On the Pampas by G. A. Henty
Chapter XV. The Pampas on Fire.
The party started at a canter--the pace which they knew their horses would be able to keep up for the longest time--breaking every half-hour or so into a walk for ten minutes, to give them breathing time. All were well mounted on strong, serviceable animals; but these had not in all cases been bought specially for speed, as had those of the Hardys. It was evident that the chase would be a long one. The Indians had twelve hours' start; they were much lighter men than the whites, and carried less additional weight. Their horses, therefore, could travel as fast and as far as those of their pursuers. The sheep would, it is true, be an encumbrance; the cattle could scarcely be termed so; and it was probable that the first day they would make a journey of fifty or sixty miles, traveling at a moderate pace only, as they would know that no instant pursuit could take place. Indeed their strength, which the peon had estimated at five hundred men, would render them to a certain extent careless, as upon an open plain the charge of this number of men would sweep away any force which could be collected short of obtaining a strong body of troops from Rosario.
For the next two days it was probable that they would make as long and speedy journeys as the animals could accomplish. After that, being well in their own country, they would cease to travel rapidly, as no pursuit had ever been attempted in former instances.
There was no difficulty in following the track. Mr. Mercer had possessed nearly a thousand cattle and five thousand sheep, and the ground was trampled, in a broad, unmistakable line. Once or twice Mr. Hardy consulted his compass. The trail ran southwest by west.
There was not much talking. The whole party were too impressed with the terrible scene they had witnessed, and the tremendously hazardous nature of the enterprise they had undertaken, to indulge in general conversation. Gradually, however, the steady, rapid motion, the sense of strength and reliance in themselves and each other, lessened the somber expression, and a general talk began, mostly upon Indian fights, in which most of the older settlers had at one time or other taken a part.
Mr. Hardy took a part in and encouraged this conversation. He knew how necessary, in an expedition of this sort, it was to keep up the spirits of all engaged; and he endeavored, therefore, to shake off his own heavy weight of care, and to give animation and life to them all.
The spirits of the younger men rose rapidly, and insensibly the pace was increased, until Mr. Hardy, as leader of the party, was compelled to recall to them the necessity of saving their animals, many of which had already come from ten to fifteen miles before arriving at the rendezvous at the Mercers'.
After three hours' steady riding they arrived at the banks of a small stream. There Mr. Hardy called a halt, for the purpose of resting the animals.
"I think," he said, "that we must have done twenty-five miles. We will give them an hour's rest, and then do another fifteen. Some of them have already done forty, and it will not do to knock them up the first day."
Girths were loosened, and the horses were at work cropping the sweet grass near the water's edge. The whole party threw themselves down on a sloping bank, pipes were taken out and lit, and the probable direction of the chase discussed.
In a short time Charley rose, and saying, "I will see if I can get anything better than dried meat for supper," exchanged his rifle for Mr. Hardy's double-barreled gun, which was carried by Terence, and whistling for the retriever, strolled off up the stream. In ten minutes the double-barrels were heard at a short distance, and a quarter of an hour afterward again, but this time faintly. Ten minutes before the hour was up he appeared, wiping the perspiration from his face, with seven and a half brace of plump duck.
"They were all killed in four shots," he said, as he threw them down. "They were asleep in the pools, and I let fly right into the middle of them before they heard me."
There was a general feeling of satisfaction at the sight of the birds, which were tied in couples, and fastened on the horses.
In two minutes more they were again in the saddles, Hubert saying to his father as they started, "There is one satisfaction, papa, we can't miss the way. We have only to ride far enough, and we must overtake them."
Mr. Hardy shook his head. He knew enough of Indian warfare to be certain that every artifice and maneuver would have to be looked for and baffled; for even when believing themselves safe from pursuit, Indians never neglect to take every possible precaution against it.
After riding for two hours longer Mr. Hardy consulted the Gauchos if there were any stream near, but they said that it would be at least two hours' riding before they reached another, and that that was a very uncertain supply. Mr. Hardy therefore decided to halt at once, as the men knew this part of the plain thoroughly, from hunting ostriches on it, and from frequent expeditions in search of strayed cattle. They had all lived and hunted at one time or another with the Indians. Many of the Gauchos take up their abode permanently with the Indians, being adopted as members of the tribe, and living and dressing like the Indians themselves. These visits are generally undertaken to avoid the consequences of some little difficulty--a man killed in a gambling quarrel, or for rivalry in love. Sometimes they make their peace again, satisfy the blood-relations with a bull, secure absolution readily enough by confession and a gift of a small sum to the Church, and return to their former life; but as often as not they remain with the Indians, and even attain to the rank of noted chiefs among them.
