Chapter X

The small Californian force--it numbered little over two hundred men-- was under the command of Juan Pardo Mesa, a captain notable for his victorious encounters with Indians and for his knowledge of their cunning. He was on the alert at dawn next morning, and long before the sun had spurned the tops of the Coast range, his assumption of meditated treachery was confirmed. A rising wind had set the young redwoods in motion. Before long the practised eye of Captain Mesa saw an increased agitation among the feathery branches, his ear caught a slight crackling. His men were flat on the ground. He stood in the shadow of a large oak. A moment later a dusky form crept out to where the brush grew more sparsely, hesitated a moment, and apparently passed back word that all was well; he was immediately followed by many of his kind; and the lower slope of the mountain, burnt bare by fire, seemed suddenly swarming with huge black rats.

Mesa waited until they were well away from cover, then gave the expected order: two hundred muskets, carbines, and flintlock pistols were discharged, and one piece of artillery.

But Anastacio, no mean general himself, was also on the alert for the unexpected. In a few moments he had marshalled his forces in the form of a hollow square, and ordered them to discharge their arrows from a recumbent position. Owing to the heavy shadows, the aim of the Californians had been uncertain, and only a few of the Indians had fallen. Roldan and Adan were safe behind two large redwoods just above the Indian army.

The firing continued steadily all the morning, but resulted in few mortal wounds. There was not a poisoned arrow in the pueblo. The balls did more serious damage, and several Indians rolled groaning down the slope. The rest were undaunted. They were more than two to one, and had implicit faith in their chief's assurance that they were bound to rout the Spaniard.

Under cover of the cloud of smoke his weapons had raised despite a strong wind, Mesa executed two flank movements, justifying the tactics of Anastacio: he detached forty men from the main body and directed them to attack the Indians on both sides and to cut off their retreat to the forest. They were almost upon the north and south ends of Anastacio's square--after making a detour and advancing from a distance--when the boys shouted a warning. In a moment arrows were flying to right and left; and the answering volley was far more deadly than the effects of firing up hill. The Indians stood their ground, fitting their arrows with swift dexterity, encouraged by Anastacio, who glided from point to point like a hungry cobra, discharging two arrows to every man's one. His only hope was to keep the Californians at long range until losses compelled the latter to retreat: at close quarters arrows would be no match for firearms.

The battle began at five in the morning. It was at four in the afternoon that Roldan passed his hand across his burning eyeballs, then gripped Adan's arm and said through his teeth,--

"Anastacio is hit. I saw him shake from head to foot."

"Madre de dios! Shall we run?"

"Not yet. My brain is on fire. War is awful, and yet I burn to have a pistol in my hands. I am sorry for Anastacio--but Dios de mi alma!--to see a brave Spanish officer bite the dust with the arrow of a dog in his brain! Ay, he moves! He is not dead."

"His hand is as steady--but--do you notice?--all are not firing."

"The arrows are giving out. There is only one end. But I must see it through. Mary! Mary! They are breaking."

The Indians, finding themselves almost without arrows, had sprung to their feet, intending to make a rush for cover; but Mesa had anticipated this move, and almost immediately his men had closed with the savages, knocking them on the head with the butt-end of their muskets, discharging their pistols at short range. The Indians. used both tooth and nail, yelling like wildcats. The cool imperturbability of the earlier part of the day had fled with their arrows. Anastacio fought like a tiger. Despite his wounded thigh he stood firmly on his feet, snatched the musket from a man his hands had throttled, and whirled it about his head, threatening death to all that approached. His face was swollen with passion, his eyes were starting from their sockets, his long hair tossed wildly. The boys watched him with cold extremities and hot cheeks and eyes. They were oblivious to the rest of the battlefield. The fate of the indomitable chief, upon whose life the freedom of a race perhaps depended, would have riveted the attention of older and wiser brains. His movements were easy to follow; he was head above all and shoulders above many.

Suddenly the boys gave a gasp. The head of Anastacio was no longer to be seen above that surging throng. Had he been wounded in a vital part? A moment later they gave a hoarse gurgling cry and clung together, shaking like children in icy water. The head of Anastacio rose again--above the crowd, then higher,--higher,--until it looked down upon the squirming mass from six feet above. It was on the end of a pole.