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- THE VALIANT RUNAWAYS - 20/26 -


past month to resent it. He began at the beginning and told the story with his curious combination of reserve and dramatic fire. As he had already told it several times it ran glibly off his tongue and had several inevitable embellishments. The man, whose cold blue eyes had wandered at first, finally fixed themselves on Roldan; and his whole face gradually softened. When Roldan finished with his and Adan's rescue by Don Tiburcio's vaquero, he held out his hand and said solemnly,--

"Shake."

Roldan allowed his hand to be gripped by that hairy paw; he was too elated to resent it as a familiarity.

"You've got pluck," continued Hill, "and I respect pluck mor' 'n anything else on earth. You're a man and a gentleman, and Californy'll be proud of you yet. Got any more?"

Roldan related the tale of Rafael's prowess with the bull, his own encounter with the bear, and Adan's timely interference. Hill then shook the hands of the two other boys, and told them that as long as he had a roof above his head they could share it, and that he'd do anything to help them but steal horses, so help him Bob. Roldan then told the tale of the earthquake and stampede.

"Ugh!" exclaimed Hill, with a shudder. "That's one thing I can't abide-- your earthquakes. I tell you it's enough to take the grit outen a grizzly to hear the land sliden on the mountain and the big redwoods that has got their roots about the bed-rock come roarin' down. When an earthquake comes I go and stand in the middle of the creek so as I can see what's comin' all round. Once I was on the side of the mountain when one of those shakes come and I slid down twenty feet before I could stop myself. It's just the one thing that has happened to me that I can't help thinkin' about. Well, what kin I do for you? You're welcome to stay here, but this hut ain't no great shakes for such as you. Be you goin' home, now that the conscription's over?"

"No!" said Roldan, emphatically, "we are not. There are other reasons why we must go to Los Angeles as quickly as we can. Could you get us three horses?"

"I could get them from the priest--"

"No! no!"

"Why, what's the row with the priest? Got in his black books? I shouldn't like to do that myself."

"You said just now that you would do anything for us. Would you even hide us from the priest if he came here?"

"I would. And I ain't the one to ask questions. If you don't want to see the priest, it's not Jim Hill that will assist him to find you. Been there myself."

"Couldn't you get us three horses from my father's corral--the Rancho Encarnacion?" asked Rafael.

"I could, if you'd go with me; but horse-stealing is just the one thing I agreed not to do."

"You might go with him, Rafael," said Roldan. "You would get there after dark if you started now; and even if the vaqueros were not asleep they would not call your father."

"And I could send a message to my parents," said Rafael, eagerly. "Then they would not worry. Yes, I will go. The priest would not dare to harm me while I was with the Senor Hill."

"Oh, the two of us would be a match for even him, if it came to that," said Hill. "Well, we'll start right now, there bein' no call for delay. We'll have to foot it, as my mustang's laid up. If the priest should turn up here--which ain't likely--jest run up that ladder inter the garret and pull it after yer. Well, hasta luego, as they say in these parts. Make yourselves ter home."

XX

"Now," said Roldan, as Rafael and Hill trudged into the perspective of the canon, "we must sleep, but by turns. That priest will surely go to the cave to-day, and when he finds us gone he'll come straight for the mountains; and not through the tunnel either; he'll come on that big brown horse of his. You sleep first, for two hours, and I'll watch--"

"You first, my friend--" Suppressing a mighty yawn.

"It is easier for me to keep awake. Lie down on that horrible bed. I do not so much mind waiting a little longer."

Adan lifted his nose at the bunk covered with a bearskin, then flung himself upon it, and was asleep in three minutes. Roldan sat with his eyes applied to a rift between the hide-door and the wall. It commanded a view of the opposite wall of the canon, over which wound a zig-zag horse trail.

The sun, which had hung directly above the canon when Hill and Rafael departed, had slid toward the west, leaving the canon cold and dark again, and Roldan was about to call Adan, when he sprang to his feet, and stood rigid, cold with fear.

