On the Pampas by G. A. Henty
Chapter XIV. Terrible News.
Another two years passed over, bringing increased prosperity to the Hardys. No renewal of the Indian attacks had occurred, and in consequence an increased flow of emigration had taken place in their neighborhood. Settlers were now established upon all the lots for many miles upon either side of Mount Pleasant; and even beyond the twelve miles which the estate stretched to the south the lots had been sold. Mr. Hardy considered that all danger of the flocks and herds being driven off had now ceased, and had therefore added considerably to their numbers, and had determined to allow them to increase without further sales until they had attained to the extent of the supporting power of the immense estate.
Two hundred acres of irrigated land were under cultivation; the dairy contained the produce of a hundred cows; and altogether Mount Pleasant was considered one of the finest and most profitable estancias in the province.
The house was now worthy of the estate; the inside fence had been removed fifty yards further off, and the vegetable garden to a greater distance, the includes space being laid out entirely as a pleasure garden.
Beautiful tropical trees and shrubs, gorgeous patches of flowers, and green turf surrounded the front and sides; while behind was a luxuriant and most productive orchard.
The young Hardys had for come time given up doing any personal labor, and were incessantly occupied in the supervision of the estate and of the numerous hands employed: for them a long range of adobe huts had been built at some little distance in the rear of the enclosure.
Maud and Ethel had during this period devoted much more time to their studies, and the time was approaching when Mrs. Hardy was to return with them to England, in order that they might pass a year in London under the instruction of the best masters. Maud was now seventeen, and could fairly claim to be looked upon as a young woman. Ethel still looked very much younger than her real age: any one, indeed, would have guessed that there was at least three years' difference between the sisters. In point of acquirements, however, she was quite her equal, her much greater perseverance more than making up for her sister's quickness.
A year previously Mr. Hardy had, at one of his visits to Buenos Ayres, purchased a piano, saying nothing of what he had done upon his return; and the delight of the girls and their mother, when the instrument arrived in a bullock cart, was unbounded. From that time the girls practiced almost incessantly; indeed, as Charley remarked, it was as bad as living in the house with a whole boarding-school of girls.
After this Mount Pleasant, which had always been considered as the most hospitable and pleasant estancia in the district, became more than ever popular, and many were the impromptu dances got up. Sometimes there were more formal affairs, and all the ladies within twenty miles would come in. These were more numerous than would have been expected. The Jamiesons were doing well, and in turn going for a visit to their native country, had brought out two bright young Scotchwomen as their wives.
Mrs. Mercer was sure to be there, and four or five other English ladies from nearer or more distant estancias. Some ten or twelve native ladies, wives or daughters of native proprietors, would also come in, and the dancing would be kept up until a very late hour. Then the ladies would lie down for a short time, all the beds being given up to them, and a number of shake-downs improvised; while the gentlemen would sit and smoke for an hour or two, and then, as day broke, go down for a bathe in the river. These parties were looked upon by all as most enjoyable affairs; and as eatables of all sorts were provided by the estate itself, they were a very slight expense, and were of frequent occurrence. Only one thing Mr. Hardy bargained for--no wines or other expensive liquors were to be drunk. He was doing well--far, indeed, beyond his utmost expectation--but at the same time he did not consider himself justified in spending money upon luxuries.
Tea, therefore, and cooling drinks made from fruits, after the custom of the country, were provided in abundance for the dancers; but wine was not produced. With this proviso, Mr. Hardy had no objection to his young people having their dances frequently; and in a country where all were living in a rough way, and wine was an unknown luxury, no one missed it. In other respects the supper tables might have been admired at an English ball. Of substantials there was abundance--turkeys and fowls, wild duck and other game. The sweets were represented by trifle, creams, and blanc-manges; while there was a superb show of fruit--apricots, peaches, nectarines, pineapples, melons, and grapes. Among them were vases of gorgeous flowers, most of them tropical in character, but with them were many old English friends, of which Mr. Hardy had procured seeds.
Their neighbors at Canterbury were still their most intimate friends: they were shortly, however, to lose one of them. Mr. Cooper had heard six months before of the death of his two elder brothers in rapid succession, and he was now heir to his father's property, which was very extensive. It had been supposed that he would at once return to England, and he was continually talking of doing so; but he had, under one excuse or other, put off his departure from time to time. He was very frequently over at Mount Pleasant and was generally a companion of the boys upon their excursions.
