After they reached the highway, and had trotted briskly on for a mile, Alessandro suddenly put out his hand, and taking Baba by the rein, began turning him round and round in the road.
“We will not go any farther in the road,” he said, “but I must conceal our tracks here. We will go backwards for a few paces.” The obedient Baba backed slowly, half dancing, as if he understood the trick; the Indian pony, too, curvetted awkwardly, then by a sudden bound under Alessandro’s skilful guidance, leaped over a rock to the right, and stood waiting further orders. Baba followed, and Capitan; and there was no trail to show where they had left the road.
After trotting the pony round and round again in ever-widening circles, cantering off in one direction after another, then backing over the tracks for a few moments, Ramona docilely following, though much bewildered as to what it all meant, Alessandro said: “I think now they will never discover where we left the road. They will ride along, seeing our tracks plain, and then they will be so sure that we would have kept straight on, that they will not notice for a time; and when they do, they will never be able to see where the trail ended. And now my Majella has a very hard ride before her. Will she be afraid?”
“Afraid!” laughed Ramona. “Afraid,—on Baba, and with you!”
But it was indeed a hard ride. Alessandro had 266 decided to hide for the day in a cañon he knew, from which a narrow trail led direct to Temecula,—a trail which was known to none but Indians. Once in this cañon, they would be safe from all possible pursuit. Alessandro did not in the least share Ramona’s confidence that no effort would be made to overtake them. To his mind, it appeared certain that the Señora would never accept the situation without making an attempt to recover at least the horse and the dog. “She can say, if she chooses, that I have stolen one of her horses,” he thought to himself bitterly; “and everybody would believe her. Nobody would believe us, if we said it was the Señorita’s own horse.”
The head of the cañon was only a couple of miles from the road; but it was in a nearly impenetrable thicket of chaparral, where young oaks had grown up so high that their tops made, as it were, a second stratum of thicket. Alessandro had never ridden through it; he had come up on foot once from the other side, and, forcing his way through the tangle, had found, to his surprise, that he was near the highway. It was from this cañon that he had brought the ferns which it had so delighted Ramona to arrange for the decoration of the chapel. The place was filled with them, growing almost in tropical luxuriance; but this was a mile or so farther down, and to reach that spot from above, Alessandro had had to let himself down a sheer wall of stone. The cañon at its head was little more than a rift in the rocks, and the stream which had its rise in it was only a trickling spring at the beginning. It was this precious water, as well as the inaccessibility of the spot, which had decided Alessandro to gain the place at all hazards and costs. But a wall of granite would not have seemed a much more insuperable obstacle than did this wall of chaparral, along which they rode, vainly 267 searching for a break in it. It appeared to Alessandro to have thickened and knit even since the last spring. At last they made their way down a small side cañon,—a sort of wing to the main cañon; a very few rods down this, and they were as hidden from view from above as if the earth had swallowed them. The first red tints of the dawn were coming. From the eastern horizon to the zenith, the whole sky was like a dappled crimson fleece.
“Oh, what a lovely place!” exclaimed Ramona. “I am sure this was not a hard ride at all, Alessandro! Is this where we are to stay?”
Alessandro turned a compassionate look upon her. “How little does the wood-dove know of rough places!” he said. “This is only the beginning; hardly is it even the beginning.”
Fastening his pony to a bush, he reconnoitred the place, disappearing from sight the moment he entered the chaparral in any direction. Returning at last, with a grave face, he said, “Will Majella let me leave her here for a little time? There is a way, but I can find it only on foot. I will not be gone long. I know it is near.”
Tears came into Ramona’s eyes. The only thing she dreaded was the losing sight of Alessandro. He gazed at her anxiously. “I must go, Majella,” he said with emphasis. “We are in danger here.”
“Go! go! Alessandro,” she cried. “But, oh, do not be long!”
As he disappeared in the thicket, the tough boughs crackling and snapping before him, it seemed to Ramona that she was again alone in the world. Capitan, too, bounded after Alessandro, and did not return at her call. All was still. Ramona laid her head on Baba’s neck. The moments seemed hours. At last, just as the yellow light streamed across the sky, and the crimson fleeces turned in one second to gold, she 268 heard Alessandro’s steps, the next moment saw his face. It was aglow with joy.
“I have found the trail!” he exclaimed; “but we must climb up again out of this; and it is too light. I like it not.”