On the brow of the wall opposite, three hundred feet above his head, stood a powerful brown horse. On him was a huge figure clad in a brown cassock, the hood drawn well over the face. It was impossible to distinguish features at that distance, but Roldan fancied that those terrible eyes were holding his own. He recovered himself and dragged Adan out of bed.

"The priest!" he said. "Help me to wash these dishes--quick. It will take him some time to get down."

Adan stumbled across the room, plunged the dishes into a pail of drinking water, then handed them to Roldan, who dried them hastily and piled them on the shelf. Then he flung the water across the clay floor of the hut.

"Get up the ladder," he commanded. Adan scrambled up. Roldan followed, and pulled the ladder after him. The garret was very low, and half full of skins. They could not stand upright. It was also bitterly cold. Each hastily wrapped a skin about his body, and lay full length, Roldan on his face, his eyes applied to a chink in the rough floor.

A few moments later the door was flung aside and the priest strode in.

Roldan shuddered, but not with personal fear. The priest looked like a man who had just left the rack of his native Spain. His hair--the hood had fallen back--stood on end, his face and tightened lips were livid, his eyes rolled wildly.

"Jim!" he said hoarsely. "Jim!"

He left the hut as abruptly as he had entered it.

"He has gone to look at the mouth of the tunnel," whispered Roldan. "What fools we were not to cover it up again. Then he would have walked its length to find us, and the horses might have come before he returned. Well, he cannot get us until he pulls the roof down."

"He could do it," whispered Adan, grimly. "Those hands! Dios de mi alma!"

"He will think we have gone somewhere with Don Jim."

The priest returned in less than half an hour. His face, if anything, was still more terrible to look upon. There was a touch of foam on his lips. His great hands were clinched. He strode over to the bunk and lifted the heaped-up bearskin. Suddenly he pressed his face into the fur.

"Perfume--Dona Martina's," he exclaimed. "They have been here."

He raised his face to the ceiling, and the boys held their mouths open that their teeth might not clack together. They closed their eyes: instinct bade them give heed to visual magnetism. Roldan immediately wanted to cough, Adan to scratch his nose. The next few moments were the most agonised of their lives. They felt the priest lift his hands and pass them slowly along the ceiling, they felt those eyes searching every crevice. Then they felt him grip the edge of the aperture and lift himself until his eyes were above the garret floor. But it was pitch dark. He could not even see the ladder, much less the boys under the bear skins.

The priest dropped to the floor and seated himself upon a box, dropping his face into his hands. There he sat, motionless, for hours. The boys buried their heads in the skins and went to sleep.

They were awakened by the sound of voices. A candle flared below. Hill had entered. He and the priest were alone.

"They were here, sir, that's true enough. I've just taken them to the Sennor Carriller's and pointed them fur home. They seemed in a hurry to vamos these parts."

The priest groaned and struck his fist on the table. "Then they are leagues away by this."

"They be, for a fact. Their horses was fresh and they was powerful keen. They was just sweaten' to git home."

"And Rafael Carillo? Did he go with them?"

"He didn't. He allowed to, but his father warnt agreeable. In fact he was--savin' your grace--cussed disagreeable. He corralled us as we was corrallen the horses; and although he was mighty mad at such French leave, he said, speakin' of the other two kids, that they could take the two horses and git, and the sooner the better, and if they never come lookin' for adventures in these parts agin the better he'd be pleased."

The priest did not appear to doubt him. He was looking through the doorway. Roldan could not see his face, but he saw the stare of wonder on Hill's.

"Very well," said the priest, after a moment, and his voice was hardly audible. "I shall return now. Can you come down to the Mission to- morrow--no, the day after. I have a secret to confide to you, and it will not be to your disadvantage to know it. I had no intention of telling any one, but I need help, and now more than ever. There is no time to be lost. Can you come early?"

"I'll be there between dawn and ten o'clock."

"That will do. Good night." And the priest went out.


THE VALIANT RUNAWAYS - 20/26

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