Chapter V
 

"Do you want any more adventures?" asked Adan feebly, after a time.

"Not at present," said Roldan.

He raised himself stiffly. "Come," he said, "this will never do. We shall both have rheumatism. We must have a fire at once."

Adan groaned pathetically, but got on his feet. They had found refuge in the open; but a grove of trees was near, and in a quarter of an hour they had piled a heap of branches and chaparral as high as an Indian pyre, hunted up two pieces of flint, and sent sparks flying through the dry mass.

The boys divested themselves of their dripping clothes and hung them close to the fire, then raced up and down with what energy was left in them to scotch the chill night air. Finally they paused breathless before the pile, which was now roaring merrily.

"I should like to know what we are to have for supper," said Roldan. "That Mission is twenty miles away, and I for one can't walk to it. Climb up a tree and see if there is a light anywhere."

"Thanks, senor," said Adan, "when my clothes are dry."

"True, we must keep our skin. I have it!" He sprang on the back of the mustang, who also had fallen upon reaching the shore but had risen to nibble for supper, and stood on the tips of his feet. "I can see well," he announced. "But all the same I can see nothing. We must stay here."

He dismounted, and relieving the mustang of the heavy saddle, emptied the bags. "The bread and sweets are soaked," he said, "not fit for a pig to eat; but we can do something with the meat. Fetch some coals."

Adan with infinite difficulty managed to scrape a few coals apart from the bonfire, and over this they scorched the meat. As they crouched on the ground they looked like two little white savages, and they were neither comfortable nor happy.

"We must keep this fire going all night," said Roldan, "or we shall be eaten by bears, to say nothing of rattlesnakes--"

"Hist!" whispered Adan. "I hear one." Both boys sprang to their feet.

"Where?"

"Near the horse."

Roldan seized his pistol and ran in the direction indicated, keeping his eyes on the ground. Suddenly he paused. Something just beyond the light was growing into a series of graceful loops. A long neck slowly lifted itself and two baleful eyes fixed upon Roldan. He raised his pistol, and the rattler was beheaded as neatly as if it were stuffed and dismembered with a pen knife. It shot out to full length, and the clever marksman took it by its horny tail and dragged it to the fire.

"He didn't know that we'd have him for supper," said Adan, gleefully. "Here, let us eat our steak and then I'll skin him."

The steak proved tough, and when it had been disposed of with many grumblings, the rattlesnake was skinned and roasted, and proved very delicate and edible.

"Now," said Roldan, "we must sleep." Their clothes being dry they dressed; and after inspecting with a torch a circle of about two hundred yards to see that there were no snake holes, they built a hasty ring of chaparral, set fire to it that beasts and reptiles should keep their distance, then lay down and slept. Roldan was always a light sleeper, and with the fire on his mind awoke every few hours and gathered fresh chaparral or roused the heavier Adan. Coyotes wailed in the distance, and once as Roldan gathered brush he heard again the deadly rattle. But they were not disturbed, and even the skies were kind, for although clouds gathered, they passed.

They awoke in the morning, fresh and vigorous--but also hungry; and there was little to eat.

"I don't think I should fancy rattlesnake for breakfast," said Roldan, and Adan shuddered at the mere thought. They cooked a small piece of meat, all that was left of their store, and it but whetted their appetite.

"There's only one thing to do," said Roldan, "and that is to get to the Mission as quickly as possible. Chocolate! Beans! possibly chicken! Think of it. Come! Come!"

Adan scrambled to his feet and saddled the mustang. It was agreed that they should ride him by turns, the other running at a brisk trot.

The sun was barely up when they started. A light mist lay on the turbulent waters and puffed among the sweet-scented chaparral. Roldan rode during the first hour, Adan running ahead, his glance darting from right to left, but encountering eyes neither malignant nor savage. Shortly after he mounted the horse the mist lifted and rolled back to the ocean. They had left the chaparral some time before and now discovered that they were in an open plain. In the distance were high hills over which wound a white trail. Between these hills and the travellers was a moving mass of something. Adan reined in suddenly.

"Roldan," he said, "are those horses? You have the longer sight."

Roldan made a funnel of his hand. "Surely, surely!" he cried. "What luck! I hate walking. They are probably wild, but I never saw the mustang I could not lasso."

"Yes, you can do the lassoing," said Adan, grimly. "My thumb nearly went off last night, and is twice its size."

"Adan," said his friend, laying his hand on his comrade's knee. "I haven't thanked you. I haven't mentioned it; but it is because--well--I lay awake an hour last night trying to think of something to say--and-- and--thinking that I loved you better than my own brothers--"

"That will do, then," said Adan, gruffly. "We'll be kissing each other in a minute as we did at the Hacienda Perez; and I think that we are getting too big for that. I hear that American boys never kiss each other."

