A Mexican or South American cattle-herd is, therefore, always a mounted man. There is a difference, too, among the bulls in different parts of these countries. On the Llanos of Venezuela they are not so fierce as those of the Puna, and they are more and less so in different parts of Mexico and the Pampas of Buenos Ayres.
The Puna bulls are, perhaps, the fiercest and most dangerous of all. They are more than half wild. They scarcely ever see a human being, and they will attack one upon sight. To a mounted man there is little danger, unless by the stumbling or falling of his horse; but many a poor Indian, crossing these high plains afoot, has fallen a sacrifice to these vengeful brutes.
Both Don Pablo and Guapo knew all this, and therefore were aware of their own danger. Neither had a weapon—not so much as a stick. They had laid aside their knives and other arms, which had been carried inside the hut. To reach the hut before the bull reached them would be impossible; the brute was coming nearly from it—for he had issued from some shelter in the rocks not far off. They were full two hundred yards out upon the plain, and to run in the direction of the rocks would have been to run counter to the bull, and meet him face to face! Their danger was imminent. What was to be done?
There was not much time left them for consideration. The furious animal was within thirty paces distance, roaring loudly, shaking his head and brandishing his long sharp horns. At this moment a happy thought occurred almost simultaneously to Don Pablo and the Indian. The evening, as we have already said, was piercing cold, and both, in going out to collect the fuel, had worn their ponchos.
The trick of the matador with his red cloak suggested itself in this moment of peril. Both had seen it performed—Don Pablo often—and knew something of the "way." In a moment both had stripped the ponchos from their shoulders, and, placing themselves a la matador, awaited the onset of the bull. It was agreed that as soon as the bull was "hooded" by either, that both should run at all speed to the rocks, where they could easily climb out of reach of the animal.
Don Pablo happened to be more in the way, and perhaps his more showy poncho attracted the brute; but whether or not, he was the first to receive the charge. With the adroitness of a practised matador he flung his poncho on the horns of the animal, and then both ran in the direction of the rocks. As they faced towards the hut, however, to the horror of Don Pablo he saw the Dona Isidora, with Leon and the little Leona, all outside, and even at some distance from the entrance! Attracted by the bellowing of the bull and the shouts of the men, they had rushed out of the hut.
Don Pablo, in wild accents, shouted to them to make for the door; but, paralysed by terror, they were for some moments unable to move. At length Dona Isidora, recovering herself, ran for the entrance, pushing the children before her. But the low doorway was difficult of access; they were slow in getting under it; and they would have been too late, as the bull, after shaking off the poncho, had turned and made directly for the hut.
"O God, preserve her!" cried Don Pablo, as he saw the enraged animal within a few paces of where his wife had knelt to enter the doorway. "She is lost! she is lost!"
In fact, the bull was making directly towards her, and it seemed as if nothing could then have interposed to save her.
At that moment the tramp of a horse in full gallop sounded on their ears. Don Pablo looked up. A strange horseman was near the spot—an Indian. Over his head a singular instrument was revolving. There were three thongs fastened at one end, while at the other end of each was a ball. These balls were whirling and gyrating in the air. The next moment both thongs and balls were seen to part from the hands of the rider, and wrap themselves around the legs of the bull. The latter made an awkward spring forward, and then fell upon the plain, where he lay kicking and helpless. The horseman uttered a yell of triumph, sprang from his horse, and running up to the prostrate animal, thrust the blade of his long machete into its throat. The red stream gushed forth, and in a few seconds the black monster lay motionless upon the plain.
The new-comer quietly unwound the thongs—the bolas—from the legs of the dead bull, and then addressed himself to our travellers.
Who was this deliverer? No other than the vaquero—the friend of Guapo,—who now welcomed Guapo and his companions, telling them in the polite phraseology of all Spanish-Americans that his house(!) was at their service. They were welcome to all it contained.
The macas, and maize, and a fresh steak from the wild bull, enabled them to make a most excellent supper. In return for this hospitality, Don Pablo made the vaquero a handsome present out of his purse; but what gratified him still more was a supply of coca which his friend Guapo was enabled to bestow upon him, for his own stock had been exhausted for some days. Guapo, on leaving Cuzco, had spent his last peseta in buying this luxury, and therefore was well provided for weeks to come.
After they had had supper, he and his friend seated themselves on one side, and quietly chewed for a good half-hour, when at length Guapo, who knew he could trust the vaquero—because the latter, like himself, was one of the "patriotas"—communicated to him the object of their journey through that desolate region. The vaquero not only promised secrecy, but bound himself to put any party of pursuers completely off the trail.
The vaquero, even in his remote mountain-home, had heard of Don Pablo, knew that he was a good patriot and friend of the Indians, and he would therefore have risked his life to serve such a man—for no people have proved more devoted to the friends of their race than these simple and faithful Indians of the Andes. How many instances of noble self-sacrifice—even of life itself—occurred during the painful history of their conquest by the cruel and sanguinary followers of Pizarro!
The vaquero, therefore, did all in his power to make his guests comfortable for the night. His dogs—there were four of them—were not so hospitably inclined, for they did not seem to know friends from enemies. They had come up shortly after their master himself arrived, and had made a desperate attack upon everybody. The vaquero, however, assisted by Guapo—who, being an Indian, was less troubled with them—gave them a very rough handling with a large whip which he carried; and then, securing the whole of them, tied them together in a bunch, and left them at the back of the hut to snap and growl at each other, which they did throughout the livelong night. Supper over, all the travellers would have retired to rest; but the vaquero, having announced that he was going out to set snares for the chinchillas and viscachas, Leon could not rest, but asked permission to accompany him. This was granted both by Don Pablo and the vaquero himself.
The chinchilla, and its near relative the viscacha, are two little animals of the rodent, or grass-eating kind, that inhabit the very highest mountains of Peru and Chili. They are nearly of the same size, and each about as big as a rabbit, which in habits they very much resemble. They have long tails, however, which the rabbit has not, though the latter beats them in the length of his ears. The colour of the chinchilla is known to everybody, since its soft, velvety fur is highly prized by ladies as an article of dress, and may be seen in every London fur-shop.
The animal is of a beautiful marbled grey, white and black, with pure white feet. The fur of the viscacha is not so pretty, being of a brownish and white mixture. Its cheeks are black, with long, bristly moustaches, like those of a cat; while its head resembles that of the hare or rabbit. Both these innocent little creatures live upon the high declivities of the Andes, in holes and crevices among the rocks, where they remain concealed during the day, but steal out to feed twice in the twenty-four hours,—that is, during the evening twilight and in the early morning. The mode of capturing them is by snares made of horse-hair, which are set in front of their caves—just as we snare rabbits in a warren, except that for the rabbits we make use of light elastic wire, instead of the horse-hair.
Leon was delighted with the excursion, as the vaquero showed him how to set the snares, and told him a great many curious stories of Puna life and habits. Some of these stories were about the great condor vulture—which the narrator, of course, described as a much bigger bird than it really is, for the condor, after all, is not so much bigger than the griffon vulture, or even the vulture of California. But you, young reader, have already had a full account of the vultures of America—the condor among the rest—therefore we shall not repeat what was said by the vaquero about this interesting bird.
On the way to the place where the snares were to be set, they passed a lagoon, or marshy lake, in which were many kinds of birds peculiar to these high regions. Out on the open water they saw a wild goose of a very beautiful species. It is called the "Huachua" goose. Its plumage is of a snowy whiteness, all except the wings, which are bright green and violet, while the beak, legs, and feet, are scarlet. They also saw two species of ibis wading about in the marsh, and a gigantic water-hen almost as big as a turkey. This last is of a dark grey colour, with a red beak, at the base of which is a large yellow knob of the shape of a bean. On this account it is called by the Indians "bean nose."
Upon the plain, near the border of the marsh, they noticed a beautiful plover, having plumage marked very much like that of the "huachua" goose, with green wings shining in the sun like polished metal. Another curious bird also sat upon the plain, or flew around their heads. This was a bird of prey of the species of jerfalcons (Polyborus). The vaquero called it the "Huarahua." He told Leon it preyed only on carrion, and never killed its own food; that it was very harmless and tame—which was evidently true, as, shortly after, one of them seated upon a stone allowed the Indian to approach and knock it over with a stick! Such a silly bird Leon had never seen.
The vaquero was quite a naturalist in his way—that is, he knew all the animals of the Puna, and their habits, just as you will sometimes find a gamekeeper in our own country, or often a shepherd or farm-servant. He pointed out a rock-woodpecker, which he called a "pito" (Colaptes rupicola), that was fluttering about and flying from rock to rock. Like the cliff-parrots we have already mentioned, this rock-woodpecker was a curious phenomenon, for, as their very name implies, the woodpeckers are all tree-dwelling birds, yet here was one of the genus living among rocks where not a tree was to be seen, and scarcely a plant, except the thorny cactuses and magueys, with which succulent vegetables the woodpecker has nothing to do. The "pito" is a small, brown, speckled bird, with yellow belly, and there were great numbers of them flying about.
