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The Valiant Runaways (Chapter8)

2006-08-22 20:20

  Chapter VIII

  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?”

  Roldan explained.

  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.

  “What is it?” he demanded.

  “Listen.”

  Anastacio threw himself full length and laid his ear to the ground. A moment later he was erect again. He caught Roldan by one shoulder and Adan by the other. By this time every Indian in the camp was pressing about his chief.

  “They are not two miles away,” said Anastacio. “And the dawn will be here in an hour. There are ten miles between us and the mountains. I don't wish to fight in the open without knowing their numbers.”

  Roldan danced up and down with sudden excitement. “I have a plan,” he cried. “You can trust me. I don't want to go back.”

  Anastacio bent his keen malevolent eyes close above the young Spaniard's, then loosened his hold.

  “Bueno,” he said. “I trust you.”

  “The straw,” said Roldan. “Bring it all here.”

  Anastacio gave the order, and an immense carreta of straw was trundled up.

  “Now,” said Roldan, “gather it into bunches the size of a man's head and tie each firmly. The tide is running toward the enemy, and it is too dark to see clearly. Do you understand, senor?”

  Anastacio made a loud exclamation, caught Roldan in his arms and kissed. him, much to that haughty young gentleman's disgust, then tied the first bunch himself. Roldan, Adan, and some forty of the quicker Indians rapidly manipulated the straw, and in little more than ten minutes had cast a hundred round compact bundles into the hurrying tide. As they sailed away they certainly looked, under the heavy shadow of the banks and the black-blue of the sky, like an army of men swimming with the desperate haste of terror, their heads alone above water.

  “Now!” cried Anastacio, “to the mountains.”

  They had brought only pack-horses. There was nothing to do but run, and Anastacio, driving his entire following ahead of him, sped to cover. It was not twenty minutes before they heard a sharp volley of musketry, and if their breath had not been short they would have laughed aloud at the success of Roldan's strategy. The sky was turning grey as they reached the straggling outposts of the forest on the mountain. The firing had ceased. Their ruse had doubtless been discovered.

  “We will hide for twenty-four hours and rest,” Anastacio said to Roldan, who was the only person he condescended to hold converse with, although he allowed Adan to sun himself in his presence. “By that time, too, I shall know their numbers. If they are many I'll draw them into the mountains and fire from ambush. If few, they shall have open fight.”

  “You will let us see it?” asked Roldan, eagerly. “Of course I cannot fight my own people; but I don't want to be sent to the pueblo, and I do want to see a fight.”

  Anastacio hesitated. “Bueno,” he said, “I owe you much. You give me the word of the California don that unless I am killed you will not run away?”

  “I promise. There is nothing else to do. That is to say, I promise not to run away before this battle is over.”

  “That is what I mean,” said Anastacio, curtly. “Now we will sleep.”

  He disposed his men in the forest above a narrow, rocky canon into which the enemy would hardly venture. Roldan volunteered to keep watch with the two sentinels, and returned with them to the outskirts of the forest. The enemy was marching steadily across the valley. After a time they halted, and lay down for a time. Early in the afternoon they resumed march, then halted again within a mile of the mountain, sending two scouts ahead. By this time Anastacio had joined his sentinels, and all four hid in the underforest between the great trees.

  The scouts, keeping as much under cover as was possible, crept up the lower spur of the mountain, their glance describing a constant half- circle. When they were within a few feet of the fugitives, Anastacio raised his bow and discharged two arrows in rapid succession. One buried itself in the jugular of the foremost scout, and he huddled down among the soft leaves without a cry. The other, equally well aimed, entered the shoulder of the second scout, where it quivered violently for a few seconds, then was torn forth and flung to the ground with a cry of defiance. The Californian, disregarding his wound, raised himself to his full height and pointed his pistol. But vaguely: the quiet, feathery young redwoods told no tales. Then his eye fell upon his dead brother. He turned and fled.

  “They will not enter the forest,” said Anastacio; “and when I am ready they will fight, not before. Have you pencil and paper, senor?”

  Roldan produced a treasured note-book that a relative had brought him from Boston.

  “Write,” said the chief; and he dictated:——

  SENOR DON CAPITAN,——At noon to-morrow we fight in the valley near the eight oak trees and the two madronos. Do you wish to fight sooner you can come into the mountains. It will be better for us. ANASTACIO.

  He tore out the leaf, crawled down the mountain as non-apparently as a python, and pinned it high on an outstanding redwood, then returned and told his sentinels to sleep, replacing them with others.

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