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- Old Mission Stories of California - 20/22 -

He was not blind to the fact that, even should they succeed at this mission, there would be left in the land twenty others, each one of which would give aid in quelling a revolt at San Francisco, and punishing the insurgents. But Pomponio was in a desperate mood. He preferred failure and death to his life at the mission, and he knew his present life as a fugitive could not last; he would certainly be captured sooner or later.

He walked slowly on. Had not he been so absorbed in thought of the crisis of his life, on the brink of which he stood, the indications of something unusual and foreboding would have arrested his attention. A rustling among the leaves and brush of the undergrowth told of the presence of some animated thing, human or brute. Once a gleam, as of some highly burnished metal flashing in the sun, was to be detected - that surely was no animal! But Pomponio walked on oblivious to these signs which, at any other time, he would have been the first to notice. He was within a few yards of the hut, and on the edge of the clearing, when he heard a crackling among the branches underfoot, and a rushing toward him. One glance was enough. Three soldiers, armed with muskets, were upon him, one on each side, the third in front. They were close to him before he was aware of their presence, and escape was impossible, for he was seized and his arms bound behind him almost as soon as he knew he was captured.

"Aha! we have you at last," cried the leader. "You thought we could not find you out here, hiding in the forest. And I must say it has been hard enough and taken long enough. But we have you safe now, you rascal."

Pomponio said not a word. From the first, so soon as he saw he was helpless, he submitted quietly, and suffered the soldiers to bind his arms with the leather thong they had brought with them. Had his Indian followers been within sound of his voice, he would have shouted to them to come, not to rescue him - that could not have been done, for the soldiers, at the instant of his call and the answering cries of the Indians, would have shot him dead - but to kill the soldiers. The Indians were too far distant for this. How the soldiers had escaped the savages was a mystery. They must have been at his hut soon after his leaving it that morning, and kept watch for the return of its inmate, thinking it might be Pomponio himself, or some one who would lead to the discovery of his whereabouts. Only in this way could they have missed the Indians roaming in the forest that day, as they made their preparations for the eventful morrow.

"Now, my man, off to the presidio," said the leader, after they had finished binding Pomponio's arms securely. "We have no time to lose; the sun is low in the west, and will be set long before we get there. So step lively all."

The soldiers picked up their muskets, and started off quickly in the direction of the mission, Pomponio guarded by a man on each side, grasping his pinioned arms. Alas! Was this the end of his long, long planning; was this the outcome of the insurrection which was to have been the prelude to a glorious victory, that he should have been caught through his own carelessness and carried off ignominiously to prison? Pomponio could have sacrificed his life gladly for the cause he had so much at heart; but to be captured before the blow for liberty had been struck was unbearable. He had been the prime mover in planning the revolt, and well he knew his capture sounded the knell, for no one could take his place successfully as leader.

The soldiers hurried their prisoner forward almost on the run, partly because it was so late, and they had a long walk before them, partly from fear of encountering some of the savages they knew were in the forest. However, they were not molested, and reached the mission, lying on their way, as the last bit of sunset color faded away on the horizon. They delayed only long enough to relate the circumstance of the capture, and to get two of the soldiers, acting as guard at the mission, to accompany them to the presidio. Pomponio did not see the Father, who was engaged with the sick in the hospital, and he was glad. After a stop, of a few minutes, they again took up their march, and reached the presidio a little later. Here the commandant of the garrison, after having heard the tale of the leader, and taken a look at Pomponio, ordered him to be chained to the wall in a room of the prison. This was done. The chains were fastened around his ankles; his arms were unbound, and he was left to solitude and darkness.

Poor savage captive! Alone, abandoned, and chained to the wall of the little cell he was in, so closely that he could barely reach the low, rough bench on which to sit. But Pomponio could have borne his imprisonment patiently, even cheerfully, had the rebellion only taken place, successfully or not. That was the maddening thought. He buried his head in his hands. Well he knew that all hope was over. Even though he might manage to escape, he would find the Indians dispersed and in hiding, too frightened at the effect his capture might have on the Spaniards, and the result to themselves. All was over. He had nothing farther to live for. Even the thought of Rosa failed to rouse him, for he knew he had been too wicked in the eyes of the fathers to be permitted to see her again - whether in prison or liberated, if such a thing could have been dreamed of, she was dead to him.

Yet the love of life is implanted too deeply in the human breast to die before life itself deserts our mortal body. As Pomponio crouched there, bound and forsaken, a passionate feeling of revolt at his doom arose within him. Was he to be killed; must he leave this earth, beautiful to him even when in the lowest depths of misery, and that, too, at the command of his enemies, who had stolen his country and made him and his kindred slaves? They should not take his life, the only thing they had left him. And with the wish came into his mind a plan of escape that made him start.