The men who accompanied the expedition were all of the former class. All had taken to the pampas to escape the consequences of some crime or other, but had grown perfectly sick of it, and had returned to civilized life. In point of morals they were not, perhaps, desirable companions; but they were all brave enough, thoroughly knew the country further inland, and, if not enthusiastic in the adventure, were yet willing enough to follow their respective masters, and ready to fight for their lives upon occasion.
Just as they halted Mr. Herries thought that he caught sight of some deer a short way ahead. He therefore started at once for a stalk, several of the others going off in other directions. Mr. Herries proceeded very cautiously, and the wind being fortunately toward him, he was enabled to creep up tolerably close. The animals, which are extremely shy, had, however, an idea that danger was about before he could get within a fair shot. As he knew that they would be off in another instant, he at once practiced a trick which he had often found to be successful.
He threw himself on his back, pulled a red handkerchief from his neck, tied it to one of his boots so as to let it float freely in the air, and then threw up both legs in the form of a letter V. Then he began moving them slowly about, waving them to and fro. The deer, which were upon the point of flight, paused to gaze at this strange object; then they began to move in a circle, their looks still directed at this unknown thing, to which they gradually kept approaching as they moved round it. At last they were fairly in shot, and Herries, whose legs were beginning to be very weary, sprang to his feet, and in another instant the foremost of the deer lay quivering in death.
Taking it upon his shoulders, he proceeded to the camp, where his arrival was hailed with acclamation. A fire was already alight, made of grass and turf, the former being pulled up in handfuls by the roots, and making a fierce but short-lived blaze. A large quantity had been collected at hand, and the ducks were already cut up. Half a one was handed to each; fur every man is his own cook upon the pampas.
The other hunters shortly returned, bringing in another of the little deer; for the stag of the pampas is of small size. They were speedily skinned by the Gauchos, and cut up, and all the party were now engaged in roasting duck and venison steaks on their steel ramrods over the fire.
When all were satisfied, a double handful of tea was thrown into the kettle, which was already boiling, pipes were lighted, and a general feeling of comfort experienced. The horses had been picketed close at hand, each man having cut or pulled a heap of grass and placed it before his beast; beside which, the picket ropes allowed each horse to crop the grass growing in a small circle, of which he was the center.
Mr. Hardy chatted apart for some time with the Gauchos, anxious to know as much as possible of the country into which he was entering. The others chatted and told stories. Presently Mr. Hardy joined again in the general conversation, and then, during a pause, said, "Although, my friends, I consider it most improbable that any Indians are in the neighborhood, still it is just possible that they may have remained, on purpose to fall at night upon any party who might venture to pursue. At any rate, it is right to begin our work in a businesslike way. I therefore propose that we keep watches regularly. It is now nine o'clock. We shall be moving by five: that will make four watches of two hours each. I should say that three men in a watch, stationed at fifty yards from the camp upon different sides would suffice."
There was a general assent to the proposal.
"To save trouble," Mr. Hardy went on, "I suggest that we keep watch in the alphabetical order of our names. Twelve of us will be on to-night, and the next twelve to-morrow night."
The proposal was at once agreed to; and the three who were first on duty at once rose, and, taking their rifles, went off in various directions, first agreeing that one of them should give a single whistle as a signal that the watch was up, and that two whistles close together would be a warning to retreat at once toward the center.
The watch also ascertained which were the next three men to be roused, and these and the succeeding watches agreed to lie next to each other, in order that they might be roused without awakening their companions.
In a few minutes there was a general unrolling of ponchos, and soon afterward only sleeping figures could be seen by the dim light of the smoldering fire. Mr. Hardy, indeed, was the only one of the party who did not fall to sleep. Thoughts of the events of the last twenty-four hours, of the best course to be adopted, and of the heavy responsibility upon himself as leader of this perilous expedition, prevented him from sleeping. He heard the watch return, rouse the relief, and lay down in their places. In another half hour he himself rose, and walked out toward the sentry.
It was a young man named Cook, one of the new settlers to the east of Mount Pleasant. "Is that you, Mr. Hardy?" he asked, as he approached. "I was just coming in to wake you."
