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The Valiant Runaways (Chapter6)

2006-08-22 20:19

  Chapter VI

  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?”

  “Nothing.”

  “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.

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