Chapter XXI
 

The boys were once more adrift in the wilderness. It was with mixed emotions that they said good-bye to the hospitable American and rode forth to new experiences and dangers. They were now tried adventurers; they knew their mettle; they also had a far more definite idea of what danger and experience meant than when they had fled from home with the light heart of ignorance. Roldan felt several years older, and Adan had moments of reflection. Moreover, the fine point of novelty had worn toward bluntness. Nevertheless, they felt no immediate desire to return to leading strings, and were glad of an excuse to pursue their way south. Los Angeles was a famous city, the rival of Monterey,--which neither had seen,--and a fitting climax to an exciting volume. The exact arrangement of that climax was compassed by the imagination of neither.

For two miles they kept in line with the foot-hills, then rode rapidly toward the valley, impatient for its warmth. So far, barring their sojourn in the Sierras, they had been favoured with fine weather; but winter was growing older every day, and the sky was thick and grey this morning.

The Casa Ortega stood on the shores of a large lake. The banks were thickly wooded. On its southern curve was a high mountain. As the boys approached, a vaquero sprang upon a mustang and rode toward them rapidly. Roldan recognised one of the men that had been at the rodeo.

"At your feet, senores," said the vaquero. "The Senor Don is away, and all the family; but I am mayor domo, and in his absence I place the house at your disposal."

"My father will reward you," said Roldan, graciously. "We would ask that you give us dinner, a thick poncho each, for I fear that it will rain before we reach Los Angeles, and that you will direct us which way to go. The ponchos shall be replaced with fine new ones as soon as we have returned home."

"Don Carlos would not hear of the return of the ponchos, senor. But surely the senores will remain a few days, until the storm is over?"

"We dare not. But we will rest; and we have good appetites."

The mayor domo, still protesting, held the horses while the boys dismounted, then showed them to two bedrooms and bade them rest while dinner was preparing. "It will be an hour," he said. "I beg that the senores will sleep."

The boys did sleep, and it was two hours before they were called. Then they ate a steaming dinner, and forgot their fear of the priest: the meagre diet of squirrel and rabbit of the past thirty-six hours had lowered their spirits' temperature.

When they left the room the mayor domo awaited them with two thick woollen ponchos--large squares of cloth with a slit in the middle for the head.

"These will keep the rain out," he said, as he slipped them over the boys' heads. "And there is food for two days in the saddle-bags, and pistols in the holsters. Keep to the right of the lake, and enter the mountains by the horse trail. It winds over the lower ridges. The senores cannot lose themselves, for they should be on the other side before dark--that mountain is the meeting of the two ranges and beyond there are no more for many leagues. Then the senores must keep straight on, straight on--never turning to the left, for that way lies the terrible Mojave desert. By-and-by they will cross a river, and after that Los Angeles is not far. Between the mountain and the river is an hacienda, where they will find welcome for the night."

Roldan thanked him profusely, then said: "I have reasons for not wishing any one to know that I have not returned to my father's house. I beg that you will tell no one, not even a priest, that we have been here, for three days at least."

"The senor's wishes shall be obeyed. The Senor Don returns not for a week. No one shall know until then of the honour that has been done to his house."

The boys rode rapidly through the wood over a broad road that had evidently been traversed many times. The sky was leaden, but no rain fell. Nor was there any wind. The lake could not have been smoother were it frozen, although it reflected the grey above. Wild ducks and snipe broke its monotony at times, now and again a jungle of tules. In less than an hour the travellers were ascending the mountain by easy grades, a black forest of pines about them. It was darker here, but the road was clearly defined, and they talked gaily of adventures past and to come. In Los Angeles they had many relatives, and they knew that a royal welcome would be given them. They would see the gay life of which they had heard so much from their brothers; and they magnanimously resolved that after a week of it they would return to their anxious parents.

"Ay!" exclaimed Adan, interrupting these pleasant anticipations, "it rains at last."

