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A KNIGHT-ERRANT OF THEFOOTHILLS (1)

2006-09-07 20:35

    I. As Father Felipe slowly toiled up the dusty road towards the Rancho of the Blessed Innocents, he more than once stopped under the shadow of a sycamore to rest his somewhat lazy mule and to compose his own perplexed thoughts by a few snatches from his breviary. For the good padre had some reason to be troubled. The invasion of Gentile Americans that followed the gold discovery of three years before had not confined itself to the plains of the Sacramento, but stragglers had already found their way to the Santa Cruz Valley, and the seclusion of even the mission itself was threatened. It was true that they had not brought their heathen engines to disembowel the earth in search of gold, but it was rumored that they had already speculated upon the agricultural productiveness of the land, and had espied "the fatness thereof." As he reached the higher plateau he could see the afternoon sea-fog——presently to obliterate the fair prospect——already pulling through the gaps in the Coast Range, and on a nearer slope——no less ominously——the smoke of a recent but more permanently destructive Yankee saw-mill was slowly drifting towards the valley.

    "Get up, beast!" said the father, digging his heels into the comfortable flanks of his mule with some human impatience, "or art THOU, too, a lazy renegade? Thinkest thou, besotted one, that the heretic will spare thee more work than the Holy Church."

    The mule, thus apostrophized in ear and flesh, shook its head obstinately as if the question was by no means clear to its mind, but nevertheless started into a little trot, which presently brought it to the low adobe wall of the courtyard of "The Innocents," and entered the gate. A few lounging peons in the shadow of an archway took off their broad brimmed hats and made way for the padre, and a half dozen equally listless vaqueros helped him to alight. Accustomed as he was to the indolence and superfluity of his host's retainers, to-day it nevertheless seemed to strike some note of irritation in his breast.

    A stout, middle-aged woman of ungirt waist and beshawled head and shoulders appeared at the gateway as if awaiting him. After a formal salutation she drew him aside into an inner passage.

    "He is away again, your Reverence," she said.

    "Ah——always the same?"

    "Yes, your Reverence——and this time to 'a meeting' of the heretics at their pueblo, at Jonesville——where they will ask him of his land for a road."

    "At a MEETING?" echoed the priest uneasily.

    "Ah yes! a meeting——where Tiburcio says they shout and spit on the ground, your Reverence, and only one has a chair and him they call a 'chairman' because of it, and yet he sits not but shouts and spits even as the others and keeps up a tapping with a hammer like a very pico. And there it is they are ever 'resolving' that which is not, and consider it even as done."

    "Then he is still the same," said the priest gloomily, as the woman paused for breath.

    "Only more so, your Reverence, for he reads nought but the newspaper of the Americanos that is brought in the ship, the 'New York 'errald'——and recites to himself the orations of their legislators. Ah! it was an evil day when the shipwrecked American sailor taught him his uncouth tongue, which, as your Reverence knows, is only fit for beasts and heathen incantation."

    "Pray Heaven THAT were all he learned of him," said the priest hastily, "for I have great fear that this sailor was little better than an atheist and an emissary from Satan. But where are these newspapers and the fantasies of publicita that fill his mind? I would see them, my daughter."

    "You shall, your Reverence, and more too," she replied eagerly, leading the way along the passage to a grated door which opened upon a small cell-like apartment, whose scant light and less air came through the deeply embayed windows in the outer wall. "Here is his estudio." In spite of this open invitation, the padre entered with that air of furtive and minute inspection common to his order. His glance fell upon a rude surveyor's plan of the adjacent embryo town of Jonesville hanging on the wall, which he contemplated with a cold disfavor that even included the highly colored vignette of the projected Jonesville Hotel in the left-hand corner. He then passed to a supervisor's notice hanging near it, which he examined with a suspicion heightened by that uneasiness common to mere worldly humanity when opposed to an unknown and unfamiliar language. But an exclamation broke from his lips when he confronted an election placard immediately below it. It was printed in Spanish and English, and Father Felipe had no difficulty in reading the announcement that "Don Jose Sepulvida would preside at a meeting of the Board of Education in Jonesville as one of the trustees."

    "This is madness," said the padre.

    Observing that Dona Maria was at the moment preoccupied in examining the pictorial pages of an illustrated American weekly which had hitherto escaped his eyes, he took it gently from her hand.

