Read CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE of The Rover of the Andes A Tale of Adventure on South America , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on ReadCentral.com.

BEGINS WITH GAUCHO HOMES AND DOMESTIC CONCERNS CONTINUES WITH TWO FIGHTS, AND ENDS WITH A FRIEND AND A “PUZZLER.”

That a hard ride and a thorough soaking do not interfere much with the comfort of the young and healthy was proved that night in the Gaucho camp by the intense devotion paid by Lawrence and Quashy to the ample supper set before them, and by the profundity of their slumbers thereafter.

True, the supper was not luxurious.  It consisted of only one dish,- roasted mare’s flesh-and one beverage,-water; but, happily, the tastes of our adventurers were simple.

The Gaucho hut in which they had found shelter was a very humble dwelling built of mud.  It contained only one room, in which the whole family resided.  Like other Gaucho huts-which are nearly all alike-it was covered with long yellow grass, and bore so strong a resemblance to the surrounding country, that, at a little distance, it might easily have been mistaken for a hillock.  The kitchen of the establishment was a detached shed a few yards off.  After sunset the hut was lighted by a feeble lamp, made of bullock’s tallow, which brought into strong relief the bridles, spurs, bolas, and lassos which hung from bone pegs on the walls.  Other objects of interest were revealed by the primitive lamp.  In one corner a large dog lay sleeping.  A naked negro child-a sort of ebony cupid-lay asleep beside it, with its little head pillowed on the dog’s haunch.  In another corner a hen was sitting on eggs, while its companions, guarded by a noble cock, roosted on one of the rafters, and several children, of ages ranging from four to sixteen, were seated or standing about awaiting supper.  Last, but not least in importance, a Gaucho infant hung suspended from the rafters in a primitive cradle of bullock’s skin, the corners of which were drawn together by four strips of hide.  The place would have been insufferably close but for the fortunate circumstance that a number of holes in the dilapidated roof allowed free ventilation.  They also allowed free entrance of rain in bad weather, but-Gauchos are not particular!

Although indifferent as to appearances, those Gauchos of the Pampas- many of whom are descendants of the “best” old families in Spain-retain much of the manners of their forefathers, being hospitable and polite not only to strangers but to each other.

When supper was ready the great iron spit on which the beef had been roasted was brought in, and the point of it stuck into the dried mud floor.  The master of the hut then stepped forward with the air of a hidalgo and offered Lawrence the skeleton of a horse’s head to sit upon.  Quashy having been provided with a similar seat, the whole household drew in their horse-heads, circled round the spit, and, drawing their long knives, began supper.  They meant business.  Hunger was the sauce.  Water washed the viands down.  There was little conversation, for large mouthfuls were the order of the evening.  Lawrence and his man acquitted themselves creditably, and supper did not terminate till the roast was gone.  Then they all spread their beds on the floor and retired for the night.  Each covered his or her head with a poncho, or other garment- nothing of the sleepers being left visible save their bare feet-after which silence reigned around.

In summer, abodes of this kind are so animated with insect life that the inhabitants usually prefer to sleep on the ground in front of their dwellings, but in the present case the recent storm had rendered this luxury for the time impossible.

Little cared Lawrence and his man for that.  Where they lay down to repose, there they remained without motion till daylight.  Then the magnificent cock overhead raised his voice, and proclaimed the advent of a new day.  Quashy sat up, split his face across, displayed his internal throat, and rubbed his eyes.  Immediately the cock descended on his woolly head, flapped its wings, and crowed again.  The people began to stir, and Lawrence went out with Quashy to saddle their horses, being anxious to follow in the trail of the troops without delay.  A prolonged search convinced them that their horses had either strayed or been stolen, for they were nowhere to be found.

Returning to the hut, they observed that the Gauchos were exceedingly busy round their corral, or enclosure for cattle.

“What can they be about?” said Lawrence, as they drew near.

“Killin’ pigs, I t’ink.”

“I think not; there seems too much excitement for that.”

There certainly was a considerable noise of piggish voices, and the Gauchos were galloping about in an unaccountable manner, but, as is usually the case, a little investigation explained the seemingly unaccountable.  The men were engaged in driving some cattle into the enclosure, and as these were more than half wild and self-willed, the process entailed much energy of limb and noise.  As to the porcine yells, the whole of the almost superhuman skirling arose from one little pig, which the ebony cupid before mentioned had lassoed by the hind leg.

Gaucho children-after being delivered from the cradle before described, and after passing through the crawling period of infancy and attaining to the dignity of the stagger-begin to copy their seniors.  With lassos and bolas made of twine, they practise on little birds, or on the dogs and fowls of home.  Our ebony cupid, though not indeed a Gaucho, but a negro infant, partook of the Gaucho spirit, and, although little more than four years of age, had succeeded in catching his first pig.  Violence seemed to have reached a white heat in the heart of that little pig!  Besides giving vent to intensified shrieking, it dragged its captor along, in a state of blazing triumph, until it overturned him, snapped the twine, and got away.

