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- On the Pampas - 40/47 -
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.
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