    "Pardon, your Reverence," she said with slightly acidulous deprecation, "but thanks to the Blessed Virgin and your Reverence's teaching, the text is but gibberish to me and I did but glance at the pictures."

    "Much evil may come in with the eye," said the priest sententiously, "as I will presently show thee. We have here," he continued, pointing to an illustration of certain college athletic sports, "a number of youthful cavaliers posturing and capering in a partly nude condition before a number of shameless women, who emulate the saturnalia of heathen Rome by waving their handkerchiefs. We have here a companion picture," he said, indicating an illustration of gymnastic exercises by the students of a female academy at "Commencement," "in which, as thou seest, even the aged of both sexes unblushingly assist as spectators with every expression of immodest satisfaction."

    "Have they no bull-fights or other seemly recreation that they must indulge in such wantonness?" asked Dona Maria indignantly, gazing, however, somewhat curiously at the baleful representations.

    "Of all that, my daughter, has their pampered civilization long since wearied," returned the good padre, "for see, this is what they consider a moral and even a religious ceremony." He turned to an illustration of a woman's rights convention; "observe with what rapt attention the audience of that heathen temple watch the inspired ravings of that elderly priestess on the dais. It is even this kind of sacrilegious performance that I am told thy nephew Don Jose expounds and defends."

    "May the blessed saints preserve us; where will it lead to?" murmured the horrified Dona Maria.

    "I will show thee," said Father Felipe, briskly turning the pages with the same lofty ignoring of the text until he came to a representation of a labor procession. "There is one of their periodic revolutions unhappily not unknown even in Mexico. Thou perceivest those complacent artisans marching with implements of their craft, accompanied by the military, in the presence of their own stricken masters. Here we see only another instance of the instability of all communities that are not founded on the principles of the Holy Church."

    "And what is to be done with my nephew?"

    The good father's brow darkened with the gloomy religious zeal of two centuries ago. "We must have a council of the family, the alcalde, and the archbishop, at ONCE," he said ominously. To the mere heretical observer the conclusion might have seemed lame and impotent, but it was as near the Holy inquisition as the year of grace  could offer.

    A few days after this colloquy the unsuspecting subject of it, Don Jose Sepulvida, was sitting alone in the same apartment. The fading glow of the western sky, through the deep embrasured windows, lit up his rapt and meditative face. He was a young man of apparently twenty-five, with a colorless satin complexion, dark eyes alternating between melancholy and restless energy, a narrow high forehead, long straight hair, and a lightly penciled moustache. He was said to resemble the well-known portrait of the Marquis of Monterey in the mission church, a face that was alleged to leave a deep and lasting impression upon the observers. It was undoubtedly owing to this quality during a brief visit of the famous viceroy to a remote and married ancestress of Don Jose at Leon that the singular resemblance may be attributed. A heavy and hesitating step along the passage stopped before the grating. Looking up, Don Jose beheld to his astonishment the slightly inflamed face of Roberto, a vagabond American whom he had lately taken into his employment.

    Roberto, a polite translation of "Bob the Bucker," cleaned out at a monte-bank in Santa Cruz, penniless and profligate, had sold his mustang to Don Jose and recklessly thrown himself in with the bargain. Touched by the rascal's extravagance, the quality of the mare, and observing that Bob's habits had not yet affected his seat in the saddle, but rather lent a demoniac vigor to his chase of wild cattle, Don Jose had retained rider and horse in his service as vaquero.

    Bucking Bob, observing that his employer was alone, coolly opened the door without ceremony, shut it softly behind him, and then closed the wooden shutter of the grating. Don Jose surveyed him with mild surprise and dignified composure. The man appeared perfectly sober,——it was a peculiarity of his dissipated habits that, when not actually raving with drink, he was singularly shrewd and practical.

    "Look yer, Don Kosay," he began in a brusque but guarded voice, "you and me is pards. When ye picked me and the mare up and set us on our legs again in this yer ranch, I allowed I'd tie to ye whenever you was in trouble——and wanted me. And I reckon that's what's the matter now. For from what I see and hear on every side, although you're the boss of this consarn, you're surrounded by a gang of spies and traitors. Your comings and goings, your ins and outs, is dogged and followed and blown upon. The folks you trust is playing it on ye. It ain't for me to say why or wherefore—— what's their rights and what's yourn——but I've come to tell ye that if you don't get up and get outer this ranch them d——d priests and your own flesh and blood——your aunts and your uncles and your cousins, will have you chucked outer your property, and run into a lunatic asylum."

