Chapter II
 

Roldan's way lay over his father's leagues until two hours after nightfall. As he passed, every now and again, a herd of cattle, lounging vaqueros called to him: "Ay, Don Roldan, where do you go?" or, "The little senor chooses a hot day for his ride." But he excited no curiosity. Like all Californians he half lived in the saddle; and he was often seen riding in the direction of Don Esteban Pardo's rancho, to spend a few days with his chosen friend.

As he approached the house he saw the family sitting on the long verandah: the pretty black-eyed girls in full white gowns, their dark hair flowing to the floor, or braided loosely; Don Esteban, a silk handkerchief knotted about his head, reclining in a long chair beside his wife, a stout woman, coffee-coloured with age, attired in a dark silk gown flowered with roses. Indian servants came and went with cooling drinks. Although it was December, Winter had loitered and fallen into deeper sleep than usual on her journey South this year.

Adan was leaning against a pillar, moody and bored. He was the youngest of the boys. His brothers, elegant caballeros, who spent most of their time in the capital or on other ranches, were kind to their younger brother, but not companionable. Therefore, when Roldan galloped into sight, he gave a shout of joy and ran down the road. Roldan drew rein some distance from the house, that the conference, which must take place immediately, might be unheard by older ears.

"Listen, my friend," he said rapidly, interrupting Adan's voluble hospitality. "The soldiers are out for conscripts--"

"Ay, yi!--"

"Now listen, and don't talk until I am done. I will not be drafted as if I had no will of my own, and rot in a barrack while others enjoy life. Neither will you if you have the spirit of a Pardo and are worthy to be the friend of Roldan Castanada. So--I fly. Do you understand?--and you go with me. We will dodge these servants of a tyrant government the length and breadth of the Californias. When the danger is over for this year we will return--not before. Now, you will ask me to go to my room as soon as possible after you have given me some supper, for I am tired and want sleep. You also will take a nap. When all is quiet I shall call you and we will start."

Adan had listened to this harangue with bulging eyes and tongue rolling over his teeth. But Roldan never failed to carry the day. He was a born leader. Adan's was the will that bent; but his talent for good comradeship and his quiet self-respect saved him from servility.

In appearance he was in sharp contrast to the slender Roldan, of the classic features and fiery eyes. Short, roly-poly, with a broad, good- natured face, his attire was also unmarked by the extreme elegance which always characterised Roldan. In summer he wore calico small-clothes, in winter unmatched articles of velvet or cloth, and an old sombrero without silver.

"Ay! yi!" he gasped. "Ay, Roldan! Holy Mary! But you are right. You always are. And so clever! I will go. Sure, sure. Come now, or they will think we conspire."

Roldan dismounted, and was warmly greeted by the family. The girls rose and courtesied, blushing with the coquetry of their race. Roldan cared little for girls at any time, and to-night was doubly abstracted, his ear straining at every distant hoof-beat. He retired as early as he politely could, but not to sleep. Indeed, he became so nervous that he could not wait until the family slept.

"Better to brave them, Adan," he said to his more phlegmatic friend, "than that sergeant, should he get here before we leave. Come, come, let us go."

They dropped out of the window and stole to the corral where the riding horses were kept. It was surrounded by a high wall, and the gate was barred with iron; but they managed to remove the bars without noise, saddled fresh horses and led them forth and onward for a half mile, then mounted and were off like the wind.

They knew the country down the coast on the beaten road, but they dared not follow this, and struck inland. The air was now of an agreeable warmth; the full moon was so low and brilliant that Roldan called out he could count the bristling hairs on a coyote's back.

In less than two hours they were climbing a mountain trail leading through a dense redwood forest. In these depths the moon's rays were scattered into mere flecks dropping here and there through the thick interlacing boughs of the giant trees. Those boughs were a hundred feet and more above their heads. About them was a dense underforest of young redwoods, pines, and great ferns; and swarming over all luxuriant and poisonous creepers.

They were silent for a time. The redwood forests are very quiet and awesome. At night one hears but the rush of the mountain torrent, the cry of a panther or a coyote, the low sigh of wind in the treetops.