But the bird which most fixed the attention of Leon was a little bird about the size of a starling. Its plumage was rather pretty. It was brown, with black stripes on the back, and white-breasted. But it was not the plumage of the bird that interested Leon. It was what his companion told him of a singular habit which it had—that of repeating, at the end of every hour during the night, its melancholy and monotonous note. The Indians call this bird the "cock of the Inca," and they moreover regard it with a sort of superstitious reverence.
Having placed his snares, the vaquero set out to return with his youthful companion. As they walked back along the mountain-foot, a fox stole out from the rocks and skulked towards the marshy lake, no doubt in search of prey. This fox was the Canis Azarae, a most troublesome species, found all through South America. He is the great pest of the Puna shepherds, as he is a fierce hunter, and kills many of the young lambs and alpacos.
The vaquero was sorry he had not his dogs with him, as, from the route the fox had taken, he would have been certain to have captured him, and that would have been worth something, for the great sheep-owners give their shepherds a sheep for every old fox that they can kill, and for every young one a lamb. But the dogs, on this occasion, had been left behind, lest they should have bitten Leon, and the vaquero was compelled to let "Reynard" go his way. It was night when they returned to the hut, and then, after Leon had related the details of their excursion, all retired to rest.
LLAMAS, ALPACOS, VICUNAS, AND GUANACOS.
Our travellers were stirring by early break of day. As they issued from the hut, a singular and interesting scene presented itself to their eyes. At one view—one coup d'oeil—they beheld the whole four species of the celebrated camel-sheep of the Andes; for there are four of them,—llama, guanaco, alpaco, and vicuna! This was a rare sight, indeed. They were all browsing upon the open plain: first, the llamas, near the hut; then a flock of tame alpacos, out upon the plain; thirdly, a herd of seven guanacos farther off; and still more distant, a larger herd of the shy vicunas. The guanacos and vicunas were of uniform colours,—that is, in each flock the colour of the individuals was the same; while among the llamas and alpacos there were many varieties of colour. The latter two kinds were tame,—in fact, they were under the charge of Guapo's friend the shepherd, whereas the herds of vicunas and guanacos consisted of wild animals.
Perhaps no animal of South America has attracted so much attention as the llama, as it was the only beast of burden the Indians had trained to their use on the arrival of Europeans in that country. So many strange stories were told by the earlier Spanish travellers regarding this "camel-sheep," that it was natural that great interest should attach to it. These reported that the llama was used for riding. Such, however, is not the case. It is only trained to carry burdens; although an Indian boy may be sometimes seen on the back of a llama for mischief, or when crossing a stream and the lad does not wish to get his feet wet.
The llama is three feet high from hoof to shoulder, though his long neck makes him look taller. His colour is generally brown, with black and yellow shades, sometimes speckled or spotted; and there are black and white llamas, but these are rare. His wool is long and coarse, though the females, which are smaller, have a finer and better wool. The latter are never used to carry burdens, but only kept for breeding. They are fed in flocks upon the Puna heights, and it was a flock of these that our travellers saw near the hut.
The males are trained to carry burdens at the age of four years. A pack-saddle, called yergua, woven out of course wool, is fastened on the back, and upon this the goods are placed. The burden never exceeds 120 or 130 pounds. Should a heavier one be put on, the llama, like the camel, quite understands that he is "over-weighted," and neither coaxing nor beating will induce him to move a step. He will lie down, or, if much vexed, spit angrily at his driver, and this spittle has a highly acrid property, and will cause blisters on the skin where it touches. Sometimes a llama, over vexed by ill-treatment, has been known, in despair, to dash his brains out against a rock.
The llamas are used much in the mines of Peru, for carrying the ore. They frequently serve better than either asses or mules, as they can pass up and down declivities where neither ass nor mule can travel. They are sometimes taken in long trains from the mountains down to the coast region for salt and other goods; but on such occasions many of them die, as they cannot bear the warm climate of the lowlands. Their proper and native place is on the higher plains of the Andes.
A string of llamas, when on a journey, is a very interesting spectacle. One of the largest is usually the leader. The rest follow in single file, at a slow, measured pace, their heads ornamented tastefully with ribands, while small bells, hanging around their necks, tinkle as they go. They throw their high heads from side to side, gazing around them, and when frightened at anything, will "break ranks," and scamper out of their path, to be collected again with some trouble.
When resting, they utter a low, humming noise, which has been compared to the sound of an Eolian harp. They crouch down on their breast—where there is a callosity—when about to receive their burdens, and also sleep resting in the same attitude. A halt during the day is necessary, in order that they may be fed, as these animals will not eat by night. In consequence of this they make but short journeys—ten to fifteen miles—although they will travel for a long time, allowing them a day's rest out of every five or six. Like the camels of the East, they can go days without water, and Buffon knew one that went eighteen months without it! but Buffon is very poor authority. When one of them becomes wearied, and does not wish to proceed, it is exceedingly difficult to coax him onward.
These animals were at one time very valuable. On the discovery of America a llama cost as much as eighteen or twenty dollars. But the introduction of mules and other beasts of burden has considerably cheapened them. At present they are sold for about four dollars in the mining districts, but can be bought where they are bred and reared for half that amount. In the days of the Incas their flesh was much used as food. It is still eaten; but for this purpose the common sheep is preferred, as the flesh of the llama is spongy and not very well flavoured. The wool is used for many sorts of coarse manufacture. So much for llamas. Now the "guanaco."
This animal (whose name is sometimes written "huanaca," though the pronunciation is the same with "guanaco" or "guanaca") is larger than the llama, and for a long time was considered merely as the wild llama, or the llama run wild, in which you will perceive an essential distinction. It is neither, but an animal of specific difference. It exists in a wild state in the high mountains, though, with great care and trouble, it can be domesticated and trained to carry burdens as well as its congener the llama. In form it resembles the latter, but, as is the case with most wild animals, the guanacos are all alike in colour. The upper parts of the body are of a reddish brown, while underneath it is a dirty white. The lips are white, and the face a dark grey. The wool is shorter than that of the llama, and of the same length all over the body. The guanaco lives in herds of five or seven individuals, and these are very shy, fleeing to the most inaccessible cliffs when any one approaches them. Like the chamois of Switzerland and the "bighorn" of the Rocky Mountains, they can glide along steep ledges when neither men nor dogs can find footing.
The "alpaco," or "paco," as it is sometimes called, is one of the most useful of the Peruvian sheep, and is more like the common sheep than the others. This arises from its bulkier shape, caused by its thick fleece of long wool. The latter is soft, fine, and often five inches in length; and, as is well known, has become an important article in the manufacture of cloth. Its colour is usually either white or black, though there are some of the alpacos speckled or spotted. Ponchos are woven out of alpaco-wool by the Indians of the Andes.
The alpaco is a domesticated animal, like the llama, but it is not used for carrying burdens. It is kept in large flocks, and regularly shorn as sheep are. If one of the alpacos gets separated from the flock, it will lie down and suffer itself to be beaten to death, rather than go the way its driver wishes. You have, no doubt, sometimes seen a common sheep exhibit similar obstinacy.
Of all the Peruvian sheep the vicuna is certainly the prettiest and most graceful. It has more the form of the deer or antelope than of the sheep, and its colour is so striking that it has obtained among the Peruvians the name of the animal itself, color de vicuna (vicuna colour). It is of a reddish yellow, not unlike that of our domestic red cat, although the breast and under parts of the body are white. The flesh of the vicuna is excellent eating, and its wool is of more value than even that of the alpaco. Where a pound of the former sells for one dollar—which is the usual price—the pound of alpaco will fetch only a quarter of that sum. Hats and the finest fabrics can be woven from the fleece of the vicuna, and the Incas used to clothe themselves in rich stuffs manufactured from it. In the present day the "ricos," or rich proprietors of Peru, pride themselves in possessing ponchos of vicuna wool.
The vicuna inhabits the high plains of the Andes, though, unlike the guanaco, it rarely ventures up the rocky cliffs, as its hoofs are only calculated for the soft turf of the plains. It roams about in larger herds than the other—eighteen or twenty in the herd—and these are usually females under the protection and guidance of one polygamous old male. While feeding, the latter keeps watch over the flock, usually posting himself at some distance, so that he may have a better opportunity of seeing and hearing any danger that may approach. When any is perceived, a shrill whistle from the leader and a quick stroke of his hoof on the turf warn the flock; and all draw closely together, each stretching out its head in the direction of the danger. They then take to flight, at first slowly, but afterwards with the swiftness of the roe; while the male, true to his trust, hangs in the rear, and halts at intervals, as if to cover the retreat of the herd.
The llama, guanaco, alpaco, and vicuna, although different species, will breed with each other; and it is certain that some of their hybrids will again produce young. There exist, therefore, many intermediate varieties, or "mules," throughout the countries of the Andes, some of which have been mistaken for separate species.
A VICUNA HUNT.
The vicuna being of such value, both inside and out, both in flesh and wool, is hunted by the mountain Indians with great assiduity. It is an animal most difficult to approach, and there is rarely any cover on these naked plains by which to approach it.