With fear and trembling they urged their horses up and out into the open again, and galloped a half-mile farther west, still keeping as close to the chaparral thicket as possible. Here Alessandro, who led the way, suddenly turned into the very thicket itself; no apparent opening; but the boughs parted and closed, and his head appeared above them; still the little pony was trotting bravely along. Baba snorted with displeasure as he plunged into the same bristling pathway. The thick-set, thorny branches smote Ramona’s cheeks. What was worse, they caught the nets swung on Baba’s sides; presently these were held fast, and Baba began to rear and kick. Here was a real difficulty. Alessandro dismounted, cut the strings, and put both the packages securely on the back of his own pony. “I will walk,” he said. “It was only a little way longer I would have ridden. I shall lead Baba, where it is narrow.”
“Narrow,” indeed. It was from sheer terror, soon, that Ramona shut her eyes. A path, it seemed to her only a hand’s-breadth wide,—a stony, crumbling path,—on the side of a precipice, down which the stones rolled, and rolled, and rolled, echoing, far out of sight, as they passed; at each step the beasts took, the stones rolled and fell. Only the yucca-plants, with their sharp bayonet-leaves, had made shift to keep foothold on this precipice. Of these there were thousands; and their tall flower-stalks, fifteen, twenty feet high, set thick with the shining, smooth seed-cups, glistened like satin chalices in the sun. Below—hundreds of feet below—lay the cañon bottom, a solid bed of chaparral, looking soft and even 269 as a bed of moss. Giant sycamore-trees lifted their heads, at intervals, above this; and far out in the plain glistened the loops of the river, whose sources, unknown to the world, seen of but few human eyes, were to be waters of comfort to these fugitives this day.
Alessandro was cheered. The trail was child’s play to him. At the first tread of Baba’s dainty steps on the rolling stones, he saw that the horse was as sure-footed as an Indian pony. In a few short hours, now, they would be all at rest. He knew where, under a sycamore-clump, there was running water, clear as crystal, and cold,—almost colder than one could drink,—and green grass too; plenty for two days’ feed for the horses, or even three; and all California might be searched over in vain for them, once they were down this trail. His heart full of joy at these thoughts, he turned, to see Ramona pallid, her lips parted, her eyes full of terror. He had forgotten that her riding had hitherto been only on the smooth ways of the valley and the plain. There she was so fearless, that he had had no misgiving about her nerves here; but she had dropped the reins, was clutching Baba’s mane with both hands, and sitting unsteadily in her saddle. She had been too proud to cry out; but she was nearly beside herself with fright. Alessandro halted so suddenly that Baba, whose nose was nearly on his shoulder, came to so sharp a stop that Ramona uttered a cry. She thought he had lost his footing.
Alessandro looked at her in dismay. To dismount on that perilous trail was impossible; moreover, to walk there would take more nerve than to ride. Yet she looked as if she could not much longer keep her seat.
“Carita,” he cried, “I was stupid not to have told you how narrow the way is; but it is safe. I can 270 run in it. I ran all this way with the ferns on my back I brought for you.”
“Oh, did you?” gasped Ramona, diverted, for the moment, from her contemplation of the abyss, and more reassured by that change of her thoughts than she could have been by anything else. “Did you? It is frightful, Alessandro. I never heard of such a trail. I feel as if I were on a rope in the air. If I could get down and go on my hands and knees, I think I would like it better. Could I?”
“I would not dare to have you get off, just here, Majella,” answered Alessandro, sorrowfully. “It is dreadful to me to see you suffer so; I will go very slowly. Indeed, it is safe; we all came up here, the whole band, for the sheep-shearing,—old Fernando on his horse all the way.”
“Really,” said Ramona, taking comfort at each word, “I will try not to be so silly. Is it far, dearest Alessandro?”
“Not much more as steep as this, dear, nor so narrow; but it will be an hour yet before we stop.”
But the worst was over for Ramona now, and long before they reached the bottom of the precipice she was ready to laugh at her fears; only, as she looked back at the zigzag lines of the path over which she had come,—little more than a brown thread, they seemed, flung along the rock,—she shuddered.
Down in the bottom of the cañon it was still the dusky gloaming when they arrived. Day came late to this fairy spot. Only at high noon did the sun fairly shine in. As Ramona looked around her, she uttered an exclamation of delight, which satisfied Alessandro. “Yes,” he said, “when I came here for the ferns, I wished to myself many times that you could see it. There is not in all this country so beautiful a place. This is our first home, my Majella,” he added, in a tone almost solemn; and throwing his arms 271 around her, he drew her to his breast, with the first feeling of joy he had experienced.