"I think Cooper is almost as much here as he is at Canterbury," Charley said, laughing, one day.
Mrs. Hardy happened to glance at Maud, and noticed a bright flush of color on her cheeks. She made no remark at the time, but spoke to Mr. Hardy about it at night.
"You see, my dear," she concluded, "we are still considering Maud as a child, but other people may look upon her as a woman."
"I am sorry for this," Mr. Hardy said after a pause, "We ought to have foreseen the possibility of such a thing. Now that it is mentioned, I wonder we did not do so before. Mr. Cooper has been here so much that the thing would have certainly struck us, had we not, as you say, looked upon Maud as a child. Against Mr. Cooper I have nothing to say. We both like him extremely. His principles are good, and he would, in point of money, be of course an excellent match for our little girl. At the same time, I cannot permit anything like an engagement. Mr. Cooper has seen no other ladies for so long a time that it is natural enough he should fall in love with Maud. Maud, on the other hand, has only seen the fifteen or twenty men who came here; she knows nothing of the world and is altogether inexperienced. They are both going to England, and may not improbably meet people whom they may like very much better, and may look upon this love-making in the pampas as a folly. At the end of another two years, when Maud is nineteen, if Mr. Cooper renew the acquaintance in England, and both parties agree, I shall of course offer no objection, and indeed should rejoice much at a match which would promise well for her happiness."
Mrs. Hardy thoroughly agreed with her husband, and so the matter rested for a short time.
It was well that Mr. Hardy had been warned by his wife, for a week after this Mr. Cooper met him alone when he was out riding, and after some introduction, expressed to him that he had long felt that he had loved his daughter, but had waited until she was seventeen before expressing his wishes. He said that he had delayed his departure for England on this account alone, and now asked permission to pay his addresses to her, adding that he hoped that he was not altogether indifferent to her.
Mr. Hardy heard him quietly to the end.
"I can hardly say that I am unprepared for what you say, Mr. Cooper, although I had never thought of such a thing until two days since. Then your long delay here, and your frequent visits to our house, opened the eyes of Mrs. Hardy and myself. To yourself, personally, I can entertain no objection. Still, when I remember that you are only twenty-six, and that for the last four years you have seen no one with whom you could possibly fall in love, with the exception of my daughter, I can hardly think that you have had sufficient opportunity to know your own mind. When you return to England you will meet young ladies very much prettier and very much more accomplished than my Maud, and you may regret the haste which led you to form an engagement out here."
"You shake your head, as is natural that you should do; but I repeat, you cannot at present know your own mind. If this is true of you, it is still more true of my daughter. She is very young, and knows nothing whatever of the world. Next month she proceeds to England with her mother, and for the next two years she will be engaged upon finishing her education. At the end of that time I shall myself return to England, and we shall then enter into society. If at that time you are still of the same way of thinking, and choose to renew our acquaintance, I shall be very happy, in the event of Maud accepting you, to give my consent. But I must insist that there shall be no engagement, no love-making, no understanding of any sort or kind, before you start. I put it to your honor as a gentleman, that you will make no effort to meet her alone, and that you will say nothing whatever to her, to lead her to believe that you are in love with her. Only when you say good-by to her, you may say that I have told you that as the next two years are to be passed in study, to make up for past deficiencies, I do not wish her to enter at all into society, but that at the end of that time you hope to renew the acquaintance."
Mr. Cooper endeavored in vain to alter Mr. Hardy's determination, and was at last obliged to give the required promise.
Mr. and Mrs. Hardy were not surprised when, two or three days after this, Mr. Cooper rode up and said that he had come to say good-by, that he had received letters urging him to return at once, and had therefore made up his mind to start by the next mail from Buenos Ayres.
The young Hardys were all surprised at this sudden determination, but there was little time to discuss it, as Mr. Cooper had to start the same night for Rosario.
Very warm and earnest were the adieus; and the color, which had rather left Maud's face, returned with redoubled force as he held her hand, and said very earnestly the words Mr. Hardy had permitted him to use.
Then he leaped into his saddle and galloped off, waving his hand, as he crossed the river, to the group which were still standing in the veranda watching him.
For a few days after this Maud was unusually quiet and subdued, but her natural spirits speedily recovered themselves, and she was soon as lively and gay as ever.