The chief mode of capturing it is by the "chacu." This cannot be effected by a single hunter. A great number is required. Usually the whole population of one of the villages of the "Sierras" lower down turns out for this sport, or rather business, for it is an annual source of profit. Even the women go along, to cook and perform other offices, as the hunt of the chacu sometimes lasts a week or more.
A hunting party will number from fifty to one hundred persons. They climb up to the altos, or high and secluded plains, where the vicuna dwells in greatest numbers. They carry with them immense coils of ropes, and a large quantity of coloured rags, together with bundles of stakes three or four feet in length. When a proper part of the plain has been chosen, they drive in the stakes four or five yards apart and running in the circumference of a circle, sometimes nearly a mile in diameter.
A rope is then stretched from stake to stake, at the height of between two and three feet from the ground, and over this rope are hung the coloured rags provided for the occasion, and which keep fluttering in the wind. A sort of scare-crow fence is thus constructed in the form of a ring, except that on one side a space of about two hundred yards is left open to serve as an entrance for the game. The Indians then, most of them on horseback, make a grand detour, extending for miles over the country; and having got behind the herds of vicunas, drive them within the circle, and close up the entrance by completing the ring.
The hunters then go inside, and using the bolas, or even seizing the animals by their hind-legs, soon capture the whole. Strange to say, these silly creatures make no attempt to break through the sham fence, nor even to leap over it. Not so with the guanacos, when so enclosed. The latter spring against the fence at once, and if, by chance, a party of guanacos be driven in along with the vicunas, they not only break open the rope enclosure and free themselves, but also the whole herd of their cousins, the vicunas. It is, therefore, not considered any gain to get a flock of guanacos into the trap.
The hunt usually lasts several days, but during that time the enclosure of ropes is flitted from place to place, until no more vicunas can be found. Then the ropes, stakes, &c., are collected, and the produce of the hunt distributed among the hunters. But the Church levies its tax upon the "chacu," and the skins—worth a dollar each—have to be given up to the priest of the village. A good round sum this amounts to, as frequently four or five hundred vicunas are taken at a single chacu.
A good hunter is sometimes able to "approach" the vicuna. Guapo's friend was esteemed one of the best in all the Puna. The sight of the herd out on the plain, with their graceful forms, and beautiful reddish-orange bodies, was too much for him, and he resolved to try his skill upon them. He said he had a plan of his own, which he intended to practise on this occasion.
Don Pablo and his party—even Dona Isidora and the little Leona—were all outside the hut, although the morning air was raw and chill. But the domicile of the worthy vaquero was not empty, for all that. It was peopled by a very large colony of very small animals, and a night in their society had proved enough for the travellers. The chill air of the Puna was even more endurable than such company.
The vaquero crawled back into the hut, and in a few minutes returned, but so metamorphosed, that had the party not seen him come out of the doorway they would have mistaken him for a llama! He was completely disguised in the skin of one of these animals. His face only was partly visible, and his eyes looked out of the breast. The head and neck of the skin, stuffed with some light substance, stood up and forward, after the manner of the living animal, and although the legs were a little clumsy, yet it would have required a more intelligent creature than the vicuna to have observed this defect.
All hands, even the saturnine Guapo, laughed loudly at the counterfeit, and the vaquero himself was heard to chuckle through the long wool upon the breast. He did not lose time, however, but instantly prepared to set off. He needed no other preparation than to get hold of his bolas,—that was his favourite weapon. Before going farther, I shall tell you what sort of weapon it is.
The bolas consist of three balls—hence the name—of lead or stone, two of them heavier than the third. Each ball is fastened to the end of a stout thong made of twisted sinews of the vicuna itself, and the other ends of the three thongs are joined together. In using them the hunter holds the lightest ball in his hand, and twirls the other two in circles around his head, until they have attained the proper velocity, when he takes aim and launches them forth.
Through the air fly the thongs and balls, and all whirling round in circles, until they strike some object; and if that object be the legs of an animal, the thongs become immediately warped around them, until the animal is regularly hoppled, and in attempting to escape comes at once to the ground. Of course great practice is required before such an instrument can be used skilfully; and to the novice there is some danger of one of the balls hitting him a crack on the head, and knocking over himself instead of the game. But there was no danger of Guapo's friend the vaquero committing this blunder. He had been swinging the bolas around his head for more than forty years!
Without more ado, then, he seized the weapon, and, having gathered it with his fore-feet into a portable shape, he proceeded in the direction of the vicunas.
The travellers remained by the hut, watching him with interest, but his movements were particularly interesting to Leon, who, like all boys, was naturally fond of such enterprises.
The herd of vicunas was not more than three quarters of a mile off. For the first half of this distance the vaquero shambled along right speedily, but as he drew nearer to the animals he proceeded slower and with more caution.
The pretty creatures were busily browsing, and had no fear. They knew they were well guarded by their faithful sentinel, in whom they had every confidence,—the lord and leader of the herd. Even from the hut, this one could be seen standing some distance apart from the rest. He was easily recognised by his greater bulk and prouder bearing.
The false llama has passed near the guanacos, and they have taken no heed of him. This is a good omen, for the guanacos are quite as sharp and shy as their smaller cousins, and since he has succeeded in deceiving them, he will likely do the same for the vicunas. Already he approaches them. He does not make for the herd, but directly for the leader. Surely he is near enough; from the hut he seems close up to the creature. See! the vicuna tosses his head and strikes the ground with his hoof. Listen! it is his shrill whistle. The scattered herd suddenly start and flock together; but, look! the llama stands erect on his hind-legs; the bolas whirl around his head—they are launched out. Ha! the vicuna is down!
Where is the female drove? Have they scampered off and forsaken their lord? No! faithful as a loving wife, they run up to share his danger. With shrill cries they gather around him, moving to and fro. The llama is in their midst. See! he is dealing blows with some weapon—it is a knife! his victims fall around him—one at every blow; one by one they are falling. At last, at last, they are all down,—yes, the whole herd are stretched, dead or dying, upon the plain!
The struggle is over; no sound is heard, save the hoof-stroke of the guanacos, llamas, and alpacos, that cover the plain in their wild flight.
Leon could no longer restrain his curiosity; but ran off to the scene of the slaughter. There he counted no less than nineteen vicunas lying dead, each one stabbed in the ribs! The Indian assured him that it was not the first battue of the kind he had made. A whole herd of vicunas is often taken in this way. When the male is wounded or killed, the females will not leave him; but, as if out of gratitude for the protection he has during life afforded them, they share his fate without making an effort to escape!
CAPTURING A CONDOR.
The vaquero with his horse soon dragged the vicunas to the hut. Guapo gave him a help with the mule, and in a few minutes they were all brought up. One of them was immediately skinned, and part of it prepared for breakfast, and our travellers ate heartily of it, as the cold Puna air had given an edge to their appetites.
The new-killed animals, along with the red skin of the bull, which had been spread out on the ground at some distance from the hut, had already attracted the condors; and four or five of these great birds were now seen hovering in the air, evidently with the intention of alighting at the first opportunity.
An idea seemed to enter the head of the vaquero, while his guests were still at breakfast, and he asked Leon if he would like to see a condor caught. Of course Leon replied in the affirmative. What boy wouldn't like to see a condor caught?
The vaquero said he would gratify him with the sight, and without staying to finish his breakfast—indeed he had had his "coceada," and didn't care for any,—he started to his feet, and began to make preparations for the capture.
How he was to catch one of these great birds, Leon had not the slightest idea. Perhaps with the "bolas," thought he. That would have done well enough if he could only get near them; but the condors were sufficiently shy not to let any man within reach either with bolas or guns. It is only when they have been feasting on carrion, and have gorged themselves to repletion, that they can be thus approached, and then they may be even knocked over with sticks.
At other times the condor is a shy and wary bird. No wonder either that he is so, for, unlike most other vultures, he is hunted and killed at all times. The vultures of most countries are respected by the people, because they perform a valuable service in clearing away carrion; and in many parts these birds are protected by statute. There are laws in the Southern United States, and in several of the Spanish-American Republics, which impose fines and penalties for killing the black vultures. In some Oriental countries, too, similar laws exist. But no statute protects the condor. On the contrary, he is a proscribed bird, and there is a bounty on his head, because he does great damage to the proprietors of sheep, and llamas, and alpacos, killing and devouring the young of these animals. His large quills, moreover, are much prized in the South American cities, and the killing of a condor is worth something. All this will account for the shyness of this great bird, while other vultures are usually so tame that you may approach within a few paces of them.
As yet the half-dozen condors hovering about kept well off from the hut; and Leon could not understand how any one of them was to be caught.
The vaquero, however, had a good many "dodges," and after the ruse he had just practised upon the vicunas, Leon suspected he would employ some similar artifice with the condors. Leon was right. It was by a stratagem the bird was to be taken.
The vaquero laid hold of a long rope, and lifting the bull's hide upon his shoulders, asked Guapo to follow him with the two horses. When he had got out some four or five hundred yards from the hut, he simply spread himself flat upon the ground, and drew the skin over him, the fleshy side turned upward. There was a hollow in the ground about as big as his body—in fact, a trench he had himself made for a former occasion—and when lying in this on his back, his breast was about on a level with the surrounding turf.
