My Friend Chace
BY ROBERT BARRETT
CHACE had no idea of going to Patagonia when he shipped before the mast in the fall of ’97. He went as ship’s carpenter on a little schooner that R. T. Green and Company of Boston had fitted out, to look over abandoned whaling grounds in the South Shetlands and take seal and whalebone. He had no idea of staying when the venture fizzled out and he found himself ashore in Patagonia ten months later. But it was thirty-one years before he saw his country again, coming up, as he said, because talking with us had made him homesick.
The schooner’s crew was made up mostly of young men like Chace and his cousin Rounsville from Taunton and thereabouts, whose ears were full of tales of a recent venture to the South for bone and ambergris — five thousand dollars for the cabin boy’s threehundredth on the lay. But it was not the carpenter’s hundredth that drew Chace. It was the promise of a wider field to go observing in than Taunton and Middleboro and New Bedford and the woods and swamps about afforded.
The skipper had been a formidable little mate in his younger days in the Arctic, and a plucky one. When he mashed his arm in the running gear up in Hudson’s Bay he let his old whaling captain saw it off with a meat saw and cauterize the end with a red-hot harpoon, and, when the new wound gangrened, let him have at it again with the saw and the harpoon. The ship carried no anæsthetics. Now, many years later, when he took command of Green and Company’s seventy-fourton schooner, drink had begun to tell on him. The mate was a big sober fellow who knew the North too, and a little of the South. The young men liked him enormously from first to last. They liked the skipper less, from the start, in spite of all they had heard about his prowess, hanging about his cigar store in Taunton. Later on, off in the Falklands, when his reputation needed bolstering, Rounsville heard him brag of the little shop as his ‘ big department store.’
It took an interminable time to get away from Boston after the crew signed on. They lost three men before they started. The old man wasted a month or two after that in the Cape Verdes, lying drunk ashore. Three or four of the crew got away there, and the mate had to ship a lot of green Portuguese. The mate took the schooner out eventually, but the skipper made such a nuisance of himself, when he was n’t completely paralyzed, that the mate had to empty alt the Brava demijohns overboard. That was just before they crossed the equator. All went well for a long time after that, until they found the bilge pump putting fresh water overboard. They plugged the leak in time to save a little, and stood in toward the coast of South America to replenish.
Copyright 1930, by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
They sighted barren cliffs at last, off what Chace thinks must have been Deseado on the Patagonian coast. An old chart showed fresh water farther south, marked at the head of the estuary of the Rio Santa Cruz, alongside an abandoned convict settlement. Recent charts show a missionary settlement there. The skipper knew nothing of that coast but tales of savages he had heard. The mate knew nothing more. Chace and Rounsville knew, from a picture in their geographies, that naked Patagonians, mounted bareback, hunt ostriches, with long lazos that carry balls instead of loops.
Now, at twenty-four, it was ten years since they had made spitballs behind those geography books. Neither had had any schooling since. Rounsvilie’s mother had raised her heavyjowled giant as a noncombatant, and all the other boys, even the most fragile, had gone about picking on him until one day, as Rounsville told me, his little chum said, ‘Stand up to ’em, Horace. If you can’t lick ’em, I can.’ Rounsville’s much the biggest and most formidable of the mates on the Fall River Line now.
Chace is a small man, a close-knit fellow, well set up; clear sharp eyes, strong hands with fingers crooked a bit by this and that mishap; a free lance still. His hair is gray now. In those days he had red hair and a red moustache, and something of a temper to go with them. When he was about seventeen, sitting in his father’s pew, reading the hymn book during a dreary sermon, the parson had pointed him out and reproved him, and he got up, slammed down the hymn book, and marched out. The ‘Patagonian savages,’ when they got acquainted with him, used to call him ‘Norte Alazan’ for that coloring — the Sorrel Northerner. He thought his eyes were brown when he set sail, but when he came to go back home, after thirty years under the Patagonian sky, the consul told him they were blue. They are as sharp as ever, but they are turning brown again in the filtered sunshine of New England. His upright carriage is deliberate. When he was working in the machine shop at Taunton, pale and stooped, his grandmother told him she hoped he’d enjoy his Christmas deer hunt that year, because he’d never have another: he would go the galloping-consumption way that some of his forebears and neighbors had gone before him. Chace took the tip, quit the machine shop, and stood up.
