Chapter XIX
 

It was three hours later that a mass of loosened earth caved suddenly, carrying Adan with it. A wild yell came back. It stopped abruptly, the tag end of it shot forth like the quick last blast from a trumpet.

"Hi, Adan!" called Roldan, excitedly, peering down into the dark. "Are you hurt?"

"I know not! I know not! It is darker than a dungeon of a Mission." The voice was quite distinct. It came from no great depth.

"Get out of the way," called Roldan. "I am coming." He waited a moment, then dropped, falling on a mass of soft earth. Adan had prudently retreated a few steps. He ran forward and helped Roldan to his feet, just as Rafael came flying down.

"Now for the other end," said Roldan. "This air is not too good. And that devil may return any moment."

They ran down the tunnel. It was wide and high, built for flying priests, should the Mission be besieged and captured by savage tribes. The air was close and heavy, but free from noxious gases. Bats whirred past and rats scampered before them. Roldan paused after a moment and lit his lantern. Its thin ray leaped but a few feet ahead, but would frighten away any wild beast of the forest that might have wandered in.

The tunnel was straight. It also appeared to be endless.

"We have walked twenty leagues," groaned Adan, at the end of an hour.

"Two," said Roldan. "Without doubt this tunnel ends at the mountains, and they are four leagues from the Mission. But you have taken longer walks than this, my friend. Do you remember that night in the mountains?"

"I had forgotten it for one blessed week. Rafael, to what have we brought you? Your poor muscles are soft, where ours are now as hard as a deserter's from an American barque--ay, yi!"

"If they have but the chance to become soft once more after they too are hard!" muttered Rafael, who was panting and lagging. "That priest! that priest!"

"It is true," said Roldan, pausing abruptly. "You will not dare to return home at present--nor we. It is flight once more--to Los Angeles. We will stay there--where he would not dare touch us if he came--until he repents or makes sure that we will have told if we intend to tell. Will you come?"

"Will I? I would go to Mexico if I could. I feel that there is not room in the Californias for those hands and myself."

"I will take care of you," said Roldan, proudly, anxious to rout the memory of his recent humiliation. "But come." And Rafael, too weary and bewildered to resent the authority of his erst-while rival, trudged obediently in the rear.

"It grows colder," said Adan, significantly.

"Yes," said Roldan. "We near the mountains."

Adan stopped. "Is it the mountains again?" he asked. "If it is, then I, for one, prefer the priest."

"The mountains never scared you half as badly as the priest did," said Roldan, cruelly. "And to say nothing of the fact that we need never get lost in the mountains again, the embrace of a grizzly would be no harder and more death-sure than one in the great arms of that fiend that wears a cassock."

"True. You are always right. But promise that whatever happens you will not lead us into the Sierras."

"I promise," said Roldan, much flattered by this unconscious tribute to his leadership.

"Do you think that priest is really a devil?" asked Rafael, in an awestruck voice.

"When a man has insulted you, you do not know what you think of him," said Roldan, flushing hotly. "If he only were not a priest I'd fight him, big as he is. But at least I can outwit him. It consoles me to think of his fury when he goes to the cave and finds us gone."

"We'd better get out of this tunnel before we talk about having the best of the priest," said Adan. "Suppose he returns to kill us himself--"

"He will not return until to-morrow. Then he will have repented. He will promise to let us go free if we keep his secret. But he will not have that satisfaction, my friends. Yesterday he had a friend in Roldan Castanada; I would have done anything for him, gladly kept his secret. But to-day he has an enemy that he will do well to fear. A Spaniard never forgets an insult."

"What shall you do?" asked Rafael, eagerly. "Expose him?"

"No, I do nothing mean. But I proclaim at Los Angeles that gold has been discovered in the Californias, and in six days the hills will swarm, and the priest in his cell will gnash his teeth."

"Ay!" exclaimed Adan. "Do you feel that?"