“I wish we could live here always,” cried Ramona.
“Would Majella be content?” said Alessandro.
“Very,” she answered.
He sighed. “There would not be land enough, to live here,” he said. “If there were, I too would like to stay here till I died, Majella, and never see the face of a white man again!” Already the instinct of the hunted and wounded animal to seek hiding, was striving in Alessandro’s blood. “But there would be no food. We could not live here.” Ramona’s exclamation had set Alessandro to thinking, however. “Would Majella be content to stay here three days now?” he asked. “There is grass enough for the horses for that time. We should be very safe here; and I fear very much we should not be safe on any road. I think, Majella, the Señora will send men after Baba.”
“Baba!” cried Ramona, aghast at the idea. “My own horse! She would not dare to call it stealing a horse, to take my own Baba!” But even as she spoke, her heart misgave her. The Señora would dare anything; would misrepresent anything; only too well Ramona knew what the very mention of the phrase “horse-stealing” meant all through the country. She looked piteously at Alessandro. He read her thoughts.
“Yes, that is it, Majella,” he said. “If she sent men after Baba, there is no knowing what they might do. It would not do any good for you to say he was yours. They would not believe you; and they might take me too, if the Señora had told them to, and put me into Ventura jail.”
“She’s just wicked enough to do it!” cried Ramona. “Let us not stir out of this spot, Alessandro,—not for a week! Couldn’t we stay a week? By that time she would have given over looking for us.”272
“I am afraid not a week. There is not feed for the horses; and I do not know what we could eat. I have my gun, but there is not much, now, to kill.”
“But I have brought meat and bread, Alessandro,” said Ramona, earnestly, “and we could eat very little each day, and make it last!” She was like a child, in her simplicity and eagerness. Every other thought was for the time being driven out of her mind by the terror of being pursued. Pursuit of her, she knew, would not be in the Señora’s plan; but the reclaiming of Baba and Capitan, that was another thing. The more Ramona thought of it, the more it seemed to her a form of vengeance which would be likely to commend itself to the Señora’s mind. Felipe might possibly prevent it. It was he who had given Baba to her. He would feel that it would be shameful to recall or deny the gift. Only in Felipe lay Ramona’s hope.
If she had thought to tell Alessandro that in her farewell note to Felipe she had said that she supposed they were going to Father Salvierderra, it would have saved both her and Alessandro much disquietude. Alessandro would have known that men pursuing them, on that supposition, would have gone straight down the river road to the sea, and struck northward along the coast. But it did not occur to Ramona to mention this; in fact, she hardly recollected it after the first day. Alessandro had explained to her his plan, which was to go by way of Temecula to San Diego, to be married there by Father Gaspara, the priest of that parish, and then go to the village or pueblo of San Pasquale, about fifteen miles northwest of San Diego. A cousin of Alessandro’s was the head man of this village, and had many times begged him to come there to live; but Alessandro had steadily refused, believing it to be his duty to remain at Temecula with his father. San 273 Pasquale was a regularly established pueblo, founded by a number of the Indian neophytes of the San Luis Rey Mission at the time of the breaking up of that Mission. It was established by a decree of the Governor of California, and the lands of the San Pasquale Valley given to it. A paper recording this establishment and gift, signed by the Governor’s own hand, was given to the Indian who was the first Alcalde of the pueblo. He was Chief Pablo’s brother. At his death the authority passed into the hands of his son, Ysidro, the cousin of whom Alessandro had spoken.
“Ysidro has that paper still,” Alessandro said, “and he thinks it will keep them their village. Perhaps it will; but the Americans are beginning to come in at the head of the valley, and I do not believe, Majella, there is any safety anywhere. Still, for a few years we can perhaps stay there. There are nearly two hundred Indians in the valley; it is much better than Temecula, and Ysidro’s people are much better off than ours were. They have splendid herds of cattle and horses, and large wheat-fields. Ysidro’s house stands under a great fig-tree; they say it is the largest fig-tree in the country.”
“But, Alessandro,” cried Ramona, “why do you think it is not safe there, if Ysidro has the paper? I thought a paper made it all right.”
“I don’t know,” replied Alessandro. “Perhaps it may be; but I have got the feeling now that nothing will be of any use against the Americans. I don’t believe they will mind the paper.”
“They didn’t mind the papers the Señora had for all that land of hers they took away,” said Ramona, thoughtfully. “But Felipe said that was because Pio Pico was a bad man, and gave away lands he had no right to give away.”