One afternoon — Washington’s birthday, to be precise, in 1898 — the little schooner came abreast a headland where a tall sea cliff from the south comes to an end. There was a low bluff opposite: the cliffs they’d watched from Deseado dow n had fallen off to that. Here, by the chart, was the inlet they were looking for.
At their approach, sea lions went splashing off. Years later Chace lay on his stomach on that headland, watching the entrance when there was no disturbing vessel in the offing, and saw some hundreds of the big fellows swimming, ranged in a crescent across it, like a net; and hundreds more plunging between the horns, coming up with big fish waving in their mouths; and more and more still, as far out as he could see. And all the sea was rippled with big and little fish, come swimming up on the tide. After that fishing, you’d find fish on the beach with big chunks bitten out of them. There is a rookery of those sea lions ten leagues down the coast.
The schooner stood in on a flood tide, rippled with fish but clear of sea lions, just about sunset, in mid-channel; it got up four or five miles, and anchored off an island where the bay was rather wide. The shores could n’t be seen distinctly in that light, and no one felt easy in his mind.
Daylight showed no signs of savages, or fresh water, only a wreck ashore up the bay. The mate said, ‘There’s some ship’s crew that the Indians killed when she went ashore.’ It was not a pleasant prospect, but fresh water had to be found and got aboard somehow. The skipper got together a boat’s crew to go exploring before he should take the schooner any farther up.
They rowed over to the wreck, climbed up on the old hulk, and made out well up the bay, across a three or four mile stretch of dirty yellow water, low roofs. The roofs lay in the mouth of a canyon that breached a tall sea cliff on the west side. Cliff edge or brow of steep slope made the sky line all the way to the entrance. The schooner was ill-placed to judge the height of that sky line by, but when they came to climb up to it later they thought it might be four mast-lengths. The boat’s crew put off again on the yellow water, heading for the roofs, and soon discovered dark figures moving about — abandoned convicts, perhaps, certainly not naked Patagonians. They turned out to be men in natty uniforms, an Argentine officer with half a dozen sailors in charge of the harbor. The skipper got what information he wanted with bad Portuguese and started back.
The men rowed along the edge of a low shelf about a mile wide and found a couple of iron shanties on the beach, — high pebble beach, ‘steep as a horse’s hoof,’ — which hid a whole village from the boat. They turned up a Hungarian behind the bar in one of the shanties who could talk a little broken English. The fellow said his neighbor was an Austrian, and the people in the ’dobe village they could see through his back windows were Spaniards and Argentines. There was a Falkland Islander down the bay on that side, whose native tongue was English.
It was long after dark when they got down aboard the schooner among their anxious shipmates, and heard how the mate had climbed the shrouds again and again and come down swearing that that ‘damfool’ captain had taken his men ashore to get them scalped.
There was no wind next day, and the crew got out the two whaleboats and towed the schooner up abreast the village. Chace and Rounsville got leave to cruise about a bit ashore, to see if there was any game in the country. The crew were pretty hungry for fresh meat.
An empty dusty way led back between two rows of little ’dobe houses and disappeared up a dusty canyon. They climbed up over the sky line to where they could look off across the Pampa Triste — that’s what the Hungarian called the high country. ‘It looked sad, right enough,’ but there was no plumy pampa about it — not one of those tall feathery clumps, like the gilt-stemmed grasses that would reach from the floor to the ceiling in Chace’s grandmother’s parlor.
The dusty trail that led up from the village led on westward among sparse squat black bushes and sparse yellow bunch grass, big, but pigmy alongside Grandmother’s bunch. These grew in sandy clay and pebbles, so hard-packed that the big wheels of five-ton bullock carts in later years did not sink in; Chace has worked hours with his crowbar at a single fence-post hole in the stuff, a little farther south. Here and there the tops of bigger bushes peeped from arroyos (in the North American sense of the word). Those dry cuts made the trail tack a bit, but it held on its course toward a high scarp along a remoter sky line than the brow behind them.
It was an empty country. There was no sign of house or tent or water anywhere. There were no Patagón tracks. Those big tracks that scared Magellan’s men were made by tall Indians clumsily shod, but no Indians north of the Straits have walked since the Spanish horses drifted down their way. There were no ordinary man tracks. Chace and Rounsville found barefoot horse tracks, however, and what looked like baby camel tracks, and three-toed tracks much bigger than any bird’s they were familiar with. And there was something too blunt for a deer’s track that might be a wild sheep’s. They got down aboard empty-handed, but with both their scalps intact.
