The night passed quietly. The soil was soft and sandy, and, rolled in his poncho, Will slept as comfortably as if in a hammock. They were in the saddle early, for the day’s ride would be a very long one, and Juan intended to give the horses a day’s rest at Martinez.
“We don’t consider sixty miles to be a long journey here,” Juan said, as they started, “and, indeed, if one starts on fresh horses it is a mere nothing; but when one rides the same, day after day, forty is as much as one has a right to expect from them after one is fairly on his way. We shall meet with no water to-day, and it is especially for this part of the journey that we brought the water-skins with us.”
“I noticed that you did not fill them half full at the last stream we crossed..”
“No, it was not necessary; the horses will have a good drink at the stream we shall cross in a couple of hours, and we shall fill the skins there; beyond that we enter the mountains and travel through an extremely difficult pass, or, rather, I should say, passes, till we come down into the valley. The carts do not come this way; they strike the Colorado River many miles down and follow its bank. It is at least a third longer, but if it were three times as long they would have to go that way; the passes are difficult enough for horses, but they would be impossible for wheeled carriages.”
After riding for thirty miles they halted for half an hour; the horses were watered, and the men ate some of the meat the had cooked overnight and some cold pancakes that had been fried in deer’s fat. They were now far up on the hillside and following a regular track.
“Another hour’s sharp climbing and we shall be on the top summit of the pass. See to the priming of your rifles and pistols. If we are not attacked before we reach the top I shall admit that I have been wrong, and that the attack upon me was, after all, the work of street ruffians.”
The four vaqueros were ordered to look to their pistols before remounting; they did not carry rifles.
“Do you expect an attack, master? one asked. “I have not heard of there being any bands on the road just lately, but of course there may be some, and this bit of road is their favourite lurking-place, as the traffic between San Filepi and the Chatenezonais Valley all comes this way.”
“I do not know that I expect to be attacked, Lopez, but I have grounds for suspecting that it is possible. If we should be ambushed, dismount at once, and take up your position behind the rocks and fight them in their own way. If the road were good enough I should say gallop on, but it is too steep and too rough for that.”
Will Harland soon found that his friend had not exaggerated the difficulty of the pass. On both sides the hills sloped very steeply and were covered by boulders. The track in the middle of the ravine was just wide enough for a cart, but at distances of two hundred or three hundred yards apart the rock had been cut away for some twenty yards, so the two or three carts could draw aside there to allow others coming the other way to pass.
As it was inconvenient for two to ride abreast, Juan said: “We had better go in single file.”
“Yes, and I will ride first” Will replied. “If there should be a fellow hiding among these rocks, it will be you they are after, and, riding first, you would present an easy mark for them; whereas, if I am first, they won’t be able to aim at you till you are pretty nearly abreast of them.”
“I don’t like that,” Juan began, but Will pushed his horse forward. Both had unslung their rifles from their shoulders, and were carrying them in readiness for instant use.
“Keep your eyes on the rocks,” Juan said to the men behind him; “if one of you sees the least movement give a shout, and all throw yourselves at once off your horses.”
It would, however, have been no easy matter to distinguish a man’s head among the masses of rock and boulders through which in many places brushwood and small trees had sprung up, and, although all kept scanning the hillsides minutely, nothing suspicious was heard, until suddenly a shot was fired from a spot some forty feet up the rocks on the left-hand side. Will instantly swung himself to the ground, gave a sharp slap on his horse’s quarters, and ensconced himself behind a rock, while the animal, relieved from the weight of his rider, made his way rapidly along the path. The first shot had been followed by half a dozen others. There came from both sides of the ravine, and a ball striking the rock close to Will’s head, showed him that his position was no more safe there than it would have been on horseback. He therefore made a rush upward, and took up a position between two rocks which covered him from either side.
Then he took advantage of some bushes and crawled some yards farther along, until he came to a spot where he could lie in shelter, and yet obtain a view through the bushes both above and below him.
For some time shots were fired at intervals. Juan shouted to the vaqueros not to use their pistols.
“You would have no chance of hitting them,” he said, “and they would only pick you off one by one. Lie quiet for the present; keep your shots till they come to close quarters. Now, Will,” he said in English, “you watch the rocks above me, and I will watch those above you. Mark, if you can, where a shot is fired; lie with your rife pointed at it until the fellow stands up to fire again, then let him have it.”
Four shots were fired almost together from Will’s side, the assailants aiming in the direction from which the voice had come, but Will had no doubt that Juan had foreseen this and was in shelter when he spoke. Presently he saw a puff of smoke shoot out from the side of a large rock. He brought his rife to bear upon it and watched intently. Three minutes later a head appeared cautiously round the rock, then a shoulder appeared, and a rifle was pointed toward the spot behind which he had first sheltered. He fired, there was a sharp scream, and the rifle clattering down, exploding as it fell. The moment that he had fired, Will drew back into the shelter of the stone. Two other shots rang out, and the balls cut up and scattered the small pebbles on which he had been lying. He was able to observe, however, the position of one of his assailants. While he was reloading he heard the crack of Juan’s rifle, followed by an exclamation of satisfaction.
