Chapter XII. A Steady Hand.
 

It was now more than eighteen months since the Hardys had been fairly established at Mount Pleasant. A stranger who had passed along at the time the house was first finished would certainly fail to recognize it now. Then it was a bare, uninviting structure, looking, as has been said, like a small dissenting chapel built on the top of a gentle rise, without tree or shelter of any kind. Now it appeared to rise from a mass of bright green foliage, so rapidly had the trees grown, especially the bananas and other tropical shrubs planted upon each side of the house. At the foot of the slope were some sixty or seventy acres of cultivated ground, while to the right were three or four large and strong wire enclosures, in which the milch cows, the cattle, the sheep, and the pigs were severally driven at night.

Everything was prospering beyond Mr. Hardy's most sanguine expectations. More and more land was monthly being broken up and irrigated. Large profits had been realized by buying lean cattle during the dry season, fattening them upon alfalfa, and sending them down to Rosario for sale. The pigs had multiplied astonishingly; and the profits from the dairy were increasing daily, as more cows were constantly added. The produce of Mount Pleasant was so valued at both Rosario and Buenos Ayres that the demand, at most remunerative prices, far exceeded the supply.

Additions had been made to the number of peons, and the farm presented quite an animated appearance.

The two years which had elapsed since the Hardys left England had effected a considerable change in their appearance. Charley was now eighteen--a squarely-built, sturdy young fellow. From his life of exposure in the open air he looked older than he was. He had a strong idea that he was now becoming a man; and Ethel had one day detected him examining his cheeks very closely in the glass, to see if there were any signs of whiskers. It was a debated question in his own mind whether a beard would or would not be becoming to him. Hubert was nearly seventeen: he was taller and slighter than his brother, but was younger both in appearance and manners. He had all the restlessness of a boy, and lacked somewhat of Charley's steady perseverance.

The elder brother was essentially of a practical disposition. He took a lively interest in the affairs of the farm, and gave his whole mind to it. If he went out shooting he did so to get game for the table. He enjoyed the sport, and entered heartily into it, but he did so in a business sort of way.

Hubert was a far more imaginative boy. He stuck to the work of the farm as conscientiously as his brother did, but his attention was by no means of the same concentrated kind. A new butterfly, an uncommon insect, would be irresistible to him; and not unfrequently, when he went out with his gun to procure some game which Mr. Hardy had wanted upon the arrival of some unexpected visitor, he would come back in a high state of triumph with some curious little bird, which he had shot after a long chase, the requirements of the household being altogether forgotten.

Maud was fifteen. Her constant out-of-door exercise had made her as nimble and active as a young fawn. She loved to be out and about, and her two hours of lessons with her mamma in the afternoon were a grievous penance to her.

Ethel wanted three months of fourteen, and looked under twelve. She was quite the home-bird of the family, and liked nothing better than taking her work and sitting by the hour, quietly talking to her mother.

The time was now again approaching when the Indian forays were to be expected. It was still a month earlier than the attack of the year before, and Mr. Hardy, with the increased number of his men, had not the least fear of any successful assault upon Mount Pleasant; but he resolved, when the time came, to take every possible precaution against attacks upon the animals. He ordered that the iron gates of the enclosures should be padlocked at night, and that some of the native dogs should be chained there as sentinels. He looked forward with some little anxiety to the Indian moon, as it is called, because, when he had ridden out with Lopez and two of their Canterbury friends to the scene of the encounter a few days after it had taken place, they found that the Indians had fled so precipitately upon the loss of their horses that they had not even buried the bodies of their friends, and that, short as the time had been, the foxes had left nothing but a few bones remaining of these. From the moccasins, however, and from other relics of the Indians strewn about, Lopez had pronounced at once that two tribes had been engaged in the fray: the one, inhabitants of the pampas--a people which, although ready to murder any solitary whites, seldom attack a prepared foe; and the other, of Indians from the west, of a far more warlike and courageous character. The former tribe, Lopez affirmed--and the natives of the country agreed with him--would not of themselves have been likely to attempt a fresh attack upon antagonists who had proved themselves so formidable, but the latter would be almost certain to make some desperate attempt to wipe off the disgrace of their defeat. Under these circumstances, although perfectly confident of their power to beat off any attack, it was resolved that every precaution should be taken when the time approached.