“That’s just it,” said Alessandro. “Can’t they say 274 that same thing about any governor, especially if he has given lands to us? If the Señora couldn’t keep hers, with Señor Felipe to help her, and he knows all about the law, and can speak the American language, what chance is there for us? We can’t take care of ourselves any better than the wild beasts can, my Majella. Oh, why, why did you come with me? Why did I let you?”
After such words as these, Alessandro would throw himself on the ground, and for a few moments not even Ramona’s voice would make him look up. It was strange that the gentle girl, unused to hardship, or to the thought of danger, did not find herself terrified by these fierce glooms and apprehensions of her lover. But she was appalled by nothing. Saved from the only thing in life she had dreaded, sure that Alessandro lived, and that he would not leave her, she had no fears. This was partly from her inexperience, from her utter inability to conceive of the things Alessandro’s imagination painted in colors only too true; but it was also largely due to the inalienable loyalty and quenchless courage of her soul,—qualities in her nature never yet tested; qualities of which she hardly knew so much as the name, but which were to bear her steadfast and buoyant through many sorrowful years.
Before nightfall of this their first day in the wilderness, Alessandro had prepared for Ramona a bed of finely broken twigs of the manzanita and ceanothus, both of which grew in abundance all through the cañon. Above these he spread layers of glossy ferns, five and six feet long; when it was done, it was a couch no queen need have scorned. As Ramona seated herself on it, she exclaimed: “Now I shall see how it feels to lie and look up at the stars at night! Do you recollect, Alessandro, the night you put Felipe’s bed on the veranda, when you told me how beautiful it 275 was to lie at night out of doors and look up at the stars?”
Indeed did Alessandro remember that night, the first moment he had ever dared to dream of the Señorita Ramona as his own. “Yes, I remember it, my Majella,” he answered slowly; and in a moment more added, “That was the day Juan Can had told me that your mother was of my people; and that was the night I first dared in my thoughts to say that perhaps you might some day love me.”
“But where are you going to sleep, Alessandro?” said Ramona, seeing that he spread no more boughs. “You have made yourself no bed.”
Alessandro laughed. “I need no bed,” he said. “We think it is on our mother’s lap we lie, when we lie on the ground. It is not hard, Majella. It is soft, and rests one better than beds. But to-night I shall not sleep. I will sit by this tree and watch.”
“Why, what are you afraid of?” asked Ramona.
“It may grow so cold that I must make a fire for Majella,” he answered. “It sometimes gets very cold before morning in these cañons; so I shall feel safer to watch to-night.”
This he said, not to alarm Ramona. His real reason for watching was, that he had seen on the edge of the stream tracks which gave him uneasiness. They were faint and evidently old; but they looked like the tracks of a mountain lion. As soon as it was dark enough to prevent the curl of smoke from being seen from below, he would light a fire, and keep it blazing all night, and watch, gun in hand, lest the beast return.
“But you will be dead, Alessandro, if you do not sleep. You are not strong,” said Ramona, anxiously.
“I am strong now, Majella,” answered Alessandro. And indeed he did already look like a renewed man, spite of all his fatigue and anxiety. “I am no longer 276 weak; and to-morrow I will sleep, and you shall watch.”
“Will you lie on the fern-bed then?” asked Ramona, gleefully.
“I would like the ground better,” said honest Alessandro.
Ramona looked disappointed. “That is very strange,” she said. “It is not so soft, this bed of boughs, that one need fear to be made tender by lying on it,” she continued, throwing herself down; “but oh, how sweet, how sweet it smells!”
“Yes, there is spice-wood in it,” he answered. “I put it in at the head, for Majella’s pillow.”
Ramona was very tired, and she was happy. All night long she slept like a child. She did not hear Alessandro’s steps. She did not hear the crackling of the fire he lighted. She did not hear the barking of Capitan, who more than once, spite of all Alessandro could do to quiet him, made the cañon echo with sharp, quick notes of warning, as he heard the stealthy steps of wild creatures in the chaparral. Hour after hour she slept on. And hour after hour Alessandro sat leaning against a huge sycamore-trunk, and watched her. As the fitful firelight played over her face, he thought he had never seen it so beautiful. Its expression of calm repose insensibly soothed and strengthened him. She looked like a saint, he thought; perhaps it was as a saint of help and guidance, the Virgin was sending her to him and his people. The darkness deepened, became blackness; only the red gleams from the fire broke it, in swaying rifts, as the wind makes rifts in black storm-clouds in the heavens. With the darkness, the stillness also deepened. Nothing broke that, except an occasional motion of Baba or the pony, or an alert signal from Capitan; then all seemed stiller than ever. Alessandro felt as if God himself were in the 277 cañon. Countless times in his life before he had lain in lonely places under the sky and watched the night through, but he never felt like this. It was ecstasy, and yet it was pain. What was to come on the morrow, and the next morrow, and the next, and the next, all through the coming years? What was to come to this beloved and loving woman who lay there sleeping, so confident, so trustful, guarded only by him,—by him, Alessandro, the exile, fugitive, homeless man?