    "Me——Don Jose Sepulvida——a lunatico! You are yourself crazy of drink, friend Roberto."

    "Yes," said Roberto grimly, "but that kind ain't ILLEGAL, while your makin' ducks and drakes of your property and going into 'Merikin ideas and 'Merikin speculations they reckon is. And speakin' on the square, it ain't NAT'RAL."

    Don Jose sprang to his feet and began to pace up and down his cell-like study. "Ah, I remember now," he muttered, "I begin to comprehend: Father Felipe's homilies and discourses! My aunt's too affectionate care! My cousin's discreet consideration! The prompt attention of my servants! I see it all! And you," he said, suddenly facing Roberto, "why come you to tell me this?"

    "Well, boss," said the American dryly, "I reckoned to stand by you."

    "Ah," said Don Jose, visibly affected. "Good Roberto, come hither, child, you may kiss my hand."

    "If! it's all the same to you, Don Kosay,——THAT kin slide."

    "Ah, if——yes," said Don Jose, meditatively putting his hand to his forehead, "miserable that I am!——I remembered not you were Americano. Pardon, my friend——embrace me——Conpanero y Amigo."

    With characteristic gravity he reclined for a moment upon Robert's astonished breast. Then recovering himself with equal gravity he paused, lifted his hand with gentle warning, marched to a recess in the corner, unhooked a rapier hanging from the wall, and turned to his companion.

    "We will defend ourselves, friend Roberto. It is the sword of the Comandante——my ancestor. The blade is of Toledo."

    "An ordinary six-shooter of Colt's would lay over that," said Roberto grimly——"but that ain't your game just now, Don Kosay. You must get up and get, and at once. You must vamose the ranch afore they lay hold of you and have you up before the alcalde. Once away from here, they daren't follow you where there's 'Merikin law, and when you kin fight 'em in the square."

    "Good," said Don Jose with melancholy preciseness. "You are wise, friend Roberto. We may fight them later, as you say——on the square, or in the open Plaza. And you, camarado, YOU shall go with me——you and your mare."

    Sincere as the American had been in his offer of service, he was somewhat staggered at this imperative command. But only for a moment. "Well," he said lazily, "I don't care if I do."

    "But," said Don Jose with increased gravity, "you SHALL care, friend Roberto. We shall make an alliance, an union. It is true, my brother, you drink of whiskey, and at such times are even as a madman. It has been recounted to me that it was necessary to your existence that you are a lunatic three days of the week. Who knows? I myself, though I drink not of aguardiente, am accused of fantasies for all time. Necessary it becomes therefore that we should go TOGETHER. My fantasies and speculations cannot injure you, my brother; your whiskey shall not empoison me. We shall go together in the great world of your American ideas of which I am much inflamed. We shall together breathe as one the spirit of Progress and Liberty. We shall be even as neophytes making of ourselves Apostles of Truth. I absolve and renounce myself henceforth of my family. I shall take to myself the sister and the brother, the aunt and the uncle, as we proceed. I devote myself to humanity alone. I devote YOU, my friend, and the mare——though happily she has not a Christian soul——to this glorious mission."

    The few level last rays of light lit up a faint enthusiasm in the face of Don Jose, but without altering his imperturbable gravity. The vaquero eyed him curiously and half doubtfully.

    "We will go to-morrow," resumed Don Jose with solemn decision, "for it is Wednesday. It was a Sunday that thou didst ride the mare up the steps of the Fonda and demanded that thy liquor should be served to thee in a pail. I remember it, for the landlord of the Fonda claimed twenty pesos for damage and the kissing of his wife. Therefore, by computation, good Roberto, thou shouldst be sober until Friday, and we shall have two clear days to fly before thy madness again seizes thee."

    "They kin say what they like, Don Kosay, but YOUR head is level," returned the unabashed American, grasping Don Jose's hand. "All right, then. Hasta manana, as your folks say."

    "Hasta manana," repeated Don Jose gravely.

    At daybreak next morning, while slumber still weighted the lazy eyelids of "the Blessed Innocents," Don Jose Sepulvida and his trusty squire Roberto, otherwise known as "Bucking Bob," rode forth unnoticed from the corral.

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