"What is it, Mr. Cook?"
"It strikes me, sir, that there is a strange light away to the southwest. I have only noticed it the last few minutes, and thought it was fancy, but it gets more distinct every minute."
Mr. Hardy looked out anxiously into the gloom and quickly perceived the appearance that his friend alluded to.
For a minute or two he did not speak, and then, as the light evidently increased, he said, almost with a groan, "It is what I feared they would do: they have set the prairie on fire. You need not keep watch any longer. We are as much separated from the Indians as if the ocean divided us."
Cook gave the two short whistles agreed upon to recall the other men on guard, and then returned with Mr. Hardy to the rest of the party. Then Mr. Hardy roused all his companions. Every man leaped up, rifle in hand, believing that the Indians were approaching.
"We must be up and doing," Mr. Hardy said cheerfully; "the Indians have fired the pampas."
There was a thrill of apprehension in the bosom of many present, who had heard terrible accounts of prairie fires, but this speedily subsided at the calm manner of Mr. Hardy.
"The fire," he said, "may be ten miles away yet. I should say that it was, but it is difficult to judge, for this grass does not flame very high, and the smoke drifts between it and us. The wind, fortunately, is light, but it will be here in little over half an hour. Now, let the four Gauchos attend to the horses, to see they do not stampede. The rest form a line a couple of yards apart, and pull up the grass by the roots, throwing it behind them, so as to leave the ground clear. The wider we can make it the better."
All fell to work with hearty zeal. Looking over their shoulders, the sky now appeared on fire. Flickering tongues of flame seemed to struggle upward. There was an occasional sound of feet, as herds of deer flew by before the danger.
"How far will it go, papa, do you think?" Hubert asked his father, next to whom he was at work.
"I should say that it would most likely stop at the stream where we halted to-day, Hubert. The ground was wet and boggy for some distance on the other side."
The horses were now getting very restive, and there was a momentary pause from work to wrap ponchos round their heads, so as to prevent their seeing the glare.
The fire could not have been more than three miles distant, when the space cleared was as wide as Mr. Hardy deemed necessary for safety. A regular noise, something between a hiss and a roar, was plainly audible; and when the wind lifted the smoke the flames could be seen running along in an unbroken wall of fire. Birds flew past overhead with terrified cries, and a close, hot smell of burning was very plainly distinguishable.
Starting about halfway along the side of the cleared piece of ground, Mr. Hardy set the dry grass alight. For a moment or two it burned slowly, and then, fanned by the wind, It gained force, and spread in a semicircle of flame.
The horses were already unpicketed, and half of the party held them at a short distance in the rear, while the rest stood in readiness to extinguish the fire if it crossed the cleared space.
Over and over again the fire crept partially across--for the clearing had been done but roughly--but it was speedily stamped out by the heavy boots of the watchers.
The spectacle, as the fire swept away before the wind, was fine in the extreme. The party seemed includes between two walls of fire. The main conflagration was now fearfully close, burning flakes were already falling among them, and the sound of the fire was like the hiss of the surf upon a pebbly beach.
"Now," Mr. Hardy said, "forward with the horses. Every one to his own animal. Put your ponchos over your own heads as well as your horses."
In another minute the party stood clustered upon the black and smoking ground which the fire they had kindled had swept clear. There, for five minutes, they remained without moving unscorched by the raging element around them, but half-choked with the smoke.
Then Mr. Hardy spoke: "It is over now. You can look up."
There was a general expression of astonishment as the heads emerged from their wrappers, and the eyes recovered sufficiently from the effects of the blinding smoke to look round. Where had the fire gone? Where, indeed! The main conflagration had swept by them, had divided in two when it reached, the ground already burned, and these columns, growing further and further asunder as the newly kindled fire had widened, were already far away to the right and left, while beyond and between them was the fire that they themselves had kindled, now two miles wide, and already far in the distance.
These fires in the pampas, although they frequently extend over a vast tract of country, are seldom fatal to life. The grass rarely attains a height exceeding three feet, and burns out almost like so much cotton. A man on horseback, having no other method of escape, can, by blindfolding his horse and wrapping his own face in a poncho, ride fearless through the wall of fire without damage to horse or rider.
It was only, therefore, the young hands who had felt any uneasiness at the sight of the fire; for the settlers were in the habit of regularly setting fire to the grass upon their farms every year before the rains, as the grass afterward springs up fresh and green for the animals. Care has to be taken to choose a calm day, when the flames can be confined within bounds; but instances have occurred when fires so commenced have proved most disastrous, destroying many thousands of animals.
