Chapter VIII. Farm Work and Amusements.
 

Although but two months had elapsed since the ground was plowed up and planted, the progress made by the crop of maize and pumpkins was surprising: the former, especially, was now nearly six feet high. This rapid growth was the result of the extreme fertility of the virgin soil, aided by the late abundant supply of water, and the heat of the sun. The maize had given them all a great deal to do; for when it was about six inches high it had to be thinned out so that the plants were nine or ten inches apart. This had been done by the united strength of the party, Mr. Hardy and the boys working for two hours each morning, and as much in the evening. The girls also had assisted, and the peons had worked the whole day, except from eleven to three, when the heat was too great even for them. Many hands make light work, and in consequence the whole ground under maize cultivation was thinned in little over a week. Latterly the maize had grown so fast that the boys declared they could almost see it grow, and at the end of two months after sowing it was all in flower. The maize, or Indian corn, strongly resembles water rushes in appearance, and the feathery blossom also resembles that of the rush. Indian corn forms the main article of food in South America, and in all but the Northern States of North America. It is equally useful and common in India, and in other tropical countries.

Scarcely less is it used in Italy, and other parts of southern Europe. It was first introduced into Europe from the East by the great family of Polenta, who ruled the important town of Ravenna for nearly two hundred years. Ground maize is still called Polenta throughout Italy; and the great family will live in the name of the useful cereal they introduced when all memory of their warlike deeds is lost except to the learned.

One evening when Mr. Hardy, with his wife and children, was strolling down in the cool of the evening to look with pleasure upon the bright green of their healthy and valuable crops, Hubert said:

"Isn't Indian corn, papa, the great yallow heads covered with grain-like beads one sees in corn-dealers' shops in England?"

"Yes, Hubert."

"Well, if that is so, I cannot make out how those long delicate stems can bear the weight. They bend over like corn to every puff of wind. It does not seem possible that they could bear a quarter of the weight of their heavy yellow heads."

"Nor could they, Hubert; but nature has made a wise and very extraordinary provision for this difficulty. All other plants and trees with which I am acquainted have their fruits or seeds where the blossom before grew. In maize it is placed in an entirely different part of the plant. In a very short time you will see--indeed you may see now in most of the plants--the stalk begin to thicken at a foot or eighteen inches from the ground, and in a little time it will burst; and the head of maize, so enveloped in leaves that it looks a mere bunch of them, will come forth. It will for a time grow larger and larger, and then the plant will wither and die down to the place from which the head springs. The part that remains will dry up until the field appears covered with dead stumps, with bunches of dead leaves at the top. Then it is ready for the harvest,"

"What a strange plant, papa! I quite long for the time when the heads will come out. What are you going to plant upon that bit of land you have got ready for sowing now? It is about six acres."

"I mean to plant cotton there, Hubert. I have sent to Buenos Ayres for seeds of what are called Carolina Upland, and I expect them here in a few days."

"But it takes a great deal of labor, does it not, papa?"

"The calculation in the Northern States, Hubert, is that one man can cultivate eight acres of cotton, assisted by his wife and children at certain periods; and that as his labor is not always required, he can with his family cultivate another eight or ten acres of other produce; so that about half of a peon's labor will be required, and in the hoeing and picking time we can all help."

"Is not machinery required to separate the seeds from the cotton?" Charley asked.

"It is not absolutely necessary, Charley, although it is of course economical when the cultivation is carried on upon a large scale. The variety I am going to try is sometimes called 'bowed' Carolina, because it used to be cleaned by placing it upon a number of strings stretched very tight, which were struck with a sort of bow, and the vibration caused the seed to separate from the cotton. I have a drawing of one of these contrivances in a book up at the house, and when the time comes you fellows shall make me one. It will be work for us to do indoors when the weather is too hot to be out. Of course if I find that it succeeds, and pays well, I shall take on more hands, get proper machinery, and extend the cultivation. I intend to plant the rows rather wide apart, so as to use the light plow with the ridge boards between them, instead of hoeing, to save labor."

"How much cotton do they get from an acre?" Mrs. Hardy asked.

"In the Southern States they expect twelve hundred pounds upon new ground--that is, twelve hundred pounds of pods, which make about three hundred of cleaned cotton. When I have got the cotton fairly in the ground I mean to plant an acre or two of tobacco, and the same quantity of sugar cane, as an experiment. But before I do that we must make a garden up at the house: that is a really urgent need."