His object in asking Guapo to accompany him with the horses was simply a ruse to deceive the condors, who from their high elevation were all the while looking down upon the plain. But the vaquero covered himself so adroitly with his red blanket, that even their keen eyes could scarcely have noticed him; and as Guapo afterwards left the ground with the led horses, the vultures supposed that nothing remained but the skin, which from its sanguinary colour to them appeared to be flesh.
The birds had now nothing to fear from the propinquity of the hut. There the party were all seated quietly eating their breakfast, and apparently taking no notice of them. In a few minutes' time, therefore, they descended lower, and lower,—and then one of the very largest dropped upon the ground within a few feet of the hide. After surveying it for a moment, he appeared to see nothing suspicious about it, and hopped a little closer. Another at this moment came to the ground—which gave courage to the first—and this at length stalked boldly on the hide, and began to tear at it with his great beak.
A movement was now perceived on the part of the vaquero—the hide "lumped" up, and at the same time the wings of the condor were seen to play and flap about as if he wanted to rise into the air, but could not. He was evidently held by the legs!
The other bird had flown off at the first alarm, and the whole band were soon soaring far upward into the blue heavens.
Leon now expected to see the vaquero uncover himself. Not so, however, as yet. That wily hunter had no such intention, and although he was now in a sitting posture, grasping the legs of the condor, yet his head and shoulders were still enveloped in the bull's hide. He knew better than to show his naked face to the giant vulture, that at a single "peck" of his powerful beak would have deprived him of an eye, or otherwise injured him severely. The vaquero was aware of all this, and therefore did not leave his hiding-place until he had firmly knotted one end of the long cord around the shank of the bird—then slipping out at one side, he ran off to some distance before stopping. The condor, apparently relieved of his disagreeable company, made a sudden effort and rose into the air, carrying the hide after him. Leon shouted out, for he thought the vulture had escaped; but the vaquero knew better, as he held the other end of the cord in his hand; and the bird, partly from the weight of the skin, and partly from a slight tug given by the hunter, soon came heavily to the ground again. The vaquero was now joined by Guapo; and, after some sharp manoeuvring, they succeeded between them in passing the string through the nostrils of the condor, by which means it was quietly conducted to the hut, and staked on the ground in the rear—to be disposed of whenever its captor should think fit.
THE PERILS OF A PERUVIAN ROAD.
It was as yet only an hour or so after daybreak—for the vicuna hunt had occupied but a very short time and the capture of the condor a still shorter. Don Pablo was anxious to be gone, as he knew he was not beyond the reach of pursuit. A pair of the vicunas were hastily prepared, and packed upon a llama for use upon their journey. Thus furnished, the party resumed their route.
The vaquero did not accompany them. He had an office to perform of far more importance to their welfare and safety. As soon as they were gone he let loose his four snarling curs, and taking them out to where the pile of dead vicunas lay upon the plain, he left them there with instructions to guard the carcasses from foxes, condors, or whatever else might wish to make a meal off them. Then mounting, he rode off to the place where the road leading from Cuzco ascended upon the table-land, and having tied his horse to a bush, he climbed upon a projecting rock and sat down. From this point he commanded a view of the winding road to the distance of miles below him.
No traveller—much less a party of soldiers—could approach without his seeing them, even many hours before they could get up to where he sat; and it was for that reason he had stationed himself there. Had Don Pablo been pursued, the faithful Indian would have galloped after and given him warning, long before his pursuers could have reached the plain.
He sat until sunset—contenting himself with a few leaves of coca. No pursuer appeared in sight. He then mounted his horse, and rode back to his solitary hut.
Let us follow our travellers.
They crossed the table-plain during the day, and rested that night under the shelter of some overhanging rocks on the other side. They supped upon part of the vicunas, and felt more cheerful, as they widened the distance between themselves and danger. But in the morning they did not remain longer by their camp than was necessary to get breakfast. Half-an-hour after sunrise saw them once more on their route.
Their road led through a pass in the mountains. At first it ascended, and then began to go downward. They had crossed the last ridge of the Andes, and were now descending the eastern slopes. Another day's journey, or two at most, would bring them to the borders of that wild forest, which stretches from the foot-hills of the Andes to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean—that forest with scarcely a civilised settlement throughout all its wide extent—where no roads exist—whose only paths are rivers—whose dark jungles are in places so impenetrable that the Indian cannot enter them, and even the fierce jaguar, embarrassed by the thick underwood, has to take to the tree-tops in pursuit of his prey. Another day's journey or so would bring them to the borders of the "Montana"—for such is the name which, by a strange misapplication of terms, has been given to this primeval wood. Yes, the Montana was before them, and although yet distant, it could now and then be seen as the road wound among the rocks, stretching far towards the sky like a green and misty ocean.
In that almost boundless region there dwelt none but the aborigines of the soil—the wild Indians—and these only in sparse and distant bands. Even the Spaniards in their day of glory had failed to conquer it; and the Portuguese from the other side were not more successful.
The Spanish colonists, on the Peruvian or western border of this immense forest, had never been able to penetrate it as colonists or settlers. Expeditions from time to time had passed along its rivers in search of the fabled gold country of Manoa, whose king each morning gave himself a coating of gold dust, and was hence called El Dorado (the gilded); but all these expeditions ended in mortification and defeat. The settlements never extended beyond the sierras, or foot-hill of the Andes, which stretch only a few days' journey (in some places but a score of leagues) from the populous cities on the mountain-heights.
Even at this present time, if you travel thirty leagues eastward of the large town of Cuzco, in the direction taken by Don Pablo, you will pass the boundaries of civilisation, and enter a country unexplored and altogether unknown to the people of Cuzco themselves! About the "Montana" very little is known in the settlements of the Andes. Fierce tribes of Indians, the jaguar, the vampire bat, swarms of mosquitoes, and the hot atmosphere, have kept the settler, as well as the curious traveller, out of these wooded plains.
Don Pablo had already passed the outskirts of civilisation. Any settlement he might find beyond would be the hut of some half-wild Indian. There was no fear of his encountering a white face upon the unfrequented path he had chosen, though had he gone by some other route he might have found white settlements extending farther to the eastward. As it was, the wilderness lay before him, and he would soon enter it.
And what was he to do in the wilderness? He knew not. He had never reflected on that. He only knew that behind him was a relentless foe thirsting for his life. To go back was to march to certain death. He had no thoughts of returning. That would have been madness. His property was already confiscated—his death decreed by the vengeful Viceroy, whose soldiers had orders to capture or slay, whenever they should find him. His only hope, then, was to escape beyond the borders of civilisation—to hide himself in the great Montana. Beyond this he had formed no plan. He had scarcely thought about the future. Forward, then, for the Montana!
The road which our travellers followed was nothing more than a narrow path or "trail" formed by cattle, or by some party of Indians occasionally passing up from the lower valleys to the mountain-heights. It lay along the edge of a torrent that leaped and foamed over its rocky bed. The torrent was no doubt on its way to join the greatest of rivers, the mighty Amazon—the head-waters of which spring from all parts of the Andes, draining the slopes of these mountains through more than twenty degrees of latitude.
Towards evening the little party were beginning to enter among the mountain spurs, or foot-hills. Here the travelling grew exceedingly difficult, the path sometimes running up a steep acclivity and then descending into deep ravines—so deep and dark that the sun's rays seemed hardly to enter them. The road was what Spanish-Americans term, "Cuesta arriba, cuesta abajo" (up hill, down hill).
In no part of the world are such roads to be met with as among the Andes Mountains, both in South America and in their Mexican continuation through the northern division of the continent. This arises from the peculiar geological structure of these mountains. Vast clefts traverse them, yawning far into the earth. In South America these are called quebradas. You may stand on the edge of one of them and look sheer down a precipice two thousand feet! You may fancy a whole mountain scooped out and carried away, and yet you may have to reach the bottom of this yawning gulf by a road which seems cut out of the face of the cliff, or rather has been formed by a freak of Nature—for in these countries the hand of man has done but little for the roads.
Sometimes the path traverses a ledge so narrow that scarce room is found for the feet of your trusty mule. Sometimes a hanging bridge has to be crossed, spanning a horrid chasm, at the bottom of which roars a foaming torrent—the bridge itself, composed of ropes and brambles, all the while swinging like a hammock under the tread of the affrighted traveller!
He who journeys through the tame scenery of European countries can form but little idea of the wild and dangerous highways of the Andes. Even the passes of the Alps or Carpathians are safe in comparison. On the Peruvian road the lives of men and animals are often sacrificed. Mules slide from the narrow ledges, or break through the frail "soga" bridges, carrying their riders along with them, whirling through empty air to be plunged into foaming waters or dashed on sharp rocks below.
These are accidents of continual occurrence; and yet, on account of the apathy of the Spano-Indian races that inhabit these countries, little is done for either roads or bridges. Every one is left to take care of himself, and get over them as he best may. It is only now and then that positive necessity prompts to a great effort, and then a road is repaired or a broken bridge patched with new ropes.
