Chapter XVI

That day there was to be a grand rodeo, or "round-up:" the branding of cattle; not only of the stock belonging to Don Tiburcio, but of many of his neighbours, which would be driven over to his rancho for the operation. This was one of the great occasions of the year. Immediately after breakfast the neighbours began to arrive, magnificently mounted, sparkling with gold and silver lace, their wives and daughters each surrounded by her cavalcade. About ten the gorgeous company, led by the host, started for an immense corral about three miles from the house. The boys were well to the front, and established themselves on the wall of the corral. The rest of the party remained on their horses, but mounted the little slopes. The green winter landscape had suddenly become a blaze of colour, and never was there a more animated scene. Over all hung a light haze. The distant mountains, which could be seen from the outer valley, were almost invisible. The priest, a huge brown figure, on his big brown horse, stood on the very apex of the highest knoll.

Presently, from various directions rose a low deep murmur, then a rumble of growing volume as of an approaching earthquake. Men and women grasped their bridles with firmer fingers, and pressed still nearer to the crests of the many mounds. Then over the hills on every side came a mass of tossing horns and sleek shining bodies, separated here and there by a shouting vaquero, whose black and silver seemed pierced at every point by those white curving horns. The cattle, several thousand in number, trotted over the hills and toward the corral swiftly, but in good order, held well in check by the careful vaqueros. There was no cheering, for excitement was to be avoided. The cattle would stand any amount of the shouting they were used to, but little from unaccustomed throats.

In the corral, at its farther end, stood, by an oven, a tall muscular Indian, the most famous brander in that part of the country. He was stripped to the waist, and as the first steer was driven through the narrow gate, he plucked a red-hot iron from the coals. The beast, kicking and bellowing, was flung to the ground by a dexterous twist of his tail, two more Indians held him in position, and the branding was accomplished.

Almost before he was up another was prostrate; and they followed each other in such rapid succession that the wonder was some were not branded twice. As fast as each brute received his mark he was driven out of another gate and over the hills, lest his ill-nature should be the cause of wild disorder.

The vaqueros handled their dangerous charges with admirable skill, keeping those to be branded in groups of a hundred or more at some distance from the corral, riding round them constantly with peremptory shouts. Other vaqueros, belonging to the same herd, segregated the animals immediately required and drove them in a straight line for the corral. There was not a moment of pause. The vaqueros, the brander, and his assistants seemed impervious to fatigue; the cattle, shifting uneasily in their bands, leaped eagerly from the lines at the first signal from the vaquero bearing down on them like a fury from the corral. On the far side, otherwise deserted, the sore indignant beasts scampered as fast as their legs could carry them whithersoever their vaquero chose to drive.

After two hours or more, the atmosphere was charged with a certain breathless excitement, as was natural enough. The constant cyclonic rush of vaqueros and cattle, the angry bellowings, the increasing masses of animals, the furious shouts of the men, had changed a peaceable landscape into a vast theatre full of tragic possibilities. The waiting cattle were growing more and more restless, and there was a low rumble among them. Don Tiburcio motioned to his guests that it was time to leave; moreover, it was nearing the dinner hour.

"Rafael!" he called. His son turned his head impatiently, but prepared to obey; the Californian youth was brought up on rigid lines.

"Ay, must we go?" cried Adan. "I could stand here till night, even without dinner, my friends."

"I, too, am sorry," began Roldan. "But what is the matter?"

The great masses of cattle had begun to heave suddenly. They were uttering hoarse growls of terror. The mustangs of the vaqueros stood suddenly still, quivering. Then, abruptly, a horrible stillness fell. All things breathing seemed to petrify. But only for numbered seconds. From beneath came a low roar, gathering in volume like the progression of a tidal wave; then the world heaved and rocked.

"Temblor! temblor!" went up as from one mighty horrified throat. The priest shouted to the boys: "Stay where you are;" to Don Tiburcio and his guests: "With all your speed after me."

They understood his meaning. The cattle were leaping over one another, bellowing madly, giving no heed to the hoarse cries of the terrified vaqueros. In a moment a blaze of colour was flying down the valley, a long brown arm lifted high above it. In twenty seconds five thousand tossing horns and blazing eyes and heaving flanks were in pursuit.