"Couldn't we grow rice here, papa?"

"No doubt we could, Hubert; but I do not mean to try it. To succeed with rice, we should have to keep the ground on which it grew in a state of swamp, which would be very unhealthy. That is why I do not irrigate the fields oftener than is absolutely necessary. Anything approaching swampy, or even wet lands, in a climate like this, would be almost certain to breed malaria. Besides, we should be eaten alive by mosquitoes. No, I shall certainly not try rice. Other tropical productions I shall some day give a trial to. Ginger, vanilla, and other things would no doubt flourish here. I do not believe that any of them would give an extraordinary rate of profit, for though land is cheap, labor is scarce. Still it would be interesting, and would cause a little variety and amusement in our work, which is always an important point, and no doubt there would be generally some profit, though occasionally we may make a total failure."

Very often at daybreak the girls would go down with their brothers to the river, and watch the waterfowl on its surface; they were so amusing as they dabbled and played in the water, unsuspicious of danger. Their favorites, though, were the beautiful scarlet flamingoes, with their slender legs, and their long, graceful necks, and whose great employment seemed to be to stand quiet in the water, where it was only two or three inches deep, and to preen their glossy red feathers. Over and over again the girls wished that they could get a few waterfowl, especially flamingoes, to tame them, in order that they might swim on the dam pond and come and be fed; and the boys had several talks with each other as to the most practicable way of capturing some of them. At last they thought of making a sort of enclosure of light boughs, with an entrance into which birds could easily pass, but through which they could not easily return, and to scatter grain up to and into the enclosure, to entice the birds to enter. On explaining this plan to Mr. Hardy, he said that he had no doubt that it would succeed in capturing birds, but that when caught it would be impossible to tame full-grown wild-fowl, and that the only plan was to find their nests, and take the eggs or very young birds. This they determined to do; and as the bushes close to the river were too thick to permit an examination from the shore, they started one morning early, and, going down to the river, entered it, and waded along for a considerable distance. They discovered two swans' nests, and several of different descriptions of ducks. In some the birds were sitting upon their eggs, in others the young brood were just hatched, and scuttled away into the bushes with the parent birds upon being disturbed.

Charley and Hubert made no remark at breakfast upon the success of their expedition; but when Charley went two days after to Rosario, he procured from Mr. Percy, who kept a quantity of chickens, two sitting hens. These were placed with their nests in the bullock cart in a hamper; and Mrs. Hardy, who had no idea of the purpose to which they were to be put, was quite pleased, on their arrival at Mount Pleasant, at this addition to the henhouse. Indeed it had been long agreed that they would keep hens as soon as the maize was ripe. The next morning the boys went again, and brought back twenty eggs of various kinds of wild duck, including four swans' eggs--to obtain which they had to shoot the parent birds, which furnished the larder for days--which they placed under the hens in place of their own eggs, and then took the girls in triumph to see this commencement of their tame duck project. The little girls were delighted, and it was an immense amusement to them to go down constantly to see if the eggs were hatched, as of course no one could tell how long they had been sat upon previous to being taken. They had remarked that four of the eggs were much larger than the others, but had no idea that they were swans'. In the course of a few days six of the young ducklings were hatched, and the hens were both so unhappy at their difficulty of continuing to sit while they had the care of their young ones on their mind, that one hen and all the little ones were removed to a distance from the other's nest, and the whole of the eggs were put under the remaining hen. The four swans and five more ducks were safely hatched, when the hen refused to sit longer, and the remaining eggs were lost. Now that the swans were safely hatched, the boys told their sisters what they really were, and their delight was extreme.

In a few days they were all taken down to the dam, and soon found their way into the water, to the great distress of their foster-mother, who was obliged to stand upon the bank calling in vain till the little ones chose to come ashore. A hencoop was soon knocked together from an old box, and this was placed near the dam, and ere long the hens became accustomed to the fancy of their charges for the water, and would walk about picking up insects while the little ones swam about on the pond. Twice a day the girls went down to feed them with grain and bits of boiled pumpkin--for the pumpkins soon began to come into bearing--and the ducklings and cygnets, which last were at present but little larger than the others, would swim rapidly toward them when they saw them, and would feed greedily out of their hands.