"Ay, Roldan," exclaimed Adan, suddenly. "Think did we meet a bear?"

"We probably shall," said Roldan, coolly. "These forests have many 'grizzlies,' as the Americans call them."

"But what should we do, Roldan?"

"Why, kill him, surely."

"Have you ever seen one?"

"Never."

"But it is said that they are very large, my friend, larger than you or I."

"Perhaps. Keep quiet. I like to hear the forest talk."

"What strange fancies you have, Roldan. A forest cannot talk."

"Oh--hush."

"Ay, yi, Roldan! Roldan!"

The horses were standing upright, neighing pitifully. Adan gave a hoarse gurgle and crossed himself.

"The adventures have begun," said Roldan.

In a great swath of moonlight on a ledge some yards above them, standing on his hind legs and swinging his forepaws goodnaturedly, was an immense grey bear. Suddenly he extended his arms sociably, almost affectionately.

"We cannot retreat down that steep trail," said Roldan, rapidly. "He could follow faster and the horses would fall. To the left! in the brush, quick!--a bear cannot run sideways on a mountain."

The boys dug their spurs into the trembling mustangs, who responded with a snort of pain and plunged into the thicket. Only the bold skill of the riders saved them from pitching sidewise down the steep slope, despite the brush, for they were unshod and their knees had weakened.

But the grizzly, alas! was still master of the situation. In less than a moment the boys saw him lumbering along above them. He evidently had possession of a trail, more or less level.

"Dios de mi alma!" cried Adan. "If he gets ahead of us he will come down and meet us somewhere. We shall be lost--eaten even as a cat eats a mouse, a coyote a chicken."

"You will look well lining the dark corridors of the bear, my friend. Your yellow jacket with those large red roses, which would make a bull sweat, would hang like tapestry in the houses of Spain. Those hide boots, spotted with mud, and the blood of the calf, would keep him from wanting another meal for many a long day--"

"Ay, thou fearless one! Why, it is said that if the grizzly even raises his paw and slaps the face every feature is crushed out of shape."

"I should not be surprised."

They plunged on, tearing their clothes on the spiked brush and the thorns of the sweetbrier, fragrant lilac petals falling in a shower about them, great ferns trodden and rebounding. The air was heavy with perfume and the pungent odour of redwood and pine.

Roldan had passed Adan. Suddenly his horse stumbled and would have gone headlong had not his expert rider pulled him back on his haunches.

"What is it? What is it?" cried Adan, who also had been obliged to pull in abruptly, and who liked horses less when they stood on their hind legs. "Is it the bear upon us? But, no, I hear him--above and beyond. What are you doing, my friend?"

Roldan had dismounted and was on his hands and knees. In a half moment he stood erect.

"We are saved," he said.

"Ay? What?"

"It is a hole, my friend--large and deep and round. Did you put any meat in your saddle-bags?"

"Ay, a good piece."

"Raw?"

"Yes."

"Give it to me--quick. Do not unwrap it."

Adan handed over the meat, then dismounted also.

"A bear-trap?" he asked.

"Yes, a natural one. Come this way, before I unwrap the meat."

The boys forced their way to the south of the large hole, dragging the still terrified horses, who were not disposed to respond to anything less persuasive than the spur. Roldan approached the edge of the excavation and shook the meat loose, flinging the paper after it. As the smell of fresh beef pervaded the air it was greeted by a growl like rising thunder, and almost simultaneously the huge unwieldy form of the bear hurled itself down through the brush. The boys held their breath. Even Roldan felt a singing in his ears. But the grizzly, without pausing to ascertain his bearings, went down into the hole at a leap. He made one mouthful of the meat, then appeared to realise that he was in a trap. With a roar that made the horses rear and neigh like stricken things, he flung himself against the sides of his prison, drew back and leaped clumsily, tore up the earth, and galloped frantically to and fro. But he was caught like a rat in a trap.

The boys laughed gleefully and remounted their horses, which also seemed to appreciate the situation, for they had quieted suddenly.

"Adios! Adios!" cried Roldan, as they forced their way up to the trail the bear had discovered. "You will make a fine skeleton; we will come back and look at you some day."

But it was not the last they were to see of Bruin in the flesh.