The Riverine Herald Wednesday November 15, 1871
This article is titled A NIGHT ATTACK.
We had intended to have ridden about ten leagues that day, to an estancia where Fitzgerald was, known, and could make sure of a welcome to dinner and bed for the night, completing our journey to Grey's on the following day. This program, however, was completely disarranged by Fitzgerald's new mount, who after the first league or two, could not be induced to gallop, so that in spite of our best efforts, sunset found us plodding through an apparently interminable forest, with no prospect before us but that of camping for the night without food or shelter, and making the best of it. Just as we prepared to dismount, Fitzgerald caught sight of a number of horses standing at the other end of a long open glade, in a way which convinced him experienced bushmen as he was, that they had been recently unsaddled, and must belong to some guerilla party, such as that which had stopped us in the morning. "We held a consultation, which ended in our agreeing that anything was preferable to camping without food, so we rode straight along the glade till we were near enough to distinguish a dark group of men behind the tethered horses. Then Fitzgerald halted and shouted in a stentorian voice:
"Ave Maria—The proper way of making known one's approach to a dwelling or Assemblage of people in that part of the world. This caused an immediate excitement. We saw the men standing to their arms while two, seizing their lances, vaulted on horseback, and came galloping towards us. Arrived within a short distance, they halted, and challenged : " Stand and give the password!" Fitzgerald answered at length, telling our story, and begging to be allowed to camp with them for the night. One of the men then shouted back to the main body, and on receiving an answer, invited us, civilly enough, to advance and speak to the captain.
The captain, a tall, handsome, 'grey-haired man, whom Fitzgerald immediately recognized and addressed as Don Beltran, received us courteously and informed us that his men had just killed a bullock, and supper would be ready immediately. He then ordered two of his soldiers to unsaddle and tether our horses; while the party who seemed to be about as numerous as our friends of the morning, were busy collecting wood, lighting fires and preparing to roast some huge pieces of beef; these were soon pronounced to be ready, and Don Beltran produced from his holsters a bottle of cognac and a paper containing salt, drew a long dagger from behind his back and set us an example by cutting a tremendous slice off one of the pieces on the fire and attacking it literally " tooth and nail." We followed suit with our sheath-knives; the men, meantime, at their fire a few yards away, making merry with plenty of rough jokes over their meal—the red firelight showing off their swarthy faces, burned almost black by exposure, and their magnificent white teeth. Our supper concluded with a long pull at the brandy bottle, and then we lighted our pipes and the captain his cigarette and he gave us an account of the
marches and counter-marches, surprises and skirmishes he had been engaged in for the last month or two since he had been detached with his party. He finished by assuring us that we might sleep in all security that night, as there were none of the insurgents left in that part of the country. Fitzgerald told him of those we met a few hours before, but he said he had intelligence of their movements and knew that they were making their way in the opposite direction.
So, after smoking one more pipe we turned in. The men were already sleeping soundly, stretched about in all directions round the remains of their fire, wrapped in their ponchos, and lying on their saddler. The captain had taken possession of a little-deserted wood cutter's hut, barely enough to shelter one man; and Fitzgerald and I collected our old saddles and rugs, made ourselves comfortable at a little distance, again a sort of a thick edge made by a mass of passion flowers and other creepers tangled together between some tree-stems, and affording a capital shelter from the wind. I went to sleep the moment I lay down, and slept till daybreak, when I was awakened by a stir in the camp, and found everyone awake and preparing to saddle. Not being obliged to get up I lay still and watched them moving about in dim light. Most of the horses had been brought up where they had been tethered the night before, and some few were already saddled; while of some the men, hardly awake, were lazily stretching themselves or struggling in their long boots; some trying to wake the embers of last night's fires; some were collecting arms and accouterments, preparatory to saddling, and some struggling with retactory horses. Don Beltran stood at the entrance of the hut where he had slept, giving some orders to an old sergeant who stood before, his saddled horse standing a few paces away. I was lying half-awake watching all this scene, so new to me, fresh from the peaceful conventionalities of Europe when a dull, heavy, measured sound began to make itself heard in my left ear, which was next to the earth. It impressed me trangely—I don't know why—and I took the trouble to turn over and ask Fitzgerald what on earth it was. He was more sleepy than I, and only said: " Oh, thunder I suppose. Don't bother that's a good fellow." But the next moment he leaped up wide enough awake: It's a charge of cavalry. Get up man, for God's sake I the Blancos are on us and as he spoke he dashed headed foremost through the passion-flowers behind us, while the forest echoed suddenly to a confusion of such sounds as I pray I may never hear again as long as I live.