When the soldiers arrested and imprisoned Pomponio, they neglected to search him, thinking, no doubt, that by no possible means could he escape from them, chained as securely as if to the solid rock itself. Pomponio had, stuck in his belt underneath his shirt, a hunting-knife, his trusty weapon and constant companion. No one who has not lived in the wilderness can have any idea of the value of the hunting-knife. The uses to which it can be put are countless. It is pocket-knife, scissors, hatchet, dagger, and all cutting and stabbing instruments in one; it will, moreover, take the place of revolver and rifle on many occasions, and has one immense advantage over them - its utter silence. It is a powerful, and, at need, murderous weapon.

Pomponio pulled out his knife from its leather sheath and examined it by touch, for it was too dark to see it. He felt carefully of the blade; yes, it was, sharp as a razor, and would do the work wanted of it. He grasped it nervously, but firmly, in his right hand. Then he paused. Was it, after all, worth the pain he must suffer; had life anything in store for him in recompense for what he must endure? He could not expect to be again a power among his brethren. At the best he would be the mere wreck of what he had, till now, been to his followers. They might look to him for counsel and advice: as a leader he could be of no more use. Again, admitting he had the courage to do the deed, could his strength hold out until he reached a place of safety? Suppose he fell helpless on the way; he would be found and brought back. Yet to do nothing was to receive certain death, or what, to Pomponio, with his Indian pride, was worse, a public whipping, such as he had heard was given sometimes for grave offenses; and afterward such humiliation in his life of bondage as was not to be borne. No, anything to free himself out of the hands of his persecutors. He hesitated no longer.

Clutching the knife, he stooped. Taking firm hold of his foot, as it rested on the ground, with his left hand, he poised the edge of the knife on his heel, back of the iron ring; then, with all his strength, he gave one quick, sharp cut downward and severed the prominence of the heel, removing the greater part of the os calcis. Not a sound passed his lips. Letting fall the knife, he pushed the ring down over the wound and the length of his foot. One foot was free, but only one; he was still as much a prisoner as before. Could he bear the torture again?

He gave himself no time to think, but picking up the knife, repeated, with convulsive strength, the operation on his other foot. With a low moan, wrung from him by the double agony, he leaned, faint and deathly sick, against the wall. In this position he remained for many minutes, until, above the pain, arose the thought that he was not yet free.

The small window of the prison was within easy reach from the floor, and it would have been the work of an instant to vault through it, had Pomponio not been disabled by the ugly wounds he had inflicted upon himself. With a sigh he stood up slowly on his maimed feet. Think of the power of will of the poor Indian, his love of life, and, more than his love of life, his hatred of his oppressors, to go through the agony each movement caused him! He crept up to the window, laid hold of the sill, and, with his hands, drew himself up to, and through it, the blood spouting from his wounds at every inch of progress. Lowering himself from the window, he lay down on the ground to gather a little strength for flight. But first he must bind up his feet, in order that his blood might not betray whither he went. Taking off his cotton shirt, he tore it in half, and wrapped each foot in a piece. The touch of the cloth to his wounds was like fire; but by this time his nerves were benumbed to such a degree that he scarcely noticed it.

Going on hands and knees, he started to creep over the distance lying between him and the fringe of trees near the presidio. There was a good half-mile, and Pomponio feared he could not cover it. Four times he fell to the ground unconscious, four times he revived and pushed on with all the strength he could muster. Fortunately he had started early in the night, for he needed every minute of the darkness. Foot after foot, yard after yard, he crept along, the presidio and the other buildings receding in the increasing distance behind him, while the welcome woods and hills, his refuge, loomed up, higher and darker, as he neared them. At last he reached the shelter of the trees, his friends, as the first faint streaks of the dawn began to brighten in the east. Only a little time remained before the hue and cry would begin, and he must find a place of concealment before then, else he were lost. Pomponio knew every part of the forests for miles around; and after getting under cover of them, he turned at a slight angle toward the southwest, and made straight for a cave he had once visited when hunting for a bear. He remembered it was concealed by a thick tangled mass of bushes and young trees, hiding it so effectually that discovery was well nigh impossible. In pursuing the bear, Pomponio had tracked it to the cave which it had entered, and this it was that gave him the secret. Summoning all his remaining strength for a last supreme effort, he dragged himself on slowly and painfully. It was not far, and soon he recognized the clump of bushes that shaded the entrance; and none too soon, for just before reaching it, he heard a musket shot in the direction of the presidio. His flight was discovered. But he was safe, for the present, at least; and crouching down in the depths of the dark cave, kind nature once more came to his relief, and he knew no more.

Great was the excitement at the presidio when Pomponio's escape was discovered. The soldiers, on going past the place on their morning rounds, saw the bloody tracks of the prisoner's descent on the wall under the window. An instant investigation was made, and the truth of the awful manner in which Pomponio had accomplished his evasion disclosed. Stupefied, the commandant and his men gazed at, the traces of the deed, the pools of half-dried dark blood and the two pieces of bone, eloquent of the fortitude he must have possessed, the desperation he was in, to perpetrate such an act.

Might not it be thought that so astonishing a hardihood would have

Old Mission Stories of California - 20/22

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