Chapter IX. Round the Camp-Fire
 

'The time before the fire they sat,
And shortened the delay by pleasing chat.'

The August days had slipped away one after another, and September was at hand. There was no perceptible change of weather to mark the advent of the new month. The hills were a little browner, the dust a little deeper, the fleas a little nimbler, and the water in the brook a trifle lower, but otherwise Dame Nature did not concern herself with the change of seasons, inasmuch as she had no old dresses to get rid of, and no new ones to put on for a long time yet; indeed, she is never very fashionable in this locality, and wears very much the same garments throughout the year.

Elsie seemed almost as strong as any of the other girls now, and could enter with zest into all their amusements. The appetite of a young bear, the sound, dreamless sleep of a baby, and the constant breathing in of the pure, life-giving air had made her a new creature. Mrs. Howard and Jack felt, day by day, that a burden of dread was being lifted from their hearts; and Mrs. Howard especially felt that she loved every rock and tree in the canyon.

It was a charming morning, and Polly was seated at the dining-room table, deep in the preparation of a lesson in reading and pronunciation for Hop Yet. Her forehead was creased with many wrinkles of thought, and she bit the end of her lead-pencil as if she were engaged in solving some difficult problem; but, if that were so, why did the dimples chase each other in and out of her cheeks in such a suspicious fashion? She was a very gentle, a very sedate Polly, these latter days, and not only astonished her friends, but surprised herself, by her good behaviour, her elegant reserve of manner, her patience with Jack, and her abject devotion to Dicky.

'I'm afraid it won't last,' she sighed to herself occasionally. 'I'm almost too good. That's always the way with me--I must either be so bad that everybody is discouraged, or else so good that I frighten them. Now I catch Bell and Elsie exchanging glances every day, as much as to say, "Poor Polly, she will never hold out at this rate; do you notice that nothing ruffles her--that she is simply angelic?" As if I couldn't be angelic for a fortnight! Why I have often done it for four weeks at a stretch!'

Margery was in the habit of giving Hop Yet an English lesson every other day, as he had been very loath to leave his evening school in Santa Barbara and bury himself in a canyon, away from all educational influences; but she had deserted her post for once and gone to ride with Elsie, so that Polly had taken her place and was evolving an exercise that Hop Yet would remember to the latest day of his life. It looked simple enough:-

1. The grass is dry.
2. The fruit is ripe.
3: The chaparral is green.
4. The new road is all right.
5. The bay-'rum' tree is fresh and pretty.

But as no Chinaman can pronounce the letter 'r,' it was laboriously rendered thus, when the unhappy time of the lesson came:

1. The-glass-is-dly.
2. The-fluit-is-lipe.
3. The-chap-lal-is-gleen.
4. The-new-load-is-all-light-ee.
5. The bay-lum-tlee-is-flesh-and-plitty.

Finally, when she attempted to introduce the sentence, 'Around the rough and rugged rock the ragged rascal ran,' Hop Yet rose hurriedly, remarking, 'All lightee; I go no more school jus' now. I lun get lunchee.'

Bell came running down the path just then, and linking her arm in Polly's said, 'Papa has the nicest plan. You know the boys are so disappointed that Colonel Jackson didn't ask them over to that rodeo at his cattle ranch--though a summer rodeo is only to sort out fat cattle to sell, and it is not very exciting; but papa promised to tell them all about the old-fashioned kind some night, and he has just remembered that to-morrow is Admission Day, September 9, so he proposes a real celebration round the camp-fire to amuse Elsie. She doesn't know anything about California even as it is now, and none of us know what it was in the old days. Don't you think it will be fun?'

'Perfectly splendid!'

'And papa wants us each to contribute something.'

'A picnic!--but I don't know anything.'