About a fortnight after the departure of Mr. Cooper an event took place which for awhile threatened to upset all the plans which they had formed for the future.
One or other of the girls were in the habit of frequently going over to stay for a day or two with Mrs. Mercer.
One evening Hubert rode over with Ethel, and Mrs. Mercer persuaded the latter to stay for the night; Hubert declining to do so, as he had arranged with Charley to go over early to Canterbury to assist at the branding of the cattle at that station.
In the morning they had taken their coffee, and were preparing for a start, when, just as they were mounting their horses, one of the men drew their attention to a man running at full speed toward the house from the direction of Mr. Mercer's.
"What can be the matter?" Charley said. "What a strange thing that a messenger should come over on foot instead of on horseback!"
"Let's ride and meet him, Charley," Hubert said; and putting spurs to their horses, they galloped toward the approaching figure.
As they came close to him he stumbled and fell, and lay upon the ground, exhausted and unable to rise.
The boys sprang from their horses with a feeling of vague uneasiness and alarm.
"What is the matter?" they asked. The peon was too exhausted to reply for a moment or two; then he gasped out, "Los Indies! the Indians!"
The boys gave a simultaneous cry of dread.
"What has happened? Tell us quick, man; are they attacking the estancia?" The man shook his head.
"Estancia burnt. All killed but me," he said.
The news was too sudden and terrible for the boys to speak. They stood white and motionless with horror. "All killed! Oh, Ethel, Ethel!" Charley groaned.
Hubert burst into tears. "What will mamma do?"
"Come, Hubert," Charley said, dashing away the tears from his eyes, "do not let us waste a moment. All hope may not be over. The Indians seldom kill women, but carry them away, and she may be alive yet. If she is, we will rescue her, if we go right across America. Come, man, jump up behind me on my horse."
The peon obeyed the order, and in five minutes they reached the gate. Here they dismounted.
"Let us walk up to the house, Hubert, so as not to excite suspicion. We must call papa out and tell him first, so that he may break it to mamma. If she learn it suddenly, it may kill her."
Mr. Hardy had just taken his coffee, and was standing at the door, looking with a pleased eye upon the signs of comfort and prosperity around him. There was no need, therefore, for them to approach nearer. As Mr. Hardy looked round upon hearing the gate shut, Charley beckoned to him to come down to them. For a moment he seemed puzzled, and looked round to see if the signal was directed to himself. Seeing that no one else was near him, he again looked at the boys, and Charley earnestly repeated the gesture.
Mr. Hardy, feeling that something strange was happening, ran down the steps and hurried toward them.
By the time he reached them, he had no need to ask questions. Hubert was leaning upon the gate, crying as if his heart would break; Charley stood with his hand on his lips, as if to check the sobs from breaking out, while the tears streamed down his cheeks.
"Ethel?" Mr. Hardy asked.
Charley nodded, and then said, with a great effort, "The Indians have burned the estancia; one of the men has escaped and brought the news. We know nothing more. Perhaps she is carried off, not killed."
Mr. Hardy staggered under the sudden blow. "Carried off!" he murmured to himself. "It is worse than death."
"Yes, papa" Charley said, anxious to give his father's thoughts a new turn. "But we will rescue her, if she is alive, wherever they may take her."
"We will, Charley; we will, my boys," Mr. Hardy said earnestly, and rousing himself at the thought. "I must go up and break it to your mother; though how I shall do so, I know not. Do you give what orders you like for collecting our friends. First, though, let us question this man. When was it?"
"Last night, signor, at eleven o'clock. I had just lain down in my hut, and I noticed that there were still lights downstairs at the house, when, all of a sudden, I heard a yell as of a thousand fiends, and I knew the Indians were upon us. I knew that it was too late to fly, but I threw myself out of the window, and lay flat by the wall, as the Indians burst in. There were eight of us, and I closed my ears to shut out the sound of the others' cries. Up at the house, too, I could hear screams and some pistol shots, and then more screams and cries. The Indians were all round, everywhere, and I dreaded lest one of them should stumble up against me. Then a sudden glare shot up, and I knew they were firing the house. The light would have shown me clearly enough, had I remained where I was; so I crawled on my stomach till I came to some potato ground a few yards off. As I lay between the rows, the plants covered me completely. In another minute or two the men's huts were set fire to, and then I could hear a great tramping, as of horses and cattle going away in the distance. They had not all gone, for I could hear voices all night, and Indians were moving about everywhere, in search of any one who might have escaped. They came close to me several times, and I feared that they would tread on me. After a time all became quiet; but I dared not move till daylight. Then, looking about carefully, I could see no one, and I jumped up, and never stopped running until you met me."
