The Valiant Runaways
GEORGE AND GILBERT JONES
Of New York
WITHOUT WHOSE ENCOURAGEMENT THIS YARN WOULD NEVER HAVE BEEN FINISHED
The Valiant Runaways
Roldan Castanada walked excitedly up and down the verandah of his father's house, his thumbs thrust into the red silk sash that was knotted about his waist, his cambric shirt open at the throat as if pulled impatiently apart; the soft grey sombrero on the back of his curly head making a wide frame for his dark, flushed, scowling face.
There was nothing in the surroundings to indicate the cause of his disturbance. The great adobe house, its white sides and red tiles glaring in the bright December sun, would have been as silent as a tomb but for the rapid tramping of Roldan and the clank of his silver spurs on the pavement. On all sides the vast Rancho Los Palos Verdes cleft the horizon: Don Mateo Castanada was one of the wealthiest grandees in the Californias, and his sons could gallop all day without crossing the boundary line of their future possessions. The rancho was as level as mid-ocean in a calm; here and there a wood or river broke the sweep; thousands of cattle grazed. Now and again a mounted vaquero, clad in small-clothes vivified with silver trimmings, dashed amongst tossing horns, shouting and warning.
But Roldan saw none of these things. There was reason for his disquiet. News had arrived an hour before which had thrown his young mind into confusion: the soldiers were out for conscripts, and would in all probability arrive at the Rancho Los Palos Verdes that evening or the following morning. Roldan, like all the Californian youth, looked forward to the conscription with apprehension and disgust. Not that he was a coward. He could throw a bull as fearlessly as his elder brothers; he had ridden alone at night the length of the rancho in search of a pet colt that had strayed; and he had once defended the women of the family single handed against a half dozen savages until reinforcements had arrived. Moreover, the stories of American warfare which he had managed to read, despite the prohibition of the priests, had stirred his soul and fired his blood. But army life in California! It meant languishing in barracks, hoping for a flash in the pan between two rival houses, or a possible revolt against a governor. If the Americans should come with intent to conquer! Roldan ground his teeth and stamped his foot. Then, indeed, he could not get to the battlefield fast enough. But the United States would never defy Mexico. They were clever enough for that. His anger left him, and he gave a little regretful sigh. Not only would he like that kind of a battle, but it would be great fun to know some American boys. Then he shook his head impatiently and dismissed these tourist thoughts. The present alone was to be considered.
There were two ways to avoid conscription. One was to marry—Roldan sniffed audibly; the other lay in flight and eluding the men until their round was over for the year.
Roldan did not like the idea of running away from anything; he and several of his father's vaqueros had once made an assault upon a band of cattle thieves and hunted them into the mountains: that was much more to his taste. Nevertheless there was one thing he liked less than showing his heels, and that was giving up his liberty. Not to gallop at will over the rancho, or sleep in a hammock, to coliar the bulls and shout with the vaqueros at rodeo, to be the first at the games and the races, to wear his silken clothes and lace ruffles, and eat the delightful dishes his mother's cooks prepared! And then he was a very high-spirited young gentleman. Although the same obedience, almost reverence, was exacted of him by his parents that was a part of the household religion in California, yet as the youngest child, who had been delicate during his first five years, he had managed to get very badly spoiled. He did not relish the idea of leading a life of monotony and discipline, of performing hourly duties which did not suit his taste, above all of being ordered to leave his father's house as if he were a mere Indian. No, he decided, he would not go into the army—not this year nor any other year. He would defy the governor and all his men.
When Roldan made up his mind he acted promptly. No time was to be lost in this case. Now was the hour of siesta; he could have no better time to get away. A note would relieve his parents of a certain amount of anxiety; and if they did not know where he was they could not be held accountable. His blood tingled at the presentiment of the adventures he should have in that perilous journey through a country of which he knew nothing beyond his father's and the adjoining rancho. And as adventures would be but half spiced if experienced alone, he determined—and not from selfish motives only—to save his best beloved friend, Adan Pardo, from the grasp of the law likewise.
He went within and slung about himself two pistols and a dagger. After he had made a small bundle of linen and raided the pantry, he went out to the corral, saddled his horse and packed the saddle bags, wound his lariat securely about the pommel, then galloped away on a series of adventures memorable in the annals of California.
Roldan's way lay over his father's leagues until two hours after nightfall. As he passed, every now and again, a herd of cattle, lounging vaqueros called to him: "Ay, Don Roldan, where do you go?" or, "The little senor chooses a hot day for his ride." But he excited no curiosity. Like all Californians he half lived in the saddle; and he was often seen riding in the direction of Don Esteban Pardo's rancho, to spend a few days with his chosen friend.
As he approached the house he saw the family sitting on the long verandah: the pretty black-eyed girls in full white gowns, their dark hair flowing to the floor, or braided loosely; Don Esteban, a silk handkerchief knotted about his head, reclining in a long chair beside his wife, a stout woman, coffee-coloured with age, attired in a dark silk gown flowered with roses. Indian servants came and went with cooling drinks. Although it was December, Winter had loitered and fallen into deeper sleep than usual on her journey South this year.
Adan was leaning against a pillar, moody and bored. He was the youngest of the boys. His brothers, elegant caballeros, who spent most of their time in the capital or on other ranches, were kind to their younger brother, but not companionable. Therefore, when Roldan galloped into sight, he gave a shout of joy and ran down the road. Roldan drew rein some distance from the house, that the conference, which must take place immediately, might be unheard by older ears.
"Listen, my friend," he said rapidly, interrupting Adan's voluble hospitality. "The soldiers are out for conscripts—"
"Now listen, and don't talk until I am done. I WILL NOT be drafted as if I had no will of my own, and rot in a barrack while others enjoy life. Neither will you if you have the spirit of a Pardo and are worthy to be the friend of Roldan Castanada. So—I fly. Do you understand?—and you go with me. We will dodge these servants of a tyrant government the length and breadth of the Californias. When the danger is over for this year we will return—not before. Now, you will ask me to go to my room as soon as possible after you have given me some supper, for I am tired and want sleep. You also will take a nap. When all is quiet I shall call you and we will start."
Adan had listened to this harangue with bulging eyes and tongue rolling over his teeth. But Roldan never failed to carry the day. He was a born leader. Adan's was the will that bent; but his talent for good comradeship and his quiet self-respect saved him from servility.
In appearance he was in sharp contrast to the slender Roldan, of the classic features and fiery eyes. Short, roly-poly, with a broad, good-natured face, his attire was also unmarked by the extreme elegance which always characterised Roldan. In summer he wore calico small-clothes, in winter unmatched articles of velvet or cloth, and an old sombrero without silver.
"Ay! yi!" he gasped. "Ay, Roldan! Holy Mary! But you are right. You always are. And so clever! I will go. Sure, sure. Come now, or they will think we conspire."
Roldan dismounted, and was warmly greeted by the family. The girls rose and courtesied, blushing with the coquetry of their race. Roldan cared little for girls at any time, and to-night was doubly abstracted, his ear straining at every distant hoof-beat. He retired as early as he politely could, but not to sleep. Indeed, he became so nervous that he could not wait until the family slept.
"Better to brave them, Adan," he said to his more phlegmatic friend, "than that sergeant, should he get here before we leave. Come, come, let us go."
They dropped out of the window and stole to the corral where the riding horses were kept. It was surrounded by a high wall, and the gate was barred with iron; but they managed to remove the bars without noise, saddled fresh horses and led them forth and onward for a half mile, then mounted and were off like the wind.
They knew the country down the coast on the beaten road, but they dared not follow this, and struck inland. The air was now of an agreeable warmth; the full moon was so low and brilliant that Roldan called out he could count the bristling hairs on a coyote's back.
In less than two hours they were climbing a mountain trail leading through a dense redwood forest. In these depths the moon's rays were scattered into mere flecks dropping here and there through the thick interlacing boughs of the giant trees. Those boughs were a hundred feet and more above their heads. About them was a dense underforest of young redwoods, pines, and great ferns; and swarming over all luxuriant and poisonous creepers.
They were silent for a time. The redwood forests are very quiet and awesome. At night one hears but the rush of the mountain torrent, the cry of a panther or a coyote, the low sigh of wind in the treetops.
"Ay, Roldan," exclaimed Adan, suddenly. "Think did we meet a bear?"
"We probably shall," said Roldan, coolly. "These forests have many 'grizzlies,' as the Americans call them."
"But what should we do, Roldan?"
"Why, kill him, surely."
"Have you ever seen one?"
"But it is said that they are very large, my friend, larger than you or I."
"Perhaps. Keep quiet. I like to hear the forest talk."
"What strange fancies you have, Roldan. A forest cannot talk."
"Ay, yi, Roldan! Roldan!"
The horses were standing upright, neighing pitifully. Adan gave a hoarse gurgle and crossed himself.
"The adventures have begun," said Roldan.