Late one afternoon, however, Mr. Fitzgerald had gone out for a ride with Mr. Hardy. Charley had gone down to the dam with his gun on his shoulder, and Hubert had ridden to a pool in the river at some distance off, where he had the day before observed a wild duck, which he believed to be a new sort. The cattle and flocks had just been driven in by Lopez and two mounted peons at an earlier hour than usual, as Mr. Hardy had that morning given orders that the animals were all to be in their enclosures before dusk. The laborers in the fields below were still at work plowing. Ethel was in the sitting-room working with Mrs. Hardy, while Maud was in the garden picking some fruit for tea.

Presently the occupants of the parlor were startled by a sharp cry from Maud, and in another instant she flew into the room, rushed at a bound to the fireplace, snatched down her light rifle from its hooks over the mantel, and crying, "Quick, Ethel, your rifle!" was gone again in an instant.

Mrs. Hardy and Ethel sprang to their feet, too surprised for the moment to do anything, and then Mrs. Hardy repeated Maud's words, "Quick, Ethel, your rifle!"

Ethel seized it, and with her mother ran to the door. Then they saw a sight which brought a scream from both their lips. Mrs. Hardy fell on her knees and covered her eyes, while Ethel, after a moment's pause, grasped the rifle, which had nearly fallen from her hands, and ran forward, though her limbs trembled so that they could scarcely carry her on.

The sight was indeed a terrible one. At a distance of two hundred yards Hubert was riding for his life. His hat was off, his gun was gone, his face was deadly pale. Behind him rode three Indians. The nearest one was immediately behind him, at a distance of scarce two horses' length; the other two were close to their leader. All were evidently gaining upon him.

Maud had thrown the gate open, and stood by the post with the barrel of her rifle resting on one of the wires. "Steady, Ethel, steady," she said in a hard, strange voice, as her sister joined her; "Hubert's life depends upon your aim. Wait till I fire, and take the man on the right. Aim at his chest."

The sound of Maud's steady voice acted like magic upon her sister; the mist which had swum before her eyes cleared off; her limbs ceased to tremble, and her hand grew steady. Hubert was now within a hundred yards, but the leading Indian was scarce a horse's length behind. He had his tomahawk already in his hand, in readiness for the fatal blow. Another twenty yards and he whirled it round his head with a yell of exultation.

"Stoop, Hubert, stoop!" Maud cried in a loud, clear voice; and mechanically, with the wild war-whoop behind ringing in his ears, Hubert bent forward on to the horse's mane. He could feel the breath of the Indian's horse against his legs, and his heart seemed to stand still.

Maud and her rifle might have been taken for a statue, so immovable and rigid did she stand; and then as the Indian's arm went back for the blow, crack, and without a word or a cry the Indian fell back, struck with the deadly little bullet in the center of the forehead.

Not so silently did Ethel's bullet do its work. A wild cry followed the report: for an instant the Indian reeled in his saddle, and then, steadying himself, turned his horse sharp round, and with his companion galloped off.

Hubert, as his horse passed through the gate and drew up, almost fell from his seat; and it was with the greatest difficulty that he staggered toward Maud, who had gone off in a dead faint as she saw him ride on alone.

Ethel had sat down on the ground, and was crying passionately, and Terence came running down from the house with a gun in his hand, pouring out Irish threats and ejaculations after the Indians. These were changed into a shout of triumph as Charley stepped from behind the henhouse, as they passed at a short distance, and at the discharge of his double barrels the unwounded Indian fell heavily from his horse.

Anxious as he was to assist his young mistresses, for Hubert was far too shaken to attempt to lift Maud from the ground, Terence stood riveted to the spot watching the remaining Indian. Twice he reeled in the saddle, and twice recovered himself, but the third time, when he was distant nearly half a mile, he suddenly fell off to the ground.

"I thought the murdering thief had got it," muttered Terence to himself, as he ran down to raise Maud, and with the assistance of Sarah to carry her up to the house, against the doorway of which Mrs. Hardy was still leaning, too agitated to trust herself to walk.

Hubert, now somewhat recovered, endeavored to pacify Ethel, and the two walked slowly up toward the house. In a minute or two Charley came running up, and the peons were seen hurrying toward them. After a silent shake of the hand to his brother, and a short "Thank God!" Charley, with his accustomed energy, took the command.

"Hubert, do you and Terence get all the arms loaded at once. Lopez, tell the peons to hurry up the plow oxen, shut them in the enclosure, and padlock all the gates. I will warn you if there's any danger. Then bring all the men and women up here. I am going to run up the danger flag. Papa is out somewhere on the plains." So saying, and taking his Colt's carbine, he ran up the stairs.