Mr. Hardy now went up to the house to break the sad tidings to his wife. Charley ordered eight peons to saddle horses instantly, and while they were doing so he wrote on eight leaves of his pocketbook: "The Mercers' house destroyed last night by Indians; the Mercers killed or carried off. My sister Ethel with them. For God's sake, join us to recover them. Meet at Mercer's as soon as possible. Send this note round to all neighbors."
One of these slips of paper was given to each peon, and they were told to ride for their lives in different directions, for that Miss Ethel was carried off by the Indians.
This was the first intimation of the tidings that had arrived, and a perfect chorus of lamentation arose from the women, and of execrations of rage from the men. Just at this moment Terence came running down from the house. "Is it true, Mister Charles? Sarah says that the mistress and Miss Maud are gone quite out of their minds, and that Miss Ethel has been killed by the Indians!"
"Killed or carried away, Terence; we do not know where to yet"
Terence was a warm-hearted fellow, and he set up a yell of lamentation which drowned the sobs and curses of the natives.
"Hush, Terence," Charley said. "We shall have time to cry for her afterward; we must be doing now."
"I will, Mister Charles; but you will let me go with you to search for her. Won't you, now, Mister Charles?"
"Yes, Terence; I will take you with us, and leave Lopez in charge. Send him here."
Lopez was close. He, too, was really affected at the loss of his young mistress; for Ethel, by her unvarying sweetness of temper, was a favorite with every one.
"Lopez, you will remain here in charge. We may be away two days--we may be away twenty. I know I can trust you to look after the place just as if we were here."
The capitaz bowed with his hand on his heart. Even the peasants of South America preserve the grand manner and graceful carriage of their Spanish ancestors. "And now, Lopez, do you know of any of the Gauchos in this part of the country who have ever lived with the Indians, and know their country at all?"
"Martinez, one of the shepherds at Canterbury, Signor Charles, was with them for seven months; and Perez, one of Signor Jamieson's men, was longer still."
Charles at once wrote notes asking that Perez and Martinez might accompany the expedition, and dispatched them by mounted peons.
"And now, Lopez, what amount of charqui have we in store?"
"A good stock, signor; enough for fifty men for a fortnight."
Charqui is meat dried in the sun. In hot climates meat cannot be kept for many hours in its natural state. When a bullock is killed, therefore, all the meat which is not required for immediate use is cut up into thin strips, and hung up in the sun to dry. After this process it is hard and strong, and by no means palatable; but it will keep for many months, and is the general food of the people. In large establishments it is usual to kill several animals at once, so as to lay in sufficient store of charqui to last for some time.
"Terence, go up to the house and see what biscuit there is. Lopez, get our horses saddled, and one for Terence--a good one--and give them a feed of maize. Now, Hubert, let us go up to the house, and get our carbines and pistols."
Mr. Hardy came out to meet them as they approached. "How are mamma and Maud, papa?"
"More quiet and composed now, boys. They have both gone to lie down. Maud wanted sadly to go with us, but she gave way directly. I pointed out to her that her duty was to remain here by her mother's side. And now, Charley, what arrangements have you made?"
Charley told his father what he had done.
"That is right. And now we will be off at once. Give Terence orders to bring on the meat and biscuit in an hour's time. Let him load a couple of horses, and bring a man with him to bring them back."
"Shall we bring any rockets, papa?"
"It is not likely that they will be of any use, Hubert; but we may as well take three or four of each sort. Roll up a poncho, boys, and fasten it on your saddles. Put plenty of ammunition in your bags; see your brandy flasks are full, and put out half a dozen bottles to go with Terence. There are six pounds of tobacco in the storeroom; let him bring them all. Hubert, take our water-skins; and look in the storeroom--there are three or four spare skins; give them to Terence, some of our friends may not have thought of bringing theirs, and the country may, for aught we know, be badly watered. And tell him to bring a dozen colored blankets with him."
In a few minutes all these things were attended to, and then, just as they were going out of the house, Sarah came up, her face swollen with crying.