The mate was beginning to feel easy. He’d have been less so had Chace and Rounsville chanced to go a little farther north on the Pampa Triste that day to where neatly cleaned skulls of murdered men stuck out of shallow graves in an arroyo. There are plenty of beaks and teeth to pick skulls in that country, but one of those still wore a blue Chilean sombrero tied behind with a leather thong, after the manner of our cowboys.
Not knowing of this very thorough scalping, the mate took off a boat next day to try the eastern side for game. He found a forty-foot bluff a little back from the beach on that side. Chace sneaked up a gully in it, came out close to a band of baby camels grazing, and got two of them. But they were too red and white for camels. They had no humps, and their necks were much too slender and they held them too straight up. The tallest held his head higher than the mate’s. They really are a primitive camel, those elegant little guanacos with waists like greyhounds.
There were no Indians in sight at that killing, but the boat’s crew wasted no time taking notes on their strange game. They got the carcasses down to the beach as quickly as they could and cleared away.
The mate was bolder next day. The men had ventured back nearly a league from the edge before they found anything, and then, just before the country took a big step up, they saw wild sheep. Chace stalked them very carefully and got six, but when the mate came up and found they had earmarks and were wethers, he was for bolting while his men still had their scalps. There were no Indians in sight, however, and they wanted the meat. Chace stood guard while the gutting was going on. Then they made for the boats as fast as they could go. The mate went so fast, that he ‘got split off’ from the others, and had the fright of his life in a gully just before he got down to the beach. He saw an Indian run out of a branch gully into his, and try to get between him and the boat. It was really an ostrich trying to get away unobserved, running with his head held low and his wings cupped, as Chace was to see him do ‘often and often and often’ in the years to come.
The men got the mutton aboard and cleared away, but the tide was against them, and so was a stiff wind. They failed to make the schooner, were swept down between the island and the wet shore, and beached the boat in an inlet in sight, of the Falkland Islander’s house. Mr. Betts was a proper British subject, or, as old Dick Pedraluca used to say of himself when he was drunk, ’British object.’ But Betts’s English was not much easier for the Yankees to understand than the Hungarian’s had been. They made out that those wild sheep tracks on the Pampa Triste were made by his sheep, brought over from the Falklands in the Rippling Wave of Boston register, and that there were two settlers on the east side where they had got those Indian wethers. The Hungarian had made them think there were no settlers on that side. Betts gave the thirsty men all the water they could drink and filled their bucket. Chace said, ‘This is too much.’ Betts said, ‘Throw some out, then.’ Chace stared at him, and then remembered where he was.
That man Betts was one of twentytwo, all born in the Falklands, of one big powerful woman and one weazen little man. Chace had it from the seal pirate, Captain Poole, who used to poach on the Patagonian coast and carry liquor to the Falklands, that once when he had put that man ashore, after a long drinking bout on his schooner, and left him paralyzed on the beach, the woman had come down and gathered him up in her apron, only his muddy boots and shaggy head showing. Poole said, ‘What have you there?’ And she answered, ‘A better man than what you be, Captain Poole.’ Poole’s own crew shot him in the water with the seal gun, when he had fallen overboard in a drunken rage. They were afraid there might be a rope trailing.
The schooner had been in port but a few days when a Scotch brig, the Crossowen of Glasgow, came in on her annual voyage and anchored alongside. Her crew were all British, but there was only one man among them whom Chace could clearly understand. The Cross-owen carried general cargo, and so much liquor that Chace remembers her to this day as ‘the rum ship.’
The brig’s owners had built a liquor warehouse, the year before, some leagues up the river. Their captain turned his vessel over to his mate that trip, and went ashore to stock the warehouse and take charge of it, and later on got Chace to enlarge it for him. He sold wholesale and retail — good liquor to the whites cheap, bad to the Indians dear. Chace once heard someone say to him, ‘The Government ought to pay you a bounty on the Indians you’ve killed off,’ and heard him reply, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’
The brig’s crew light ered her cargo in her own barges and piled it on the beach above high water. Some of that cargo lay there months until the settler farmer out there came down to claim the stores he had been waiting a year for. The handful of settlers that there were in those days were all sheepmen, widely scattered along the coast, all except the bolicheros who sold liquor to the whites, and the traders who peddled the bad stuff upcountry to the Indians, and a man or two back from the coast who ran mares or cattle.