An icy blast swept down the tunnel, roughening skin and shortening breath. A few moments later the low rhythm as of distant water came to their ears. Roldan and Adan recognised that familiar music, and set their teeth.

"And I prayed that I might never see another redwood," muttered Adan, crossing himself.

The tunnel stopped abruptly. They stood before a mass of brushwood, piled thickly to keep out wild beasts and delude the searching eye of hostile Indians. Beyond, seen in patches, was a dazzle of white.

"Snow, of course," said Adan, with a groan.

The boys pulled the branches apart without much difficulty: the priests had studied facility of egress and had raised the barrier from within. In a few moments the boys stood in the sunlight; and the mountains hemmed them in.

Adan stamped his foot savagely on the hard snow. "We are where we started a week ago," he said. "No more, no less."

"No," said Roldan, who also had felt demoralised for a moment. "The priests were too clever for that. They would want to get into the shelter of the mountains, no more. I believe that from the top of that point above the tunnel we can see the valley."

"Well, we can at least look," said Rafael, who was bitterly weary and hungry, but determined not to be outdone by these hardened adventurers.

The boys made their way up the declivity as best they could through the heavy snowdrifts, pulling themselves up by clutching at young trees and scrub. They were thinly clad and very cold, and hunger was loud of speech. When after a half-hour's weary climb, they reached the summit, they drew a long sigh of relief, but their enthusiasm was too moderate for words in present physical conditions. The valley lay below. Far away, beyond leagues of low hills and wide valleys something white reflected the sun. It was the Mission.

"We have not a moment to rest, unless we can find a safe hiding-place," said Roldan. "If he should return and find us gone, he would follow at once."

"Where shall we go?" asked the others, who, however, felt a quickening of blood and muscle at the thought that the priest might be under their feet even then.

"How near is the next rancho, and whose is it?"

"A league beyond the Mission grant. It is Don Juan Ortega's."

"Very well, we go there and ask for horses."

The boys made their way rapidly down the slope, which after all was only that of a foot-hill. Beyond were other foot-hills, and they skirted among them, finally entering a canon. It was as dark and cold and damp as the last hour of the tunnel had been, but the narrow river, roaring through its middle, had caught all the snow, and there was scarce a fleck on the narrow tilted banks. The hill opposite was the last of the foot-hills; but how to reach it? The current was very swift, and boys knew naught of the art of swimming in that land of little water.

Suddenly Roldan raised his hand with an exclamation of surprise and pointed to a ledge overhanging the stream. A hut stood there, made of sections of the redwood and pine. From its chimney, smoke was curling upward.

The boys were too hungry to pause and reflect upon the possibility of a savage inmate; they scrambled up the bank and ran along the ledge to the hut. The door was of hide. They knocked. There was no response. They flung the door aside and entered. No one was in the solitary room of the hut, but over a fire in the deep chimney place hung a large pot, in which something of agreeable savour bubbled.

Roldan glanced about. "I'd rather be invited," he said doubtfully.

But Adan had gone straight for the pot. He lifted it off the fire, fetched three broken plates and battered knives and forks from a shelf, and helped his friends and himself. Then he piously crossed himself and fell to. It was not in human necessities to withstand the fragrance of that steaming mess of squirrel, and the boys had disposed of the entire potful before they raised their eyes again. When they did, Rafael, who sat opposite the door, made a slight exclamation, and the others turned about quickly. A man stood there.

He was quite unlike any one they had ever seen. A tall lank man with rounded shoulders, lean leather-like cheeks, a preternatural length of jaw, drab hair and chin whiskers, and deeply-set china-blue eyes, made up a type uncommon in the Californias, that land of priest, soldier, caballero, and Indian. He was clad in coyote skins, and carried a gun in his hand, a brace of rabbits slung over one shoulder. He did not speak for some seconds, and when he did, it was to make a remark that was not understood. He said: "Well, I'll be durned!"

His expression was not forbidding, and Roldan recovered himself at once. He stood up and bowed profoundly.