"Won't you take a cup of tea and just something to eat, sir? You've had nothing yet, and you will want it. It is all ready in the dining-room."
"Thank you, Sarah. You are right. Come, boys, try and make a good breakfast. We must keep up our hearts, you know, and we will bring our little woman back ere long."
Mr. Hardy spoke more cheerfully, and the boys soon, too, felt their spirits rising a little. The bustle of making preparations, the prospect of the perilous adventure before them, and the thought that they should assuredly, sooner or later, come up with the Indians, all combined to give them hope. Mr. Hardy had little fear of finding the body of his child under the ruins of the Mercers' house. The Indians never deliberately kill white women, always carrying them off; and Mr. Hardy felt confident that, unless Ethel had been accidentally killed in the assault, this was the fate which had befallen her.
A hasty meal was swallowed, and then, just as they were starting, Mrs. Hardy and Maud came out to say "Good-by," and an affecting scene occurred. Mr. Hardy and the boys kept up as well as they could, in order to inspire the mother and sister with hope during their absence, and with many promises to bring their missing one back they galloped off.
They were scarcely out of the gate, when they saw their two friends from Canterbury coming along at full gallop. Both were armed to the teeth, and evidently prepared for an expedition, They wrung the hands of Mr. Hardy and his sons.
"We ordered our horses the moment we got your note, and ate our breakfasts as they were being got ready. We made a lot of copies of your note, and sent off half a dozen men in various directions with them. Then we came on at once. Of course most of the others cannot arrive for some time yet, but we were too anxious to hear all about it to delay, and we thought that we might catch you before you started, to aid you in your first search. Have you any more certain news than you sent us?"
"None," Mr. Hardy said, and then repeated the relation of the survivor.
There was a pause when he had finished, and then Mr. Herries said:
"Well, Mr. Hardy, I need not tell you, if our dear little Ethel is alive, we will follow you till we find her, if we are a year about it."
"Thanks, thanks," Mr. Hardy said earnestly. "I feel a conviction that we shall yet recover her."
During this conversation they had been galloping rapidly toward the scene of the catastrophe, and, absorbed in their thoughts, not another word was spoken until they gained the first rise, from which they had been accustomed to see the pleasant house of the Mercers. An exclamation of rage and sorrow burst from them all, as only a portion of the chimney and a charred post or two showed where it had stood. The huts of the peons had also disappeared; the young trees and shrubs round the house were scorched up and burned by the heat to which they had been exposed, or had been broken off from the spirit of wanton mischief.
With clinched teeth, and faces pale with rage and anxiety, the party rode on past the site of the huts, scattered round which were the bodies of several of the murdered peons. They halted not until they drew rein, and leaped off in front of the house itself.
It had been built entirely of wood, and only the stumps of the corner posts remained erect. The sun had so thoroughly dried the boards of which it was constructed that it had burned like so much tinder, and the quantity of ashes that remained was very small. Here and there, however, were uneven heaps; and in perfect silence, but with a sensation of overpowering dread, Mr. Hardy and his friends tied up their horses, and proceeded to examine these heaps, to see if they were formed by the remains of human beings.
Very carefully they turned them over, and as they did so their knowledge of the arrangements of the different rooms helped them to identify the various articles. Here was a bed, there a box of closely-packed linen, of which only the outer part was burned, the interior bursting into flames as they turned it over; here was the storeroom, with its heaps of half-burned flour where the sacks had stood.
In half an hour they were able to say with tolerable certainty that no human beings had been burned, for the bodies could not have been wholly consumed in such a speedy conflagration.
"Perhaps they have all been taken prisoners," Hubert suggested, as with a sigh of relief they concluded their search, and turned from the spot.
Mr. Hardy shook his head. He was too well acquainted with the habits of the Indians to think such a thing possible. Just at this moment Dash, who had followed them unnoticed during their ride, and who had been ranging about uneasily while they had been occupied by the search, set up a piteous howling. All started and looked round. The dog was standing by the edge of the ditch which had been dug outside the fence. His head was raised high in air, and he was giving vent to prolonged and mournful howls.
All felt that the terrible secret was there. The boys turned ghastly pale, and they felt that not for worlds could they approach to examine the dreadful mystery.
Mr. Hardy was almost as much affected.
Mr. Herries looked at his friend, and then said gravely to Mr. Hardy, "Do you wait here, Mr. Hardy; we will go on."
