Chapter III

An hour later they began to descend the mountain on the other side, and by dawn espied a ranch house in a valley. The white walls were pink under the first streamers of the morning. The redwoods rose like a solid black wall on the towering mountains on every side.

"Ay!" exclaimed Roldan, drawing a deep sigh. "Sleep and a hot breakfast. They will be good once more."

"They will," answered Adan, who had been collapsing and digging his knuckles into his eyes for an hour and more.

They feared that no one might be stirring, but, as they approached the verandah, the door opened and a stout smiling Californian, dressed in brown small-clothes, appeared.

"Who have we here?" he cried. "But you are early visitors, my young friends."

"We are dodging the conscript," said Roldan. "You will not betray us?"

"I should think not. I'd hide my own boys, if the mountains did not do that for me. Come in, come in. The house is yours, my sons. Burn it if you will. Tired? Here. Go in and get into bed. The servants are not up, but I myself will make you chocolate and a tortilla."

The boys did not awaken for eight hours. When they emerged, somewhat shamefacedly, they found the family assembled on the verandah, drinking their afternoon chocolate, and impatient with curiosity. There were no girls to criticise the dilapidated garments--which the kind hostess had mended while the boys slept; but there were two youths of fourteen and fifteen and two young men who were lying in hammocks and smoking cigarritos.

Roldan and Adan were made welcome at once.

"My name is Jose Maria Perez," said the host, coming forward. "This is my wife, Dona Theresa, and these are my sons, Emilio, Jorge, Benito, and Carlos. What shall we call you, my sons?"

"My name is Roldan Castanada of the Rancho Los Palos Verdes, and this is my friend Adan Pardo of the Rancho Buena Vista."

"Ay! we have distinguished visitors. But you were just as welcome before. Sit down while I go and see if the big stew I ordered is done. Caramba! but you must be hungry."

The four lads quickly fraternised, and Roldan began at once to relate their adventures, continuing them over the steaming dish of stew. When he reached the point which dealt with the outwitting of the bear, Don Emilio sprang from his hammock.

"A bear trapped?" he cried. "A grizzly? We will have a fight with a bull. You are rested, no? As soon as you have eaten, come and show us the way."

The boys, always ready for sport, and believing that they were beyond the grasp of the law for the present, eagerly consented. An hour later Don Emilio, Don Jorge, the four lads, and three vaqueros all sallied forth to capture one poor bear. The vaqueros dragged a sled, and much stout rope.

When they reached the trap darkness had come, but the four boys held lighted torches over the hole--this was their part. The bear, disheartened with his long and futile effort to escape, lay on the uneven surface below, alternately growling and roaring. As the torches flared above him he sprang to his feet with a vast roar, his eyes as green and glittering as marsh lights. In a moment a lasso had flown over his head and he was on his back. But his formidable legs were not to be encountered rashly. Each was lassoed in turn, also his back; then his huge lunging body was dragged up the side of the excavation and onto the sled. There he was bound securely; then the rope about his neck was loosened and he was fed on a hind quarter of sheep. But it placated him little. His anger was terrific. He roared until the echoes awoke, and strained at the rope until it seemed as if his great muscles must conquer.

But he was powerless, and the procession started: first Roldan and Benito with their torches; then two vaqueros dragging the sled, the third holding the rope which encircled the bear's neck, ready to tighten it on a second's notice. Following were Don Jorge and Don Emilio, then the two other young torch bearers. Thus was poor Bruin carried ignominiously out of the forest where he had been lord, to perform for the benefit of the kind he despised. That night he rested alone in a high walled corral, liberated by the quick knife of one of the vaqueros, who sprang through the door just in time to save himself.

There was an angry guest on the ranch that night. The bear's lungs, which were of the best, had little repose, and he flung himself against the earth walls of the corral until they quivered with the impact. The horses in the neighbouring corrals whinnied; the cows in the fields bellowed. It was a vocal night, and few slept.

Nevertheless everybody was excited and good-natured next morning. Immediately after breakfast they went out to the corral, and by means of a ladder mounted the wall and stood on the broad summit. At a signal from Don Emilio a vaquero opened the gate cautiously and drove in a large bull, who had been carefully irritated since sunrise.

The two unamiable beasts, glad of an object to vent their spleen upon, flew at each other. The bear, giant as he was, was ignominiously rolled in the dust by the furious onslaught of bulk and horns. He recovered himself with surprising alacrity, however, and rushed at the bull. The latter, off guard for the moment, and struggling for his lost breath, was hurled on his back. He rolled over quickly, but before he could gather his legs under him, the bear sat himself squarely upon the heavy flanks. The bull jerked up his head, his eyes injected, his tongue rolling out. The bear raised one of his mighty paws and dealt him a box on the ear. The head fell with an ugly thud on the hard floor of the corral. The bear adjusted himself comfortably and licked his paws.

On the wall the onlookers were far more excited than the gladiators in the arena. The Perezes sympathised with their personal property, but Roldan and Adan felt that the bear was their menagerie, and that their honour was at stake. Party feeling ran very high. Roldan and Benito were twice separated by their anxious elders.

"Ay! yi!" cried Carlos. "The bull wakes."

The poor bull, in truth, despite the crushing weight on his vitals, raised his head again, shook himself feebly, and was once more boxed into unconsciousness. The side of his face was crushed; his body was slowly flattening. The family encouraged him with tears and spirit.

