Chapter IV. The Pampas.
 

The voyage up the river Parana was marked by no particular incident. The distance to Rosario from Buenos Ayres is about two hundred and fifty miles, which was performed by the steamer in about a day and a half. The river is nearly twenty miles in breadth, and is completely studded by islands. The scenery is flat and uninteresting, and the banks but poorly wooded. Our travelers were therefore glad when they arrived at Rosario. The boys were disappointed at the aspect of the town, which, although a rising place, contained under a thousand inhabitants, and looked miserably poor and squalid after Buenos Ayres. Here they were met by a gentleman to whom Mr. Thompson had introduced Mr. Hardy, and with whom he had stayed on his first visit to Rosario. He had brought horses for themselves, and bullock carts for their luggage.

"What! are these your boys, Mr. Hardy? I had not expected to have seen such big fellows. Why, they will be men in no time."

Charley and Hubert deserved Mr. Percy's commendation. They were now sixteen and fifteen years old respectively, and were remarkably strong, well-grown lads, looking at least a year older than they really were. In a few minutes the luggage was packed in two bullock carts, and they were on their way out to Mr. Percy's station, which was about halfway to the camp of Mr. Hardy. The word camp in the pampas means station or property; it is a corruption of the Spanish word campos, literally plains or meadows.

Here they found that Mr. Percy had most satisfactorily performed the commission with which Mr. Hardy had entrusted him. He had bought a couple of the rough country bullock carts, three pair of oxen accustomed to the yoke, half a dozen riding horses, two milch cows, and a score of sheep and cattle to supply the larder. He had hired four men--a stock-keeper named Lopez, who was called the capitaz or head man, a tall, swarthy fellow, whose father was a Spaniard, and his mother a native woman; two laborers, the one a German, called Hans, who had been some time in the colony, the other an Irishman, Terence Kelly, whose face the boys remembered at once, as having come out in the same ship with themselves. The last man was an American, one of those wandering fellows who are never contented to remain anywhere, but are always pushing on, as if they thought that the further they went the better they should fare. He was engaged as carpenter and useful man, and there were few things to which he could not turn his hand. Mr. Hardy was pleased with their appearance; they were all powerful men, accustomed to work. Their clothes were of the roughest and most miscellaneous kind, a mixture of European and Indian garb, with the exception of Terence, who still clung to the long blue-tailed coat and brass buttons of the "ould country."

They waited the next day at Mr. Percy's station, and started the next morning before daylight, as they had still ten miles to travel, and were desirous of getting as early to the ground as possible.

The boys were in the highest spirits at being at last really out upon the pampas, and as day fairly broke they had a hearty laugh at the appearance of their cavalcade. There was no road or track of any kind, and consequently, instead of following in a file, as they would have done in any other country, the party straggled along in a confused body. First came the animals--the sheep, bullocks, and cows. Behind these rode Lopez, in, his gaucho dress, and a long whip in his hand, which he cracked from time to time, with a report like that of a pistol--not that there was any difficulty in driving the animals at a pace sufficient to keep well ahead of the bullock carts, for the sheep of the pampas are very much more active beasts than their English relations. Accustomed to feed on the open plains, they travel over large extent of ground, and their ordinary pace is four miles an hour. When frightened, they can go for many miles at a speed which will tax a good horse to keep up with. The first bullock cart was driven by Hans, who sat upon the top of a heap of baggage, his head covered with a very old and battered Panama hat, through several broad holes in which his red hair bristled out in a most comic fashion, and over his blue flannel shirt a large red beard flowed almost to his waist. Terence was walking by the side of the second cart in corduroy breeches and gaiters and blue coat, with a high black hat, battered and bruised out of all shape, on his head. In his hand he held a favorite shillalah, which he had brought with him from his native land, and with the end of which he occasionally poked the ribs of the oxen, with many Irish ejaculations, which no doubt alarmed the animals not a little. The Yankee rode sometimes near one, sometimes by another, seldom exchanging a word with any one. He wore a fur cap made of fox's skin; a faded blanket, with a hole cut in the middle for the head to go through, fell from his shoulders to his knees. He and Lopez each led a couple of spare horses. The mastiffs trotted along by the horses, and the two fine retrievers, Dash and Flirt, galloped about over the plains. The plain across which they were traveling was a flat, broken only by slight swells, and a tree here and there; and the young Hardys wondered not a little how Lopez, who acted as guide, knew the direction he was to take.