In a great swath of moonlight on a ledge some yards above them, standing on his hind legs and swinging his forepaws goodnaturedly, was an immense grey bear. Suddenly he extended his arms sociably, almost affectionately.
"We cannot retreat down that steep trail," said Roldan, rapidly. "He could follow faster and the horses would fall. To the left! in the brush, quick!—a bear cannot run sideways on a mountain."
The boys dug their spurs into the trembling mustangs, who responded with a snort of pain and plunged into the thicket. Only the bold skill of the riders saved them from pitching sidewise down the steep slope, despite the brush, for they were unshod and their knees had weakened.
But the grizzly, alas! was still master of the situation. In less than a moment the boys saw him lumbering along above them. He evidently had possession of a trail, more or less level.
"Dios de mi alma!" cried Adan. "If he gets ahead of us he will come down and meet us somewhere. We shall be lost—eaten even as a cat eats a mouse, a coyote a chicken."
"You will look well lining the dark corridors of the bear, my friend. Your yellow jacket with those large red roses, which would make a bull sweat, would hang like tapestry in the houses of Spain. Those hide boots, spotted with mud, and the blood of the calf, would keep him from wanting another meal for many a long day—"
"Ay, thou fearless one! Why, it is said that if the grizzly even raises his paw and slaps the face every feature is crushed out of shape."
"I should not be surprised."
They plunged on, tearing their clothes on the spiked brush and the thorns of the sweetbrier, fragrant lilac petals falling in a shower about them, great ferns trodden and rebounding. The air was heavy with perfume and the pungent odour of redwood and pine.
Roldan had passed Adan. Suddenly his horse stumbled and would have gone headlong had not his expert rider pulled him back on his haunches.
"What is it? What is it?" cried Adan, who also had been obliged to pull in abruptly, and who liked horses less when they stood on their hind legs. "Is it the bear upon us? But, no, I hear him—above and beyond. What are you doing, my friend?"
Roldan had dismounted and was on his hands and knees. In a half moment he stood erect.
"We are saved," he said.
"It is a hole, my friend—large and deep and round. Did you put any meat in your saddle-bags?"
"Ay, a good piece."
"Give it to me—quick. Do not unwrap it."
Adan handed over the meat, then dismounted also.
"A bear-trap?" he asked.
"Yes, a natural one. Come this way, before I unwrap the meat."
The boys forced their way to the south of the large hole, dragging the still terrified horses, who were not disposed to respond to anything less persuasive than the spur. Roldan approached the edge of the excavation and shook the meat loose, flinging the paper after it. As the smell of fresh beef pervaded the air it was greeted by a growl like rising thunder, and almost simultaneously the huge unwieldy form of the bear hurled itself down through the brush. The boys held their breath. Even Roldan felt a singing in his ears. But the grizzly, without pausing to ascertain his bearings, went down into the hole at a leap. He made one mouthful of the meat, then appeared to realise that he was in a trap. With a roar that made the horses rear and neigh like stricken things, he flung himself against the sides of his prison, drew back and leaped clumsily, tore up the earth, and galloped frantically to and fro. But he was caught like a rat in a trap.
The boys laughed gleefully and remounted their horses, which also seemed to appreciate the situation, for they had quieted suddenly.
"Adios! Adios!" cried Roldan, as they forced their way up to the trail the bear had discovered. "You will make a fine skeleton; we will come back and look at you some day."
But it was not the last they were to see of Bruin in the flesh.
An hour later they began to descend the mountain on the other side, and by dawn espied a ranch house in a valley. The white walls were pink under the first streamers of the morning. The redwoods rose like a solid black wall on the towering mountains on every side.
"Ay!" exclaimed Roldan, drawing a deep sigh. "Sleep and a hot breakfast. They will be good once more."
"They will," answered Adan, who had been collapsing and digging his knuckles into his eyes for an hour and more.
They feared that no one might be stirring, but, as they approached the verandah, the door opened and a stout smiling Californian, dressed in brown small-clothes, appeared.
"Who have we here?" he cried. "But you are early visitors, my young friends."
"We are dodging the conscript," said Roldan. "You will not betray us?"
"I should think not. I'd hide my own boys, if the mountains did not do that for me. Come in, come in. The house is yours, my sons. Burn it if you will. Tired? Here. Go in and get into bed. The servants are not up, but I myself will make you chocolate and a tortilla."
The boys did not awaken for eight hours. When they emerged, somewhat shamefacedly, they found the family assembled on the verandah, drinking their afternoon chocolate, and impatient with curiosity. There were no girls to criticise the dilapidated garments—which the kind hostess had mended while the boys slept; but there were two youths of fourteen and fifteen and two young men who were lying in hammocks and smoking cigarritos.
Roldan and Adan were made welcome at once.
"My name is Jose Maria Perez," said the host, coming forward. "This is my wife, Dona Theresa, and these are my sons, Emilio, Jorge, Benito, and Carlos. What shall we call you, my sons?"
"My name is Roldan Castanada of the Rancho Los Palos Verdes, and this is my friend Adan Pardo of the Rancho Buena Vista."
"Ay! we have distinguished visitors. But you were just as welcome before. Sit down while I go and see if the big stew I ordered is done. Caramba! but you must be hungry."
The four lads quickly fraternised, and Roldan began at once to relate their adventures, continuing them over the steaming dish of stew. When he reached the point which dealt with the outwitting of the bear, Don Emilio sprang from his hammock.
"A bear trapped?" he cried. "A grizzly? We will have a fight with a bull. You are rested, no? As soon as you have eaten, come and show us the way."
The boys, always ready for sport, and believing that they were beyond the grasp of the law for the present, eagerly consented. An hour later Don Emilio, Don Jorge, the four lads, and three vaqueros all sallied forth to capture one poor bear. The vaqueros dragged a sled, and much stout rope.
When they reached the trap darkness had come, but the four boys held lighted torches over the hole—this was their part. The bear, disheartened with his long and futile effort to escape, lay on the uneven surface below, alternately growling and roaring. As the torches flared above him he sprang to his feet with a vast roar, his eyes as green and glittering as marsh lights. In a moment a lasso had flown over his head and he was on his back. But his formidable legs were not to be encountered rashly. Each was lassoed in turn, also his back; then his huge lunging body was dragged up the side of the excavation and onto the sled. There he was bound securely; then the rope about his neck was loosened and he was fed on a hind quarter of sheep. But it placated him little. His anger was terrific. He roared until the echoes awoke, and strained at the rope until it seemed as if his great muscles must conquer.
But he was powerless, and the procession started: first Roldan and Benito with their torches; then two vaqueros dragging the sled, the third holding the rope which encircled the bear's neck, ready to tighten it on a second's notice. Following were Don Jorge and Don Emilio, then the two other young torch bearers. Thus was poor Bruin carried ignominiously out of the forest where he had been lord, to perform for the benefit of the kind he despised. That night he rested alone in a high walled corral, liberated by the quick knife of one of the vaqueros, who sprang through the door just in time to save himself.
There was an angry guest on the ranch that night. The bear's lungs, which were of the best, had little repose, and he flung himself against the earth walls of the corral until they quivered with the impact. The horses in the neighbouring corrals whinnied; the cows in the fields bellowed. It was a vocal night, and few slept.
Nevertheless everybody was excited and good-natured next morning. Immediately after breakfast they went out to the corral, and by means of a ladder mounted the wall and stood on the broad summit. At a signal from Don Emilio a vaquero opened the gate cautiously and drove in a large bull, who had been carefully irritated since sunrise.
The two unamiable beasts, glad of an object to vent their spleen upon, flew at each other. The bear, giant as he was, was ignominiously rolled in the dust by the furious onslaught of bulk and horns. He recovered himself with surprising alacrity, however, and rushed at the bull. The latter, off guard for the moment, and struggling for his lost breath, was hurled on his back. He rolled over quickly, but before he could gather his legs under him, the bear sat himself squarely upon the heavy flanks. The bull jerked up his head, his eyes injected, his tongue rolling out. The bear raised one of his mighty paws and dealt him a box on the ear. The head fell with an ugly thud on the hard floor of the corral. The bear adjusted himself comfortably and licked his paws.
On the wall the onlookers were far more excited than the gladiators in the arena. The Perezes sympathised with their personal property, but Roldan and Adan felt that the bear was their menagerie, and that their honour was at stake. Party feeling ran very high. Roldan and Benito were twice separated by their anxious elders.
"Ay! yi!" cried Carlos. "The bull wakes."
The poor bull, in truth, despite the crushing weight on his vitals, raised his head again, shook himself feebly, and was once more boxed into unconsciousness. The side of his face was crushed; his body was slowly flattening. The family encouraged him with tears and spirit.
"Ay, Ignacio, Ignacio, my poor one!" cried Don Jose. "Arouse thyself and kill the brute. Ay! thou wert so beautiful, so elegant, thy sleek sides like the satin of Dona Theresa—and he like a wild man that has never washed. Where is thy pride, Ignacio? Arouse thyself!"
