Chapter IX. Neighborly Visits and Advice.
 

It must not be supposed that the Hardys, during the whole of this time, were leading a perfectly solitary life. Upon the contrary, they had a great deal of sociable companionship. Within a range of ten miles there were no less than four estancias owned by Englishmen, besides that of their first friend Mr. Percy. A ride of twenty miles is thought nothing of out on the pampas. The estate immediately to the rear of their own was owned by Senor Jaqueras, a native. The tract upon the east of his property was owned by three young Englishmen, whose names were Herries, Cooper, and Farquhar. They had all been in the army, but had sold out, and agreed to come out and settle together.

The southwestern corner of their property came down to the river exactly opposite the part where the north-eastern corner of Mount Pleasant touched it: their house was situated about four miles from the Hardys. To the west of Senor Jaqueras, the estate was owned by two Scotchmen, brothers of the name of Jamieson: their estancia was nine miles distant. In the rear of the estate of Senor Jaqueras, and next to that of Mr. Percy, were the properties of Messrs. Williams and Markham: they were both about ten miles from Mount Pleasant. These gentlemen had all ridden over to call upon the newcomers within a very few days of Mr. Hardy's first arrival, and had offered any help in their power.

The Hardys were much pleased with their visitors, who were all young men, with the frank, hearty manner natural to men free from the restraints of civilized life. The visits had been returned in a short time, and then for awhile all communication with the more distant visitors had ceased, for the Hardys were too busy to spare time upon distant rides. One or other of the party at Canterbury, as the three Englishmen had called their estancia, very frequently dropped in for a talk, and Mr. Hardy and the boys often rode over there when work was done, Canterbury was also a young settlement--only four or five months, indeed, older than Mount Pleasant--so that its owners, like themselves, had their hands full of work; but sometimes, when they knew that the Hardys were particularly hard at work, one or two of them would come over at daybreak and give their assistance. During the final week's work, especially just before Mrs. Hardy's arrival, all three came over and lent their aid, as did the Jamiesons.

As soon as Mrs. Hardy had arrived all their neighbors came over to call, and a very friendly intercourse was quickly established between them. As there was no spare bedroom at Mount Pleasant, some hammocks were made, and hooks were put into the sitting-room walls, so that the hammocks could be slung at night and taken down in the morning. The English party always rode back to Canterbury, as the distance was so short, and the Jamiesons generally did the same; but Messrs. Percy, Williams, and Markham usually came over in the afternoon, and rode back again next morning.

When the press of work was over the boys and their sisters often cantered over to Canterbury to tea, and sometimes, but more seldom, to the Jamiesons' estancia. The light-hearted young Englishmen were naturally more to their fancy than the quiet and thoughtful Scotchmen. The latter were, however, greatly esteemed by Mr. and Mrs. Hardy, who perceived in them a fund of quiet good sense and earnestness.

Upon Sunday morning Mr. Hardy had service, and to this the whole of their friends generally came. It was held early, so that the Jamiesons and the Englishmen could ride back to their homes before the heat of the day, the other three remaining to dine, and returning in the cool of the evening. Canterbury was entirely a sheep and cattle farm. The owners had five thousand sheep, and some hundreds of cattle; but they had comparatively a good deal of time upon their hands, as stock and sheep farming does not require so much personal care and supervision as must be bestowed upon agricultural farms. The Jamiesons, on the contrary, were entirely occupied in tillage: they had no sheep, and only a few head of cattle.

Mr. Hardy was remarking upon this one day to Mr. Percy, who replied, "Ah, the poor fellows are very unfortunate. They brought out a fair capital, and had as large a stock of sheep and cattle as the Canterbury party have. About six months, however, before you arrived--yes, it's just a year now--the Indians swept down upon them, and carried off every animal they had. They attacked the house, but the Jamiesons defended themselves well; and the Indians were anxious to get off with their booty, and so they beat a retreat. Pursuit was hopeless; every horse had been driven off, and they had to walk six miles to the next hacienda to give the news; and long before a party could be got together the Indians were beyond the possibility of pursuit. Two or three hundred sheep and a dozen or two of the bullocks found their way back, and these and their land was all that remained to the Jamiesons of their capital, for they had invested all they had in their stock. However, they looked affairs manfully in the face, sold their animals, bought a couple of plows and draught bullocks, hired a peon or two, and set to work with a will. They will get on but slowly for a time; but I have no doubt that they will do well in the course of a few years. Men with their pluck and perseverance are certain to get on. That puts me in mind, Hardy, of a matter upon which I had intended to speak to you. We are just getting now to the time of the year when Indian attacks are most likely to take place. Sometimes they are quiet for a year or two, then they are very troublesome again. Five or six years ago, just after I first came out, we had terrible times with them. Vast numbers of cattle were driven off: the sheep they less seldom take, because they cannot travel so fast, but they do drive them off sometimes. A good many shepherds were killed, and two or three estancias captured and burned, and the inmates murdered. You are now the furthest settler, and consequently the most exposed. Your estancia is strong and well built, and you are all well armed and good shots. You are, I think, in that respect safe, except from sudden surprise. The dogs are sure to give an alarm; still I should sleep with everything in readiness."

