatted and told stories. Presently Mr. Hardy joined again in the general conversation, and then, during a pause, said, 'Although, my friends, I consider it most improbable that any Indians are in the neighbourhood, still it is just possible that they may have remained, on purpose to fall at night upon any party who might venture to pursue. At any rate, it is right to begin our work in a business-like way. I therefore propose that we keep watches regularly. It is now nine o'clock. We shall be moving by five: that will make four watches of two hours each. I should say that three men in a watch, stationed at fifty yards from the camp upon different sides, would suffice.'
There was a general assent to the proposal.
'To save trouble,' Mr. Hardy went on, 'I suggest that we keep watch in the alphabetical order of our names. Twelve of us will be on to-night, and the next twelve to-morrow night.'
The proposal was at once agreed to; and the three who were first on duty at once rose, and, taking their rifles, went off in various directions, first agreeing that one of them should give a single whistle as a signal that the watch was up, and that two whistles close together would be a warning to retreat at once towards the centre.
The watch also ascertained which were the next three men to be roused, and these and the succeeding watches agreed to lie next to each other, in order that they might be roused without awakening their companions.
In a few minutes there was a general unrolling of ponchos, and soon afterwards only sleeping figures could be seen by the dim light of the smouldering fire. Mr. Hardy, indeed, was the only one of the party who did not fall to sleep. Thoughts of the events of the last twenty-four hours, of the best course to be adopted, and of the heavy responsibility upon himself as leader of this perilous expedition, prevented him from sleeping. He heard the watch return, rouse the relief, and lay down in their places. In another half hour he himself rose, and walked out towards the sentry.
It was a young man named Cook, one of the new settlers to the east of Mount Pleasant. 'Is that you, Mr. Hardy?' he asked, as he approached. 'I was just coming in to wake you.'
'What is it, Mr. Cook?'
'It strikes me, sir, that there is a strange light away to the south-west. I have only noticed it the last few minutes, and thought it was fancy, but it gets more distinct every minute.'
Mr. Hardy looked out anxiously into the gloom, and quickly perceived the appearance that his friend alluded to.
For a minute or two he did not speak, and then, as the light evidently increased, he said almost with a groan, 'It is what I feared they would do: they have set the prairie on fire. You need not keep watch any longer. We are as much separated from the Indians as if the ocean divided us.'
Cook gave the two short whistles agreed upon to recall the other men on guard, and then returned with Mr. Hardy to the rest of the party. Then Mr. Hardy roused all his companions. Every man leapt up, rifle in hand, believing that the Indians were approaching.
'We must be up and doing,' Mr. Hardy said cheerfully; 'the Indians have fired the Pampas.'
There was a thrill of apprehension in the bosom of many present, who had heard terrible accounts of prairie fires, but this speedily subsided at the calm manner of Mr. Hardy.
'The fire,' he said, 'may be ten miles away yet. I should say that it was, but it is difficult to judge, for this grass does not flame very high, and the smoke drifts between it and us. The wind, fortunately, is light, but it will be here in little over half an hour. Now, let the four Guachos attend to the horses, to see they do not stampede. The rest form a line a couple of yards apart, and pull up the grass by the roots, throwing it behind them, so as to leave the ground clear. The wider we can make it the better.'
All fell to work with hearty zeal. Looking over their shoulders, the sky now appeared on fire. Flickering tongues of flame seemed to struggle upwards. There was an occasional sound of feet, as herds of deer flew by before the danger.
'How far will it go, papa, do you think?' Hubert asked his father, next to whom he was at work.
'I should say that it would most likely stop at the stream where we halted to-day, Hubert. The ground was wet and boggy for some distance on the other side.'
The horses were now getting very restive, and there was a momentary pause from work to wrap ponchos round their heads, so as to prevent their seeing the glare.
The fire could not have been more than three miles distant, when the space cleared was as wide as Mr. Hardy deemed necessary for safety. A regular noise, something between a hiss and a roar, was plainly audible; and when the wind lifted the smoke, the flames could be seen running along in an unbroken wall of fire. Birds flew past over head with terrified cries, and a close, hot smell of burning was very plainly distinguishable.
Starting about half way along the side of the cleared piece of ground, Mr. Hardy set the dry grass alight. For a moment or two it burned slowly, and then, fanned by the wind, it gained force, and spread in a semicircle of flame.
The horses were already unpicketed, and half of the party held them at a short distance in the rear, while the rest stood in readiness to extinguish the fire if it crossed the cleared space.
Over and over again the fire crept partially across,—for the clearing had been done but roughly,—but it was speedily stamped out by the heavy boots of the watchers.
The spectacle, as the fire swept away before the wind, was fine in the extreme. The party seemed enclosed between two walls of fire. The main conflagration was now fearfully close, burning flakes were already falling amongst them, and the sound of the fire was like the hiss of the surf upon a pebbly beach.
'Now,' Mr. Hardy said, 'forward with the horses. Every one to his own animal. Put your ponchos over your own heads as well as your horses'.'
In another minute the party stood clustered upon the black and smoking ground which the fire they had kindled had swept clear. There, for five minutes, they remained without moving, unscorched by the raging element around them, but half-choked with the smoke.
Then Mr. Hardy spoke: 'It is over now. You can look up.'
There was a general expression of astonishment as the heads emerged from their wrappers, and the eyes recovered sufficiently from the effects of the blinding smoke to look round. Where had the fire gone? Where, indeed! The main conflagration had swept by them, had divided in two when it reached the ground already burnt, and these columns, growing farther and farther asunder as the newly-kindled fire had widened, were already far away to the right and left, while beyond and between them was the fire that they themselves had kindled, now two miles wide, and already far in the distance.
These fires in the Pampas, although they frequently extend over a vast tract of country, are seldom fatal to life. The grass rarely attains a height exceeding three feet, and burns out almost like so much cotton. A man on horseback, having no other method of escape, can, by blindfolding his horse and wrapping his own face in a poncho, ride fearlessly through the wall of fire without damage to horse or rider.
It was only, therefore, the young hands who had felt any uneasiness at the sight of the fire; for the settlers were in the habit of regularly setting fire to the grass upon their farms every year before the rains, as the grass afterwards springs up fresh and green for the animals. Care has to be taken to choose a calm day, when the flames can be confined within bounds; but instances have occurred when fires so commenced have proved most disastrous, destroying many thousands of animals.
'There is nothing to do but to remain where we are until morning,' Mr. Hardy said. 'The horses had better be picketed, and then those who can had better get a few hours more sleep. We shall want no more watch to-night.' In a few minutes most of the party were again asleep; and the young Hardys were about to follow their example, when Mr. Hardy came up to them and said quietly, 'Come this way, boys; we are going to have a council.'