But the road that was travelled by Don Pablo had seen no repairs—there were no bridges. It was, in fact, a mere pathway where the traveller scrambled over rocks, or plunged into the stream, and forded or swam across it as he best could. Sometimes it lay along the water's edge, keeping in the bottom of the ravine; at other places no space was left by the water, and then the path ascended and ran along some ledge perhaps for miles, at the end of which it would again descend to the bed of the stream.
ENCOUNTER UPON A CLIFF.
That night they encamped in the bottom of the ravine close to the water's edge. They found just enough of level ground to enable them to stretch themselves, but they were contented with that. There was nothing for the animals to eat except the succulent, but thorny, leaves of the Cactus opuntia, or the more fibrous blades of the wild agave. This evening there were no quinoa seeds to be had, for none of these trees grew near. Even the botanist, Don Pablo, could find no vegetable substance that was eatable, and they would have to sup upon the vicuna meat, without bread, potatoes, or other vegetables. Their stock of ocas, ullucas, and macas, was quite out. They had cooked the last of the macas for that morning's meal.
Guapo here came to their relief. Guapo's experience went beyond the theoretical knowledge of the botanist. Guapo knew a vegetable which was good to eat—in fact, a most delicious vegetable when cooked with meat. This was no other than the fleshy heart of the wild maguey (agave), with part of the adhering roots. Among naked rocks, in the most barren parts of the desert wilderness, the wild agave may be found growing in luxuriance. Its thick, succulent blades, when split open, exude a cool liquid, that often gives considerable relief to the thirsty traveller; while the heart, or egg-shaped nucleus from which spring the sheathing leaves—and even parts of the leaves themselves—when cooked with any sort of meat, become an excellent and nourishing food.
The Indians make this use of the aloe on the high plains of Northern Mexico, among the roving bands of the Apache, Navajo, and Comanche. These people cook them along with horse's flesh, for there the wild horse is the principal food of whole tribes. Their mode of cooking, both the flesh and the aloe, is by baking them together in little ovens of stones sunk in the ground, and then heated by fire until they are nearly red hot. The ashes are then cleared out, the meat and vegetables placed in the ovens, and then buried until both are sufficiently done. In fact, there is one tribe of the Apaches who have obtained the name of "Mezcaleros," from the fact of their eating the wild aloe, which in those countries goes under the name of "mezcal" plant.
In many parts of the Andes, where the soil is barren, the wild maguey is almost the only vegetation to be seen, and in such places the Indians use it as food. It seems to be a gift of Nature to the desert, so that even there man may find something on which to subsist.
Guapo with his knife had soon cleared off several large pieces of the maguey, and these, fried along with the vicuna meat, enabled the party to make a supper sufficiently palatable. A cup of pure water from the cold mountain stream, sweeter than all the wine in the world, washed it down; and they went to rest with hearts full of contentment and gratitude.
They rose at an early hour, and, breakfasting as they had supped, once more took the road.
After travelling a mile or two, the path gradually ascended along one of those narrow ledges that shelve out from the cliff, of which we have already spoken. They soon found themselves hundreds of feet above the bed of the torrent, yet still hundreds of feet above them rose the wall of dark porphyry, seamed, and scarred, and frowning. The ledge or path was of unequal breadth—here and there forming little tables or platforms. At other places, however, it was so narrow that those who were mounted could look over the brink of the precipice into the frothing water below—so narrow that no two animals could have passed each other. These terrible passes were sometimes more than an hundred yards in length, and not straight, but winding around buttresses of the rock, so that one end was not visible from the other.
On frequented roads, where such places occur, it is usual for travellers, entering upon them, to shout, so that any one who chances to be coming from the opposite side, may have warning and halt. Sometimes this warning is neglected, and two trains of mules or llamas meet upon the ledge! Then there is a terrible scene—the drivers quarrel—one party has to submit—their animals have to be unloaded and dragged back by the heels to some wider part of the path, so that each party can get past in its turn!
Near the highest part of the road, our travellers had entered upon one of these narrow ledges, and were proceeding along it with caution. The trusty mule, that carried Dona Isidora and Leona, was in front, the horse followed, and then the llamas. It is safer to ride than walk on such occasions, especially upon mules, for these animals are more sure-footed than the traveller himself. The horse that carried Leon, however, was as safe as any mule. He was one of the small Spanish-American breed, almost as sure-footed as a chamois.
The torrent rushed and thundered beneath. It was fearful to listen and look downward; the heads of all were giddy, and their hearts full of fear. Guapo, alone accustomed to such dangers, was of steady nerve. He and Don Pablo afoot were in the rear.
They had neared the highest point of the road, where a jutting rock hid all beyond from their view. They were already within a few paces of this rock, when the mule—which, as we have stated, was in the front—suddenly stopped, showing such symptoms of terror that Dona Isidora and the little Leona both shrieked!
Of course all the rest came to a halt behind the terrified and trembling mule. Don Pablo, from behind, shouted out, inquiring the cause of the alarm; but before any answer could be given the cause became apparent to all. Around the rock suddenly appeared the head and horns of a fierce bull, and the next moment his whole body had come into view, while another pair of horns and another head were seen close behind him!
It would be difficult to describe the feelings of our travellers at that moment. The bull came on with a determined and sullen look, until he stood nearly head to head with the mule. The smoke of his wide steaming nostrils was mingled with the breath of the terrified mule, and he held his head downward, and evidently with the intention of rushing forward upon the latter. Neither could have gone back, and of course the fierce bull would drive the mule into the abyss. The other bull stood close behind, ready to continue the work if the first one failed, and, perhaps, there were many others behind!
The mule was sensible of her danger, and, planting her hoofs firmly on the hard rock, she clung closely to the precipice. But this would not have served her, had not a hand interposed in her behalf. Amidst the terrified cries of the children, the voice of Guapo was heard calling to Don Pablo,—"Your pistols, master! give me your pistols!"
Something glided quickly among the legs of the animals. It was the lithe body of the Indian. In a second's time he appeared in front of the mule. The bull was just lowering his head to charge forward—his horns were set—the foam fell from his lips—and his eyes glanced fire out of their dark orbs. Before he could make the rush, there came the loud report of a pistol—a cloud of sulphury smoke—a short struggle on the cliff—and then a dead plunge in the torrent below!
The smoke partially cleared away; then came another crack—another cloud—another short struggle—and another distant plash in the water!
The smoke cleared away a second time. The two bulls were no longer to be seen!
Guapo, in front of the mule, now ran forward upon the ledge, and looked around the buttress of rock. Then, turning suddenly, he waved his hand, and shouted back,—
"No more, master; you may come on—the road is clear!"
THE LONE CROSS IN THE FOREST.
After two more days of fatiguing travel, the road parted from the bank of the river, and ran along the ridge of a high mountain spur in a direction at right angles to that of the Andes themselves. This spur continued for several miles, and then ended abruptly. At the point where it ended, the path, which for the whole of the day had been scarcely traceable, also came to an end. They were now of course in a forest-covered country—in the Ceja de la Montana—that is, the forest that covers the foot-hills of the mountains. The forest of the plains, which were yet lower down, is known as the "Montana" proper.
During that day they had found the road in several places choked up with underwood, and Guapo had to clear it with his machete—a sort of half-sword, half-knife, used throughout all Spanish America, partly to cut brushwood and partly as a weapon of defence. Where the ridge ended, however, what had once been a road was now entirely overgrown—vines and llianas of large size crossed the path. Evidently no one had passed for years. A road existed no longer; the luxuriant vegetation had effaced it.
This is no unusual thing on the borders of the Montana. Many a settlement had existed there in former times, and had been abandoned. No doubt the road they had been following once led to some such settlement that had long since fallen into ruin.
It is a melancholy fact that the Spanish-Americans—including the Mexican nation—have been retrograding for the last hundred years. Settlements which they have made, and even large cities built by them, are now deserted and in ruins; and extensive tracts of country, once occupied by them, have become uninhabited, and have gone back to a state of nature. Whole provinces, conquered and peopled by the followers of Cortez and Pizarro, have within the last fifty years been retaken from them by the Indians: and it would be very easy to prove, that had the descendants of the Spanish conquerors, been left to themselves, another half century would have seen them driven from that very continent which their forefathers so easily conquered and so cruelly kept. This re-conquest on the part of the Indian races was going on in a wholesale way in the northern provinces of Mexico. But it is now interrupted by the approach of another and stronger race from the East—the Anglo-American.
To return to our travellers. Don Pablo was not surprised that the road had run out. He had been expecting this for miles back. What was to be done? Of course they must halt for that night at least. Indeed it was already near camping-time. The sun was low in the sky, and the animals were all much jaded. The llamas could not have gone much farther. They looked as if they should never go farther. The heat of the climate—it had been getting warmer every hour—was too much for them. These animals, whose native home is among the high cool mountain valleys, as already observed, cannot live in the low tropical plains. Even as they descended the Sierras they had shown symptoms of suffering from the heat during all that day. Their strength was now fairly exhausted.
