Chapter XXIII
 

"Hallo!" shouted a peremptory voice. "Hallo! Hallo!"

"It's the Senor Jim," gasped Adan.

Roldan sprang to his feet. "Hallo!" he cried.

There was a heavy trampling in the chaparral, and a moment later Hill rode into view. He took off his sombrero and waved it at the boys, but did not speak until he had crossed the creek and dismounted. Then he turned and regarded them with his keen hard eyes.

"Well!" he exclaimed, "I never calkilated to see you alive agin, and that's a fact. Hed some more adventures, I presume. Look as if ye'd hed more adventures than grub."

"Indeed we have, Don Jim," said Roldan, solemnly. "Should you like to hear them?"

"Should I? Well, I guess. You and your adventures have kinder made me feel young once more."

Roldan told the painful story.

"Holy smoke!" exclaimed Hill, in conclusion, "you are tough! And two mirages in the bargain. I was lost on Mojave once, and to my mind the mirages was the wust part of the hull game."

"What do you mean?" asked Roldan. "What are mirages?"

"Mirages, Rolly, are what ought to be and ain't, what you want and can't git, and they bear a hell-fired resemblance to life. I see you don't quite understand. Well, that there beautiful city and that there beautiful lake was what we call mirage for want of better name!" And he explained to them the meaning of the phenomenon, as far as he understood it.

"We have certainly learned a good deal since we left home," said Roldan, thoughtfully.

"There's room for more. There's room for more. Now, I suppose you'd like to know how I come here. Wall, I've got a confession to make fust, and seein' as you've been so nigh to death in the last few days, p'r'aps you'll furgive me. The day after you left I went down to see the priest, as agreed. I found him--well, I don't know as I'll tell everything, not even to excuse myself. It's enough to say that he was half luny between fear and remorse. He told me--I suppose he'd got to that state where he had to tell somebody or bust--about leavin' you in the tunnel to die, and bein' willin' after to kill you with his own hands--he was that mad. But he felt terrible sorry, and said that if you told on him it would serve him right; only that would mean ruin--ruin--ruin--a terrible word, young man. And he's not a day over forty and calkilates to git out of Californy with that there gold and be a big-bug in his native land. I hesitated some time, fur I ain't no slouch at keepin' a promise; but in the end I had to tell him. Why, a man's a criminal if he don't put another man out of misery when he kin--"

"You did quite right," interrupted Roldan. "I am glad that he was punished, but I would not have any one punished for ever."

"Well, I'm glad you feel that way. He felt good, I kin tell you that. He looked ten years younger in five minutes, for he said as how he knew you'd keep your word. I went straight off and managed to have a word with young Carrillo. It warnt no trouble to make him promise to keep his mouth shet; he's more afraid of the priest than he is of his father's green-hide lariat, and that's sayin' a heap. When I went back to the Mission I told the priest that I thought as how I'd go on to Ortega's, and see if you got there all right. When I got there and heard as how you hed crossed the mountains in a terrible storm I just hed to go on. I made straight for old Sanchez', who has a hacienda and raises grapes just this side of the river. He was drunk as usual, but his servants hedn't seen nothin' of you, and then I was seriously alarmed. That was at night, and I couldn't do nothin' until daylight, so I got a good sleep and the next mornin' I started for Mojave. I know it pretty well, and there was no danger of gittin' lost. At nightfall I found your horses and ponchos--the horses was dead, poor things. I slept on the desert that night, and the next mornin' rode back as hard as I could put, suspicionin' that you would have sense enough to strike west. I went round the corner of that there cactus wood, never thinkin' ye were in it, and I expect I got well to this side before you was out. When I got to this creek I rode up and down it, then crossed over, thinkin' ye might hev gone on. It was only when I saw smoke that I said to myself for the fust time: 'There they be.' And you bet it did me good, for I was powerful worried."

"Don Jim," said Roldan, "you are a kind and good man. I love you, and I will always be your friend."

"So. Well, I'm powerful glad to hear that. You ain't much like 'Merican kids, but you're pretty clever all the same, and I like ye better 'n any boy I ever know'd, hanged if I don't. Don't be jealous, sonny"--to Adan--"I like ye too--but Rolly--well!"

"You would not like Roldan half so well if it were not for me," said Adan, whose face expressed nothing.

"So. Well. Now, be ye rested? We want to git to old Sanchez' fur a good supper and a soft bed to-night."

The boys rose with alacrity. Hill bade them mount his powerful horse, and walked beside them.

Sanchez' house was only three miles away, but the road lay through chaparral which sprang across in many places. It was heavy dusk when they emerged. For some time past they had heard wild eccentric cries, and their three pistols were cocked. As they rode through a grove of trees beyond the chaparral, they saw a dark something rolling toward them. In an instant Hill had snatched the boys from the horse and swung them to the limb of a tree.