The boys followed their father to where some eight or nine men were sitting down at a short distance from the sleepers, and these the boys made out, by the glow from their pipes, to consist of Herries and Farquhar, the two Jamiesons, Mr. Percy, and the four Guachos.
'This is a terribly bad business,' Mr. Hardy began, when he and his sons had taken their seats on the ground. 'I expected it, but it is a heavy blow nevertheless.'
'Why, what is the matter, papa?' the boys exclaimed anxiously. 'Have we lost anything?'
'Yes, boys,' Mr. Hardy said; 'we have lost what is at this moment the most important thing in the world,—we have lost the trail.'
Charley and Hubert uttered a simultaneous exclamation of dismay as the truth flashed across their minds. 'The trail was lost!' They had never thought of this. In the excitement of the fire, it had never once occurred to them that the flames were wiping out every trace of the Indian track.
Mr. Hardy then went on, addressing himself to the others: 'Of course this fire was lit with the especial intent of throwing us off the scent. Have you any idea how far it is likely to have come?' he asked the Guachos. 'That is, are you aware of the existence of any wide stream or damp ground which would have checked it, and which must therefore be the farthest boundary of the fire?'
The Guachos were silent a minute; then Perez said, 'The next stream is fifteen miles farther; but it is small, and would not stop the fire going with the wind. Beyond that there is no certain stream, as far as I know of.'
'The ground rises, and the grass gets thinner and poorer thirty miles or so on. I should say that they would light it this side of that,' Martinez said. The other Guachos nodded assent.
'We took the bearings of the track by our compass,' Farquhar said. 'Could we not follow it on by compass across the burnt ground, and hit it upon the other side?'
Mr. Percy and Mr. Hardy both shook their heads. 'I do not pretend to say where the trail is gone,' the former said, 'but the one place where I am quite sure it is not, is on the continuation of the present line.'
'No,' Mr. Hardy continued. 'As you say, Percy, there it certainly is not. The Indians, when they got to some place which is probably about half across the burnt ground, turned either to the right or left, and travelled steadily in that direction, sending one or two of their number in the old direction to light the grass, so as to sweep away all trace of the trail. They may have gone to the right or to the left, or may even have doubled back and passed us again at only a few miles' distance. We have no clue whatever to guide us at present, except the certainty that, sooner or later, the Indians will make for their own camping-ground. That is the exact state of the affair.' And Mr. Hardy repeated what he had just said in Spanish to the Guachos, who nodded assent.
'And in which direction do the Guachos believe that their camping-ground lies?' Mr. Jamieson asked after a pause; 'because it appears to me that it is a waste of time to look for the trail, and that our only plan is to push straight on to their villages, which we may reach before they get there. And in that case, if we found them unguarded, we might seize all their women, and hold them as hostages until they return. Then we could exchange them for Ethel; and when we had once got her, we could fight our way back.'
'Capital, capital!' the other English exclaimed. 'Don't you think so, papa?' Hubert added, seeing that Mr. Hardy did not join in the general approval.
'The plan is an admirably conceived one, but there is a great difficulty in the way. I observed yesterday that the trail did not lead due south, as it should have done if the Indians were going straight back to their camping-ground. I questioned the Guachos, and they all agree with me on the subject. The trail is too westerly for the camping-grounds of the Pampas Indians; too far to the south for the country of the Flat-faces of the Sierras. I fear that there is a combination of the two tribes, as there was in the attack upon us, and that they went the first day in the direction which would be most advantageous for both; and that, on reaching their halting-place,—perhaps twenty or thirty miles from here,—they made a division of their booty, and each tribe drew off towards its own hunting-grounds. In this case we have first to find the two trails, then to decide the terrible question, which party have taken Ethel?'
Again the Guachos, upon this being translated to them, expressed their perfect accordance with Mr. Hardy's views, and some surprise at his ideas having been so identical with their own upon the subject.
As for the six young men, they were too dismayed at the unexpected difficulties which had started up in their way to give any opinion whatever. This uncertainty was terrible, and all felt that it would have a most depressing effect upon themselves and upon the whole expedition; for how could they tell, after journeying for hundreds of miles, whether every step might not take them farther from the object of their search?
In this state of depression they remained for some minutes, when Perez the Guacho said, in his broken English, 'Most tribe take most plunder, most cattle, most sheep,—take girl.'
'Well thought of, Perez!' Mr. Hardy exclaimed warmly. 'That is the clue for us, sure enough. As you say, the tribe who has furnished most men will, as a matter of course, take a larger share of the booty; and Ethel, being the only captive, would naturally go to the strongest tribe.'
The rest were all delighted at this solution of a difficulty which had before appeared insuperable, and the most lively satisfaction was manifested.
The plans for the day were then discussed. Propositions were made that they should divide into two parties, and go one to the right and the other to the left until they arrived at unburnt ground, the edge of which they should follow until they met. This scheme was, however, given up, as neither party would have seen the trail inspected by the other, and no opinion could therefore be formed as to the respective magnitude of the parties who had passed,—a matter requiring the most careful examination and comparison, and an accurate and practised judgment.
It was finally resolved, therefore, to keep in a body, and to proceed, in the first place, to search for the trail of the party to the south. A calculation was made, upon the supposition that the Indians had travelled for another twenty-five miles upon their old course, and then separated, each party making directly for home. To avoid all mistakes, and to allow for a detour, it was determined to shape a direct course to a point considerably to the east of that given by the calculation, to follow the edge of the burnt ground until the trail was arrived at, and then to cut straight across, in order to find and examine the trail of the western Indians.
As this conclusion was arrived at, the first dawn of light appeared in the east, and Mr. Hardy at once roused the sleepers.
He then gave them a brief account of the conclusions to which he had arrived in the night, and of his reason for so doing. There was a general expression of agreement, then the girths were tightened, and in five minutes the troop was in motion.
How great was the change since the preceding evening! Then, as far as the eye could reach stretched a plain of waving grass. Birds had called to their mates, coveys of game had risen at their approach; deer had been seen bounding away in the distance; ostriches had gazed for an instant at the unusual sight of man, and had gone off with their heads forward and their wings out-stretched before the wind.
Now, the eye wandered over a plain of dingy black, unbroken by a single prominence, undisturbed by living creatures except themselves. As Hubert remarked to his father, 'It looked as if it had been snowing black all night.'
Both men and horses were anxious to get over these dreary plains, and the pace was faster, and the halts less frequent, than they had been the day before.
It was fortunate that the fire had not taken place at an earlier hour of the evening, as the horses would have been weakened by want of food. As it was, they had had five hours to feed after their arrival.
Both men and horses, however, suffered much from thirst; and the former had good reason to congratulate themselves on having filled every water-skin at the first halting-place of the preceding day. Clouds of black impalpable dust rose as they rode along. The eyes, mouth, and nostrils were filled with it, and they were literally as black as the ground over which they rode.