There were sawed Norwegian pine and corrugated iron in the Crossowen’s cargo, and tin houses like Valentino’s on the beach began going up in Santa Cruz. Hatcher of the Princeton Paleontological Expedition counted thirty when he came down that year.
A miserable little ’dobe village, that Santa Cruz, half sunk in pebbly flat between barren slope and dirty yellow bay. Only sparse bush and yellow bunch grass about it, and pebbles and blowing sand and dust; a restless saddle horse or two tied in the dusty street. There was no sign of any garden in those early days. ‘One cannot sing in Santa Cruz,’ a lovely Roman lady told us who was marooned there, years later, when the town had grown from a double line of houses to a solid square of them.
The priest had his chapel in one of the dusty gray houses, where Chace saw swarthy men kneeling at Mass, with long knives at their backs. The fine old justice, Don Juan Williams, held his court and lived with his family in another. Don Juan’s wife, people thought, was a colonel’s sister from Buenos Aires, and they had a family of little girls to bring up there in that rude and dreary place. The judge wore a long white beard and looked exactly like an Englishman, but didn’t know a word of English. He probably pronounced his surname ‘Oo-izhams.’ Killing was out of order during Don Juan’s tenure. He kept the peace single-handed. The blood of a line of English J.P.’s must have run in Don Juan’s veins. Immediately after he left, killings began in Santa Cruz in earnest.
There were a number of women in the village. One of the townsmen kept three of them at a time as wives, and had a swarm of children, all probably duly acknowledged before Don Juan and thus simply made legitimate. There was a man up in the Rio Negro country who was reputed to have seventy-five legitimate children. In looking back over his first few years in the country, Chace remembers the Spanish and Argentine women as delicate, inclined to sit indoors and make lace. He heard of many deaths in childbirth. It might take three such women to raise even a moderate family. They used to say of the Chilean women that one of them could bear a child in the morning and go to work in the afternoon just like a Tehuelche squaw.
As to the landsmen who came and went about Santa Cruz, the Gauchos who looked after the mares and the bullocks and did the taming, the peons who did the odd jobs, the shepherds — everybody more or less, of whatever race or calling, who rode down into the village, seemed to come there to drink or gamble or carry off some other fellow’s wife, but presumably some of them had other business.
The aguardiente of the Cape Verdes had only held the Yankee skipper a month in St. Vincent and Brava, after he had got his torn sails mended and a new topmast, but here, with a British rum ship anchored alongside and a good bar in every house, there was no budging him for four months. His Portuguese were indifferent, but the Englishspeaking members of the crew growled more and more, and one day struck work. The captain got word to the harbor master, and he and his force of sailors and the brig’s captain came aboard and called it mutiny. There was talk of irons, but nothing more than talk. And things went on as before, except that the mate demanded his discharge and passage money, and got them.
The skipper seems to have drawn on the slop chest to moderate his liquor drafts on the company’s letter of credit, and to have got credit and some cash here and there by lending his men. Chace had got almost desperate idling on the schooner, but his turn came at last. The skipper lent his ship’s carpenter to Valentino, the Hungarian bolichero on the beach. Valentino wanted a new mast for his cutter. And when Chace had a tall one from the wrecked bark trimmed down for her, the skipper lent Rounsville and a man or two to run her, fetching wool from the Paso Ibañez, where the ferry was, eight leagues up the Santa Cruz, and cases of liquor from Piscatores, and firewood from the mouth of the Chico. The Chico is another big river that empties into the head of the estuary, but does not bring down half the water the Santa Cruz does, in spite of its imposing appearance on the map.
Chace was no sooner through with Valentino’s mast than he was off to liquor headquarters on another job. The Santa Cruz flows clear there at Piscatores between wide clay and gravel terraces, like those along the sides of the estuary. If you rode your pingo (saddle horse) back far enough, you came up on to that pebbly bushy Pampa Triste. But Chace hardly knew what a pingo was in those days. He got about on his own legs and in the Captain’s boat.