“That is two of them, Will. They will soon get tired of this game.”
The distances were so short, in fact, that it was almost impossible for even an indifferent shot to miss his aim when he once caught sight of the head of an enemy. Presently another shot struck the rock close to Will. It was fired some paces from the stone that he was watching, and showed that the assailants were using the same tactics that he had done, and were shifting their positions after firing. He moved a few yards away, and did not answer the next two or three shots that were fired.
“He is done for,” he heard one of the men on the other side of the ravine say. They were but some fifty feet away from him, and it was, therefore, easy to catch their words as they shouted from one to the other.
“Well, then, do down and attack the man we want,” another voice said. “No one but the Englishman had a rifle over there, so you are quite safe.”
“You had better come and show us the way. We did not bargin for this sort of thing. You said we should settle it all in one volley.”
“So you would have done, you fools, if you could have shot straight. Who could have supposed that you were all going to miss at that distance. Why, a child of ten years old would have fired straighter. However, I am ready to lead the way. You, over there, make a rush when we do.”
Will marked the exact position of the speaker. It was behind a large boulder some fifteen yards up the hill and as much ahead of him; he saw that to join the men who had been firing he would have to pass an open space between that and some other large mass of rock, and he laid his sight on that spot. The speaker, who was evidently confident that he was killed, and that therefore there was no danger of a shot being fired at him while he moved to join the others, appeared half a minute later. He was stooping, and held a pistol in each hand. The moment his body appeared in the line of fire Will pressed the trigger, and the man rolled over like a log. A cry of dismay burst from the hillside above Harland, where the men had evidently been watching also for their leader to join his comrades and give the signal for a rush.
“I have shot Melos, Juan!” Will shouted. “At least if he is, as you suppose, their leader.”
“Well done, indeed! We shall have no difficulty with the rest of them if their paymaster is dead; they will think of nothing now but saving their own wretched lives.”
The parties on the opposite sides of the ravine now shouted to each other. Two or three of them urged their companions to make a general rush, but the majority were altogether against this.
“Why should we throw away our lives?” one said. “They have all got pistols, and even if we got the better of them, four or five of us would be likely to go down before we had finished with them. Indeed, they would shoot us down directly we showed ourselves, and half of us would never reach the bottom.”
There was a silence which showed that there was a general feeling that he was right. Then the same speaker when on:
“Caballeros, we have been cruelly misled; we are poor men, and have been lead into this. Two of us have been killed; we ask your mercy.”
As he ceased there was a general cry of “Mercy! mercy!”
“You dogs!” Juan shouted back, “if it were not that all of your lives are not worth as much as a drop of the honest blood of those with me, I would not move from here until I had put an end to the last of you. However, you have had a lesson now. Come down one at a time into the road. When you get there drop your pistols and knives to the ground, and then do down the hill. When one man has started let the next man come down. How many are there of you?”
“There are six of us alive,” the man answered. “We are eight besides our leader. My brother was killed by you in San Diego the other night, and if it had not been for that I should not have come.”
“Look here, “ Juan said, “I shall see every one of your faces plainly as you come down, and when you have thrown down your arms you will stand and face this rock so that I may have a good look at you. I warn you to leave San Diego as soon as you get back, for when I return I will have the town searched for you, and any of you found there will pay for this with your lives. Now you come down first.”
One by one the six men came down, placed their weapons upon the ground, turned to the rock where Juan was lying, and then went down the pass without a word being uttered. When the last had gone Juan stepped down into the road, and was at once joined by Will, who had kept his rifle pointed on each man as he reached the road, in case he should intend treachery against Juan. Two of vaqueros also stepped out.
“Where is Pedro?” Juan asked.
“He is dead, sir. He was shot through the body, but had just enough strength to throw himself in among the rocks. I heard him groaning just at first, but he was soon silent; I could see him from where I lay, and he has not moved since.”
“See if he is dead, Sancho. This is a bad business.”
The man returned in a minute.
“He is quite dead, senor.”
“Where is the man you shot, Will? Let us see if my suspicions are correct.”
Will led the way to the spot, followed by the others. Juan glanced at the dead man.
“It is as I thought,” he said. Then he turned to the vaqueros. “You may as well search him. It is likely he has money upon him.”
“He has a bag, and a heavy one, sir,” one of them said, as he lifted a canvas bag from the dead man’s sash.
“Let us see what he valued my life at,” Juan replied.
The two vaqueros counted over the gold pieces.