The vaqueros did their best, although their faces were white and their lips shaking. Three that were between the uniting herds, had their legs crushed into their mustangs' sides, and were borne along and aloft, shrieking horribly, adding to the fury of the stampede. Another, trying to head the cattle off, rode into a sudden split in the hard adobe soil and went down beneath those iron feet.

The boys clung together. The wall was broad, but it rocked continuously, whether from other shocks or from the hoof-assaulted earth it would have been impossible to say. A curving outer flank of the flying mass bulged against it, and it quivered horribly with the impact. The boys strained their eyes after the retreating points of colour. Would they escape? Were the frightened mustangs fleeter of foot than those maddened brutes? And if they were--the Casa!

"I think," said Roldan, "that we had better get down on the other side. This wall may go down any minute; and the cattle are all looking in one direction."

"You are right," said Rafael. "This way--Ay de mi!"

There was another heave of the earth, distinct from the steady vibration of stampeding cattle. The adobe wall rocked violently, sprang, twisted, crumbled to the ground, a heap of dust.

For a moment the boys were invisible. Then they emerged, one by one, choking and spitting, rubbing their eyes with their knuckles. When they had recovered some measure of vision they huddled together, staring with affrighted eyes at the moving wall of cattle not twenty yards to their left, hardly able to keep their balance.

Suddenly Roldan pulled his wits together. "Sit down," he said. "We are the colour now of the earth. If we keep quiet and look no taller than weeds they will not see us and we shall not be hurt."

The boys dropped to the ground and sat in silence, staring ahead of them. Would that rushing, heaving, bellowing mass have no end? It was indeed a long time before the last line, curiously compact, swept by. Occasionally the earth jumped with brief abruptness, causing hair to crackle at the roots, and dust-laden as it was, make as if to rise on end. The squirrels were screeching in the trees. The birds pitifully twittered. Even the leaves rustled in response to those terrible quivers.

The cattle were a red streak at the end of the perspective. The boys rose, shook themselves, and walked heavily to their tethered mustangs. The poor beasts were trembling and whinnying; they greeted their young masters with a quavering neigh of relief. The boys mounted; but although they rode rapidly, with ever increasing impatience, they paused every few moments to listen; there was likely to be a return stampede at any moment. More than once they were obliged to swerve suddenly aside from yawning rifts, and they passed a spring of boiling water, spouting and hissing upward, which had not been there in the morning. They were too frightened to talk; not only the paralysing awe of the earthquake was upon them, but the least imaginative saw his home levelled to the ground, his relatives and friends trodden down into the cracking earth. Hills lay between them and the Casa Encarnacion.

There were two exits from the valley where the branding had taken place: one, very narrow, to the right, which led directly to the house, the other straight ahead, almost as broad as the valley itself. The boys saw at a glance that pursued and pursuers had taken the more spacious way, and they followed without consultation.

The crushed grass looked like green blood, but there was no other evidence of slaughter; the mustangs had been fleeter than the cattle. The latter had evidently kept well together, for on either side of a swath some three hundred yards in width, the grass stood high.

They were in a wide valley now; they could see the great mountains, still faint under their vapourous mist, the redwoods as rigid of outline as if the heart of the world beneath had never changed its measure. Just beyond this valley was a wood, then the Mission. Were twenty thousand hoofs trampling among its ruins?

They left the valley, entered the wood, galloped down its narrow path, and emerged. The Mission stood on its plateau above the river, as serene and proud as the redwoods on the mountain. She had held her own against many earthquakes and would against many more. But there was not a horn, a horse, a man, nor a woman to be seen.

The boys dismounted, not daring to think. They walked toward the buildings, then paused to listen. Through the open doors of the church rolled the sonorous tones of Padre Osuna's voice, intoning mass. The boys ran forward to enter the building. They paused on the threshold, held by a sight, the like of which had never been seen in California before, and never shall be again.

Near the entrance of the vast building were a multitude of half-clothed dusky forms, prone. Between them and the altar were more than an hundred horses, caparisoned with silver and carved leather, and gay anquera. They stood as if petrified. On them, huddled to the arching necks, in an attitude of prostrate devotion, were magnificent bunches of colour; scarce an outline could be seen of the proudly attired men and women who had fled before a tidal wave of tossing horns. Father Osuna, in his coarse brown woollen robes, stood before the altar, chanting the mass of thanksgiving. The church blazed with the light of many candles. The air was thick and sweet with incense.