The liquor warehouse stood on the lowest terrace, and the captain’s dwelling right beside it. The captain wanted Chace to build a lean-to kitchen on that. He had brought his wife, an exbarmaid, out with him this trip, and they were keeping Jock, their little cabin boy, for scullery lad. That lad grew up to do a rather unpleasant killing. A young gentleman friend of the barmaid’s, returning to Glasgow from Patagonia, had given her a league of land along the river and she had come out with her captain to till it. There was a garden the next year, with posies in it, such as used to grow outside the country ‘pubs’ at home, and carrots and a first sowing of alfalfa.
Again Chace got no money for his work, but he had the use of the boss’s Winchester. When the Yankee skipper got ready to sail and summoned Chace, he got word back that he would have to send more men than there were cartridges in that gun. The British captain used to say that the crew of that Yankee schooner was the most insubordinate he had ever seen.
The skipper actually sailed at last, still not for the Shetlands, but for the Falklands, with a makeshift mate from the Crossowen’s crew — a decent enough fellow while the schooner was under way, but drunken as his chief while she lay at anchor. The skipper had gone up himself to Piscatores after Chace, a day or two before, and had come back without him, very angry, saying Chace was a bad fellow and he’d never have him on a ship of his. ‘And I knew they’d locked horns,’ says Rounsville, ‘and Ned had come out on top.’ Rounsville himself got away in the Falklands, and shortly after that the skipper was put on the beach by the authorities at Punta Arenas. He had such a way with him ashore that he was trusted by everyone almost to the last. The guileless Iowa consul in the Falklands even reinstated him when he had been temporarily removed from command.
He had had to take his schooner out from Santa Cruz without her carpenter, and Chace and Rounsville were parted for thirty years. They had seen very little of each other after Chace went ashore to work. The old man had kept Rounsville busy on board, or running Valentino’s cutter, and went about wearing Rounsville’s gold watch and chain as surety for him, perhaps, though better surety was Rounsville’s vast size and the impossibility of getting big enough pants at Braun and Blanchard’s. He was reluctant to run away and leave his sailor’s bag behind. Chace himself, in the years to come, often had to make his own pants, or set great pieces into ready-made ones. There was always the chiripa, that blanket diaper the Gauchos use to keep their legs warm in cold weather. You take a blanket by one end and wrap that round your waist. You straddle what’s left lying on the ground, pick up the other end, wrap that round your waist, and strap on the two ends so that the middle just clears the ground between your feet. If the blanket is wide enough it will keep the wind off your legs and feet while you are in the saddle. Very effective, but not attractive to Rounsville — so he stuck by the ship.
Chace had n’t a centavo to his name when the schooner sailed. He knocked about for a while, helping his old mate, Johnson, run Valentino’s cutter for his keep. Then he got a job with the British captain, enlarging the liquor warehouse and running his whaleboat. The canny old Scot paid him a hundred and twenty pesos Chilean when he left — called them ‘dollars,’ as they do down there. It would take about four of them to make an Argentine dollar and eight of them to make a Massachusetts dollar.
There was plenty of carpentry work to be done in Santa Cruz, but Chace hated that place. He was n’t at all sure that the old man would n’t come back, as he had threatened to, and seize him. He was suspicious of the subprefect, and of the Spaniards in the village, most of whom were Catalans, unfriendly just then.
News of the war between Spain and the United States had reached Punta Arenas, by vessels passing through the Straits of Magellan, and come up overland by mounted carrier. There was no Panama Canal then, of course, and all that traffic came through the Straits. The story grew as it traveled north. When Hatcher got it between Santa Cruz and San Julian, Spain and Germany and Russia had joined forces against England and the United States. The Catalans always had threatening looks and gestures for Chace after that news came up — would point him out and say, ‘Americanos malos.’
Of course Chace wore his own gun faithfully. He did a little practice in public once to awe the Catalans — set up a half-dozen bottles and broke their necks and then their middles and then knocked off their bottoms. One might judge his awe of them by this emptying of so many of his handful of cartridges. The Crossowen’s, though they were the right calibre, were poor stuff and there were no others. He carried a .44 Colt, using rifle cartridges, which often could be had when no others could, and practised up to the limit of his resources. Later on he got Remington cartridges up from Punta Arenas by the thousand, and practised every day. He used to shoot quickly without catching the sights, laying his index finger along the barrel — or rather the two remaining joints of it, which were all he had brought down with him. He says you don’t need to squint your eye and look along your arm to point your finger at an object, and he never could see the difference. We heard praise of his skill wherever we went.