Twice they stopped and drank, and sparingly washed out the nostrils and mouths of the horses, which was a great relief to them, for they suffered as much as did their masters, as also did Dash, who, owing to his head being so near the ground, was almost suffocated; indeed, Hubert at last dismounted, and took the poor animal up on to the saddle before him.
At last, after four hours' steady riding, a gleam of colour was seen in the distance, and in another quarter of an hour they reached the unburnt plains, which, worn and parched as they were, looked refreshing indeed after the dreary waste over which they had passed.
The Guachos, after a consultation among themselves, agreed in the opinion that the little stream of which they had spoken was but a short distance farther, and that, although the channel might be dry, pools would no doubt be found in it. It was determined, therefore, to push on, and half an hour's riding by the edge of the burnt grass brought them to the spot, when, following the course of the channel, they soon came to a pool, from which men and horses took a long drink.
At their approach an immense number of wild-duck rose, and, as soon as the horses were picketed, Charley again started with the gun, taking Terence with him to assist in bringing home the birds. They soon heard his gun, and Terence presently returned with six brace of ducks and a goose, and a request that another man would go back with him, for that the birds were so abundant, and so apparently stupified from flying over the smoke and flame, that he could bring in any quantity.
One of the Jamiesons and Herries therefore went out, and returned in less than an hour with Charley, bringing between them four more geese and eighteen brace of ducks.
Charley was greeted with a round of applause, and was soon at work with his friends upon the meal which was now ready.
After breakfast there was a comparison of opinion, and it was at last generally agreed that they had ridden nearly forty miles since daybreak, and that they could not be far from the spot where the Indians ought to have passed if they had kept the direction as calculated. It was also agreed that it would be better to let the horses remain where they were till late in the afternoon, when they might accomplish another fifteen miles or so.
Mr. Hardy then proposed that those who were inclined should accompany him on a walk along the edge of the burnt ground. 'We cannot be very far off from the trail,' he said, 'if our calculations are correct; and if we can find and examine it before it is time to start, we may be able to-night to cross to the other side, and thus gain some hours.'
Herries, Farquhar, the two Jamiesons, Cook, and the young Hardys at once volunteered for the walk, and, shouldering their rifles, started at a steady pace.
They had not walked much over a mile, when a shout of pleasure broke from them, as, upon ascending a slight rise, they saw in the hollow below them the broad line of trampled grass, which showed that a large body of animals had lately passed along. All hurried forward, and a close and anxious examination took place.
Opinions differed a good deal as to the number that had passed; nor, accustomed as they all were to seeing the tracks made by herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, could they come to any approximate agreement on the subject. Had the number been smaller, the task would have been easier; but it is a question requiring extreme knowledge and judgment to decide whether four hundred cattle and two thousand sheep, or six hundred cattle and three thousand sheep, have passed over a piece of ground.
Mr. Hardy at last sent Charley back, accompanied by Mr. Cook, to request Mr. Percy to come on at once with the Guachos to give their opinion. Charley and his companions were to remain with the horses, and were to request those not specially sent for to stay there also, as it would be imprudent in the extreme to leave the horses without a strong guard.
Pending the arrival of Mr. Percy, Mr. Hardy and his friends followed up the trail for some distance, so as to examine it both in the soft bottoms and on the rises. They returned in half an hour to their starting-place, and were shortly after joined by Mr. Percy and the Guachos. Again a careful and prolonged examination took place, and a tolerably unanimous opinion was at last arrived at, that a very large number of animals had passed, apparently the larger half, but that no positive opinion could be arrived at until a comparison was made with the trail on the western side.
Although this conclusion was arrived at unanimously, it appeared to be reluctantly conceded to by most of them, and the reason of this became apparent as they were walking back towards the horses. 'I have little doubt that the conclusion we have arrived at is correct,' Herries remarked, 'although somehow I am sorry for it; for ever since our talk last night I have made up my mind that she was most likely to be taken to the west. I suppose because the Indians there are more warlike than those of the Pampas, and therefore likely to have furnished a larger contingent. Of course I had no reason for thinking so, but so it was.'
'That was just what I thought,' Hubert said; and the other Englishmen admitted that they had all entertained a somewhat similar idea.
At four in the afternoon they were again in the saddle, having taken the precaution of filling their water-skins, and of watering the horses the last thing.
'How far do you think it is across, papa?' Hubert asked.
'It cannot be very far, Hubert. We are so much nearer the place where the fire began, that I do not think it can have spread more than ten miles or so across.'
Mr. Hardy's conjecture proved to be correct. An hour and a half's riding brought them to the other side of the burnt prairie, striking a point which they felt sure was to the south of the place where the trail would have left it.
As they had done more than fifty miles since the morning, and the horses were much distressed with the effect of the dust, it was resolved to encamp at once. The horses received a little water, and were picketed out to graze. The fire was soon lit, and the ducks cut up and spitted upon the ramrods.
All were so much exhausted with the heat, the ashes, the fatigue, and the want of sleep of the previous night, that, the tea and pipes finished, and the watch posted, the rest laid down to sleep before the sun had been an hour below the horizon.
All rose at daybreak, refreshed with their quiet night's rest, and were soon in the saddle and on their way northward.
They had nearly an hour's ride before they came upon the trail.
There it was unmistakeably,—at first sight as broad and as much trampled as the other; but, after a careful examination of it, there was but one opinion, namely, that the number of animals who had passed was decidedly less than those who had gone south.
One of the Guachos now told Mr. Hardy that he knew that at a short distance further to the west there was a spring of water much used by the Indians, and where he had no doubt they had halted on the night of the fire. Finding that it was not more than half an hour's ride, Mr. Hardy, after a brief consultation, determined to go over there to water the horses and breakfast, before retracing their footsteps across the burnt prairie.
In little over the time named they came to a small pool of bright water, from which a little stream issued, running nearly due north across the plain. After drinking heartily themselves, and filling the water-skins and kettle, the horses were allowed to drink; and Dash plunged in with the greatest delight, emerging his usual bright chestnut colour, whereas he had gone into the water perfectly black.
After he had come out and had shaken himself, he commenced hunting about, sniffing so violently that Hubert's attention was attracted to him. Presently the dog ran forward a few paces and gave a sharp bark of pleasure, and Hubert running forward, gave so loud a cry that all the party rushed up.
Hubert could not speak. There, half buried in the ground, and pointing west, was an Indian arrow, and round the head was twisted a piece of white calico, with little blue spots upon it, which Mr. Hardy instantly recognised as a piece of the dress Ethel had worn when she left home.
Surprise kept all quiet for a while, and then exclamations of pleasure and excitement broke from all, while Mr. Hardy and his sons were greatly affected at this proof of the recent presence of their lost one.
