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The Valiant Runaways (Chapter22)

2006-08-22 20:30

  Chapter XXII

  Roldan raised himself on his elbow and looked about him. Adan was some quarter of a mile away, approaching him, leading the mustangs. Cleaving the horizon on four sides was a vast plain. On it was not a tree, nor even a hut. Here and there were clumps of palms and cacti, as stark as if cut from pale green stone. At vast intervals were short, isolated mountains, known in the vernacular as “buttes.” On the ground was not the withered remnant of a blade of grass; but there were many fissures, and some of them were deep and wide. Of the things that crawl and scamper and fly there was no sign, not even a hole in the ground; for even reptiles must have food to eat, and there was nothing here to sustain man nor beast. The fleckless sky was a deep, hot blue; a blood- red sun toiled heavily toward the zenith.

  “Adan!” shouted Roldan; he was suddenly mad for sound of any sort. A discouraged “Halloa!” came promptly back.

  Roldan dressed himself rapidly. His clothes were quite dry; indeed the very atmosphere of this strange beautiful place was so dry that it seemed to crumble in the nostrils. As he finished dressing Adan reached him. The horses' heads were hanging listlessly. Adan's face had lost its ruddy colour.

  “Roldan,” he said, “where are we?”

  “I know not,” said Roldan, setting his lips.

  “I left you to look for water, and there are not even tarantulas in this accursed place. There is no water, not a drop. Nor a handful of stubble for the horses.”

  “We must go back the way we came, and start once more from the foot of the mountain.”

  “Can you remember from which point we entered this place? This soil might be rock; there is not a hoof-print anywhere.”

  “We should have gone south and we came east. On the northwestern horizon is something which looks like mountains——a long range——almost buried in mist. There is no sign of a range anywhere else; so the only thing to do is to go back to them; they are our mountains; I feel sure of that.”

  “If the horses do not give out. They are empty and choking, poor things. Well, there is no reason we should not eat, and, thanks be to that good mayor domo, we still have a bottle of wine. But I would give something for a gourd of water. However, we have not been girls yet, and we will not begin now, my friend.”

  The boys ate their breakfast, but their spirits felt little lighter, even after a long draught of wine. The awful quiet of the place, broken only by an occasional whinny from the mustangs, seemed to press hard about them, thickening the blood in their veins. Roldan was filled with forebodings he could not analyse, and strove to coax forth from its remote brain-cell something that had wandered in, he could not recall when nor where.

  They saddled the mustangs, mounted, and were about to make for the northwest when Adan gave a hoarse gurgle, caught Roldan's arm, pulled him about, and pointed with shaking hand to the south.

  “Dios de mi alma!” exclaimed Roldan. “It is Los Angeles. We were right, after all. But why were we never told that it was so beautiful?”

  On the southern horizon, half veiled in pale blue mist, showed a stately city, with domes and turrets and spires and many lofty cathedrals. It was a white city; there were no red tiles to break those pure and lovely lines, to blotch that radiant whiteness; even the red sun withheld its angry shafts.

  Roldan gazed, his lips parting, his breath coming quickly. If his imagination had ever attempted to picture heaven, its wildest flight would have resembled but fallen short of that living beauty before him. It was mystifying, exalting. It was worth the dangers and discomforts of the past month multiplied by twelve, just to have one moment's glimpse of such perfection. And it was Los Angeles! A city of the Californias, built by Indian hands! No wonder his family had been careful to leave its wonders out of the table talk; had he known, he would have been at its feet long since.

  “It isn't the wine?” asked Adan, feebly.

  “No. There must have been a fog before; Los Angeles is near the sea.”

  “Shall we start?”

  “Yes, but slowly. The poor mustangs! But it will not be long now. We cannot be more than two leagues from there. See, it grows plainer every moment; the fog must have been very heavy.”

  They cantered on slowly, the mustangs responding automatically to the light prick of the spur. The beautiful alluring city looked to be floating in cloud; it smiled and beckoned, inciting even the weary famished brutes to effort. But at the end of an hour Roldan reined in with a puzzled expression. “I do not understand,” he said. “It seemed not two leagues away when we started, and we have come that far and more, and still it seems exactly the same distance beyond.”