A few drops fell; then the rain came with a rush. For some time the wind had been rising; suddenly it seemed to leap upward to meet the emptying clouds, then filled the pine-tops with a great roar, rattling the hard branches, bending the slender trunks. The boys were on the down grade, and there was no danger of losing the path, although the rain had put out the sallow flame of the sun. They pricked their horses and made the descent as rapidly as possible. But it was another hour before they were on level ground once more. The rain was still falling in torrents; the wind flung it in their eyes as fast as they dashed it from their lashes. They could not see a yard ahead. The light of the hacienda was nowhere visible. If its owner was away from home and his house in darkness, then was their plight a sorry one indeed.

"There is only one thing to do," said Roldan, putting his hand funnel- wise to Adan's ear. "We must keep due south until we come to the river. Then, at least, we cannot go wrong."

"And that river we must cross!" said Adan, with a groan. "Dios de mi alma!"

Roldan had great faith in his sense of locality, but in a blinding rain on a black night with a mighty wind roaring inside one's very skull, and whirling the heavy poncho about one's ears every few moments, it was difficult to preserve any sense at all. They galloped on, however, occasionally pausing to shout, straining their eyes into the darkness on every side. But nothing came back to eye or ear. Apparently they had the wilderness to themselves. There was no sign of even an Indian pueblo.

It was during one of these halts that the boys ejaculated simultaneously: "The river!"

"No," shouted Roldan, a moment later "it is only a creek."

"Are we lost?" demanded Adan; and even the loud tone had a note of pained resignation in it.

"No; I think this must be what he meant. Some of the low people say river for everything but the ocean. It is shallow, and we cannot turn back. Come."

They rode along the bank until they came to an easy slope, then crossed, and cantered on. In a very short time the storm was behind them and the stars burst out, but there was no sign of habitation. They kept on for an hour longer, hoping for a welcome twinkle below; but not even a coyote crossed their path. As far as they could see in the starlight they were on a plain of illimitable reach, bare but for low shrubs whose kind they could not determine, although once Adan's coat caught on a prickly surface. The atmosphere was warm and very dry.

Finally Roldan reined in.

"We must rest," he said, "and build a fire, or we shall be stiff to- morrow. And it is long past the hour for supper."

"The sooner we eat and sleep and dry, the better for me," said Adan.

The boys dismounted and tied their horses to a palm, then looked about for firewood. There was not a tree to be seen; they had not passed one since they left the creek. Nor could they see any sign of flint with which they might set fire to a clump of palms.

Adan, who had been on his knees, suddenly remarked: "There is not a blade of grass, Roldan. What will the mustangs do?"

"They are eating the palm, perhaps that will do them until to-morrow. But the poor things must be as hungry as twenty. Come, let us strip, hang our things up, and run. The water is in my bones."

The boys peeled off the clinging steaming garments and ran up and down until hunger sent them to the saddle bags. The mayor domo had provided them abundantly, and once more they looked upon the world with hopeful eyes.

"But we must sleep," said Roldan, "and it is not going to be easy for mind or body--if there are rattlers about--with no fire. We must take it in turns. It is warm; we do not need our clothes--ah!"--for Adan was snoring.

Roldan was very tired but not sleepy. His brain, indeed, seemed unusually alert, and he got up after a time and prowled about, pistol in hand. He had been in solitudes before, solitude of plain and valley and mountain; but there was something in his present surroundings that reminded him of nothing he had heard of or seen. It was not only the intense stillness, unbroken by so much as the flutter of a leaf, nor even the vast expanse. The place seemed to possess a character of its own, and its character was sinister and forbidding. Once or twice he had been in the cemetery of the Mission near his father's rancho, and the ugly feeling that he stood too close to death came back to him; why, he could not define. There was no sign of a cross anywhere; but he felt that he stood in a dead world, nevertheless. Once the ground quivered beneath his feet, and the horrible idea occurred to him that Southern California had been swallowed by an earthquake, and that only this desolation was left.

He went back to his comrade, who slept soundly beside the horses, also extended and breathing deeply. It was nearly morning when he woke Adan, so little aptitude had his brain for sleep. But when Adan sat up he fell asleep almost immediately, and when he awoke the sun was high.