"Don't they?" asked Roldan, pricking up his ears. "How I should like to know some American boys. They must know so many things that we do not. Who told you?"

"Antonio Scarpia has been in America, you know--in Boston. He came back last month and rode over a few days ago for the night. I asked him many questions. He says they never show any feeling except when they get mad, and that they walk and row and play ball--with the feet, caramba!--and run about in the snow. He says they would think we were like girls with our fine clothes and our hammocks--"

"Girls!" cried Roldan, indignantly. "I'd like to see American or any other boys do better with that bear than we did, or lasso a friend in the midst of a boiling river as you did. And if they come here to laugh at us they'll find one pair of fists that are not soft if they do have lace ruffles over them. And I'd like to see them live all day on a horse as we do."

"True, true, you are always right," said Adan, soothingly. "Ay, I think those horses are coming this way. Better get up."

He moved back onto the anquera and Roldan sprang to his place and unwound the lariat. Like all of its kind, it was a slender woven cord about eighteen feet in length and made of tough strips of untanned hide. It was an admirable weapon in skilled hands, but not to be trifled with by the amateur. Many a careless Californian had lost a finger or thumb, and more than one had owed it lockjaw.

The wild horses advanced rapidly for a time, but when they saw that the brother to which curiosity had attracted them was apparently of an eccentric build they suddenly paused and scattered. Roldan raised the bridle and dashed in pursuit; but the others were unincumbered, fleet of foot and terrified. They fled like the wind.

"Drop off!" commanded Roldan, reining in. "Quick! I will have one."

Adan slid to the ground and the mustang sprang lightly forward. Roldan had singled out a well-built black, a little heavier than his mates and consequently somewhat in their rear. The mustang, who had slept off his fatigue, had no need of spur; he seemed to enter into the spirit of the chase--possibly realised that if the chase failed he might have a double load to carry. He dashed over the rough adobe plain, Roldan holding the bridle high in his left hand, the coiled lasso in his right. Adan waddled after, far in the rear. The other horses had fled to the four winds, but the pursued, occasionally ducking his head and kicking up his hind legs as if in contempt of the pretensions of mere man, made straight for the hills. Being undisciplined, however, he got over the ground clumsily, stumbled once or twice in the wide cracks of the adobe soil, and finally stopped short for want of wind. He swung about and glared defiantly at his pursuers out of injected eyes. He had never seen a lasso before, possibly not a man; but his instinct told him that the horse and rider behind him were not roving the plain in his own aimless fashion. He stood pawing the ground and shaking his great red nostrils. Suddenly to his surprise the part of the horse new to him lifted itself, and a black coiling something, graceful and swift as a rattlesnake, sprang through the air with a sharp audible rush. A quarter of a moment later he neighed with rage and terror: his neck was in a vice.

He gave a leap that nearly dragged Roldan from his saddle; but that expert young gentleman had secured the lariat to the high pommel of his saddle in a trice, and Don Jose Perez's mustang had thereafter to bear the brunt of the strain.

The wild animal pulled and tugged and tore up the ground; but finding that he but increased his own discomfort, he gradually subsided, and when Roldan finally turned about and rode slowly toward Adan he followed meekly enough.

When Adan saw the procession start in his direction he sat down on a stone to rest, and when it reached him he obeyed orders and sprang on the mustang's back as Roldan slipped off.

"That was well done, my friend," he said approvingly. "I could see it all; but I thought my eyes would fly out of my head."

Roldan walked cautiously up to his prize and attempted to pat it gently on the head. But it was some moments before he was able to touch the beast, who was sulky, cross, and frightened. When he did he swiftly loosened the lariat, and this procured him a meed of favour. The horse then allowed himself to be patted all down the side and back, nor once raised his hoof.

Suddenly Roldan sprang to his back, gripping the mane with his hands, the flanks with his knees. But this was one liberty too much. The horse stood on his hind legs, made as if to go over backward, then suddenly stiffened all four legs and sprang up and down as automatically as if worked by a spring. Roldan was now in his element. He had broken in more than one bucking horse. He remained as immovable as a fly on the top of a coach, only giving an occasional prick with his spur to madden the animal and wear him out the sooner.

Roldan had cast the lariat from the animal's neck as soon as he mounted, and it was well that he had, for his quarry made a sudden dash and did not stop for half a mile,--when he paused on his forefeet, waving his hind in the air.

But still Roldan kept his seat, Adan shouting: "Bravo! Bravo!" by way of encouragement.

The battle lasted nearly an hour; then the mustang confessed himself conquered, and the boys sought out the trail, from which they had wandered far, and continued their journey.

"Caramba!" exclaimed Roldan, "but I am famished, not to say tired. If it had been ten miles instead of twenty, it would not have been worth while."