'That's just what I'm coming to. I have such a bright idea. He said that we might look in any of his books, but Geoff and Jack are at them already, and I'd like a surprise. Now Juan Capistrano, an old vaquero of Colonel Jackson's, is over here. He is a wonderful rider; papa says that he could ride on a comet, if he could get a chance to mount. It was he who told the boys that the rodeo was over. Now I propose that we go and interview Pancho and Juan, and get them to tell us some old California stories. They are both as stupid as they can be, but they must have had some adventures, I suppose, somewhere, sometime. I'll translate and write the things down, for my part, and you and Margery can tell them.'

'Lovely! Oh, if we can only get an exciting grizzly story, so that

Every one's blood upon end it will stand,
And the hair run cold in their veins!

And was Dr. Paul out here when California was admitted into the Union--1850, wasn't it?'

'Of course; why, my child, he was one of the delegates called by General Riley, the military governor, to meet in convention at Monterey and make a State constitution. That was September, too--the first day of September 1849. He went back to the East some time afterwards, and stayed ten or fifteen years; but he was a real pioneer and "forty-niner" all the same.

The next night, September 9th, was so cool that the camp-fire was more than ordinarily delightful; accordingly they piled on more wood than usual, and prepared for a grand blaze. It was always built directly in front of the sitting-room tent, so that Mrs. Howard and Mrs. Winship could sit there if they liked; but the young people preferred to lie lazily on their cushions and saddles under the oak- tree, a little distance from the blaze. The clear, red firelight danced and flickered, and the sparks rose into the sombre darkness fantastically, while the ruddy glow made the great oak an enchanted palace, into whose hollow dome they never tired of gazing. When the light streamed highest, the bronze green of the foliage was turned into crimson, and, as it died now and then, the stars winked brightly through the thousand tiny windows formed by the interlacing branches.

'Well,' said the doctor, bringing his Chinese lounging-chair into the circle, and lighting his pipe so as to be thoroughly happy and comfortable, 'will you banish distinctions of age and allow me to sit among you this evening?'

'Certainly,' Margery said; 'that's the very point of the celebration. This is Admission Day, you know, and why shouldn't we admit you?'

'True; and having put myself into a holiday humour by dining off Pancho's dish of guisado (I suppose to-night of all nights we must call beef and onion stew by its local name), I will proceed to business, and we will talk about California. By the way, I shall only conduct the exercises, for I feel rather embarrassed by the fact that I've never killed, or been killed by, a bear, never been bitten by a tarantula, poisoned by a rattlesnake, assaulted by a stage- robber, nor anything of that sort. You have all read my story of crossing the plains. I even did that in a comparatively easy and unheroic fashion. I only wish, my dear girls and boys, that we had with us some one of the brave and energetic men and women who made that terrible journey at the risk of their lives. The history of the California Crusaders, the thirty thousand or more emigrants who crossed the plains in '48, more than equals the great military expeditions of the Middle Ages, in magnitude, peril, and adventure. Some went by way of Santa Fe and along the hills of the Gila; others, starting from Red River, traversed the Great Stake Desert and went from El Paso del Norte to Sonora; others went through Mexico, and, after spending over a hundred days at sea, ran into San Diego and gave up their vessels; others landed exhausted with their seven months' passage round the Horn; and some reached the spot on foot after walking the whole length of the California peninsula.'

'What privations they must have suffered!' said Mrs. Howard. 'I never quite realised it.'

'Why, the amount of suffering that was endured in those mountain passes and deserts can never be told in words. Those who went by the Great Desert west of the Colorado found a stretch of burning salt plains, of shifting hills of sand, with bones of animals and men scattered along the trails; of terrible and ghastly odours rising in the hot air from the bodies of hundreds of mules, and human creatures too, that lay half-buried in the glaring white sand. A terrible journey indeed; but if any State in the Union could be fair enough, fertile enough, and rich enough to repay such a lavish expenditure of energy and suffering, California certainly was and is the one. Now who can tell us something of the name "California"? You, Geoffrey?'

'Geoffrey has crammed!' exclaimed Bell, maliciously. 'I believe he's been reading up all day and told papa what question to ask him!'

'I'll pass it on to you if you like,' laughed Geoffrey.

'No--you'd never get another that you could answer! Go on!'