The arrow was deeply sunk in the ground, but it was placed at a spot where the grass happened to be particularly short, so that any one passing outward from the spring could hardly have failed to notice the piece of calico upon the grass.
There was a perfect shower of congratulations; and it was some time before they were recovered sufficiently to renew their preparations for breakfast.
At last they sat down round the fire, all their faces radiant with excitement.
Perez and Martinez, however, sat somewhat apart, talking in an animated undertone to each other. They did not even approach the fire to roast their food; and Mr. Hardy's attention being attracted by this circumstance, he asked what they were talking so earnestly about.
Neither of them answered him, and he repeated the question. Then Perez replied: 'Martinez and I think same. All trick; girl gone other way.'
Conversation and eating were alike suspended at these ominous words, and each looked blankly into the others' faces.
Now that their attention was called to it, the whole circumstances of the case rushed to their minds; and as they felt the probable truth of what Perez said, their hopes fell to zero.
Mr. Percy was the first who, after a long silence, spoke. 'I am afraid, Hardy, that what Perez says is right, and that we have been very nearly thrown off the scent by a most transparent trick. Watched as Ethel must have been, is it probable that she could have possessed herself of that arrow, and have fastened a strip of her dress to it, without being noticed? Still more impossible is it that she could have placed the arrow where we found it. No one could have passed without noticing it; so, unless we suppose that she was allowed to linger behind every one, which is out of the question, the arrow could not have been put there by her.'
'Too true, Percy,' Mr. Hardy said with a sigh, after a short silence; 'it is altogether impossible, and I should call it a clumsy artifice, were it not that it deceived us all for a while. However, there is one comfort; it decides the question as we had ourselves decided it: Ethel is gone with the larger party to the south.'
Breakfast was continued, but with a very subdued feeling. Hubert had now finished his, and, being a lad of restless habit, he took up the arrow which lay beside him, and began toying with it.
First he untied the piece of stuff, smoothed it, and put it into his pocket-book, while his eyes filled with tears; then he continued listlessly twisting the arrow in his fingers, while he listened to the conversation around him.
Presently his eyes fell upon the arrow. He started, a flush of excitement rushed across his face, and his hands and lips trembled as he closely examined the feather.
All gazed at him with astonishment.
'Oh, papa, papa,' he cried at last, 'I know this arrow!'
'Know the arrow!' all repeated.
'Yes, I am quite, quite sure I know it. Don't you remember, Charley, the day that those wounded Indians started, as we were taking the quivers down to them, I noticed that one arrow had two feathers which I had never seen before, and could not guess what bird they came from. They were light blue, with a crimson tip. I pulled one off to compare it with my others. It is at home now. I remember that I chose the one I did, because the other one had two of the little side feathers gone. This is the feather, I can most solemnly declare, and you see the fellow one is gone. That arrow belongs to one of the men we recovered.'
All crowded round to examine the arrow, and then Mr. Hardy said solemnly, 'Thank God for His mercy, He has decided our way now. Undoubtedly, as Hubert says, one of the men we aided is of the party, and wishes to show his gratitude. So he has managed to get a piece of Ethel's dress, and has tied it to this arrow, hoping that we should recognise the feather. Thank God, there is no more doubt, and thank Him, too, that Ethel has at least one friend near her.'
All was now joy and congratulation, and Hubert rubbed his hands, and said triumphantly, 'There, Charley, you were always chaffing me, and wanting to know what was the good of my collection, and now you see what was the good. It has put us on the right trail for Ethel, and you will never be able to laugh at me about my collection again.'
AT THE STAKE.
It was on the evening of the fifth day after her capture by the Indians, that Ethel Hardy rode into a wide valley in the heart of the mountains. It was entered by a narrow gorge, through which ran a stream. Beyond this the hill receded, forming a nearly circular basin a mile in diameter, from the sides of which the rocks ascended almost perpendicularly, so that the only means of entering it was through the gorge. Clumps of trees were scattered everywhere about, and nearly in the centre stood a large Indian village, numbering about three hundred lodges, the population of which, consisting almost entirely of women and children, came out with shrill cries of welcome to meet the returning band. This was two hundred strong. Before them they drove about four hundred cattle and fifteen hundred sheep. In the midst of the band Ethel Hardy rode, apparently unwatched, and forming part of it.
The girl was very pale, and turned even more so at the wild yells of triumph which rose around her, when those who had been left behind learned how signal had been the success of their warriors, and heard that the captive in their midst was one of the family which had inflicted such terrible loss upon the tribe two years previously. Fortunately she could not understand the volleys of threats and curses which the women of the tribe heaped upon her, although she could not mistake their furious ejaculations.
Ethel had cried at first until she could cry no more, and had now nerved herself for the worst. She had heard that the Indians have neither mercy nor pity for any one who may exhibit fear of death; she knew that no entreaties or tears would move them in the slightest, but that courage and firmness would at any rate command their respect and admiration. She had therefore schooled herself to show no emotion when the time came; and now, except that she had given an involuntary shudder at the sight of the gesticulating throng, she betrayed no sign whatever of her emotion, but looked round so calmly and unflinchingly, that the violent abuse and gesticulations died away in a murmur of admiration of the pale-faced child who looked so calmly on death.
Nevertheless, as the troop drew up in front of the council hut, and alighted, the women pressed round as usual to heap abuse upon the prisoner; but one of the Indians stepped up to her, and waved them back, and saying, 'She is the child of a great chief,' took her by the arm, and handed her over to the care of the wife of one of the principal chiefs. The selection was a good one; for the woman, who was young, was known in the tribe as the Fawn for her gentle disposition. She at once led the captive away to her lodge, where she bade her sit down, offered her food, and spoke kindly to her in her low, soft, Indian tongue. Ethel could not understand her, but the kindly tones moved her more than the threats of the crowd outside had done, and she broke down in a torrent of tears.
The Indian woman drew the girl to her as a mother might have done, stroked her long fair hair, and soothed her with her low talk. Then she motioned to a pile of skins in the corner of the hut; and when Ethel gladly threw herself down upon them, the Indian woman covered her up as she would have done a child, and with a nod of farewell tripped off to welcome her husband and hear the news, knowing that there was no possibility of the captive making her escape.
Exhausted with fatigue and emotion, Ethel's sobs soon ceased, and she fell into a sound sleep.
Of that terrible catastrophe at the Mercers' she had but a confused idea. They were sitting round the table talking, when, without the slightest notice or warning, the windows and doors were burst in, and dozens of dark forms leapt into the room. She saw Mr. Mercer rush to the wall and seize his pistols, and then she saw no more. She was seized and thrown over the shoulder of an Indian before she had time to do more than leap to her feet. There was a confused whirl of sounds around her,—shrieks, threats, pistol shots, and savage yells,—then the sounds swam in her ears, and she fainted.