Thus encouraged, the bull raised his head once more. The bear gave him a whack that snapped his spinal cord, then rose and swung himself round the enclosure with the arrogant mien of a bloated sultan who has swept off a troublesome head. This attitude aroused Benito to fury.
"Ay, the cheat! the assassin!" he cried. "It was not a fair fight. Our Ignacio had no chance—"
"That is not true!" exclaimed Roldan. "He had the same chance at the first. If you are not satisfied, Senorito Benito, then fight me."
No sooner said than done. The boys, who stood some distance from the others, doubled their fists and rushed at each other like two fighting cocks. They pommelled for several minutes, then locked their arms about each other and went reeling about the wall, to the horror of the others, who dared not approach lest they should inflame them further.
"Jump down! Jump down, you imbeciles!" cried Don Jose. "Do you wish to be food for the bear? A misstep—" The words ended in a hoarse gurgle. Dona Theresa shrieked. Adan and Carlos sobbed. The young men turned cold and weak. The two boys had fallen headlong into the corral.
They were sobered and fraternal in a moment. The bear stood upon his hind legs and opened his arms invitingly. He stood in front of the gate.
"Ay! ay!" gasped Benito. "He will eat us!"
"No; he will eat the bull first; but he will hug us to death—that is, if he gets us—which he won't. Adan!" he cried, "lower the ladder."
Benito began to cry, his terror enhanced by the babel of voices on the wall, each of which was suggesting a different measure. On the opposite wall and in the branches of a neighbouring tree were the Indian servants and the vaqueros. They stared stupidly, with shaking lips.
Adan had recovered his presence of mind. With a firm hand, he lowered the ladder. But his wit was not quick. He should have carried it along the wall and placed it behind the boys. Instead, it descended several yards away. The bear, who appeared to be no fool, lowered his forepaws and trotted slowly toward the boys.
"Juan!" shouted Roldan to a vaquero. "Lasso the bull and drag him to the west side—far from the gate."
The vaquero, alert enough under orders, swung the lasso with supple wrist—and missed. The boys dodged the bear, who seemed in no haste, but stalked them methodically, nevertheless. The vaquero swung again. This time the rope caught the horns, was tightened by a quick turn, and the carcass went thudding across the yard. The bear gave a furious howl and plunged after. The boys scampered up the ladder. Don Jose took each by the collar and shook them soundly. When they were released they embraced each other.
"Ay! but I was inhospitable to fight my guest," sobbed Benito.
"Ay, my friend," said Roldan, with dignity, winking back the tears started by various emotions. "It is I who should have had my ears boxed by the bear for insulting my host, and bringing anguish to the house of Perez." Then he embraced Adan, but this time mutely.
Dona Theresa had been carried to her room, where she lay prostrated with a nervous headache; but her family and guests did ample justice to the chickens stewed in tomatoes, the red peppers and onions, the fried rice, tamales, and dulces which her cook had prepared in honour of the event. Excitement and good will reigned; even Don Jose had forgiven the young offenders, and they all talked at once, at the top of their voices, as fast as they could rattle and with no falling inflection. Roldan and Adan were pressed to remain at the Hacienda Perez until the search was over, and although the former had a secret yearning for adventure he was more than half inclined to consent.
After a brief siesta the entire male population of the hacienda retired to the wall of the corral to pot the bear. It was agreed that each should fire at once, and that he who missed should have no dulces for a week.
The bear was sitting near the middle of the corral, surly but replete, for he had eaten of the bull. Don Jose gave the signal. Twenty-two shots were fired. The bear gave a roar which awoke the echoes of the forest, lunged frantically on shattered legs, then fell, an ugly heap of dusty grey hair.
As the smoke cleared and Don Jose was announcing that only two Indian servants had missed, Benito clutched Roldan's arm suddenly.
"Look up," he said. "Do you see anything? Are not those men; soldiers?"
Roldan looked up to a ledge of the high mountain before the house. A bend of the trail traversed a clearing. In this open were three men on horseback, motionless for the moment.
"Adan!" shouted Roldan. He ran down the ladder.
"I cannot be sure that those are the soldiers," he called up to Don Jose. "But I take no risks. We must go."
The others descended hastily. "My sons will have to hide too," said Don Jose. "There is plenty of time. In a moment those men will be in the forest again and can see nothing more for half an hour. We must do nothing while they watch—there! they have gone."
He shouted to the vaqueros to saddle six fresh horses, and ordered the house servants to pack the bags with food.
"There is a cave in the mountain on the other side which I defy anyone to find," said Don Jose. "If there were a war my sons should fight, but I need them now."
While the horses were saddling, Roldan and Adan consulted together. At the end of a few moments the former went up to Don Jose.
"I think it would be wiser to separate," he said. "Adan and I will go one way, your sons another. That will put them off the track; and the cave, Carlos says, is not very large."
"As you like," said Don Jose, who was perturbed and busy. "A vaquero will go with you for a distance and advise you."
The truth was, Roldan fancied lying inert in a cave for several days as little as he fancied the somnolent life of a barrack, and Adan, who had a secret preference for the cave, was too loyal to oppose him.
In ten minutes the horses were ready, affectionate good-byes said, and Roldan and Adan, followed by many good wishes, and prayers to return, started southeastward through a dense canon.
The vaquero guided the boys rapidly through the canon. The almost perpendicular walls, black with a dense growth of brush and scrub trees, towered so high above them that the atmosphere was damp and the long strip of sky was like a pale-blue banner. The trail was well worn, and there was nothing to impede their progress. The mustangs responded to the lifted bridle and ran at breakneck speed. They emerged at the end of half an hour. It was an abrupt sally, and the great level plain before them seemed a blaze of sunlight.
"Bueno," said the vaquero, halting. "Ride straight ahead. Keep to the trail. At night you will come to a river. Before you reach it all trace of you will be lost, because between now and there are many side trails, and as the ground is so hard they cannot tell which you take. Cross the river and take the trail to the left. That will bring you to the Mission—about twenty miles farther—where the good padres will let you rest and give you fresh horses. The senor, meanwhile, will throw the officers off the scent. But if you are wise, you will make for the Sierras and hide there. Adios, senor, adios, senor;" and he wheeled about and disappeared into the darkness of the canon.
"We are like the babes in the wood," said Adan. "I feel as if we never should find our way home again."
"We shall," said Roldan, stoutly; although he, too, felt the chill of the immense solitude. "And we have begun well! What an adventure to start with! I am sure we shall have more."
Adan crossed himself.
The boys rode at a long even gallop, the high chaparral closing behind them. Every half hour they paused, and Roldan, dismounting, held his ear to the ground. But as yet they were unpursued.
A soft wind blew over the plain, fragrant with the honeydew of the chaparral. The sun set in a great bank of yellow cloud. Then the night came suddenly.
A few moments later Roldan called: "Halt!" and held up his hand. "I hear the rush of the water," he said. "We must be near the river."
"It sounds as if it was high," said Adan. "It has rained hard this month. Suppose these horses don't swim?"
"We'll make them. Come on."
"Ay! yi!" exclaimed Adan, not many moments after.
They pulled up suddenly on the banks of the river, a body of water about three hundred yards wide. It was swollen almost level with the high banks. The tumultuous waters were racing as if Neptune astride them was fleeing from angry gods. There is something unhuman in the roar of an angry river: it has a knell in it.
Roldan and Adan looked at each other. The latter's face had paled. Roldan contracted his lids suddenly, and when his friend met the glance that grew between them he compressed his lips and involuntarily straightened himself: he knew its significance.
"We must cross," said Roldan. "It would never do to spend the night on this side. If they followed, they would never suspect us of crossing. If we remained here, we could not hear them until they were upon us."
"Very well," said Adan.
Roldan raised his bridle. The mustang did not move forward, but cowered. "I don't like to hurt horses," said the young don, "but he's got to go." He clapped his spurs savagely against the animal's sides, and the next moment the waves were lashing about him.
Adan was beside him at once, and together they breasted the rushing waters. The mustangs were strong and made fair headway, incited by terror and the spur. The water was very cold, but the boys scarcely felt it. Their eyes were strained toward the opposite shore, measuring the distance, which seemed to grow less very slowly. The stars were thick and the moon was floating just above the chaparral, but the darkness about them was grim, and only a narrow line of white indicated the shore.
The horses were not able to keep a straight course. The current lashed them about more than once, but they righted, shook the water from their quivering nostrils, and plunged on.
The boys' glance so persistently sought their haven that they saw nothing of what was passing about them. They were within twenty yards of the shore. Adan, having the stronger beast, was some little distance ahead. He did not observe it. He was registering a vow that if he reached land in safety he would be drafted every year of his life before he would ford another river after heavy rain.
Suddenly Roldan became conscious that the wiry little body between his gripping knees had relaxed somewhat the tension of its muscles. Was the poor brute collapsing? Roldan leaned over and patted his neck. It responded for a moment, then fell back again. Roldan set his lips. As he did so he cast about him the instinctive glance of those in peril. A huge log was bearing down upon him like a projectile.