It was not for some weeks later that the desire for young flamingoes was gratified. The boys had been out for a ride, and coming upon the river where it was wide, with flat sandy banks, round which the timber grew, they determined to tie up their, horses and enter the stream, to see if they could get some more eggs. With some difficulty they made their way through the bushes, and, getting into the water, waded along until a turn in the river brought them in sight of the flat bank. There were some twenty or thirty flamingoes upon it, for these birds are very gregarious. Some were standing in the water as usual, but the boys could not make out what some of the others were doing. On the flat shore were several heaps of earth, and across them some of the birds were apparently sitting with one leg straddling out each side. So comical was their aspect that the boys burst into a laugh, which so scared the flamingoes that they all took flight instantly. The boys now waded up to the spot, and then got ashore to see what these strange heaps were for. To their great delight they found that they were nests, and upon the top of several of them were eight or nine eggs carefully arranged. The legs of the flamingo are so long that the bird is unable to double them up and sit upon his nest in the usual fashion. The hen bird therefore scrapes together a pile of earth, on the top of which she lays her eggs, and then places herself astride to keep them warm. The boys had an argument whether they should take away two nests entire, or whether they should take a few eggs from each nest; but they decided upon the former plan, in order that each of the young broods might be hatched simultaneously. Upon the boys reaching home with their treasure their sisters' delight was unbounded, and the hens were soon placed upon their new charges, and, both being good sitters, took to them without much difficulty.

When the young broods were hatched the girls were greatly disappointed at the appearance of little grayish fluffy balls, instead of the lovely red things they had expected, and were by no means consoled when their father told them that it would be three or four years before they gained their beautiful color. However, they became great pets, and were very droll, with their long legs, and slender necks, and great curved bills. They became extremely tame, and would, after a time, follow the girls about, and stalk up to the house of their own accord to be fed, their food always being placed in water, as they never feed by picking upon the ground, for which, indeed, the peculiar construction of their beak is entirely unfitted. They were perfectly fearless of the dogs, which, on their part, were too well trained to touch them; and their funny way and their extreme tameness were a source of constant amusement to the whole family.

But we must now retrace our steps. After the important work of getting a certain amount of land under cultivation, the next most urgent business was the formation of a garden. The land inside the enclosure round the house was first plowed up, and then dug by hand, the turf being left in front of the house to serve as a lawn. The rest was planted with seeds brought from England--peas, beans, tomatoes, vegetable marrows, cucumbers, melons, and many others, some of which were natives of warm climates, while others were planted in small patches as an experiment. Fortunately, the well supplied an abundance of water, whose only drawback was that, like most water upon the pampas, it had a strong saline taste, which was, until they had become accustomed to it, very disagreeable to the Hardys. As the well had been dug close to the house on the highest part of the slope, the water was conducted from the pump by small channels all over the garden; and the growth of the various vegetables was surprising. But long before these could come into bearing a welcome supply was afforded by the yams and Indian corn. The yams resemble a sweet potato; and if the Indian corn is gathered green, and the little corns nibbled off, boiled, and mixed with a little butter, they exactly resemble the most delicate and delicious young peas.

The young potatoes, too, had come in, so that they had now an abundance of vegetables, the only point in which they had before been deficient. Their drink was the mate, which may be termed the national beverage of Paraguay, Brazil, and the Argentine Republic. It is made from the leaves of the mate Yule, a plant which grows in Paraguay and Brazil. The natives generally drink it without sugar or milk, sucking it up from the vessel in which it is made through a small tube. It is, however, greatly improved by the addition of sugar and milk, or, better still, cream. This greatly softens the bitter taste which distinguishes it. None of the party liked it at first; but as they were assured by those in the country that they would like it when they became accustomed to it, they persevered, and after a time all came to prefer it even to tea.