'In 1534, one Hernando de Grijalva was sent by Hernando Cortez to discover something or other, and it was probably he who then saw the peninsula of California; but a quarter of a century before this a romance called Esplandian had appeared in Spain, narrating the adventures of an Amazonian queen who brought allies from "the right hand of the Indies" to assist the infidels in their attack upon Constantinople--by the way I forgot to say that she was a pagan. This queen of the Amazons was called Calafia, and her kingdom, rich in gold and precious stones, was named California. The writer of the romance derived this name, perhaps, from Calif, a successor of Mohammed. He says: "Know that on the right hand of the Indies there is an island named California, very close to the Terrestial Paradise, and it was peopled by black women without any man among them, for they lived in the fashion of the Amazonia. They were of strong and hardy bodies, of ardent courage, and of great force. Their island was the strongest in all the world, with its steep cliffs and rocky shore. Their arms were all of gold, and so was the harness of the wild beasts which they tamed and rode. For in the whole island there was no metal but gold. They lived in caves wrought out of the rocks with much labour, and they had many ships with which they sailed out to other countries to obtain booty." Cortez and Grijalva believed that they were near the coast of Asia, for they had no conception of the size of the world nor of the vastness of the Pacific Ocean; and as the newly-discovered land corresponded with the country described in the romance, they named the peninsula California.'

'My book,' said Philip, 'declared that the derivation of the name was very uncertain, and that it was first bestowed on one of the coast bays by Bernal Diaz.'

'Now, Philip!' exclaimed Margery, 'do you suppose we are going to believe that, after Geoff's lovely story?'

'Certainly not; I only thought I'd permit you to hear both sides. I knew of course that you would believe the prettier story of the two-- girls always do!'

'That isn't a "pretty story"--your remark, I mean, so we won't believe it; will we, girls?' asked Bell.

'Now, Polly, your eyes sparkle as if you couldn't wait another minute; your turn next,' said Dr. Winship.

'I am only afraid that I can't remember my contribution, which is really Bell's and still more really Pancho's, for he told it to us, and Bell translated it and made it into a story. We call it "Valerio; or, The Mysterious Mountain Cave."'

'Begins well!' exclaimed Jack.

'Now, Jack, you must be nice. Remember this is Bell's story, and she is letting me tell it so that I can bear my share in the entertainment.'

'Pancho believes every word of it,' added Bell, 'and says that his father told it to him; but as I had to change it from bad Spanish into good English, I don't know whether I've caught the idea exactly.'

'Oh, it will do quite nicely, I've no doubt,' said Jack, encouragingly. 'We've often heard you do good English into bad Spanish, and turn and turn about is only fair play. Don't mind me, Polly; I will be gentle!'

'Jack, if you don't behave yourself I'll send you to bed,' said Elsie; and he ducked his head obediently into her lap, as Polly, with her hands clasping her knees, and with the firelight dancing over her bright face, leaned forward and told the Legend of

VALERIO; OR, THE MYSTERIOUS MOUNTAIN CAVE.