In a moment afterward his voice was heard again. "Hubert, Terence, bring all the guns that are loaded up here at once--quick, quick!" and then he shouted loudly in Spanish, "Come in all; come in for your lives!" In another minute they joined him on the tower with Mr. Hardy's long rifle, Hubert's carbine, and their double-barreled shotguns, into each of which Terence dropped a bullet upon the top of the shot. Hubert could scarcely help giving a cry. At a distance of a quarter of a mile Mr. Hardy and Fitzgerald were coming along, pursued by at least a dozen Indians, who were thirty or forty yards in their rear. They were approaching from behind the house, and would have to make a sweep to get round to the entrance, which was on the right, on the side facing the dam. This would evidently give their pursuers a slight advantage.

"They hold their own," Charley said after a minute's silence; "there is no fear. Lopez!" he shouted, "run and see that the outside as well as the inside gates are open."

It has been already said that a low wire fence had been placed at a distance of a hundred yards beyond the inner enclosure, to protect the young trees from the animals. It was composed of two wires, only a foot apart, and was almost hidden by the long grass. It had a low gate, corresponding in position to the inner one. Charley's quick eye saw at once the importance of the position.

"I think you might use the long rifle now," Hubert said; "it might stop them if they feel that they are in reach of our guns."

"No, no," Charley said, "I don't want to stop them; don't show the end of a gun above the wall." Then he was silent until his father was within three hundred yards. He then shouted at the top of his voice, "Mind the outside fence, mind the outside fence!"

Mr. Hardy raised a hand to show that he heard, and as he approached, Charley shouted again, "Sweep well round the fence, well round it, for them to try and cut you off."

Charley could see that Mr. Hardy heard, for he turned his horse's head so as to go rather wide of the corner of the fence. "Now, Hubert and Terence, get ready; we shall have them directly."

Mr. Hardy and his companion galloped past, with the Indians still fifty yards behind them. Keeping twenty yards from the corner of the fence, the fugitives wheeled round to the right, and the Indians, with a cry of exultation, turned to the right also to cut them off. The low treacherous wire was unnoticed, and in another moment men and horses were rolling in a confused mass upon the ground.

"Now," Charley said, "every barrel we have;" and from the top of the tower a rain of lead poured down upon the bewildered Indians. The horses, frightened and wounded, kicked and struggled dreadfully, and did almost as much harm to their masters as the deadly bullets of the whites; and when the fire ceased not more than half of them regained their seats and galloped off, leaving the rest, men and horses, in a ghastly heap. Seeing them in full retreat, the occupants of the tower descended to receive Mr. Hardy and Fitzgerald, Terence much delighted at having at last had his share in a skirmish.

"Well done, boys! Very well planned, Charley!" Mr. Hardy said as he reined in his horse. "That was a near escape."

"Not as near a one as Hubert has had, by a long way, papa."

"Indeed!" Mr. Hardy said anxiously. "Let me hear all about it."

"We have not heard ourselves yet," Charley answered. "It occurred only a few minutes before your own. The girls behaved splendidly; but they are rather upset now. If you will go up to the house to them, I will be up directly, but there are a few things to see about first. Lopez," he went on, "carry out what I told you before: get the men in from the plows and see all secured. Tell them to hurry, for it will be dark soon. Kill a couple of sheep and bring them up to the house; we shall be a large party, and it may be wanted. Then let the peons all have supper. Come up to the house in an hour for instructions. See yourself that the dogs are fastened down by the cattle. Terence, take your place on the lookout, and fire a gun if you see any one moving."

Having seen that his various orders were obeyed, Charley went up to the house. He found the whole party assembled in the sitting-room. Maud and Ethel had quite recovered, although both looked pale. Mrs. Hardy, absorbed in her attention to them, had fortunately heard nothing of her husband's danger until the firing from above, followed by a shout of triumph, told her that any danger there was had been defeated.

"Now, papa," Charley said, "you give us your account first."

"I have not much to tell, Charley. Fitzgerald and I had ridden out some distance--five miles, I should say--when the dogs stopped at a thicket and put out a lion. Fitzgerald and I both fired with our left-hand barrels, which were loaded with ball. The beast fell, and we got off to skin him. Dash barked furiously, and we saw a couple of dozen Indians coming up close to us. We stopped a moment to give them our barrels with duck-shot, and then jumped into our saddles and rode for it. Unfortunately, we had been foolish enough to go out without our revolvers. They pressed us hard, but I was never in fear of their actually catching us; my only alarm was that one of us might repeat my disaster of the armadillo hole. So I only tried to hold my own thirty or forty yards ahead. I made sure that one or other of you would see us coming, and I should have shouted loudly enough, I can tell you, to warn you as I came up. Besides, I knew that at the worst the arms were hanging above the fireplace, and that we only wanted time to run in, catch them up, and get to the door, to be able to defend the house till you could help us. And now, what is your story, Charley?"

