Chapter XVIII
 

At last the night arrived for the gold quest. The guests had gone. Roldan, Adan, and Rafael were alone on their side of the great house. They waited, kicking their heels together with leashed impatience, until eleven o'clock. The family and servants of Casa Encarnacion went to bed at ten o'clock, but it was the custom of Don Tiburcio to go the rounds a half or three quarters of an hour later and see that his strict laws were as strictly obeyed. To-night, when he opened the doors of the three young dons in succession, heels were still, and breathing was as monotonous as his own would be an hour later. At eleven the boys dressed and swung from their windows, not daring to leave by the courtyard. Nor did they dare go to the corral and abstract three horses. Much to their distaste, for there was nothing the Californian hated so much as to travel on two legs, they were obliged to walk the miles between the Casa and the hills. But their legs were young and their brains eager; in little over an hour they were in sight of the Mission.

It looked very white and ghostly in the pale blaze of the moon, a huge mass, full of prayer and discontent. Close beside it, but without the walls, the Indians slept in the rancheria, quiescent enough, for they had no Anastacio. At midnight the great bells in the tower had rung out, filling the valley with their sweet silver clamour; but as the boys approached and skirted the wall, some distance to the right, the Mission might have been as lifeless as it is this year, in its desertion and decay.

The hills were a mile behind. The Mission, like all of its kind, stood on a broad open, that no hostile tribe might approach unseen. Cows and horses lay in their first heavy sleep, their breathing hardly ruffling the profound stillness. So great an air of repose did the silent walls and sleeping beasts give to the landscape that the boys felt the quiet of the night as they had not done in the other valley, and drew closer together, almost holding their breath lest the priests might hear it. A quarter of an hour later they were among the hills and standing before the aperture whose secrets were known only to Padre Osuna. They glanced at each other out of the corners of their eyes. Brave as they were, they did not altogether like the idea of a possible encounter with a rattlesnake or a bear in the dark and narrow confines of a cave. And if there should be another earthquake! However, they had not come to turn back, and Roldan pushed boldly in, the others following close.

For a time their way lay along a narrow passage. They had made two abrupt turns before they dared to light the lantern they had brought. When Rafael did, it revealed nothing but earthy walls and the imprint of feet on the ground. After a little, however, the passage suddenly widened, and it was Adan who uttered the first exclamation of surprise. It was, indeed, a hoarse gurgle. The walls were veined with what appeared to be irregular bands of dirty crystal, pricked with glittering yellow. There were, perhaps, a thousand of these little points bared from the jealous earth, and they shone with a steady baleful glare, magnetising six youthful eyes, stirring in three careless brains the ghosts of ancient gold-lust, whose concrete substance lay in the marble vaults of Spain. Immediately Roldan's sympathy went out to the priest; and he knew that that commanding intelligence could teach him one thing the less.

There was a rough pick on the ground, and many junks of quartz. Roldan struck and rubbed two pieces together. In a moment his palm was filled with jagged pieces of yellow metal. He blew on them lovingly, then put them in his pocket.

"Dios de mi alma!" gasped Rafael, whose eyes were bulging from his head. "It is as beautiful as the stars of the sky,--the stars in the milky way with the film over them."

"But we need no more stars," said Adan. "We shall take away our pockets full, but what shall we do with it? Surely this was not made to rot with the earth. But it is too small for what you call money, if that is so big as you say, Roldan. It would make fine nails for a church door."

"Now is not the time to think what you will do with it," said Roldan. "It is enough that we have it to get. Much is very loose in the crystal. Rub free all that you can, and fill every pocket. We will take all we can carry away, and come again and again. Some day, when we are men, perhaps, we will find a use for it. I for one do not believe that anything that makes you love it can do harm. Does not the Church teach us to love all things? Now let us work and not talk."

The boys in turn hacked out great pieces of quartz and rubbed the free gold loose. Much of it could only be crushed out in machinery made for the purpose, but a sufficient quantity of the quartz was poor and soft. As the boys worked, they grew more and more silent, more and more absorbed. They forgot their delight in rodeo, coliar, bear-hunts, bull- fights, riding about the ranches from morning till noon, the race, the religious processions, the dulces of their mothers' cooks. A new and mighty passion possessed them, the strongest they had ever known. Their lips were pressed hard together--those soft Spanish lips that were usually half apart--their eyes glowed with a steady fire. Their chests rose and fell in short regular spasms.