After three hours' riding Lopez pointed to a rather larger clump of trees than usual in the distance, and said, "That is the camp."

"Hurrah," shouted the boys. "May we ride on, papa?"

"Yes, boys, I will ride on with you." And off they set, leaving their party to follow quietly.

"Mind how you gallop, boys; the ground is honeycombed with armadillo holes, and if your horse treads in one you will go over his head."

"I don't think that I should do that," Charley, who had a more than sufficiently good opinion of himself, said; "I can stick on pretty tightly, and--" he had not time to finish his sentence, for his horse suddenly seemed to go down on his head, and Charley was sent flying two or three yards through the air, descending with a heavy thud upon the soft ground.

He was up in a moment, unhurt, except for a knock on the eye against his gun, which he was carrying before him; and after a minute's rueful look he joined heartily in the shouts of laughter of his father and brother at his expense, "Ah, Charley, brag is a good dog, but holdfast is a better. I never saw a more literal proof of the saying. There, jump up again, and I need not say look out for holes."

They were soon off again, but this time at a more moderate pace. This fall was not, by a very long way, the only one which they had before they had been six months upon the plains; for the armadillos were most abundant, and in the long grass it was impossible to see their holes. In addition to the armadillos, the ground is in many paces honeycombed by the bischachas, which somewhat in size and appearance resemble rabbits, and by a little burrowing owl.

The Hardys soon crossed a little stream, running east to fall into the main stream, which formed the boundary of the property upon that side; and Mr. Hardy told the boys that they were now upon their own land. There was another hurrah, and then, regardless of the risk of falls, they dashed up to the little clump of trees, which stood upon slightly rising ground. Here they drew rein, and looked round upon the country which was to be their home. As far as the eye could reach a flat plain, with a few slight elevations and some half-dozen trees, extended. The grass was a brilliant green, for it was now the month of September. Winter was over, and the plain, refreshed by the rains, wore a bright sheet of green, spangled with innumerable flowers. Objects could be seen moving in the distance, and a short examination enabled Mr. Hardy to decide that they were ostriches, to the delight of the boys, who promised themselves an early hunt.

"Where have you fixed for the house, papa?" Hubert asked.

"There, where those three trees are growing upon the highest swell you can see, about a mile and a half further. We will go on at once; the others will see us."

Another ten minutes took them to the place Mr. Hardy had pointed out, and the boys both agreed that nothing could be better.

At the foot of the slope the river which formed the eastern boundary flowed, distant a quarter of a mile or so from the top of the rise. To the right another stream came down between the slope and another less elevated rise beyond. This stream had here rather a rapid fall, and was distant about three hundred yards from the intended site of the house. The main river was thirty or forty yards across, and was now full of water; and upon its surface the boys could see flocks of ducks, geese, and other birds. In some places the bank was bare, but in others thick clumps of bushes and brushwood grew beside it.

They now took off the saddles and bridles from their horses, and allowed them to range as they pleased, knowing that the native horses were accustomed to be let free, and that there was no fear of their straying away. "Now, boys," Mr. Hardy said, "let us begin by getting our first dinner. You go straight down to the water; I will keep to the right. You take Dash, I will take Flirt."

In another ten minutes the reports of the guns followed close upon each other, and the boys had the satisfaction of knocking down two geese and eight ducks, which Dash brought ashore, beside others which escaped. In five minutes more they heard a shout from their father, who had bagged two more geese and three ducks. "That will do, boys; we have got plenty for the next day or two, and we must not alarm them by too much slaughter."

"Four geese and eleven ducks, papa, in five minutes," the boys said, when they joined Mr. Hardy; "that is not bad shooting to begin with."

"Not at all, boys. What with wild fowl and armadillos, I think that at a pinch we could live for some time upon the produce of the estate."

"You don't mean to say, papa, that they eat the armadillos?" Hubert said with a look of suspicion.