Occasionally one or other of the boys went over to Rosario with the cart, and Mr. Hardy bought some hundreds of young fruit trees--apple, pear, plum, apricot, and peach--some of which were planted in the garden at the sides and in rear of the house, others in the open beyond and round it; a light fence with one wire being put up to keep the cattle from trespassing. Clumps of young palms, bananas, and other tropical trees and shrubs were also planted about for the future adornment of the place. Fences were erected round the cultivated ground, and an enclosure was made, into which the cattle were driven at night. These fences were easily and cheaply made. The wire cost little more at Rosario than it would have done in England, and the chief trouble was bringing the posts, which were made of algaroba wood, from the town. This wood grows abundantly upon the upper river, and is there cut down and floated in great rafts down to Rosario. It is a tough wood, which splits readily, and is therefore admirably suited for posts. It is of a reddish color, and has a pretty grain when polished. All the furniture was made of it; and this, from constant rubbing by Sarah and the girls, now shone brightly, and had a very good effect.

The ceilings were now put to the rooms, which were greatly improved in appearance thereby, and the difference in temperature was very marked. A very short time after the capture of the wild fowls' eggs it was unanimously agreed that chickens were indispensable, and a large hen-house was accordingly built at a short distance from the dam, as it was considered as well not to have any buildings, with the exception of the men's hut, near the house. The hen-house was quickly built, as it was a mere framework covered with felt, with bars across it for the fowls to perch upon.

The floor was made, as that of the house had been, of lime and clay beaten hard; and a small cut was made to the dam, by which water could, at will, be turned over the floor to keep it clean and neat. The next time the cart went to Rosario it brought back fifty fowls, which had only cost a few dollars. Henceforth eggs and omelets became a regular part of the breakfast, and the puddings were notably improved.

The chickens gave very little trouble, as they foraged about for themselves, finding an abundance of insects everywhere, and getting in addition a few pots of Indian corn every morning. Maud and Ethel took it by turns, week about, to take charge of the hen-house; and a great pleasure was it to them to watch the numerous broods of young chickens, and to hunt up the eggs which, in spite of the nests temptingly prepared for them, the hens would frequently persist in laying in nests of their own in the long grass.

The hens had, however, a numerous foe, who were a great trouble to their young mistresses. These were the skunks, an animal of the weasel tribe, but much resembling squirrels in appearance, and possessing a most abominable smell; so much so that the dogs, who would attack almost anything, would run away from them. They were at first exceedingly common, and created terrible depredations among the hens. The girls were in despair, and called in their brothers to their assistance. The boys shot a good many, for the animals were very tame and fearless; but their number was so great that this method of destruction was of slight avail. They then prepared traps of various kinds--some made by an elastic stick bent down, with a noose at the end, placed at a small entrance left purposely in the hen-house, so that, when the skunk was about to enter, he touched a spring, and the stick released, flew into the air carrying the animal with it with the noose round its neck; other traps let fall a heavy piece of wood, which crushed the invader; and in these ways the skunks were pretty well got rid of, the most unpleasant work being the removal of the body from the trap. This had to be effected by taking hold of it with two pieces of wood, for the odor was so powerful that if the body was touched the smell would remain on the hands for days.

They had now added another species of domestic animal to their stock, but this was the boys' charge. Mr. Hardy, when the pumpkins began to ripen, bought six pigs. They were of little trouble, for although a sty was built for them, they were allowed to wander about as they pleased by day, another wire being added to the fence round the cultivated land, to keep them from trespassing. The crop of pumpkins was enormous; and Mr. Hardy determined that no pigs should be killed for eighteen months, by which time, as these animals increase rapidly, there would be quite a large herd of them.

Although an immense deal of hard work was got through during the four months which followed the completion of the house and the arrival of Mrs. Hardy and her daughters, it must not be supposed that it was not mingled with plenty of relaxation and amusement.

There were few days when one or other of the boys did not go out with his gun for an hour either before sunrise or after sunset, seldom failing to bring home a wild fowl or two of some kind or other. And sometimes of an afternoon they would go out for a ride with their sisters, and have a chase after an ostrich, or a run after the gray foxes, which abounded, and were very destructive among the young lambs. Once or twice during these rides the boys brought a puma to bay; but as they always carried a ball in one of their barrels, with these and their revolvers they soon dispatched their unwelcome visitors.