In a second his feet were out of his stirrups and he was crouching on the mustang's back. The log struck the beast full in the side, tossing Roldan as if he had been a feather. The mustang gave a hoarse neigh, unheard above the roar of the water.
Roldan, keeping his face from the pounding waves as best he could, struck out for the bank. But the current was too much for his slender body, plucky as it was. He made a mighty effort and shouted,—
The high clear note pierced to his companion's ear. Adan turned his head, uttered a cry, and pulled his unwilling mustang about. But the current was carrying the white face on the waves rapidly past.
"Lariat!" Roldan managed to scream.
Adan's faculties had been paralysed for the moment, but they responded almost automatically to that imperious will. He unwound the lariat rapidly from the pommel, hastily gathered the loops, then flung it with sure hand straight at his friend. It fell about Roldan's neck. The boy jerked it over his shoulders, then signed to Adan to proceed.
Adan once more urged his horse forward, not daring to look behind. Roldan made no attempt to swim; he merely used his arms to keep his head above water. There were but a few yards farther. The mustang, despite his double load, made them, and scrambled up the bank. Adan, realising for the first time that he was stiff with cold, scrambled off and pulled in the rope with hands that were aching and almost numb. He heard Roldan strike the bank, a moment later the snapping of brush. Roldan's head rose into view, Adan gave a last despairing tug, and a moment later the two boys lay on their backs, panting for breath.
"Do you want any more adventures?" asked Adan feebly, after a time.
"Not at present," said Roldan.
He raised himself stiffly. "Come," he said, "this will never do. We shall both have rheumatism. We must have a fire at once."
Adan groaned pathetically, but got on his feet. They had found refuge in the open; but a grove of trees was near, and in a quarter of an hour they had piled a heap of branches and chaparral as high as an Indian pyre, hunted up two pieces of flint, and sent sparks flying through the dry mass.
The boys divested themselves of their dripping clothes and hung them close to the fire, then raced up and down with what energy was left in them to scotch the chill night air. Finally they paused breathless before the pile, which was now roaring merrily.
"I should like to know what we are to have for supper," said Roldan. "That Mission is twenty miles away, and I for one can't walk to it. Climb up a tree and see if there is a light anywhere."
"Thanks, senor," said Adan, "when my clothes are dry."
"True, we must keep our skin. I have it!" He sprang on the back of the mustang, who also had fallen upon reaching the shore but had risen to nibble for supper, and stood on the tips of his feet. "I can see well," he announced. "But all the same I can see nothing. We must stay here."
He dismounted, and relieving the mustang of the heavy saddle, emptied the bags. "The bread and sweets are soaked," he said, "not fit for a pig to eat; but we can do something with the meat. Fetch some coals."
Adan with infinite difficulty managed to scrape a few coals apart from the bonfire, and over this they scorched the meat. As they crouched on the ground they looked like two little white savages, and they were neither comfortable nor happy.
"We must keep this fire going all night," said Roldan, "or we shall be eaten by bears, to say nothing of rattlesnakes—"
"Hist!" whispered Adan. "I hear one." Both boys sprang to their feet.
"Near the horse."
Roldan seized his pistol and ran in the direction indicated, keeping his eyes on the ground. Suddenly he paused. Something just beyond the light was growing into a series of graceful loops. A long neck slowly lifted itself and two baleful eyes fixed upon Roldan. He raised his pistol, and the rattler was beheaded as neatly as if it were stuffed and dismembered with a pen knife. It shot out to full length, and the clever marksman took it by its horny tail and dragged it to the fire.
"He didn't know that we'd have him for supper," said Adan, gleefully. "Here, let us eat our steak and then I'll skin him."
The steak proved tough, and when it had been disposed of with many grumblings, the rattlesnake was skinned and roasted, and proved very delicate and edible.
"Now," said Roldan, "we must sleep." Their clothes being dry they dressed; and after inspecting with a torch a circle of about two hundred yards to see that there were no snake holes, they built a hasty ring of chaparral, set fire to it that beasts and reptiles should keep their distance, then lay down and slept. Roldan was always a light sleeper, and with the fire on his mind awoke every few hours and gathered fresh chaparral or roused the heavier Adan. Coyotes wailed in the distance, and once as Roldan gathered brush he heard again the deadly rattle. But they were not disturbed, and even the skies were kind, for although clouds gathered, they passed.
They awoke in the morning, fresh and vigorous—but also hungry; and there was little to eat.
"I don't think I should fancy rattlesnake for breakfast," said Roldan, and Adan shuddered at the mere thought. They cooked a small piece of meat, all that was left of their store, and it but whetted their appetite.
"There's only one thing to do," said Roldan, "and that is to get to the Mission as quickly as possible. Chocolate! Beans! possibly chicken! Think of it. Come! Come!"
Adan scrambled to his feet and saddled the mustang. It was agreed that they should ride him by turns, the other running at a brisk trot.
The sun was barely up when they started. A light mist lay on the turbulent waters and puffed among the sweet-scented chaparral. Roldan rode during the first hour, Adan running ahead, his glance darting from right to left, but encountering eyes neither malignant nor savage. Shortly after he mounted the horse the mist lifted and rolled back to the ocean. They had left the chaparral some time before and now discovered that they were in an open plain. In the distance were high hills over which wound a white trail. Between these hills and the travellers was a moving mass of something. Adan reined in suddenly.
"Roldan," he said, "are those horses? You have the longer sight."
Roldan made a funnel of his hand. "Surely, surely!" he cried. "What luck! I hate walking. They are probably wild, but I never saw the mustang I could not lasso."
"Yes, you can do the lassoing," said Adan, grimly. "My thumb nearly went off last night, and is twice its size."
"Adan," said his friend, laying his hand on his comrade's knee. "I haven't thanked you. I haven't mentioned it; but it is because—well—I lay awake an hour last night trying to think of something to say—and—and—thinking that I loved you better than my own brothers—"
"That will do, then," said Adan, gruffly. "We'll be kissing each other in a minute as we did at the Hacienda Perez; and I think that we are getting too big for that. I hear that American boys never kiss each other."
"Don't they?" asked Roldan, pricking up his ears. "How I should like to know some American boys. They must know so many things that we do not. Who told you?"
"Antonio Scarpia has been in America, you know—in Boston. He came back last month and rode over a few days ago for the night. I asked him many questions. He says they never show any feeling except when they get mad, and that they walk and row and play ball—with the feet, caramba!—and run about in the snow. He says they would think we were like girls with our fine clothes and our hammocks—"
"Girls!" cried Roldan, indignantly. "I'd like to see American or any other boys do better with that bear than we did, or lasso a friend in the midst of a boiling river as you did. And if they come here to laugh at us they'll find one pair of fists that are not soft if they do have lace ruffles over them. And I'd like to see them live all day on a horse as we do."
"True, true, you are always right," said Adan, soothingly. "Ay, I think those horses are coming this way. Better get up."
He moved back onto the anquera and Roldan sprang to his place and unwound the lariat. Like all of its kind, it was a slender woven cord about eighteen feet in length and made of tough strips of untanned hide. It was an admirable weapon in skilled hands, but not to be trifled with by the amateur. Many a careless Californian had lost a finger or thumb, and more than one had owed it lockjaw.
The wild horses advanced rapidly for a time, but when they saw that the brother to which curiosity had attracted them was apparently of an eccentric build they suddenly paused and scattered. Roldan raised the bridle and dashed in pursuit; but the others were unincumbered, fleet of foot and terrified. They fled like the wind.
"Drop off!" commanded Roldan, reining in. "Quick! I WILL have one."
Adan slid to the ground and the mustang sprang lightly forward. Roldan had singled out a well-built black, a little heavier than his mates and consequently somewhat in their rear. The mustang, who had slept off his fatigue, had no need of spur; he seemed to enter into the spirit of the chase—possibly realised that if the chase failed he might have a double load to carry. He dashed over the rough adobe plain, Roldan holding the bridle high in his left hand, the coiled lasso in his right. Adan waddled after, far in the rear. The other horses had fled to the four winds, but the pursued, occasionally ducking his head and kicking up his hind legs as if in contempt of the pretensions of mere man, made straight for the hills. Being undisciplined, however, he got over the ground clumsily, stumbled once or twice in the wide cracks of the adobe soil, and finally stopped short for want of wind. He swung about and glared defiantly at his pursuers out of injected eyes. He had never seen a lasso before, possibly not a man; but his instinct told him that the horse and rider behind him were not roving the plain in his own aimless fashion. He stood pawing the ground and shaking his great red nostrils. Suddenly to his surprise the part of the horse new to him lifted itself, and a black coiling something, graceful and swift as a rattlesnake, sprang through the air with a sharp audible rush. A quarter of a moment later he neighed with rage and terror: his neck was in a vice.