"They do indeed, Hubert, and I am told that they are not at all bad eating. Now let us go up to the rise again; our carts must be nearly up."

By the time they reached the three trees they found that the rest of the cavalcade was within a quarter of a mile, and in a few minutes they came up.

The cattle and sheep required no attending. Immediately they found that they were not required to go any further, they scattered and began to graze. The oxen were unyoked from the carts, and all hands set-to to unload the miscellaneous collection of goods which had been brought up. Only the things which Mr. Hardy had considered as most indispensable for present use had been brought on, for the steamer from Buenos Ayres did not carry heavy goods, and the agricultural implements and other baggage were to come up in a sailing vessel, and were not expected to arrive for another week.

The carts contained three small portmanteaus with the clothes of Mr. Hardy and the boys, and a large case containing the carbines, rifles, and ammunition. There was a number of canisters with tea, coffee, sugar, salt, and pepper; a sack of flour; some cooking pots and frying pans, tin plates, dishes, and mugs; two sacks of coal and a quantity of firewood; shovels, carpenter's tools, a sickle, the framework of a hut with two doors and windows, three rolls of felt, a couple of dozen wooden posts, and two large coils of iron wire. While the others were busy unloading the German had cut some turf and built a rough fireplace, and had soon a bright fire blazing.

"Shall we pluck the ducks?" Charley asked.

"I reckon we can manage quicker than that," the Yankee said; and taking up one of the ducks, he cut off its head and pinions; in another minute he had roughly skinned it, and threw it to the German, who cut it up and put the pieces into the frying pan. A similar process was performed with the other ducks, a little pepper and salt shaken over them, and in a wonderfully short time the first batch was ready. All drew round and sat down on the grass; the tin plates were distributed but were only used by Mr. Hardy and his sons, the others simply taking the joints into their hands and cutting off pieces with their knives. The operation of skinning the fowls had not been pleasant to look at, and would at any other time have taken away the boys' appetites; but their long ride had made them too hungry to be particular. The result of this primitive cooking was pronounced to be excellent; and after drinking a mug of tea all felt ready for work.

"What is to be done first, papa?"

"The first thing is to get these posts into the ground, and to get up a wire fence, so as to make an enclosure for the animals at night. We will put in five posts each side, at ten yards apart; that will take eighteen posts. With the others we can make a division to separate the sheep from the cattle. Unless we do this some of them may take it into their heads to start off in the night and return to their old home."

A spot was soon chosen between the house and the stream on the right. The distance was soon measured and marked; and while Hans carried down the heavy posts one by one on his shoulder, the others went to work. The soil was soft and rich, and the holes were dug to the required depth in a shorter time than would have been considered possible. The wire was stretched and fastened, and before sunset everything was in readiness. The animals were driven in, and the entrance, which was narrow, was blocked up with brushwood from the river. Then followed another half-hour's work in getting up a small shelter with the cases and some of the felting, for Mr. Hardy and his sons. By this time all were really tired, and were glad when Hans summoned them to another meal, this time of one of the sheep. Then Mr. Hardy, and the boys, taking their mugs of tea, retired into the shelter prepared for them, and sat and talked over the events of the day, and as to the work for to-morrow; and then, wrapping themselves up in their blankets, lay down to sleep, listening for some time dreamily to the hum of conversation of the men, who were sitting smoking round the fire, and to the hoarse roar of the innumerable frogs in the stream below.

In the morning they were up and abroad with daylight, and a cup of hot coffee and a piece of bread prepared them for work. Mr. Hardy, his boys, and the Yankee set-to upon the framework of the two huts; while the others went down to the stream and cut a quantity of long, coarse rushes, which they made into bundles, and brought up to the place of the house in a bullock cart. The framework for the huts, which were each about fifteen feet square, was all ready fitted and numbered: it took, therefore, a very short time to erect; and when one was done Mr. Hardy and the Yankee set-to to erect the other at a distance of from forty to fifty yards, while Charley and Hubert drove in the nails and secured the work already done.

By dinner-time the work was complete, and a perfect stack of rushes had been raised in readiness. A great number of long rods had been cut from the bushes, and as the most of them were as flexible and tough as willows they were well suited for the purpose.