  “The atmosphere is so clear,” suggested Adan. “But I wish we were there. My mouth is parched, my tongue is dry——and the horses, Roldan. Soon they will be as limp as sails in a calm.”

  “True, but we could easily walk the distance now. We could return for them at once with water and food.” But he was beginning to feel vaguely uneasy once more. The odd sensation of death, of a buried world, had returned. Could it be that that fair city beyond was heaven? Surely, he thought with unconscious humour, it was very un-Californian.

  They passed the lonely buttes, the parched beds of lakes, salt-coated. Still they saw not a living thing; still the city seemed to recede with the horizon, its sharp beautiful outlines unchanged. For some time the horses had been trotting unevenly. Gradually they relaxed into a dogged amble, their heads down, their tongues out. Every now and again they half paused, with quivering knees.

  Adan's was the first to collapse; it fell to its knees, then rolled over, Adan scrambling from under, unhurt.

  Roldan also dismounted, and both boys, without a word, unsaddled the poor brutes, thrust the pistols into their belts and what was left of the provisions into their pockets. They cast off their ponchos, then once more turned their faces to the south. But they did not advance. They stood with distended eyes and suspended breath. The city had disappeared.

  Adan was the first to find speech. “A fog?” he asked. “A rain storm?”

  “There is neither. The horizon is as blue and clear as it is on the north and east and west. It is a miracle. Let me think a moment.”

  He sat down and took his head between his hands. After a while he looked up. “For hours I have been trying to remember something,” he said. “Do you remember what that mayor domo said to us?——Keep straight on, straight on, never turning to the left, for that way lies the terrible Mojave desert, I barely heard his last words at the time; that is the reason I have had such a time remembering. We are in the Mojave desert, my friend.”

  Adan, whose mouth was still wide open, sat down and rolled his eyes from east to west. “Caramba!” he ejaculated finally.

  “I could say a good deal more than Caramba. All that I have heard of this Mojave comes back to me. There is no water on it, no living thing but half choked cacti and stunted palms. Men who are lost on it go mad and die of thirst——”

  “Ay, yi, yi!”

  “Si, senor. However, it might be much worse. It is winter, not summer,—— when the heat kills in a day; we have food and a little wine; we are young and very strong; we have not come so many leagues that we cannot walk back. And we have each other. Think, were we alone!”

  “Yes, it might be worse,” said Adan, “but all the same it might be six or eight leagues to the northwest better. And that city? What was it? Where has it gone?”

  “I do not know.” Privately he believed that it had been a glimpse of heaven, and was disturbed lest it might have been a portent of death. But his mind was too active, his nature too independent to sit down under superstition. If he died on the desert, it would not be through lack of effort to get out of it.

  He stood up, setting his lips. “Come,” he said. “We gain nothing by sitting here, and we are both fresh; we can walk many leagues before night.”

  “Do you know which way to go?” asked Adan.

  Roldan swept the horizon with his eyes. The buttes they had passed had displaced the solitary landmark of the morning. There was not a hoof- beat on the hard split ground. Roldan shrugged his shoulders.

  “We can at least follow the sun. Los Angeles must be due west. Come.”

  The sun was past the zenith and sloping to the west. The boys turned their backs upon it and trudged on, only pausing once for a half-hour to divide the meagre remains of their store. Evening came; the sun leaned his elbows on the horizon in front of them, leered at the contracted visages and blinking eyes resolutely facing him, then slid leisurely down; and night came suddenly. The boys flung themselves on the ground and slept.

  They awoke consumed with hunger and thirst. Their mouths and nostrils were coated with the fine irritating dust of the desert, scarcely visible but always felt. But their smarting eyes were greeted by a refreshing sight: not a half-league before them, directly in their course, was a lake, a lake as blue as the metallic sky above, and lightly fringed with palms and orange-trees. Beyond was a forest of silver leaves——an olive orchard.

  “A Mission!” exclaimed Roldan, and even Adan sprang to his feet and marched westward with some enthusiasm. But alas! although they trudged with dogged persistence for fully a league, striving to forget the gnawing at their vitals in the exquisite prospect filling the eye, the lake seemed to march ahead of them, in perfect time with their weary feet. Suddenly the two boys paused and faced each other.

