The Guide of the Desert

Gustave Aimard
The Guide of the Desert

NOTICE

Gustave Aimard was the adopted son of one of the most powerful Indian tribes, with whom he lived for more than fifteen years in the heart of the Prairies, sharing their dangers and their combats, and accompanying them everywhere, rifle in one hand and tomahawk in the other. In turn squatter, hunter, trapper, warrior, and miner, Gustave Aimard has traversed America from the highest peaks of the Cordilleras to the ocean shores, living from hand to mouth, happy for the day, careless of the morrow. Hence it is that Gustave Aimard only describes his own life. The Indians of whom he speaks he has known – the manners he depicts are his own.

CHAPTER I
A PRISONER

Loading in the environs of Barbara Bay, Cape Horn, I was surprised, with two companions, by the Patagonians, and made prisoner. I had the pain of witnessing from the cliffs the departure of the whaler on board of which I had entered at Havre as harpooner.

It was with a deep pang of grief, and eyes bathed in tears, I saw the white sails of my ship disappear on the horizon, and the sea become solitary once more.

I little suspected that the vessel I then saw for the last time was doomed to some terrible fate. Nothing was ever heard of her again.

Two hours later, stripped of our clothes and tied by the wrists to the tails of Patagonian horses, we were carried off into the interior of the country.

The Patagonians, with regard to whom travellers relate so many fables, are neither so gigantic nor so evil as generally represented.

They are sturdily independent. The least yoke galls them, and rather than submit to the will of a chief, they rush off into exile, and submit to the most terrible privations.

We were not ill-used by our captors, but I was at length alone. One of my companions went raving mad, the other committed suicide. I was kept alive, I believe, by the spirit of hope.

I was twenty years of age, and had a constitution of iron, as well as a buoyancy of spirits, a boldness and firmness, which saved me from myself, by permitting me to look upon my position in its true light. Cruel as it was, it was far from being desperate.

My first care was, by invariable complaisance, to secure the goodwill of the savages, in which I succeeded pretty well, more easily, indeed, than I should have dared to hope.

However, when in the evening after a whole day's journey in the interminable steppes of Patagonia, I threw myself, overcome with fatigue, before the bivouac fire, while the savages laughed and sang among themselves, I often felt my heart on the point of bursting by reason of the efforts I made to suppress my sighs.

How many times have I felt my courage fail! How many times has the thought of suicide burst upon my mind! But, always at the most critical moment, the hope of deliverance arose to put new life into my heart; my sufferings were calmed little by little, my frame ceased to be agitated, and I slept, murmuring in a gentle voice one of those national refrains which are, for the exile, a sweet and far-off echo of the absent country.

Fourteen months thus passed away, hour by hour, second by second, in an incessant and frightful torture.

Always on the watch to seize an opportunity of escaping, but not wishing to leave anything to the risk of failure, I had had the greatest care not to awaken the drowsy mistrust of the Patagonians. I always affected, on the contrary, not to wander too far from the tribe; so the Indians had at last come to allow me to enjoy comparative liberty amongst them; and instead of compelling me to follow them on foot, they decided of their own accord to allow me to mount on horseback.

It was only on horseback that I could dream of escaping.

The Patagonians are some of the first horsemen in the world. In their school I made rapid progress; and, however wild and vicious might be the horse that they gave me, in a few minutes I subdued him, and made myself completely his master.

Our wandering and purposeless journeys conducted us at last to about ten leagues from the Carmen of Patagonia, the most advanced fort constructed by the Spaniards on the Río Negro, at the extreme frontier of their former possessions.

The troop camped for the night at a little distance from the river, near an abandoned farm.

The opportunity for which I had waited so long had come at last. I prepared to profit by it, convinced that if I did not escape now, I should die a slave.

I will not fatigue the reader with the details of my flight; I will content myself with simply saying that after a devious journey, which lasted seven hours, and during which I constantly felt the smoking nostrils of the horses on my track, on the croup of the one I rode; after having escaped twenty times by a miracle from the bolas which the Patagonians threw at me, and from the sharpened points of their long lances, I came unexpectedly upon a patrol of Buenos Airean horsemen, in the midst of whom I fell fainting, overcome by fatigue and excitement.