"There is nothing to do but to remain where we are until morning," Mr. Hardy said. "The horses had better be picketed, and then those who can had better get a few hours' more sleep. We shall want no more watch to-night." In a few minutes most of the party were again asleep; and the young Hardys were about to follow their example, when Mr. Hardy came up to them and said quietly, "Come this way, boys; we are going to have a council."
The boys followed their father to where some eight or nine men were sitting down at a short distance from the sleepers, and these the boys made out, by the glow from their pipes, to consist of Herries and Farquhar, the two Jamiesons, Mr. Percy, and the four Gauchos.
"This is a terribly bad business," Mr. Hardy began, when he and his sons had taken their seats on the ground. "I expected it, but it is a heavy blow nevertheless."
"Why, what is the matter, papa?" the boys exclaimed anxiously. "Have we lost anything?"
"Yes, boys," Mr. Hardy said; "we have lost what is at this moment the most important thing in the world--we have lost the trail."
Charley and Hubert uttered a simultaneous exclamation of dismay as the truth flashed across their minds. "The trail was lost!" They had never thought of this. In the excitement of the fire, it had never once occurred to them that the flames were wiping out every trace of the Indian track.
Mr. Hardy then went on, addressing himself to the others: "Of course this fire was lit with the especial intent of throwing us off the scent. Have you any idea how far it is likely to have come?" he asked the Gauchos. "That is, are you aware of the existence of any wide stream or damp ground which would have checked it, and which must therefore be the furthest boundary of the fire?"
The Gauchos were silent a minute; then Perez said, "The next stream is fifteen miles further; but it is small, and would not stop the fire going with the wind. Beyond that there is no certain stream, as far as I know of."
"The ground rises, and the grass gets thinner and poorer thirty miles or so on. I should say that they would light it this side of that," Martinez said. The other Gauchos nodded assent.
"We took the bearings of the track by our compass," Farquhar said. "Could we not follow it on by compass across the burned ground, and hit it upon the other side?"
Mr. Percy and Mr. Hardy both shook their heads. "I do not pretend to say where the trail is gone," the former said, "but the one place where I am quite sure it is not, is on the continuation of the present line."
"No," Mr. Hardy continued. "As you say, Percy, there it certainly is not. The Indians, when they got to some place which is probably about half across the burned ground, turned either to the right or left, and traveled steadily in that direction, sending one or two of their number in the old direction to light the grass, so as to sweep away all trace of the trail. They may have gone to the right or to the left, or may even have doubled back and passed us again at only a few miles' distance. We have no clew whatever to guide us at present, except the certainty that sooner or later the Indians will make for their own camping-ground. That is the exact state of the affair." And Mr. Hardy repeated what he had just said in Spanish to the Gauchos, who nodded assent.
"And in which direction do the Gauchos believe that their camping-ground lies?" Mr. Jamieson asked after a pause; "because it appears to me that it is a waste of time to look for the trail, and that our only plan is to push straight on to their villages, which we may reach before they get there. And in that case, if we found them unguarded, we might seize all their women, and hold them as hostages until they return. Then we could exchange them for Ethel; and when we had once got her, we could fight our way back."
"Capital, capital!" the other English man exclaimed. "Don't you think so, papa?" Hubert added, seeing that Mr. Hardy did not join in the general approval.
"The plan is an admirably conceived one, but there is a great difficulty in the way. I observed yesterday that the trail did not lead due south, as it should have done if the Indians were going straight back to their camping ground. I questioned the Gauchos, and they all agree with me on the subject. The trail is too westerly for the camping-grounds of the Pampas Indians; too far to the south for the country of the Flat-faces of the Sierras. I fear that there is a combination of the two tribes, as there was in the attack upon us, and that they went the first day in the direction which would be most advantageous for both; and that, on reaching their halting-place--perhaps twenty or thirty miles from here--they made a division of their booty, and each tribe drew off toward its own hunting-grounds. In this case we have first to find the two trails, then to decide the terrible question, which party have taken Ethel?"
Again the Gauchos, upon this being translated to them, expressed their perfect accordance with Mr. Hardy's views, and some surprise at his idea as having been so identical with their own upon the subject.