  “This accursed desert is bewitched,” said Roldan. His face was white, but more with anger than fear; for the first time in his life he realised the helplessness of man when at the mercy of nature, and he did not like the sensation. He had a strong, and by this time, well developed instinct to govern, to bend others to his will, and he swore now that he would walk out of this desert unharmed if only for the pleasure of cheating a force mightier than himself. He turned and looked at the sun.

  “We have been going in a wrong direction,” he said. “That lake has been shifting gradually toward the southwest, and taken us nearly a league out of our course. The first thing we know we will be in Baja California, where there is nothing but deserts, and they are all on mountain tops. We must strike north again. I am sure that last night we were due west of Los Angeles.”

  “But the lake? the Mission?”

  “I do not believe there is any lake. There are things you and I do not understand in this world——although we are learning——and I believe that this strange desert has the power to make scenes like the theatres they who have travelled tell us of. Be sure that lake will disappear like the city.”

  They turned north in order to get in line with the sun; and out of the tail of their eyes they saw the lake march with them. When they finally turned to the west again it faced them once more. They linked arms suddenly and trudged on, hungry, parched, beset by superstitious fears, but not forgetting to turn every half hour and glance at the sun until he passed the meridian and pointed for the west. And suddenly the lake seemed to slip behind a wall.

  “There is really something there this time,” said Roldan, closing one eye and curving his hand about the other. “It is ugly enough to be real. It is no use to say how far anything is in this place, but I should think we would reach it before long.”

  And long before they did reach it they knew what it was——a thicket of cacti some two miles long and of unknown depth. The plants were eight or ten feet high, and the broad thick leaves, spiked, as only the leaves of the cactus are, looked to be welded together. But that was from a distance. When the boys reached the thicket they saw that the plants in reality were some feet apart, although there appeared to be no end to them. The boys sat down suddenly, their strength deserting them. They threw their arms forward on their knees and dropped their heads. For a half hour or more they sat motionless, then Roldan looked up and fixed his glassy eyes on the forbidding wall, which at close proximity seemed to girt* the horizon.

  “If we tried to go round it,” he said, “there is no knowing where we should find ourselves. We had better go straight ahead, if possible. If it is too thick we can turn back.”

  “At least we could not see this horrible desert for a while,” said Adan. “I am willing.”

  “And, who knows? Los Angeles may be just on the other side.”

  Their utterance was thick. Their veins felt as if packed with lead, not so much from need of food as need of drink. But they stumbled to their feet and entered the cactus forest. They were obliged to pursue their way in single file; the spikes were long, and many of the larger leaves abutted so obstructively that they were obliged to go down on their hands and knees and crawl. Nor could they maintain a straight course, but zig-zagged among the great plants as nature permitted. More than once they heard the rip of silk, more than once blood sprang through their skin. Their progress was slow and fraught with peril, their only consolation that the end must come sooner or later.

  Night came suddenly. They were near an open a few feet in circumference. They lay down side by side, knowing that a step at night might mean instant blindness.

  The cactus never moves, not even in a storm. There was not a breath of wind to-night. The thick dull green plant-trees looked as solid as stone, a petrified forest. The sky had never seemed so high above, the stars so hard and bright.

  Adan moistened his lips with his tongue. “Do you feel that you can last another day?” he asked.

  “I expect to die of old age.”

  “Well, if you do, it won't be the fault of the Mojave desert. You have courage, and so have I; but this is worse than all——Do you feel that?”

  “I have felt it many times before, to-day. It is said that parts of the Mojave shake all the time.”

  “We can swear to that. Supposing a great shake came, how could we get out of this?”

  “We are as well here as anywhere. Let us sleep, and rise with the sun.”

  But although he spoke confidently, almost contemptuously, he was possessed with a wild desire to spring to his feet and fight his way out of this terrible prison. He had seen a huge fish flounder in a net, and looked on callously. He should never witness such another sight without a responsive thrill of horror. Were he paralysed from crown to heel he could not be more helpless in this thicket of needles. The vast unpeopled desert had been bad enough, but it had been intoxicating liberty to this. Tired as he was, he moved his hands and feet constantly; supineness was impossible. He wondered how men felt when in prison, and vowed that when he held the law in his hands he would invent some other way of punishment. For his part he would rather be shot at once.