The Patagonians, suddenly taken aback by the appearance of white men, whom the high grass had hidden from them till that time, turned tail with fright, and fled away, howling with fury.

I was saved!

By my singular equipment – all the clothing I had on was a frazada (blanket) in rags, fastened round the body by a leather strap – the soldiers at first took me for an Indian, a mistake which was rendered more natural by my complexion, bronzed by the severity of the seasons to which I had been so long exposed and which had assumed nearly the colour of copper. As soon as I regained consciousness, I hastened to disabuse them as well as I could, for at that time I could only speak the Spanish language very imperfectly.

The brave Buenos Aireans listened with signs of the liveliest sympathy to the recital of my sufferings, and lavished on me the kindest attentions.

My entry into Carmen, in the midst of my preservers, was a veritable triumph.

It required nearly a month to enable me to recover from the long sufferings which I had endured, and from the privations of all kinds to which I had, during so long a period, been condemned; but, thanks to the attention by which I was surrounded, and especially thanks to my youth and the vigour of my constitution, I at last regained my health.

The governor of Carmen, who had become much interested in me, agreed at my request to give me a passage on board a little Buenos Airean brig, then anchored before the port, and I left for Buenos Aires, with the firm intention of returning to France as soon as possible – so much had the rude apprenticeship I had had to American life disgusted me with travel.

But it was not to be so, and before again reaching France – I was to wander for twenty years an adventurer in all the countries of the world – from Cape Horn to Hudson's Bay, from China to Oceania, and from India to Spitzburg.

On my arrival in Buenos Aires, my first care was to present myself to the French consul, to ask of him the means of returning to Europe.

I was well received by the consul, who, on proofs of my identity, immediately informed me that there was no French ship in the harbour, but that need not disquiet me, since my family not receiving news of me, and fearing that I might find myself in a difficult position from the want of money, if any misfortune had happened to me during my voyage, had written to all our agents in foreign countries, so that anyone to whom I might present myself might give me, on my demand, a sum adequate to supply my wants, and put me in a position, if I wished it, to try my fortune where chance should have conducted me. He concluded by adding that he held at my disposal the sum of 25,000f., and that he was ready to give it me immediately.

I thanked him, and only accepted three hundred piastres.

Some months passed, during which I made several agreeable acquaintances, and perfected myself in the study of the Spanish language.

On several occasions the consul had done me the kindness to inform me that if I wished to leave for France, it would entirely depend upon my own will; but each time, under some pretext or other. I declined his offer, not being able to resolve to leave forever that land where I had suffered so much, and to which, for that very reason, I was attached.

It is not with impunity that one has once tasted the wild pleasures of independent, nomadic life, and breathed in liberty the embalmed atmosphere of the high savannahs! I felt arising within me the passion of an adventurer, and suffered a secret horror at the thought of recommencing the colourless, circumscribed, and mean existence to which European civilisation would have bound me.

And then I had bound myself in friendship with the gauchos. I made excursions with them into the pampas, slept in their ranches, hunted wild oxen and horses; all the poetry of the desert had taken possession of me, and I only wished to return into the savannahs and virgin forests, whatever might be the consequences to me of such a determination.

In a word, one day, instead of embarking, as I had almost promised the consul, I went to him, and explained my intentions.

The consul neither blamed me, nor gave me his approbation, but contented himself with shaking his head with the melancholy smile of a man in whom experience had killed all the illusions of youth, counted out to me the sum I asked of him, shook my hand with a sigh of regret and of pity, and, my business being at an end, I never saw him again.

Four days later, mounted on an excellent wild horse, and accompanied by an Indian Guaranis, whom I had engaged to serve me as a guide, I left Buenos Aires with the intention of proceeding by land to Brazil.

 

What business had I at Brazil?

I myself did not know.

But it is neither my history, nor that of my sensations, that I relate here; all which precedes has no other design but that of preparing for the recital, unhappily too true, that I now undertake, and which, without that prelude, would not perhaps have been so clearly explained as is necessary to its being clearly understood. Leaping, then, at a single bound, over some hunting adventures of too little importance to mention, I will transport myself to the banks of the Uruguay, a little above the Salto, four months after my departure from Buenos Aires, and I will enter immediately on the narrative.