He gave a leap that nearly dragged Roldan from his saddle; but that expert young gentleman had secured the lariat to the high pommel of his saddle in a trice, and Don Jose Perez's mustang had thereafter to bear the brunt of the strain.
The wild animal pulled and tugged and tore up the ground; but finding that he but increased his own discomfort, he gradually subsided, and when Roldan finally turned about and rode slowly toward Adan he followed meekly enough.
When Adan saw the procession start in his direction he sat down on a stone to rest, and when it reached him he obeyed orders and sprang on the mustang's back as Roldan slipped off.
"That was well done, my friend," he said approvingly. "I could see it all; but I thought my eyes would fly out of my head."
Roldan walked cautiously up to his prize and attempted to pat it gently on the head. But it was some moments before he was able to touch the beast, who was sulky, cross, and frightened. When he did he swiftly loosened the lariat, and this procured him a meed of favour. The horse then allowed himself to be patted all down the side and back, nor once raised his hoof.
Suddenly Roldan sprang to his back, gripping the mane with his hands, the flanks with his knees. But this was one liberty too much. The horse stood on his hind legs, made as if to go over backward, then suddenly stiffened all four legs and sprang up and down as automatically as if worked by a spring. Roldan was now in his element. He had broken in more than one bucking horse. He remained as immovable as a fly on the top of a coach, only giving an occasional prick with his spur to madden the animal and wear him out the sooner.
Roldan had cast the lariat from the animal's neck as soon as he mounted, and it was well that he had, for his quarry made a sudden dash and did not stop for half a mile,—when he paused on his forefeet, waving his hind in the air.
But still Roldan kept his seat, Adan shouting: "Bravo! Bravo!" by way of encouragement.
The battle lasted nearly an hour; then the mustang confessed himself conquered, and the boys sought out the trail, from which they had wandered far, and continued their journey.
"Caramba!" exclaimed Roldan, "but I am famished, not to say tired. If it had been ten miles instead of twenty, it would not have been worth while."
They rode on rapidly, too hungry to talk. The ground began to rise, and they advanced through hills sprouting with the early green of winter. Once they paused, and tethering the horses where they could feed, shot several quail and roasted them. But the pangs of hunger were by no means allayed, and when, in the early afternoon, they saw the white walls of the Mission below them, they gave a shout of joy.
The Mission stood in the middle of a valley, well away from woods and hills, and surrounded by a large vineyard and orchard. On the long corridor traversing the building adjoining the church, several figures in habit and cowl walked slowly behind the arches. Indians were in the vineyards and orchards and moving about the rancheria adjacent to the main buildings. Cattle were browsing on the hills. A stream tangled in willows cut a zig-zag course across the valley.
The boys rode quickly down the hillside. As the padres heard the approaching hoof-beats they paused in their walk, and shading their eyes with their hands gazed earnestly at the travellers.
"Friends! Friends!" cried Roldan gaily, as the tired steeds trotted up to the corridor. The boys dismounted and made a deep reverence. One of the priests, a man with a grave stern face came forward.
"Who are you, my children?" he asked. "You are the sons of aristocrats, and yet you are torn and unkempt, and one of you has ridden many leagues without a saddle. Are you runaways? The shelter of the Mission is for all, but we do not countenance insubordination."
Roldan introduced himself and his friend. "We are runaways, my father," he added, "but from the government; and we have arranged that our parents shall not be anxious. We do not wish to be drafted."
The priest's brow relaxed. The padres had little respect for a system that owed its existence mainly to the vanity of governors and generals, and the present governor, Micheltorena, had by no means won the approval of the Church.
"You are welcome, my sons," he said. "If the officers come we cannot deny your presence; but I do not think they will find their way here, and we certainly shall not send for them. You are hungry and tired, no?"
"Father, we could eat our horses."
The padre laughed, and calling a young brother who was piously telling his beads bade him go and see that a hasty luncheon was prepared. An Indian came and took the mustangs, and the boys were led by the hospitable priest into a large room, comfortably furnished, the walls hung with some very good religious pictures.
The padres, in truth, were glad of visitors at any time. They were clever educated men who had given their lives to christianising brainless savages in a sparsely settled country; and any news of the outer world was very welcome. They pushed back their hoods and sat about the boys, their faces beaming with interest and amusement as they listened to the adventures of those wayward youths. And as all men, even priests, love courage and audacity, they clapped their hands together more than once or embraced the lads heartily.
When luncheon was announced and the doors of the long refectory thrown open, the boys were shown in as if they had been princes and told to satisfy themselves. This they did, nor ever uttered a word. The priests had tactfully withdrawn. Roldan and Adan ate enough beans, rice, cold chicken, tongue, and dulces to make up for their prolonged fast, and finished with a cup of chocolate and a bunch of grapes. After that they went to sleep in two clean little cells, to which they were conducted, nor awakened until all the air was ringing with the sweet-voiced clangor of mission bells.
Roldan turned on his elbow and looked out of the window. The square was rapidly filling with Indians, some running in willingly enough, others driven in at the end of the leash by the lay brethren. All knelt on the ground for a few moments. Roldan, whose eyes were very keen, and, during these days, preternaturally sharpened, noted that several of the Indians were whispering under cover of the loud mutterings about them. The face of the Californian Indian is not pleasant to contemplate at any time: it is either stupid or sinister. Roldan fancied he detected something particularly evil in the glance of the whispering savages, and resolved to warn the priests.
The scene was peaceful enough. The cattle browsing on the hills gave the landscape an air of great repose, and the mountains beyond were lost under a purple mist. The large stone fountain in the court splashed lazily. As the worshippers rose and withdrew, the silver bells rang out a merry peal, announcing that the morrow would be Sunday.
Roldan fell asleep again. When he awoke it was dark outside, but on the table by his cot was a lighted taper and a dish of fruit. He ate of the fine grapes and pears, then rose and opened his door. In the small room beyond a young priest was seated at a table, bending over a large leaf of parchment, to which he was applying a pen with quick delicate strokes. He looked up with a smile.
"What are you doing?" asked Roldan, curiously, approaching the table.
"Illuminating the manuscripts of a mass. Look." And he displayed the exquisite border to the music, the latter written with equal precision and neatness. "This will be alive when I am not even dust. No one will know that I did it; but I like the thought that it may live for centuries."
"If I did it, I should sign my name to it," said Roldan, with his first prompting of ambition. "But I never could do that; I have not the patience. I mean to be governor of the Californias."
"I hope you may be," said the young priest, gravely.
"Are all your Indians docile?" asked Roldan, abruptly.
The priest raised his head. "Why do you ask?"
Roldan related his suspicions.
The priest shot a furtive glance through the open window at the dark square.
"I don't know," he said slowly. "Sometimes I have thought—you see, many are stubborn and intractable, and have to be flogged and chained. Privately I think we are wasting our energies. We will leave California several beautiful monuments for posterity to wonder at, but as for the Indians we will end where we began. They are always escaping and running back to the mountains. Their every instinct is for barbarism; they have not one for civilization, nor can any be planted whose roots will not trail over the surface. The good Lord intended them to be savages, nothing more; and it is mistaken sentimentalism—However, it is not for me to criticise, and I beg, Don Roldan, that you will not repeat what I have said."
"Of course I shall not; but tell me, do you think there is danger?"
"We have one rather bright young Indian—there are about a dozen exceptions in all California, and they are treacherous. His name is Anastacio, and he has great influence with the other Indians. A good many of them are angry at present because they have been punished for stealing grapes and stores, and just now they are rather excited because it has been proposed to banish Anastacio to a Mission where there are more soldiers,—he is regarded as the inciter of the outrages."
"Have you soldiers here?"
"Eleven. The guard house is in the left hand corner of the square. But what could they do in an uprising? We must get rid of Anastacio. I will go now and speak to Padre Flores."
Roldan went out into the square and strolled over to the soldiers' quarters. The door was closed, but light streamed from an uncovered window, and he had a good view of the guard room. A half dozen soldiers were lying about on benches, half-dressed, smoking the eternal cigarrito. Two were at a table writing. None looked alert, but as Roldan passed out of the plaza to the open beyond, he encountered a sentinel who was ready to gossip with the young don and told him that three more were on duty on the several sides of the square.
Roldan strolled on to the rancheria, a collection of six or eight hundred huts of mud and straw among a thicket of willows by the creek. Here all was dark and quiet. He glanced through several of the uncurtained windows and saw whole families peacefully asleep. Suddenly he paused and held his breath, at the same time retreating into the heavy shade of a willow. A number of doors had opened almost simultaneously; there was the sharp crunch of dry brush, and dark figures glided, with the snake-like motion peculiar to the Indian, toward the upper end of the rancheria.
Roldan waited a moment, then followed softly. He had set himself the duty of saving the Mission which had shown him hospitality, and was not to be deterred. Moreover, the spirit of adventure was by no means quenched.
In a few moments he paused opposite a large hut, from which issued a subdued murmur. The window had been covered, but a thin ray of light pierced through a crack in the door, and to this Roldan applied his eye.