After dinner the whole party united their labor to get one of the huts finished. The rods were split in two, and were nailed at intervals across the rafters of the roof. Upon them the long rushes were laid, and over all the felt was nailed. The sides were treated in the same way, except that the rushes were woven in and out between the wattles, so as to make quite a close, compact wall, no felt being nailed on it. The other house was treated in the same way; and it was not until the third night that both huts were finished and ready for occupancy.

Mr. Hardy and his sons then took possession of the one near the brow of the hill. This was to be merely a temporary abode, to be removed when the house was built. The men had that lower down, and rather nearer to the cattle. Beds of rushes were piled up in three corners, and the boys thought that they had never passed such a delicious night as their first in their new house. The next day Mr. Hardy told his boys that they should take a holiday and ride over the place.

The press of work was over, and things would now settle down in a regular way. Hans and Terence had taken a contract to dig the holes for the posts of the strong fence which was to surround the house, including a space of a hundred yards square. This precaution was considered to be indispensable as a defense against the Indians. Seth, the Yankee, had similarly engaged to dig a well close to the house. No supervision of them was therefore necessary. Lopez was to accompany them. Each took a double-barreled gun and a revolver. The day was very fine--about as hot as upon a warm day in June in England. Mr. Hardy proposed that they should first ride westerly as far as the property extended, six miles from the river; that they should then go to the south until they reached that boundary, and should follow that to the river, by whose banks they should return, and bring back a bag of wild fowl for the larder. Quite a pack of dogs accompanied them--the two mastiffs, the setters, and four dogs, two of which belonged to Lopez, and the others to Hans and Seth: these last, seeing that their masters had no intention of going out, determined to join the party upon their own account.

These dogs were all mongrels of no particular breed, but were useful in hunting, and were ready to attack a fox, an animal which swarms upon the pampas, and does great damage among the young lambs.

For the first three or four miles nothing was seen save the boundless green plain, extending in all directions; and then, upon ascending a slight rise, they saw in the dip before them two ostriches. Almost simultaneously the creatures caught sight of their enemies, and went off at a prodigious rate, followed by the dogs and horsemen. For a time their pace was so fast that their pursuers gained but little upon them. Presently, however, the dogs gained upon one of them, and, by their barking and snapping at it, impeded its movements. The horsemen were close together, and the boys had drawn out their revolvers to fire, when their father cried, "Don't fire, boys! Watch Lopez."

At this moment the gaucho took from the pommel of his saddle two balls like large bullets, connected with a long cord. These he whirled round his head, and launched them at the ostrich. They struck his legs, and twined themselves round and round, and in another moment the bird was down in the dust. Before Lopez could leap to the ground the dogs had killed it, and the gaucho pulled out the tail feathers and handed them to Mr. Hardy. "Is the flesh good?" Mr. Hardy asked.

"No, senor; we can eat it when there is nothing else to be had, but it is not good."

"I am rather glad the other got away," Hubert said. "It seems cruel to kill them merely for the sake of the feathers."

"Yes, Hubert; but the feathers are really worth money," Mr. Hardy said. "I should be the last person to countenance the killing of anything merely for the sake of killing; but one kills an ostrich as one would an animal with valuable fur. But what is that?"

As he spoke the dogs halted in front of a patch of bush, barking loudly. The retrievers and the native dogs kept at a prudent distance, making the most furious uproar; but the mastiffs approached slowly, with their coats bristling up, and evidently prepared for a contest with a formidable antagonist. "It must be a lion!" Lopez exclaimed. "Get ready your revolvers, or he may injure the dogs."

The warning came too late. In another instant an animal leaped from the thicket, alighting immediately in front of Prince and Flora. It was as nearly as possible the same color as the mastiffs, and perhaps hardly stood so high; but he was a much heavier animal, and longer in the back. The dogs sprang upon it. Prince, who was first, received a blow with its paw, which struck him down; but Flora had caught hold. Prince in an instant joined her, and the three were immediately rolling over and over on the ground in a confused mass. Mr. Hardy and Lopez at once leaped from their horses and rushed to the spot; and the former, seizing his opportunity, placed his pistol close to the lion's ear, and terminated the contest in an instant. The animal killed was a puma, called in South America a lion; which animal, however, he resembles more in his color than in other respects. He has no mane, and is much inferior in power to the African lion. They seldom attack men; but if assailed are very formidable antagonists. The present one was, Lopez asserted, a remarkably large one.