Only the Catalans were hostile. The Argentines were as friendly as the Britons or any of the other neutrals. But Chace was itching to get started north into country where there were no Spaniards and no police.
When he got up north, Chace found himself among friendly Scotchmen, no one of whom had any murders to his credit. Nearly every padrón was Scotch, but his shepherds were Indians and Chileans and his Gauchos were Argentines, and most of the Chileans and Argentines were there because they had done murder somewhere else.
Chace had had nothing to do with Argentine horses up to the time he started for San Julian. He had got about in a boat or on his feet, thinking nothing of twenty or thirty miles — or eight or ten leagues, rather, as they reckon in Patagonia. He had been used to tramping as far as that and back to see a Negro camp meeting on Cape Cod. But the day came at last when he needed a horse. He had agreed to go to work for a Dane, Hansen, who had taken out virgin sheep camp west of San Julian, and it was time to start. He had to be economical, for he had only that hundred and twenty pesos Chilean. The Paso Ibañez was just a league or two upstream from Piscatores; he would wait until he got across the river before he bought.
So he set out on foot with a heavy overcoat and a blanket and the ship’s tools which he had appropriated as his share of the lay. It was hard work tramping up steep clay slopes out of the dry gullies the track crossed, and when he got to the Paso his load was lighter by all but one of the heavy tools and most of the light ones. He had only a square, a saw, a small chisel, a small plane, and a chopper—‘enough to build anything there might be to build in that country.’
He got to the Paso at last, and lit one of those black bushes to make a smoke, and yelled until they came across with the boat from the old ’dobe boliche of the widow Doña Gregoria, La Salina. Gauchos and Chilenos used to come down there for big drunks, and the widow’s men would get drunk with them. There would be no getting the little boat at such times until someone sobered down.
Once across, he made for the new boliche, La Gaviota, the Sea Gull, shining with new iron from the Crossowen’s cargo — sides and roof all iron. He had n’t seen the building of it, but had helped Johnson stock it from Valentino’s cutter.
‘I can see that crowd in La Gaviota,’ says Chace, ’as plain as can be — first really tough-lookin’ gang I ever see; just the way they comein from ridin’, not fixed up the way they would be to go down to the village. There was a big Scotchman, six foot tall, great big Hielan’ fellow; coat sleeves coinin’ just a little below his elbows, great big hams of hands stickin’ out; breeches like a boy that’s outgrown his about two years, probably the biggest he could get down there. I did n’t talk to him. He’d been drinkin’ and he was blusterin’ and I left him alone. There was two or three Indians with their capas on layin’ round — they’d come tradin’ ostrich feathers; and there was a big tall Spaniard, thin as a rake — Flamingo, they had him nicknamed; and one or two Argentines with long black beards and those big wide belts on outside, — tiradors, they call ’em, — big silver-handled knives stuck in ’em behind, and revolvers, too. I looked the crowd over and I thought I was n’t afraid of ’em exactly. You don’t mind bein’ shot or anythin’ like that, but I always did have a kind of a shudder against a knife. I always watched them fellows awful sharp, and I made up my mind if ever I see a man’s hand goin’ to his back, I ’d do somethin’ before he got that knife out.’
A stone’s throw back from the water’s edge, low ’dobe walls, windfretted, held up an old iron roof. The incessant wind swept over everything, slammed a heavy wooden shutter, eddied in at the open doorway on the lee side. There was no door. Just a little way off were some of those fourteen fresh-looking skulls Chace had been hearing about.
He entered a big bare firelit room. There were a lot of rough-looking fellows squatting on the dirt floor about the fireplace at cards, greasy cards. Doña Gregoria stood in the midst of them, lighting a fresh cigarette from the butt of her last one. She was a thickset little woman with a wrinkled bony face, very dark and dirty, coalblack hair, big gold rings in her ears, long black calico dress. She came over to greet Chace, slapping along in alpargatas — rope-soled canvas slippers. ‘She had the history of every person that ever come to South America, She got it all from men. She would n’t see a woman from year’s end to year’s end. She’d go down to the village once in a while and go into a house where some woman lived, but never speak to her — sit rollin’ her own and smokin’ with the husband all day long.’