The party halted. A little open space was chosen for the camp. The animals were relieved of their burdens and tied to the trees, lest they might stray off and be lost in the thick woods. A fire was kindled, and part of the vicuna meat cooked for supper.
It was not yet night when they had finished eating, and all were seated on the ground. The countenance of the father was clouded with a melancholy expression. Dona Isidora sat by his side and tried to cheer him, endeavouring to force a smile into her large black eyes. The little Leona, with her head resting on her mother's lap, overcome with the heat and fatigue, had fallen asleep. Leon, seeing the dejected look of his father, was silent and thoughtful. Guapo was busy with his llamas.
"Come, dear husband!" said the lady, trying to assume a cheerful tone, "do not be so sad. We are now safe. Surely they will never pursue us here."
"They may not," mechanically replied Don Pablo; "but what then? We have escaped death, for what purpose? Either to live like savages in these wild woods—perhaps to be killed by savages—perhaps to die of hunger!"
"Do not say so, Don Pablo. I have never heard that the Indians of these parts were cruel. They will not injure poor harmless people such as we are. And as for starving, are not these luxuriant woods filled with roots and fruits that will sustain life a long while? You, too, know so well what they are! Dear husband, do not despond; God will not forsake us. He has enabled us to escape from our enemies, from fearful dangers on our journey. Fear not! He will not leave us to perish now."
The cheering words of his beautiful wife had their effect upon Don Pablo. He embraced and kissed her in a transport of love and gratitude. He felt inspired with new hope. The vigour of mind and body, that for days had deserted him, now suddenly returned; and he sprang to his feet evidently with some newly-formed resolution.
The country both before and behind them was shut out from their view by the thick foliage and underwood. A tall tree grew by the spot, with branches down to the level of a man's head. Don Pablo approached this tree, and seizing the branches drew himself up, and then climbed on towards its top. When he had reached a sufficient height, to overlook the surrounding woods, he stopped; and, resting himself upon one of the branches, looked abroad towards the east. All the rest stood watching him from below.
He had been gazing but a few seconds when his face brightened up, and a smile of satisfaction was seen to play upon his countenance. He evidently saw something that pleased him. Isidora, impatient, called out to him from below; but Don Pablo waved his hand to her, as if admonishing her to be silent.
"Have patience, love," he cried down. "I shall descend presently and tell you all. I have good news, but be patient."
It required a good share of patience, for Don Pablo after this remained a full half-hour upon the tree. He was not all the time looking abroad, however. Part of it he sat upon his perch—his head leaning forward, and his eyes not appearing to be particularly engaged with anything. He was busy with his thoughts, and evidently meditating on some great project. Perhaps the going down of the sun admonished him, as much as the desire of satisfying his wife's curiosity, but just as the bright orb was sinking among the far tree-tops he descended.
"Now, Don Pablo," said the fair Isidora, pretending to frown and look angry, "you have tried our patience, have you not? Come, then, no more mystery, but tell us all. What have you seen?"
"Forgive me, wife; you shall know all."
Both sat down upon the trunk of a dead tree that Guapo had felled, and was cutting up for firewood: not that it was at all cold, but they had now arrived in the country of the terrible jaguar, and it would be necessary to keep up a blazing fire throughout the night.
"Your words were true, love," began Don Pablo. "God has not forsaken us. I have seen three things that have inspired me with fresh life and hope.
"First, I looked out upon the Montana, which I expected to see stretching away to the horizon, like a green ocean. I saw this in fact; but, to my surprise, I saw more. I beheld a broad river winding like an immense serpent through the distant forest. It ran in a direction north-east, as far as the eye could reach. Even upon the horizon I could distinguish spots of its bright water glancing like silver under the rays of the setting sun. My heart leaped with joy, for I recognised a river whose existence has been doubted. It can be no other, thought I, than the Madre de Dios. I have often heard that there existed such a river in these parts, that runs on to the Amazon. A missionary is said to have visited it, but with the destruction of the missions the record has been lost. I have no doubt the river I have seen is the Madre de Dios of that missionary."
The thought of being so near the banks of this river suggested other thoughts. At once a design entered into my mind. "We can build a raft," thought I, "launch it upon this noble river, and float down to the Amazon, and thence to the mouth of the great stream itself. There is a Portuguese settlement there—the town of Grand Para. There we shall be safe from our foes."
Such were my first thoughts on beholding the new river. I reflected further. "Our fortune is gone," I reflected; "we have nothing in the wide world—what should we do at Para, even if we arrived there in safety? How could we attempt such a journey without provisions. It would be impossible."
My hopes fell as quickly as they had sprung up.
"I noticed your countenance change as you sat upon the tree."
"True, you might easily have done so: the prospect of reaching Para, penniless, and becoming a beggar in the streets—the nearer prospect of starving in the wilderness of the Amazon—were before my mind."
My eyes for awhile were bent mechanically upon the green ocean of tree-tops. All at once an object arrested them. It was a patch of bright rose-coloured foliage, easily distinguishable amid the green leaves that surrounded it. It was not down in the Montana—for that is a thousand feet below us. It was upon the side of the Sierra. My eyes glanced quickly around. I beheld other patches of similar foliage, some of them nearly an acre in breadth. My heart again leaped with joy. I knew well what these red spots of the forest were. They were clumps of cinchona trees—those trees that yield the celebrated febrifuge—the Peruvian bark!
New ideas passed rapidly through my mind. "Our fortune is gone," thought I. "Here is a fortune in these valuable trees. Here is a mine that only requires to be worked. I shall turn cascarillero—I shall be a bark-hunter."
"At first I thought that we might gather the bark, and send Guapo to sell it in the towns of the Sierra. Then the idea came into my mind that it might be possible to collect an immense quantity, store it up, build a great raft, float it down the rivers, and dispose of it in Para. I knew that in this way it would more than quadruple its price—for the traders of the Sierra purchase it from the poor cascarilleros, and have enormous profits upon it from the larger merchants.
"But how to live while making this store? Yes, how to live even on the morrow? Could we support ourselves by hunting, or find sustenance from fruits and roots, as you have suggested? This was the most important question of all, for our present necessities far outweighed our future prospects.
"The very thought of our necessity caused me once more to glance over the forest, and I continued to scan it on all sides. My eye was again arrested, and fixed upon a point where I saw there existed a different vegetation from any that could be seen elsewhere. There is a small valley about five hundred feet below us. It is a sort of table valley, and the stream along which we have been travelling runs through it, afterwards dashing over a fall to join the river below. In this valley I saw huge broad leaves of a brilliant yellowish green. I knew them at once to be the leaves of the great musaceae, either plantains or bananas. I thought, too, I could distinguish the form of the yucca plant. These are the certain signs of some settlement, or where one has existed. I fancy the latter is the correct idea, as I could distinguish neither house nor smoke. It may be some deserted Indian 'chacra,' or it may be the grounds of an old mission. In either case, we shall be likely to find those useful plants from which we may obtain food."
"Oh, papa! mamma!" cried Leon, running up and interrupting the conversation. "See what is here among the trees! I declare it is a great cross!"
Don Pablo and Isidora walked towards the spot. There, sure enough, was a large wooden cross planted in the ground, and leaning to one side. The wood was much decayed, but the inscription that had been deeply cut in the transverse beam was still legible. It was simply the Spanish phrase:—
"BRAZOS DE DIOS" (The arm of God).
Isidora took Don Pablo by the hand, and looking steadfastly in his face, pointed to the inscription.
"It is true," said she, "God protects us!"
THE DESERTED MISSION.
That night all went to rest with hope in their hearts, though still not without some anxiety.
If you reflect upon the situation in which they were placed, you will not wonder that they were anxious about the future. Their first care had been to fly into the wilderness, without thinking upon the necessities they might encounter there—without reflecting that they had made no provision of food to sustain them. It is true that in the great Montana there are many plants and trees whose roots and fruits can be eaten; but a traveller may go for days without finding one of these. Indeed, to pass through this great forest, in most places, is impossible, so completely are the creeping parasites matted and laced together. It is necessary to keep along the rivers in a canoe or raft, else you cannot get from place to place.
You cannot even walk along the banks of many of these rivers, as the underwood hangs into the very water! For the same reason game is hard to be procured, and neither Don Pablo nor Guapo were provided with proper weapons to hunt with. Don Pablo's pistols were all the fire-arms they had, and Guapo had no other weapon than his machete. With their present means, then, there was very little chance of their killing any game, even should they have fallen in with it. But they saw none as yet, except some birds, such as parrots, macaws, and toucans, that fluttered among the leaves. No wonder, then, they were anxious about what they should find to eat, or whether they should find anything at all.
Don Pablo considered the cross a good omen, or rather a good sign. Some missionary must have planted it in years gone by. No doubt a missionary station must have been near; and it was highly probable that what he had seen in the little valley below would turn out to be the very place where it had stood.
As soon as it became day, therefore, Don Pablo again ascended the tree to take the bearings of the valley, so that they should proceed towards it. Guapo also climbed up, so that both might make sure of the route they ought to take—for in the tangled forests of South America it is no easy matter to reach any object, which you may have only seen at a distance from the top of a tree. Without a compass, the traveller soon loses his direction; and, after hours of vain exertion and devious wandering, often finds himself at the very place from which he had started.
