Chapter XI
 

The boys turned and fled, scrambling blindly upwards. Instinctively they ran in the direction of the pueblo, and when they were finally obliged to sit down and fight for their lost breath they realised the course they had taken.

The horror was still in their eyes, but neither spoke of what for a long while to come must be uppermost in his mind.

"I think we may as well go to the pueblo," said Roldan, as soon as he could speak. "We must have food, and we are very tired. We can rest there a few days, then take two of the horses--we can do nothing without horses--and start out again. If any of the Indians escape and come back, they will not have spirit enough left to touch us."

"Bueno," said Adan. "The Mission blankets are there and they are soft, and that oven makes good cakes. I hope the Indians go all with the soldiers. I never want to see another."

The boys resumed their flight, but more leisurely. They had no difficulty in keeping to the trail, but it wound over many a weary mile. Night comes early in the mountain forest, and before two hours had passed they were groping their way along the narrow road cut through the dense brush, and clinging to each other. They were brave lads; but long fasting, and excitement, and a terrible climax to the most trying day of their lives, had flung gunpowder among their nerves.

It was midnight when they reached the pueblo. The stars illumined fitfully the deserted huts, black in the heavy shadows. A coyote was yapping dismally, owls hooted in the forest. Both boys had a vision of deep beds and hot suppers on the ranchos of their respective parents, but they shut their teeth and raided the larder. There they found well- cured meats and dried fruits, which appeased their mighty appetites; then they went into Anastacio's hut, and wrapping themselves in the Mission blankets were soon asleep.

It was Adan who awoke Roldan violently in the morning.

"The soldiers!" he whispered hoarsely.

Roldan, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, peered through a rift between the wall of the hut and the shrunken hide which formed the door. A half dozen soldiers stood in the plaza, glancing speculatively about.

"I see no trace of them," said one. "I cannot believe they would come back to this place. Surely it was, as I said, more natural for them to hide at the edge of the forest until we had gone."

"That dog said there was food here, and that they were more afraid of us than of a long walk at night. Wherever they are, we find them. They are a prize second only to the head of Anastacio. Search the huts."

Roldan sprang to his feet, pulling Adan with him. "Come," he said; "follow me, and run as if you were as lean as a coyote. Remember they won't shoot."

He flung aside the hide door. The two boys flashed out and round the corner of the hut before the tired eyes and brains of the soldiers had time to grasp the happening. A moment later they were in hot pursuit, firing in the air, shouting terrific threats. But the rested and agile legs of the boys had a good start, and plunged into narrow ways where horses could not follow; and doubling, twisting, following paths but recently beaten by Anastacio in pursuit of deer, Roldan and Adan were soon far beyond the reach or ken of the men of war. It was an hour, however, before they thought it wise to arrest their flight and pause to recuperate in a redwood tree hollowed by fire. Two weeks of exposure and unwonted exertions had hardened Adan's superfluous flesh, and he was scarcely more spent than his clean-limbed friend, although every step had been taken with protest.

"Caramba!" he said, in a hoarse whisper at length. "When I am back on the rancho I won't walk for a year."

"You will have the habit by that time, my friend, and will walk in your sleep. When I am governor you will be generalissimo of all the forces and will keep your army as lively as an ant-hill."

"That is too long ahead, and we have not enough wind to argue about it. What are we going to do now? How shall we get horses to leave this forest? Where shall we sleep to-night? What shall we have for dinner? I could eat a whole side of venison."

"Well, you won't, my friend. Let me think."

After a time he said: "We must stay here until night. Then we will go back to the pueblo if we can find the way. As for food, we can have none to-day. There are no berries at this time of year, and we have nothing to shoot game with. Other people have gone the day without food, and we can. When we get back to the pueblo, even if we cannot reach the larder, we can find the corral without being seen. I don't believe that the soldiers have found it, and the Indians in charge of the mustangs will let us have two when they know what has happened. Now, do not let us talk. It will make us more hungry."