After a rather fatiguing day, I stopped for the night in a pagonal, half-inundated by reason of the sudden overflowing of the river, and where it was necessary to go into the water nearly up to the horse's belly, in order to gain a dry spot. For some days the Guaranis, whom I had engaged at Buenos Aires, appeared to obey me with repugnance; he was sad, morose, and answered only in monosyllables the questions I was sometimes obliged to put to him. This turn of mind in my guide disquieted me, as, knowing very well the character of the Indians, I feared he might plot some treason against me; therefore, feigning not to perceive his change of humour, I kept myself on my guard, resolved to blow his brains out at the least hostile demonstration on his part.

As soon as we were encamped, the guide, notwithstanding the suspicions I had conceived of him, manifested great activity in gathering dry wood to light the fire for the evening, and to prepare our modest repast.

The supper over, each enveloped himself in his blanket, and gave himself up to repose.

In the middle of the night I was suddenly awakened by a strange noise; my first movement was to seize my gun, and to look around me.

I was alone; my guide had disappeared.

The night was dark, the fire extinguished; to complete my discomfiture, my bivouac was about to be invaded by the waters of the river, the overflowing of which continued with extreme rapidity.

I had not a moment to lose. I rose in haste, and leaping into the saddle, I darted, with a loose rein, in the direction of a neighbouring hill, the black outline of which was clearly marked on the sombre background of the sky.

Here I was in comparative security. I passed the rest of the night awake, as well to watch for the wild beasts, the howlings of which I heard about the place where I had sought a refuge, as because my present position had become critical – alone, abandoned in a desert country, and completely ignorant of the route it was necessary to take.

On the rising of the sun, I examined the horizon around. As far as my view could reach, reigned the most complete solitude; nothing gave me ground for hope, so wild and desolate appeared the landscape.

This uncertainty, however, from a singular disposition of mind, did not seriously affect me; my position, without being pleasant, had nothing in it positively sad in itself. I possessed a good horse, arms, supplies in abundance – what more could I desire? I, who for so long a time had aspired to the adventurous life of the gaucho and of the trapper?

Accordingly I took in good part the desertion of my guide, and prepared myself, half laughing, half railing against the ingratitude of the Guaranis, to commence my apprenticeship to the life of the desert.

My first care was to light a fire. I prepared a maté cimarron, that is to say, without sugar; and, refreshed by this warm drink, I mounted my horse, with the design of seeking my breakfast by killing a head or two of game, an easy thing in the locality in which I found myself; then I carelessly resumed my adventurous route.

Some days thus passed. One morning, at the moment when I was preparing to light, or rather to rekindle, my bivouac fire to cook my breakfast, I suddenly saw several venados rise from the midst of the high grass, and, after having sniffed the wind, scamper away with extreme rapidity, passing at a pistol shot from the thicket where I had established myself for the night; at the same instant a flight of vultures passed above my head, uttering discordant cries.

Novice as I still was in my new occupation, I instinctively understood that something extraordinary was passing not far from me.

I made my horse lie down, tied my girdle round his nostrils to prevent him neighing, and stretching myself on the ground, I waited with my finger on the trigger of my gun, my heart palpitating, and eye and ear on the watch. Carefully scanning the undulations of the high grass of the plain stretched out before me, I was ready for every event.

I was crouching in the middle of a nearly impenetrable thicket. On the outskirts of a wood which formed a kind of oasis in this desolate wilderness, I found myself in an excellent ambuscade, and perfectly sheltered from the danger I felt was approaching.

I did not deceive myself. Scarcely a quarter of an hour had passed since the venados and the urubus had given me the first hint, than the noise of a precipitate flight distinctly reached my ear. I soon perceived a horseman lying on the neck of his horse, flying with wild rapidity, and coming in a straight line towards the wood in which I was concealed.