"Hide yourselves among the leaves," he said, "and don't even breathe mor' 'n you kin help."

He gave the horse a sharp cut with his switch and it galloped on; then he climbed a neighbouring tree with the agility of a wildcat, and crouched.

The boys gazed into the dusk with distended eyes. The cloud came on with inconceivable rapidity. In a moment it outlined itself. Those were living creatures, fleeing. A stampede? No, men. . . . What? Indians?

They were within a hundred yards now, and their lithe naked forms, the tomahawks and bows and arrows gripped in their clenched hands, could plainly be seen; a moment later, their evil faces, distorted with fear. In the middle distance behind them was a huge column of fire. A strange figure seemed leaping among the flames. It was from this scarlet column that the strange noises came. The Indians made no sound beyond their impact with the atmosphere.

They deflected suddenly and passed to the right of the grove; a moment later the three in ambush heard them crashing through the brush. Hill waited until the sound had grown faint in the distance before he swung himself down and helped the boys to the ground.

"That was a close shave," he said. "Them was murderin' savages, no weak- kneed Mission variety. I'd give two cents to know what scared 'em and what's goin' on over yonder. They were on the rampage, which same means thievin' and killin', or my name ain't Jim Hill."

"We're used to Indians," said Adan, with gentle pride.

"Oh, be ye? Well, if them Indians had caught you fryin' your supper, you'd have got as well acquainted with the next world in just about three quarters of an hour. Well, we've all got to foot it now; but it ain't far. I'm powerful anxious to know what's goin' on over to Sanchez'! Mebbe two tribes met and them's the victors offerin' up the tail end of that there valiant army. Golly Moroo, but they did look scared."

They walked on rapidly, but without further conversation; they were all hungry, and the boys were still very fagged. As they approached the blazing mass, the figure seemed to leap more wildly still among the flames, the cries to grow hoarser and more grotesque. All about was heavy blackness. The slender branches of the burning pine writhed and hissed; they might have been a pyramid of rattlesnakes caught in spouting flame. Overhead the stars had disappeared beyond a heavy cloud of smoke. It was a sight to strike terror to the heart of civilised man; small wonder that the superstitious children of the mountain and desert had fled in panic.

They had advanced a few yards farther when suddenly Hill flung himself on the ground and gave vent to a series of hysterical yells, at the same time rolling over and over, clutching at the grass. Roldan, seriously alarmed, and wondering if any other boys in the history of the Californias had ever had so much to try their nerves, ran to his assistance; he caught him by his lean shoulders, and shook him soundly.

"Don Jim! Don Jim!" he exclaimed. "Are you ill, my friend? You have some whisky in your flask, no?"

At this Hill burst into a loud guffaw. Roldan and Adan looked at each other helplessly. The Spanish do not laugh often, and although the boys dimly realised that Hill's explosion resembled--remotely--the dignified concession of their race to the ridiculous, yet they feared that this was a diseased and possibly fatal variety.

But in a moment Hill sat up. He wiped his eyes, and with some difficulty controlled his voice.

"No, I ain't ill, young 'uns," he said. "But them Indians 'ud be pretty sick if they knowed what they run from. That there object cavortin' round that there bonfire is old Sanchez, and he's drunk. Oh, Lord!" And once more Hill gave way to mirth.

"He did more good than harm to get drunk this time," said Roldan, smiling sympathetically.

"You're right, Rolly. You've got a long head. If old Sanchez had set down to supper sober to-night, there'd be a war-dance round another bonfire this minute, and his scalp 'ud be bobbin' bravely. I don't approve of liquor," he added cautiously, remembering the young ideas shooting before him. "I only said that there be exceptions to all rules, and this is one of them."

"I understand," said Roldan, drily. "I am not thinking of following the Senor Sanchez' example. But do you suppose that was really what frightened the Indians?"

"Just. Well, I guess! They've probably got some idee of the devil, and they thought that was him, sure 's fate."

He sprang to his feet, ran forward, caught the bacchanalian about the shoulders, and rushed him in the direction of the dimly-looming house, throwing one of his own long legs into the air every now and again. The boys ran after. When they reached the house its master was extended on a settee in the living-room, and Hill was telling the tale of their narrow escape to the frightened household.

"I don't think they'll come back," he said in conclusion. "But it's jest as well to have your guns ready, and for one or two of ye to set up all night. We three'd like grub and beds as quick as you kin git 'em ready."

Never had beds felt so sweet as they did that night. The boys awoke refreshed, themselves again; and no Indians had returned to disturb their slumbers.