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- THE VALIANT RUNAWAYS - 5/26 -


"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."

VI

They rode on rapidly, too hungry to talk. The ground began to rise, and they advanced through hills sprouting with the early green of winter. Once they paused, and tethering the horses where they could feed, shot several quail and roasted them. But the pangs of hunger were by no means allayed, and when, in the early afternoon, they saw the white walls of the Mission below them, they gave a shout of joy.

The Mission stood in the middle of a valley, well away from woods and hills, and surrounded by a large vineyard and orchard. On the long corridor traversing the building adjoining the church, several figures in habit and cowl walked slowly behind the arches. Indians were in the vineyards and orchards and moving about the rancheria adjacent to the main buildings. Cattle were browsing on the hills. A stream tangled in willows cut a zig-zag course across the valley.

The boys rode quickly down the hillside. As the padres heard the approaching hoof-beats they paused in their walk, and shading their eyes with their hands gazed earnestly at the travellers.

"Friends! Friends!" cried Roldan gaily, as the tired steeds trotted up to the corridor. The boys dismounted and made a deep reverence. One of the priests, a man with a grave stern face came forward.

"Who are you, my children?" he asked. "You are the sons of aristocrats, and yet you are torn and unkempt, and one of you has ridden many leagues without a saddle. Are you runaways? The shelter of the Mission is for all, but we do not countenance insubordination."

Roldan introduced himself and his friend. "We are runaways, my father," he added, "but from the government; and we have arranged that our parents shall not be anxious. We do not wish to be drafted."

The priest's brow relaxed. The padres had little respect for a system that owed its existence mainly to the vanity of governors and generals, and the present governor, Micheltorena, had by no means won the approval of the Church.

"You are welcome, my sons," he said. "If the officers come we cannot deny your presence; but I do not think they will find their way here, and we certainly shall not send for them. You are hungry and tired, no?"

"Father, we could eat our horses."

The padre laughed, and calling a young brother who was piously telling his beads bade him go and see that a hasty luncheon was prepared. An Indian came and took the mustangs, and the boys were led by the hospitable priest into a large room, comfortably furnished, the walls hung with some very good religious pictures.

The padres, in truth, were glad of visitors at any time. They were clever educated men who had given their lives to christianising brainless savages in a sparsely settled country; and any news of the outer world was very welcome. They pushed back their hoods and sat about the boys, their faces beaming with interest and amusement as they listened to the adventures of those wayward youths. And as all men, even priests, love courage and audacity, they clapped their hands together more than once or embraced the lads heartily.

When luncheon was announced and the doors of the long refectory thrown open, the boys were shown in as if they had been princes and told to satisfy themselves. This they did, nor ever uttered a word. The priests had tactfully withdrawn. Roldan and Adan ate enough beans, rice, cold chicken, tongue, and dulces to make up for their prolonged fast, and finished with a cup of chocolate and a bunch of grapes. After that they went to sleep in two clean little cells, to which they were conducted, nor awakened until all the air was ringing with the sweet-voiced clangor of mission bells.

Roldan turned on his elbow and looked out of the window. The square was rapidly filling with Indians, some running in willingly enough, others driven in at the end of the leash by the lay brethren. All knelt on the ground for a few moments. Roldan, whose eyes were very keen, and, during these days, preternaturally sharpened, noted that several of the Indians were whispering under cover of the loud mutterings about them. The face of the Californian Indian is not pleasant to contemplate at any time: it is either stupid or sinister. Roldan fancied he detected something particularly evil in the glance of the whispering savages, and resolved to warn the priests.

The scene was peaceful enough. The cattle browsing on the hills gave the landscape an air of great repose, and the mountains beyond were lost


THE VALIANT RUNAWAYS - 5/26

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