Before the dawn, wood-doves began their calling. The cañon was full of them, no two notes quite alike, it seemed to Alessandro’s sharpened sense; pair after pair, he fancied that he recognized, speaking and replying, as did the pair whose voices had so comforted him the night he watched under the geranium hedge by the Moreno chapel,—“Love?” “Here!” “Love?” “Here!” They comforted him still more now. “They too have only each other,” he thought, as he bent his eyes lovingly on Ramona’s face.
It was dawn, and past dawn, on the plains, before it was yet morning twilight in the cañon; but the birds in the upper boughs of the sycamores caught the tokens of the coming day, and began to twitter in the dusk. Their notes fell on Ramona’s sleeping ear, like the familiar sound of the linnets in the veranda-thatch at home, and waked her instantly. Sitting up bewildered, and looking about her, she exclaimed, “Oh, is it morning already, and so dark? The birds can see more sky than we! Sing, Alessandro” and she began the hymn:—
“‘Singers at dawn
From the heavens above
People all regions;
Gladly we too sing,’”
Never went up truer invocation, from sweeter spot.278
“Sing not so loud, my Majel,” whispered Alessandro, as her voice went carolling like a lark’s in the pure ether. “There might be hunters near who would hear;” and he joined in with low and muffled tones.
As she dropped her voice at this caution, it seemed even sweeter than before:—
“‘Come, O sinners,
Come, and we will sing
To our refuge.’”
“Ah, Majella, there is no sinner here, except me!” said Alessandro. “My Majella is like one of the Virgin’s own saints.” And indeed he might have been forgiven the thought, as he gazed at Ramona, sitting there in the shimmering light, her face thrown out into relief by the gray wall of fern-draped rock behind her; her splendid hair, unbound, falling in tangled masses to her waist; her cheeks flushed, her face radiant with devout and fervent supplication, her eyes uplifted to the narrow belt of sky overhead, where filmy vapors were turning to gold, touched by a sun she could not see.
“Hush, my love,” she breathed rather than said. “That would be a sin, if you really thought it.
‘O beautiful Queen,
Princess of Heaven,’”
she continued, repeating the first lines of the song; and then, sinking on her knees, reached out one hand for Alessandro’s, and glided, almost without a break in the melodious sound, into a low recitative of the morning prayers. Her rosary was of fine-chased gold beads, with an ivory crucifix; a rare and precious relic of the Missions’ olden times. It had belonged to Father Peyri himself, was given by him to Father Salvierderra, and by Father Salvierderra to the 279 “blessed child,” Ramona, at her confirmation. A warmer token of his love and trust he could not have bestowed upon her, and to Ramona’s religious and affectionate heart it had always seemed a bond and an assurance, not only of Father Salvierderra’s love, but of the love and protection of the now sainted Peyri.
As she pronounced the last words of her trusting prayer, and slipped the last of the golden beads along on its string, a thread of sunlight shot into the cañon through a deep narrow gap in its rocky eastern crest,—shot in for a second, no more; fell aslant the rosary, lighted it; by a flash as if of fire, across the fine-cut facets of the beads, on Ramona’s hands, and on the white face of the ivory Christ. Only a flash, and it was gone! To both Ramona and Alessandro it came like an omen,—like a message straight from the Virgin. Could she choose better messenger,—she, the compassionate one, the loving woman in heaven; mother of the Christ to whom they prayed, through her,—mother, for whose sake He would regard their least cry,—could she choose better messenger, or swifter, than the sunbeam, to say that she heard and would help them in these sore straits?
Perhaps there were not, in the whole great world, at that moment to be found, two souls who were experiencing so vivid a happiness as thrilled the veins of these two friendless ones, on their knees, alone in the wilderness, gazing half awe-stricken at the shining rosary.