First, the thunder of the Blancos' horses, as they raced at full speed up the long smooth glade, we had ridden down so quietly the night before; and then altogether burst out the yells of the lancers, as they dashed in among the unprepared men, sitting and lying about on the ground, as I have described them, and lanced them without resistance; and the screams of the wounded and dying, as, thrust by the lances of the foremost, they fell helplessly under the hoofs of the rear rank; and shots and blows, and oaths and groans, with the shrill neighing of some of the horses still tethered in the distance, heard over all, made up a babel that even now I don't like to hear of. It was all over in a moment. The surprise was complete. The few who were near horses at the time, vaulted on to them and escaped at once, without a thought of fighting; those who were unprepared fell at the first onset. I saw Don Beltran rush out of the hut as the first of the advancing lanceheads became visible through the huge trees, shouting to his men: "Rally, my children. It is impossible that you will let yourselves be cut down without an effort." The thunder of the charging horses' feet drowned his words—none heard him, or attended to him. The old sergeant turned, and ran for his horse; he would not wait to unbutton his hobbles, but drawing his sharp knife from his back, he slashed through the tough hide and vaulted up. Before he was well in the saddle his spurs were in the horse's sides, and he disappeared in an instant among the trees. Meanwhile, the grayhaired old captain ran forward, waving his sword; five lancers rode at him in a cloud of smoke and dust; in an instant he was down, dead, lanced through and through in twenty places. He was the last of his party, and two of the conquerors dismounting went round their dead and dying enemies, daggers in hand, and grasping them by the beards, drew back the heads and cut the throats of all, one by one. Up to this time, all had passed so suddenly that I had hardly realized what a tragedy I was witnessing; but this dreadful ending to it, while filling me with horror, reminded me that my own position was probably none of the safest, standing as I was in full view of these barbarians; I looked to see what had become of Fitzgerald, and presently saw his face looking out from among the creepers.
He made a sign to me to pass the horse-gear in to his hiding place; and we hid it and ourselves in the thickest of the undergrowth, where we lay quiet for about an hour, while the soldiers rifled the dead bodies of everything of any value that was on them, and examined the captured horses, turning adrift the worst of them. Two men strolled down together to take a look at my chesnut, which was tied to a tree not far from where we were hidden, and one remarked to the other that the horse was not good for much, but that the halter and lasso were worth taking. He took them accordingly, letting the animal go loose; but, contrary to my expectation, the animal, instead of galloping away, only moved a few steps, and then began to feed again quietly; so that as soon as the party had drawn together and marched, Fitzgerald and I emerged cautiously from our hiding place, and found no difficulty in catching him; then we girthed a saddle on to him, and I mounted, Fitzgerald jumping up behind me, and directing my course through the wood. We were both anxious enough to leave such a scene of horror, and carefully turning away our faces from the ghastly remains of our entertainers of the night before, we went crashing at a gallop through the underwood, the chestnut going as willingly and strongly under the double load as he had done under my weight alone on the previous day. We arrived at our destination in the course of the morning, without any further adventure; and the welcome I received went far
towards making up for any disagreeables I had encountered on the road; but I shall not easily forget my first ride in South America.—