The room was crowded with Indians standing respectfully about a man in the middle of the room, whom Roldan knew instinctively to be Anastacio. He was big and clean-limbed and sinewy, with small cunning eyes, a resolute mouth and chin, and an air of perfect fearlessness. Roldan warmed to him, and looked with admiration and envy at the muscles on his splendid limbs.
He was speaking rapidly in the native patois, and Roldan could gather little of his meaning beyond what his gestures conveyed. He shook his fist in the direction of the Mission, snapped his fingers in scorn, pointed toward the mountains, then made the motion of speeding an arrow from the bow, at the same time contracting his face hideously.
Roldan stayed as long as he dared, then returned hastily to the Mission. A friar was locking up for the night, and began to chide the young guest for being out so late, but Roldan interrupted him impatiently.
"Can I see Padre Flores to-night?" he asked. "I must see him. It is important."
"He has retired to his cell, but I will take your message; and he never denies himself to those that need him."
He went to the end of the corridor and tapped at a door. In a few moments he returned.
"Padre Flores will see you," he said.
The priest was standing by the little altar in the corner of his cell when Roldan entered.
"What is it, my son?" he asked. "Have you learned anything new? Padre Estenega has told me of your suspicions."
Roldan rapidly related what he had seen. The priest's face became grave and anxious.
"There is trouble brewing, I fear," he said. Then he smiled suddenly. "You ran away to avoid fighting. It would be odd if you found yourself in the midst of it."
"I did not run away to avoid fighting," said Roldan, flushing hotly. "Pardon, father; I meant that you have misunderstood. I do not choose to be shut up in a barrack against my will, but I am ready to fight; and, although I am not yet sixteen, you shall see that I can help you protect your Mission. And Adan too."
"I am sure of it. I did but tease you. And your part shall begin to-night. You are rested, no?"
"I feel as if I wanted no more sleep for a week."
"Very well. Tell brother Antonio—whom you met on the corridor just now—to let you in the church by the side door and give you the key, with which you will lock yourself in. Then go up into the belfry and watch. It is the full of the moon and clear. If you merely see a dozen or more figures gliding about the rancheria, that will mean that they are plotting, and intend no action to-night. If you see several hundred, run down and bring me word. But if you see a mass of men rise at once and descend upon the west gate, ring the bells. I shall go and warn the soldiers, and every priest and brother will sleep on his pistol to-night. But I don't think they are organised as yet. Before dawn I shall send a messenger to the nearest town for reinforcements. Go, my son. You are a brave and clever lad."
Roldan ran down the corridor and secured admission to the church. When he had locked the door behind him, the vast dark building, beneath whose tiles priests lay buried, shook his spirit as night and the plains had not done, and he wished that he had brought Adan. Then he jerked his shoulders, reflected that cowards did not carry off the prizes of the world, and determined that his first should be the admiration and approval of the priests and soldiers of this great Mission. He walked rapidly down the nave, trying not to hear the hollow echo of his footsteps, then opened several doors before he found the one behind which was the spiral stair leading to the belfry. His supple legs carried him swiftly up the steep ascent, and in a moment he was straining his eyes in the direction of the rancheria.
The belfry was about ten feet square. The massive walls contained three large apertures, through which the clear sonorous notes of the great bells carried far. Just beneath the arch Roldan had selected as observatory, and on the side opposite the plaza was the private garden of the padres, surrounded by cloisters. An aged figure, cowled, his arms folded, was pacing slowly.
Roldan, glancing over his shoulder, saw Padre Flores return from the soldiers' quarters; but in the rancheria there was no motion but the swaying tops of the willows, and no sound anywhere but the hoot of the owl and the yap of the coyote.
It was a long and lonely watch. Roldan felt as if he were suspended in air, cut off from Earth and all its details. Although his military instinct had been aroused and he burned for fight, his spirit grew graver in that isolation, and he resolved to do all he could to save the Mission from attack. It was there for peace and good deeds, and its preservation was of far more importance than a small pair of spurs for Master Roldan.
Nevertheless, Roldan was to win his spurs.
Toward morning he saw an Indian, attended by a priest, let himself out of a gate and steal toward the corral. A few moments later he reappeared, leading a mustang up the valley in the shadow of the trees. The priest re-entered the gate, and Roldan knew that the messenger had gone forth for help.
At sunrise a brother came running up the stair. "Better go down," he said, smiling. "I am going to ring for mass, and it will deafen you. You saw nothing, of course?"
"We did not expect it, and slept. It takes time to organise."
"Have they any weapons?"
"Their bows and arrows. We have always thought it best to leave them those in case of assault by savage tribes."
Roldan descended the stair as the bells rang out their peremptory summons. Although he was tired and sleepy, he determined to remain in the church during mass, and knelt near the altar by a pillar where he could command a view of the nave. Almost the first to enter was Anastacio. He carried himself proudly—like a warrior, thought Roldan—and advancing to the altar bowed low, then knelt stiffly, his eyes closed.
The others drifted in slowly: the women kneeling on the right, the men on the left. Finally all the priests and brothers, except Padre Flores, who conducted the service, entered and knelt in the aisle. Padre Flores' garments were as rich as any worn in old Spain, and the candelabra about him were as massive. The images of the saints were clad in white satin embroidered with gold and silver thread. On the walls were many high-coloured paintings of saints, softened by the flood of light from the wax candles.
Roldan watched keenly all the faces within the line of his vision. They were mostly sleepy. Suddenly, as his glance shifted, it encountered the eyes of Anastacio. Those powerful crafty orbs were fixed upon him under drawn brows.
"He suspects me," thought Roldan, and then once more demonstrated that several of his talents were diplomatic. He glanced past the Indian indifferently to the women, then to the priests, and from there to the paintings and altar, his regard but that of the curious traveller.
When Roldan left the church he encountered Adan, who evidently had entered last and knelt near the door.
"Where did you go last night?" Adan demanded loudly.
"I sat up talking to the priests and roaming about the square," replied Roldan. Anastacio was almost at his elbow.
"Well, I had had sleep enough by twelve o'clock and I went into your cell, and then spent the rest of the night waiting for you to come back."
"I hope breakfast is ready. Come."
They went to the refectory, where Padre Flores embraced Roldan heartily, but made no allusion to his watch; there were Indian servants present. After breakfast the two boys walked up and down the middle of the square, and Roldan related his experience of the night. Adan listened with open mouth and shortened breath.
"Caramba!" he ejaculated. "Is there to be a fight?"
"I am sure of it. Are you frightened?"
"Not I. I'd rather fight Indians than ford a river. But do you think we can hold out?"
"We can try. And if they don't make the attack to-night, we shall have the better chance, because the reinforcement will arrive to-morrow. But that Anastacio suspects me, and doubtless he has discovered in some way that the messenger has gone. I am sure there will be trouble to-night, and I am going now to get a good sleep. Do you sleep, too; and see that you eat no dulces for supper, lest they make you heavy."
He awoke about four in the afternoon. There was a babel of voices in the plaza, and he sprang out of bed, excited with the thought that war had begun. But he saw only a typical Mission Sabbath afternoon. Several hundred Indians were seated on the ground in groups of two or three, gambling furiously. Through the open gates opposite, Roldan could see a spirited horse-race, a crowd of Indians betting at the top of their voices.
Roldan went to the kitchen and asked for a cold luncheon, then sought Padre Flores. The priest was in his cell, and as he saw Roldan he motioned to him to close the door.
"I can learn nothing, my son," he said; "but something in the air tells me that there will be trouble to-night. Will you watch again?"
"I will, my father."
"We will all sleep on our pistols. Now listen. All we can do is to protect the gates. If you ring once that means that the Indians are advancing on the south gate, the one nearest the rancheria. But they are crafty, and will doubtless seek to enter by one less guarded. Two peals will mean the west gate, three the east, and a wild irregular clamour the north. Can you remember?"
"I can, my father," said Roldan, proudly.
"I believe you. Go up into the tower at sundown, which is the hour when the gates are closed. As soon as you have finished ringing you can come down and join in the fight. The arms will be kept in the room where we sat yesterday until your meal was made ready. Now go, my son, and God bless you. Ah!" he called after him. "Wait a moment. Get a cassock and put it on. It will make you shapeless among the bells. Otherwise you might be seen."
Roldan was at his post as soon as the Indians had been driven through the gates for the night. They straggled about the valley, still talking excitedly; but there was nothing unusual in this, the watcher had been told. Gradually they moved toward the rancheria, disappeared into it, and the valley was as quiet as it had been the night before.
In the great court there were rifts of light at irregular intervals; the heavy wooden shutters of every window were ajar. Roldan felt the nervous tension of those minds below, and with it a sense of companionship, very different from the oppressive loneliness of his previous watch.
The clock of the Mission had just struck eleven when Roldan stood suddenly erect and hooped his hands about his eyes. Something was moving in the willows beside the river. The moon shone full on the rancheria, and when the outer edge of the latter appeared to broaden and project itself the effect was noticeable at once.