'A long time ago, before the settlement of Santa Barbara by the whites, the Mission padres had a great many Indians under their control, who were known as peons, or serfs. They were given enough to eat, were not molested by the outside Indians, and were entirely peaceable. There were so few mountain passes by which to enter Santa Barbara that they were easily held, and of course the padres were anxious to keep their Indians from running away, lest they should show the wilder tribes the way to get in and commit depredations. These peaceable Indians paid tribute to intermediary tribes to hold the passes and do their fighting. Those about the Mission gave corn and cereals and hides and the products of the sea, and got in exchange pinones (pine nuts). One of these Indians, named Valerio, was a strong, brave, handsome youth, whose haughty spirit revolted at his servitude, and, after seeking an opportunity for many weeks he finally escaped to the Santa Ynez mountains, where he found a cave in which he hid himself, drawing himself up by a rope and taking it in after him. The Indians had unlimited belief in Valerio's mysterious and wonderful powers. Pancho says that he could make himself invisible at will, that locks and keys were powerless against him; and that no one could hinder his taking money, horses, or food. All sorts of things disappeared mysteriously by day and by night, and the robberies were one and all laid to the door of Valerio. But after a while Valerio grew lonely in his mountain retreat. He longed for human companionship, and at length, becoming desperate, he descended on the Mission settlement and kidnapped a young Indian boy named Chito, took him to his cave, and admitted him into his wild and lawless life. But Chito was not contented. He liked home and comfortable slavery better than the new, strange life; so he seized the first opportunity, and being a bright, daring little lad, and fleet of foot, he escaped and made his way to the Mission. Arriving there he told wonderful stories of Valerio and his life; how his marvellous white mare seemed to fly, rather than gallop, and leaped from rock to rock like a chamois; and how they lived upon wheat- bread, cheeses, wine, and other delicacies instead of the coarse fare of the Indians. He told them the location of the cave and described the way thither; so the Alcalde (he was the mayor or judge, you know, Elsie), got out the troops with their muskets, and the padres gathered the Mission Indians with their bows and arrows, and they all started in pursuit of the outlaw. Among the troops were two hechiceros (wizards or medicine-men), whose bowed shoulders and grizzled beards showed them to be men of many years and much wisdom. When asked to give their advice, they declared that Valerio could not be killed by any ordinary weapons, but that special means must be used to be of any avail against his supernatural powers. Accordingly, one of the hechiceros broke off the head of his arrow, cast a charm over it, and predicted that this would deal the fatal blow. The party started out with Chito as a guide, and, after many miles of wearisome travel up rugged mountain sides and over steep and almost impassable mountain trails, they paused at the base of a cliff, and saw, far up the height, the mouth of Valerio's cave, and, what was more, Valerio himself sitting in the doorway fast asleep. Alas! he had been drinking too heavily of his stolen wine, or he would never have so exposed himself to the enemy. They fired a volley at him. One shot only took effect, and even this would not have been possible save that the spell was not upon him because of his sleep; but the one shot woke him and, half rising, he staggered and fell from the mouth of the cave to a ledge of rocks beneath. He sprang to his feet in a second and ran like a deer towards a tree where his white mare was fastened. They fired another volley, but, though the shots flew in every direction, Valerio passed on unharmed; but just as he was disappearing from view the hechicero raised his bow and the headless arrow whizzed through space and pierced him through the heart. They clambered up the cliffs with shouts of triumph and surrounded him on every side, but poor Valerio had surrendered to a more powerful enemy than they! Wonderful to relate, he still breathed, though the wound should have been instantly fatal. They lifted him from the ground and tied him on his snow-white mare, his long hair reaching almost to the ground, his handsome face as pale as death, the blood trickling from his wound; but the mysterious power that he possessed seemed to keep him alive in spite of his suffering. Finally one of the hechiceros decided that the spell lay in the buckskin cord that he wore about his throat--a rough sort of necklace hung with bears' claws and snake rattles--and that he never would die until the magic cord was cut. This, after some consultation, was done. Valerio drew his last breath as it parted asunder, and they bore his dead body home in triumph to the Mission.

'But he is not forgotten. Stories are still told of his wonderful deeds, and people still go in search of money that he is supposed to have hidden in his cave. The Mexican women who tell suertes, or fortunes, describe the location of the money; but, as soon as any one reaches the cave, he is warned away by a little old man who stands in the door and protects the buried treasure. An Indian lad, who was riding over the hills one day with his horse and his dogs, dismounted to search for his moccasin, when he suddenly noticed that the dogs had chased something into a cave in the rocks. He followed, and, peering into the darkness, saw two gleaming eyes. He thrust his knife between them, but struck the air; and, though he had been standing directly in front of the opening, so that nothing could have passed him, yet he heard the clatter of hoofs and the tinkle of spurs, and, turning, saw a mysterious horseman, whose pale face and streaming hair melted into the mountain mist, as it floated down from the purple Santa Ynez peaks into the lap of the vine-covered foot- hills below.'