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- THE VALIANT RUNAWAYS - 3/26 -


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.

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 VALIANT RUNAWAYS - 3/26

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