As soon as the whole party were ensconced in the ROUKAH, Paganel asked Thalcave what he thought was best to be done. A rapid conversation followed, a few words of which were intelligible to Glenarvan. Thalcave spoke calmly, but the lively Frenchman gesticulated enough for both. After a little, Thalcave sat silent and folded his arms.
"What does he say?" asked Glenarvan. "I fancied he was advising us to separate."
"Yes, into two parties. Those of us whose horses are so done out with fatigue and thirst that they can scarcely drag one leg after the other, are to continue the route as they best can, while the others, whose steeds are fresher, are to push on in advance toward the river Guamini, which throws itself into Lake San Lucas about thirty-one miles off. If there should be water enough in the river, they are to wait on the banks till their companions reach them; but should it be dried up, they will hasten back and spare them a useless journey."
"And what will we do then?" asked Austin.
"Then we shall have to make up our minds to go seventy-two miles south, as far as the commencement of the Sierra Ventana, where rivers abound."
"It is wise counsel, and we will act upon it without loss of time. My horse is in tolerable good trim, and I volunteer to accompany Thalcave."
"Oh, my Lord, take me," said Robert, as if it were a question of some pleasure party.
"But would you be able for it, my boy?"
"Oh, I have a fine beast, which just wants to have a gallop. Please, my Lord, to take me."
"Come, then, my boy," said Glenarvan, delighted not to leave Robert behind. "If we three don't manage to find out fresh water somewhere," he added, "we must be very stupid."
"Well, well, and what about me?" said Paganel.
"Oh, my dear Paganel, you must stay with the reserve corps," replied the Major. "You are too well acquainted with the 37th parallel and the river Guamini and the whole Pampas for us to let you go. Neither Mulrady, nor Wilson, nor myself would be able to rejoin Thalcave at the given rendezvous, but we will put ourselves under the banner of the brave Jacques Paganel with perfect confidence."
"I resign myself," said the geographer, much flattered at having supreme command.
"But mind, Paganel, no distractions," added the Major. "Don't you take us to the wrong place--to the borders of the Pacific, for instance."
"Oh, you insufferable Major; it would serve you right," replied Paganel, laughing. "But how will you manage to understand what Thalcave says, Glenarvan?" he continued.
"I suppose," replied Glenarvan, "the Patagonian and I won't have much to talk about; besides, I know a few Spanish words, and, at a pinch, I should not fear either making him understand me, or my understanding him."
"Go, then, my worthy friend," said Paganel.
"We'll have supper first," rejoined Glenarvan, "and then sleep, if we can, till it is starting time."
The supper was not very reviving without drink of any kind, and they tried to make up for the lack of it by a good sleep. But Paganel dreamed of water all night, of torrents and cascades, and rivers and ponds, and streams and brooks--in fact, he had a complete nightmare.
Next morning, at six o'clock, the horses of Thalcave, Glenarvan and Robert were got ready. Their last ration of water was given them, and drunk with more avidity than satisfaction, for it was filthy, disgusting stuff. The three travelers then jumped into their saddles, and set off, shouting "_Au revoir!_" to their companions.
"Don't come back whatever you do," called Paganel after them.
The _Desertio de las Salinas_, which they had to traverse, is a dry plain, covered with stunted trees not above ten feet high, and small mimosas, which the Indians call _curra-mammel;_ and JUMES, a bushy shrub, rich in soda. Here and there large spaces were covered with salt, which sparkled in the sunlight with astonishing brilliancy. These might easily have been taken for sheets of ice, had not the intense heat forbidden the illusion; and the contrast these dazzling white sheets presented to the dry, burned-up ground gave the desert a most peculiar character.