As for the six young men, they were too dismayed at the unexpected difficulties which had started up in their way to give any opinion whatever. This uncertainty was terrible, and all felt that it would have a most depressing effect upon themselves and upon the whole expedition; for how could they tell, after journeying for hundreds of miles, whether every step might not take them further from the object of their search?
In this state of depression they remained for some minutes, when Perez the Gaucho said, in his broken English, "Most tribe take most plunder, most cattle, most sheep--take girl."
"Well thought of, Perez!" Mr. Hardy exclaimed warmly. "That is the clew for us, sure enough. As you say, the tribe who has furnished most men will, as a matter of course, take a larger share of the booty; and Ethel being the only captive, would naturally go to the strongest tribe."
The rest were all delighted at this solution of a difficulty which had before appeared insuperable, and the most lively satisfaction was manifested.
The plans for the day were then discussed. Propositions were made that they should divide into two parties, and go one to the right and the other to the left until they arrived at unburned ground, the edge of which they should follow until they met. This scheme was, however, given up, as neither party would have seen the trail inspected by the other and no opinion could therefore be formed as to the respective magnitude of the parties who had passed--a matter requiring the most careful examination and comparison, and an accurate and practiced judgment.
It was finally resolved, therefore, to keep in a body, and to proceed, in the first place, to search for the trail of the party to the south. A calculation was made, upon the supposition that the Indians had traveled for another twenty-five miles upon their old course, and then separated, each party making directly for home. To avoid all mistakes, and to allow for a detour, it was determined to shape a direct course to a point considerably to the east of that given by the calculation, to follow the edge of the burned ground until the trail was arrived at, and then to cut straight across, in order to find and examine the trail of the western Indians.
As this conclusion was arrived at, the first dawn of light appeared in the east, and Mr. Hardy at once roused the sleepers.
He then gave them a brief account of the conclusions to which he had arrived in the night, and of his reason for so doing. There was a general expression of agreement, then the girths were tightened, and in five minutes the troop was in motion.
How great was the change since the preceding evening! Then, as far as the eye could reach stretched a plain of waving grass. Birds had called to their mates, coveys of game had risen at their approach; deer had been seen bounding away in the distance; ostriches had gazed for an instant at the unusual sight of man, and had gone off with their heads forward and their wings outstretched before the wind.
Now, the eye wandered over a plain of dingy black, unbroken by a single prominence, undisturbed by living creatures except themselves. As Hubert remarked to his father, "It looked as if it had been snowing black all night."
Both men and horses were anxious to get over these dreary plains, and the pace was faster, and the halts less frequent, than they had been the day before.
It was fortunate that the fire had not taken place at an earlier hour of the evening, as the horses would have been weakened by want of food. As it was, they had had five hours to feed after their arrival.
Both men and horses, however, suffered much from thirst; and the former had good reason to congratulate themselves on having filled every water-skin at the first halting-place of the preceding day.
Clouds of black impalpable dust rose as they rode along. The eyes, mouth, and nostrils were filled with it, and they were literally as black as the ground over which they rode.
Twice they stopped and drank, and sparingly washed out the nostrils and mouths of the horses, which was a great relief to them, for they suffered as much as did their masters, as also did Dash, who, owing to his head being so near the ground, was almost suffocated; indeed, Hubert at last dismounted, and took the poor animal up on to the saddle before him.
At last, after four hours' steady riding, a gleam of color was seen in the distance, and in another quarter of an hour they reached the unburned plains, which, worn and parched as they were, looked refreshing indeed after the dreary waste over which they had passed.
The Gauchos, after a consultation among themselves, agreed in the opinion that the little stream of which they had spoken was but a short distance further, and that, although the channel might be dry, pools would no doubt be found in it. It was determined, therefore, to push on, and half an hour's riding by the edge of the burned grass brought them to the spot, when, following the course of the channel, they soon came to a pool, from which men and horses took a long drink.
At their approach an immense number of wild duck rose, and, as soon as the horses were picketed Charley again started with the gun, taking Terence with him to assist in bringing home the birds. They soon heard his gun, and Terence presently returned with six brace of ducks and a goose, and a request that another man would go back with him, for that the birds were so abundant, and so apparently stupefied from flying over the smoke and flame, that he could bring in any quantity.
One of the Jamiesons and Herries therefore went out, and returned in less than an hour with Charley, bringing between them four more geese and eighteen brace of ducks.
Charley was greeted with a round of applause, and was I soon at work with his friends upon the meal which was now ready.