The horseman, when he had come within twenty paces, suddenly pulled up his horse, leaped to the ground, and making a shelter of a rocky projection, shrouded by a cluster of trees, loaded his gun, and, leaning his body forward, appeared to listen to the sounds of the desert.

This man, as far as it was possible for me to assure myself of it by a hasty glance at him, appeared to belong to the white race; he was about thirty-five or forty years of age; his energetic features, animated by his rapid journey, and by emotion, were handsome, regular, stamped with a certain nobility, and uncommon boldness; his figure was rather below the middle height, but well made; his large shoulders denoted great vigour; he wore the costume of the gauchos of the Banda Oriental, a costume that I had myself adopted – a maroon jacket, a white waistcoat, a sky blue chirapa, white calzoncillos with fringe, under blue cloth trousers, a poncho thrown over the left shoulder, a knife sheathed in the girdle of the chirapa behind his back, a red Phrygian bonnet, slouched over the forehead, and allowing to escape ringlets of thick black hair, which fell in disorder on his shoulders.

Suddenly the man threw himself backward, put his knee to the ground, and shouldered his gun.

Ten horsemen started up, as if by enchantment, emerging with extreme rapidity from the grass which, up to that time, had concealed them from my view, and precipitated themselves, brandishing their long lances, flourishing their terrible bolas above their heads, and howling with fury, as they looked towards the spot where the gaucho was in ambush.

These horsemen were Indiæ bravos.

CHAPTER II
THE GAUCHO

The Indians stopped within gunshot of the spot where the gaucho and I were concealed; they appeared to be consulting amongst themselves before commencing the attack.

These Indians, thus grouped, formed in the midst of the arid desert, of which they were the veritable kings, a most singular and at the same time a most picturesque tableau, with their noble and animated gestures, their tall and elegant figures, their well-proportioned limbs, and their ferocious appearance.

Half-clothed with ponchos in rags, and with pieces of frazada, fastened by leathern strings round their bodies, they brandished their long lances, garnished with iron blades, and ornamented near the points with tufts of ostrich feathers.

Their chief, still young, had great black eyes veiled by long black eyelashes; his high cheekbones, surrounded by a mass of sleek and flowing hair, fastened on the forehead by a narrow band of red wool; his mouth, large and furnished with brilliant white teeth, which contrasted with the red hue of his skin, impressed on his physiognomy the stamp of remarkable vigour and intelligence. Although he knew that he was but a little distance from the spot where the gaucho was in ambuscade, and that consequently he was exposed to the danger of being struck by a ball, nevertheless, openly exposing himself to the attack of his enemy, he affected a carelessness and a contempt for the peril by which he was threatened, which was not wanting in grandeur.

After a tolerably long discussion, the chief urged his horse forward, and advanced without hesitation towards the rock.

Arrived at about ten paces from it, he stopped, and supporting himself carelessly on the long lance which he held in his hand:

"Why does the white huntsman earth himself like a timid viscacha?" said he, elevating his voice and addressing the gaucho; "The Aucas warriors are before him: let him come out from his ambuscade, and let him show that he is not a frightened and babbling old woman, but a brave man."

The chief waited an instant; then he resumed in a mocking voice:

"Come, my warriors are deceived, they thought to have unearthed a bold jaguar, and it is but a dog returning from the pampa that they are about to attack."

The eye of the gaucho flashed at the insult; he applied his finger to the trigger, and the charge flew.

But, sudden and unexpected as had been his movement, the wily Indian had foreseen it, or rather had guessed it; he threw himself rapidly on one side, there bounding in advance with the elasticity and certainty of a wild beast, he alighted in front of the gaucho, with whom he closed.

The two men rolled on the ground, grappling each other with fury.

Meanwhile, at the sound of the shot, the Indians had uttered their war cry, and had darted forward with the design of supporting their chief.

The gaucho seemed, therefore, doomed. If even he could have succeeded in overcoming the chief against whom he was fighting, he would evidently have had to succumb to the attack of ten Indians.

At that moment I do not know what revulsion of feeling seized me. I forgot the danger to which I exposed myself in discovering my retreat, and instinctively putting the gun to my shoulder I fired my two shots, followed immediately by the explosion of two pistols and darting from my retreat, my two other pistols in hand, I discharged them close to the breasts of the horsemen, who came down upon me like a thunderbolt.