When she recovered consciousness, she found that she was being carried on a horse before her captor, and that the air was full of a red glare, which she supposed to arise from a burning house. On the chief, who carried her, perceiving that she had recovered her senses, he called to one of his followers, who immediately rode up, bringing a horse upon which a sidesaddle had been placed. To this Ethel was transposed, and in another minute was galloping along by the side of her captor.
Even now she could hardly persuade herself that she was not dreaming. That instantaneous scene at the Mercers',—those confused sounds,—this wild cavalcade of dark figures who rode round her,—could not surely be real. Alas! she could not doubt it; and as the thought came across her, What would they say at home when they heard it? she burst into an agony of silent tears. Towards daybreak she was often startled to hear the words, 'Hope, Ethel, hope!' in Spanish distinctly spoken close to her. She turned hastily, but there rode the dark forms as usual. Still, she felt sure that she was not mistaken. Her own name she had distinctly heard; and although she could not form a conjecture who this unknown friend could be, still it was a great consolation to her to feel that she had at any rate one well-wisher among her enemies. He had told her to hope, too; and Ethel's spirits, with the elasticity of youth, rose at the word.
Why should she not hope? she thought. They were sure to hear it at home next morning, even if no one escaped and took them the news earlier; and she was certain that within a few hours of hearing it her father and friends would be on their trail. Before the night fell, at latest, they would be assembled. Twenty-four hours' start would be the utmost that the Indians could possibly obtain, and her friends would travel as fast or faster than they could, for they would be free from all encumbrances. How far she was to be taken she could not say, but she felt sure that in a week's travelling her friends would make up for the day lost at starting. She knew that they might not be able to attack the Indians directly they came up, for they could not be a very strong party, whereas the Indians were several hundreds strong; but she believed that sooner or later, in some way or other, her father and brothers would come to her rescue. Ethel from that time forward did not doubt for a moment. Trusting thus firmly in her friends, she gained confidence and courage; and when the troops halted at nine in the morning, after nine hours' riding, Ethel was able to look round with some sort of curiosity and interest.
It was here that an incident occurred, which, although she knew it not at the time, entirely altered her destination and prospects.
She was sitting upon the ground, when a man, who by his bearing appeared to be the principal chief present, passed in earnest talk with another chief. In the latter she recognised at once one of the wounded Indian prisoners.
'Tawaina,' she said, leaping to her feet.
He paid no attention to her call, and she repeated it in a louder tone.
The principal chief stopped; Tawaina did the same. Then he walked slowly towards the captive.
'Save me, Tawaina,' she said, 'and send me back again home.'
Tawaina shook his head.
'Not can,' he said. 'Tawaina friend. Help some time,—not now.' And he turned away again.
'Does the Raven know the White Bird,' the chief asked him, 'that she sings his name?'
Tawaina paused and said,—
'Tawaina knows her. Her father is the great white brave.'
The Indian chief gave a bound of astonishment and pleasure.
'The white brave with the shooting flames?'
The Raven's meeting with Ethel had been apparently accidental, but was in reality intentional. Her actual captor was one of the chiefs, although not the principal one, of the Pampas Indians; and in the division of the spoil, preparations for which were going on, there was no doubt that she would be assigned to that tribe, without any question upon the part of the Raven's people.
Now, however, that the Stag knew who the prisoner was, he determined to obtain her for his tribe. He therefore went direct to the chief of the Pampas Indians, and asked that the white girl might fall to his tribe.
The chief hesitated.
'She is our only captive,' he said. 'The people will like to see her, and she will live in the lodge of the Fox, who carried her off.'
'The Stag would like her for a slave to his wife. He will give fifty bullocks and two hundred sheep to the tribe, and will make the Fox's heart glad with a present.'
The offer appeared so large for a mere puny girl, that the chief assented at once; and the Fox was content to take a gun, which proved part of the spoil, for his interest in his captive.
The Indians of the Stag's tribe murmured to themselves at this costly bargain upon the part of their chief. However, they expressed nothing of this before him, and continued the work of counting and separating the animals in proportion to the number of each tribe present,—the tribes from the plains being considerably the more numerous.
Not until four o'clock were they again in motion, when each tribe started direct for home.
In three hours' riding they reached the spring, and then the Stag ordered a small tent of skins to be erected for Ethel's accommodation.
From this she came out an hour later to gaze upon the great wave of fire which, kindled at a point far away by their scouts, now swept along northward, passing at a distance of three or four miles from the spring.
It was when sitting gravely round the fire later on, that the Stag deigned to enlighten his followers as to his reasons for giving what seemed to them so great a price for a pale-faced child.
The delight of the Indians, when they found that they had the daughter of their twice victorious enemy in their hands, was unbounded. Vengeance is to the Indian even more precious than plunder; and the tribe would not have grudged a far higher price even than had been paid for the gratification of thus avenging themselves upon their enemy. The news flew from mouth to mouth, and triumphant whoops resounded throughout the camp; and Ethel inside her tent felt her blood run cold at the savage exultation which they conveyed.
She was greatly troubled by the fire, for she saw that it must efface all signs of the trail, and render the task of her friends long and difficult, and she felt greatly depressed at what she looked upon as a certain postponement of her rescue. She lay thinking over all this for a long time, until the camp had subsided into perfect quiet. Then the skins were slightly lifted near her head, and she heard a voice whisper,—
'Me, Tawaina,—friend. Great chief come to look for girl. Two trails,—eyes blinded. Tawaina make sign,—point way. Give piece dress that great chief may believe.'
Ethel at once understood. She cautiously tore off a narrow strip from the bottom of her dress, and put it under the skin to the speaker.
'Good,' he said. 'Tawaina friend. Ethel, hope.'
Greatly relieved by knowing that a clue would be now given to her friends, and overpowered by fatigue, Ethel was very shortly fast asleep.
At daybreak they set off again, having thus thirty hours' start of their pursuers. They travelled six hours, rested from eleven till three, and then travelled again until dark. Occasionally a sheep lagged behind, footsore and weary. He was instantly killed and cut up.
For four days was their rate of travelling, which amounted to upwards of fifty miles a day, continued, and they arrived, as has been said, the last evening at their village.
During all this time Ethel was treated with courtesy and respect. The best portion of the food was put aside for her, the little tent of skins was always erected at night, and no apparent watch was kept over her movements.
The next morning she was awake early, and, had it not been for the terrible situation in which she was placed, she would have been amused by the busy stir in the village, and by the little copper-coloured urchins at play, or going out with the women to collect wood or fetch water. There was nothing to prevent Ethel from going out among them, but the looks of scowling hatred which they cast at her made her draw back again into the hut, after a long anxious look around.
