Chapter IV
 

The vaquero guided the boys rapidly through the canon. The almost perpendicular walls, black with a dense growth of brush and scrub trees, towered so high above them that the atmosphere was damp and the long strip of sky was like a pale-blue banner. The trail was well worn, and there was nothing to impede their progress. The mustangs responded to the lifted bridle and ran at breakneck speed. They emerged at the end of half an hour. It was an abrupt sally, and the great level plain before them seemed a blaze of sunlight.

"Bueno," said the vaquero, halting. "Ride straight ahead. Keep to the trail. At night you will come to a river. Before you reach it all trace of you will be lost, because between now and there are many side trails, and as the ground is so hard they cannot tell which you take. Cross the river and take the trail to the left. That will bring you to the Mission--about twenty miles farther--where the good padres will let you rest and give you fresh horses. The senor, meanwhile, will throw the officers off the scent. But if you are wise, you will make for the Sierras and hide there. Adios, senor, adios, senor;" and he wheeled about and disappeared into the darkness of the canon.

"We are like the babes in the wood," said Adan. "I feel as if we never should find our way home again."

"We shall," said Roldan, stoutly; although he, too, felt the chill of the immense solitude. "And we have begun well! What an adventure to start with! I am sure we shall have more."

Adan crossed himself.

The boys rode at a long even gallop, the high chaparral closing behind them. Every half hour they paused, and Roldan, dismounting, held his ear to the ground. But as yet they were unpursued.

A soft wind blew over the plain, fragrant with the honeydew of the chaparral. The sun set in a great bank of yellow cloud. Then the night came suddenly.

A few moments later Roldan called: "Halt!" and held up his hand. "I hear the rush of the water," he said. "We must be near the river."

"It sounds as if it was high," said Adan. "It has rained hard this month. Suppose these horses don't swim?"

"We'll make them. Come on."

"Ay! yi!" exclaimed Adan, not many moments after.

They pulled up suddenly on the banks of the river, a body of water about three hundred yards wide. It was swollen almost level with the high banks. The tumultuous waters were racing as if Neptune astride them was fleeing from angry gods. There is something unhuman in the roar of an angry river: it has a knell in it.

Roldan and Adan looked at each other. The latter's face had paled. Roldan contracted his lids suddenly, and when his friend met the glance that grew between them he compressed his lips and involuntarily straightened himself: he knew its significance.

"We must cross," said Roldan. "It would never do to spend the night on this side. If they followed, they would never suspect us of crossing. If we remained here, we could not hear them until they were upon us."

"Very well," said Adan.

Roldan raised his bridle. The mustang did not move forward, but cowered. "I don't like to hurt horses," said the young don, "but he's got to go." He clapped his spurs savagely against the animal's sides, and the next moment the waves were lashing about him.

Adan was beside him at once, and together they breasted the rushing waters. The mustangs were strong and made fair headway, incited by terror and the spur. The water was very cold, but the boys scarcely felt it. Their eyes were strained toward the opposite shore, measuring the distance, which seemed to grow less very slowly. The stars were thick and the moon was floating just above the chaparral, but the darkness about them was grim, and only a narrow line of white indicated the shore.

The horses were not able to keep a straight course. The current lashed them about more than once, but they righted, shook the water from their quivering nostrils, and plunged on.

The boys' glance so persistently sought their haven that they saw nothing of what was passing about them. They were within twenty yards of the shore. Adan, having the stronger beast, was some little distance ahead. He did not observe it. He was registering a vow that if he reached land in safety he would be drafted every year of his life before he would ford another river after heavy rain.

Suddenly Roldan became conscious that the wiry little body between his gripping knees had relaxed somewhat the tension of its muscles. Was the poor brute collapsing? Roldan leaned over and patted his neck. It responded for a moment, then fell back again. Roldan set his lips. As he did so he cast about him the instinctive glance of those in peril. A huge log was bearing down upon him like a projectile.

In a second his feet were out of his stirrups and he was crouching on the mustang's back. The log struck the beast full in the side, tossing Roldan as if he had been a feather. The mustang gave a hoarse neigh, unheard above the roar of the water.

Roldan, keeping his face from the pounding waves as best he could, struck out for the bank. But the current was too much for his slender body, plucky as it was. He made a mighty effort and shouted,--

"Adan!"

The high clear note pierced to his companion's ear. Adan turned his head, uttered a cry, and pulled his unwilling mustang about. But the current was carrying the white face on the waves rapidly past.

"Lariat!" Roldan managed to scream.

Adan's faculties had been paralysed for the moment, but they responded almost automatically to that imperious will. He unwound the lariat rapidly from the pommel, hastily gathered the loops, then flung it with sure hand straight at his friend. It fell about Roldan's neck. The boy jerked it over his shoulders, then signed to Adan to proceed.

Adan once more urged his horse forward, not daring to look behind. Roldan made no attempt to swim; he merely used his arms to keep his head above water. There were but a few yards farther. The mustang, despite his double load, made them, and scrambled up the bank. Adan, realising for the first time that he was stiff with cold, scrambled off and pulled in the rope with hands that were aching and almost numb. He heard Roldan strike the bank, a moment later the snapping of brush. Roldan's head rose into view, Adan gave a last despairing tug, and a moment later the two boys lay on their backs, panting for breath.