After carefully noting the direction of the valley, Don Pablo and Guapo came down from the tree; and while the former, assisted by Leon, packed and saddled the animals, Guapo was busy with his machete in clearing away the brushwood that obstructed the path. This did not turn out such a task after all. It was only at the brow of the ridge, where the undergrowth had choked up the way. A little farther down it was quite passable, and the party, animals and all, were soon winding down the Sierra towards the valley. Half-an-hour's travelling brought them to their destination; and then a shout of joy, coming simultaneously from all of them, announced their arrival upon the spot.
What was it that caused them to utter this shout of joy? Before them towered the great musaceae—plantains and bananas. There were both: their broad yellow-green and wax-like leaves sheathing their succulent stems, and bending gracefully over to a length of twenty feet. But beautiful as were the leaves of these giant plants, more attractive still to the eyes of our travellers were the huge clusters of fruit-pods that hung from beneath them. Each of these would have weighed nearly an hundred-weight! There was food for hundreds. These plants grew by the water's edge, in a damp soil—their natural habitat. Their leaves drooped over the stream. Another plant, equally interesting, was seen farther back, in a dry place. There were many of these ten or fifteen feet high, and as thick as a man's wrist. This was the yucca plant. All of them knew it. They knew that its roots produced the far-famed cassava. Cassava is bread. Hurrah! the staff of life was secure!
But, more than this, there were fruits in abundance; there were mangoes and guavas, oranges and the celebrated cherimoya—the favourite of Peru. There were shaddocks and sweet limes; and see! yonder is a clump of sugar-canes, with their thin silken leaves and yellow tassels waving in the wind. Oh, look here! Here is a coffee-shrub, with its ripe, aromatic berries; and here is the cacao-tree. Coffee and chocolate—there was a choice of beverages! Ha! what have we here—this plant like an orange tree? It is a species of holly. As I live, it is the yerba mate, the "Paraguay tea." What shall we light upon next?
And so the delighted travellers went on, over the ground, through the thick-tangled weeds and convolvuli, making new discoveries at every step. Even Guapo's favourite, the coca-shrub, was found growing among the rest, and the eyes of the old Indian sparkled at the sight of it.
Don Pablo's first conjecture had been right. They had arrived at the ruin of some old missionary station, long since deserted. Some zealous monk had planted all these plants and trees; had for years, no doubt, tended them with care; had dreamt of establishing around this lonely spot a great hierarchy, and making the "wilderness blossom as the rose." An evil day had come—perhaps during the revolt of Juan Santos, or maybe in the later revolution of Tupac Amaru. The hand of the savage had been turned against the priest, who had fallen a victim, and his roof—the mission-house—had been given to the flames. Not a vestige of building was to be seen—neither stick nor stone—and had it not been for the curious variety of vegetation collected on the spot, this once cultivated and flourishing garden might have been taken for part of the primeval forest.
It must have been a long time since the place was inhabited, for great trees and parasites had grown up in the midst of the cultivated plants.
After the first transports of delight had to some extent subsided, a consultation was held as to future proceedings. They were not long in coming to a conclusion. It was resolved that a house should be built in the middle of this wild garden, which should be, for a time at least, their home.
The poor llamas had made their last journey. They were to be killed. Guapo, although reluctant to part with his old favourites, knew that they could not live in the warm climate of the valley, and therefore consented. Their flesh, it is true, is none of the best, but it would taste the better that no other was to be had; and their wool and skins would be found useful. The llamas were killed.
THE GUACO AND THE CORAL SNAKE.
It was Guapo himself that killed the llamas, and, having skinned them, he cut the flesh into thin strips, and hung it upon the branches to dry in the sun. This, of course, was necessary, as they had no salt to cure it with; but meat well dried under a hot sun will keep good for a long time. It is curious, that in all Spanish-American countries they preserve most of their meat in this way, whereas in North America, among the people of our own race, "jerked beef" (for that is the name we give it) is very rare.
Now, in Spanish-America there are vast depositories of salt—both in mines and on plains, with salt lakes—called salinas; yet, for want of a proper commercial activity existing among these people, in many places the valuable article, salt, is both scarce and dear. In Mexico dried or "jerked" beef is called "tasajo." In Peru, as we have stated, it is "charqui;" but mutton cured in this way is distinguished by the name "chalona." Now as the llamas are a species of sheep, it was "chalona" that Guapo was making out of their mutton.
The others were not idle; Don Pablo, assisted by Leon, was clearing a place on which they intended to build the house, while the Dona Isidora, with her soft slender fingers (for the first time in her life, perhaps), was acting as laundress, and the little Leona assisted her as much as she was able. Where did they get their soap, for they had not brought so much as a single cake along with them?
But Don Pablo was too good a botanist not to know the nature of the trees that grew around, and the uses to which they could be applied. Near by grew a curious tree, which is known among the Indians as the parapara. It was the soap-berry of botanists and Don Pablo knew that the bark of the berries, when rubbed, produces a lather that will wash linen equal to the best "Castile." Dona Isidora was not long in making a trial of it, and found this to be true. The little round stones of the berries, when cleared of the pulp, are very pretty, and are much used by the missionaries in making rosaries. Leon found, dropping one of them on a stone, that it was as elastic as a ball of India rubber, for it rebounded several times the height of a man's head!
In the evening they all rested from their various occupations, and seated themselves upon the new-cleared ground, upon the trunk of a tree that had been felled. They were one and all quite cheerful. They felt no more apprehension of pursuit. It would have been a very revengeful enemy, indeed, who would have followed them so far into the wilderness. They had no fear of that. Dona Isidora had just cooked a kettle of coffee—they had both pots and kettles, for these were some of the utensils with which Guapo, even in the hurry of flight, had taken the precaution to load his llamas.
This coffee turned out to be of the finest quality. It was of a peculiar species, which has long been cultivated by the missionaries of Peru, and which yields a very high price. It used to be sent by the viceroys as a valued present to the kings of Spain. To sweeten the coffee some joints of sugar-cane had been crushed, and boiled in a rough manner; and for bread they had roasted plantains. During the repast they were all quite merry, and pleasant jokes were passed for the first time in many days.
While thus engaged a singular sound fell upon their ears. It was like a voice repeating the word "Guaco!" They all listened. "Guaco—Guaco!" again came the voice.
"Hola!" cried Leon, "Guapo—Guapo! there's some one calling you, Guapo. There again!—no—it's 'Guaco'—listen! Guaco—Guaco' What is it, I wonder?"
"That's the snake-bird," quietly answered Guapo, who, it must be remembered, was a native of the Montana, and knew a great deal both about the birds and beasts of these regions.
"The snake-bird?" exclaimed Leon, evidently interested in the name.
"Yes, young master!" replied Guapo; "look! yonder it goes!"
The eyes of all were instantly turned in the direction pointed out by Guapo. There sure enough was a bird, not much larger than a common pigeon, but which had all the appearance of a sparrow-hawk. It was "swallow-tailed," however, and this, with its peculiar form and the manner of its flight, showed that it was one of the kite-hawks. When first noticed, it was perched upon the top of a high tree, but it soon flew to another not so high, uttering as it went, the "Guaco—Guaco!" It then pitched itself to a still lower branch, and was evidently after something which none of the party could see. That something, however, soon became apparent. The ground had been cleared in a broad track down to the water's edge, and near the middle of the open space an object was observed in motion, making towards the weeds. That object was a snake.
It was not a large one—not more than three feet in length—and its beautiful body, variegated with bands of black, red, and bright yellow, glistened as it moved. Its predominating colour was a fleshy red, or coral, from whence it has its name, for both Don Pablo and Guapo, as soon as they saw it, pronounced it the "coral snake." Beautiful as it appeared, all knew that it was one of the most poisonous of serpents—one of the most dreaded of South American reptiles.
The first thought of Guapo and Leon was to spring up, seize upon some weapon, and kill the creature. Don Pablo, however, restrained them.
"Stay where you are," said he; "be patient; we shall have a scene. Look at the hawk,—see!"
As Don Pablo spoke, the guaco, which had hopped down to the lowest branches of a neighbouring tree, swooped suddenly at the snake, evidently aiming to clutch it around the neck. The latter, however, had been too quick, and coiling itself, like a flash of lightning darted its head out towards the bird in a threatening manner. Its eyes sparkled with rage, and their fiery glitter could be seen even at many yards distance.
The bird diverged from its course, and after passing the snake, turned and swooped again from the opposite direction. But the reptile had shifted its body so as to meet the attack, and its threatening head once more was reared high above its coiled body. The guaco was foiled a second time.
This second failure seemed to enrage the bird, as it turned at shorter intervals, and apparently losing all fear, fluttered over the reptile, striking both with beak and claws. The latter still kept in its coil, but its head moved hastily from side to side, so as always to "show front" to its active antagonist.