It was relief at least to have halted, great as her danger undoubtedly was. She felt certain now that hour by hour her father must be approaching. He might even now be within a few miles. Had it not been for the fire, she was certain that he would already have been up, but she could not tell how long he might have been before he recovered the trail.
Towards the middle of the day two or three Indians might have been seen going through the village, summoning those whose position and rank entitled them to a place at the council.
Soon they were seen approaching, and taking their seats gravely on the ground in front of the hut of the principal chief. The women, the youths, and such men as had not as yet by their feats in battle distinguished themselves sufficiently to be summoned to the council, assembled at a short distance off. The council sat in the form of a circle, the inner ring being formed of the elder and leading men of the tribe, while the warriors sat round them.
Struck by the hush which had suddenly succeeded to the noise of the village, Ethel again went to the door. She was greatly struck by the scene, and was looking wonderingly at it, when she felt a touch on her shoulder, and on looking round saw the Fawn gazing pityingly at her, and at the same time signing to her to come in.
The truth at once flashed across Ethel's mind. The council had met to decide her fate, and she did not doubt for a moment what that decision would be. She felt that all hope was over, and, retiring into the hut, passed the time in prayer and in preparation for the fearful ordeal which was at hand.
After the council had met, there was a pause of expectation, and the Stag then rose.
'My brothers, my heart is very glad. The Great Spirit has ceased to frown upon his children. Twice we went out, and twice returned empty-handed, while many of our lodges were empty. The guns which shoot without loading were too strong for us, and we returned sorrowful. Last year we did not go out; the hearts of our braves were heavy. This year, we said perhaps the Great Spirit will no longer be angry with his children, and we went out. This time we have not returned empty-handed. The lowing of cattle is in my ear, and I see many sheep. The white men have felt the strength of our arms; and of the young men who went out with me there is not one missing. Best of all, we have brought back a captive, the daughter of the white chief of the flying fires and the guns which load themselves. Let me hand her over to our women; they will know how to make her cry; and we will send her head to the white chief, to show that his guns cannot reach to the Indian country. Have I spoken well?'
A murmur of assent followed the chief's speech; and supposing that no more would be said upon the matter, the Stag was about to declare the council closed, when an Indian sitting in the inner circle rose.
'My brothers, I will tell you a story. The birds once went out to attack the nest of an eagle, but the eagle was too strong for them; and when all had gone, he went out from his nest with his children, the young eagles, and he found the raven and two other birds hurt and unable to fly, and instead of killing them, as they might have done, the eagles took them up to their nest, and nursed them and tended them until they were able to fly, and then sent them home to their other birds. So was it with Tawaina and his two friends.' And the speaker indicated with his arm two Indians sitting at the outer edge of the circle. 'Tawaina fell at the fence where so many of us fell, and in the morning the white men took him and gave him water, and placed him in shelter, and bandaged his wound; and the little White Bird and her sister brought him food and cool drinks every day, and looked pitifully at him. But Tawaina said to himself, The white men are only curing Tawaina, that when the time comes they may see how an Indian can die. But when he was well, they brought horses, and put a bow and arrows into our hands, and bade us go free. It is only in the battle that the great white chief is terrible. He has a great heart. The enemies he killed he did not triumph over. He laid them in a great grave. He honoured them, and planted trees with drooping leaves at their head and at their feet, and put a fence round that the foxes might not touch their bones. Shall the Indian be less generous than the white man? Even those taken in battle they spared and sent home. Shall we kill the White Bird captured in her nest? My brothers will not do so. They will send back the White Bird to the great white chief. Have I spoken well?'
This time a confused murmur ran round the circle. Some of the younger men were struck with this appeal to their generosity, and were in favour of the Raven's proposition; the elder and more ferocious Indians were altogether opposed to it.
Speaker succeeded speaker, some urging one side of the question, some the other.
At last the Stag again rose. 'My brothers,' he said, 'my ears have heard strange words, and my spirit is troubled. The Raven has told us of the ways of the whites after a battle; but the Indians' ways are not as the whites' ways, and the Stag is too old to learn new fashions. He looks round, he sees many lodges empty, he sees many women who have no husband to hunt game, he hears the voices of children who cry for meat. He remembers his brothers who fell before the flying fire and the guns which loaded themselves, and his eyes are full of blood. The great white chief has made many wigwams desolate: let there be mourning in the house of the white chief. Have I spoken well?'
The acclamations which followed this speech were so loud and general that the party of the Raven was silenced, and the council at once broke up.
A cry of exultation broke from the women when they heard the decision, and all prepared for the work of vengeance before them.
At a signal from the Stag, two of the young Indians went to the hut and summoned Ethel to accompany them. She guessed at once that her death was decided upon, and, pale as marble, but uttering no cry or entreaty, which she knew would be useless, she walked between them.
For a moment she glanced at the women around her, to see if there was one look of pity or interest; but faces distorted with hate and exultation met her eyes, and threats and imprecations assailed her ears. The sight, though it appalled, yet nerved her with courage. A pitying look would have melted her,—this rage against one so helpless as herself nerved her; and, with her eyes turned upwards and her lips moving in prayer, she kept along.
The Indians led her to a tree opposite the centre of the village, bound her securely to it, and then retired.
There was a pause before the tragedy was to begin. Some of the women brought faggots for the pile, others cut splinters to thrust under the nails and into the flesh. The old women chattered and exulted over the tortures they would inflict; a few of the younger ones stood aloof, looking on pityingly.
The men of the tribe gathered in a circle, but took no part in the preparations,—the torture of women was beneath them.
At last all was ready. A fire was lit near; the hags lit their firebrands and advanced. The chief gave the signal, and with a yell of exultation they rushed upon their victim, but fell back with a cry of surprise, rudely thrust off by three Indians who placed themselves before the captive.
The women retreated hastily, and the men advanced to know the reason of this strange interruption. The Raven and his companions were unarmed. The Indians frowned upon them, uncertain what course to pursue.
'My brothers,' the Raven said, 'I am come to die. The Raven's time is come. He has flown his last flight. He and his brothers will die with the little White Bird. The Raven and his friends are not dogs. They have shed their blood against their enemies, and they do not know how to cry out. But their time has come, they are ready to die. But they must die before the little White Bird. If not, her spirit will fly to the Great Spirit, and will tell him that the Raven and his friends, whom she had sheltered and rescued, had helped to kill her; and the Great Spirit would shut the gates of the happy hunting-grounds against them. The Raven has spoken.'
There was a pause of extreme astonishment, followed by a clamour of voices. Those who had before espoused the cause of the Raven again spoke out loudly, while many of the others hesitated as to the course to be pursued.