Mr. Hardy's first care was to examine the dogs. Prince's shoulder was laid open by the stroke of the claws, and both dogs had numerous scratches. Flora had fortunately seized him by the neck, and he had thus been unable to use his teeth.

Mr. Hardy determined to return home at once, in order to dress Prince's shoulder; and leaving Lopez to skin the puma, the rest took their way back. When they arrived the wounds of the dogs were carefully washed, and a wet bandage was fastened with some difficulty upon Prince's wound. Leaving all the dogs behind, with the exception of the retrievers, Mr. Hardy and the boys started for a walk along the river, leading with them a horse to bring back the game, as their former experience had taught them that carrying half a dozen ducks and geese under a broiling sun was no joke. They were longer this time than before in making a good bag; and after-experience taught them that early in the morning or late in the evening was the time to go down to the stream, for at these times flights of birds were constantly approaching, and they could always rely upon coming home laden after an hour's shooting. Upon the present occasion, however, they did not do badly, but returned with a swan, three geese, and twelve ducks, just in time to find the men preparing for dinner.

The next morning the two bullock carts were sent off with Hans and Terence to Rosario, to fetch the posts for the fence, together with two more coils of wire, which had been left there from want of room in the carts when they came up. Charley was sent with them, in order that he might find out if the sailing vessel had arrived with the plows and heavy baggage. While he was away, Mr. Hardy and Hubert were occupied in making a complete exploration of the property, and in erecting a storehouse for the goods.

In five days Charley returned with the carts he had taken, and with four others which he had hired at Rosario, bringing the heavy baggage, which had come in the day after he had arrived there. The goods were placed for the present in the new store, and then all hands set to work at the fence. Hans and Terence had already dug the holes; and the putting in the posts, ramming the earth tightly round them, and stretching the wires, took them two days.

The usual defense in the outlying settlements against Indians is a ditch six feet wide and as much deep; but a ditch of this width can be easily leaped, both by men on horseback and on foot. The ditch, too, would itself serve as a shelter, as active men could have no difficulty in getting out of it, and could surround the house by creeping along the bottom of the ditch, and then openly attack all round at once, or crawl up unperceived by those who were upon the watch on the other side.

The fence had none of these disadvantages. It was six feet high. The wires were placed at six inches apart for four feet from the bottom, and at nine inches above that. Then the upper wires were not stretched quite so tightly as the lower ones, rendering it extremely difficult to climb over. In this way an attacking party would have no protection whatever, and would, while endeavoring to climb the fence, be helplessly exposed to the fire of those in the house. Those who got over, too, could receive no assistance from their comrades without, while their retreat would be completely cut off.

The gateway to the fence was an ordinary strong iron gate which Mr. Hardy had bought at Rosario, and to which strong pointed palings, six feet long, were lashed side by side, with intervals of six inches between them. This was the finishing touch to the fortification; and all felt when it was done that they could withstand the attack of a whole tribe of Indians.

The carts were again sent off to Rosario to bring back some more wood, from which to make the framework of the house. Hubert this time accompanied them, as Mr. Hardy wished the boys to become as self-reliant as possible. He was also to hire three peons, or native laborers. Before he started the plan of the future house was discussed and agreed upon. In the middle was to be the general sitting-room, fifteen feet square; upon one side was the kitchen, fifteen by ten and a half; upon the other, the servants' bedroom, of the same size; behind were three bedrooms, twelve feet by fifteen each, all opening from the sitting-room. The house, therefore, was to form a block thirty-six feet by thirty.

Upon the side next to the kitchen, and opening from it, a small square tower with two stories in it was to stand. It was to be ten feet square; the lower room to be a laundry and scullery, and the one above, approached by straight wooden steps, to be the storehouse. The roof was to be flat, with a parapet three feet high. From this a clear view could be had over the country for miles, and the whole circuit of the fence commanded in case of attack. The walls of the house were to be of adobe or mud the internal partitions of sun-baked bricks.