There was not a bench or a table to be seen. Chace must have been loth to lay his only blanket on that much-spat-upon floor to sit on. Everybody else was sitting on carpinchos or sheepskins, pleated to make them take up less room and at the same time keep the upper sides clear of that dirt. There was a big iron pot on the fire, and macaroni and pound chunks of mutton stewing in it — puchero, they called it, for sale to them that wanted it; and there were galletas — big fat biscuit of white flour, hard as a stone, but softenable by heat.
In a little barroom that opened off one end of the big room, men threw dice for wine and hard liquor, and talked gossip and politics with Doña Gregoria. A Spaniard and an Argentine among them avoided hard liquor. They got heated with the red wine, though, and rather touchy. Some of the Chileans got drunk enough to be looking for trouble. An Irishman went crawling about on all fours, and another Briton lay paralyzed under the men’s feet.
The Britons don’t always get so apathetically drunk as that, though. Chace has seen a Scotchman walk out erect and steady alongside a German after fourteen whiskeys apiece. He developed something of a stomach himself in the course of time. He has drunk one crowd under the table, tot for tot, and started in with a fresh crowd and got far enough along with them to see his first companions beginning to revive. He became a connoisseur in the taste of everything down to ‘Squirrel Brand,’ but never got enough of anything to blur his observation of what was going on about him. He can still see Fatty Wallace, out at Lago Tar, trip between the doorway and a stream, lie rocking on his belly in a shallow puddle, swimming, spouting, shouting ‘Help!’ And a former haberdasher come to the doorway, settling his neck in an imaginary high collar, and, holding on by the jambs, say, ‘I am extremely sorry, Fatty. I am unable to render you assistance. I am intoxicated myself.’ The life down there reeked of drink. The consequences were often funny, but as often tragic. The surprising thing was how little it used to take to upset a man.
When a fellow collapsed at La Salina someone dragged him out and laid him on his sheepskins, but it was no easy matter for Doña Gregoria and her consumptive old henchman Felipe to get the last of the seasoned old drinkers out of the bar in the small hours and lock it up, so that she could go to her own quarters.
Chace could n’t afford to buy a horse at the ridiculous prices they asked him at the Paso. They wanted a hundred pesos Argentine, even for a mare, and no mare that is n’t a madrina (bell mare), or would n’t make a madrina, is worth more than ten. A man’s testimony has been refused in court because he rode a mare: he was no man. A madrina is worth more than a horse, but a man who might succeed in mounting her would have a wild few minutes of it. A horse turned up next day for hire, at a price exorbitant enough but within Chace’s means — forty of his Chilean pesos. It was one of the mail carrier’s, Ribera’s, come up from the south on his monthly trip.
Chace made a bit and bridle of rope for his horse, tied on a sheepskin, and made a stirrup to mount by — another piece of rope. He wore his heavy overcoat and lashed his tools to his back. It was sore for a week or more after that journey, though Ribera almost never went out of a trot. This was by no means Chace’s first ride. He had had some practice at home with what they called bronco mustangs, shipped in from the West, reputed to be stolen from the Indians.
The two men had to wait at a native sheep farm on the right bank of the Chico until the ebbing tide had bared the wide quicksands. Ribera picked a safe way over, late in the afternoon, and they stopped for the night at Gondille’s sheep farm.
They found that the track climbed gradually up, first, over a wide step, where the boat’s crew had taken the wild sheep, then on up, over step after step, miles wide, some of them. The edge of each step ahead Chace took to be the top of the country, till they had mounted the rise, and he saw another. The twisty trail they followed lay on pebbly, hard-packed surface, like that first Pampa Triste. Chace was to find, in later years, that all that long gradual slope, down from the western mountains to the coast, wore the same pebbly cloak, interrupted here and there by a patch of fine clay or a sandy patch or a salty hollow, shining like snow.
Riding along the surface of one step some leagues back from the sea, and hundreds of feet above it, the two men found their trail entering a breach in a cape that reached a long way out on their step from the edge of a higher one. They rode a level half league in the defile and came out into a wide bay, all green round the edges from springs that oozed out part way up the rise of that higher step. A Falkland Islander, Wallace, ran three or four thousand sheep in there, on camp that people called the Gap Station from that breach. There were two other Falkland Islanders, Kyle and Frazier, each with as many sheep as Wallace, directly ahead on that higher step. Their camp was embayed in a still higher step, and, like his, watered by springs about the edges.