As the friends left them the boys turned away, and leaning against their horses, covered their eyes with their hands. They dared not look round. Mr. Hardy stood still for a minute, but the agony of suspense was too great for him. He started off at a run, came up to his friends, and with them hurried on to the fence.
Not as yet could they see into the ditch. At ordinary times the fence would have been an awkward place to climb over; now they hardly knew how they scrambled over, and stood by the side of the ditch. They looked down, and Mr. Hardy gave a short, gasping cry, and caught at the fence for support.
Huddled together in the ditch was a pile of dead bodies, and among them peeped out a piece of a female dress. Anxious to relieve their friend's agonizing suspense, the young men leaped down into the ditch, and began removing the upper bodies from the ghastly pile.
First were the two men employed in the house; then came Mr. Mercer; then the two children and an old woman-servant; below them were the bodies of Mrs. Mercer and her brother. There were no more. Ethel was not among them.
When first he had heard of the massacre Mr. Hardy had said, "Better dead than carried off," but the relief to his feelings was so great as the last body was turned over, and that it was evident that the child was not there, that he would have fallen had not Mr. Herries hastened to climb up and support him, at the same time crying out to the boys, "She is not here."
Charley and Hubert turned toward each other, and burst into tears of thankfulness and joy. The suspense had been almost too much for them, and Hubert felt so sick and faint that he was forced to lie down for awhile, while Charley went forward to the others. He was terribly shocked at the discovery of the murder of the entire party, as they had cherished the hope that Mrs. Mercer at least would have been carried off. As, however, she had been murdered, while it was pretty evident that Ethel had been spared, or her body would have been found with the others, it was supposed that poor Mrs. Mercer had been shot accidentally, perhaps in the endeavor to save her children.
The bodies were now taken from the ditch, and laid side by side until the other settlers should arrive. It was not long before they began to assemble, riding up in little groups of twos and threes. Rage and indignation were upon all their faces at the sight of the devastated house, and their feelings were redoubled when they found that the whole of the family, who were so justly liked and esteemed, were dead. The Edwards and the Jamiesons were among the earliest arrivals, bringing the Gaucho Martinez with them. Perez, too, shortly after arrived from Canterbury, he having been out on the farm when his master left.
Although all these events have taken some time to relate, it was still early in the day. The news had arrived at six, and the messengers were sent off half an hour later. The Hardys had set out before eight, and had reached the scene of the catastrophe in half an hour. it was nine o'clock when the bodies were found, and half an hour after this friends began to assemble. By ten o'clock a dozen more had arrived, and several more could be seen in the distance coming along at full gallop to the spot.
"I think," Mr. Hardy said, "that we had better employ ourselves, until the others arrive, in burying the remains of our poor friends."
There was a general murmur of assent, and all separated to look for tools. Two or three spades were found thrown down in the garden, where a party had been at work the other day. And then all looked to Mr. Hardy.
"I think," he said, "we cannot do better than lay them where their house stood. The place will never be the site of another habitation. Any one who may buy the property would choose another place for his house than the scene of this awful tragedy. The gate once locked, the fence will keep out animals for very many years."
A grave was accordingly dug in the center of the space once occupied by the house. In this the bodies of Mr. Mercer and his family were laid. And Mr. Hardy having solemnly pronounced such parts of the burial service as he remembered over them, all standing by bareheaded, and stern with suppressed sorrow, the earth was filled in over the spot where a father, mother, brother, and two children lay together. Another grave was at the same time dug near, and in this the bodies of the three servants whose remains had been found with the others were laid.
By this time it was eleven o'clock, and the number of those present had reached twenty. The greater portion of them were English, but there were also three Germans, a Frenchman, and four Gauchos, all accustomed to Indian warfare.
"How long do you think it will be before all who intend to come can join us?" Mr. Hardy asked.
There was a pause; then one of the Jamiesons said:
"Judging by the time your message reached us, you must have set off before seven. Most of us, on the receipt of the message, forwarded it by fresh messengers on further; but of course some delay occurred in so doing, especially as many of us may probably have been out on the plains when the message arrived. The persons to whom we sent might also have been out. Our friends who would be likely to obey the summons at once all live within fifteen miles or so. That makes thirty miles, going and returning. Allowing for the loss of time I have mentioned, we should allow five hours. That would bring it on to twelve o'clock."