After breakfast there was a comparison of opinion, and it was at last generally agreed that they had ridden nearly forty miles since daybreak, and that they could not be far from the spot where the Indians ought to have passed if they had kept the direction as calculated. It was also agreed that it would be better to let the horses remain where they were till late in the afternoon, when they might accomplish another fifteen miles or so.
Mr. Hardy then proposed that those who were inclined should accompany him on a walk along the edge of the burned ground. "We cannot be very far off from the trail," he said, "if our calculations are correct; and if we can find and examine it before it is time to start, we may be able to-night to cross to the other side, and thus gain some hours."
Herries, Farquhar, the two Jamiesons, Cook, and the young Hardys at once volunteered for the walk, and shouldering their rifles, started at a steady pace.
They had not walked much over a mile when a shout of pleasure broke from them, as, upon ascending a slight rise, they saw in the hollow below them the broad line of trampled grass, which showed that a large body of animals had lately passed along. All hurried forward, and a close and anxious examination took place.
Opinions differed a good deal as to the number that had passed; nor, accustomed as they all were to seeing the tracks made by herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, could they come to any approximate agreement on the subject. Had the number been smaller, the task would have been easier; but it is a question requiring extreme knowledge and judgment to decide whether four hundred cattle and two thousand sheep, or six hundred cattle and three thousand sheep, have passed over a piece of ground.
Mr. Hardy at last sent Charley back, accompanied by Mr. Cook, to request Mr. Percy to come on at once with the Gauchos to give their opinion. Charley and his companions were to remain with the horses, and were to request those not specially sent for to stay there also, as it would be imprudent in the extreme to leave the horses without a strong guard.
Pending the arrival of Mr. Percy, Mr. Hardy and his friends followed up the trail for some distance, so as to examine it both in the soft bottoms and on the rises. They returned in half an hour to their starting place, and were shortly after joined by Mr. Percy and the Gauchos. Again a careful and prolonged examination, took place, and a tolerably unanimous opinion was at last arrived at, that a very large number of animals had passed, apparently the larger half, but that no positive opinion could be arrived at until a comparison was made with the trail on the western side.
Although this conclusion was arrived at unanimously, it appeared to be reluctantly conceded to by most of them, and the reason of this became apparent as they were walking back toward the horses. "I have little doubt that the conclusion we have arrived at is correct," Herries remarked, "although somehow I am sorry for it; for ever since our talk last night I have made up my mind that she was most likely to be taken to the west. I suppose because the Indians there are more warlike than those of the pampas, and therefore likely to have furnished a larger contingent. Of course I had no reason for thinking so, but so it was."
"That was just what I thought," Hubert said; and I the other Englishmen admitted that they had all entertained a somewhat similar idea.
At four in the afternoon they were again in the saddle, having taken the precaution of filling their water-skins, and of watering the horses the last thing.
"How far do you think it is across, papa?" Hubert asked.
"It cannot be very far, Hubert. We are so much nearer the place where the fire began that I do not think it can have spread more than ten miles or so across."
Mr. Hardy's conjecture proved to be correct. An hour and a half's riding brought them to the other side of the burned prairie, striking a point which they felt sure was to the south of the place where the trail would have left it.
As they had done more than fifty miles since the morning, and the horses were much distressed with the effect of the dust, it was resolved to encamp at once. The horses received a little water, and were picketed out to graze. The fire was soon lit, and the ducks cut up and spitted upon the ramrods.
All were so much exhausted with the heat, the ashes, the fatigue, and the want of sleep of the previous night that, the tea and pipes finished and the watch posted, the rest lay down to sleep before the sun had been an hour below the horizon.
All rose at daybreak, refreshed with their quiet night's rest, and were soon in the saddle and on their way northward.
They had nearly an hour's ride before they came upon the trail.
There it was unmistakably--at first sight as broad and as much trampled as the other; but after a careful examination of it there was but one opinion, namely, that the number of animals who had passed was decidedly less than those who had gone south.
One of the Gauchos now told Mr. Hardy that he knew that at a short distance further to the west there was a spring of water much used by the Indians, and where he had no doubt they had halted on the night of the fire. Finding that it was not more than half an hour's ride, Mr. Hardy, after a brief consultation, determined to go over there to water the horses and breakfast, before retracing their footsteps across the burned prairie.