"Senor," he said, "I beg that you will pardon us. We would have craved your hospitality had you been here, but as it was, our hunger overcame us: we have not eaten for many hours. But I am Roldan Castanada of the Rancho de los Palos Verdes, senor, and I beg that you will one day let me repay your hospitality in the house of my fathers."

"Holy smoke!" exclaimed the man, "all that high-falutin' lingo for a potful of squirril. But you're welcome enough. I don't begrudge anybody sup." Then he broke into a laugh at the puzzled faces of his guests, and translated his reply into very lame Spanish. The boys, however, were delighted to be so hospitably received, and grinned at him, warm, replete, and sheltered.

The man began at once to skin a rabbit. "Seein' as how you haint left me nothin', I may as well turn to," he said. "And it ain't every day I'm entertainin' lords."

The boys did not understand the words, but they understood the act, and reddened.

"I myself will cook the rabbit for you, senor," said Adan.

"Well, you kin," and the man nodded acquiescence.

"You are American, no?" asked Roldan.

"I am, you bet."

"From Boston, I suppose?"

The man guffawed. "Boston ought to hear that. She'd faint. No, young 'un, I'm not from no such high-toned place as Boston. I'm a Yank though, and no mistake. Vermont."

"Is that in America?"

"In Meriky? Something's wrong with your geography, young man. It's one of the U. S. and no slouch, neither."

He spoke in a curious mixture of English and of Spanish that he adapted as freely as he did his native tongue. The boys stared at him, fascinated. They thought him the most picturesque person they had ever met.

"When did you come?" asked Roldan.

"I'll answer any more questions you've got when I've got this yere rabbit inside of me. P'r'aps as you've been hungry you know that it doesn't make the tongue ambitious that way. I'll have a pipe while it's cookin'."

He was shortly invisible under a rolling grey cloud. The tobacco was the rank stuff used by the Indians. The boys wanted to cough, but would have choked rather than be impolite, and finally stole out with a muttered remark about the scenery.

When they returned their host had eaten his breakfast and smoked his second pipe.

"Come in," he said heartily. "Come right in and make yourselves ter home. My name's Jim Hill. I won't ask yourn as I wouldn't remember them if I did. These long-winded Spanish names are beyond me. Set. Set. Boxes ain't none too comfortable, but it's the best I've got."

"Oh, this box is most comfortable," Roldan hastened to assure him. "And we are very thankful to have anything to sit on at all, senor. You could not guess the many terrible adventures we have had in the last few weeks."

"Indeed! Adventures? I want ter know! You look as if hammocks was more to your taste. Oh, no offence," as Roldan's eyes flashed. "But you are fine looking birds, and no mistake. Howsomever, we'll hear all about them presently. It's polite to answer questions first. You was asking me a while back how I come here. I come over those mountains, young man, and I don't put in the adjectives I applied to them in the process outer respect to your youth. But they'd make a man swear if he'd spent his life psalm singin' before."

"We know," said Roldan, grimly. "We've been in them. What did you eat? And did you get lost?"

"I ate red ants mor' 'n once, and I usually was lost. When I arrived at that Mission down yonder the amount of flesh I had between my bones and my skin wouldn't have filled a thimble. But that priest--he's a great man if ever there was one--soon fixed me up. I lived like a prince for a month, and I could be there yet if I liked, but I'd kinder got used to livin' alone and I liked it, so I come here. Besides, I found so much prayin' and bell ringin' wearin' on the nerves, to say nothin' of too many Indians. I ain't got no earthly use for Indians. Why priests or anybody else run after Indians beats me. Where I was brought up 't was the other way. They're after us with a scalpin' knife, and if we're after them at all it's with all the lead we kin git. If the murderin' dirty beasts is willin' to stay where they belong, well, I for one believe in lettin' 'em."

"Do you--ah--like the priest, Don Jim?"