There was a general murmur of assent.
"In that case," Mr. Hardy said, "I propose that we eat a meal as hearty as we can before starting. Charley, tell Terence to bring the horses with the provisions here."
The animals were now brought up, and Mr. Hardy found that, in addition to the charqui and biscuit, Mrs. Hardy had sent a large supply of cold meat which happened to be in the larder, some bread, a large stock of tea and sugar, a kettle, and some tin mugs.
The cold meat and bread afforded an ample meal, which was much needed by those who had come away without breakfast.
By twelve o'clock six more had arrived, the last comer being Mr. Percy. Each newcomer was filled with rage and horror upon hearing of the awful tragedy which had been enacted.
At twelve o'clock exactly Mr. Hardy rose to his feet. "My friends," he said, "I thank you all for so promptly answering to my summons. I need say no words to excite your indignation at the massacre that has taken place here. You know, too, that my child has been carried away. I intend, with my sons and my friends from Canterbury, going in search of her into the Indian country. My first object is to secure her, my second to avenge my murdered friends. A heavy lesson, too, given the Indians in their own country, will teach them that they cannot with impunity commit their depredations upon us. Unless such a lesson is given, a life on the plains will become so dangerous that we must give up our settlements. At the same time, I do not conceal from you that the expedition is a most dangerous one. We are entering a country of which we know nothing. The Indians are extremely numerous, and are daily becoming better armed. The time we may be away is altogether vague; for if it is a year I do not return until I have found my child. I know that there is not a man here who would not gladly help to rescue Ethel--not one who does not long to avenge our murdered friends. At the same time, some of you have ties, wives and children, whom you may not consider yourselves justified in leaving, even upon an occasion like this. Some of you, I know, will accompany me; but if any one feels any doubts, from the reasons I have stated--if any one considers that he has no right to run this tremendous risk--let him say so at once, and I shall respect his feelings, and my friendship and good-will will in no way be diminished."
As Mr. Hardy ceased, his eye wandered round the circle of stalwart-looking figures around him, and rested upon the Jamiesons. No one answered for a moment, and then the elder of the brothers spoke:
"Mr. Hardy, it was right and kind of you to say that any who might elect to stay behind would not forfeit your respect and esteem, but I for one say that he would deservedly forfeit his own. We have all known and esteemed the Mercers. We have all known, and I may say, loved you and your family. From you we have one and all received very great kindness and the warmest hospitality. We all know and love the dear child who has been carried away; and I say that he who stays behind is unworthy of the name of a man. For myself and brother, I say that if we fall in this expedition--if we never set eyes upon our wives again--we shall die satisfied that we have only done our duty. We are with you to the death."
A loud and general cheer broke from the whole party as the usually quiet Scotchman thus energetically expressed himself. And each man in turn came up to Mr. Hardy and grasped his hand, saying, "Yours till death."
Mr. Hardy was too much affected to reply for a short time; then he briefly but heartily expressed his thanks. After which he went on: "Now to business. I have here about three hundred pounds of charqui. Let every man take ten pounds, as nearly as he can guess. There are also two pounds of biscuit a man. The tea, sugar, and tobacco, the kettle, and eighty pounds of meat, I will put on to a spare horse, which Terence will lead. If it is well packed, the animal will be able to travel as quickly as we can."
There was a general muster round the provisions. Each man took his allotted share. The remainder was packed in two bundles, and secured firmly upon either side of the spare horse; the tobacco, sugar, and tea being enveloped in a hide, and placed securely between them, and the kettle placed at the top of all. Then, mounting their horses, the troop sallied out; and, as Mr. Hardy watched them start, he felt that in fair fight by day they could hold their own against ten times their number of Indians.
Each man, with the exception of the young Hardys, who had their Colt's carbines, had a long rifle; in addition to which all had pistols--most of them having revolvers, the use of which, since the Hardys had first tried them with such deadly effect upon the pampas, had become very general among the English settlers. Nearly all were young, with the deep sunburned hue gained by exposure on the plains. Every man had his poncho--a sort of native blanket, used either as a cloak or for sleeping in at will--rolled up before him on his saddle. It would have been difficult to find a more serviceable-looking set of men; and the expression of their faces, as they took their last look at the grave of the Mercers, boded very ill for any Indian who might fall into their clutches.