The Stag hastily consulted with two or three of his principal advisers, and then moved forward, waving his hand to command silence. His countenance was calm and unmoved, although inwardly he was boiling with rage at this defiance of his authority. He was too politic a chief, however, to show this. He knew that the great majority of the tribe was with him; yet the employment of force to drag the Raven and his companions from their post would probably create a division in the tribe, the final results of which none could see, and for the consequences of which he would, in case of any reverse, be held responsible and looked upon with disapproval by both parties.
'The Raven and his friends have great hearts,' he said courteously. 'They are large enough to shelter the little White Bird. Let them take her. Her life is spared. She shall remain with our tribe.'
The Raven inclined his head, and, taking a knife from a warrior near, he cut the cords which bound Ethel, and, beckoning to the Fawn, handed the astonished girl again into her charge, saying as he did so, 'Stop in hut. Not go out; go out, bad.' And then, accompanied by his friends, he retired without a word to one of their huts.
A perfect stillness had hung over the crowd during this scene; but when it became known that Ethel was to go off unscathed, a murmur broke out from the elder females, disappointed in their work of vengeance. But the Stag waved his hand peremptorily, and the crowd scattered silently to their huts, to talk over the unusual scene that had taken place.
The Raven and his friends talked long and earnestly together. They were in no way deceived by the appearance of friendliness which the Stag had assumed. They knew that henceforth there was bitter hatred between them, and that their very lives were insecure. As to Ethel, it was, they knew, only a short reprieve which had been granted her. The Stag would not risk a division in the tribe for her sake, nor would attempt to bring her to a formal execution; but the first time she wandered from the hut, she would be found dead with a knife in her heart.
The Raven, however, felt certain that help was at hand. He and his friends, who knew Mr. Hardy, were alone of the tribe convinced that a pursuit would be attempted. The fact that no such attempt to penetrate into the heart of the Indian country had ever been made, had lulled the rest into a feeling of absolute security. The Raven, indeed, calculated that the pursuers must now be close at hand, and that either on that night or the next they would probably enter the gorge and make the attack.
The result of the council was that he left his friends and walked in a leisurely way back to his own hut, taking no notice of the hostile glances which some of the more violent of the Stag's supporters cast towards him.
On his entrance he was welcomed by his wife, a young girl whom he had only married since his return from the expedition, and to whom, from what he had learned of the position of women among the whites, he allowed more freedom of speech and action than are usually permitted to Indian women. She had been one of the small group who had pitied the white girl.
'The Raven is a great chief,' she said proudly; 'he has done well. The Mouse trembled, but she was glad to see her lord stand forth. The Stag will strike, though,' she added anxiously. 'He will look for the blood of the Raven.'
'The Stag is a great beast,' the Indian said sententiously; 'but the Raven eat him at last.'
Then, sitting down upon a pile of skins, the chief filled his pipe, and made signs to his wife to bring fire. Then he smoked in silence for some time until the sun went down, and a thick darkness closed over the valley.
At length he got up, and said to his wife, 'If they ask for the Raven, say that he has just gone out; nothing more. He will not return till daybreak; and remember,' and he laid his hand upon her arm to impress the caution, 'whatever noise the Mouse hears in the night, she is not to leave the hut till the Raven comes back to her.'
The girl bowed her head with an Indian woman's unquestioning obedience; and then, drawing aside the skin which served as a door, and listening attentively to hear if any one were near, the Raven went out silently into the darkness.
In spite of their utmost efforts, Mr. Hardy's party had made slower progress than they had anticipated. Many of the horses had broken down under fatigue; and as they had no spare horses to replace them, as the Indians had in like case done from those they had driven off from Mr. Mercer, they were forced to travel far more slowly than at first. They gained upon the Indians, however, as they could tell by the position of the camping-ground for the night.
At three o'clock on the afternoon of the last day they passed the place their enemy had left that morning; but although they kept on until long after sunset, many of them having led their horses all day, they were still more than thirty miles away from the mountains among which they knew that the Indian village was situated.
None of the Guachos had ever been there, but they knew its situation and general features by report. There had been no difficulty in following the trail since they had struck it. The broad line of trodden ground, and the frequent carcases of sheep, sufficiently told the tale.
That was a night of terrible anxiety to all. They knew that already Ethel was in the Indian village, and they thought with a sickening dread of what might happen the next day. Nothing, however, could be done. Many of the party were already exhausted by their long day's walk under a burning sun. It was altogether impossible to reach the village that night.
Before lying down for the night, Mr. Hardy asked all the party to join in a prayer for the preservation of his daughter during the following day; and it was a strange and impressing sight to see the group of sunburnt, travel-worn men standing uncovered while their leader offered up an earnest prayer.
Mr. Hardy then said for that night it was unnecessary to keep watch as usual. The Indians had pushed on, and could no longer dread pursuit, and therefore there was no risk of a night attack. Besides which, there was little chance of his sleeping. This proposition was a most acceptable one, and in a very short time a perfect silence reigned in the camp.
Before daybreak they were again on the march, all on foot and leading their horses, in order to spare them as much as possible should they be required at night. Speed was now no object. It was, they knew, hopeless to attack in broad daylight, as the Indians would be probably more than a match for them, and Ethel's life would be inevitably sacrificed. They walked, therefore, until within six or seven miles of the gorge, nearer than which they dared not go, lest they might be seen by any straggling Indian.
Their halting-place was determined by finding a stream with an abundance of fresh grass on its banks. They dared not light a fire, but chewed some of the tough charqui, and watched the distant cleft in the hills which led to the ardently wished-for goal.
As evening fell they were all in the saddle, and were pleased to find that the horses were decidedly fresher for their rest. They did not draw rein until the ground became stony, and they knew that they must be at the mouth of the gorge. Then they dismounted and picketed the horses. Two of the Guachos were stationed with them as guards, and the rest went stealthily forward,—the rockets being entrusted to the care of Terence, who fastened them tightly together with a cord, and then hung them by a loop, like a gun, over his shoulder, in order that he might have his hands free.
It was still only eight o'clock,—dangerously early for a surprise; but the whole party were quite agreed to risk everything, as no one could say in what position Ethel might be placed, and what difference an hour might make. Their plan was to steal quietly up to the first hut they found, to gag its inmates, and compel one of them, under a threat of instant death, to guide them to the hut in which Ethel was placed.
Suddenly Mr. Hardy was startled by a dark figure rising from a rock against which he had almost stumbled, with the words, 'White man good. Tawaina friend. Come to take him to child.'
Then followed a few hurried questions; and no words can express the delight and gratitude of Mr. Hardy and his sons, and the intense satisfaction of the others, on finding that Ethel was alive, and for the present free from danger.
It was agreed to wait now for two hours, to give time for the Indians to retire to rest; and while they waited, the Raven told them all that had happened up to the arrival at the village, passing over the last day's proceedings by saying briefly that Ethel had run a great risk of being put to death, but that a delay had been obtained by her friends. Having told his story, he said, 'Tawaina friend to great white chief. Gave signal with arrow; save little White Bird to-day. But Tawaina Indian,—not like see Indian killed. White chief promise not kill Indian women and children?'