"I have even less than you, papa. I was down at the dam, and then I went into the henhouse, and I was just thinking that I could make a better arrangement for the nests, when I heard an Indian war-yell between me and the house. It was followed almost directly by two cracks which I knew were the girls' rifles. I rushed to the door and looked out, and I saw two Indians coming along at full gallop. By the direction they were taking, they would pass only a little way from the henhouse; so I stepped back till I heard they were opposite, and then, going out, I gave both barrels to the nearest to me, and stopped his galloping about pretty effectually. When I reached the place I saw that Hubert had had a narrow squeak of it, for Maud had fainted, and Ethel was in a great state of cry. But I had no time to ask many questions, for I ran up to hoist the danger flag, and then saw you and Fitzgerald coming along with the Indians after you. Now, Hubert, let's hear your story."

"Well, papa, you know I said yesterday that I was sure that I had seen a new duck, and this afternoon I rode out to the pools, in hopes that he might still be there. I left my horse and crept on very cautiously through the reeds till I got sight of the water. Sure enough, there was the duck, rather on the other side. I waited for a long half-hour, and at last he came over rather nearer. He dived at my first barrel, but as he came up I gave him my second. Flirt went in and brought him out. He was new, sure enough--two blue feathers under the eye--"

"Bother the duck, Hubert," Charley put in. "We don't care for his blue feathers; we want to hear about the Indians."

"Well, I am coming to the Indians," Hubert said; "but it was a new duck, for all that; and if you like it, I will show it you. There!" And he took it out of his pocket and laid it on the table. No one appeared to have the slightest interest in it, or to pay any attention to it. So Hubert went on: "Well, after looking at the duck, I put it into my pocket, and went out from the bushes to my horse. As I got to him I heard a yell, which nearly made me tumble down, it startled me so; and not a hundred yards away, and riding to cut me off from home, were thirty or forty Indians. I was not long, as you may guess, climbing into my saddle, and bolted like a shot. I could not make straight for home, but had to make a sweep to get round them. I was better mounted than all of them, except three; but they kept gradually gaining on me, while all the rest in turn gave up the chase; and, like papa, I had left my revolver behind. Black Tom did his best, and I encouraged him to the utmost; but I began to think that it was all up with me, for I was convinced that they would catch me before I could get in. When I was little more than three hundred yards from the gate I saw Maud come dashing down with her rifle toward the gate, and a little afterward Ethel came too. The Indians kept getting nearer and nearer, and I expected every moment to feel the tomahawk. I could not think why the girls did not fire, but I supposed that they did not feel sure enough of their aim: and I had the consolation that the Indian nearest could not be going to strike, or they would risk a shot. On I went: the Indian was so close that I could feel his horse's breath, and the idea came across my mind that the brute was trying to catch hold of the calf of my leg. At a hundred yards I could see Maud's face quite plain, and then I felt certain I was saved. She looked as steady as if she had been taking aim at a mark, and the thought flashed across me of how last week she had hit a small stone on a post, at eighty yards, first shot, when Charley and I had missed it half a dozen times each. Then there was a frightful yell, almost in my ear. Then I heard Maud cry out, 'Stoop, Hubert, stoop!' I was stooping before, but my head went down to the horse's mane, I can tell you.' And then there was the crack of the two rifles, and a yell of pain. I could not look round, but I felt that the horse behind me had stopped, and that I was safe. That's my story, papa."

A few more questions elicited from Mrs. Hardy all that she knew of it, and then the warmest commendations were bestowed upon the girls. Ethel, however, generously disclaimed all praise, as she said that she should have done nothing at all had it not been for Maud's steadiness and coolness.

"And now let us have our tea," Mr. Hardy said; "and then we can talk over our measures for to-night."

"Do you think that they will attack us, papa?" Ethel asked.

"Yes, Ethel, I think that most likely they will. As we came across the plain I noticed several other parties quite in the distance. There must be a very strong body out altogether, and probably they have resolved upon vengeance for their last year's defeat. They had better have left it alone, for they have no more chance of taking this house, with us all upon our guard, than they have of flying. There is one advantage in it--they will get such a lesson that I do think we shall be perfectly free from Indian attacks for the future."