The Indians, surprised and frightened by this fusillade, which they could not foresee, since they believed they had but a single adversary to fight, turned about and escaped in every direction, uttering cries of fright, abandoning not only their chief, who was occupied with defending himself against the gaucho, but also the corpses of four of their companions, struck by my balls. While I was loading my gun, I saw two other Indians fall from their horses.

Certain of not having anything more to fear in that direction, I ran towards the gaucho in order to render him assistance, if it were necessary, but at the moment I reached him the blade of his knife entirely disappeared in the throat of the Indian chief.

The latter expired, his eye fixed on his enemy, without trying even to ward off the blow.

The gaucho withdrew his knife from the wound, plunged its blade several times in the earth, to cleanse it from the blood with which it was soiled, then quietly replacing his knife in his chirapa, he rose and turned towards me.

His countenance had not changed; he still preserved that expression of cold impassability and of implacable courage that I had at first seen in him; only his face was more pale, and some drops of perspiration stood like pearls on his temples.

"Thank you, caballero," said he to me, holding out his hand; "to the revenging charge! ¡Vive Dios! It was time that you came. Without your brave assistance I avow I should have been a dead man."

These words had been uttered in Spanish, but with an accent which denoted a foreign origin.

"I had arrived before you," I answered, "or rather had passed the night at a few paces only from the spot where chance so fortunately led me."

"Chance," he replied, gently shaking his head, "chance is a word invented by the strong minds of towns. We of the desert ignore it. It is God only, who desiring to save me, led me to you."

I bowed affirmatively. This man appeared to me still greater at that moment, with his simple faith and genuine humility, than when he was preparing to fight singly against ten men.

"Besides," added he, speaking to himself, "I knew that God would not allow me to fall today. Every man in this world has a task to accomplish. I have not yet fulfilled mine. But pardon," said he to me, changing his tone, and trying to smile, "I am saying to you now words which must appear, without doubt, very strange, especially at this moment, when we have to think of things more important than to commence a philosophic discussion. Let us see what has become of our enemies? Although we may be two resolute men now, if the desire of returning seizes them we should be hard put to it to rid ourselves of them."

 

And without waiting for any answer, he left the wood, taking at the same time the precaution to reload his gun as he walked.

I followed him in silence, not knowing what to think of the strange companion whom I had so singularly found, and asking myself who this man could be who, by his manner, his language, and the turn of his mind, appeared so much above the position which the clothes he wore, and the place where he was, appeared to assign to him.

The gaucho, after assuring himself that the Indians remaining on the battlefield were dead, ascended a tolerably elevated hill, scanned the horizon on all sides for a considerable time, and then returned towards me, holding a cigarette between his fingers.

"We have nothing to fear at present," said he to me. "However, I think we shall act prudently in not remaining here any longer. Which way are you going?"

"Upon my word," I answered him frankly, "I avow that I do not know." Notwithstanding his apparent coolness, he allowed a gesture of surprise to escape him.

"What!" said he, "You do not know?"

"No! Strange as it may appear to you, it is so. I know not where I am, nor where I am going."

"Come, come; that's a joke, is it not? For some motive or other you do not wish – which shows your prudence – to acquaint me with the object of your travel; but it is impossible that you do not really know in what spot you are, and the place to which you are going."

"I repeat to you, caballero, that what I tell you is true. I have no motive for concealing the object of my travel; I am merely wandering on account of the unfaithfulness of a guide whom I had engaged, and who abandoned me some days ago."

He reflected an instant, then taking me cordially by the hand:

"Pardon me the absurd suspicions of which I am ashamed," said he, "but the situation in which I find myself must be my excuse; let us mount our horses, and get away from here. While we are on the road, we can talk; I hope soon you will know me better."

"I need not know you more," I replied; "from the first moment I felt myself attached to you."

"Thank you," said he, smiling. "To horse, to horse! We have a long journey to make."

Five minutes later we were galloping away, leaving to the vultures that already wheeled in large circles above our heads with harsh and discordant cries, the corpses of the Indians killed during the combat.