But cupid was not to be balked of his prey.  With a staggering rush to where several horses were standing ready bridled, he caught hold of the tail of a meek-looking animal, and scrambled by means of that appendage on to its back.  Seizing the bridle, he uttered a wild though tiny shout, and dashed away after the fugitive.

Whether he recaptured it or not Lawrence never found out, for at that moment a subject of greater interest claimed his attention.

Besides the hut in which they had spent the night, there were several other huts near the corral, and Lawrence now perceived that the place was a sort of hamlet, surrounded by a small ditch by way of defence.  While our hero was glancing round him he observed that Quashy stopped suddenly, and gazed at something in front of him as if transfixed with a surprise which threw quite into the shade all his previous expressions of astonishment, and convinced his master that he had not yet fathomed half the depth of meaning that could be thrown into that sable countenance.  Quashy bent slightly forward, extended his arms, spread out his ten fingers, opened his mouth, and tried to speak.

“S-S-Soo !” he began, and gasped.

“S-Soo-Sooz’n!” he shouted.

Yes, there she stood, in the doorway of a hut, as black as life, and with a glare of joyful surprise that was only surpassed by that of her admirer.

A moment later they recovered.  They rushed into each other’s arms, and their lips met.

Pistols and carbines! what a smack it was!

In his joy Quashy lifted Susan fairly off her feet and danced with her until he was exhausted, then he set her down and danced round her.

Susan had recovered her composure by that time.  Whether Quashy’s mode of treatment is characteristic of negroes of the Pampas we do not pretend to say, but the girl stood there with a modestly pleased expression of face, while Quashy continued to dance round her.

Susan’s modesty and blackness were alike set off by her costume, which consisted of a short white frock, while her simple adornments were a pair of gold ear-rings and a necklace of red coral.

Alas for the fleeting nature of human joys!  While Quashy was thus evincing his delight at the unexpected recovery of his betrothed, a wild shouting was heard, and several horsemen were seen flying over the plains towards the huts at a speed and with an action that betokened them the bearers of important news.  They proved to be men of the village who had encountered a large band of Indians on their way to attack the place.

Instantly all the men of the hamlet, amounting perhaps to about fifty, prepared for defence, placing the women and children in the huts for safety.  Of course Lawrence and his man would have volunteered their services even if self-defence had not required that line of conduct.

We have said that the hamlet was surrounded by a shallow ditch.  This was backed by a hedge of prickly pears.  Behind the hedge the men dispersed themselves, armed with several rusty flint-lock guns, some old swords, a few Indian spears, and other less warlike weapons.

Lawrence and Quashy took up a position at the entrance to the little fortress, the opening of which was blocked by cactus-bushes.  Their host of the previous night stood beside them.  Light though such defences seemed, they were more effective than might have been supposed, for Indian horses as a rule will not leap even a shallow ditch, and cannot be made to burst through prickly pears, though, doubtless, there may be some exceptions.

The defenders had not long to wait.  Their preparations were barely completed when horsemen were descried on the horizon, and in a very brief space of time a band of above a hundred naked savages came thundering down on them, uttering terrific screams or yells, and brandishing long spears.  They rode straight towards the opening in the defences.

The chief Gaucho was evidently a man of courage, for although he knew well that capture meant death-perhaps with torture-he stood firm without blanching, his eyes fixed sternly on the approaching foe, and his strong hands grasping the stock of a rusty old musket, the very look of which might have caused anxiety to its handler.

“Now Quash,” whispered Lawrence, “don’t fire till I do-and keep cool.”

“Yes, massa.  I’s cool as a lump o’ hice.”

The savage who led the assailants was a tall, powerful fellow on a splendid horse.  When within about sixty yards of the defences he levelled his spear and made a tremendous rush as if resolved to bear down all obstacles.  The Gaucho chief-if we may so style him-presented his musket and pulled the trigger.  It missed fire!

“I’ll try him with shot first,” remarked Lawrence to Quashy, presenting his double-barrelled gun.

At the distance of fifty yards or so the shot, when it entered the savage leader, was well scattered, so that horse and man were peppered all over.  The latter dropped his lance and almost fell off, while the former, getting on its hind-legs, executed a pirouette which brought its tail to the rear and sent it charging wildly back upon its friends.  The second in command, receiving the other barrel, at even shorter range, went through the same performance with greater impetuosity.  At the same moment the old musket was prevailed on to go off, and Quashy delivered four pistol-shots in quick succession, with the result that several men and horses were wounded, and the entire body of Indians turned and fled in a state of frenzied surprise.

They soon pulled up, however, and held a momentary consultation out of range.  Then, being bold fellows, they charged again, but this time in two bands, one of which attacked the place in rear.

As before, the band which attacked the front was vigorously repelled, but in rear the defenders were less successful.  How it was managed Lawrence never found out, but he had barely succeeded in driving off the foe in front, and was congratulating Quashy on his coolness, when he found himself suddenly surrounded by yelling savages.