In little over the time named they came to a small pool of bright water, from which a little stream issued, running nearly due north across the plain. After drinking heartily themselves, and filling the water-skins and kettle, the horses were allowed to drink; and Dash plunged in with the greatest delight, emerging his usual bright chestnut color, whereas he had gone into the water perfectly black.
After he had come out and had shaken himself, he commenced hunting about, sniffing so violently that Hubert's attention was attracted to him. Presently the dog ran forward a few paces and gave a sharp bark of pleasure, and Hubert, running forward, gave so loud a cry that all the party rushed up.
Hubert could not speak. There, half-buried in the ground, and pointing west, was an Indian arrow, and! round the head was twisted a piece of white calico, with little blue spots upon it, which Mr. Hardy instantly recognized as a piece of the dress Ethel had worn when she left home.
Surprise kept all quiet for awhile, and then exclamations of pleasure and excitement broke from all, while Mr. Hardy and his sons wore greatly affected at this proof of the recent presence of their lost one. The arrow was deeply sunk in the ground, but it was placed at a spot where the grass happened to be particularly short, so that any one passing outward from the spring could hardly have failed to notice the piece of calico upon the grass. There was a perfect shower of congratulations; and it was some time before they were recovered sufficiently to renew their preparations for breakfast.
At last they sat down round the fire, all their faces radiant with excitement.
Perez and Martinez, however, sat somewhat apart, talking in an animated undertone to each other. They did not even approach the fire to roast their food; and Mr. Hardy's attention being attracted by this circumstance, he asked what they were talking so earnestly about.
Neither of them answered him, and he repeated the question. Then Perez replied: "Martinez and I think same. All trick; girl gone other way."
Conversation and eating were alike suspended at these ominous words, and each looked blankly into the others' faces.
Now that their attention was called to it, the whole circumstances of the case rushed to their minds; and as they felt the probable truth of what Perez said, their hopes fell to zero.
Mr. Percy was the first who, after a long silence, spoke. "I am afraid, Hardy, that what Perez says is right, and that we have been very nearly thrown off the scent by a most transparent trick. Watched as Ethel must have been, is it probable that she could have possessed herself of that arrow, and have fastened a strip of her dress to it, without being noticed? Still more impossible is it that she could have placed the arrow where we found it. No one could have passed without noticing it; so unless we suppose that she was allowed to linger behind every one, which is out of the question, the arrow could not have been put there by her."
"Too true, Percy," Mr. Hardy said with a sigh, after a short silence; "it is altogether impossible, and I should call it a clumsy artifice, were it not that it deceived us all for awhile. However, there is one comfort; it decides the question as we had ourselves decided it: Ethel is gone with the larger party to the south."
Breakfast was continued, but with a very subdued feeling. Hubert had now finished his, and, being a lad of restless habit, he took up the arrow which lay beside him, and began toying with it. First he untied the piece of stuff, smoothed it, and put it into his pocketbook, while his eyes filled with tears; then he continued listlessly twisting the arrow in his fingers, while he listened to the conversation around him.
Presently his eyes fell upon the arrow. He started, a flush of excitement rushed across his face, and his hands and lips trembled as he closely examined the feather.
All-gazed at him with astonishment.
"Oh, papa, papa," he cried at last, "I know this arrow!"
"Know the arrow!" all repeated.
"Yes, I am quite, quite sure I know it. Don't you remember, Charley, the day that those wounded Indians started, as we were taking the quivers down to them, I noticed that one arrow had two feathers which I had never seen before, and could not guess what bird they came from. They were light blue, with a crimson tip. I pulled one off to compare it with my others. It is at home now. I remember that I chose the one I did because the other one had two of the little side feathers gone. This is the feather, I can most solemnly declare, and you see the fellow one is gone. That arrow belongs to one of the men we recovered."
All crowded round to examine the arrow, and then Mr. Hardy said solemnly, "Thank God for his mercy, He has decided our way now. Undoubtedly, as Hubert says, one of the men we aided is of the party, and wishes to show his gratitude. So he has managed to get a piece of Ethel's dress, and has tied it to this arrow, hoping that we should recognize the feather. Thank God, there is no more doubt, and thank Him, too, that Ethel has at least one friend near her."
All was now joy and congratulation, and Hubert rubbed his hands, and said triumphantly, "There, Charley, you were always chaffing me, and wanting to know what was the good of my collection, and now you see what was the good. It has put us on the right trail for Ethel, and you will never be able to laugh at me about my collection again."