"Ay, Ignacio, Ignacio, my poor one!" cried Don Jose. "Arouse thyself and kill the brute. Ay! thou wert so beautiful, so elegant, thy sleek sides like the satin of Dona Theresa--and he like a wild man that has never washed. Where is thy pride, Ignacio? Arouse thyself!"

Thus encouraged, the bull raised his head once more. The bear gave him a whack that snapped his spinal cord, then rose and swung himself round the enclosure with the arrogant mien of a bloated sultan who has swept off a troublesome head. This attitude aroused Benito to fury.

"Ay, the cheat! the assassin!" he cried. "It was not a fair fight. Our Ignacio had no chance--"

"That is not true!" exclaimed Roldan. "He had the same chance at the first. If you are not satisfied, Senorito Benito, then fight me."

No sooner said than done. The boys, who stood some distance from the others, doubled their fists and rushed at each other like two fighting cocks. They pommelled for several minutes, then locked their arms about each other and went reeling about the wall, to the horror of the others, who dared not approach lest they should inflame them further.

"Jump down! Jump down, you imbeciles!" cried Don Jose." Do you wish to be food for the bear? A misstep--" The words ended in a hoarse gurgle. Dona Theresa shrieked. Adan and Carlos sobbed. The young men turned cold and weak. The two boys had fallen headlong into the corral.

They were sobered and fraternal in a moment. The bear stood upon his hind legs and opened his arms invitingly. He stood in front of the gate.

"Ay! ay!" gasped Benito. "He will eat us!"

"No; he will eat the bull first; but he will hug us to death--that is, if he gets us--which he won't. Adan!" he cried, "lower the ladder."

Benito began to cry, his terror enhanced by the babel of voices on the wall, each of which was suggesting a different measure. On the opposite wall and in the branches of a neighbouring tree were the Indian servants and the vaqueros. They stared stupidly, with shaking lips.

Adan had recovered his presence of mind. With a firm hand, he lowered the ladder. But his wit was not quick. He should have carried it along the wall and placed it behind the boys. Instead, it descended several yards away. The bear, who appeared to be no fool, lowered his forepaws and trotted slowly toward the boys.

"Juan!" shouted Roldan to a vaquero. "Lasso the bull and drag him to the west side--far from the gate."

The vaquero, alert enough under orders, swung the lasso with supple wrist--and missed. The boys dodged the bear, who seemed in no haste, but stalked them methodically, nevertheless. The vaquero swung again. This time the rope caught the horns, was tightened by a quick turn, and the carcass went thudding across the yard. The bear gave a furious howl and plunged after. The boys scampered up the ladder. Don Jose took each by the collar and shook them soundly. When they were released they embraced each other.

"Ay! but I was inhospitable to fight my guest," sobbed Benito.

"Ay, my friend," said Roldan, with dignity, winking back the tears started by various emotions. "It is I who should have had my ears boxed by the bear for insulting my host, and bringing anguish to the house of Perez." Then he embraced Adan, but this time mutely.

Dona Theresa had been carried to her room, where she lay prostrated with a nervous headache; but her family and guests did ample justice to the chickens stewed in tomatoes, the red peppers and onions, the fried rice, tamales, and dulces which her cook had prepared in honour of the event. Excitement and good will reigned; even Don Jose had forgiven the young offenders, and they all talked at once, at the top of their voices, as fast as they could rattle and with no falling inflection. Roldan and Adan were pressed to remain at the Hacienda Perez until the search was over, and although the former had a secret yearning for adventure he was more than half inclined to consent.

After a brief siesta the entire male population of the hacienda retired to the wall of the corral to pot the bear. It was agreed that each should fire at once, and that he who missed should have no dulces for a week.

The bear was sitting near the middle of the corral, surly but replete, for he had eaten of the bull. Don Jose gave the signal. Twenty-two shots were fired. The bear gave a roar which awoke the echoes of the forest, lunged frantically on shattered legs, then fell, an ugly heap of dusty grey hair.

As the smoke cleared and Don Jose was announcing that only two Indian servants had missed, Benito clutched Roldan's arm suddenly.

"Look up," he said. "Do you see anything? Are not those men; soldiers?"

Roldan looked up to a ledge of the high mountain before the house. A bend of the trail traversed a clearing. In this open were three men on horseback, motionless for the moment.

"Adan!" shouted Roldan. He ran down the ladder.

"I cannot be sure that those are the soldiers," he called up to Don Jose. "But I take no risks. We must go."

The others descended hastily. "My sons will have to hide too," said Don Jose. "There is plenty of time. In a moment those men will be in the forest again and can see nothing more for half an hour. We must do nothing while they watch--there! they have gone."

He shouted to the vaqueros to saddle six fresh horses, and ordered the house servants to pack the bags with food.

"There is a cave in the mountain on the other side which I defy anyone to find," said Don Jose. "If there were a war my sons should fight, but I need them now."

While the horses were saddling, Roldan and Adan consulted together. At the end of a few moments the former went up to Don Jose.

"I think it would be wiser to separate," he said. "Adan and I will go one way, your sons another. That will put them off the track; and the cave, Carlos says, is not very large."

"As you like," said Don Jose, who was perturbed and busy. "A vaquero will go with you for a distance and advise you."

The truth was, Roldan fancied lying inert in a cave for several days as little as he fancied the somnolent life of a barrack, and Adan, who had a secret preference for the cave, was too loyal to oppose him.

In ten minutes the horses were ready, affectionate good-byes said, and Roldan and Adan, followed by many good wishes, and prayers to return, started southeastward through a dense canon.