Roldan watched breathlessly. In a moment there could no longer be any doubt: a broad compact something was moving down the valley toward the Mission. And an army of cats could not have made less sound.
He laid his hand on the bell rope. The Indians came swiftly, but their course was not yet defined. When within a hundred yards of the Mission they deflected suddenly to the right. Their destination was not the south gate.
Roldan closed his eyes for a half moment to relieve them of the strain, then opened them and held his breath. Only the outer fringe of the little army could now be seen; it was crawling close to the western wall. In a few moments they were beneath Roldan; he could hear the slight impact with the air. Then once more he strained his eyes until he thought they would fly from his head, and his lungs seemed bursting. They were approaching the west gate.
They passed it. There could be no doubt now that they purposed to attack the north gate; but Roldan dared not ring until they were well away from the west side, lest they change their plans and his signal mislead.
As they reached the corner of the wall they suddenly accelerated their pace as if impatience mastered them. When the tail of the procession had whisked about and Roldan saw a compact mass move like a black cloud before the wind toward the north gate, he caught the rope in both hands and jangled with all his might.
The great clapper hurled itself against the mighty sides of the bell with a violence which split the nerves and made the ear-drums creak. The blood surged to Roldan's head, carrying chaos with it. He had a confused sense of a flood of light in the plaza below, but could hear no other sound except the deafening uproar in his ears. Suddenly something gave way beneath his feet. He had an awful feeling of disintegration, of solid parting from solid in empty space. He kicked out wildly. His feet touched nothing. Then his head suddenly cleared, although the deep tones of the bell still seemed echoing there, and he became aware that his descent had stopped, and that his hands, torn and aching, were still clutching the rope. He knew what had happened. He had stepped too far and gone through one of the arches.
There was no time for fright. He began to pull himself up by the rope, hand over hand. At the same time he was acutely conscious of many things. The Indians were yelling like demoniacs and battering at the gate. In the garden on the other side, the old priest was shouting Ave Marias in a high quavering voice. A breeze had sprung up and Roldan felt the chill in it. And he felt the weight of the cassock. The heavy woollen garment fatigued his arms and impeded his progress. Were it not for that he could scramble up like a monkey.
He was within two feet of the top. Suddenly he felt a slackening of the rope, accompanied by a faint sickening sound. The rope was old, it was giving way.
Roldan made a wild lurch for the projecting floor of the belfry. The rope broke. He went down.
He had heard that a drop, however swift, might seem to occupy hours to the doomed. To his whirling horror-struck brain this descent certainly seemed very long. It was almost as if he were sauntering. Nor was he tumbling over and over. He had shut his eyes tight when the rope snapped. He opened them, gave a shuddering glance downward, then laughed almost hysterically: his cassock, ample even for a man, had caught the breeze and spread out on all sides like a parachute.
And although the descent occupied but a moment longer, he comprehended the situation, with his abnormally sharpened senses, as clearly as though he stood on high with a spy glass.
All the inhabitants of the Mission proper—the priests, brothers, soldiers, and house servants—were standing before the north gate, firearms in hand. Beyond were some twenty-five Indians battering and yelling, making noise enough to induce the belief that they numbered ten times as many more. The rest were not to be seen, but it was not difficult for Roldan to suspect their purpose.
He lighted on the stone steps of the church, tore off his heavy garment, and ran toward the north gate. As he did so the east gate fell with a crash, and five hundred Indians rushed into the plaza.
They uttered no sound. The guard at the upper end of the square was not aware of their advent until Roldan reached them. He was out of breath, but he caught the arm of the man nearest him and pointed. In a second the word had passed, and the handful of defendants stared helplessly at the advancing hordes. But only for a moment. Padre Flores shouted to fall into line, then ordered them not to fire in the same breath. Anastacio, somewhat ahead of his followers, was approaching with a white rag in his hand.
When within a yard of the missionaries he paused and saluted respectfully.
"A word, my fathers," he commanded, and in excellent Spanish.
"Go on," said Padre Flores, sternly.
"We have not come to kill," said Anastacio, slowly and with great distinctness: the noise beyond the north gate had ceased. "You know that we never kill the priests, nor do we care for blood. We have come for the stores of the Mission—all your great winter supply, except a small quantity which we will leave you that you may not suffer until you can get more. We are tired of this life. We belong to the mountains. We cannot see that we are any better for your teachings, and we certainly are not as strong. Now let us do our work in peace, and all will be well. But if you fire, we let our arrows go, and we are twenty to one."
All turned anxiously to Padre Flores. They were not warlike, and if no bodily harm was intended they could see no reason for resistance.
"You have us at disadvantage," said Padre Flores, coldly. "I cannot sacrifice those in my charge, if you do not mean to kill. I agree to your terms on one condition: that we retain our firearms. I pass my word that no one shall shoot. I cannot take your word—nor that of any Indian. As you say, our teachings are thrown away."
"I take yours," said Anastacio, undisturbed. "All I ask is that you remain here under charge of twenty of my followers until I call them away."
He marched off, after planting his guard; and for the next two hours he and his men looted the Mission and packed the trove on horses which had been brought up, or on the backs of the bigger Indians. At the end of that time he shouted to his prisoners to come down and enter the Mission.
Roldan and Adan had been exchanging bitter condolences over the humiliating change in the warlike programme, but the raw air of the morning had chilled their enthusiasm, and Roldan, moreover, began to feel reaction from the shock to his nerves. It was not every day that a boy sailed down through forty feet of space and lit on his feet, and his nerves were out of tune.
When Anastacio called, he went with the rest, but lagged behind. The door of the Mission sala was open. The priests entered first, their heads scornfully erect; then the brethren, the soldiers, and servants. As Roldan and Adan were about to enter, the door was suddenly pulled to, coarse hands were clapped over their mouths, and, kicking, struggling, biting, scratching, they were borne swiftly across the courtyard and out of the gates. There they were set on their feet, and found themselves face to face with Anastacio.
"Don't yell," he said. "There is no one to come to the rescue. We shall not hurt you unless you try to run away. Then I myself will beat you. Get on that horse, both of you."
"I am tired," said Roldan, indifferently. "I want to sleep."
"Sleep? Very well. Come here."
He lifted him upon a large horse, then mounted behind and encircled him with one arm.
"Go to sleep," he said; and cantered rapidly down the valley, followed by his thieving horde.
When Roldan awoke he shivered slightly: the breath of winter was about him. He peered into the dusk, but could only gather that he was in a forest of huge trees on the side of a mountain. High above the wind was surging. He had a curious sense of travelling through the depths of the sea in a vacuum, the roar of suspended waters just over his head. Behind, between the giant trees, was a moving column of horses and men.
"Where are we?" he asked Anastacio.
"In the mountains, in a redwood forest. My pueblo is not far."
"What mountains? What forest?"
"That you will not know."
"Where is Adan?"
"On a stout mustang between two faithful followers of mine."
"They are unnecessary. He would not leave me."
"Perhaps not. Sometimes the white man lies and sometimes he is true."
Roldan sat up; his tired head had rested against the shoulder of his captor.
"Suppose I get behind you," he said. "It will be more comfortable for us both. That is, if you can trust me," with an attempt at sarcasm.
"I trust you. Get behind."
Roldan slipped down, sprang up, then strained his eyes once more into the depths of the forest. Nothing moved but that winding procession. Occasionally a coyote yapped or a wildcat yelled. Suddenly something fell against his face, pricking it gently. He looked over Anastacio's shoulder. They were passing into an open. The air was full of white, whirling particles.
"It snows," said Anastacio; "but we are soon there."
"We are in the Sierras," thought Roldan. He looked about with intense interest; he had never seen snow before; and to penetrate the mystery of the mighty Sierras had been one of the hopes of his life. The ground was white, and crunched under the horses' hoofs. The air was thick with snow-stars glittering under the full radiance of the moon. Roldan forgot that he was a captive. His mind had made its first impulse to the mysteries of night and solitude during the few moments between his entry into another forest and the encounter with the bear; it now made its first real opening. He was vaguely troubled by the embryonic thoughts that in their maturity come to men who have lived and suffered, when they are alone in a forest at night, far from other men.
Again they plunged into the forest. No snow penetrated the treetops, knit together by centuries and storms. All was black again, and the deep ocean of leaf and branch roared faintly overhead.
Roldan felt oppressed and thoughtful. He looked into the future and saw himself a man. He would be governor of the Californias, and make himself a good and great man, wiser than the idle caballeros who patronised him; he would teach them the folly of their useless lives.
"Look," said Anastacio, abruptly. "We are here. It is a pueblo of my fathers, and will serve us now."
He pointed with his riding switch through the trees to a vague whiteness, and in a moment they emerged into another open. It was a clearing some three hundred feet square, crowded with dilapidated hovels, white under a light fall of snow. It was in the heart of the Sierras, on the flat of a peak; and high on every side reared other peaks, glittering with snow, black with redwoods. The snow clouds had passed. The moon rode in a dark blue sky set thick with stars. The silence, the repose, were appalling.