“There are eighty of them.”
“Ten apiece,” Juan remarked. “Put aside sixty for the widows of Pedro and Lopez, and take ten each yourselves.”
“Shall we do anything with the body, senor?”
“Fetch some big stones and pile them over it. There will be no search for him, for you may be sure he has not mentioned to anyone in the town what he was going to do, or where he was going. He probably asked for a week’s leave of absence, and would likely enough say that he was going up to Los Angeles or Santa Barbara, and when he does not return it will be supposed that he has been murdered on the way. When you have done with him you had better do the same thing with the bodies of your two comrades. They ground is too rocky to dig graves, and they will sleep as well there as elsewhere. It would be impossible for us to carry them home.”
And hour’s labour and the work was finished. Will assisted the men in the work. Juan did not offer to do so.
“I have a bullet in my shoulder,” he said. “Another fellow fired the instant I shot his comrade. He luckily hit my shoulder instead of my head. I will get you to fetch Pedro’s sash and make a sling for my arm. We can do nothing for it until we go down to Monterey.”
"Have the horses gone far, do you think? Juan?"
"No, we shall probably find them a few hundred yards up the pass. They are trained not to go on without riders, and when their first alarm at the firing has ceased they will halt."
When the cairns were finished the vaqueros cut down two saplings and make a couple of rude crosses, which they fixed above their falled comrades. Then they all proceeded up the pass, and soon came upon the horses, and, mounting, continued their way down into Monterey, where they arrived just as the sun was setting. Here Juan's wound was attended to. The injury was to the left arm, which had been thrown forward in the act of firing. The ball struck just above the elbow, and had cut a groove from that point nearly up to the shoulder.
"This is evidently my unlucky arm at present, Will," he said, with a smile; "after having three gashes below the elbow a week ago, it now gets ploughed with a rife bullet."
"I should call it a lucky limb, Juan, considering that they are nothing but flesh wounds, and that had not the arm received them, both knife and bullet might have given you a vastly more serious wound elsewhere."
"Yes, that is true enough. There is one comfort in being wounded in this country. You can't go into the smallest village without finding half a dozen people capable of dressing an injury, more especially a knife wound. In fact, knife fights are so common that very little is thought of them unless a really dangerous injury is inflicted."
"Will not this prevent your riding for a day or two, Juan?"
"Not a bit of it. We had intended to stop here to-morrow to give a rest to the horses, but the next day we will push on. Happily, we shall not have to be on our guard against danger, for the risk of falling in with marauding red-skins is too slight to be thought of. Our next day's ride will be an easy one, across a cultivated country. Then we have a long day and a half of mountain work."
The passes which they had to traverse before arriving at Senor Sagasta's ranch astonished Harland, who had no previous experience of such scenery. Sometimes they were traveling up ravines so deep and rugged that it was almost twilight below, while at others they wound along a natural ledge on the face of precipices where a stumble of the horse would mean certain death to it and its rider. Higher and higher they wound, until, crossing a narrow shoulder of bare rock, they looked down into the broad valley owned by Juan's father.
"Do you see that white speck in from of the dark patch of trees? That is the hacienda. As the crow flies, I do not suppose it is more than seven or eight miles away, but by the way we have to go it is five times that distance, and if we are there by this time tomorrow we shall have every reason to be satisfied."
When they started out the next morning, Juan sent one of the vaqueros on the with news that he would arrive two hours after his messenger.
"It is just as well to give them notice," he said to Will. "I told him to mention that I have my arm in a sling, but that I have no serious injury. It has been hurting me a good bit for the past two days, and as I have not got much sleep I expect that I am not looking what you call very fit, therefore it is as well that they should not think me in a very bad way when I ride up; besides, I dare say they are getting anxious about me. You see, they will have calculated upon my having ridden a good deal faster than we have done, for with the two horses one can push on rapidly, and, knowing when the horses would have arrived at San Diego, they have, I am sure, been on the look-out for me for the past three or four days. Of course the wound was nothing in itself, but in such rough riding as have had one gets sudden jerks that do not improve its condition. You have bathed it for night and morning, but there is no doubt it has become a good deal inflamed, and I shall have to keep quiet for a few days after we get there."
Will himself was by no means sorry that the journey was approaching its end. Wholly unaccustomed to riding, he had been so stiff at the end of the second day's journey that he could scarcely dismount unassisted from his horse. This had to some extend worn off, but he still felt that every bone in his body ached. The last ten miles were performed at a canter. The horses seemed as glad as their riders at being on level ground again, and were doubtless well aware that they were close to their home once more. They were within three miles of the hacienda, when they saw two mounted figures riding to meet them.
"It is my father and sister," Juan said. "I thought that they would lose no time in starting after Antonio arrived with the news that I was close at hand."
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