  Being young and healthy, he fell asleep after a time. When he awoke the sky was grey, the stars had gone. He shook Adan.

  “There is no sunrise to be seen from this place,” he said, “but I am sure of the direction now. I took note of that big cactus ahead, last night——Hist!”

  “Dios de mi alma!” whispered Adan, his tongue rolling out. “In this place! It is worse than earthquake.”

  Nothing was to be seen from where they stood, but from no great distance came the faint hollow rattle which strikes terror to man in the wilderness. The volume of sound was suddenly augmented: there appeared to be a duet. Immediately it was supplemented by a loud furious hissing; a moment later by a whirr and impact.

  “There are two, and they are fighting,” whispered Adan, his eyes bulging.

  Roldan advanced softly to an aperture between two leaves of a cactus, then lifted his finger to his shoulder and beckoned. Adan turned mechanically in the opposite direction; but curiosity overcame him, and he joined Roldan.

  Between two plants not three feet apart two rattlesnakes were engaged in mortal combat. They coiled with incredible rapidity, flew at each other with burning eyes and darting tongues, burying a fang somewhere in the tense bristling armours. The lashing tails struck the spiked surface of the cactus and augmented their fury; occasionally they whipped about, hissing deliriously, then returning as swiftly to the only enemy in sight. They had coiled and struck some four or five times, whipping all over their narrow arena, when as if by common consent, they retreated to extreme opposite points, coiled as lightning strikes, and leapt at each other. Even Roldan gave a hoarse cry of surprise, and as for Adan, he fell into vocabulary: one serpent had darted straight down the throat of the other. For a moment there was a fearful lashing. The choking serpent, with protruding eyes, like small green coals, and jaws distended in agony, strove to dislodge his suffocating enemy, and the other humped his back and leapt backward in frantic efforts to reach the air again. But suddenly their struggles ceased; they flattened to the ground, only the tails moving automatically. What was left looked like a monster of some unknown species; a creature with no head, a huge belly, and two tails.

  “Caramba!” exclaimed Adan, “I could not eat that even if we had anything to cook it with. It looks like a mass of poison.”

  “I should like to know where that poison was last night. It may be a good sign, however: as they are the first living things we have seen, we may be near to the edge of the desert.”

  Adan crossed himself.

  “Come,” continued Roldan, “let us move on, before hunger tempts us too far.”

  Once more they started on their tortuous way. They walked very slowly, both from necessity and inclination: the excitement of the fight over, their physical necessities pressed heavily; they kept as close together as they could, but rarely spoke: they were too hungry. Both were oppressed by the fear that at any minute they would come upon a solid wall of cacti and be obliged to retrace their steps, and both knew that might mean a stunning blow to courage. At times the constant zig- zagging, the unalterable, smooth, grey-green surface of the cacti, made them halt dizzily, for both brain and body were sick for want of food. But by degrees the wood grew thinner and thinner; and when the sun was half way between the zenith and the western horizon, they left behind the last straggling outpost and found themselves on the edge of a creek, the same doubtless that they had crossed three nights before. They gave each other a feeble simultaneous slap on the back, gathered their energies, ran down the bank, and took a long draught of the running water.

  “I feel better,” said Roldan, finally, “but hungrier than ever. There are quail in that chaparral over there. I'll go after them, and do you hunt for flint and build a fire.”

  He crossed the creek and entered the brush beyond. Almost simultaneously there was a loud whirr of wings, and a large flock of quail rose from the chaparral a few feet ahead of him. He had only his pistols, but he was a good shot, and he decapitated two of the birds in rapid succession. Then he reloaded and killed a squirrel. When he returned, Adan was on his knees, with his large cheeks distended, coaxing a handful of dried leaves and twigs into flame. It was a half hour before the pyre was large enough for the sacrifice, but after that the birds and squirrel, which meanwhile had been skinned and washed in the creek, were but a short time singeing. It was an ill-cooked meal, but when it was over Roldan said solemnly,——

  “I have eaten of all the delicious dishes of the Californias, including many dulces, but nothing ever tasted as good as this; no, not even the first breakfast at Casa Encarnacion.”

  “Nor to me,” said Adan, emphatically, and he crossed himself.

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