While we were proceeding, I related to the gaucho my life and adventures, as far as I thought necessary he should know. This recital pleased him by its singularity.

It was easy to perceive that, notwithstanding the brusque and sometimes even harsh manner he affected, this man possessed a profound knowledge of the human heart, and great practical knowledge of life; and that he had for a long time frequented not only the best American society, but also visited Europe with advantage, and seen the world under its most varied phases. His elevated thoughts, always characterised by nobility of mind, his good sense, his lively, vigorous, and attractive conversation, interested me in him more and more; and although he kept the most complete silence as regards his personal circumstances, and had not even told me his name, I nevertheless felt the sentiment of sympathy with which he had at first inspired me continually increasing.

We passed the whole day laughing and talking, at the same time rapidly advancing towards the rancho where we were to pass the night.

"Look," said the gaucho to me, pointing out a slight column of smoke, which was ascending spirally towards the sky; "that is where we are going, and in a quarter of an hour we shall be there."

"Thank God," I answered, "for I begin to feel fatigued."

"Yes," said he to me, "you have not yet become used to long journeys; but patience, in a few days you will think nothing of it."

"I hope so."

"By-the-bye," said he, as if the thought suddenly occurred to him, "you have not yet told me the name of the pícaro who abandoned you."

"Robbing me of a gun, a sabre, and a horse – things for which I have ceased to grieve."

"How is that?"

"Why, because it is probable that the bribón will not bring them back to me."

"You are wrong to think that; although the desert may be large, a rascal cannot so easily conceal himself there as you think."

"What good would it do to find him?"

"You do not know what may happen; perhaps someday I shall come across him."

"That is true; they call him, in Buenos Aires, Pigacha, but his real name among his own people is the Venado; he is blind of the right eye. I hope that is sufficient description," I added.

"I believe so," answered he; "and I promise you if I meet him I shall recognise him. But here we are."

In fact, at twenty paces before me appeared a rancho, the complete outline of which the first shades of night prevented me from making out, but the sight of which, after a fatiguing day, and especially after the wild life to which I had been so long condemned, rejoiced my heart in giving rise to the hope of that frank and cordial hospitality which is never refused in the pampa.

Already the dogs hailed our arrival with their deafening bark, and leaped furiously around our horses. We were obliged to give them a taste of the whip, and soon our horses stopped before the entrance to the rancho, where a man was standing with a lighted torch in one hand, and a gun in the other. This man was tall, with bold features, and a bronzed complexion lit up by the ruddy reflection of the torch which he held above his head gave me a good idea, with his athletic form and wild appearance, of the true gaucho of the pampas. On perceiving my companion, he bowed deferentially.

"I hail you, most pure Mary," he said.

"Conceived without sin."

"Can we enter, Don Torribio?"

"Enter, Señor Don Zeno Cabral; this house and all it contains belongs to you."

We dismounted without asking anything further, and after a young man of eighteen or twenty, half-naked, who had run out at the call of his master or father – I did not get to know which – had taken the bridle of our horses and had led them away, we entered, followed by the dogs who had so noisily announced our arrival, and who, instead of being hostile to us, leaped around us with signs of pleasure.

This habitation, like all those of the gauchos, was a hut of earth intermingled with reeds, covered with straw; constructed, in fact, with all the primitive simplicity of the desert.

A bed formed of four stakes driven into the earth, supporting a hurdle of reed or strip of leather interlaced, on which was placed, like a European mattress, the untanned skin of an ox; some other hides laid on the floor near the wall for the children's beds, some bolas, some lazos, the indispensable arms of the gauchos, some horses' harness hung from stakes of wood pierced in the wall of the rancho, formed the only furniture of the inner room.

As to the first room, its furniture was simpler still, if possible; it was composed of a hurdle of reeds, supported by six stakes, and serving for a sofa, the heads of two oxen in the place of an armchair, a little barrel of water, a brass kettle, some gourds serving for drinking vessels, a wooden bowl, and an iron spit stuck vertically before the fireplace, which was in the very middle of the apartment.

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