After tea Lopez came up for orders. "You will place," Mr. Hardy said, "two peons at each corner of the outside fence. One of us will come round every half-hour to see that all is right. Their instructions are that in case they hear any movement one is to come up to us immediately with the news, and the other is to go round to tell the other sentries to do the same. All this is to be done in perfect silence. I do not want them to know that we are ready for their reception. Bring some fresh straw up and lay it down here on the floor: the women can sleep here."

"What shall I do about your own horses, signor?" Lopez asked.

Mr. Hardy thought a moment. "I think you had better send them down to the enclosure with the others; they might be driven off if they are left up here, and I do not see that we can require them."

"But what about the cattle, papa?" Charley asked.

"It would be a serious loss if they were driven off, especially the milch cows. If you like, I will go down with Terence, and we can take up our station among them. It would be a strong post, for the Indians of course could not attack us on horseback; and with my carbine, and Terence's gun, and a brace of revolvers, I think we could beat them off easily enough, especially as you would cover us with your guns."

"I had thought of that plan, Charley; but it would be dangerous, and would cause us up here great anxiety, I imagine, too, that as no doubt their great object is vengeance, they will attack us first here, or they may make an effort upon the cattle at the same time that they attack here. They will not begin with the animals. They will find it a very difficult business to break down the fence, which they must do to drive them out; and while they are about it we shall not be idle, depend upon it."

The preparations were soon made and it was agreed that Mr. Hardy and Hubert should go the rounds alternately with Charley and Fitzgerald. As a usual thing, the Indian attacks take place in the last hour or two of darkness. Mr. Hardy thought, however, that an exception would be made in the present case, in order that they might get as far as possible away before any pursuit took place. The wives of the peons lay down to sleep on the straw which had been thrown down for them. The men sat outside the door, smoking their cigarettes and talking in low whispers. Mrs. Hardy was in her room; Ethel kept her company, Maud dividing her time between them and the top of the tower, where Mr. Hardy, Fitzgerald, and the boys were assembled in the intervals between going their rounds.

At about ten o'clock there was a sharp bark from one of the dogs fastened up by the fold, followed up by a general barking of all the dogs on the establishment.

"There they are," Mr. Hardy said. "Charley, bring the mastiffs inside, and order them, and the retrievers too, to be quiet. We do not want any noise up here, to tell the Indians that we are on the watch. Now, Fitzgerald, you go to the sentries behind the house, and I will go to those in front, to tell them to fall back at once."

This mission was, however, unnecessary, for the eight peons all arrived in a minute or two, having fled from their posts at the first barking of the dogs, and without obeying their orders to send round to each other to give notice of their retreat.

Mr. Hardy was very angry with them, but they were in such abject fear of the Indians that they paid little heed to their master's words, but went and huddled themselves together upon the straw in the sitting-room, remaining there without movement until all was over. Terence was now recalled from the gate, which had been his post.

"Did you hear anything, Terence?"

"Sure, your honor, and I thought I heard a dull sound like a lot of horses galloping in the distance. I should say that there were a great many of them. It seemed to get a little louder, and then it stopped."

"That was before the dogs began to bark, Terence?"

"About five minutes before, your honor."

"Yes. I have no doubt that they all dismounted to make the attack on foot. How quiet everything is!"

The general barking of the dogs had now ceased: sometimes one or another gave a suspicious yelping bark, but between these no sound whatever was audible. The door was now closed and barred; candles were lighted and placed in every room, thick cloths having been hung up before the loopholes in the shutters, to prevent a ray of light from escaping; and the windows themselves were opened. Mr. Fitzgerald, the boys, and Maud took their station on the tower, Mr. Hardy remaining with his wife and Ethel, while Terence and Lopez kept watch in the other apartments. The arrangements for the defense were that Mr. Fitzgerald, Lopez, and Terence should defend the lower part of the house. There were in all six double-barreled guns--two to each of them; and three of the peons more courageous than the others offered to load the guns as they were discharged.

Mr. Hardy and the boys had their place on the tower, from which they commanded the whole garden. They had the long rifle, the carbines, and four revolvers. Mrs. Hardy and the girls took their place in the upper room of the tower, where there was a light. Their rifles were ready in case of necessity, but their principal duty was to load the spare chambers of the carbines and pistols as fast as they were emptied, the agreement being that the girls should go up by turns to take the loaded ones and bring down the empties. Sarah's place was her kitchen, where she could hear all that was going on below, and she was to call up the ladder in case aid was required. And so, all being in readiness, they calmly awaited the attack.