Chapter XV
 

The race took place in a field a mile from the house, on a straight track. Four vaqueros in black velvet small-clothes trimmed with silver, spotless linen, and stiff glazed black sombreros, walked up and down, leading the impatient mustangs. Two of these horses were a beautiful bronze-gold in colour, with silver manes and tails, a breed peculiar to the Californias; one was black, the other as white as crystal. The family and guests of Casa Carillo sat on their horses, in their carretas, or stood just outside the fence surrounding the field. At one end were the several hundred Indians employed by Don Tiburcio, and several hundred more from the Mission. Father Osuna had also joined the party from the Casa, and Roldan, who had seen hundreds of horse-races and was built on a more complex plan than his contemporaries, got as close to the priest as he dared and gave him his undivided attention. Padre Osuna was a man of unusual height and heaviness of build. His black eyes were set close to his fine Roman nose. The mouth was so tightly compressed that its original curves were quite destroyed, and the intellectual development of the brow was very marked. His hands exerted a peculiar fascination over Roldan. They were of huge size, even for so big a man, lean and knotted, with square-tipped fingers. The skin on them was fine and brown; it looked as soft as a woman's. He used them a good deal when talking, and not ungracefully; but they seemed to claw and grasp the air, to be independent of the arms hidden in the voluminous sleeves of the smart brown cassock. Other people watched those hands too--they seemed to possess a magnetism of their own; and every one showed this priest great deference: he was one of the most successful disciplinarians in the Department of California, a brilliant speaker, an able adviser in matters of state, and a man of many social graces.

"More agreeable to meet in the sala of the Mission than in a cave at midnight," thought Roldan. "Still--" His scent for danger, particularly if it involved a matching of wits, was very keen.

The word was given. The race began. The dons shouted, the lovely faces between the bright folds of the rebosos flushed expectantly. From the black mass of Indians opposite came a mighty gurgle, which gradually broke into a roar,--

"The black! Fifty hides on the black!"

"The little bronze! She is a length ahead! Madre de dios! Six doubloons of Mexico on the little bronze!"

The priest pushed his way to the speaker, a wealthy ranchero who had been more than once to Mexico.

"The white against the bronze, senor," he said. "Twenty otter skins to the six doubloons of Mexico."

"Done, your reverence. I am honoured that you bet with me. But the white--have you thought well, my father?"

"She breathes well, and her legs are very clean."

"True, my father, but look at the muscles of the little bronze. How they swell! And the fire in the nostrils!"

"True, Don Jaime; and if she wins, the skins are yours."

As the horses darted down the track almost neck to neck, the excitement routed Spanish dignity. The dons stood up in their saddles, shouting and betting furiously. The women clapped their white idle hands, and cheered, and bet--but with less recklessness: a small jewel or a second- best mantilla. As they could not remember what they had bet when the excitement was over, these debts were never paid; but it pleased them mightily to make their little wagers. The men were betting ranchitas, horses, cattle, and, finally, their jewels and saddles and serapes. For each horse represented a different district of the Department, and there was much rivalry.

The priest did not shout, and he made no more bets, but his eyes never left those figures speeding like arrows from the bow, the riders motionless as if but the effigies of men strapped to the creatures of fire beneath. Sometimes the black gained then the little bronze; once the white dashed a full three yards beyond his fellows, and Roldan saw the great hands of the priest, which had been clinched against his shoulders, open spasmodically, then close harder than ever as the white quickly dropped back again.

It was a very close race. The excitement grew tense and painful. Even Roldan felt it finally, and forgot the priest. The big bronze had quite dropped out of it and was lagging homeward, hardly greeted by a hiss. The others were almost neck and neck, the little bronze slightly in the lead. "She wins," thought Roldan, "No! No! The black! the black! Ay, no, the bronze! but no! no! Ay! Ay! Ay!" A roar went up that ended in a shriek. The black had won.

Roldan looked at the priest. His skin was livid, his nostrils twitching. But his mouth and eyes told nothing.

The crowd rode home, still excited, gay, cheerful. Their losses mattered not. Were not their acres numbered by the hundred thousand? Did they not have more horses and cattle than they would ever count? In those days of pleasure and plenty, of luxury and unconsidered generosity, a rancho, a caponara the less, meant a loss neither to be felt nor remembered.

After the bountiful supper the guests loitered for a time in the courtyard, then the sala was cleared and the dance began. Several of the girls danced alone, while the caballeros clapped and shouted. Then all waltzed or took part in their only square dance, the contradanza. They kept it up until morning. Needless to say, our heroes went to bed at an early hour.

They were up the next morning with the dawn, and in company with Rafael and the other guests of their own age, went for their canter. This time they avoided the hills behind the Mission, as they had no wish to share their secret, and a chance word might divulge all. They rode toward the hills at the head of the valley. Roldan was still the hero of the hour, and Rafael, although the most generous of boys, resented it a little. He was not without ambitions of his own, and determined to seize the first opportunity to remind his companions that the son of Don Tiburcio Carillo, the greatest ranchero of that section of the Californias, had not the habit to occupy the humble position of tag-behind even to so brilliant and adventurous a guest as Roldan Castanada.

