Chapter XII
 

When they had satisfied their appetites they made two large packages of dried meat and fruit, tying them securely with straw to their right arms: saddle-bags there were none.

"Not a horse," whispered Adan. "Do you think the soldiers have gone?"

"I think they are lost, and as they did not stop to tie their horses when they started after us, they won't see them again until they get back to camp. Come."

Roldan peered cautiously into each of the huts in turn; all were empty. Then the boys started for the corral, which the soldiers would not have passed either on their way to the pueblo or in pursuit of the runaways. They found the Indians in charge sound asleep in their hut, and did not think it worth while to awaken them. The two mustangs they led forth, vicious brutes at best, were very restless from prolonged inactivity. Roldan's submitted to the saddle, but bolted as soon as he felt a determined pair of legs about his sides; and as our adventurer had neither whip nor spurs, all he could do was to hang on and shout to Adan to follow close. This was the only thing that Adan's mustang was willing to do, and the boys were borne blindly on, down one path, up another, plunging deeper into the black recesses of the forest until they knew no more of their whereabouts than if they had dropped from another sphere.

After many weary miles the mustangs slackened, and the boys dismounted and cut two slender but stinging whips. After that they rose once more to the proud supremacy of man over brute. But the situation was full of peril. They were hopelessly lost, the redwoods were the home of the grizzly and the panther, and they might come upon the soldiers at any moment. But there was nothing to do but to ride on, and at least they had horses and food.

They descended whenever descent was possible, for at the foot of the mountain lay the open valley; but there were no trails; in all likelihood they were where no man, red or white, had ever been before; they had to force their way where the brush was thinnest, and as often their flight was toward loftier heights.

As the day wore on the temperature fell, even in those forest depths where the sun had not penetrated for a thousand years. The beauty of the forest palled upon Roldan: those everlasting aisles with their grey motionless columns, their green sinister light, the delicate fern wood below, the dense mat of branch and leaf so high above. The redwoods oppress and terrify when they have man completely at their mercy. They look as if they could speak if they would, roar louder than the storms that have never shaken them. But they know the value of silence, and the silence of their inmost depths is awful.

After many hours the boys rode out upon a bare peak. But its outlook told them nothing. Behind rose other peaks, below was the dense primeval forest, rising and falling on other slopes. There was no glimpse of valley anywhere. The sky was heavy with the grey lurid clouds of concentrated storm.

"We will eat," said Roldan, briefly; "but not too much."

They tethered the mustangs that the beasts might eat of the abundant grass, and consumed a small quantity of their store. Then they stretched at full length on the ground to rest their weary bodies.

"Let us stay here the night," said Adan, with a cavernous yawn.

"It is hardly darker by night than by day in the forest, but perhaps it is well to rest."

"I am one ache, no more," murmured Adan, and went to sleep.

Roldan pillowed his head on his arm and for once followed lead. He awoke suddenly, his face wet and stinging. White stars were whirling, the ground was white, the forest was half obliterated.

He shook Adan and dragged him to his feet.

"We must get into the redwoods at once," he said. "We shall be buried here."

Adan gasped but cinched his saddle; the boys sprang upon the now tractable mustangs and plunged into the forest below. The brush was thin, and they pushed their way downward as rapidly as the steep descent would permit. Sometimes the forest protected them from the storm, at others the trees grew wide apart and the riders were exposed to its pitiless rush. In these open spaces they could see nothing, could only push blindly on, brushing the stinging particles from their faces, their hands and feet almost numb. The snow in the open was already as high as the horses' knees. There was no wind, only that silent sweeping of the heavens. In the depths the high branches of the redwoods groaned ominously under the stiffening weight, like giants in pain.

The forest thinned. The snow had its will of the earth. There was no refuge under the larger trees that still stood, like outposts, here and there; the branches were too high above. Once Adan suggested through his stiff lips and unruly teeth that they turn back and take refuge in some dense grove above; but Roldan shook his head peremptorily. He had heard of the fearful storms of the Sierras; they lasted for days, and the snow stood its ground for weeks. Their only hope was the valley.

But they descended only to rise again: in the white darkness of the storm they dared not attempt to skirt the base of the peaks; they must keep straight on, to the west, for there lay the valley.

Occasionally, where a grove of trees stood close and the snow lay shallow, the boys got off and wrestled, rousing the blood in their legs and arms; then urged their mustangs to greater speed. But the poor brutes were very weary, and the blood in their veins was almost torpid. Once they stood still and shook, whinnying pitifully. A huge grizzly, so powdered as to be hardly distinguishable from the drifts about him, floundered along to the right. The boys crossed themselves and awaited their fate, with the apathy of numb and despairing brains; but the monster was evidently aiming for the warmth of his home, and took no notice of the meal in four courses standing in the middle of the path.

The night deepened. The snow thickened and sped down with an audible rush, a sting in each beautiful white bee. The boys nodded, roused themselves, fell forward, their arms mechanically stiffening about the horses' necks. Once they flung out their hands and feet with a smothered shriek. A tongue of flame seemed to leap down their throats and hiss through their veins, while the world roared and heaved about them. Then all sensation was over.