Chapter XXIV

Hill met them as they entered the living-room. His eyes were full of news.

"Well, boys," he said, "I don't know that you're in fur another adventure, but ye kin call it by that name when you git home if you like; leastways there ain't no doubt about it's bein' an experience."

The boys forgot the waiting breakfast. "What is it?" they demanded simultaneously. "Quick! quick!"

"It's this. I don't suppose you know more about the history of your country 'n most kids do. Well, Alvarado and General Castro are your two big men--"

"We know that," interrupted Roldan, scornfully.

"Oh, you do? Then mebbe you know who'se* govenor* at the present moment."

"Micheltorena. He was sent from Mexico. People don't like him, and they despise the men he brought with him, still more."

"So. Well, I allus did say you was a remarkable kid, Rolly. However, this is the way the case stands now. Alvarado's mad as hops to be ousted for a furriner, so to speak, and Castro's been bilin' fur some time, because General Vallejo's been promoted ahead of him. So the two on 'em determined on a revolution. They had a skirmish on Salinas plains that didn't decide much, and then Alvarado and Castro marched south, from ranch to ranch,--you just levanted in time,--persuadin' the rancheros to uphold their cause and give 'em their sons. As they have a way with 'em, of course they got all the recruits they wanted, to say nothin' of the finest horses in stock--caponara after caponara. They say the sight when they marched into Los Angeles was somethin' to go hungry for. Of course all Los Angeles went over to such triumphant lookin' rebels, and to-day or to-morrow there's goin' to be a big battle. I only heard this mornin'. Old Sanchez' brother come post haste about two hours ago fur his gun and as many men and horses as he could drum up. Of course Alvarado marched down the coast valleys, so old Carillo and his neighbours are eatin' their breakfast in blissful ignorance."

"And shall we really see a great battle?" demanded Roldan, faintly. He was pale, his nostrils were twitching, "Alvarado! Castro! Micheltorena!"

"Well, you kin, if you bolt that there breakfast. The horses'll be here in about twenty minutes, and a battle's somethin' I'm pinin' to see, too."

The boys ate their breakfast rapidly and in silence. A half hour later they were galloping furiously for Los Angeles, escorted by the equally enthusiastic Hill. The river was low and quiet. The horses swam it without let from tide or snag. Even Adan forgot to cross himself. Beyond was the high hill that lies directly to the north of Los Angeles. Its surface seemed in motion; it looked like a huge ant-hill.

"Them's women," said Hill, a few moments after they had left the river behind them. "Women and children. The fight must be on. Hist! Do you hear that?"

All three reined in. The sound of cannonading, distant but distinct, came to their ears. Without a word they lashed their mustangs and made for the city. They entered it in a few moments. It looked like a necropolis. Not a human being was to be seen. They spurred back to the hill and began the ascent, then paused for a few moments. It was a wild and tragic scene. Hundreds of women and children, their hair streaming in the high wind, were kneeling with uplifted crosses, praying aloud, when they were not weeping. A few men, Americans, were passing to and fro among them, administering encouragement; but their gaze also was directed anxiously to the north.

Hill dismounted and approached one of the Americans, conferred with him a moment, then returned to the impatient boys.

"They are fightin' in the San Fernando valley, three leagues to the north," he said. "We've got no time to lose."

They were less than an hour reaching the battlefield. During that hour Roldan scarcely knew how he felt. When he left the hacienda he was possessed by an intense curiosity only; but with that first dull boom something new and fierce had leapt to life within him. Every few moments his fingers moved round to the hip-pocket that held his pistols. The weeping women and children had made him quiver from head to foot. As they approached the battlefield, and powder-smoke mingled with the green fragrance of winter, he thought that his nostrils would burst. His ear- drums were splitting with the thunder of cannon. Suddenly Hill caught him by the arm.

"Look!" he cried. "There be Alvarado and Castro over there, and Micheltorena on t' other side. Ain't they magnificent specimens? Why, what's the matter?"

"Let me go!" said Roldan. His face was deeply flushed, his eyes blazed. "Come, Adan! come, Adan!" he shouted. "An Alvarado! an Alvarado!"

"Holy smoke!" cried Hill. "You don't say you're meanin' to fight after sweatin' fur a month to git clear of the hull business?"

But Roldan, grasping the bridle of the less enthusiastic Adan, was already far ahead. The boys rode straight into the melee, firing through the smoke until their ammunition was exhausted. Even Adan after the first few moments lost all sense of fear, and following Roldan's example, snatched the gun from a fallen soldier and fired and reloaded until his hands were blistered, and his eyes half sightless with smoke.

Roldan, obeying his dominant instinct, pushed his way rapidly to the front, attracting much attention. Some one recognised him, and during one of the many pauses of this not very systematic and furious battle some one cheered the little don. The cheer was taken up vociferously. It boomed across the battlefield. A moment later a man came dashing across with a flag of truce: the cheering was supposed by the enemy to herald the advance of reinforcements. The truce was accepted without explanations, and Roldan was hurried into the presence of Alvarado. That famous governor was sitting on a magnificent charger, caparisoned with carved leather, red velvet, silver, and gold. His black eyes were smiling, although the rest of his pale stern face was composed.

"So this is the runaway," he said. "I demanded you from your father, and he was much embarrassed to confess that you had fled to escape the conscription. Well, I am glad you did, for you have saved the day for me. But it is time you were in Monterey, for you've got the face of the leader of men, and the sooner your education begins the better. Will you come with me? Your father will not refuse."

The blood was pounding in Roldan's ears, but he managed to reply calmly that he would go.

He was then presented to General Castro, a man of fine military bearing, with classic features, but dark and stern. His eyes were as sombre as Alvarado's: doubtless both knew that their day would be short, their great gifts wasted in this far-away land, as remote from the great civilisations where lasting reputations are made as had it been on another planet.

He shook Roldan warmly by the hand, but he did not smile.

"Yes," he said, "it will be a pleasure to train you; and as you are young and malleable you will adapt yourself to the new order of things when it comes. Both Alvarado and I will write to your father; I am sure he will send you to us in Monterey."

And then they graciously dismissed him.

As the boys left the battlefield they came upon Hill, who was sitting on a hillock eating a sandwich. When Roldan had told his story the American replied:

"Shake! Rolly, you've got a heap o' genius, but you've got a durned sight more luck. You'll git there--one way or nother--if the skies fall. And I wish ye luck, I do for a fact."

"Don Jim," said Roldan, gravely, "have you another sandwich? We are very hungry."