Adan groaned, but accepted the decree of silence. The day wore on to noon, and in the unbroken stillness the boys ventured out of the grimy tree and lay at full length on the turf. The great redwoods towered in endless corridors, their straight columns unbroken by branch or twig for a hundred and fifty feet. Through the green close arbours above came an occasional rift of sunshine, but the aisles were full of cold green light. The boys shivered in their coyote skin coats and drew close together; they dared not run about to keep warm; they must husband their strength, and hunger was biting. There was no wind in the tree-tops, no murmur of creek, only the low hum of the forest, that in their strained ear-sense grew to a roar. Finally they fell asleep, and it was dark when Roldan awoke. He shook Adan.

"Come," he said; and his partner, grumbling but acquiescent, got to his feet and tramped heavily over the soft ground.

They had fled beyond paths, and Roldan could only trust to his locality sense, which he knew to be good. But more than once they were brought to halt before a wall of brush, which no man could have penetrated without an axe. Then they would feel their way along its irregular bristling side for a mile or more before it thinned sufficiently for egress. Frequently they heard the deadly rattle, and more than once the near cry of a panther, but there was nothing to do but push on. Precautions would have availed them nothing, and there was no refuge nearer than the pueblo. Sometimes they walked down aisles unchoked by brush but full of moving shadows, above which sounded the lonely continuous hooting of the owl. Now and again bats whirred past, and once a startled wildcat scurried across the path and darted up a tree, crying with terror.

"If we only don't meet a bear," thought Roldan, who dared not speak lest his voice should shake courage and terrors apart.

It was midnight when Adan announced with what emphasis was left in him,--

"We are lost."

Roldan answered through his teeth: "Yes, but I think I hear the creek. When we find that, all we have to do is to follow it south."

"My heart is in the South," muttered Adan. "We might follow that."

"I am ashamed of you," said Roldan, with a lofty scorn which was good for five words and no more.

It was a half hour later that they stood upon the high bank of the creek and looked gratefully up at the broad strip of night light. After the dense shadows of the forest the cold light of stars seemed more radiant than noon-day.

"We cannot follow along the bank for more than a little way at a time, on account of the ferns and brush," said Roldan. "We should walk three times the distance, and perhaps get lost again. I am going to wade. Will you?"

"Madre de dios! And get rheumatism? My teeth clack together at the thought."

"You will not be able to keep still long enough to get rheumatism, my friend. By the grace of Mary we shall be on horseback all day to-morrow. The water is not a foot deep, and the chill only lasts a moment. Take off your boots."

"What is left of them," muttered Adan. But they were better than no boots, and he took them off, and slung them round his neck. Roldan scrambled down the bank and plunged into the creek. Adan, after a moment's hesitation, followed with audible reluctance. He thrust the tip of one foot into the icy water, withdrew it with a shout, tried the other; then seeing that Roldan was splashing far ahead, jumped in with both feet and ran along the slippery rocks, wondering when the change of temperature would occur. His teeth clattered loudly. He pulled in and executed a war-dance on the stones, then sat down on a fallen boulder and rubbed his feet violently. Roldan kept steadily on, mindful of his dignity as leader; but only as Adan joined him had his teeth ceased from clattering and the warmth crawled back to his feet.

Cold, hungry, inexpressibly weary, the boys plodded on, sometimes in the clear light of stars, sometimes under the chill blackness of meeting trees. Fish and other slimy things darted across their feet; they stepped to their waists into more than one treacherous pool. The dark blue of the sky had turned to grey when Roldan raised his arm and pointed to a squat dark object on the summit of the cliff.

"A hut," he said. "We are at the pueblo."

The boys crawled softly up the almost perpendicular bank and peered over the edge. To all appearances the pueblo was deserted. If the soldiers were there--and their horses were not--they slept within the huts. The animal instinct, so bravely repressed, overcame the adventurers. They ran across the open to the hut where the food was kept, and ate for fifteen minutes without speaking or taking the trouble to hide themselves.