They had contrived an apparatus with straps and a sort of little pocket, in which the muzzle of the gun went, so that it hung from the saddle down in front of their leg; the stock of the gun being secured by a strap against the pommel of the saddle, at the other side of which was their revolver holster. This was an inconvenient way of carrying the gun in some respects, as the strap had to be unfastened to get at it, and the chance of a shot thereby lost; but they considered it preferable to the mode they had at first adopted, of riding with their guns slung behind them. This they gave up, because, with the utmost care, they occasionally got a fall, when galloping, from the armadillo holes, and the shock was greatly increased from the weight of the gun, besides the risk, to any one riding near, of the gun exploding. When riding quietly, and upon the lookout for game, they carried the gun in readiness upon their arms.

It was after one of these rides, when Hubert had brought down with a bullet a swan which was making for his bed in the river, that Maud said at tea:

"I wish we could shoot too; it would be a great amusement, and I should enjoy my rides a good deal more if I knew that I could take a shot in case a lion or a deer came out."

"Well, girls," Mr. Hardy said, "I had always intended that you should learn to shoot. We have had so much to do since you came here that I did not think of it, and I had besides intended to wait until one of you expressed a desire to learn. I brought out three light rook-shooting rifles on purpose for you and your mamma, and you can begin to-morrow morning if you like."

"Oh, thank you, papa, thank you very, very much; that will be nice!" both the girls exclaimed, clapping their hands in their excitement.

"And what do you say, mamma?" Mr. Hardy asked.

"No, thank you," Mrs. Hardy said; "I have plenty to do, and, with a husband and two sons and two daughters to defend me, I do not consider that it is essential. But I think that it will be a nice amusement for the girls."

And so next morning, and nearly every morning afterward, the girls practiced with the light rifle at a mark, until in time their hands became so steady that at short distances of sixty or seventy yards they could beat their brothers, who were both really good shots. This was principally owing to the fact that the charge of powder used in these rifles was so small that there was scarcely any recoil to disturb the aim. It was some time before they could manage to hit anything flying; but they were very proud one evening when, having been out late with the boys, a fat goose came along overhead, and the girls firing simultaneously, he fell with both bullets in his body. After this they, too, carried their rifles out with them during their rides.

Any one who had known Maud and Ethel Hardy at home would have scarcely recognized them now in the sunburnt-looking lassies, who sat upon their horses as if they had never known any other seat in their lives. Their dress, too, would have been most curious to English eyes. They wore wide straw hats, with a white scarf wound round the top to keep off the heat. Their dresses were very short, and made of brown holland, with a garibaldi of blue-colored flannel. They wore red flannel knickerbockers, and gaiters coming up above the knee, of a very soft, flexible leather, made of deer's skin. These gaiters were an absolute necessity, for the place literally swarmed with snakes, and they constantly found them in the garden when going out to gather vegetables. Most of these snakes were harmless; but as some of them were very deadly, the protection of the gaiters was quite necessary. The girls did not like them at first, especially as their, brothers could not help joking them a little, and Hubert said that they reminded him of two yellow-legged partridges. However, they soon became accustomed to them, and felt so much more comfortable about snakes afterward that they would not have given them up upon any account.

The boys always wore high boots for the same reason, and had no fear whatever of the snakes; but Mr. Hardy insisted that each of them should always carry in a small inner pocket of their coats a phial of spirits of ammonia, a small surgical knife, and a piece of whipcord; the same articles being always kept in readiness at the house. His instructions were, that in case of a bite they should first suck the wound, then tie the whipcord round the limb above the place bitten, and that they should then cut deeply into the wound crossways, open it as much as possible, and pour in some spirits of ammonia; that they should then pour the rest of the ammonia into their water-bottle, which they always carried slung over their shoulders, and should drink it off. If these directions were instantly and thoroughly carried out, Mr. Hardy had little fear that the bite, even of the deadliest snake, would prove fatal. In addition he ordered that in case of their being near home they should, upon their arrival, be made to drink raw spirits until they could not stand, and that, if they were some distance away from home, and were together, the one bitten should lie down while the other galloped at full speed to take back a bottle of brandy, and order assistance to be sent. This remedy is well known throughout India. Any one bitten by a poisonous snake is made to drink spirits, which he is able to do without being affected by them, to an extraordinary extent; a man who at ordinary times could scarcely take a strong tumbler of spirits and water, being able, when bitten, to drink a bottle of pure brandy without being in the least affected by it. When the spirit does at last begin to take effect, and the patient shows signs of drunkenness, he is considered to be safe, the poison of the spirit having overcome the poison of the snake.