Suddenly a thrill ran through Roldan. He had felt it before when a rattlesnake, ready to strike, had fixed its green malignant eyes upon him. He flashed the lantern about swiftly, twisting his neck with deep anxiety. It would be no minor adventure to encounter a coiled rattler in this narrow place. Then he saw something white shining out of the darkness high above the rays, a large white disk, in which glittered two points of light inexpressibly infuriate.

Roldan sprang to his feet with a warning cry. The other boys, greed routed by the danger sense, were on their feet as quickly. As the three lads, none very tall for his age, faced the gigantic bulk of the priest, they looked cornered and helpless.

The priest, unconsciously beyond doubt, lifted his huge hands, opening and shutting them slowly. The movement had an ugly significance, and the hands, in the miserable glimmer of light, looked like great bats, and seemed to pervade the cavern. Involuntarily the boys squirmed. Then Roldan, mindful always of his proud position as captain of his small band, stepped in front of that band and spoke with a vocal control that did him much credit, considering that his heart seemed to be kicking in the middle of his stomach.

"These hills are just beyond the Mission grant, Padre Osuna," he said. "Nor are they on any rancho. Therefore what is in them is as much ours as any man's. This is the first time that we have been here, but it will not be the last; and when I am the governor of all the Californias, I shall send many Indians to dig the very heart out of these hills. So pick out all that you can now, Padre Osuna, for ten years hence--"

As he spoke fear gave place to exultation in finding himself pitted against a man whom he intuitively respected more than any he had ever met, and whom he knew most men feared and none understood. Moreover, he heard two sets of teeth clattering behind him, and that alone would have sent the blood of a born leader of men back to its skin.

But his speech did not proceed to the finish. The priest swooped down and caught the three necks between his hands, easily spanning them, pressing the heads hard together. Then he lifted the boys high in the air and held them there, a kicking, humiliated trio. The blanched olive of his face was reflected in the pallid brows at the extremity of his rigid arms. His voice, which had been lost in passion, found itself.

"And when your Indians come, Senor Don Roldan," he said, "they will find three skeletons six feet beneath the floor of this cave. You will never leave this cave, not one of you. When you are dead for want of food and drink, I shall return and bury you. And no one will seek you here." Suddenly he dashed them to the ground. "A thousand curses go with you," he shrieked, "to make a murderer of me. I was near enough to hell before--"

"And our fingers will scratch the ground beneath your feet," interrupted Roldan, who between mortification and rage felt equal himself to murder, but determined as ever to hold his own. "Our skulls will grin at you from every corner as you work--"

"I don't care!" shouted the priest. "I don't care! Here you rot. This gold is mine. No man shall touch it but myself."

"But if we promise never to return, and to tell no man of what we know," interposed Rafael, feebly.

The priest laughed. "With the glitter of gold in your brains? You could not keep an oath on the cross." He turned swiftly and strode down the passage.

"What will he do?" gasped Adan.

"Roll a stone over the entrance and secure it with others," said Roldan. "There are plenty nigh. If we follow, he will beat us back with those fists, and one blow would crack our skulls in two."

"Then what shall we do? Rot here? Starve to death? Madre de dios!"

"We have been between the teeth of death before, have we not? We shall have many more adventures, my friends."

But although he spoke confidently he was profoundly disturbed. This was no ordinary predicament. He knew that unless the priest relented they stood small chance of seeing sun and stars again. Would he relent? Roldan's own indomitable will and growing ambitions responded to the awful forces in the man, overgrown and abnormal as they had become. That the priest had some great end in view to which this gold was the means, and that the gold itself had roused in him a controlling passion, he could not doubt. The priest himself had told him something, the gold the rest. With a sudden impulse of hatred Roldan emptied his pockets of the metal and stamped upon it. He quieted suddenly, then stamped again, with added vigour. Then he dropped and laid his ear to the ground.

"Stamp, Adan," he said, "and hard."

Adan shook his blood through his veins, and obeyed. Roldan sprang to his feet. "We are above the tunnel of the Mission," he said. "And we have a pickaxe. All we have to do is to dig."