He soon found his opportunity.

As they reached the first hill they saw a bull feeding on its summit. "Aha!" cried the young don of the Rancho Encarnacion. "Now I will make for you a little morning entertainment, my friends. Coliar! coliar!"

"No! no!" cried the boys. "The hill is too steep. It is like the side of a house. You will break your neck, my friend."

Roldan said: "It is dangerous, but it could be done."

"I can do it," said Rafael, proudly, "and I shall."

The other boys, good sportsmen as they all were, shouted, "No! no!" again; but Rafael laughed gaily, and forced his horse up the almost perpendicular declivity, leisurely unwinding his lariat from the high pommel of his saddle, and tossing it into big snake-like loops, which he gathered one by one into his hand, the last about his thumb. The bull fed on unsuspecting. for the early green of winter was very delicious after eight months of unrelenting sunshine. When Rafael reached the summit he rode back for some distance, then came at the bull full charge, yelling like a demon. The bull, terrified and indignant, gave a mighty snort and leaped over the brow of the hill. It was much like descending the slightly inclined side of a cliff, but he kept his footing. The boys held their breath as Rafael rode straight over the brow in the wake of the bull. With one hand he held the bridle in a tight grip, in the other he held aloft the coils of the lariat. It looked like a huge snake, and quivered as if aware that it was about to spring. There was no cheering; the boys were too much alarmed. A mis- step and there would be a hideous heap at the foot of the hill.

The little mustang appeared scarcely to touch the uneven surface of the descent. He looked as if galloping in air, and tossed his head fiercely as though to shake the rising sun out of his eyes. The bull seemed continually gathering himself for a great leap, his clumsy bulk heaving from side to side. But a quarter of the distance had been traversed when the great curves of the lasso sprang forward, and, amidst a hoarse murmur from the boys, caught the bull below the horns. But that was all. The bull would not down! There would be no coliar! He merely ran on--the brute! the beast!--jerking his horns defiantly, putting down his head, nearly dragging Rafael from the saddle. But no! but no! Rafael has risen in his saddle, he has forced his mustang the harder, he is almost level with the bull--he has passed! He gives a great jerk, dragging the bull to his knees, then another, and the bull is on his side and rolling over and over down the hill, Rafael following fast, slackening his lariat. The boys now cheer wildly, although danger is not over--yes, in another moment it is, and Rafael, smiling complacently, is at the foot of the hill, disengaging the humbled bull.

"Bravo!" said a voice from behind the horses. All turned with a start. It was the priest. "Coliar was never better done," he added graciously; and Rafael felt that the day was his.

The priest had ridden up unnoted in the tense excitement of the last few moments. He sat a big powerful horse, and his bearing was as military as that of the two great generals of the Californias, Castro and Vallejo.

As the boys, congratulations and modest acknowledgement over, were making for home and breakfast, the priest pressed his horse close to Roldan's. "I interested you much at the race yesterday, Don Roldan," he said, with a good-humoured smile. "Why was that?"

Roldan was not often embarrassed, but he was so taken aback at the abrupt sally he forgot to be flattered that the priest had evidently thought it worth while to inquire his name; and stammered: "I--well, you see, my father, you are not like other priests." Which was not undiplomatic.

The priest smiled, this time with a faint flush of unmistakable pleasure. "You are right, my son, I am not as other priests in this wilderness. Would to Heaven I were, or--"

"Or that you were in Spain?" Roldan could not resist saying, then caught his breath at his temerity.

The priest turned about and faced him squarely. "Yes," he said deliberately, "and that I were a cardinal of Rome. Such words I have never uttered to mortal before; but if I am not as other men, neither are you as other lads. Some day you will be a Castro or an Alvarado; it is written in your face. Perhaps something more, for changes may come and your opportunities be greater. But I--I am no longer young; there is no hope in California for me."

"Why do you not return to Spain?"

"I have written. They will not answer. In my youth I was wild. They forced me to come here. I had no money. I was obliged to obey. I have christianized a few hundred worthless savages who were better off in their barbarism, and I have made myself a power among a few thousand men of whom the outer world, the great world, knows nothing. My Mission is the most prosperous in the Californias--and I--" he set and ground his teeth.

Roldan thought of the gold. "When I am governor of the Californias, my father," he said, "I shall send you back to Spain, for then I shall have great influence--and much gold."

At the last word the priest's eyes flamed with so fierce a light that Roldan shrank back repelled, feeling himself in the presence of a passion of which he had no knowledge. But the priest controlled himself at once. "Thank you, my son," he said with a brilliant smile. "And I do not ask you to guard as your own what I have said. It is a part of the power of such natures as yours that you know what to repeat and what to leave unsaid." Then as they approached the house he suddenly took Roldan's slender elegant hand in one of his mighty paws, shook it heartily, and flinging his bridle to a vaquero, sprang lightly to the ground and entered the courtyard, leaving our hero in a condition of flattered bewilderment.