"Thank you, Percy; I shall take your advice. I expected it from what I had heard when I bought the place; but from hearing nothing of Indians all this time, I had almost forgotten it. I will prepare for defense without the loss of a day. The house has only one vulnerable point--the doors and shutters. I will measure them this afternoon, and will get you to take over a letter and forward it to Rosario by the first opportunity, for some sheets of thin iron to cover them with."

Mr. Percy promised to forward the letter the very next day by a bullock-cart he was sending in, and also that the same cart should bring them back. He said that if a conveyance were sent over in two days' time for them they would be in readiness at his place.

This conversation caused Mr. Hardy great uneasiness. It was a possibility he had been quite prepared for; but he could not feel that the danger was really at hand without an anxious feeling. His thousand sheep had cost him twelve hundred and fifty dollars, and his cattle as much more. The lambing season had come and gone, and the flock of sheep had doubled in number. The cattle, too, had greatly increased, and the sheep were nearly ready for shearing. Altogether the value of the stock was over five thousand dollars. The loss would not be absolute ruin, as he had still three thousand dollars of his original capital in the bank at Buenos Ayres; but it would be a very serious loss.

Mr. Hardy had been alone with Mr. Percy when the conversation took place; but he determined at once to take the boys into his entire confidence. He therefore called to them to come out for a stroll down to the dam, and told them word for word what Mr. Percy had related to him.

Charley's eyes brightened at the thought of the excitement of a fight with Indians, for which when in England, eighteen months before, he had longed; and his fingers tightened upon his gun as he said, "All right, papa, let them come." Hubert's face grew a little paler, for he was not naturally of so plucky or pugnacious a disposition as his brother. However, he only said, "Well, papa, if they do come we shall all do our best."

"I am sure you will, my boy," said his father kindly. "But there is no fear if it comes to fighting. We three with our arms can thrash a hundred of them. What I am thinking of is our cattle, and not ourselves. We will take good care against a sudden surprise; and it's more than a whole tribe could do to take Mount Pleasant if we are prepared."

"Do you mean to tell mamma and the girls, papa?"

"I mean to tell them that it is necessary for a time to be on their guard, that the girls are on no account to venture to ride out alone, and that they must not stir out of the enclosure even as far as the hen-house, without first of all going up to the top of the lookout to see that all is clear. We must see that, in future, the sheep and cattle and horses are all driven at night into their wire enclosures--we have not been very particular about the cattle lately--and that the gates are fastened and padlocked at night. It will puzzle them to get them out. Our own three horses I will have in future kept within our own enclosure, so that they may be always at hand, night or day. I bought them with a special eye to Indians; they are all remarkably fast; and whether we run away or pursue, can be relied on. And now, boys, come up to the house, and I will open the mysterious box."

The box of which Mr. Hardy spoke was a long case, which had never been opened since their arrival. No entreaties of his children could induce Mr. Hardy to say what were its contents, and the young ones had often wondered and puzzled over what they could be. It had come, therefore, to be known in the family as the mysterious box.

With greatly excited curiosity the boys now walked toward the house; but there was a slight delay, for as they approached Maud and Ethel came running to meet them.

"Is anything the matter with the dam, papa? We have been watching you having such a long talk with the boys. What is it all about?"

Mr. Hardy now told them as much as he thought proper of the state of things, and gave them their instructions. The girls, who had no idea there was any real danger, and who had besides an unlimited confidence in their father and brothers, were disposed to look upon It as fun, and Mr. Hardy had to speak quite seriously to be sure that his orders would be strictly attended to. The boys then informed them that the mysterious box was to be opened, and the whole party went up to the house.