Ribera stopped at all the shanties, and then the two climbed steeply up a final rise, and in a short flat mile or two dropped steeply down into a canyon five or six miles wide, sunk very deep, almost to sea level. Innumerable springs broke out on the canyon sides, but there seemed to be no water running except on very short stretches. There was a small lagoon or two, up valley, and there were larger ones out toward the sea. The bay of San Julian backs in through low country to the bottle neck of this big canyon, which they call the Gran Bajo de San Julian, wasting a good word which might be confined to the undrained basins in the country. There was a network of dry channels that ran between the bay’s head and the nearest of the lagoons. Chace nearly lost his life once swimming his horse in one of these, running full in the spring tide when he was trying to rescue a too venturesome flock (or ‘point,’ as the English translate the South American punta) of sheep out there. He has known three thousand to be overwhelmed by the sea on those low flats.
It was getting dark when Ribera pushed through that breach in the wall on the far side of the Bajo and rode into the little Cañadon Paraguay, and stopped at the shepherd’s shanty. The old Indian was n’t there, but he came riding up very soon with his dogs, took one look at the hungry men, said, ‘Caramba! I must get meat,’ and rode off with one dog toward a point of about twenty sheep that were feeding high above them. Chace thought, ‘The dog will help him run down a sheep and catch it.’ But to his amazement the dog went off all by himself, worked around behind the sheep, drove them all down to the shanty, and held them there, without the Indian’s apparently doing anything about it.
The Indian drove into the point, dragged out a fat wether, slit his throat, snatched him half out of his skin, disarticulated all the ribs on one side from the backbone, along with the fore shoulder, skewered the meat, still warm and quivering, on a flat rod, and stuck the iron into the ground at a surprising distance from a little fire he had built outside. ’It looked pretty savage,’ Chace said, ‘to eat meat cooked alive like that, all quiverin’ and jerkin’.’
They all took maté, of course, while the meat was roasting. The old Paraguayan was more particular in making his than the men at the Paso had been. He partly filled his silvermounted gourd with yerba out of a skin of an unborn foal, yerba that had come down from his own country in bull hides, poured in cold water to soak up the crisp crushed leaves, thrust in a silver and gold bombilla tube which he drew from his boot, sucked out and spit out that first filling, then poured in hot water, not quite boiling, took a pull at the bitter stuff himself, and passed it round. Chace tried it, but he was not yet ripe for it.
After a very long time, the Indian said, ‘Bueno — it’s ready,’ pulled out his long knife, and cut off a chunk from the shoulder. Ribera pulled out his, and cut off a chop. They found a knife for Chace, and he cut into the shoulder. He found the meat as juicy and sweet-flavored as an orange, and very tender.
Ribera and Paraguay had twenty or thirty silent matés around the morning fire after that first night of Chace’s ‘in camp.’ Then Ribera and Chace made the steep climb over the top of the high spur ahead of them, and in a league or two came down into the canyon, wide and green, where Monroe’s farm buildings and paddocks were.
Chace stopped at Monroe’s to wait for Charlie Hansen to pick him up. He spent the time making gates and doing odd carpentry jobs. Monroe needed the ship’s carpenter and his tools badly and tried hard to get them away from Hansen. He pictured Hansen as half mad, and the camp he had taken up as so remote and rough and wild that no man who was n’t half mad would think of running sheep there. Chance had snapped up that first chance to get away from Santa Cruz, knowing nothing of the man or the job or other possibilities. He did n’t particularly like Hansen and he did like Monroe, but he had given his ward and he was in for it.
Monroe had come out from Scotland, as a shepherd, to the Falklands, and worked up into partnership there — a little fellow with a big red beard and a stammer. He knew more about sheep, Chace thinks, than any man he met in all the time he was in Patagonia. He had come over in the Rippling Wave, with some of the firm’s sheep, and when Chace first met him had more than twenty thousand in unfenced camp, coarse-haired Falkland Island sheep crossed with merinos from the north.
Chace was quite unaware that this meeting with Monroe would foredoom him to thirty years in Patagonia.