"What? Well, that's better than 'Don Himy,' as they call me down there. You bet I like the priest. He's a gentleman, and as square as they make 'em, that is, with a poor devil like me; I guess he's one too much for your dons when he feels that way. But he's a man every inch of him, afraid of nothin' under God's heaven, and as kind and generous as a--as some women. What he rots in this God-forsaken place for I can't make out."

"What did you come to California for?"

"Well, that ain't bad. I come here, my son, because I was lookin' for a cold climate. My own was warm, accordin' to my taste, and somehow Californy seemed as if it ought to be fur enough away to be cool and nice."

"It's very hot in the valleys."

"So it is. So it is. But as you see, I prefer the mountains."

"Do you often go to the Mission?"

"Every month or so I go down and have a chin with Padre Osuna. It keeps my Spanish in, and I shouldn't like to lose sight of him. I got word from him the other day that he wanted to see me mighty particular, and I'm wonderin' what's in the wind. Maybe you heard him say."

"No," said Roldan; but he guessed.

"Now," said Hill, "spin your yarn. I'm just pinin' to hear those adventures."

Roldan appreciated the sarcasm, but was too secure in the wealth of the past month to resent it. He began at the beginning and told the story with his curious combination of reserve and dramatic fire. As he had already told it several times it ran glibly off his tongue and had several inevitable embellishments. The man, whose cold blue eyes had wandered at first, finally fixed themselves on Roldan; and his whole face gradually softened. When Roldan finished with his and Adan's rescue by Don Tiburcio's vaquero, he held out his hand and said solemnly,--

"Shake."

Roldan allowed his hand to be gripped by that hairy paw; he was too elated to resent it as a familiarity.

"You've got pluck," continued Hill, "and I respect pluck mor' 'n anything else on earth. You're a man and a gentleman, and Californy'll be proud of you yet. Got any more?"

Roldan related the tale of Rafael's prowess with the bull, his own encounter with the bear, and Adan's timely interference. Hill then shook the hands of the two other boys, and told them that as long as he had a roof above his head they could share it, and that he'd do anything to help them but steal horses, so help him Bob. Roldan then told the tale of the earthquake and stampede.

"Ugh!" exclaimed Hill, with a shudder. "That's one thing I can't abide-- your earthquakes. I tell you it's enough to take the grit outen a grizzly to hear the land sliden on the mountain and the big redwoods that has got their roots about the bed-rock come roarin' down. When an earthquake comes I go and stand in the middle of the creek so as I can see what's comin' all round. Once I was on the side of the mountain when one of those shakes come and I slid down twenty feet before I could stop myself. It's just the one thing that has happened to me that I can't help thinkin' about. Well, what kin I do for you? You're welcome to stay here, but this hut ain't no great shakes for such as you. Be you goin' home, now that the conscription's over?"

"No!" said Roldan, emphatically, "we are not. There are other reasons why we must go to Los Angeles as quickly as we can. Could you get us three horses?"

"I could get them from the priest--"

"No! no!"

"Why, what's the row with the priest? Got in his black books? I shouldn't like to do that myself."

"You said just now that you would do anything for us. Would you even hide us from the priest if he came here?"

"I would. And I ain't the one to ask questions. If you don't want to see the priest, it's not Jim Hill that will assist him to find you. Been there myself."

"Couldn't you get us three horses from my father's corral--the Rancho Encarnacion?" asked Rafael.

"I could, if you'd go with me; but horse-stealing is just the one thing I agreed not to do."

"You might go with him, Rafael," said Roldan. "You would get there after dark if you started now; and even if the vaqueros were not asleep they would not call your father."

"And I could send a message to my parents," said Rafael, eagerly. "Then they would not worry. Yes, I will go. The priest would not dare to harm me while I was with the Senor Hill."

"Oh, the two of us would be a match for even him, if it came to that," said Hill. "Well, we'll start right now, there bein' no call for delay. We'll have to foot it, as my mustang's laid up. If the priest should turn up here--which ain't likely--jest run up that ladder inter the garret and pull it after yer. Well, hasta luego, as they say in these parts. Make yourselves ter home."