After this play had continued for some time, the snake was seen to draw in its head farther than usual, and the hawk, evidently somewhat off his guard, deeming this a fair opportunity, pounced forward to seize it. But he was met half way. The head of the serpent shot forward like a rapier, and reached his breast. The hawk felt that he was wounded; and uttering a wild scream, he flew suddenly away.
All eyes watched him as he flew off, expecting that he would fall—for the bite of the coral snake will kill even a man in a few minutes, and a bird or small animal in much less time. It is not correct to say that all of them expected to see him fall. Guapo, from experience, knew better, and even Don Pablo, as a naturalist, had heard a strange account of this singular bird, and was curious to witness the result. The hawk, therefore, was narrowly watched.
It flew directly for a tree, up against the trunk of which, and clinging to its branches, grew a parasite or creeping plant. The latter was of the thickness of a willow rod, with long slender leaves, of a dark green colour. The bird did not alight upon the top of the tree, but on a branch where it could reach the leaves of the creeper, which it began immediately to pluck and devour. In a short while it had eaten as many as a dozen of these long leaves, when it again took to wing, and flew back in the direction of the snake.
All had, for the moment, forgotten the snake, in their eagerness to watch the movements of the bird. To their astonishment the reptile was still in the same place, and coiled up as when last seen. This was easily explained, however, as snakes who defend themselves in that attitude usually remain coiled, until they are certain that their enemy has gone away and will not return to the attack.
The contest was now renewed with redoubled fury. The bird fought with fresh courage, knowing that he had taken precautions against a fatal result, while the snake defended itself with the energy of despair. This time the battle was a short one. The guaco, using its wings, succeeded in striking its antagonist upon the upraised head, and quickly following up the blow, planted his talons so as to encircle the throat of his victim. The effect of his gripe was instantly apparent. The reptile unfolded itself, and the slender coral body was seen writhing and twisting along the ground. But it did not remain long upon the ground, for in a few moments the guaco rose into the air, and carried the struggling victim into the woods to devour it at his leisure.
Now Guapo was exceedingly pleased at what had occurred. Why? It was not because such a scene was at all new to him. No; he had often witnessed such, and was no longer curious upon that head. It was something more than mere curiosity that moved Guapo. When the affair was over, he rose from his seat, and stalking off to the place where the bird had been seen to eat the leaves, he gathered a quantity of them, and then returned to the fire. Don Pablo recognised them as the leaves of a plant of the genus Mikania, and known popularly as the "vejuco de guaco."
Guapo knew nothing of the scientific designation of the plant, but he had long ago been taught the valuable properties of its leaves as an antidote against the bite of the most poisonous snakes. He had known them to cure the bite of the cascabel (rattle-snake), and even of the small spotted viper, the most poisonous of all the American snakes.
What, then, did Guapo with the leaves of the vejuco? First, he chopped them up as fine as he could, and then, tying them tightly in a piece of cotton cloth, he expressed from them a quantity of juice—enough for his purpose. That done, with the point of a knife he made small incisions between his toes, and also upon his breast and fingers. Into each of these incisions, even while the blood was flowing from them, he dropped the juice of the Mikania, and rubbed it in with fresh leaves of the plant itself; and then, with some tufts of the soft floss of the silk-cotton tree he covered the incisions, so as to stop the bleeding. He wound up this strange performance, by chewing some of the leaves, and swallowing about a spoonful of the juice. This made the "inoculation" complete, and Guapo, as he himself declared, was now invulnerable to the bite of the most venomous serpent!
He offered to "inoculate" the others in the same way. They at first refused—Don Pablo among the rest—but after a day or two, when each of the party had met with several narrow escapes from vipers, coral snakes, and the much-dreaded "jararaca," Don Pablo thought it prudent that all should submit to the operation, and accordingly Guapo "doctored" the party without more ado.
It happened, that upon the opposite side of the stream there was a broad track covered with palm-trees, while not one was to be seen on that side where they intended building their house. As these are the most convenient trees for constructing a house to suit the hot climate of the Montana, it appeared necessary that they should use them. But how were they to get at them? The stream flowed between them and the camp; and although not a large river, yet at that place it was very wide and deep, for in the flat table valley it expanded to the dimensions of a little lake.
Below, where it issued out of the valley, it ran for some distance in a deep cleft between rocky banks almost or quite perpendicular, and above the valley it came dashing through an impassable ravine. If they could only get over to cut the palms, they knew they could roll them to the bank, and float them across the stretch of still water. But how to get over required some consideration. Guapo could swim like a water-dog, but Don Pablo could not; and Leon, having been brought up as a town boy, had had but little practice, and consequently was but a poor swimmer. What, then, was to be done, as Guapo could not well manage the palms without help?
After examining the stream, both above and below, no crossing place could be found, but just at the point where it ran out of the valley, the space between the high banks was very narrow. A good long plank would have reached across it—had they only had one—but that they had not. Now, upon the opposite bank there grew a tall tree. It was one of the beautiful silk-cotton trees already mentioned. It stood upon the very edge of the chasm. Both Don Pablo and Guapo saw at a glance that this tree could be felled, and made to fall across the stream, so as to form the very bridge they wanted.
Not much time was lost about it. Guapo, tying his axe upon his shoulders, ran up the near side, until he was opposite the still running water; and then plunging in, swam across in a few seconds. He soon after appeared on the opposite bank, at the root of the bombax, which he attacked in such a manner that one who did not know what he was about might have fancied he was angry at it. In a few minutes a great notch appeared in the side of the tree, and Guapo continuing his sturdy blows, made the yellow chips fly out in showers. Of course the notch was cut on the side next the stream, so that the tree would fall in that direction. The beaver understands that much, and Guapo had considerably more intelligence than any beaver.
In about half-an-hour the bombax began to creak and lean a little. Then Don Pablo threw over a lasso, which had been brought along. Guapo noosed one end over a high limb, and tying a stone to the other, pitched it back to Don Pablo, who hauled it taut. Then a few cuts of the axe broke the skin of the tree on the other side, Don Pablo pulled by the rope, and with a loud tear and a crash, and a vast deal of crackling among the branches, the great bombax settled into a horizontal position across the chasm. The bridge was built.
After all, it was no slight adventure to cross it. The rounded trunk was anything but sure footing, and even had it been a flat plank, the depth of the chasm—nearly an hundred feet clear—and the white roaring torrent below, were enough to shake the stoutest nerves. All, however, got over in safety, and proceeded up to the palm-woods. I say all—but I mean only the male population of the new settlement. Dona Isidora and the little Leona remained by the camp, both of them busy scraping yucca roots, to be manufactured into cassava, and then into bread.
On arriving among the palm-trees, Don Pablo was struck with a singular fact. He observed (indeed, he had already noticed as much from the opposite side of the river) that instead of one species of palm, there were not less than a dozen kinds growing in this wood. This was a very unusual circumstance, as although two or three species are often found together, such a varied collection as were there could only have been made by human hands. Here, again, was recognised the work of the missionary monk, who had no doubt planted most of the species, having received them very likely from many distant stations of his fellow-labourers in other parts of the Amazon valley.
Whether Franciscan, Jesuit, or Dominican (for all three have had their missions in this part of the world), the holy father who resided here, thought Don Pablo, must have been an ardent horticulturist. Whether or not he converted many Indians to his faith, he seemed to have exerted himself to provide for their temporal necessities, for there was hardly a useful plant or tree suitable to the climate that was not to be found growing near the spot. Such were the reflections of Don Pablo.
"What a variety of beautiful palms!" said he, looking around upon these by far the fairest forms of the vegetable creation.
Now, my boy reader, I have not the slightest doubt but that you, too, think the palms the fairest forms of the vegetable creation. I have not the shadow of a doubt that your heart beats joyfully at the very word "palm;" that you love to gaze at one of the stately trees, and that you would give all your pocket-money for an afternoon's ramble through a real palm-wood. Would you not? Yes. I am sure of it. Now I could tell you a great deal about palms if I would; and I would, too, if my space and time allowed me, but neither will, alas! Why, if I were only to give you even the shortest and dryest botanic description of all the different palms that are known to us, that mere dry catalogue would fill a book as big as this one!
How many species do you think there are? Up to this time you have thought, perhaps, there was only one, and that was the palm-tree itself. Maybe you have heard of more, such as the sago-palm, the cocoa-nut palm, the date-palm, or the cabbage-palm; and you fancied there might be others—perhaps as many as a dozen! Now you will hardly credit me when I tell you that we know of no less than six hundred species of palms, all differing from each other! I may add, further, that it is my belief that there exist on the earth as many more—that is, the enormous number of twelve hundred.
The reason why I entertain this belief is, that in all cases where similar guesses have been hazarded—whether with regard to plants, or birds, or mammalia—they have eventually proved far below the mark; and as the palm countries are the very regions of the earth least known and least explored by botanists, it is but reasonable to conclude that great numbers of species have never yet been described, nor even seen. Another fact which strengthens this probability is, that peculiar species of palms are sometimes found only in a limited district, and nowhere else in the same country. A small river even sometimes forms the boundary-line of a species; and although whole groves may be seen on the one side, not a tree of the same sort grows on the other. Some botanists even prognosticate that more than two thousand species of palms will yet become known.