The Gaucho chief made a desperate fight towards his own hut, which he gained and entered in safety.  Lawrence and Quashy tried to follow, but were too much pressed by numbers.  Back to back they fought, and Quashy used his sword with such agility and vigour that in a few seconds he sent several Indians bleeding to the rear.  Lawrence, despising the weapons of civilised warfare, held his now empty gun in his left hand, using it as a sort of shield, and brandished his favourite cudgel with such effect that he quickly strewed the ground around him with crown-cracked men.  Unfortunately a stone struck him on the temple, and he fell.  Thus left unsupported, Quashy, after slicing the nose half off a too ardent savage, was struck from behind, and also fell.

When our hero recovered consciousness, he found himself lying on the ground, afflicted with a strange inability to move hand or foot, and conscious, chiefly, of a splitting headache.  Presently a voice beside him whispered-

“Is you bery bad, massa?”

Lawrence turned his head with great difficulty and beheld his faithful follower lying like himself on the ground, firmly bound to a stout spar or pole.  His own inability to move was at once explained, for he soon perceived that he was in the same bound condition.

“D’you know what has happened, Quashy?”

“Ho yes, massa.  De reptiles has took de place, an’ tied you an’ me to sticks.  What for I don’ know, but I s’pose dey means to skin us alive, or roast us, p’r’aps, to ‘muse deir women an’ child’n.”

“More likely that they hope to have us ransomed,” returned Lawrence, with a shudder.

“What’s ramsumd, massa?”

“Try to get our friends to give them money for us.  Have they killed many of the men-or got hold of the women and children?” asked Lawrence, anxiously.

“Yes, dey’s kill a few ob de men, but not many, for some hab got into de huts, an’ some into de corral, an’ dey’ll fight to de last.  De savages am holdin’ a palaver jist now-see, dey’s agwine to begin again.  Screw your head roun’ to de right an’ you see.”

Lawrence obeyed, and saw the savages assembled on a knoll.  After driving the defenders into the huts, they had held a brief consultation, and seemed on the eve of renewing the attack.  Filled with deep anxiety for the fate of the poor women and children, our hero made a desperate struggle to snap his bonds.

“No use, massa,” remarked Quashy.  “I’s tried dat till I nearly bu’sted.  Better lie still.  P’r’aps dey forgit us.”

Lawrence groaned.  He felt so helpless, and consequently hopeless, that he almost gave way to despair.

The spot where they had been flung down after their capture was so covered with rank grass that they could not see far in any direction.  What they did see, however, aroused curiosity, if it did not inspire hope, for the savages seemed suddenly to have changed their plans.  They were talking excitedly together on the knoll, and pointing eagerly towards the horizon.

“Das funny, massa,” remarked the negro.

“It is indeed.  Perhaps they see some of their friends coming.”

“Or inimies,” suggested Quashy.

The latter was right.  In a few minutes the Indians were seen to run down to the defences of the place.  Our unfortunates lost sight of them in a few seconds, but they could hear the sound of horsemen approaching at full gallop.  In a few minutes they heard shouting; then the yells, fearful cries, and imprecations of men in mortal combat.  Soon after that a savage passed the place where they lay, at full speed.  Then another and another.  It became quickly evident that the defenders of the place were getting the worst of it.  At last there was a general flight, and as the savages passed by, the new assailants appeared.  It was easy to see that they were composed of all classes, a band of runaway soldiers and escaped convicts.

“Banditti!” exclaimed Lawrence, bitterly.

“Dey’ve got pris’ners.  Look, massa.”

Our poor hero looked, and his hearts nearly stood still with horror, for he saw a horseman pass whose figure was strangely like to that of Colonel Marchbanks.  His arms were bound, and a villainous-looking man led his horse.  Immediately after another bandit-like fellow rode past with a female form seated in front of him.  Of course it could be no other than Manuela, and in the agony of the moment Lawrence was about to renew his frantic effort to burst his bonds, when a man on foot ran close past him.  Recognising him at once, Lawrence shouted-

“Ignacio!”

The old hunter, for it was he, stopped abruptly, and listened.

Another shout brought him to the side of our hero.

“Good luck!” exclaimed Ignacio, heartily.

“We have been bound by the scoundrels you are chasing,” cried Lawrence, quickly; “cut us free, good Ignacio.”

The hunter drew his long knife and knelt with the apparent intention of releasing them, but suddenly paused.

“No-better as you are,” he muttered, hurriedly, “your friends are in danger-”

“I know it,” interrupted Lawrence, almost wild with anxiety and surprise; “why not, then, release us?”

“There is no time to explain,” said Ignacio, quickly, almost fiercely.  “Listen.  I and others are secret enemies in this band of outlaws.  When you are free be silent, be wise.  You will need all your manhood.  You must not know me-be silent-wise, but-”

The old hunter leaped up hastily, sheathed his knife and ran on, for at the moment he saw a group of the bandits running towards him.  Diverging a little and hailing them, he drew them away from the spot where Lawrence and his man still lay bound.

“Das a puzzler, massa,” gasped Quashy, who had been rendered almost speechless by surprise, “if de bu’stin’-power what’s in my heart just now would on’y go into my muscles, I’d snap dem ropes like Samson.”

As the bursting-power referred to declined to go into the muscles of either master or man, they were fain to lie still with as much patience as they could assume, and await the course of events.