Mr. Hardy assured the Indian that they had no thought of killing women and children.
'If can take little White Bird without waking village, not kill men?' Tawaina asked again.
'We do not want to wake the village if we can help it, Tawaina; but I do not see any chance of escaping without a fight. Our horses are all dead beat, and the Indians will easily overtake us, even if we get a night's start.'
'Mustn't go out on plain,' the Raven said earnestly. 'If go out on plain, all killed. Indian two hundred and fifty braves,—eat up white men on plain.'
'I am afraid that is true enough, Tawaina, though we shall prove very tough morsels. Still we should fight at a fearful disadvantage in the open. But what are we to do?'
'Come back to mouth of Canon,—hold that; can keep Indians off as long as like. Indians have to make peace.'
'Capital!' Mr. Hardy said delightedly; for he had reviewed the position with great apprehension, as he had not seen how it would be possible to make good their retreat on their tired horses in the teeth of the Indians. 'The very thing! As you say, we can hold the gorge for a month if necessary, and, sooner or later, they will be sick of it, and agree to let us retreat in quiet. Besides, a week's rest would set our horses up again, and then we could make our retreat in spite of them.'
'One more thing,' the Raven said. 'When great chief got little White Bird safe, Tawaina go away,—not fight one way, not fight other way. When meet again, white chief not talk about to-night. Not great Indian know Tawaina white chief's friend.'
'You can rely upon us all, Tawaina. They shall never learn from us of your share in this affair. And now I think that it is time for us to be moving forward. It will be past ten o'clock before we are there.'
Very quietly the troop crept along, Tawaina leading the way, until he approached closely to the village. Here they halted for a moment.
'Only six of us will go in,' Mr. Hardy said; 'there will be less chance of detection,—Jamieson, Percy, Herries, my boys, and myself. The others take post close to the hut we see ahead. If you find that we are discovered, be in readiness to support us. And Farquhar, two or three of you get matches ready, and stick a blue-light into the straw roof of the hut. We must have light, or we lose all the advantage of our firearms. Besides, as we retreat we shall be in darkness, while they will be in the glare.'
Thus speaking, Mr. Hardy followed his guide, the men he had selected treading cautiously in his rear. Presently they stopped before one of the huts, and pointing to the door, Tawaina said, 'Little White Bird there;' and then gliding away, he was lost in the darkness.
Mr. Hardy cautiously pushed aside the skin and entered, followed by his friends. It was perfectly dark, and they stood for a moment uncertain what to do. Then they heard a low voice saying, 'Papa, is that you?' while at the same instant they saw a gleam of light in the other corner of the tent, and heard a rustling noise, and they knew that an Indian had cut a slit in the hide walls and had escaped; and as Mr. Hardy pressed his child to his heart, a terrific war-whoop rose on the air behind the hut.
'Come,' Mr. Hardy said, 'keep together, and make a run of it.'
Ethel had laid down without taking off even her shoes, so strong had been her hope of her father's arrival. She was therefore no impediment to the speed of their retreat. For a short distance they were unopposed.
The Indians, indeed, rushed from their huts like swarms of bees disturbed by an intruder. Ignorant of the nature of the danger, and unable to see its cause, all was for a minute wild confusion; and then, guided by the war-whoop of the Indian who had given the alarm, all hurried toward the spot, and as they did so, several saw the little party of whites. Loud whoops gave the intimation of this discovery, and a rush towards them was made.
'Now, your revolvers,' Mr. Hardy said. 'We are nearly out of the village.'
Not as yet, however, were the Indians gathered thickly enough to stop them. A few who attempted to throw themselves in the way were instantly shot down, and in less time than it has occupied to read this description they reached the end of the village. As they did so, a bright flame shot up from the farthest hut, and the rest of the party rushed out and joined them.
The Indians in pursuit paused at seeing this fresh accession of strength to their enemies, and then, as they were joined by large numbers, and the flame shooting up brightly enabled them to see how small was the body of whites, they rushed forward again with fierce yells.
But the whites were by this time a hundred and fifty yards away, and were already disappearing in the gloom.
'Stop!' Mr. Hardy cried. 'Steady with your rifles! Each man single out an Indian. Fire!'
A yell of rage broke from the Indians as fourteen or fifteen of their number fell, and a momentary pause took place again. And then, as they were again reinforced, they continued the pursuit.
But the two hundred yards which the whites had gained was a long start in the half a mile's distance to be traversed, and the whites well knew that they were running for their lives; for once surrounded in the plain, their case was hopeless.
Well was it, then, that Ethel was so accustomed to an out-of-door life. Hope and fear lent speed to her feet, and running between her father and brothers, she was able to keep up a speed equal to their own.
Scarce a word was spoken, as with clenched teeth and beating hearts they dashed along. Only once Mr. Jamieson said, 'Can Ethel keep up?' and she gasped out 'Yes.'
The whites had this great advantage in the race, that they knew that they had only half a mile in all to run, and therefore put out their best speed; whereas, although a few of the Indians saw the importance of overtaking the fugitives on the plain, the greater portion believed that their prey was safe in their hands, and made no great effort to close with them at once. The whites, too, had the advantage of being accustomed to walking exercise, whereas the Indians, almost living on horseback, are seldom in the habit of using their feet. Consequently the whites reached the narrow mouth of the gorge a full hundred and fifty yards ahead of the main body of the pursuers, although a party of their fastest runners was not more than half that distance in their rear.
There was a general ejaculation of thankfulness as the parties now halted and turned to face the enemy.
It was now that the full advantage of Mr. Hardy's precaution of firing the Indian hut had become manifest.
The fire had communicated to the next two or three dwellings, and a broad flame rose up, against the glare of which the Indians stood out distinctly, while the whites were posted in deep gloom.
'Now, boys,' Mr. Hardy said, 'pick off the first lot with your carbines, while we load our rifles. Ethel, get behind that rock. Take shelter all till the last moment. The arrows will soon be amongst us.'
Steadily as if firing at a mark the boys discharged their five shots each; and as the enemy was not more than fifty yards off, every shot told.
The rest of the leading band hesitated, and throwing themselves down, waited until the others came up. There was a momentary pause, then a volley of arrows and musket balls was discharged in the direction of their hidden foe, and then, with a wild yell, the whole mass charged.
Not till they were within thirty yards was there a return shot fired; but as they entered the narrow gorge, the whites leapt to their feet with a cheer, and poured in a volley from twenty-four rifles.
The effect was terrible; and those in front who were unwounded hesitated, but, pressed on from behind, they again rushed forward. Then, as they closed, a desperate combat began.