The box had been placed in the storeroom on the upper floor of the tower, and the boys took up screwdrivers and hammers to open it. The latter tools were not necessary, as the case was very carefully screwed up; and when the top was taken off it was found that there was an inside case of tin soldered up. As the boys were cutting through this they expressed their opinion that, from the extreme care taken, the contents must be very valuable. Still Mr. Hardy would give no clew; and when the case was finally opened, the astonishment of all was unbounded to find that it contained four dozen large rockets and a dozen blue-lights. One dozen of these rockets were ordinary signal rockets, but the rest were covered with strong tin cases.

"Fireworks!" they all exclaimed in intense surprise. "What have you brought fireworks all this way for, papa?"

"I will tell you, my dears. I knew that the Indians of the pampas were horse Indians, and the idea struck me that as they could never have seen rockets, they would be horribly scared at night by them. rockets, you know, are used in war; and even if the riders are not frightened, it is quite certain that the horses would be horribly alarmed by one or two of these rushing fiery things charging into their midst. I therefore had them specially made for me by a pyrotechnist in London. One dozen, as you see, are ordinary rockets of the largest size; they contain colored balls, which will give out a most brilliant light. One of them thrown into the air, even where we believe any Indians to be, will light up the plain, and give us a fair view of them. The other three dozen are loaded with crackers. As you see, I have had a strong case of tin placed over the ordinary case; and one of them striking a man will certainly knock him off his horse, and probably kill him. The roar, the rush, the train of fire, and finally the explosion and the volley of crackers in their midst would be enough to frighten their horses altogether beyond control. What do you think of my idea?"

"Capital, capital!" they all cried.

"But how, papa," Hubert asked, "will you manage to make your rockets go straight at the Indians? All rockets I ever saw went straight up into the air."

"Yes, Hubert, because they were pointed up. A rocket goes whichever way it is pointed. Rockets in war are fired through a tube, or from a trough. We will use the trough. Set to at once, boys, and make a trough about four feet long, without ends. It must stand on legs high enough to raise it above the level of the wall round the top of the tower. Let there be two legs on the front end, and one leg behind; and this leg behind must have a hinge, so that, when it stands upright, it will be six or eight inches higher than the front, in case we want to fire at anything close at hand. When we want to elevate the head of the rocket to fire at anything at a distance, we pull the hind leg back, so that that end is lower than the front. Put a spike at the end of the leg, to let it have a firm hold on the floor."

Charley thought a moment, and then said: "I think, papa, it would be firmer, and more easily managed, if we made two legs behind, with another one sliding up and down between them, and with holes in it so that it can be pegged up and down as we like."

"That would be certainly better, Charley. Put your idea down upon paper, and let me see exactly what you mean before you begin."

Charley did so, and Mr. Hardy pronounced it to be excellent; and by night the trough was finished, and placed in position at the top of the lookout.

Mr. Hardy, in the course of the evening, explained to his wife that it was possible the Indians might venture to make a dash to carry off some of the cattle, and that, therefore, he had ordered the girls to be on the lookout, and to adopt every precaution upon moving out. To them he made an addition to his former instructions, namely, that not only should they look out before leaving the enclosure, but that, if one went out, the other should go up to the top of the tower every quarter of an hour to see that everything was still clear, and that if both were out, Sarah should do the same. The boys needed no instructions to load their revolving carbines, and the pistols and a double-barreled gun were handed over both to Lopez and Terence, with instructions to carry them always with them. Lopez required no orders on this score. He knew what Indians were, and had a perfect horror of them. Their friends at Canterbury were also put upon their guard, as their estates were also very much exposed. Three days passed over, and then the light iron plates arrived for the door and window shutters. Before they were nailed on large holes were cut in them for firing through, corresponding slits being cut in the woodwork. When they were fastened in their places all felt that Mount Pleasant could defy any number of assailants.

Orders were given to Terence that in case of the dogs giving the alarm at night, the occupants of the hut were to retire at once to the house; to which he replied characteristically:

"Sure, your honor, I suppose I may stop for a bit and pepper the blackguards till they get close to me."

"Not at all, Terence; you are to retire at once to the house. When we are once all together we shall be able to decide, according to the number of the enemy, as to whether we shall sally out and pepper them, or stand upon the defensive."

And so, every one having received their instructions in case of emergency, things went on pretty much as before.