Roldan jumped to the ground, and accompanied by Anastacio, ran up and down to get the cold and fatigue of night travel out of his body. In a few moments they were joined by Adan, who came waddling up, his broad face knit with perplexity and delight.
"I leave you now," said Anastacio, "but remember—if you attempt to escape you carry poisoned arrows in your backs."
"Ay, Roldan!" exclaimed Adan, when their formidable host was out of hearing. "But this was more than we bargained for. I don't know whether I like it or not."
"I must say I don't like the idea of being in the power of savages—Indians," said Roldan, contemptuously. "But as we started out for adventure we must take black bread with white. I think I do rather like this, but I shall not if we have to stay here too long and nothing happens."
"Isn't anything likely to happen?" asked Adan, anxiously.
"How can one tell? And who could find this place? But if worst comes to worst we'll run away—and not with poisoned arrows in our backs, either."
"That we will," said Adan, emphatically. "We've done that before."
The boys were given a good supper of meat roasted over coals, and a slice of Mission cake, then were escorted by Anastacio to the largest of the huts.
"Enter and sleep," he said. "It is my hut. I shall sleep beside you."
The boys slept soundly between two excellent Mission blankets in a corner of the hut, whose walls and floors had been well swept with Mission brooms. Anastacio, despite his contempt for the trammels of civilisation, had developed an aristocratic taste or two. He slept by the door, but when the boys awoke he was not there. The pueblo, but for two sentinels standing before the door, was apparently deserted. The sun was looking over the highest peak, suffusing the black aisles of the forest with a rosy glow, reddening the snow on hut and level and rocky heights. There was not a sound except the faint murmur of the treetops.
"Where is the world?" asked Roldan. "Are there ranches, with cavalcades and bull-fights, lazy caballeros lying in hammocks smoking cigarritos, or dancing the night through with silly girls? Dios de mi alma! I feel as if I did not care."
"Caramba!" exclaimed Adan, "I am famished. Do you suppose they have left us anything to eat?"
"I suppose there is nothing to do but ask one of these dogs to be good enough to give us breakfast—no, not ask. I could starve, but not beg of an Indian."
He beckoned haughtily to one of the sentinels, who approached and saluted respectfully.
"Breakfast," said the young don, curtly. "We wish to eat at once."
The Indian went over to a large stone oven and took out four meal cakes, which he carried to the boys, then fetched them fruit and wine.
"Where is Anastacio and the others?" asked Roldan, breakfast over.
"In the temascal."
Roldan sprang to his feet. "Do you hear that, Adan?" he cried. "We have always wanted to see Indians in temascal." To the sentinel, "Take us there at once."
The Indian scowled. "But for you, senor, we, too, are in the temascal."
"Take us to the temascal," said Roldan, peremptorily, and the savage, in whom servility had been planted by civilisation, yielded to the will of the aristocrat. He bent his shoulders and said: "Bueno; come!"
The boys followed him through the brush, the sweet-scented chaparral on which the honey-dew still lingered, to another and smaller clearing. Here were several long rows of earthen huts, three or four feet high, out of which smoke poured through an aperture in the roof of each. Near by was a broad creek to which the bank sloped gently from the clearing. The creek, some three feet deep, murmured over coloured stones and sprouting trees. The long fine strands of the ice grass trailed far over the water, motionless. Huge bunches of maidenhair, delicate as green lace, clung to the steep bluffs on the opposite side. Forests of ferns grew close to the water's edge. Down through a rift in the cliffs tumbled a mountain stream over its rocky bed.
"Are they stewing in those things?" asked Roldan.
The Indian nodded. Roldan, followed closely by Adan, approached one of the temascals and opened the door cautiously. At first they could see nothing, so dense was the smoke; but when much had rushed out through the new opening, they saw two prostrate figures, sweating from every pore. Their eyes were closed, they breathed stertorously. The expression on their heavy faces was beatific.
"Caramba!" exclaimed Adan, as Roldan closed the door, "I am glad they like it. What a lot of trouble to get clean."
"As they never take a bath, they couldn't get clean any other way; and besides it rests them after any great exertion—Mission raiding, for instance—and they also fancy it drags every humour out through the pores of the skin. They'll be coming out soon. Let us go down to the creek and wait."
The smoke was ascending upward in straight columns through the still air, scarcely clouding the brilliant morning, not a wreath wandering into the aisles of the forest. The sun climbed higher, melting the light fall of snow, its rays dancing among the silver ripples of the water, vivifying the many greens about the creek.
The boys amused themselves flinging pebbles at the darting trout and discussing chances of escape.
"We must not fly too soon," said Roldan, "or we shall run into the soldiers. Of course they are scouring the country after these robbers."
"This is a good place to hide in until the Mission food gives out; but I'd prefer even the barracks to living on acorns—Ay, look!"
The door of one of the temascals had opened. A limp figure tottered forth and down to the bank. He almost fell into the creek, but had sufficient wit uncooked to rest his head on a projecting stone. Presently came another, then another, and another, until the bright rocks were covered with dusky forms, the heads bobbing just above the surface, supported on stump or stone. The boys barely recognised Anastacio. Where was that commanding presence, that haughty mien? Bowed like an old man, blind from smoke, with simmering brain, he reeled into the water with as little dignity as his creatures.
But in less than an hour all had sprung forth briskly, danced about in the sun to dry, and started on a run for the pueblo. Roldan and Adan followed close, knowing that a feast alone would satisfy appetite after the temascal. And in a little time the smell of roast meat pervaded the morning, great cakes were roasting. The boys were invited to eat apart with Anastacio. At the conclusion of the meal the host, who had not spoken, solemnly poured out three glasses of fire-water. He swallowed his at a gulp. The boys sipped a few drops, winking rapidly. Then Roldan thought it time to speak: his chief was visibly thawed.
"What are you keeping us for?" he asked.
"Ransom." Anastacio lit a cigarrito—one of the padre's—and lay back on a bearskin.
"Do you know why we ran away? To escape the conscription. If you give us up, all our adventures, our dangers, our escapes, will be as nothing, and we shall be punished besides."
Anastacio moved his eyes to Roldan's with a flash of interest.
"Good! I hate the government. You shall stay here until the time of conscription is over. Then I will get a big sack of Mexican dollars, a herd of cattle, a caponara of horses, and much tobacco and whiskey. Who are your fathers?"
Anastacio flushed under his thick skin. "Good. I will double the ransom—and the guard."
"The conscription will be over in a few weeks—"
"You could not go before. We too must hide. Of course the soldiers are behind. I have many scouts watching. Now go to sleep."
The following week was clear and bright, but very cold. The boys, bred in the warm basin of California, must have suffered had not Anastacio ordered one of his minions to make them coat and boots from the skin of the coyote. Every morning the chief drilled his men with the tactics of a born commander who had let no opportunity for observation escape him. The military discipline of the pueblo was only relaxed for three hours in the afternoon, during which time the Indians were given full taste of the freedom they coveted that they might battle for it the more passionately when the time came. They gambled, slept, shot game in the forest, exercised the horses, which were in corral about a mile from the camp. The boys shot deer with Anastacio, and wrestled in the plaza. Occasionally the taciturn Indian unbent when sitting by the great bonfire in the open at night, and told wild tales of savage life before the padres came. Roldan admired his splendid supple body and fearless manhood, but the Indian was too sinister to inspire affection. Adan was loudly bored. Roldan's ardent imagination sustained him.
At the end of the week the scouts having failed to discover any sign of the enemy, Anastacio determined to go down to the river in the valley for a fortnight's salmon fishing. He, too, was bored. The fangs of civilisation are long and tenacious.
It was on a brilliant winter's morning that Anastacio, his captives, and his five hundred men wound their way down through the cold forest on the mountain into the soft warm air of the valley. There had been no rain for three weeks, and the river was not more than half full; and it was very quiet. They camped on the bank, well away from the scattered groups of trees, that they might not lose a ray of sunshine; and Roldan and Adan forgot that they were under constant surveillance. There were no tents; they slept in the open air, the boys in the centre of a square of Indians. During the day they caught many fine salmon, and salted what they did not eat, to sell to the rancheros.
It was on the sixth night that Roldan, who was wakeful, suddenly raised himself on his elbow and listened intently. Far away, above the murmur of the river, the audible slumbers of the camp, he heard a low, precise, monotonous sound. He knew what it meant. For a moment he hesitated. The chances of escape seemed to grow less daily. It was true that he was in no danger, that he would eventually be restored to his parents—but with his adventures cut short. He was fond of his home, but it was always there, and he was keen for variety: his life had been very uneventful. On the other hand, if that advancing army conquered the Indians, might not his and Adan's captivity be far more distasteful than it was at present? He sprang up and called Anastacio. In a second that warrior was on his feet and had leaped over his alert sentinels into the square.